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Dele Olejede and the stories we choose to tell

Pulitzer-prize winning Nigerian journalist Dele Olejede tells us he’s glad there was a break between the conversations about aid and his talk because it’s given him a chance to calm down. “It’s too simplistic to dismiss aid as unneccesary,” he begins. “Removing a murderous dictator, Idi Amin, was foreign aid from the country next door.” When the Ford Foundation “spirited me out of my country and gave me an education” in the US, that was foreign aid.

This foreign aid helped put Olejede in “the best job in the world” in April 1994. He was reporting for New York Newsday, and covering the “inexorable march towards freedom,” in South Africa. “I was doing what I’d always dreamed of doing, with a large expense account to boot.” As the story of Rwandan violence started to appear, he was the only Newsday reporter on the continent, and he had a decision to male. “Do I see through this extraordinary and transcendental story in South Africa”, or travel to Rwanda to cover this new story. He decided that he’d give anything to see Mandela see his dream through, and he missed the Rwanda story.

“It became clear this was not an ordinary Central African horror story,” Olejede tells us, “and perhaps my decision was not correct.” Out of a sense of penance, he became “obsessed with the idea of Rwanda, with understanding it,” and has been travelling there ever since. In early 2004, he reported a series on “what it meant to be a Rwandan during this period, and on some level, what it meant to be human.” He observes how odd it is that Kigali is one of the safest places in the world – “it’s very safe for most people now because of determination of the people to go a different way.”

He tells us a story from covering the Presidential elections in South Africa – watching a huge queue of voters, he spoke to an elderly woman, waiting to vote while sitting in a yellow plastic chair. He asked her, “Who are you voting for?” She answered, “I’m voting for my grandson.” He wasn’t a candidate – he was a Soweto activist who fled in 1976. She was voting for the ANC, but she was really voting on behalf of her grandson.

Olejede grew un in a university town, surrounded by information. He tells us about reading three daily newspapers and periodically going out to buy more. The news vendors were rarely taking care of their wares – they were off working other jobs – so they left their papers and a pile of money. People would pay for the papers on the honor system. “If it didn’t work, they would stop doing it.” He tells the story because, “these are the same people who came to symbolize all that was wrong with Africa.” Addressing corruption, he says, “This is not genetic – this can be corrected,” because this is the same continent that can support such an honor system.

He remembers a horrific moment in Nigerian history, the bombing of an independent newspaper office. One of his colleagues was killed in the resulting fire – Olejede’s memory is that the only thing left of him was “the skin preserved by his Omega watch.” He authored the statement condemning the Babangida government, which led to a threat on his life. A friend came to him with enough money to leave the country, a ticket on Lufthansa and an invitation to a new life.

And now Olejede is back on the continent. His fream now is a continent-wide daily newspaper, allowing people to have a conversation about where the continent is going. Here’s hoping he’s able to achieve it.

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