“I am a village girl and i am proud of it!” That’s how award winning BBC bilingual and African Health correspondent, Anne Soyi describes herself. For a village girl from Eldoret’s Kuinet village, Anne has not done too badly for herself.
Her list of work credits include interviews with some of Africa’s biggest names such as South Sudanese British supermodel and designer Alek Wek and Kenya’s own Lupita Nyong’o.
Throw in Nobel Laureate and girls’ rights activist Malala Yousafzai and numerous heads of state such as Malawi’s Peter Mutharika, Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and you start getting the idea that no village could hold this girl back.
While Anne’s media career started rather early as a second year volunteer intern at Sayare radio while undertaking her undergraduate studies in information sciences at Moi University, her authority as a bona fide journalist was stamped when she took over the HIV/AIDS news segment, Mending the Ribbon, on KTN.
The show dissected issues sorrounding the then taboo killer disease at a time when the country was struggling to contain its spread.
“I joined KTN in 2005 and shortly after, the reporter doing the show was transferred to Eldoret. The station picked me to continue with the segment. To this day, I have no idea why I was given this responsibility,” she explains.
Never one to turn down a challenge, Anne started reading on HIV/AIDS and attending trainings on the same.
“The more research and training I undertook, the more I was able to give the jargon sorrounding the disease a human face and voice. A friend advised me to do a Masters in public health and epidemiology to get a wider understanding and perspective on the same and in 2011, I enrolled for the course at Moi University,” she explains.
Anne went on to work for KTN for seven years and picked up several awards along the way including a nominee for the UN Kenya Person of the Year Award in 2009 for her work in demystifying HIV/AIDS.
In 2010, CNN presented her with a commendation award after she was disqualified from the CNN Journalist of the Year Awards following the discovery that a story she had submitted for consideration, though impressive, was two seconds longer than what the competition required.
She said goodbye to KTN in 2012, packed her bags and left for training at the BBC’s London office after a rigorous interview saw her thrash 70 candidates for a reporter’s position with the international broadcaster.
“It was time. I needed a new challenge,” Ann explains on her exit from the local media scenes.
Reporting on the Ebola crisis and other stories
There is no doubt that the coverage of issues affecting Africa by some international media houses has many times left a bad taste in the mouths of many.
In 2014, CNN was forced to send a representative to Kenya to apologise after the hashtag #SomebodyTellCNN, trended internationally for several days. The hashtag was birthed after a CNN news segment referred to Kenya as a ‘hotbed of terror’ days before US President Barack Obama visited the country.
“For a long time, the African story has been death, disease, destruction and now corruption. While misfortunes and poor decisions are part of life, I feel obligated to tell stories from an African’s perspective.
I have grown up in Africa. I understand the culture and context under which issues arise. There is also need to report on systems that are working and progress made and more so on huge platforms like the BBC,” says Anne poignantly adding that while she appreciates being honoured for her work, awards mean little if her stories cannot inspire systems or policies to be enacted or changed.
Danger is also a very present reality for journalists, an aspect Anne knows only too well. On her first international assignment with the BBC covering Somalia, a bomb went off at an airport just hours after she arrived in the country.
“The network never forces anyone to go into a hostile environment. They also offer hostile coverage training in terms of how to react in case one’s life is in danger, how to approach security check points and so on. In the event one refuses to go to a hostile territory, they 1 are never victimised over it,” she explains.
Aside from spontaneous news encounters such as breaking news, Anne counts the decision to cover the 2014-2015 Ebola crisis among her most life-changing encounters.
“I decided to work on the story, ‘Orphans of Ebola’, after I saw a shot a colleague and I took while doing another story. The shot was of two girls looking longingly at other children play in an expansive field.
They had been forbidden from joining in the play as a result of having suffered the disease despite having fully recovered. The girls were just a small representation of hundreds of children whose parents and relatives had been wiped out by the disease.
Being a mother, I was deeply moved when I saw the photo. These children had been abandoned by society, stigmatised and discriminated against,” explains the 33-year –old.
It was a difficult and dangerous decision to reach. Anne’s family, her husband and two daughters, initially tried to convince her otherwise.
“Covering the spread of Ebola was not like covering a war-torn area. Ebola could’ve been anywhere and I probably would’ve never seen it coming. Besides, it was also an expensive affair.
Setting up a base near the epicenter of the outbreak and getting flights into the area after several airlines had cancelled flights into some parts of the region required a lot of teamwork and input. Kenya at the time had also not prepared for the crisis. What would I do in the event I got infected?” she recounts some of the things she had to think about.
Her husband, Newton Ndebu, also an editor with Chinese network CCTV explains, “Stories can sometimes be intensely personal. Journalists tend to assume they are superhuman forgetting stories can affect them adversely as well. I realised that as an editor, I was also sending out people’s wives, mothers and sisters into danger zones. It would be hypocritical to forbid Anne from going, although ultimately, it was her call to make.”
Anne counts her interview with South Sudanese British supermodel Alek Wek as among her favourites as she explains; “I read her biography before meeting her. I identified with some of her challenges. She prevailed over war, living in a foreign land and eventually went on to become an international supermodel. Interviewing her was like witnessing transformation in the flesh.”
In mid 2016, the story of Malawi’s traditional practice of Kusasa (sleeping with virgin teenage girls as a rite of passage) earned the ire of the international community after BBC covered one of the ‘hyenas’ (men who conduct the rituals) giving a glorious review of the practice. The outrage prompted Anne’s interview with Malawi’s President, Peter Mutharika, who spoke out strongly against the practice and outlined measures his government was putting in place to deal with the practice.
“The irony with the Kusasa story is that in some parts of Malawi and even Africa, it is not a taboo practice. Women and widow cleansing, although retrogressive, is a long and common practice in many societies.
This is why there was disconnect between the community’s practice and the world’s outrage. It therefore helps to have a good understanding of the context under which African issues arise. Then you are able to put a story into perspective without demonising an entire people, culture or race,” explains Anne.
No stranger to obstacles herself, Anne hit the job market at the age of 16. Her motivation, more than anything else, was the desire to incubate and fulfill her educational dreams.
Her father retired when she was in primary school and not even her mother’s salary from her civil service job could cater for all her family’s needs. Raising school fees was a constant battle and by the time she reached form four, Anne, an active extra-curricular student (she ruled the hockey, debate and public speaking clubs), had not
paid her high school fees for two years.
When she reported for her final year of high school, the principal informed her the school could not carry her along anymore and Anne was forced to spend most of the first and second terms at home. Although disheartened, she continued to tutor herself at home all the way to third term.
“I was hopeful that I would sit for the national exams because I had registered. I revised using my notes and some from a friend who had cleared from Starehe Boy’s Centre the previous year,” she reveals. A neighbour aghast at what she saw as futile attempts by Anne constantly asked her to give up reading and take up tailoring instead. Fiercely optimistic, Anne continued to study.
“I always deflected their suggestions by saying there was no need to lower the school’s mean score by performing poorly. However, one day I went to school out of sheer frustration.
When I saw the principal, I couldn’t muster enough strength to ask her to allow me back so I just broke down. Mercifully, she told me to come back to school. Little did I know that the national exams were starting the following week!” says Anne.
Anne aced the exams, earning an A- but that was never going to be enough. Determined to do whatever it took to get herself to university, she rounded up some children within her village estimating that she could earn at least Ksh400 per month tutoring the lot.
However, just as she was about to launch her plan into action, she got a call from former State House Comptroller Franklin Bett who was then the High Commissioner to Australia. He had heard her perform a French poem during a school function and was taken with her prowess and wanted to hire her as a French teacher in his school.
“I was ecstatic. My salary was Ksh4000 – ten times more than I had hoped for!” chuckles Ann.
Everything was going well until Anne took a gamble investing her hard earned cash into an agricultural project she thought was a sure bet.
“I poured all my savings into a pyrethrum farm hoping I would get a good profit after harvesting. However, prices fell from Ksh120 per kilo to Ksh20 and just like that, I lost everything. I had not cleared my high school fees balance and therefore could not access my certificates.
I didn’t want to defer my studies so when I approached my mother and told her what had happened she broke down. My next option was to look for well-wishers who could come to my help. I went asking for money from all of our family friends. Most did not have anything to spare.
By the time I was reaching the last one of them, all I could do was break down. Mercifully, he gave me Ksh5000 and that is how I enrolled into university,” says Anne emotionally.
She adds that the university did not pester her about her certificates as the government records reflected her exams results. She was able to pursue her university education unhindered courtesy of the higher education loans board and bursaries. To this day, she counts her mother as her biggest inspiration.
“My mum is a strong woman. I remember when my dad bought a pick-up, she turned it into a matatu, took leave from work and became the conductor! When people asked her why, she said since she was going to eventually hire someone to do the same job, she wanted to know what it entailed and how promising it was. She is also a very positive and enterprising person,” says the second born of six siblings.
Anne has been married to her husband Newton Ndebu for seven years. The couple met while they were both working at KTN.
“When Newton and I met, I was actually engaged,” says Anne cheekily adding, “I was so young. I had finished my undergraduate, just started working and the next logical step seemed to be marriage. However, since it was a long-distance relationship, it suffered the ravages of lack of time, connection and communication,” says Anne candidly.
While many people would be frightened at the idea of working in the same place as their spouse, to Anne and Newton, the situation could not have been better.
“Working together worked for us because that meant we could see each other more. Being a local reporter can be hectic and you may end up spending so many hours at the office,” says Anne adding that her husband has been a great ally.
Newton adds, “I am her biggest fan and supporter. I want her to reach her highest form and succeed and she is doing a great job so far. I wouldn’t want all her hard work to fizzle out just because she became a wife and a mother.”
With a schedule that requires travelling from both parties (Anne more so than Newton), the couple has had to be flexible and accommodating of each other.
“I find our conversations rather amusing at times. I would call Newton up, cite a breaking or developing story then we would discuss briefly before he asks, ‘so what’s the plan?’ My answer often times is, ‘I’m checking in at the airport’.
When the Westgate terror attack news broke, I didn’t even have a chance to tell him I was covering it until I got on location. That’s how intense our work gets. There is no telling if we would have survived this long if we worked in different industries,” says Anne.
Newton cites that their career choices have also borne mixed feelings amongst some friends. Still on the Westgate terror attack, a friend asked him why he would allow his wife to knowingly place herself in a hostile environment.
A question they review in every situation especially since they have two daughters: eight-year-old Neema Mwendia and six-year-old Tunu Mwendia, who look up to them.
Four years after Anne started her international career, the couple admits that while they somehow have a working formula, finding balance is something they renew every chance they get.
“Newton is great with the kids and our girls just love him. He’s the fun parent. They have this ritual where they dance together every Sunday before we leave for church. When I’m travelling, he holds down the fort and ensures things run smoothly from their homework, to meals, to entertainment. However, when the kids close school, we each take some time off work to bond,” she expounds.
While the couple says that their news culture has rubbed off on the girls, they will be content to know that they have raised girls who love themselves, are aware of issues
affecting them and ultimately, can decide for themselves what they want to do with their lives.
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