How to Work as a Video Journalist and Live a Nomadic Life in Africa

The hunger to travel and make documentaries & short films from faraway places has led Dutch Ruud Elmendorp to become a video journalist in Africa. From Angola to Zambia, he loves covering areas that are often forgotten and neglected.

In this interview, Ruud shares his life as a nomad, his best tips for new video journalists, his favorite gear, and much more!

Video Journalist Ruud Elmendorp

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Ruud Elmendorp and I am a Dutch video journalist currently in Kenya preparing trips to Tanzania and Somalia. My favourite activity is anything that has to do with producing video. Really love it, but next to that I like eating out and hanging in a club once in a while.

Think I am friendly, fun, shy, or serious depending on the moment and situation. But overall, people find me friendly and fun. Then I noticed that, even stranger, people open up easily to me. It’s often like they’re telling much more than they intended. Am good with that and in return they often find me positive and energizing. But I have my quiet moments as well.

Video Journalist Ruud Elmendorp
Video Journalist Ruud Elmendorp going live

How and why did you become a nomadic video journalist?

Becoming a nomadic video journalist was a gradual process. Around 1987, I started as a freelance journalist for local newspapers but I had this desire to travel and report from faraway places. It took me across Holland and parts of Europe. The itch to fully commit to this came in 1999 after covering the earthquake in Turkey and from then on I was aiming at getting more international assignments and I did.

Then a game changer appeared in the world of television around 2000 when affordable digital video cameras entered the market. Professional equipment was expensive those days, but with the digital revolution professional cameras came into my reach and opened the opportunity to take on the camera as well. Before that I worked with good camera people, but again there was always this desire to take on the filming too. Even remember that camera people used to ask whether I secretly had a passion for filming.

From savings, I bought a digital video camera and took it on a trip to Japan and filed three reports done with it to a television station. This made me realise I could do this and I could do it on my own.

So after some deliberation in 2001, I quit my reporter job at a TV station in Rotterdam and continued freelance. That brought me to wartime South Sudan filing on the demobilization of child soldiers. Since this was a short-term contract, I returned after to the Netherlands but found that my home country had becoming boring. So after deliberating again, I packed my bags and went to Nairobi where I had some friends. Arriving at the airport there was only my luggage and an open road. Now 15 years later, I reported from across the continent and overseas and am eager to see more.

Video Journalist Ruud Elmendorp
With friends at Lido Beach, Mogadishu, Somalia

Why is having a nomadic life important for you?

Am not sure that going nomadic changed me. Living an adventurous life just fulfilled a need. If I stay long in one place, I become restless and that trait colludes with a desire to explore the world. That journey started at young age by perusing newspapers, reading magnificent stories, later followed by travels across the Netherlands and then hitchhiking across Europe. The world is such an amazing place with beautiful people and I just want to witness that and pass on these experiences to others through stories.

What has been the best and most difficult part of being a nomad?

The opportunity to meet new people. If you live in one place it’s very easy to get locked in your own bubble. Going to the same places, seeing the same people and even doing the same things. Being a nomad lets you come in new places, meeting other people and after a while it creates bubbles of existence across the globe.

Happily, I have a home base in Kenya where I return after nomadic trips and also to maintain a rudimentary form of social life. But during trips, it can be lonely. But I have to say that social media brought a change. There are mobile data networks across Africa nowadays so it’s easy to continue the chats on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger and adding new ones. That’s a big difference with some years ago when travelling came with a total disconnect. But still when on the way there are barriers to deal with. Because in Africa most of the times you are the only white person, attracting a lot of attention. Sometimes it makes me feel like being a rock star when groups of children are following me with big smiles.

The downside of that people can start asking too much money for services or goods because they assume you are rich. And it can go the extreme. Remember I boarded a bus riding in Zambia and obviously being the one white person, one of the passengers started shouting that it was the white people whom had brought Aids to Africa. A few others joined in and a hefty argument ensued both in front and behind me. It was like the tantrums were flying over my head. Happily the majority of the passengers found it a stupid statement and the situation calmed down. Now this is rare, but one thing to take note of is that it will never change. You will keep attracting attention. So the best thing to do is to remain friendly but when tired or in a bad mood it can be overwhelming and then I can even shout. But overall, I have to say I encounter much more friendliness than harassment.

Video Journalist Ruud Elmendorp
Editing work in a cafe

Where do you live and where do you usually work as a nomad?

As a nomad, I stay in mid-range hotels and that’s where I eat as well. So the hotel has to have a bar and restaurant so that I don’t need to go out at night. Also, the room has to be quiet and have a mosquito net against malaria. There are many other things to take note of, but one interesting one is the availability of sockets. Most hotel rooms have only one socket so you need to carry a splitter to charge all your gadgets.

A typical day starts in a coffee shop that has good Wi-Fi. There I do the reading of the news and emails and research and prepare trips. Then once on trip the same pattern evolves around having meetings and do the filming. The editing starts on the way also in coffee shops or in the room. People might have wild fantasies about living a nomadic lifestyle. But in reality it is a regular life, albeit that the places change.

Video Journalist Ruud Elmendorp
Before the flight

How do you build a social life as a nomad?

There is not so much of a social life as a nomad. Of course, you meet people in the hotels, bars and lunchrooms, but it doesn’t go deep. And since I am travelling alone carrying equipment I am careful with whom I engage. So when travelling my social contacts come from the people I am doing stories on. And because of the reporting side these contacts are always special and go deep quickly.

To do a nice report, you have to go inside the head of a person and a nice way to do that is to open up towards them. So this would be my recommendation. But if you insist on a rich social life it’s better to stay in the place where you are.

How do you finance your nomadic life and how do you make and plan your stories?

My finances come from the nomadic life by producing stories and offering them to clients. The biggest expenses are equipment, transport and stay. But across Africa this is of course relatively cheap. Can’t say numbers, but it’s enough to live a comfortable life and invest in new trips.

There is a lot of love in my trips, but the stories have to be done and they have to be good for the clients. So it comes with planning. A loose planning because in Africa things can easily take an unexpected turn because of transport issues, people not showing up in time, the weather, no power, no fuel, et cetera.

Also did spontaneous trips not knowing, which stories I was going to make. That’s fun but risky because you don’t know whether the stories you meet will sell. Did that some years ago by going to South Africa with no preparation. Got out with three stories eventually and that was great. One of these stories about a woman wine maker up today didn’t sell by the way. So most of the times the trips are planned, but not too strictly.

Video Journalist Ruud Elmendorp

What kind of gear do you bring with you, and what has been your best gear purchase below $100?

Am carrying my Sony PXW-X70 video camera with me and portable light and sound. Then a MacBookPro for editing and the other work and some hard disks. This all fits in one backpack of a generic made. Can’t carry a luxurious backpack because that would look too much camera, and might interest the wrong eyes.

Really important are the cables to connect all of it and there are quite a few of them. Of course, the cables to charge your phones, hard disk cables, the cables of the charger of the camera batteries, the charger for the light. And they can easily get lost so you have to keep an eye on them.

My best gear purchase below $100 was buying 1 TB cloud storage with Dropbox for 99 USD per year. This is absolutely fantastic for a nomadic life, and immediately once you have it, it feels indispensable. Even while travelling in the bus, I can access my stuff and even do sales by sending clients a private link to a file.

What is your best advice for new nomadic video journalists?

Think there are two things important: Love what you do and be good in it.

What I see in most nomadic video journalists is that they have a lot of experience acquired by working in one place for a while and that’s where the learned the job. Then they took this experience with them on their journey. Because if you can’t do it at home you won’t be able to do it on the way. Then next to having the necessary skills you have to love your job. Because there are difficult times when not having enough clients or stories, and then it’s your love for the job that pulls you through.

The skills would be a good journalist that can work independently and fast, and you have to able to film, write scripts and edit. It take some years before you reach that level, and most nomadic VJs I met have a background of several years with an employer where they learned the job.

Video Journalist Ruud Elmendorp

What will the future bring?

Working on documentaries now and got trips planned to Tanzania and Somalia. Doing great documentaries next to short features is my current dream and mastering the storytelling for long form will surely keep me busy for many years to come.

Follow Ruud Elmendorp on his website, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.


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5 Comments

  1. Kiama bud says:

    I admire, you see, you dig, and you tell, the stories will always be there to be told be the story tellers are few. You are one and you lead…thumps up

  2. Thank you, appreciated!

  3. ronvan de rhee says:

    He Ruud,
    Verhelderend . Mooi te kunnen lezen hoe je leven eruit ziet ,Je drang om steeds weer door te reizen . Je reportages gaan altijd over de mensen die deel uit maken van een samenleving die maar weinigen begrijpen. Maar ook over de effecten op mensen van gebeurtenissen die wereldnieuws zijn totdat de grote omroepen zijn vertrokken ….. als je een moment van rust vindt in Rotterdam trakteer ik op bitterballen met veeeel mostert in WP.
    Laat weten als je daar kunt zijn . Groet
    Ron van de Rhee

  4. In dat geval schuif ik graag aan, Ruud en Ron. Je behartenswaardige woorden over het journalistieke bedrijf onderschrijf ik van harte, al is mijn journalistieke praktijk mnder avontuurlijk. Ik wens je veel mooie ontmoetingen en gebeurtenissen toe. Dat is de toegevoegde waarde van je werk.

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