NY Times Political Reporter Dionne Searcey Discusses Her New Book: “In Pursuit of Disobedient Women”
Now a political reporter for the New York Times, from 2015 to 2019 Dionne Searcey was the paper’s West Africa bureau chief and covered a range of economical, social, an political issues on the continent and their impact on women.
Her new book, “In Pursuit of Disobedient Women: A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, and Family, Far Away,” takes readers inside the professional and personal aspects of her time covering 25 countries in West Africa. She describes eye-opening conversations with women who escaped the clutches of Boko Haram against all odds and shares her own challenges moving to a new continent with her husband and young children in order to take her new role.
Below is an excerpt from Maryalice Aymong’s interview. To listen to the whole episode, download Listen, Ladies in iTunes.
Maryalice Aymong (MA): So, the position of West Africa bureau chief essentially put you at the helm of The New York Times’ reporting for a region that covers about 500 million people, and as I mentioned that’s a region with a huge range of economic, social, and political conditions. Did you have a plan going in for what you wanted to bring readers, or is there a job description that goes along with the reporting that you are going to be doing?
Dionne Searcey (DS): Not really, I mean, these beats are really vast. They’re geographical beats, so that means you can cover anything that goes on within the borders of the countries that you covered, and for me that was some twenty five countries. So, it was really, really, really anything goes. A lot of people traditionally who have taken on these roles especially in Sub-Saharan Africa or other places that are off the radar for a lot of Americans and Westerners generally have focused on themes like war. Really a lot of war reporting, I guess, draws a lot of reporters. I try to seek guidance from a lot of different people who had reported on the wars before or who had thought a lot about our coverage. One person in particular said to me that all these reporters go over and just want to write about different wars that have happened or toppling dictators or something like that. And these are countries with great economic stories and political stories and culture and art and dance and especially from all the countries of Africa which often get mobbed together in Americans’ brains sometimes. There are just these really distinct, interesting stories that are happening there that we should be covering. You wouldn’t only cover the American election if you were in America as a foreign reporter. You would write about the, I don’t know, the New York Ballet or something like that, too. It seemed important to me to view a range of things.
MA: A big part of being an effective journalist is obviously being able to build connections and relationships in the community that you’re reporting in, and given that you were a journalist in the U.S. and moved to a completely different region, can you talk about how you begin to build relationships and understand the community that you are in beyond just being a tourist?
DS: I think that one of the most useful things you have to do is rely on local journalists. You can call up diplomats, NGOs, or nonprofits, but you really need the help of local journalists, who we call “fixers,” who understand the region and can help you, guide you, and explain to you what’s going on and make introductions and even just ask permission to various people for you to just turn up. That’s one thing you can’t do in a region where you don’t know the lay of the land is to just show up and knock on the door in a way that maybe you can in America. I mean, I don’t really think that that is really an effective way of reporting. Somebody told me one time that every story needs a shepherd. You really need that one person, even in America, who is a source or a local journalist or someone who you meet, an artist or singer, who is going to show you around, knows the area, makes introductions, and explains what’s really going on. You can read all the books and all the newspaper articles and everything you want, but that is the main source that helps.
MA: I mention also that the book is a look at the personal side of taking on this type of role. Your whole family moved to Dakar, Senegal, and the dynamics of that are a big part of the book. What do you want readers, especially women, to know about what that was like?
DS: Well, I felt like I got a lot of questions from younger women. I am now 48, and I have three kids. I got a lot of questions from younger women who did not yet have kids and who were just starting in their career about: Is it possible to have kids and be a reporter? I think it’s definitely possible. I think you have to have a very understanding husband, and it has to be an equal relationship where not just one person does everything. There are times when one person has to step back in their career, and that was a really hard lesson for us. My husband was not that excited about moving; he had some real struggles with that. But it’s really hard. I do not think there’s an easy way to have a dual career family. Right now, that works really well, but I think that some things work and some things don’t. It is fine to take some risks and see how it pans out. And hope that it works out.
MA: Just a small part of the book that I thought was fun, you talked a little bit about the different parenting perspectives that you observed among different cultures. What stood out to you?
DS: In America, I never really felt like I was that protective as a mom. My son now calls me a helicopter mom when he wants to make fun of me, but I really think that moving to Dakar made me realize that maybe I did have a little bit of helicopter in me. In Senegalese families, every kid has plastic flip-flops and at first, I was like “Oh. You are going to step on a nail. You can’t have that, you have to have rock-solid hard one-hundred-dollar sandals and other ridiculous things that we as privileged American parents think that our kids need. And you realize that, actually, those clunky shoes just are terrible walking in the sand. You can’t lift your feet because Dakar has sand streets and sand everything. We bought our kids flip-flops. I remember one time we went out to dinner, and our kids were bored sitting at the table, so we let them go outside, and they played in a construction lot that, in America, would have been boarded up with scaffolding and roped off, but there they were outside for hours playing with concrete bricks and piling sand. It made us feel really stupid for ever buying a Lego set.
MA: And they survived.
DS: Yeah, they totally did. Of course, they did. It is nice to have your parenting structure shaken up and realizing there are other ways to be a parent, and they are just as valid and just as good.