I’m not a trained journalist, but I had a great voice and the camera loved me
As CNN turned 40 this week, Nairobi correspondent Farai Sevenzo, who has had more than two decades covering Sub-Saharan Africa as a documentary filmmaker and broadcaster in radio and TV spoke to Nairobi News, on how he ended up working for the biggest broadcasters in the world despite not being a trained journalist.
Nairobi News: You are a filmmaker and journalist, which came first?
Sevenzo: I was a filmmaker before I became a journalist. I was two years out of the UK’s National Film and Television School where I studied writing and directing for for years before I became a radio journalist covering Africa.
Given a chance, of the two which one would you drop in a heartbeat and why?
Neither. Africa has always been at the heart of my creative and journalism work and the two feed off each other.
Born in Zimbabwe, you left collage, the continent and now you cover Sub-Saharan Africa, what brought you back?
I have always come back. Africa is what I’ve always been interested in. I even came to Kenya after two massive bombs took out US Embassies in Dar and Nairobi to talk to survivors and gauge the mood. I’ve covered elections in Zambia, Zimbabwe – AIDS in Malawi, the trial of Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone. Bakili Muluzi then president of Malawi gave my film crew and I a lift on his plane to attend Mzee Nyerere’s funeral. Always on a plane, always headed to an African city.
Professionally you are not a journalist, what pushed you to get into the profession?
You’re right. I was never trained as a journalist, but I was curious about my continent and could tell a good story and interpret the facts. Plus I had a great voice and the camera loved me.
You’ve been doing this for more than two decades, what has been the best and worst experience?
Difficult to say. I tend to treat the best and the worst just the same – it’s a developing continent full of excesses of cruelty and kindness. I spoke to the survivors of the Lord Resistance Army in northern Uganda once and it was harrowing. I’ve also seen much violence in African elections. And incredible determination by African people to improve themselves despite their politicians failings. It’s best not to dwell on best and worst and keep my sanity.
Has social media affected the way people receive their news and how has it affected you?
I’m old fashioned in this respect and tend to read real newspapers and I’m rarely active on social media. But yes, it has changed the way ordinary people view the news and has led to erroneous belief by some that a few characters typed on Twitter makes them reporters.
Which stories would you say if I got a call now I will pack, go and redo it again?
None. I’m confident my teams and I told the story well the first time and history will back us up.
Memorable story that has stayed with you since you started this journey?
Too many to mention. Covering Cyclone Idai in Beira Mozambique brought the reality of climate change right up close for me, but there have been so many others.
CNN is such a big and influential media organization. It must be very challenging to work for such an institution?
I don’t think it’s a challenge. I believe I belong amongst the best journalists in the world. This is a collection of professionals from all nationalities who have worked for some of the best media outlets in the world and they’ve made me feel I belong. My CNN colleagues and I have won some of the most prestigious awards in journalism and look at the current stories we’re covering – I’d say this network is at the forefront of that coverage with our colleagues being arrested live on air and our anchors covering every angle to the debacle in the States over George Floyd. The challenge is to keep doing it, come rain or shine, war or peace.
What will you remember most about your stint in Kenya?
Before the lockdown and Coronavirus, there isn’t a corner of Nairobi I didn’t have a beer in. As an Arsenal fan I watched my football in Kinoo, Mathare, Kariobangi, Dandora – all the places not even Kenyan journalists hang out in. I’ll remember the welcome of the poorest, the generosity of those who truly belief that there is nothing like too little to share.
Zimbabwe has not been faring very well in the world media recently. What kind of politics is going on down there and how are journalists affected?
Journalists have always been treated with disdain in some countries, and on balance, the country of my birth has been no exception. But it is also fair to say that the world media has not treated the issues at stake in Zimbabwe – land ownership mainly – with as much balance as they ought to. But then speaking as a reporter it is difficult to strike a balance when your country men and women are being abducted and brutalised throughout successive regimes.
What documentaries are you working on at the moment?
None. I feel every piece I do for television is a kind of documentary. But I am returning to my first love of writing screenplays. Africa and the world have changed so much over the last decade, I’m creating characters to reflect those changes in various stories.