December 23, 2020
Meet public radio’s entrepreneurial Africa correspondent

Most of us consume the news day-in and day-out without giving much thought to who the reporters behind the stories are, or what working in media is like. It turns out, being a reporter is very similar to being an entrepreneur. Today, I’m sharing the story behind one reporter’s journey from behind-the-scenes production work to international news correspondent. 

Halima Gikandi is the Africa Correspondent for The World, a public radio program based in Boston. She’s covered major regional events, like the political revolution in Sudan and terrorist attacks in Kenya. Her work has been featured in outlets like NPR, The Guardian, Marketplace and the Christian Science Monitor. 

She also happens to be an old friend from high school, and remains close friends with my sister. As I’ve watched Halima’s career take her all over the US and now to Nairobi, Kenya, I’ve always been curious about her point of view. A few weeks ago, I asked Halima about what she’s learned while reporting and what continues to inspire and motivate her. 

Tell us about your career so far 

Right now, I’m the Africa Correspondent for The World radio program, which is the biggest international news program on public radio. We have a couple million listeners across the US, and I cover the continent of Africa.

When I started out, I didn’t even know I wanted to be a journalist. I always consumed the news, I always read the paper, like my dad’s paper once he was done with it. I always listened to the BBC every morning growing up, but the thought never occurred to me that I could be a journalist until I was starting to graduate college. After university, almost on a whim I took an unpaid internship at a national radio program called On Point, a talk show about news, politics and current affairs. That was my first exposure to news, and I loved it. I loved to broadcast, I loved being in a newsroom, so that’s where I started. 

Over time, I realized I didn’t want to be a producer anymore, I wanted to be a reporter. I decided to move to Nairobi, Kenya in 2018 to become a freelance reporter. Being a freelancer isn’t different from being a startup - you’re trying to make something out of nothing, except you’re your own business. That was a big adjustment. I had to learn how to pitch stories to different news outlets, basically pitching clients. I got a lot of denials, just like any freelancer, and I think I only learned how to pitch by getting no’s or more often people not responding. 

I thought it’d only take me 2 or 3 months, and I’d become a reporter and move back to the US. But it took much much longer than that. I had to be persistent and keep pitching to outlets. I got published at the beginning in some smaller outlets, and slowly I got more reporting gigs and more projects, and I did some producing on the side. Freelancing was a slow process, and it’s not easy. You have to essentially be your own accountant, marketer, tax person - just like startups. 

One challenge living here also is that sometimes money owed comes later than it should. You’re trying to juggle having the money you need to invest in reporting a story, even just general expenses like a driver, a translator, a flight, and you have to front those expenses a lot of times as a freelancer. Hopefully you get paid back, and sometimes people are slow to pay. It’s a big, genuine effort. But slowly I was able to get big breaks, especially in the radio world. 

When did you realize you wanted to become a reporter?

I’d been working in a production role at this amazing show called Washington Week in Virginia. It’s a politics roundtable show and it’s hosted by a great host, Robert Costa from the Washington Post. Every Friday we brought on great journalists and they would just come on and talk about the news. 

I would be in the production room looking in and wanting to do what they were doing, but there weren’t that many jobs available and most wanted you to have more reporting experience than I did. By then I had producing experience but not reporting experience. Whenever you’re trying to make a job switch in the same industry, it’s hard.

I applied to dozens and dozens of jobs, even unpaid reporting internships in the middle of nowhere, and I never heard back from everyone. What made me start thinking about freelancing abroad was research - I just started researching it more and would especially look at other people’s bios and see that there were a lot of journalists who started out freelancing abroad. 

Halima Gikandi, a Kenyan American woman, sitting on the back of an off-roading vehicle in Tsavo National Park, Kenya
Halima Gikandi sitting on the back of an off-roading vehicle in Tsavo National Park, Kenya

I also met somebody, another journalist, who had also been a freelancer in Nairobi. She was giving a book talk in DC. I left work early to go to the book talk and afterwards I ended up asking her for advice, I said “Hey, I’m thinking of moving to Nairobi.” Honestly, I chose Nairobi because I’m Kenyan American and I knew I could live there without rent, so there was a financial calculus on my part. This journalist ended up connecting me with someone else in Nairobi, who has since become a good friend of mine. 

At that point, I didn’t realize how big or strong of a journalist community there was until I chatted with that journalist and she connected me with other journalists here. Nairobi is a base for many Africa correspondents and people who cover the continent. There’s a huge local journalism scene, as well as international journalism and a lot of freelancers based here. 

One of the journalists I got connected with was part of the foreign correspondents association here, which is an association of journalists who are foreign and work for international outlets in the region. When I landed here, one of the first events I went to was drinks with them.

Long story short, I did a lot of professional networking. Looking back I didn't think of it that way, I was just trying to get any information I could to feel more confident about the decision I was making, and trying to make friends. I didn’t want to land somewhere and not know anyone or anything. But it was really networking, and it has helped me so much in terms of getting advice and opportunities. 

In 2019, you decided to come back to the US and join The World. What was that decision like?

Honestly, it was a big decision, and it was between this job and another offer that was also in the US. I had to give it a lot of thought and I asked a lot of my friends for opinions. It wasn’t easy, because at the end of 2019 I didn’t want to be a freelancer, but I was starting to get work. I was starting to get to know people, get gigs and do more reporting. It seemed like I was in a place with an upward trajectory, even though my end goal always was to get a full-time staff position. 

It’s a hard decision: Do you stay where you are, which has a level of uncertainty? Or do you take a position that maybe isn’t exactly right for you instead of waiting for something else? 

Ultimately the reason I chose this position is because it fit more with where I wanted to go. It was a big national radio program, it was still international news, and offered the kind of the benefits that were much better than being a freelancer.

I almost didn’t take it because I really, really did not want to leave Nairobi. This was the first place I started feeling like I had friends and a social network. I loved living here. The thought of moving to Boston, which is much colder, wasn’t all too appealing, even though I also have family there. I took the job because the pros outweigh the cons, but on my last night in Nairobi, I barely made my flight before starting work! I was starting work on Monday in Boston and I left Nairobi at 11PM on a Friday, after a holiday party. Ultimately I’m happy I made that decision, and I'm ecstatic that I just moved back to Nairobi for this job. 

You mention your network a lot, can you share what your support network looks like?

I have very good friends, old, old friends from the US and from school days who always remain such a great network and background to my life, even when we’re in completely different parts of the world. That’s always a great support network.

As I’ve moved into this different phase of my life, it’s been important to have a network here too, both personally and professionally. I have family here, because if there’s ever really a crisis I feel like I have family who will take care of me. For better or worse, 80 or 90% of my friends here are journalists or former journalists. I think it’s such a particular lifestyle. You know, you end up being on your phone at dinner or having to dip in and out, or not being able to schedule things in advance, so lifestyle-wise it attracts similar people. 

I don’t think it’s easy to break into any industry that is new. There’s always that challenge for anyone, but when I look back, so many people gave me chances despite having little experience. My first executive producer at On Point took a chance on me, and whenever I wanted to try something new, people have been supportive. Here in Nairobi, people have been so helpful. The first radio spot I filed for NPR as a freelancer, the editor wrote this email with all of this radio lingo that I was not familiar with. I was there reporting at the scene of a terrorist attack and at the same time I was texting a friend who is a radio journalist. I was like, “What does this mean? They’re asking me for this. What do I do?” I'm really lucky to have had friends and people who I can lean on, and similarly I try to pass what I’ve learned on to other people. 

What do you think people don’t realize about your industry?

I think what people may not realize, especially the American audience, is that the media is under attack in the US. We’re at this moment where information is under attack. Basic facts are disputed, the pathways and sources of information are so varied. Trust for the media doesn’t seem all that high, and what people don’t realize is how anxious I am as a journalist, and every other journalist I know is, to give the facts and do our best. It can keep us up at night. 

When we do make a mistake, I'm so anxious over it. If I get a number wrong any time, I'll agonize about trying to portray information correctly. Sometimes I might have an hour long interview, but I'm doing a three minute radio story. You have to make all these decisions about how to cut something down, but still retain the essence of it. We, as journalists, feel incredibly responsible for that and try hard to do that. I say that because I just want to say everyone I know is really trying their best to report the facts and report things accurately for people. Especially for me on the radio, it’s hard to make corrections. Once somebody hears something, they can’t unhear it. That's one part of the job, the anxiety of it, in terms of trying to get things right, that’s definitely there. 

What would you want everyone to know about covering the African continent?

It’s always hard for me because I’m so in it, and I’m so in this world, it’s hard for me to imagine what people do or do not know. Even in our newsroom meetings, sometimes I'll assume that something isn’t interesting to the rest of my team because I know about it already from closely following events here. Sometimes the challenge as a reporter is trying to guess what people will be interested in hearing about from here or what people want to know about. 

When it comes to what I would want people to know - well, it’s just like anywhere else. 

When I look at the recent history of covering Africa, when I was growing up in Princeton like you, I do remember being a kid and trying to feel like I had to defend this continent. I remember in middle school, I got in an argument with a kid in science class because he was saying something like, “There’s only poverty and hunger in Africa.” I'd disagree and obviously I'd take that personally because I'm Kenyan American. There’s been a history of mostly negative coverage. Although recently, I feel like sometimes people try to overcompensate or give only positive coverage. 

Being like anywhere else, it’s diverse. You have the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the filthy rich and the poor. Some of the richest people in the world come from this continent, and some of the poorest people in the world live in this continent. In Nairobi, where I am, you have some of the fastest internet, compared to the US, and then you have other places where you need a satellite phone. Especially when it comes to politics, you have very rich and complicated politics here, too. You can see it recently with the events that have been happening in Ethiopia, and the upcoming election in Somalia. It’s complex, interesting and fascinating, just like anywhere else. 

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself 10 years ago?

The advice I would give is to not be so hard on myself. I would give that to the Halima of 10 years ago, and I would give that advice to the Halima of an hour ago. 

Maybe eventually I’ll learn this lesson, but I remember I would feel so bad about myself because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know I wanted to pursue journalism and I tried a lot of different things in college: I thought maybe I would be a lawyer or in communications or even a scientist at one point. I felt like that was a bad thing, compared to my friends who seemed to know what they wanted to do in life. It sounds cliché, but it’s true: it’s all a journey, and you learn what you like to do and what you don’t like to do just by doing different things. 

It’s funny, looking back, journalism is the best fit for me. I used to interpret myself and my interests as “all over the place”, and indecisive, but now I look at it as someone who is curious about different things and who likes learning. I’ve flipped the script on how I view myself. 

You’ve told a lot of different stories. Are there any that stand out to you as particularly memorable?

I find people in general to be very interesting. Especially ordinary people. It’s easy to become pessimistic, or resigned, callous, or dismissive these days. Especially when you work in the news. But every once and awhile there's a reminder that average people can actually make a difference. When they have hope, when they mobilize.

We saw that with the revolution in Sudan. I was covering it from Nairobi in 2019. Even from here, I could feel the energy over the phone from protestors. I would call young people in Khartoum and they were ecstatic, feeling like change was on the horizon after 30 years of a dictatorship. 

I finally had the chance to go to Sudan this month to cover the refugee situation stemming from the conflict in Ethiopia. Things are far from perfect. The economy is bad. But people were able to talk and debate openly in the market about politics, something people were afraid to do just two years ago. Things are much more open. It’s crazy to think that it was ordinary people that made that happen. Pharmacists, teachers, university students. They did this. Because they hoped for a better Sudan. What the country lacks in money, is made up for by the spirit of the people.

When people remain hopeful despite their circumstances, that’s always inspiring. Whether that’s a nurse working a COVID ward or a political opposition member, I think that’s what inspires me, when people remain hopeful. 

To learn more about Halima, follow her on Twitter and listen to her reporting on The World’s website.

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