Chikaodinaka Oduah is a wordsmith. She shapes and crafts words to produce the most enthralling, diverse and thought-provoking objects of pleasure. The journalist who started her career at the NBC News in New York, USA, and worked at Sahara TV, continues to enjoy a gratifying career chock-full of the very things her passionate heart beats for. Presently freelancing in her native Nigeria, Chika shares details of life as a Nigerian child on American soil, her love for literature, and journalism as the path to the ‘exploration of everything that has breath!” It’s a fab read, do enjoy.
KA: I read your article, ‘Don’t call me Ajebutter…’ are you ever conflicted as to what country [ies] your true loyalty lies?
Chika: In America, I am seen as Nigerian. In Nigeria, I am The American. It’s that simple and I have learned to be okay with that. Nigerian, Igbo and American cultural identities co-exist within me. That co-existence should be as near to harmonious as possible, and that is my task. It’s a challenge that I am having fun with.
KA: You grew up in the United States though; what was childhood for you?
Chika: A school of thought in the field of psychology says that adulthood is an attempt to correct what was done in childhood. Essentially this means, we are living out our childhood, either for it or against it. I can understand this concept to an extent. I had quite a dynamic childhood. I use the word dynamic because my childhood was a time of endless discovery. I grew up in a full household with many children; I was the oldest. Responsibility was practically my middle name. I enjoy taking on responsibility. The oldest child makes sacrifices and matures quickly.
I attended many schools – four elementary schools and three high schools. Being the “new girl” nearly every two years meant that I was always exposed to a different set of people and adjusting to a new environment. This is part of the dynamism that shaped my childhood.
As a child, I entertained my vivid imagination and surrounded myself with books. Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-sitters Club series…I found an irreplaceable solace in folding my legs between the cushions of a couch and turning the pages of a novel.
The strength, integrity and character of my parents partly defined my childhood. Without failure, they always put us, their children, before themselves. I saw my parents’ sacrifices and my gratitude will never run out.
KA: Your childhood was obviously full and fulfilling. What other experiences remain vivid in your memory?
Chika: Growing up in America with a Nigerian heritage, one is bound to have a variety of experiences to sift through and analyze. I do remember the jokes from my classmates about my name. I was called “Chuka, Chicken, Cheetah…” These sorts of happenings occurred often. And certain people cannot resist but to ask things like, “Are there really buildings in Africa?” or “Can you speak African?” and “Do you have lions in your backyard?” I used those moments to educate as much as I could.
Nigerian parties in America! Nearly every weekend, my family attended Nigerian functions. The ubiquitous jollof rice and Osita Osadebe music at these functions did not mean much to me then, but reflecting back on those events, I realize that they were an attempt by adults to recreate some of the life they had lived back home in Nigeria. So, these events were important. The camaraderie with fellow Nigerian-Americans in those joyful, celebratory gatherings brought happiness. On Monday, it was back to work…back to America.
KA: So, where and what did Chika study?
Chika: I was raised in metro-Atlanta, Georgia. That’s where I attended elementary school, middle and high school. I completed my undergraduate education at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta, minoring in film studies. I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology and a second Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism. For graduate studies, I attended the Medill School of Journalism of Northwestern University in Illinois. I received a Master of Science degree in broadcast journalism.
KA: Did your education further cement your resolve to continue along the path you had chosen?
Chika: I was already convinced that I wanted to study journalism, film and anthropology. Yes, my studies sealed the deal.
KA: Do you ever wonder what it would have been like to study some other course, say Medicine? Or Nursing? [I hear Nurses are the rave…]
Chika: I did not consider studying any other course other than the ones I chose.
KA: What was your first job after graduation?
Chika: After my undergraduate studies, I worked as a studio photographer. Photography is one of my passions so it was not a job for me. I found joy in going to work. I photographed all types of people – mainly financially wealthy folks who drove big cars and lived in huge houses- and the camera gave me a peek into the lives of the people I shot. A fascinating experience, indeed. After graduate school, I worked at NBC News in New York City. It was a multi-faceted experience. I did a great deal of reporting on the field, shooting, editing, researching and networking.
KA: What job or contact gave you your big break?
Chika: I would describe my work in Kenya as my breakthrough opportunity. In Kenya, I was able to really do what I wanted. I produced two documentaries and traveled to the rural areas and met fantastic people. I had the perfect chance to put everything I had learned in journalism school into practice and boy, was it amazing.
KA: Are you presently freelancing in Nigeria?
KA: So what direction does Chika see her career taking in the next decade?
Chika: Let’s see what happens! I yearn to learn more. I am a perpetual student of life and I don’t see myself graduating any time soon.
KA: You are this multi-talented writer and journalist, and I am curious, do you think you were born with all this innate talent and drive?
Chika: While I appreciate the compliments, I have to express my reservations. I have a lot of growing to do as a writer and journalist- more skills to learn, always. I cultivated a desire to write as a child. Watching the clouds sliding in the sky, listening to squirrels squirm in the leaves, smelling the air after a thunderstorm…I wanted to find words to describe what I observed in nature. So I began writing poems about the natural world- trees, rainbows, spiders, moonlight, grass, butterflies. The interest in journalism started when I learned about man-made suffering in the world. I saw photographs of starving children; I met refugees escaping war-torn countries; I read about “breast ironing”…these realities compelled me to dig deeper to understand the source of human conflict and intolerance. My father always encouraged us to ask questions. He was always saying, “Read wide. Ask questions. Be inquisitive!” So I did and I became a journalist.
KA: Any mentors?
Chika: I am a staunch believer in the importance of mentors. My mentor is Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo, a New York-based journalist and syndicated columnist. Of course, he did not seek out to “mentor” me, but it happened naturally, as an evolution of our friendship. His support and positive influence in my life cannot be quantified. He has a solid understanding of politics, and enjoys literature. Those two traits ain’t bad at all. I wish there was an adequate way to say “thank you” to mentors.
KA: Do you have any plans to mentor a younger crop of journalist/writers?
Chika: Of course. Having tasted the goodness of being mentored, I want to do what I can to help aspiring journalists and writers.
KA: Does social media and technology aid the flow of information in your line of work?
Chika: In this day and age, it is almost impossible not to engage in social media and technology. At the press of a button on my phone, I can send a breaking news headline to the world via Twitter. It’s incredible. I am a huge Twitter fan. I enjoy scrolling down the feed and getting an update on stories around the world in 5 minutes.
KA: You are a splendid writer; I doff my hat to you. How do you find the time to write as much as you do, report the news, and basically juggle so much stuff?
Chika: If I do not write, I will not be able to improve and improvement is what I am after. Therefore, I simply have to make out time. Sometimes, I get an influx of words and my mind is invaded. Then, I have to stop what I am doing and jot them down. From there, I play around with the words to produce a poem. So, writing happens spontaneously and it is scheduled.
Juggling tasks has never been much of a problem for me. I like to stay busy and I never go anywhere without my planner and a small calendar.
KA: Any books in the works?
Chika: That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Who knows.
KA: Is Chika married or engaged?
Chika: Chika is living life to the fullest as a single lady.
KA: Family is…
Chika: Family is my ever-resilient mother, my kind and patient father, my three “independent-women” sisters, my cuddly brothers and my best friend, God.
KA: Life is…
Chika: Life is a love affair with God the creator and a gripping exploration of everything that has breath.
KA: Inspire an African youth with in a sentence.
Chika: Think for yourself. The elders’ words can guide and culture can shape you, but still, think for yourself.