Reporter discusses international reporting experiences

Alexis Okeowo offers insight about reporting on stories abroad and crisis journalism to Syracuse University students and faculty.

Working in a variety of countries, writer and reporter Alexis Okeowo dealt with cultural differences by listening to locals and observing their behavior.

“I find that just being a very good listener is useful,” Okeowo said. “Just listening, even when you are interviewing people.”

Okeowo, who has reported for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, talked about her journalistic career and experience reporting around the world at the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium on Wednesday evening. Some of the countries Okeowo discussed reporting from include Nigeria, Mexico and Uganda.

Okeowo’s parents were immigrants from Nigeria, but she grew up in Alabama. She started writing for the school newspaper in high school, she said, but did not practice journalism seriously until college. Even though her college did not have a journalism major, Okeowo worked for the school newspaper by writing stories weekly. Although Okeowo said she considered herself a shy person, a journalism internship in New York City made her more comfortable with talking to people.

 When she graduated from college, Okeowo took a position with an organization that places recent graduates with work in Africa. She was offered the organization’s only newspaper position and went to Uganda. She said it was hard to sell stories on Africa in the U.S. because of cultural differences, but she faced little competition at the same time.

“I am the only one here, so if I find a good story, it’s much easier to sell it,” Okeowo said.

In spring 2012, Okeowo took her first working trip to Nigeria. Then she went back again after she received a grant with the International Reporting Project, through which she wrote about the ethnic and religious tensions in the country.

For one of her major stories in Nigeria, she reported on the country’s oil resources, on which the national economy depends. She said the residents in disadvantaged areas tried to extract oil themselves to sell domestically.

“But the real oil thieves are these cartels, which are owned by former and current military and political officials,” Okeowo said. “The Nigerian government, instead of going after these big cartel leaders, they go after the small guys, the guys who are just trying to make a buck by taking out the oil from the pipes from their backyards.”

Okeowo said the reporting on the residents who taking the oil was a dangerous task. For example, some people from a village tried to attack both a man she was interviewing and her photographer.

 “I was looking over and I had never got that frightened in my life,” Okeowo said. As a woman who reported in Africa, she said she felt especially vulnerable sometimes.

Okeowo is still enthusiastic about covering stories of the people who were struggling with their life in Africa. “I was touched by the stories of ordinary people who were in really extraordinary situations but coping the best way they could,” Okeowo said.

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