Telling Different Narratives: Allyn Gaestel ‘09
The writer based in Lagos, Nigeria, reports on topics as varied as women's health, trauma, and fashion aesthetics and freelances for publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times.
After her sophomore year, Allyn Gaestel ’09 was awarded a summer internship in Mali, sponsored by the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. When she arrived in the West African nation, she was shocked.
It was nothing like she had imagined. American publications she had read had failed to capture the rich complexity of the country more often portrayed as backward.
The stories “did not reflect reality,” she says. “That continued to be my experience.”
Now a writer based in Lagos, Nigeria, Gaestel, 31, spoke about her work during a September visit to campus to give a Distinguished Visitors Program lecture.
Gaestel, who was a political science major and French minor at Haverford, said she seeks not only to tell different narratives, but to do so in different ways. She reports on topics as varied as women’s health, trauma, and fashion aesthetics, freelancing for publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The New York Times. A piece she wrote for online-only publication the Atavist Magazine chronicled the international-headline-making Makoko Floating School in Lagos, from its design by a Venice Biennale-feted architect to its collapse a few years after construction. She also makes artistic photographs that have been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Leipzig, Germany, among others.
In her campus talk, titled “The Center of the World Is Everywhere,” Gaestel reflected on journalism, the “violence” of Western-centered narratives, and attempts to broaden conceptions of truth. “The way we narrate the rest of the world is just wrong, generally,” Gaestel said.
For her work, Gaestel immerses herself in a place and its people, often for weeks, “until I understand the internal logic of the people I am speaking to, the ways their lives function, the contexts they exist in,” she said. “A lot of my work is about stepping back from this story of lack, of looking at the rest of the world as if it is missing what is Western.”
She also continues to confront her own biases.
In a recent Carter Center-funded project, Gaestel looked at the issues of trauma and mental health in the aftermath of conflicts with the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, which have displaced millions and killed tens of thousands. Among the issues she intended to examine was the short supply of psychologists in the country. But as she delved deeper, she realized that she was bringing to the story assumptions about Nigeria not having “all the healing structures that exist in the West.”
Instead, Gaestel decided to ask Nigerians what systems they use. Her report ended up including interviews with psychologists as well as imams studying Islamic medicine, and took in the exorcism of djinns (supernatural beings) and the work of herbalists.
Raised in Los Angeles, Gaestel credits Haverford College—and its ethos of humility—with offering a strong foundation on which to build her career, to be “open and permeable, to be changed by the places we go on a deep level.”
After graduation, Gaestel worked as a United Nations correspondent, then moved to Haiti in 2010 to report on the aftermath of the earthquake. After Haiti, she began working with documentary photographer Allison Shelley, traveling through seven countries reporting on why women continue to die in childbirth despite international efforts to improve maternal health. Since then, she has focused on long-form journalism projects funded by grants. In 2015, Gaestel moved to Nigeria after falling in love “with its energy.”
A favorite story of hers, which recently won a Stack Award for best original nonfiction, follows the supply chain of the country’s knockoff designer streetwear known as Versage and the unique Nigerian aesthetic of the fake Versace threads, while also examining the impact of globalization.
Like all her work, it is another example of Gaestel’s single-minded purpose: to “let more and more of our stories,” she said, “reflect the complexity of our reality.”