Lola (Akinmade) Akerstrom is a freelance writer with travel and documentary photography experience on six continents. Her work has appeared in numerous reputable publications, online and in print, including: Vogue, BBC, National Geographic Traveler, Travel Channel’s World Hum, San Francisco Chronicle, Forbes Traveler, Sherman’s Travel, Fodors.com, ISLANDS Magazine, United’s Hemispheres, AFAR, Guardian UK’s Been There, Smithsonian.com, CITY Magazine, The Away Network, Transitions Abroad, and The Matador Network. A creative IT professional with over fourteen years of experience in providing enterprise solutions, she has finally embraced her preferred passion. When Quark Expeditions, foremost polar adventure tour operator announced its search for a blogger to follow its 20th anniversary expedition to the North Pole, her entry was the very first one submitted, but she eventually missed the top 5 by three votes. In this exclusive interview with BN Editorial Assitant, Gbenga Awomodu, Lola talks about her North Pole dreams, GIS career, marriage to her Scandinavian husband, travel writing & photography, and lots more. Enjoy!
Tell us a bit about yourself and childhood dreams
Born and raised in Nigeria, I moved to the US a few months before turning 16 to start college. After college, I worked in the IT consulting industry as a GIS developer for close to 15 years before finally moving to Sweden in 2009. I now work as a freelance writer, photographer, and editor for many publications (both print and online). I’ve always loved geography since I was very little. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I’d be blessed to be able to travel as I do. And it’s this same passion, wanderlust, and faith that makes me truly believe that the North Pole is within reach for me. [*GIS – Geographic Information Systems. Think technology like Google Maps and GPS.]
You recently lost a spot in the top 5 in a contest to travel to the North Pole. How did you feel when you found out you had only missed the spot by just three votes?
Extremely shocked; because it was just by 3 votes and I knew a few friends had procrastinated. Had I made the Top 5, deep down, I knew I had a very strong shot at being selected based on the essays submitted as well as the competition rules. There was a little bit of drama after as the company started investigating how some competitors managed to get so many votes within the very last hour. Going to the North Pole wasn’t about gimmicks for me. This was something I’d always dreamed about and had promised myself that I would accomplish one day. Reaching the North Pole would have been very symbolic for me.
Despite the loss, you collated a very long list of names of people who supported or canvassed for votes for you. Why did you do that?
Beyond the shock, most importantly I was humbled. Extremely humbled that thousands of people took time out to vote, show support by writing about it (including BellaNaija), and leave words of encouragement from all over the globe. It really was a no-brainer for me. If someone took a few minutes out of their busy lives to vote for me, the least I could do is show genuine gratitude and acknowledge them personally and that’s why I compiled the massive “Thank You” letter.
How did you venture into travel writing and photography?
I’ve always been a traveler and come from a family that loves to travel. As for the writing part, I used to pen short fictional stories back in boarding school in Nigeria. It wasn’t until 2002 when I got an opportunity to volunteer with the Eco-Challenge expedition race in Fiji that I was able to combine my love for travel and writing. As a field journalist, my job was to write up daily narratives, interviews, and press releases, sharing the experiences in remote Fiji with the rest of the world on a daily basis.
How do you manage a career in GIS alongside being a travel writer and photographer?
On October 2009, I resigned from a fantastic and comfortable job as a GIS System Architect; a field in which I’ve worked for 14+ years. It wasn’t easy, but I knew it was the right thing to do. Besides relocating to Sweden, it was time to personally pursue the more creative aspects of my life. While both my degrees are in Information Systems, those creative parts (writing, photography, and painting) are more me than the logical, analytical parts. So right now, I work as a freelance travel writer and photographer fulltime. That doesn’t mean I’ll never return to GIS in the future, but if I ever do, it would be in a more limited role.
What is your fascination with the cold regions of the world?
It may appear that way, but I’d call it coincidental due to my recent North Pole bid and the fact that I live in Scandinavia – relatively one of the coldest regions on earth. In general, I’m usually intrigued by experiences, people, cultures, and traditions that seem to be the direct opposite of where I’m from. The anthropological side of me wants to understand how cultures intrinsically operate, how they’re similar to mine, and to fully understand why they’re different and to respect why they have to be different. I happen to live in Sweden because I’m married to a Swede. Living through months of dark bitingly cold winters wasn’t my first choice, but love has a way of making you adapt for its sake.
Your husband is a Swede. Considering the views some African parents have about interracial relationships, how did your parents and siblings feel when you told them about him?
I’m so blessed to come from an open-minded family that’s pretty mixed (uncles and aunts from various cultures and races) so the fact that he is white wasn’t an issue. I have Nigerian friends whose families have boycotted their interracial weddings. The funniest statement came from my father who’s an avid traveler. He said, “If he was Italian, then I’d know what we’re getting into, but he’s Scandinavian. I don’t know too much about them.” This also hints at the general knowledge of Scandinavians being a lot more reserved and more difficult to crack than other Western Europeans.
From your observation, what factors favour inter-racial and cross-cultural marriages? (What is the effect of educational level of relatives in being permissive and agreeable to such a decision?)
For me personally, having a common set of values (in my own case, Christian faith-based values) is the most important when heading into an interracial or cross-cultural marriage. You need to have solid core values to fall back on when challenges (and there will be many!) arise in terms of race and culture. There also has to be mutual respect for each other’s background and cultural ideals. If my husband wasn’t willing to prostrate fully at our traditional wedding in front of my family, I’d have had second thoughts. The education level of relatives has no bearing whatsoever. I know PhD holders who are staunch traditionalists and would never let a Yoruba person marry an Igbo person, talk less of someone from a different race.
How often do you visit Nigeria and what are your thoughts concerning the upcoming elections?
I visit Nigeria 1-2 times every year to visit family as well as do some photojournalism work there. Ideally, I’d like to be home more often to work on innovative projects, but I’m married and live in Sweden now. To pull out the Yoruba traditionalist in me, I need to make my home where my husband is. Shamefully, I haven’t been following the elections as closely as I should be doing. I’m willing to vote for whoever makes (not just promises) solving our energy and electricity problem #1 priority. Once Nigeria can get stable and steady electricity, everything else will naturally flourish – infrastructure, education, transportation, and healthcare.
You are an editor with Matador Goods, a division of Matador Network. What is Matador all about and how did you get involved in the initiative?
It wasn’t until late 2006 to early 2007 that I discovered a budding travel community called Matador Travel at the time. I created a profile, was active within the community, and finally pitched an article idea to senior editor, David Miller, who was willing to take a chance on my work and mentor me through the editorial process. Now known as Matador Network, in just 4 years, it has become the largest and most dynamic independently-owned online travel magazine and community out there. The Matador Network is comprised of eleven thematic blogs, ranging from sports, gear, and nightlife to studying and living abroad, destination pieces, and social and environmental aspects of travel with an average of 1.6 million unique viewers and 2.3 million page views per month. It also has an online video portal, MatadorTV, runs the award-winning MatadorU which teaches travel writing and photography, and has recently launched its print magazine – BETA.
What advice would you share with young/new writers who want to earn a living through (travel) writing and photography in the near future?
I always get emails from people asking for advice. Travel writing is a field that sounds more glamorous than it actually is. It certainly is not as lucrative as most other jobs, but there’s a certain fulfillment one gets from exploring the world and sharing one’s experiences with others. It’s never too late to start living one’s passions. My advice would be to first pinpoint exactly what you’d like to focus on first. Is it writing? photography? videography? There are many ways to get paid to travel and check out this list of 67 different potential travel-related jobs. If it’s writing or photography, I’d advise you to consider enrolling in one of MatadorU’s travel media courses which will teach you the practicalities of being a travel writer and/or photography including ways to generate income and gradually make a living from it. You can read some of our students’ success stories. In terms of breaking into travel writing, you need to start reading and don’t stop. You could start a blog and develop your online presence, whilst you still build your network offline too. Travel. There are stories everywhere. Look for them! And the last piece of advice – don’t quit your day job if you’ve got personal responsibilities that need to be attended to. Start writing and photographing on the side until you gain enough traction to quit said day job.
What should we be expecting from Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström next?
I’m extremely grateful to God for His infinite blessings in my life and I strive to live each day with gratitude. I currently take things day by day, and opportunity by opportunity. I foresee a lot more traveling, writing, and photography in my life and hope to take my work to the very next level in terms of reach, value, and relevance. I also plan on continuing working with more nonprofits and NGOs as a photojournalist documenting their projects in various countries around the world. As an artist and cartoonist, I hope to carve out time to work and grow these aspects as well. And of course, I’d love to go to the North Pole someday!
Any other thing you would like to share with our esteemed BN readers?
If there’s one key message I’d love to share with fellow Nigerians and Africans, it’s to collectively redefine our definition of “success.” No doubt everyone wants to be financially successful and it seems that’s the expected track for most Nigerians: School -> job -> money -> house + car + wife/husband. So, you’re left with millions of people living in miserable situations because that’s what is expected of them. By focusing first on doing what you love and are naturally good at, you’ll begin to discover your true passions and sphere of influence. My parents let us (my siblings and I) be free to discover ourselves, talents, and natural inclinations, and for this, I’m truly grateful.
*Lola Akinmade blogs at http://www.lolaakinmade.com and Sweden’s official website – http://blogs.sweden.se/photo
Gbenga Awomodu is an Editorial Assistant at Bainstone Ltd./BellaNaija.com. When he is not reading or writing, Gbenga is listening to good music or playing the piano. He believes in the inspirational power of words and pictures, which he explores in helping to make the world a better place. He blogs at Gbenga’s Notebook (www.gbengaawomodu.com).