Abdi Latif Dahir is a journalist, born in Nairobi and raised in Somalia, who has recently become the East Africa Correspondent at the New York Times. At the TEDxVienna Conference “About Time”, he delivered a speech about how to create beautiful moments and capture them in your memory, even though you live in a war-torn country. During the Coffee House Talks, Abdi shared with us his thoughts on how to stay rooted and celebrate life under such circumstances. After Abdi’s inspiring talk, which makes you reevaluate your attitude towards hard times in life, we met to talk about his profession, his journey to journalism and working in cities at war.
In your talk you mentioned the hotel called “Sahafi”, which means “journalist” and that it inspired you to become a journalist. But was there a specific moment or person, that encouraged you to become a journalist?
Abdi: I think it was less about a specific person in the beginning and more about the collective experience of it. Being young, I was thrown into this big city and was going to school in a very dangerous zone. I started asking myself a lot of questions, like “Why is this happening?”. At the time I watched television. The news showed problems happening in other parts of the world. This is when I first started thinking about journalists’ work. Then, all of a sudden, you go to this Sahafi hotel and see these journalists with big cameras and this collective experience influenced me.
But my biggest encouragement was my mother who has always been very supportive. From a very young age, she pointed out that I always asked questions and was curious about everything around me. She told me: “You’re going to become a journalist. Do you know what a journalist is?”. I knew I would become a journalist by the time I was 10 and by the time I was 16 I knew I didn’t want to do anything else. But after a famous journalist was killed right in front of the Sahafi hotel she asked me whether I was sure about this profession and at that moment I realized, that this tragedy only made my beliefs stronger. This journalist came from halfway across the world to cover the news in my country, so why shouldn’t I be able to do that? I knew this was my calling.
Were you disappointed with the quality of news coverage?
Abdi: I always put myself in the shoes of a media manager, so I always think, instead of complaining, what can we do? Because if we all just sit down and complain, nothing will change. The reason why I have studied this profession so much is that I was seeking to understand its importance, the actors around it and to bring up some of these very important stories, that a lot of people are not telling. Because people always have stories to share. It’s always the idea of what can I do now instead of complaining, instead of saying others are not doing the job.
What was your way to journalism? Where did you start?
Abdi: I started professional journalism almost a decade ago. I started writing for local media in my third year of university. Immediately afterwards I began asking international media, whether I could write for them. And finally, I was able to get in touch with the United Press International in Washington DC. So, I covered East Africa and its historic events for them. It was such an important moment for me: standing on this list of international reporters when you’re not even twenty. And I got a huge responsibility. It was so overwhelming, that I couldn’t comprehend what was going on. When I attended my very first press conference and was writing about it at 1 a.m. I thought: “Oh my God, I think I like it, I like this pressure”.
After that, I worked with local media in Kenya, then went freelancing. Then I realized, I needed to improve my skills, so I went to graduate school in Columbia, NY. Right after graduation, I started working with Quartz, where I covered East Africa from New York for 8 months, then moved back to Nairobi and kept writing for Quartz for 2,5 years.
Last week I left Quartz and I am joining the New York Times this November, where I am going to be the next East Africa correspondent.
What was your toughest moment as a journalist?
Abdi: I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life, but there was one moment in 2013. I was in Somalia, at the governor’s office and there was a terrorist attack in the building next door. Nine terrorists went into the supreme court and killed around 20 people there. At some point, we thought, they would attack the building we were in. At that moment I realized I was about to become ‘the story’. I think it was the toughest moment of my life. I called my mother, explained the situation and said: “I just wanted to tell you I love you and if we don’t speak again – goodbye”.
So, I sat there under the table, tweeting what I was hearing and experiencing. At that point, I had to reevaluate quickly. And I started asking myself questions, for some of them I still don’t have answers today, like “Is it worth dying for a story?”, “Is it worth it putting your life in danger for a good story?”, “What happens now?”.
And it partially influenced my TED talk, because the next morning at 7 a.m., when we came back to the office, people were cleaning everything, they painted over the blood. It was like nothing has ever happened there. A few hours ago, we had to step over the dead bodies and now everything was gone. I asked myself: “How do you figure this out? How do you deal with joy and resilience?”.
Has this occurrence shaped your character and changed you in a significant way?
Abdi: Yes. Because, to be very honest, after that I didn’t know what to do for 3-4 months. I came back to Nairobi, I was just sitting in my room, trying to understand, what was happening. It was a post-traumatic syndrome. I was down, I couldn’t do anything. I was trying to process that, at the same time having to be objective, since I had to write the story objectively and move to another assignment.
Where do you find the motivation to write in such moments?
Abdi: I learned how to get myself out of the story when I have to do things on the deadline. I realized, that the story needs to go out because the story is bigger than me. There are millions of people, who want to read it, who want to be informed. I take this responsibility. This attitude helps: let’s do it, let’s inform the people, let’s educate them, let’s entertain them.
It goes back to duty, the idea of being a journalist. You land in the hottest spots on earth and ask yourself: “What’s the story here? Are there any positive things happening? How can I narrate a story in a way that it’s fair and accurate, but also holds accountable?”. This means not coming to people and thinking that you already know the story. You should always reevaluate everything and be open-minded. This has helped me a lot. I learn something new all the time. I give people the agency to educate me and by that, I can dig out so much.
Having to deal with news all the time, do you sometimes need an ‘informational detox’? Do you get tired of all the negative information?
Abdi: That’s true, that people may get tired of the negative news. But I have a feeling that I want to stay connected. Yes, the stories can be troubling, but that’s precisely why journalism is the fourth estate. That’s why it exists, it holds the power accountable. But you can’t be slacking while trying to hold the power accountable. I can relax and take a break for a day or two, but I always stay on the news.
That’s the thing – I look at these stories not because I want to read all of them. But the idea of knowing at the back of your mind is very important. Especially in this era, when there’s a lot of fake news, so much manipulation with media, the targeting of real journalists in order to misinform, now, more than ever, we have the responsibility to stay connected, to know, what to expect, to be skeptical.
If I get depressed with the news, I can get off the news beat for a day, get some rest, go hiking, running, or to a party, be out of the system. But I know that the next morning I will be back on track, asking questions and looking at things objectively. When trying to inform people and explain how things are turning out, you need to stay on the story. And staying on the story means a lot more than just you being tired. It’s a responsibility, it’s a calling. When you’re on duty, you’re on duty and you have to cope with these issues.
What are your plans now? What is your big dream to do next?
Abdi: It’s incredible, that the first major thing I have done since I was announced to be the next East Africa New York Times correspondent is to come to TEDxVienna. It’s fascinating. And I’m extremely excited about this new opportunity. I really want to see what’s going to happen next. I will now cover East Africa more in-depth, which is very interesting for me. For now, I am just going to follow everything, that is going to happen. I’m sure it will be an incredible experience because I will be writing to a huge audience. So, I am really looking forward to the next few years – to writing, reporting and digging up stories.