Learning from African Storytelling: In Conversation with Jacky Habib
Ever dreamed of starting a socially responsible and engaged travel company? Jacky Habib did, so she created New Lens Travel. In addition to running trips to Africa, New Lens Travel helps African writers and artists tell their stories. Jacky both runs the company and works as a journalist, all the while traveling the world. Her story is truly inspiring.
Tell us about your dual career as a journalist and manager of non-profit companies.
I’ve known for a while that I wanted a career that would combine my communication skills with my desire to make a social impact. In university, I studied journalism and nonprofit management, so I had a solid academic background but wasn’t sure how this would translate into the “real world” and what my career would look like. Over the years, I’ve been getting a better picture of it. Work contracts have taken me to some interesting places and I’ve been able to pursue both working in the media industry and in the social impact space, so I’m very thankful for that.
What kind of journalism do you do, and what kind of social enterprise projects do you work on?
My journalism work has been quite diverse. I’ve had a range of jobs, from being a radio producer in Canada to a TV reporter in Kenya and a human rights media trainer in Ghana. Now, I mostly write about social issues and global development on a freelance basis. I really enjoy this work because it allows me to meet fascinating people and share their stories with the world.
I’m also the founder of New Lens Travel, a socially responsible company that runs trips in Africa for creatives who want to learn from African storytellers. It’s a combination of a road trip, creative retreat and a social impact opportunity. We spend a lot of time learning from people who are reframing narratives about Africa to help us develop a new lens. In line with our mission, a portion of our profits are donated to media training initiatives for local youth so we can support the next generation of African storytellers.
How do you balance the two different roles?
For the most part, it’s very manageable because I can predict when I’ll be busy and I plan my schedule accordingly. For example, when I’m running a trip for New Lens Travel, I really devote myself to all aspects of putting together the program and executing the trip. During other times of the year, I’m fully immersed in my reporting work, which means I spend my time researching, conducting interviews and writing stories.
Have your two jobs ever overlapped and influenced the work you do in each one?
Definitely. When I was working in Kenya as a reporter, I got to know a fantastic journalist there named Thomas Bwire, who told me about a news hub he started in his community, Kibera, which is Africa’s most populous slum. There’s a lot of reporting about Kibera that includes misinformation, or furthers negative stereotypes about it. Thomas’s vision is to train youth in Kibera with journalism skills so that they can tell their own stories about what’s happening in their community.
I really believe strongly in this model, so when I working as a journalist in Kenya, I was able to spend a lot of time volunteering at his initiative Habari Kibra, where I mentored youth and supported them with their reporting. Now, Habari Kibra is our giveback partner at New Lens Travel. This means that when we run trips in Kenya, the profits are donated to training more young journalists in this program.
In addition to balancing both careers, we know you have traveled extensively. Tell us about how your travels influence your work in both fields.
When I travel, I always make it a habit to connect with locals (preferably even before my trip) to share and learn from their perspectives. When I was working in Kenya, I felt too comfortable in Nairobi, with my friends and work life and community involvement, so I decided to spend time in Mombasa, a beautiful coastal city known for its Swahili culture. I made it a point to be based out of a coworking space there where I met a lot of other creatives who shared their work and lives with me. It influenced me to start organizing trips there for New Lens Travel, so I could bring travellers to meet these amazing storytellers.
I also took a trip to Uganda last fall that was incredible. It was my first time in the country and I was supposed to be on vacation but ended up meeting some great journalists and we’ve been brainstorming projects to collaborate on. I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it were not for the travel experiences I’ve been privileged to have.
Tell us about a trip that changed your perspective.
When I moved to Ghana for work in 2013, it was my first time living in Sub-Saharan Africa and it was an incredible experience. I had taken university courses on global development and was reading blogs by a number of Africans and had an idea of what to expect, but some experiences I had there challenged my assumptions. For example, I remember attending a fashion show, meeting up with a network of local bloggers and spending weekends at a local smoothie bar with my best friend there who is a self-taught cartoonist.
Scenarios like this revealed to me the unconscious bias I had about my own expectations of what Ghana would be like, and it’s been an interesting journey unlearning the messages that society and pop culture tells us about Africa. This is just one example of the perspective shift I had while living there, and it’s what led me to start New Lens Travel, so I could help more travellers have similar experiences that challenge their perspectives and bias.