Samira Sawlani is a journalist, writer and analyst with a focus on East Africa. She holds a Master’s in international studies and diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She has previously worked in the humanitarian aid sector. She has a weekly column in The Continent, which she started in 2020. The column is a satirical round-up of events on the African continent, “we make it fun because you have to laugh otherwise you are going to cry,” says Sawlani. Her work has been published in a range of publications including The New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Vice, Mail and Guardian and African Arguments.
1. You have been a journalist for many years and have written extensively on East Africa, what led you into the field of journalism?
2. Journalism is a challenging field, especially with an increase in restrictions on media freedom and growing concerns about the safety of journalists. How do you navigate this field?
I’m quite anxious about the restrictions on media freedom and the safety of journalists and my weekly column for The Continent is quite satirical. We do sometimes make fun of some of the politicians on the continent and you do question where we could be crossing a boundary that could see some kind of consequence. I wish I could lie and say I do not think about these consequences but I do. I think one of the privileges I do have is I spend my time between London and Nairobi. On that list of countries, Kenya is ranked fairly well in terms of journalist safety and my experience in Kenya has been fine so I think I’m one of the luckier ones. When I started my career, I remember interviewing a journalist in Somalia who had to leave the country and for me, there is that awareness that in the countries I live and work in I have not really come up against that kind of threat to my life, where you are working in an environment which is openly oppressive. There are some countries I do not feel overly comfortable visiting because of what I have said or written about in terms of some of their governments.
3. Kenya has a competitive news and media industry, how do you stay relevant or find those stories that will be of interest to the public? What does a story need to stand out?
Nairobi is a hub where all the foreign correspondents are and they have quite a big local media scene. We’re seeing the rise in a lot of independent Kenyan publications such as Africa Uncensored, which do investigative work, and The Elephant, which for people seems to be a lot of competition but I think is it good because there are many people who are producing great work.
In terms of trying to find stories, there is something about when you’re in the country and you’re talking to people, you get an idea very quickly of what’s important to them and what is not. For example, my most recent story was about a former Kenyan rugby player, Dennis Ombachi also known as the Roaming Chef. He has a large following on TikTok and Instagram and the reason why I chose to interview him was that he’s very loved by everyone, and he has transitioned from sports into social media cooking, and I think a lot of people would want to know his story and can relate to it. Journalists and writers should pick a story they want to read. Pick a story you want to write. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to forget about the audience you know because otherwise, that will always remain in your head as you’re writing. So think less about them and focus more on the story you want to tell.
4. You have quite a large following on Twitter with over 120,000 followers. What role does social media play in journalism and is it important for a journalist to be visible or active on social media?
I think because I’m a freelancer, absolutely, that was the way I found work. That’s the way editors find me. I think if you’re working for a media house, you can get away with not being so active because you’ve got your work. But when you’re on your own, that’s where you share your work, find what conversations are dominating and what you could possibly write about, and also find people to interview. I don’t think I could do my job without social media, and when I’m seeing what’s happening on Twitter now, there’s almost a bit of fear and grief because Twitter has changed the way that work has come my way.
Social media has been so important because I’m reporting what’s going on in countries on the continent, which is something that I find is integral to my work. I’ll get videos from someone in Burkina Faso saying this is what happened today and I’ll go on Twitter and I’ll share it because I don’t know if mainstream media have picked this up and I don’t know if they’ve picked up this angle. We see quite a disconnect between Francophone, Lusophone and Anglophone media houses in terms of picking up stories from those regions. I think that if you’re a freelance journalist not being on social media, you’re just doing yourself a disservice. It’s not always fun or pleasant, it can be a distraction and you can get a lot of abuse, but it helps to get your name, work and stories out there. I think in this day and age you can’t be without it. The challenge with social media is that it makes you want to be first. You know you will see something and you’ll want to be the first to share it but it is important to ask yourself if you want to be first or if you want to be right.
5. What has been a career-defining moment for you?
The career-defining moment without a doubt was the New York Times. They approached me and the editor said that he reads my column in The Continent and they wanted me to write a piece for the Kenyan elections. The angle I choose was about how young people were refusing to vote as a political stance as they felt that the candidates were not representative of their experiences. That piece felt important to me and the response was positive. I take great pride in telling stories and putting out narratives there that are reflections of what’s going on the ground and that genuinely was what I’d found and I’ve always felt that it’s a disservice to say, “These young Kenyans, they don’t care about the elections, they just want to go out and party”. When these young people do care and that’s why they did not vote.
The second moment would be getting an opportunity to write a column for The Continent which I get to have fun with and get to write about what is happening on the continent and make jokes about it and when I wake up on a Thursday morning, I always feel lucky to have the opportunity to write.
6. Journalism has been a male-dominated industry, but more women seem to be moving into the space, do you think that journalism is an inclusive industry or does more still need to be done?
I think a lot more needs to be done. I think women journalists and other groups such as LGBTQ +, black journalists, and non-white journalists, face different kinds of abuse, especially on social media and not enough is done to protect us. As I work both in the UK and Kenya, I float between these two countries and I don’t see myself as a foreign correspondent, I’m not a Kenyan journalist, but then I’m not a British journalist covering the UK. I don’t really have a space, but I think one of the common things I’ve seen is it’s still who you know that can get you places and that is deeply problematic. There is so much more work to be done to make this field one that is well paying, I don’t think journalists earn as much as they should be earning and protection for journalists across the board is needed, particularly those from certain groups.
7. Over the years, your work has been celebrated by notable media organisations. As a journalist how does it feel for your work to be honoured?
I suffer from the worst imposter syndrome but it has been amazing. But I still think deep inside, I feel that I have just made it all up. Probably the only thing I don’t feel imposter syndrome with is my column because I have been doing it for so long. Being a freelancer it is hard to celebrate the wins because you are constantly thinking about the next job or next paycheck but I am very grateful. I think what is more important than the publications featuring my work and celebrating it, is people. It is about the people that read it, I wrote an article about African podcasters and I got to write about so many podcasts from across the continent and for me that is important, giving people a platform. I interviewed the First Lady of Namibia and she spoke about the misogyny that women in politics face and that was important for me to write about. When I come away from my work, what’s more important is that I’m more proud of what I’ve written.
8. You report for multiple publications based around the world, what advice would you give to a journalist who is starting their career and wants to get their stories published?
The first thing I am so sorry to say is that you will find yourself writing for free and it is not fair. It’s not acceptable and I’m not going to sit here and say you should accept it. If you have the courage to say no, then please do so, and writing for free is not acceptable and where possible please do not accept it, especially from the bigger publications, they have money you, have bills to pay and exposure will not pay your bills. Unfortunately, you may come up against that, I had to write for free and it was horrible.
Secondly, to become a great writer, read, read everything. In terms of publications, make sure you always check the style, the publication and the kind of content they produce before you pitch to them because unfortunately most publications have certain standards they want and I admire when people say they want to write in their own style and if I had the money, I would set up a place where people could all send their work in. But until that happens, make sure you check their style and topics before pitching and keep the pitch short and to the point.
Lastly, be prepared for disappointment, there will be loads of no replies, which I think if editors read this, please respond to people, even if it’s a no with a short explanation of why. It can be an incredibly soul-destroying area to work in, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. And most importantly, keep the focus on why you want to tell that story. If you have to pitch ten publications, you pitch to ten publications to get your story out. Don’t let a few rejections make you feel or think your story is not worth being told.
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