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Journalist Ofeibea Quist-Arcton speaks about importance of representing African women voices

Award-winning journalist and Ghanaian native Ofeibea Quist-Arcton headed to Harvard University as the most recent speaker in a series of lectures highlighting issues facing women in developing countries Thursday.

Quist-Arcton, who has spent decades reporting around the world, tackled the highs, the lows and the importance of reporting in her presentation, “(Why) Reporting the Voices of African Women and Girls Matter.”

Seats were packed, and attendants ranged in age by numerous decades. A number of them were Harvard graduates celebrating their 45th reunion, but graduate students, journalists and young professionals were also dotted throughout the crowd.

Quist-Arcton discussed the importance of highlighting the underrepresented voices. After the lecture, Marco Werman, radio host of PRI’s The World, presented on Quist-Arcton’s history as a journalist and held a brief audience Q&A session that covered a wide measure of topics from African politics to journalism.

Quist-Arcton said she felt that as a journalist she was often only hearing one side of the story. She lacked the voices of third-generation women, younger women, older women — all the women who were too busy to talk to reporters. Therefore, in her opinion, it was all the more crucial that she shared their stories.

She said in an interview that she “would go on assignments, and there was always a rush of young men coming up to the mic.”

Hassanatu Bah, 36, a Sierra-Leone native who now lives in Lowell, attended the event and said she believes that the people who have stories to tell often aren’t asked.

“The people who actually have the profound stories … they can give you a wealth of information,” Bah said. “But unfortunately, we ignore them because they’re not looking for us.”

Quist-Arcton shared a story about interviewing a 10-year-old Nigerian Scrabble genius, Angela Osaigbovo, at a Scrabble championship which she said was a traditionally male-dominated tournament.

“She totally inspired me,” Quist-Arcton said. “This 10-year-old winning competitions, absolutely mad about scrabble, determined, together.”

During her lecture, Quist-Arcton said a journalist can interview solely the “front row” of sources and write a perfectly good article, but it’s also the difference between doing what is right and what is easy. She compared this kind of writing to interviewing only the front row in an audience full of people and explained, although it is easy to get only one side, it’s not good journalism.

Michelle Johnson, a professor of journalism at Boston University, backed Quist-Arcton’s sentiment.

“If you’re covering any community and only getting one side, you’re not getting the full picture,” Johnson said. “And certainly when it comes to women in Africa, who may be sort of the rock of the economy, you certainly want their side.”

Convincing such busy women that a journalist really is interested and that people want to hear what they have to say takes time, Quist-Arcton said. The journalist said she often lives alongside them for a little while in order to approach them on a personal level.

Quist-Arcton discussed her desire to “tell Africa’s truths” rather than the exotic tragedy that Western media often stereotypes Africa as, but also not a perfect land devoid of problems. She spoke in detail about the difficulties of interviewing women who had been through sexual violence and the care and compassion that must be shown to them and their families.

Toward the end of her lecture, she called the audience’s attention to her sole visual aid — a photo of a beaming teenager in a bright dress, dancing in a crowd of other young women.

Before the photo was taken, the woman been kidnapped and separated from her family. She was eventually reunited with them, and soon she was laughing, singing and dancing with her friends.

There are no shortcuts to building the kind of relationship that will allow a reporter access to people and their sensitive, painful stories, she said.

“To be a good journalist, you need to be a good listener,” Quist-Arcton said. “When you think of all these people sharing difficult, intimate, sensitive, heartbreaking stories with journalists they hardly know, we must ensure that we represent these stories totally and tell these stories because it is such an honor and a privilege to do so.”

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