New York Times Journalist Dionne Searcey Discusses Gender, Change, and Trauma in West Africa

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Women sit in the shade of a fishing boat as they prepare fish for sale at Takwabay beach in Lagos, Nigeria. (AP Photos/Sunday Alamba)

Dionne Searcey is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who served as the West Africa bureau chief for the New York Times from 2015 to 2019. She writes about her experiences living and working in West Africa in her book “In Pursuit of Disobedient Women.” She is on Twitter @dionnesearcey.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you speak more broadly about your career as a journalist and how you became the New York Times West Africa bureau chief? What drew you to that region in particular?

Dionne Searcey: I’m a very typical American journalist of my generation. I majored in journalism at the University of Nebraska, and then I started with internships and jobs at local newspapers across the country. I covered a range of beats, from cops and courts to an education beat, before starting a job at Newsday covering local politics. Then, during the Iraq War, the military offered embedded positions to reporters. Newsday was allotted several embed slots, and it felt like a way to dip my toe into the world of international journalism. Not everybody wanted to go cover a war, but I thought it sounded interesting and exciting, so I went ahead and took an embed slot.

At the time, however, Newsday was shutting its foreign bureaus and having financial problems. I wanted to continue to be a foreign correspondent, so I went to work at the Wall Street Journal. I covered a lot of business news, telecom, and law and was an investigative reporter. And then I got sick of covering business, so I started working at the Times. After starting in an econ beat there, I realized that if I was going to go abroad, I should do it.

What drew me to West Africa? A lot of times these positions on the international desks are just a matter of puzzle pieces — what bureaus are open at the time that you’re applying and what you can qualify for. American journalists of my generation are very much generalists, so I didn’t have any specific reason that I would qualify for any particular bureau. But I speak some French, so that was one thing that helped with the West Africa bureau. I also had to move my family, and our bureau in West Africa is in Dakar, a really peaceful city. The bureau covers 25 countries, which is massive, but it felt like a place where I could be a traditional international correspondent, where I could set my own agenda.

As an American covering so many African countries, how did you choose which stories to report on?

Dionne Searcey: I felt a big obligation to our audience. Our audience is definitely global, because we have a presence on the web, but it is generally American for the most part. So I really tried to tap what I thought Americans would be interested in. Look at the fact that, when I was there, I was the only foreign correspondent from a major American newspaper in the region — the Times was the only newspaper that had a West Africa bureau. The only one. Nobody was in the region. 

“Africa” — I use that in quotation marks — and African nations are just generally not on the radar of a lot of Americans. Our focus is turned toward Europe or Asia. I wanted to help change that. I had to think very carefully about how I could not play into stereotypes — to write about only wars, disease, famine, and cute animals — but also write about things that Americans would be interested in. At the time, that did involve a little bit of war. The Islamic State was a huge issue, and Islamist terrorism was something that Americans were thinking about.

But I also felt an obligation to write about good things that were happening on the continent, and to write about things that might capture American audiences. For example, there was a copyright battle that was going on in the Nigerian music industry. I thought that it might be interesting to Americans to follow some really popular musicians and hear about their struggles and how it was different from in America. I also tried to write about big issues like climate change and migration. A lot of people were going abroad, taking poorly constructed boats across the Mediterranean, and many of them were dying. The youth bulge and changing demographics were other big themes of coverage. Those things really played into each other, too. Because of climate change, farmers couldn’t farm their fields, so the young men would get on a boat and try to go abroad — they felt very desperate.

Even is Islamist terrorism fit into that, to some degree, in a way that was similar to how gangs happen in America in the poorer parts of some cities, in places where there aren’t enough jobs and aimless youth turn to drug dealing to make money. That was happening a lot in parts of West Africa. The terrorist groups would offer payments and a motorbike to young men, and that was very appealing to people who had no work and no money. Those are themes that I tried to make relatable to everybody, because America has all those problems, too, with climate change, a youth bulge, and joblessness. 

It kind of parallels the American experience, often in different and extreme ways, but still, I really wanted to make things relatable. So many Americans have this sense that Africa is a very different, “other” place, and that’s not true. I really wanted to try to bring people inside, and to balance out the coverage of wars or terrorism that I did feel obligated to do with the interesting stuff that going on — like poetry clubs in a KFC in Ghana.

Part of your book “In Pursuit of Disobedient Women” discusses how your move to Dakar played out in your family dynamic. What changed with the move? Was anything completely unexpected? How did the dynamics of your own family parallel the lives of the women you were writing about?

Dionne Searcey: It was definitely very, very different from any of the women that I wrote about — we have insane privilege as foreigners. We were from the United States, and I had this huge corporation backing me, to get me out of trouble and finance my very being there. For our family dynamic, my kids were pretty small, so they were fairly malleable. They just kind of rolled with it. Also, they were suddenly transported to this international private school with a swimming pool and palm trees and outdoor lunch, so they were like, “Woohoo!” We were living by the beach, too, and that was nice for them. Dakar is a beautiful city — I mean, it’s just hipster heaven — and they were too young to pick up on that, but it’s a really fashionable, cosmopolitan place.

For the women I wrote about — I think they were all bending the rules and making their own way in this society that was very much stacked against them. Women are not represented in governments or even in a lot of corporations. They don’t make decisions in families — they default to their husbands. It was really fascinating to see how women were thriving in that situation and creating their own paths. In my own situation, I became the breadwinner, so we had this weird family dynamic where that was flipped on its head, somewhat. I think everybody was trying to play by these new rules.

There were fascinating social changes that were happening in West Africa — the Internet had brought all kinds of changes for family life and gender expectations. Urbanization was a huge factor. One person gave me this very fascinating thought that maybe not everyone has lived in the city in West Africa, but almost everyone knows someone who has lived in a city. That changes people. They have different views about things, city life is more liberal, the rules are different. People had different expectations for their lives. That was really shaping how women were going about things.

You mentioned these big demographic trends that you have noticed in West Africa. How are political ideologies, religious beliefs, and cultural norms evolving in the Internet age, when people and ideas are moving so much more freely than they did even 10 years ago?

Dionne Searcey: I think the Internet and the spread of media have changed things. Not everyone has an Internet connection there, but almost everybody has a radio, even in the villages — Boko Haram listens to the radio. The spread of media in general is really helping to upend things.

A local UNICEF worker Maradi, Niger, shared this great theory with me. During the AIDS crisis, the international community and local governments mobilized, and this fascinating thing that happened where people started talking more openly about sex, because they were talking about how to prevent AIDS. That opened the door to talking about women’s sexuality, men’s sexuality, relationships — everything spiraled from there in a really positive, open way. Once the relationship door was open, once the Internet was around, once soap operas were on TV, these women started realizing that their marriages didn’t have to be the way that their parents’ marriages were. They realized that they could get love and satisfaction out of their relationships. Women were talking openly about their sexual satisfaction and divorce, which was something that their mothers and grandmothers would not have talked about.

Maybe not in the past 10 years, but in the past 100 years, Islam has also been spreading. Some areas are becoming more and more conservative. This is just like in America, where in some areas Christianity has become increasingly conservative. At the same time, the rise of the Islamic State was happening, and these things were mixing together. There were some really radical imams in certain communities, just like America has cult leaders. They were getting a big following, and then they heard about the Islamic State and wanted to be a part of it to get funding or training. All these factors were globbing together and fueling this change in religion.

But in Maiduguri, Nigeria, in the home of Boko Haram, a lot of women said that even back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, they were wearing miniskirts and going out to clubs and dancing. That still exists, a little bit, but not to the degree that it used to. It’s a much more conservative city now. That was happening in a lot of places, and it was really fascinating to see these shifts toward social and religious conservatism.

It’s really interesting that a similar conservative backlash to globalization is playing out on all these different stages all around the world.

Dionne Searcey: Absolutely, it’s really fascinating to see. I was interested in how women were navigating that, in particular, because we don’t hear so much about African women that often.

Definitely. Though there’s also the tragic flip side to the story of women in West Africa — it’s now been seven years since Boko Haram kidnapped the 300 schoolgirls from Chibok. It seems like the security situation hasn’t really improved much in that time.

Dionne Searcey: I don’t think so. It ebbs and flows, but the last time I was there, which was about a year and a half ago, the Nigerian military was essentially in retreat. There has also been more fractionalization. It was just really sad to see. Maiduguri, which is like the Minneapolis of Nigeria, was this bustling college town. The market was one of the most fun places I have ever been. It’s this really loud, crazy place, where people are crowded shoulder to shoulder. But the last time I was there — even before COVID — it was completely emptied out. I couldn’t believe it was the same spot that I’d been to many times before. This happened because there were so many suicide attacks there, and it had really finally started to sink in that it wasn’t safe. The suicide attacks have definitely ramped down in major cities, but they’re still happening.

How has the situation impacted people’s daily lives? Is there a sense of living at war? Or is that only happening in certain parts of the country and, if so, what does it look like for some parts of the country to be at war and other parts of the country to be living normally?

Dionne Searcey: To answer the last question first, people in Lagos just don’t even think about what’s going on in the northeast. It’s very similar to how Americans are, too; I just went to Wyoming for a story a few weeks ago, and basically there’s no COVID there — no one’s wearing masks. Our society is just as fractured as every other society. I think that when you’re in Lagos or Abuja, that’s like being in New York or Washington, D.C. It’s very difficult to think about what’s going on and to care on a day-to-day basis. As far as how life has changed in those places, when I was there, there was a ton of food insecurity. People didn’t have enough to eat because they didn’t have jobs. 

There was one other thing that I never really dug into reporting-wise, so I only know anecdotes, but the amount of prostitution was up. There were a lot of military men in town and not a lot of jobs available, and it was happening more and more for people to be able to feed their families.

Maiduguri is a city of maybe one or two million people, and people from the countryside had flooded into the city. They had nowhere to live, so there was homelessness and crowding — a lot of people had opened their homes to distant relatives, friends, or even strangers to live with them. It has definitely devastated the city.

You’ve done work as well with the people who have survived and escaped from some of the most active war zones. How does that play into societal dynamics? How does the balance fall between NGOs and others working to help these victims reintegrate, as opposed to others stigmatizing them?

Dionne Searcey: There’s a ton of stigmatization. When I was there, I remember working on a story about women who had been raped and had babies fathered by Boko Haram fighters, and there was stigmatization even among the local NGOs helping those women. You have to remember, this is a place where Boko Haram went door to door and killed people, and where people didn’t really talk about the trauma they had experienced. I think that people were really, really traumatized, and they thought that maybe these women were sympathizers. A lot of times the Boko Haram members themselves were forcibly kidnapped and had their parents and families killed before their very eyes, so it was extremely complicated.

The stigmatization was huge for those who had come back — especially for women, but for everyone, for boys as well. UNICEF was running a de-radicalization program, they called it, for these boys who had been Boko Haram members — I say “boys” because a lot of them are under 18. They were trying to get them back into normal society. It was tricky, because people were really afraid of them and afraid they were still loyal to Boko Haram. There was a lot of gray area, too — Boko Haram had, maybe, taken care of them, but the fact is that they’re in a society where people were really scared, so they were stigmatized. There’s so much nuance and complexity that goes into these situations.

Thank you for sharing that. We were wondering if you could wrap things up by telling us about your favorite Senegalese food or aspect of culture?

Dionne Searcey: There was a spot down by the beach, by a little amusement park, and there were all these women who would cook up a fish called “choff,” which I think Americans call “white grouper.” It’s a white filet that has a natural taste that’s almost mustardy, and it’s really, really good. You would pick out which fish you wanted, and they would grill it up for you — it would take about 45 minutes for them to prepare it. In the meantime, you could sit on the gravelly beach and watch the most incredible sunset. Then they would bring out the fish on this giant platter with all kinds of vegetables and french fries. It was the greatest meal ever. Anyone who’s adventurous at all about eating would love it. It was delicious, and the women who served it were really fun. It was just a beautiful, beautiful setting.

To read more about Ms. Searcey’s time in West Africa, her book In Pursuit of Disobedient Women: A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, and Family, Far Away is available from Penguin Random House.