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A Small Organization With a Big Agenda

Fledgling African journalists association is determined to change mainstream media coverage of Africa and Africans
By B. Denise Hawkins

The only way that Eyobong Ita knows how to dream is big, even when the numbers are down and the stakes are high. The two-day

convention of the National Association of African Journalists (NAAJ), the professional and networking organization Ita founded a year ago, attracted only a handful of African journalism students and practitioners to the Howard University student center last month. But when it was all over, those who attended got what they came for — an opportunity to interact with fellow African journalists and communicators. Most of the participants have made the often rocky transition from African to American newsrooms and businesses. But beyond networking, the participants were treated to a journalism 101 taught by industry experts and had the chance to vie for leadership positions in NAAJ. The fledgling organization is small, but it has big plans  — to inspire growth and professional development among African journalists and to change the way Africans and Africa are covered in the mainstream media.

A year ago, Ita, a Nigerian-born reporter for the Kansas City Star, had an idea for an organization that could help give fellow Africans much-needed guidance and “a second chance on pursuing journalism here.”

Approximately 60 African journalists working in the United States heeded his call. That core group used the UNITY journalism convention meeting in Washington, D.C., to inaugurate an organization of their own, NAAJ. But for the newly formed organization to really stand on its own, it had to have a venue that it could call home.

That venue wasn’t long in coming. At its awards gala Sept. 10, NAAJ announced that Howard University had offered the organization rent-free office space in the John H. Johnson School of Communications. The office, located on the lower level of the School of Communications, has space for a conference room and a main office and will be used as the organization’s secretariat. 

“The gesture was approved recently by Dr. Jannette L. Dates, dean of the School of Communications, and has the backing of Phillip Dixon, chairman of the journalism department,” says Ita, who was trained as a journalist in Nigeria, but often found doors closed in the United States when he tried to become a reporter. “Our credentials are never seen as good enough and our accents are seen as problems,” laments Ita of the challenges that he says many African journalists in the United States continue to face. He should know. Ita worked a series of jobs outside of journalism, including one at a nursing home, before enrolling at Howard’s School of Communications. It was at Howard that Ita learned to successfully navigate the job field, winning top honors as a Chips Quinn Scholar and eventually landing in a newsroom.

Dates has pledged support for NAAJ, an organization that she says is needed now more than ever. The Rev. Mpho Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, accepted the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of former South African president Nelson Mandela. Tutu told the organization’s members “it is up to us [as Africans] to tell the story of Africa.” She also urged the participants not to grow tired in trying to meet that challenge, or weary because their numbers are small. “One day,” Tutu said, “this hall will be full.”

NAAJ had planned to feature the first African-born journalist to win the Pulitzer Prize, former Newsday foreign editor Dele Olejede. But the Nigerian journalist was detained in Nigeria, Ita says. Olejede was awarded the Pulitzer for his reports on Rwanda a decade after genocide claimed the lives of more than 800,000 people in the East African country.  

Kansas City Star columnist and NAAJ presenter, Lewis Diuguid, says he decided to travel to the convention at his own expense because Ita, his colleague in the newsroom, had a dream to support African journalists. As one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), Diuguid knew the hurdles his colleague’s organization would face. He faced many of them himself when he helped start NABJ more than 20 years ago.

“Every new organization struggles to get traction, and establish relevance and a core membership,” he says. “The more I talked to Ita about his desire to start NAAJ, the more I saw the many parallels between it and NABJ.

“There is a uniqueness that NAAJ has and a purpose they serve that NABJ can’t. NAAJ wants to serve the larger needs of African journalists, a cause that gets lost as NABJ tries to serve its members.”

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