In 2008, 24-year-old aspiring journalist Jay Bahadur left behind his market research job in Chicago and set off for Africa's far coast to get the scoop on Somalian pirates. Three years later, he's not only lived to tell the tale but written about it in his new book, The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World.
Recently, TakePart caught up with the Toronto-based author to ask him what he learned from infiltrating the shadowy underworld of modern piracy.
TakePart: Much has been made of your age when you went to Somalia. Looking back, do you think it worked to your advantage?
Jay: I think my age is definitely part of the book's marketing angle, and that was something on which I was counting when I began seriously planning to write it. The idea of a young and naive man, setting off alone to make his career (or die trying!) is a very appealing motif.
TakePart: You mention in the book that many locals bristled at being called "pirates" by the foreign media. As a Westerner, how did you ultimately earn their trust?
Jay: Most of the pirates I dealt with belonged to the same sub-clan as my local journalist partner, as well as his father, Puntland President Abdirahman Farole. As the guest of the de facto head of their clan, my hand was stamped, and most of the pirates were willing to grant me an audience. It helped as well that members of the main gang I was interviewing had recently renounced their pirating past, and were actively campaigning against piracy in partnership with local religious leaders. They were like ex-cons who had found Jesus, eager to let the world know that they had been saved.
TakePart: How legitimate are claims that the pirates are merely protecting their coastline from illegal foreign fishing?
Jay: In the book, I refer to the illegal fishing defense as "a justification that has become a rationalization." It is true that many of the original pirates were former fishermen, including the majority of the men I interviewed in Somalia, but the early pirates were by no means exclusively fishermen. These days, it's the rare pirate who has ever caught a fish in his life, and it is estimated that fewer than 7 percent of pirate attacks target fishing vessels. But every pirate within earshot of a reporter continues to spout the fishing defense, some with barely a straight face.
TakePart: Having been one of the relative few journalists to step foot in Somalia, what, if anything, do you think is missing from the media's coverage of the current famine and cholera outbreak there?
Jay: It's hard for me to say, since I'm not currently on the ground, and have never been to southern Somalia (where the effects of the famine are much more pronounced). That being said, I think the media's coverage of Al-Shabaab's role in creating the famine (by denying access to humanitarian organizations) is very simplistic, and ignores the ideological divisions over the response to the crisis that have split Shabaab's leadership at the highest levels. But this shortcoming is not specific to coverage of the famine; in general, the media's portrayal of Shabaab is not very nuanced, tending to view it through the lens of the War on Terror: as a uniform, monolithic organization, hell-bent on establishing a global caliphate. It's not at all that clear-cut.
TakePart: What advice do you have for other young, aspiring journalists looking for adventure?
Jay: Thumbing my nose at journalism school certainly worked in my case, but I was also very lucky. For some reason, there were very few Western journalists reporting on the piracy story from within Somalia, and none who spent as much time in the country as I did; to a large degree, I was able to "corner the market" on Somali piracy. For aspiring journalists looking to follow that route, I would encourage them to aim to carve out a similar niche; become the go-to expert on a given topic. And you have to be willing to put yourself in danger. Lacking any professional experience, one of the few advantages you can offer editors is a willingness to go where many established journalists won't.