Nellie Peyton (‘06) reports on human rights and development as the West Africa Correspondent for the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Her career has taken her all over the world, researching significant issues ranging from water access to women’s rights. Her recent work has taken her to mining towns in Sierra Leone and displacement camps in Burkina Faso. Nellie describes her French classes at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s as the springboard for her focus on French postcolonial literature at Princeton, which led her to Paris’s Sciences Po, and ultimately to reporting in West Africa. “St. Hilda’s was definitely the start of it all because it gave me my love of French,” she says. Her advice to current St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s students, “If you have the chance, go abroad. You might be surprised what you discover.”
Can you describe your current role? What are you working on now?
I’m the West Africa Correspondent for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, where I’m part of a global team of journalists covering human rights and development. I live in Dakar, Senegal, but cover news from all 25 countries in West and Central Africa. I love my job because the Foundation goes beyond what a lot of news organizations cover—they don’t only want stories about war and famine but also let me write about urbanization, innovation, feminism, and more.
I’m currently planning a trip to Chad to report on inequality and the impact of the Boko Haram insurgency, which is in its 10th year. This summer I went to Sierra Leone to write stories on women’s rights, water access, and the impact of Chinese mining on local communities.
What has been your favorite story to report on?
My favorite story I wrote recently was about a popular TV show in Senegal that people have compared to Sex and the City. It shows women being independent in a way that is pretty radical here, and I interviewed the lead actress about how she hopes it will help spur change.
The most interesting place I’ve been was probably Mauritania, an Islamic Republic just north of Senegal that hardly ever gets covered. The country is trying to shake off a legacy of hereditary, caste-based slavery, so I interviewed former slaves and wrote about the challenges of that.
What did you study at Princeton? What led you to Sciences Po and how was your experience there?
I studied comparative literature at Princeton, mainly focusing on French postcolonial literature from Africa and the Caribbean. I also took a few journalism classes and decided towards the end of college that it was something I might want to pursue.
After Princeton I did a master’s degree in journalism and international affairs at Sciences Po, in Paris, which for me was one step closer to Senegal. I knew I wanted to live and work abroad, and I did a lot of my reporting during grad school on African immigrant communities in Paris. I had a long period of thinking about moving to West Africa and trying to get up the courage, and in my last semester I came to visit Dakar, met some journalists and asked if anyone would hire me (and Reuters did!).
When did you know you wanted to be a reporter?
I was pretty hesitant about being a reporter, even when I started journalism school. I knew I wanted to be some kind of writer, and thought about pursuing a more academic career. But what decided it for me was that I wanted more real-world experience—I loved going out and talking to people whom I wouldn’t meet otherwise and telling their stories. When I tried covering breaking news I discovered that I really liked it.
How did St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s influence your career path? Were there any teachers or classes in particular that shaped you?
St. Hilda’s was definitely the start of it all because it gave me my love of French. When people ask why I ended up in Senegal I always say that it is because I was obsessed with French from the age of 11, which later led me to study colonialism, African politics, etc. I started learning it in the fifth grade with [former faculty member Cynthia] Crumlish, who was a fantastic teacher. Thanks to her I was able to start taking literature classes as soon as I got to Phillips Exeter Academy.
What advice would you give current St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s students?
If you have the chance, go abroad. I always loved being in a foreign environment, which I know isn’t for everyone, but you might be surprised what you discover.
You can read Nellie’s articles here.