Ricci Shryock, Focusing on the Why from Senegal and Guinea-Bissau

As a budding journalist, Shryock took a three month vacation in West Africa and then decided to settle in Dakar, Senegal. She has now worked for 15 years as an international journalist covering Western and Central Africa. Interview and reporting by Chris Darche.

Ricci Shryock teaches a photojournalism class in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa. Shryock graduated from a journalism school in Missouri and then moved to Florida where she found a job covering city council meetings. After listening to the song “Senegal Fast Food” by the duo Amadou and Mariam she decided to travel to Dakar, Senegal, in West Africa. Once she arrived, she fell in love with the country and decided to stay. Ricci has been in Dakar since 2008. Throughout her career she has covered various topics including the Ebola crisis for prestigious organizations such as NPR, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair.

Q: Could you talk about your career track? From the beginning did you know that you always wanted to be a journalist or did you have a different career track?

Ricci: I went to college in Missouri and I thought that I was going to be an English professor, but I studied journalism in undergrad and I really liked it. Once I graduated, I worked for a local paper in Florida where I covered city council meetings. After that I came to Dakar. Originally, I just came for a couple of months. It was supposed to be a break in between jobs, but then I met Nico (Colombant) and my career in international journalism began.

Q: Why Dakar, Senegal? Why not Europe, Asia, or South America?

Ricci: I wanted to go to a French-speaking country but not France. I’m not anti-France but a friend of mine in Florida gave me a CD by Amadou and Mariam [who are from Mali]. He told me they were a Senegalese music group and their music partially influenced my decision to go to Senegal.

Q: What other countries do you work in besides Senegal?

Ricci: At one point, I was working all over Western and Central Africa. I’ve been to almost every country in those regions. After a while I felt like I was going to different places and I did not know them very well. I wanted to return to each place and it was after that, that I decided to stop going everywhere and focus my stories on Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.

Q: Do you speak any African languages?

Ricci: I can speak Wolof and Guinea-Bissau Creole. My Wolof is not as good as it should be for having lived in Senegal for 15 years. I can’t report in Wolof but I can hold interviews and report in Creole.

Q: You said that sometimes you report in southern Senegal. Can you describe your experiences reporting in the Casamance? Is it dangerous?

Ricci: When I was in the Casamance, I produced a few audio pieces for radio. The Casamance conflict is the longest running conflict in Africa. The Senegalese government is trying to shut down the MFDC (Movement of Democratic Forces in the Casamance). Currently, there is a little more fighting than there would normally be but I wouldn’t say it is a dangerous place. When I was in the Casamance, I was reporting on the women’s environmental movement and eco-feminism. When I was there, I also talked to the women about the conflict and I learned that they are integral to the peace process in that region. Last year I was in the Casamance during the protests about Ousmane Sonko.

Q: Did you have a plan before you went to Dakar? How did you fund it?

Ricci: I was working for a paper in Florida as well as freelancing in order to save up some money to go abroad. Before I traveled to Senegal, I contacted the Baobab Center who put me in touch with a former Peace Corps volunteer. I reached out to the former volunteer by phone and after I decided I would be traveling to Senegal, I met her in person. She hooked me up with an American family so that when I arrived, I had a place to live for a couple months. It wasn’t that cheap but that was how I funded my trip to Dakar. After that, I started to do little freelance stories for Voice of America as well as photography. I was young so I didn’t need much money.

Q: Did you wish you had done anything differently before you went to Dakar?

Ricci: The only thing I wish I had done differently was investing more in learning languages. Before I went to Senegal, I had taken French classes but my French was not as good as it could have been. I also spent a large chunk of time believing that I could not learn new languages because I was too old. At that point in my life, I was set in my ways and I believed that I needed a teacher who could teach me the rules but that way did not work. In the past few years, I started learning Guinea-Bissau Creole the West African way by teaching myself. One way I self teach is by playing music in Creole and translating it to English.

Q: When you started creating content in West Africa what issues did you focus on? How has your focus changed over time?

Ricci: In the beginning, I was covering a lot more news, especially politics and not as many cultural stories. I would cover anything I could get my hands on! Now, I am more interested in doing stories about why rather than who, what, where, and when, especially since I have been in Senegal for 15 years. It is frustrating because you see the same kind of coverage over and over again. I am trying to create stories with more context and show why things are happening. For example, I cover Guinea-Bissau quite a bit. There was a coup on February 1st, 2022 and all the news organizations flew in to cover the coup. I waited to go because my next story will focus on the history of coup attempts in West Africa, especially, Guinea-Bissau as well as why coups keep happening. I would like to use the narrative of breaking news to look at certain issues in more depth.

Ricci’s website which includes various works she has produced for the New Yorker and Buzzfeed.

Q: Have you ever covered a presidential election in West Africa?

Ricci: I have covered elections in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau. I also covered the Gambian elections via radio broadcast.

Q: Can you describe what it is like to cover a presidential election in Senegal or Guinea-Bissau?

Ricci: I have covered presidential elections through different media forms. Some media pieces I created about elections were video, audio and photos pieces. I also produced some written articles. Each type of media is different and I believe there is a tendency to cover the voters and why people are voting for a certain candidate. I enjoy going to political rallies because there is music and praying. It is nice to go to the ballot boxes on voting day because of the large turnout of people participating in the election. Currently, I am trying to shift my focus away from voter coverage and report on political parties and the judicial branch. In my opinion, there is a lack of coverage on judicial issues in Africa.

Q: What advice would you give to a journalism student who is going to graduate and wants to work as an international journalist?

Ricci: I will tell you what worked for me. It is important to diversify your stream of income. When I started out, I created videos as well as audio pieces for radio. Working with various formats has allowed me to be a freelance journalist for a very long time. You need to make sure you are enjoying the work. If you are not enjoying it, you are not helping yourself or the people you are reporting about. Some stories are horrible and sad but I do not mean you are laughing all the time. I mean that you feel like you are getting satisfaction from your work. If you are working in a country that is unfamiliar to an editor, you need to stick up for the people you are reporting about. Occasionally, editors may have more power than you and could change the context of your piece. In that case it is important to provide the reader with as much information as possible.

Q: How do you try to stand out from other freelancers?

Ricci: I follow my interests as well as what I believe deserves coverage. In my opinion, this is better than a good byline.

Q: What are some of the outlets that you have created content for or that you currently write for?

Ricci: The bigger and more impressive news outlets are the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, Vogue Italia, and Vanity Fair. The ones that pay my bills are Voice of America, The Guardian and Mongabay. As a freelancer do not underestimate the lesser known outlets. These outlets are just as important as bigger media companies. Mongabay is a good outlet for environmental stories and they treat people well.

Q:Have you ever worked for any local news organizations in Senegal or Guinea-Bissau?

Ricci: When I report on a story, I work with local journalists. I try to have an agreement with my editor that allows local journalists to publish a sister article in their local press. When I did a story about infanticide in Senegal for the New Yorker, I was trying to talk about how illegal abortion in Senegal leads women to make really horrible decisions. When I published that story, I worked with a local journalist but the article was not published in Senegal. This meant nobody read the story. At that time, I thought what is the point of this? The people who I wanted to reach are not going to be able to read about infanticide. Fortunately, there are other local reporters who cover infanticide in Senegal. It is not just who is doing the reporting but who are you reporting for, which specific audience.

Q:In your opinion, is there like such a thing as objective journalism?

Ricci: I think when I went to journalism school, and I was in my 20s, I believed there was objective journalism. Objective journalism is very important but it depends on what context you’re working in. I think you can cover a city council meeting objectively. As a white American woman working in Senegal my opinion is very different from the people who are undergoing most of the issues. An article can be objective if it has two sides and the author looks at all the sides equally. We need to be skeptical, but maybe not objective. We all have some way we’re looking at issues. We should not take sides on issues but we need to understand where the people who are facing the issues are coming from.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

Ricci: There is not a typical day. It just depends on what I’m doing. Some days I go out and report. Other days, I edit. Today, I stayed in to edit and create invoices. That is one reason why I like journalism because there are no typical days.

Media Tips by Chris Darche for the Reynolds Sandbox

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