There are few people, really, who shape the world at large, who have both the power and the sensitivity to say something meaningful that inspires change. Nima Elbagir, Sudanese-British Senior International Correspondent at CNN, is one of these women. A journalist in some of the most threatening places in the world since 2002, she’s broken stories on child labor in the DRC, active slavery auctions in Libya, rape and murder trials in Sudan – and that’s just in the last year.
This year, her bravery and reliable reporting in the face of immense personal risk is being recognized by the International Women’s Media Foundation with their 2018 Courage in Journalism Award. Her work has sparked conversations and change surrounding the rights and perception of women, children, and people all over the world.
We had the great honor of sitting down with Nima to ask her about her background and drive for journalism in addition to her life as a mother – both, we have to say, are inspiring. Read on for her perspective on how women are changing the journalism scene, how growing up cross-culturally became a huge help for her career, and the motherhood moment that she’ll never forget.
What was your first professional job and how did you land it?
I trained at my father’s newspaper “AlKhartoum.” I actually had a job in another newsroom but my father insisted; he’d paid for my education, he was going to get something back in return!
You were born in Sudan to parents who highly valued print journalism. How did they influence your career path?
My parents actually didn’t want me to go into journalism, they wanted me to do something more “stable.” I watched them while I was growing up, and it looked like such a meaningful way to contribute to the world. In spite of all that they went through, trying to maintain journalistic integrity under the Islamist dictatorship in Sudan, it never seemed anything less than a powerful and meaningful way to make a living.
You were raised in both Sudan and in the UK, and your professional life still takes you between both places. How do you think being raised in these two cultures impacted you? How did you and do you still handle those transitions?
I think moving between worlds gives you an outsider’s perspective, which is really important for a journalist. It also gave me the ability to feel – or at least fake! – comfort in new situations. That helps make your transition between cultures and worlds a lot easier.
You began your journalism career in 2002 with Reuters. What were some of your first assignments? How did they impact your career through the years?
The first big story I covered was the conflict in Darfur, and I think covering a conflict like that in your own country can’t help but be formative. I hope it left me with a lasting desire to ensure that the people you cover, the people you leave behind, aren’t adversely affected when you do your story and leave. You can’t always protect people but you can always try. That was hammered home to me because for so long I couldn’t leave. I had to live every day with the consequences of my reporting.
You can’t always protect people but you can always try.
The topics you’ve covered over the last 15 years have started international conversations on health care, human dignity, the modern slave trade, and so much more. Can you speak to the need for these stories to be told deeply and broadly?
Unless we understand each other, unless we see ourselves in people half a world away, then we have no desire to help. It’s so important that journalists do their job in a way that allows us to recognize our shared humanity because without that it’s far easier to bomb and kill or even just ignore people who desperately need our help.
You were awarded the 2018 Courage in Journalism Award by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) for your continued work in war zones and health hazardous areas of the world – congratulations, and thank you for your work! What drives you to pursue truth despite the adversity you’ve encountered?
I love my job. I love being there and getting to see things for myself. It’s a privilege to be trusted by the people you meet to tell their stories, and when you get that right and it impacts their lives for the better, it’s an amazing thing.
How have you found journalism to be empowering to both you and the communities you report on?
Incredibly so. I find myself meeting people in utterly dire situations and I am amazed by their resilience. It helps me remember that there is something about us as humans that almost always finds the will to survive.
What advice do you have for women aspiring for a career in journalism?
Just go for it. Too often women second guess themselves or are too humble about what they bring to the table. Apply for everything, figure out your “value added.” Where can you get access to that others can’t? What communities, what countries? What insight do you have that others don’t, and apply, apply, apply.
How are women changing the journalism scene?
What’s been so refreshing to hear in the time I spent with the IWMF is this belief that without equal female participation we can’t say journalism truly is doing the work of representing a democratic and free society. Because democracy should mean that all voices are heard, and when women speak up, then you get to see where work still needs to be done. It’s not intentional but, for example, a man who hasn’t seen firsthand the uphill climb of a woman entering the workplace or returning to the workplace often won’t have the same perspective on structural inequities.
In conservative societies, the access that women gain inside homes allows us to often tell more nuanced stories, to fully represent what communities are going through. Sometimes just the sheer fact of how often we’re underestimated as women allows us to slip through where men have been blocked. All of these viewpoints and voices contribute to our understanding of the realities on the ground.
What work still needs to be done in empowering women in journalism?
Acknowledging structural inequities, acknowledging the unconscious bias that allows editors to more often send equally untested young men to war zones rather than their female counterparts. Acknowledging that it’s not yet a level playing field.
You’ve gained many of these accolades while a mother, directly confronting the misconception that a woman’s career will decline if she chooses to invest in her family. What do you hope your success teaches your son?
That seeking fulfillment in the work you do isn’t a luxury, that you have the right to want to do something you love that’s meaningful. Only you get to decide if something is worth all the hard work and the sacrifice because, in the end, you’re the one living with the consequences. That doesn’t mean it won’t be bloody hard but hopefully, it’ll be worth it.
Seeking fulfillment in the work you do isn’t a luxury, that you have the right to want to do something you love that’s meaningful.
How have you handled being a career journalist and also a parent?
My husband and I have a lot of extraordinary help. We have a nanny and one of my sisters lives with us, with the other one only a few minutes down the road. I feel incredibly lucky to know that he’s looked after and adored by people I love. It’s still hard to leave him, but it’s made a little easier with the knowledge that he’s happy and healthy.
What does balancing that time and energy look like for you?
I’m not sure there is a perfect answer to that. I’m mostly just tired a lot! I try and not go away for longer than two weeks in one go, even if that means coming back for really short periods in between. Otherwise, it’s just too long for both of us.
When I’m home, I try to not feel guilty about getting some rest or meeting friends but, to be honest, I usually do and I’m very aware that heading to the gym or sleeping in means time away from him. It’s very much a work in progress, but I try and think what advice I’d give a friend to stop her from feeling bad.
Has your international upbringing and more recent travel experience influenced your parenting at all?
One thing moving around a lot teaches you is that you have no choice but to dive right in, and I want that for Ali. I want him to be independent and comfortable anywhere so I try and take him home to Sudan as often as I can to stay close to that part of his life.
We also received a beautifully illustrated book of children’s stories based on verses from the Quran and I sing the same Arabic bedtime song my mother sang to me. It’s always a little bittersweet because it reminds me how far away I am from my own parents back home in Sudan, but Ali loves it.
He uses the Arabic baby talk word for sleep when he’s ready for bed, which is lovely. Our house in London is always full of visitors and family and he’s already really open to new people, so I hope he’ll have the confidence to go off on his own adventures one day.
There is no bottom to sorrow. There is never any getting used to it. It’s a reminder of how we as human beings are fundamentally the same. No matter how much or how little we have, we all grieve in the face of loss.
Have your priorities changed because of other perspectives you’ve encountered?
I’m often asked whether people in war zones ever get inured to loss, whether tragedy can ever become less heartbreaking, and that’s been the biggest lesson for me. There is no bottom to sorrow. There is never any getting used to it. It’s a reminder of how we as human beings are fundamentally the same. No matter how much or how little we have, we all grieve in the face of loss.
What is your biggest insecurity as a mother?
That we’ve been successful in creating this incredibly self-sufficient little person who doesn’t really need me. Just whoever is at hand to feed and clothe him! Madness, I know, but still I think it’s every working mother’s insecurity.
What’s been your favorite moment from motherhood thus far?
When he began being able to toddle alongside me in the park and would hold my hand. A close second is the first time he said “oh, dear” in a near-perfect mimic of my inflection.
Nima Elbagir is The Everymom…
Country you’ll be traveling to next: Back to the States.
Favorite way to end a long day? Ice cream in bed.
Journalist you most admire? My father.
Last book you read? I’m reading One Goal: A Coach, a Team and the Game that Brought a Divided Town Together by Amy Bass.
Best meal in the UK? A full Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding and lots of gravy.
Sudan? My mother’s traditional pancakes with Golden Syrup and melted Butter ghee (you can try and fancy it up with real honey, but Golden Syrup reminds me of my childhood).