Later this month first lady Michelle Obama will travel to South Africa and Botswana as part of her Young Africa initiative, which she will be announcing tonight on 106 & Park. Documenting the trip every step of the way will be the acclaimed journalist Lola Ogunnaike. A former pop culture correspondent for CNN, Ogunnaike's writing has appeared in publications like The New York Times, VIBE and Harpers' Bazaar. She will be producing a half-hour special for BET about the first lady's historic trip, which she anticipates will be a major highlight of her journalistic career. We chatted with her hours before the big announcement, and the excitement was palpable.
BET: You did some interviews at the White House when you were at CNN, right?
Lola Ogunnaike: Correct.
Have you ever interviewed Michelle Obama before?
No, I’ve never interviewed her before. But I interviewed Desiree Rogers, who was her former social secretary. That was an amazing experience. I grew up in Northern Virginia and after church every Sunday in D.C. we’d pass the White House on the way home. Just being in the East Wing was sort of a full-circle moment for me.
I can imagine. So how did you first hear about this Young Africa project?
I was approached by BET, and they had me at “hello.”
What appealed to you most about the idea?
Well, for one, I’m a young African. I’m a proud Nigerian. The opportunity to interview Michelle Obama was obviously something that I couldn’t pass up. And then to interview her on the continent? I’m sure it’s going to be one of the most amazing experiences in my journalism career.
Wow. That’s a pretty big statement.
You can’t imagine. We have an African in the White House. So to be with his wife on the continent, I can’t even put into words just how amazing and how powerful that is for someone like me, who also grew up with a funny sounding last name.
Were you born in Nigeria?
I was born and raised in Virginia. My parents are Nigerian and my husband’s Nigerian.
You write for some African publications as well, right?
Yes, I have a column in Arise magazine that’s just about my life. You can guess what I’m going to be writing about next, right?
How strong do you feel the ties are between Africa and America?
Historically there’s always been a strong connection between Africans and African-Americans. If you think about the anti-apartheid movement, African-American’s were actively involved in helping to end apartheid.
That was a turning point when young Americans felt that connection with Africa very strongly and got involved on college campuses.
Absolutely. This is sort of a random pop culture reference, but A Different World, one of my favorite shows growing up, had a South African foreign exchange student. And he spoke about apartheid regularly; that was essentially the point of his character. Music artists committed themselves to the cause as well. African-Americans couldn’t stomach watching Jim Crow happening in another country.
What do you think will be the significance of the first lady's visit for Africans?
I can only imagine that they’d be thrilled to have someone like the first lady come to speak with them about everything from health to wellness to education. She’s an inspiring figure. She’s a woman who has clearly benefitted from a stellar education in the U.S. She’s gone to the leading schools. The president’s gone to the country’s leading schools too. She’s someone who not only truly believes in the importance of education, but she’s a testament to how it can change your life--how it can take you from the South Side of Chicago to the White House.