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A flowery JSK moment with co-fellows

Learning to play at Stanford

Motunrayo Alaka
Mar 9 · 5 min read

“What do you do for fun?” This is one of the most difficult questions anyone has ever asked me. Dawn Garcia, the director of the John S. Knight (JSK) Fellowships at Stanford University, asked me the question at the final interview towards becoming a JSK Fellow. I had thought very little of the question before then and I was taken aback by it. Yes. I know. My hardest question was about playing.

What do I do for fun? Really! What a question at such an important interview for a prestigious journalism fellowship, I thought. What do I do for fun while society deteriorates and the pressures of the profession swamps journalists? What do I do for fun while running from one donor to the other trying to convince them that the work that I do on media and investigative reporting is worth funding? What do I do for fun when the poverty rate in my country, Nigeria, is one of the worst in the world? “Well, nothing!” I thought. But of course, I rambled some incoherent answer to my interviewers.

At my backstory, a weekly JSK event during which a fellow shares their personal journey, I was asked a similar question. “What do you do for play?” Again, I rambled on. I talked about how the simple things in life are enough for me. Or, perhaps, I was explaining how I have made myself content with the simple things of life since the problems of the world that I must solve are the more important things.

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I mentioned the joy I get from just chatting with friends. How I am pleased with my children’s silly jokes. I spoke about how I love community and I am happy with simple communal fellowshipping. At a point I said, “I have four people who call me mum. If something is fun and it involves a two-hour drive sometimes late in the night, I really would have to think about it.” All of these are very true.

Long after the conversation, I asked myself the question again and again. “What do I do for play?” “Really, Motunrayo, What do you do for play or fun?” How can a question so simple be so complicated to answer for an on-top-of-the-matter person like me?

I recall being told by teachers and students alike while in primary and secondary school, as well as later as an adult, that I was too serious about almost everything. Often, I had taken the comment with a pinch of salt and, in fact, as a compliment. Of course I am serious! I should be serious! Life is serious!

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Footless with colleagues at the Erinta Waterfalls, Ekiti, Nigeria

Now that I’ve spent some time thinking about it, I realise that I have indeed had a lot of fun in my life. In addition to those things that I earlier mentioned bring me great joy, I am quite up-to-date on cartoons. I have been to the hot and cold-water spring in Ikogosi Ekiti and the Whispering Palms at Badagry Lagos, both in Nigeria, many times. I was in Kenya once and I went to a safari. I have been to Dubai to see an historical museum, a dancing fountain and the Burj Khalifa — the tallest building in the world, with my sister and daughter. I also tried the desert safari with members of my family on another visit. I have been to Istanbul,Turkey where I visited many historical sights including the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar. I have been to California’s Golden Gate Bridge in the United States and have seen the River Thames and Big Ben in England. I have gone to many parks in and out of my country. And, I have gone on routine picnics with friends and relatives at various locations a number of times.

My reflection brought me to the conclusion that I have the capacity to play and I have played a lot. My real struggle however, is with playing for the sake of it. Everything needs to have a purpose for me to buy into it. And, until now, I have been unable to accept that the purpose of play is just to have fun. I do fun things for education. I play for the sake of supporting or bonding with loved ones. I am game for playing for inspiration.

What I hardly ever do, is to play for fun.

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Soaking in the sun with co-JSKFellow, Marcelle Hopkins

I am now learning how to play anew from my co-fellows, who are equally concerned and working hard to contribute to solving the many serious challenges journalism and our world faces. I am learning to go with the flow much more and feel less guilty about just playing. I have posed for silly pictures with friends and cartoon characters, even Mickey Mouse. I have lain on grass with a friend on a sunny Monday morning! I was at a JSK fun outing to Mardi Gras World in New Orleans and I played a lot. I have visited the mountains in Truckee-Tahoe where I ate some snow.

And, I have more fun planned.

My friends at Stanford are helping me to settle into the fact that to play with purpose is good, but the purpose of play may be play and that is fine too.

JSK Class of 2020

Motunrayo Alaka

Written by

Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer, Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism & 2020 John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford

JSK Class of 2020

Insights and experiences from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2020

Motunrayo Alaka

Written by

Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer, Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism & 2020 John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford

JSK Class of 2020

Insights and experiences from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2020

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