What’s next for the rest of the Somalis trapped in this Himalayan waiting room?
A great question that launched Deepak Adhikari’s journalism career and set him apart as the man in Nepal for publications such as Time, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, AFP and The Caravan.
With a school teacher for a father who occasionally edited a weekly newspaper, Deepak at an early age grew an interest in journalism. However, a troubled newspaper industry forced him to leave Nepal and work in the UAE as a migrant worker at McDonalds. After four years, yet undiscouraged, he returned to his home country, where “there was nothing else to do” but write.
Since then, he has covered the Somali refugee community for Time, the Nepali energy crisis, and produced a 10,000 word profile on Nepal’s revolutionary Maoist leader Prachanda.
We spoke with HackPack member Deepak Akhikari to learn what it is like being a full-time freelancer and share the lessons he’s learned.
How did you make your big break onto the global scene?
It wasn’t until 2009 that I hit my first big break, writing a piece for Time magazine about Somali refugees in Kathmandu.
It was largely thanks to Scott Carney, an American investigative journalist working in southern India at the time. We had previously been in touch because I wrote a blog about kidney smuggling in Nepal and Carney was covering the same topic in India. Then one day, Carney encouraged me to reach out to Time and pitch a story. I had doubted my own capabilities, but Carney had faith in me. He shared contacts for Jyoti Thottam, Time’s South Asia Bureau Chief, and I sent a bunch of ideas. She liked the Somali refugees idea, so I created a copy but it wasn’t really that good. But she was patient with me, gave me advice on how to restructure and write the story. I worked on it further, we published and I haven’t looked back ever since.
How do you survive as a freelancer?
It was only in early 2014 that I decided to leave AFP and work full-time as a freelancer.
Since then, there have been a number of major stories that kept me busy. In early 2014, an avalanche on Everest that I covered for People magazine and a few others. And an earthquake last year.
However, between the major stories, I have been fortunate enough to receive three fellowships focusing on the militarization of women and water issues between Nepal and India.
In the first one, funded by Panos South Asia, I focused on the militarization of women. For it, I produced five features on female fighters as well as a 5,000 word profile of the female commander that comes out in July as a chapter in a book by all 12 fellows.
The Asia Foundation and The Third Pole funded the second fellowship where I focused on water issues between Nepal and India. India is planning on investing in Sapta Koshi dam that will affect many local people, temples, homes and livelihoods. The funding allowed me to travel throughout Eastern Nepal and speak with the people protesting the dam’s construction and produce a two part series for The Third Pole.
The fellowships also allow me to travel outside Kathmandu. There is hardly any budget to pay freelancers for travel, and there are a lot of expenses once you go outside Kathmandu: transport, food, lodging. All these are very expensive. And all the stories that I traveled for were only thanks to fellowships.
What about side jobs or fixing?
In the past couple of years, I fixed for magazine journalists from Outside and Men’s Journal to learn the craft. I was hoping to see how good writers interview their sources, what observations they make etc. I also fixed for a journalist with Der Spiegel, the German magazine.
I don’t fully enjoy that type of work because I want to be the guy writing the story, not a fixer. But I’m happy to do it, if I believe I can learn something from them. Plus the pay can be quite good.
Talking about money, have you ever not been paid?
I have written for several publications in India, and getting paid can be the most difficult part. But I always make sure that I’m paid. I don’t want to be the guy who accepts not being paid. Sometimes it takes an entire year, but I’ve always been paid.
Why do you think payment issues occur?
There are a lot of political problems between India and Nepal. Many commissioning editors say that it is very difficult to send money to Nepal because banks won’t permit it or there are too many bureaucratic processes.
But in general, the problem is that an editor commissions you a piece. Then the accounting department pays you. They may be in cubicles next to each other, but I would say they never meet one another. There’s very small chance of me talking to people in the account section because I normally deal with the editors.
What has been most difficult about being a freelancer?
The unanswered emails.
I live in Nepal and most of my editors are in London or New York where there is a major time difference. It may be morning for me, but the editor is already tired and may not want to see any more emails.
But I can’t pick up a phone and call or meet him or her for a coffee or tea to talk about my ideas.
I spend a lot of time finding the right idea for the right editor. You have to investigate to produce a full pitch. I have already invested my time, so if it doesn’t find a home, then I am already at a loss.
How do you get around the time zone issue?
I try to send on Monday since they are back from the weekend and fresh. I don’t want to send on Friday when they are already bogged down at work. I try to do the same with Twitter. I customize according to their time zones and I post in the evening or morning, not during the daytime here because they are sleeping there.
But when there is a copy coming, I’m working by their schedule, not mine. I work with editors in Hong Kong which is ahead of Nepal time. If a copy comes, then it will be the middle of the night. I will focus on that, work on it because I know my editors want it quickly.
The more problematic are power outages that can be up to 15 hours a day. We just don’t have enough electricity, especially during the winter. During the day, I’m at the office where there is a backup generator and constant Internet. But in the morning or evening when I’m at home, this can cause problems.
Have you ever been caught working without electricity?
Yes, I’m often at home and there is a power outage. If it is a small query, then I’ll just use my phone. But it is expensive. Plus you can’t sit on a phone and do track changes.
What story do you really want to cover?
Right now I want to write about water scarcity. There was an earthquake, which created massive upheaval on the geology, damaging aquifers and water sources. The El Nino induced drought has further compounded the problem.
Many people in rural areas are suffering. I don’t want to go to just one place and write about it, but do an entire narrative of what is happening across the region and to write about the big picture issue.
I’m dying to do that.
Connect with Deepak today through HackPack and expand your opportunities!
Deepak Adhikari is a Kathmandu-based freelance journalist. In a career spanning over a decade and half, he has covered socio-political issues of Nepal including human rights, environment, hydropower, tourism, and mountaineering.
His work has appeared in New York Times, Time magazine, The Caravan magazine, Himal South Asian magazine, Al Jazeera English, Nikkei Asian Review magazine, among others.