Hot Spot : Freelancing in Africa

Videojournalist Ruud Elmendorp moved to Africa from Netherlands 15 years ago. He understood that there was a deeper world behind this so-called poverty that needed to be explored. Currently he is reporting on the Kenyan presidential elections. What keeps him working there and what it’s like to do stories in Africa? Ruud shared his thoughts with HackPack’s Spotlight project

We highlight journalists within the HackPack community by sharing insight from their careers. Learn how you too can be under the Spotlight

Why did you decide to work in Africa?

Going go to work in Africa, as a freelance video journalist was a kind of a gradual process. But the final journey toward this continent started in 1999 from the regional TV station in Rotterdam when I did coverage of the earthquake in Turkey. This together with other international assignments made me aware it was time to venture out into the wider world. The desire itself of becoming an international journalist was born earlier in 1989 when reporting on the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So after hesitating and contemplating in 2001 I quit my job at the regional channel TV Rijnmond in Rotterdam in good faith and continued freelance eyeing international opportunities. That brought me to wartime South Sudan as an NGO correspondent filing on the demobilisation of child soldiers.

This was a short-term contract and after I returned to the Netherlands after 8 months. Quite soon after being happy to be back I suddenly found my home country boring after stayed in war zone. So again after a while I packed my bags and went to Nairobi where I had some friends from the time in South Sudan. Arriving at the Nairobi airport there was only my luggage and an open road before me. Now after 15 years I am still around having reported from across the continent and still wanting to see more.

What charmed you first about Africa? What stories made you think “Wow, I want to live here and really get to know this region”?

There was no specific choice for Africa. It unfolded like that through an NGO job. But looking back the choice made sense. Before 2001 I had travelled across the world, and Africa was the last continent I hadn’t visited. So that was good to go somewhere that was really new to me.

What charmed me first was the unpolished nature of sensations and relations. Friendship is deep, hatred is deep, love is deep, anger goes deep and forgiveness goes deep. If you eat a tomato it has taste, if you see a fly it’s big. If the suns shines it burns you and if it rains it’s torrential.

The stories I like to do are on conflict and development. Conflict because wars and turmoil bring out the worst of people but also the best. So these stories are always interesting and meaningful. It’s great that no matter how the situation is people will choose for survival and make the best of it. And these are very powerful stories also for humanity.

What has surprised you the most in Africa?

When leaving I had that idea of Africa being a poor and underdeveloped continent. But soon after I discovered that there was much more to it. It was in 2001 that I saw devastated refugees having mobile phones that at the time were expensive. That made me realise that there was a deeper world behind this so-called poverty that needed to be explored. And also in the European news Africans were always depicted as pitiful and eager for help. Once on ground I met proud and dignified people with cultures just as profound as what we think we have in Western civilisations.

Which two regions seem the most different?

The regions above or below the Sahara. Above the Sahara it’s the Arab world, and below the Sahara it’s black Africa.

What are the top items that people get wrong about Africa?

That it’s poor and behind. Of course there is poverty and there are conflicts. But the narrative in the news from Africa is one sided and focused on desperation. While on the hand there are thriving communities doing great work in IT, social media and developing new businesses.

And there is this incredible ability to think in solutions. For example some years ago the arrivals terminal of Kenya’s main airport got destroyed in a fire. That a fire can break out in such a high profile location is surely African, but it’s also African that within a few days they got the airport operational again by improvising. That’s amazing and shows the power.

Which type of stories are you sick and tired of doing because foreigners have specific stereotypes about Africa?

Stories about recurring disasters that fit in the image of Africa being poor. This applies for instance to stories about preventable conflicts or other crises. We have that with the recurrent droughts over the last few decades. These droughts are somehow foreseeable but every time again large groups risk becoming victim of famine because no lessons were learned from the previous droughts.

So I reported on the drought in 2005, 2011 and the current one. And technically I could have used the footage from 2005 again and again because the difference is little. The words and the images are the same. But happily I was on a recent press conference from the Red Cross and they said that response was improving compared to previous droughts.

And also I have to add that concerning media things are changing. International news reporting is expensive and many newsrooms have cut back on their foreign desks.

Leaving the channels with the obvious news about poverty and conflict in Africa they pull from the networks. But on social media there is a stream of channels emerging that have the time and resources to go deeper about news in Africa. That is encouraging since these channels are many. Also because of their low overhead cost they have budget to go beyond the obvious and the expected.

Why did you choose to work with video? What inspires you the most about it?

Wow, stumbled into video 25 years ago when I started with it. So can’t clear remember what specifically motivated me. Most probably I was looking for a job. But when watching television there was always a fascination for it and I wanted to be part of that. So when in 1992 television came on way I jumped into it and never did anything else and I don’t even want to do anything else.

What I find most inspiring is the ability to tell honest stories. With print for example in an interview you can’t verify whether the person really said those things. With video you will have someone speaking on camera and that makes is genuine. Of course there are ways to falsify people’s words but with video it’s more difficult than with print or photos. So I like the honesty and verifiability of video. And of course video offers ways to create something beautiful. When I started in 2001 there was less emphasis on the cinematic aspects of news video, but now even short clips need to have all the trinkets of documentary and film and that make it so interesting.
 
 Summarised I am one of those crazy guys that still loves his work after 25 years.

What was the most challenging about doing a story about Somali Pirates?

Well, to be open, it wasn’t that difficult. Together with a few other journalists we were offered the chance to join a Dutch marine vessel on the lookout for pirates on the Indian Ocean. The most challenging part was to find pirates that obviously didn’t show up because of the frigate. Happily we could enter Mogadishu in Somalia that in those years was devastated. Having had the chance to interview some people on the street of Mogadishu made it up.

As a journalist working abroad, what impact do you have? Does your work always pay off?

That’s something I had to get used to. In the Netherlands as a journalist it’s easier to have impact because the area you are reporting from is smaller and the number of media outlets are limited. But here on the African continent you’re one of 1,000nds journalists spread across 54 countries for 1,000nds of channels. So the impact is spread across all the media and I had to accept that I am only a small part of a huge apparatus. But happily from time to time I manage to stand out above the rest and have impact.

Who tends to be a client for stories on Africa?

These are the established television stations, and increasingly new channels that air online.

Is it hard for you to sometimes do stories that you sell abroad and not see them have any effect on the local situation?

That’s hard and especially when people I reported on became friends. Especially in poor areas or conflict zones these friendships easily build up. For example now on Facebook there are a considerable number of friends that used to be child soldier. And when I read that in South Sudan child soldiers are recruited again it makes me sad.

You’ve made a video about a Somalia singer. How did he get to know him and help promote him via a music video?

In Mogadishu there was a TEDx Conference and he was one of the speakers. So we traced him and did the video on him from the roof of the hotel since filming inside Mogadishu wasn’t advised because of insecurity. Doing this video was wonderful because of its response. The singer’s fans in Somalia and abroad were so happy to see him and started engaging. Since then my Instagram got enriched with a group of young Somalis hoping for change in their country and wanting to be part of the international community. It also told me that there is so much positive energy and hope in the country that has been plagued by war for more than 25 years.

You have interviewed Abass Siraji in Mogadishu, “the minister of Public Works and the hope of young Somali’s”, as you called him. Was it hard to get in touch with him?

Young Somalis are very well represented on social media. So got in touch with him via Facebook and that’s how we communicated. During shoot he was so energetic and full of dreams for Somalia that he would help fulfil by being a minister. So he was the hope of young Somalis.

However, the difficulty came just two days after the interview when Abass Siraji got assassinated. That was very sad for Somalia and also for us since we got to know him a little. Also we were angry since it appeared that the Somali government hadn’t provided him with a bulletproof car. Something that is indispensable for a politician in Somalia.

Still when thinking about it, it makes me sad. This also told us that whatever positive energy there is in Somalia, there is a still a long way to go before peace returns to the country.

What stories need to be told?

Stories about how people in Africa live their daily lives and how they cope with daily situations. It’s about champions and heroes. Then of course the news. But the news as it is, and not from a mind set saying that these people didn’t have a chance and need our help. That’s terrible.

What is your dream project?

Am in my dream project as an independent video journalist producing documentaries and features. But wouldn’t mind to produce a 2 hour long documentary about the real Africa.

How’s it work

How many languages do you use during your work? Mainly English, and my broken Swahili.

Who usually helps you to do projects? Usually I work as a one-man band, but around me there is a group of people helping with advice and tips, camera people and editors. And often on shoot I go with an assistant.

How do you stay in touch with publications and clients who are half-way around the world? Email, phone and Skype, social media.

How do you promote yourself and Africa so it becomes more in demand by clients? Via social media and my website.

In your opinion, when is it necessary to use a fixer (for security reasons, translating and interpreting)? Fixers are good when working outside your home region. They really make it easy to get information, spot people to interview and even suggest topics to report on.