“Fiction Remains my First Love”
– Caleb Okereke
Kanyinsola Olorunnisola: Recently, you seem to have made a shift towards journalism from your once-upon-a-time preoccupation with literary publications. From AL Jazeera to African Arguments, you clearly have your plate full. For your avid readers who have been waiting for such massive releases as a follow-up to Safe Journey, is there hope for them (read: us) to get another book from you soon?
Caleb Okereke: For starters, I don’t really see it as making a shift. What I might be doing though is exploring writing and storytelling in new ways because truly, the core of my work has always been stories. That I started out telling stories through fictionalizing them and in the written word doesn’t mean that I have made a shift because I do the same thing now, mostly through real-life experiences and often employing video. I entirely understand your angle, but I must say that while the format or medium might change, the goal remains the same.
I once read somewhere I don’t remember that journalism is what creative writers do to keep body and soul together while they write their first book, I see myself in that quote. Also, journalism for me was about giving non-fiction as much attention and enthusiasm as I gave fiction. It has gone great so far but fiction remains my first love and what it has done is revolutionized my fiction, the type of true stories I am confronted with from doing this reporting work on a daily influences the kind of fictional stories I want to tell.
To directly answer your question though, I do not have a book in the works. A lot because between reporting and studying, I can barely find enough time to do the hard work that is writing a book, especially because I am aiming to write fiction. I have a few ideas here and there, written a few chapters of some of these ideas but there’s nothing set in stone.
If it helps, I am applying to a few residencies (some of them paid) to at least give me the space and time I need to go past more than a few chapters. But that’s also tricky because I need to find residencies that suit my timeline with school and sometimes what looks like it suits your calendar, doesn’t. I’ve gotten into two this year already, one of them on a partial scholarship but I couldn’t attend because of timing. The bigger challenge nonetheless is that I am looking to have a book out by 2022, this would mean ideally that it has to be written between now and next year if I want to meet that timeline. Well, you can see how that is going.
“Ugandan artists are creating, incredible art, incredible music, my best friend is an amazing musician and actress from Uganda but that this immense art being created rarely crosses East Africa means the knowledge level is lopsided.” – Caleb Okereke
KO: You moved quite a while back to Kampala, Uganda, for school and work-related reasons (I suppose), what was it like moving to a whole new world? Was there a form of culture shock? How did you adapt?
CO: I love Kampala, I always have. Long before I first came in 2017. Growing up, my father worked for a company that held workshops across the world and so I learned of Kampala first from their training materials. It helped also that my father’s stepbrother is half Ugandan, half Nigerian, make of that story what you will.
To be more specific though, culture shock is something that happens even between states within a country, so yes, there was this new way of life sprawling in front of me that I had to adapt to. And as Africans and owing in part to the gospel of pan Africanism, there is the possible misinterpretation of that concept to mean that Africans have a similar way of life across countries but this is very false and the idea behind a contorted understanding of pan Africanism is to represent Africans within a stereotype, one that subsequently becomes easier to typecast. It’s a case of rather than make this continent of 54 countries diverse, why don’t we make them similar and in so doing, singular? So yes, there was some level of culture shock.
One of my earliest examples happened in the first month I arrived, I was at a Saturday game chill and someone whipped out a deck of cards and suggested we play, the rules were very different from anything I had seen and I who was a champion of cards back home did very badly. Another example was from 2017, I had gone out for dinner with a friend and he suggested that we get a taxi back home so I can get the experience, I said “cool,” imagining that experience referred to something other than Uber which we had been using. I said cool because, in Lagos, a taxi is a special hire, but imagine my surprise when we emerged from this expensive restaurant and my friend flagged down the Ugandan version of a Danfo, I realized then that in Kampala, a public bus was called a taxi.
It might be easier, I would think for a Ugandan moving to Nigeria because Nollywood and the Nigerian entertainment industry as a whole have gone continent-wide, to be honest, and so most Ugandans I meet know a lot about Nigeria. They know Danfo, they know Okadas, they even know Ojuelegba. Nigerian music has crossed to Kampala bars, Nigerian fashion, make-up, but the opposite is the case when the roles are reversed, Nigerians have little idea about Uganda and some of my cousins still think I live in Zambia or Malawi. Only one of these countries is even in East Africa. And it doesn’t mean Ugandans are not creating, Ugandan artists are creating, incredible art, incredible music, my best friend is an amazing musician and actress from Uganda but that this immense art being created rarely crosses East Africa means the knowledge level is lopsided.
Adapting might as well have been facilitated because of this, culture shock is harder when the space in which it happens has no idea about your existence prior, but in some way, knowing a lot about Nigeria meant that most Ugandans were willing to carefully explain things to me and to do so, because they kind of understood the space I was coming from, they did this explanation within context. Boda riders, bar attendants, waiters, almost everyone knows Nollywood (and even though this isn’t an accurate representation of who we are because most people I have met think Nigerians are loud and are surprised to meet a soft-spoken one and that we add “O” after every statement) but this has helped me transition greatly.
KO: From your writings, you are clearly not one to shy from intellectual deviancy. But I’d like to know your take on rebellion? What sort of rebellions do you think are necessary in today’s Africa?
CO: I think rebellion is imperative and I find this interesting because just yesterday I was at a fireside chat with a very famous international journalist who spoke about how being objective and staying out of activism had helped his career. I agreed with most of what he said that night but not that bit, and it is a valid stance to take and one I entirely understand because journalism is about objectivity and taking a stand can often come across as a reduction in credibility, but in my opinion, and what I have known to be true, I believe it is this credibility that in turn leads us to take a stand, that influences the rebellion we choose to take on.
If I am aware that people trust me to be a source of truth, it means that I will invariably take up a rebellion against misinformation and lies. So, one of the rebellions I think is necessary for today’s Africa is fighting fake news, whether from the state or from the masses.
I have seen firsthand the damage misinformation can do and just a few weeks ago when I was in Lagos during the Xenophobic attacks in South Africa, I literally drove through what must have been hundreds of young people wielding sticks and threating to attack our car, they burned a few, we were just lucky. These people didn’t fully understand xenophobia, all they had seen was old videos of people being killed in South Africa accompanied by new headlines of Nigerians being murdered and this lead both to a loss of life and property.
Another rebellion I think is necessary is the rebellion against how Africa is represented in mainstream media and I like that this is an insurrection that has garnered a lot of support and so people are more cognizant of this typecasting by the West, but it cannot be emphasized enough, because even in 2019, the New York Times can put up an ad for a Nairobi Bureau Chief that; has a tremendous opportunity to dive into news and enterprise across a wide range of countries, from the deserts of Sudan and the pirate seas of the Horn of Africa, down through the forests of Congo and the shores of Tanzania and that this ad went through the international editor without anyone seeing how racist it was? This rebellion is necessary, this anger, we should and be angry and very much so.
KO: Interesting, So, what issues are you most passionate about?
CO: I am very passionate about solutions journalism, this is basically journalism that shifts the focus from what isn’t working to what is working and if you notice, this has been a constant streak in my storytelling. So, the DRC is deep in an Ebola crisis, but what is the DRC getting right? Some of my closest friends are from the Democratic Republic of Congo and they do amazing work detailing solutions in the country.
I am also passionate about minority reporting and not because I think that minorities do not have a voice as most people often assume, a train of thought I find to be very wrong because everyone has a voice, what they might lack, however, is a platform but should they get one then that voice as we have seen in times past, will reverberate across nations. I started Minority Africa in 2019 and with generous funding from the Solutions Journalism Network, we are basically a digital publication providing solutions content on African minority communities and persons using a data-driven multimedia approach that is immersive and interactive.
The goal is to increase the representation and visibility of African minorities in mainstream media and it becomes even more relevant when we consider that in some contexts and in some spaces, we are all minorities. Muslims are a minority in Uganda, for instance, but they are not in Nigeria. The minority also doesn’t always have to be decided by number, you can numerically be the majority but still because of social and economic conditions, be the minority.
So I am passionate about representation, about being seen, about balanced representation and visibility that is blinding. So on Minority Africa, you will find a lot of stories about different minority communities and persons, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, sexual minorities and a host of others but these stories will detail what’s working in these spaces, for these people and not what isn’t.
KO: You have been involved in a lot of interesting initiatives in the past. What next do you have planned? Do you have any scheduled publications or projects you are currently working on? Tell us what to expect from The Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke
CO: Besides Minority Africa which is my full-time job now as I serve as Managing Editor, I am working on a documentary which will be my first stint as a filmmaker, it’s out of Uganda and is funded by a grant from One World Media.
I am also reporting on a few stories which I think will be huge when they do get out because of their relevance and how much work I am putting into them. I have a freelance writer contract with the BBC but I have only been able to do one piece because I am inundated with quite a lot but you should also expect more BBC pieces from me once I can get some space from school and life to pitch and write.
But primarily, I want you to watch out for Minority Africa and the amazing work we’ll create in the coming months, I am working with some of the best minds in journalism and data from Uganda to Nigeria and with a lot of guidance and funding from the Solutions Journalism Network so it’s almost inevitable that we’d create amazing work.
Source: From the Rebel Issue (October 2019)