Like most kids, growing up, Waihiga Mwaura wanted to be a pilot, then shortly after, a neurosurgeon, having been inspired by the works of Dr Ben Carson. Brought up by parents who are lawyers, there was also the notion that he and his two siblings would take up the profession.
“They talked to us about the prospect of being a family of lawyers and passing it on through generations but the best thing about them was that they allowed us to express ourselves from a young age. They instilled in us the value of education and strong Christian values,” he says as we start the interview.
“Going to church for us was pretty non-negotiable until we were about 18,” he adds chuckling as he reminisces on his upbringing.
When his family moved from Donholm to Westlands, technical sciences piqued his interest pushing him to eventually pursue a computer science degree at Africa Nazarene University.
“I was one of those kids who were confused about what they wanted to do and computer science at the time seemed like a good idea – the Internet boom was happening in Kenya and everyone was big on IT,” he explains.
Foray into the media
“I knew I was not passionate about IT even before I graduated. I had done an internship with a non-governmental organisation before graduation and realised that it was not something I could do for the rest of my life,” says the 34-year-old.
It took some nudging from a pastor in his church to push him into the media space. “I used to emcee events in church and each time he would tell me that I should be in media but I kept ignoring him,” he narrates.
Despite being dissatisfied with his job as a bank cashier, it still took him a while before taking the leap. However, when he turned 25, he realised that if he was ever going to join the media industry, he would have to do it while there was no pressure from responsibilities or his parents. He then resolutely quit his job as a cashier at a local bank.
Renowned journalist Ephy Hunja is among the people that he looked up to at the time and he still does. “We worshipped in the same church so when I took that leap, I reached out to him. He bought me lunch and gave me such great advice. I have been trying to repay that lunch ever since,” he says jokingly.
Having not gone the conventional path of formal media training, media felt far removed. This prompted him to get into acting even as he asked around for media internships and dropped his CV at media houses. After one season of the production, he realised that he was also not cut out for acting.
Reminiscing his acting days, he says, “That experience was an eye-opener. I got into it thinking that I would be the next Will Smith but I left there humbled. Portraying different emotions on cue is hard! I have a deep respect for actors.”
It is during this period that he refers to as a ‘wilderness experience’ that he got his first call to audition for a show at Citizen TV. Unfortunately, he did not get the callback. Always the optimist, he reveals that this period allowed him to trust in God and learn how to survive on little money.
“I am grateful that my parents did not kick me out during that time because to them, I had refused to get a job despite having gone to school to chase my passion,” he recounts.
As fate would have it, the producer of the show, having seen his potential, recommended him when the next auditions came round. Waihiga finally got his big break when he got picked to host Zinduka – an entrepreneurship show that ran on Wednesdays during the prime time news; something he admits is no mean feat. Naturally, he was very excited and relieved that he was finally getting direction in his life. His parents also shared in the relief as they felt that he had finally gained traction.
Becoming an award-winning journalist
After two seasons of Zinduka, a vacancy presented itself within the organisation and he thus joined the Power Breakfast show team, where he worked for two years, becoming a familiar face on TV screens. Around the same time, he also involved himself with the sports desk and when the breakfast show ran its course, he joined the sports desk fully as a producer and anchor. It was here that he would slowly but surely become a household name.
“I was always aware of my lack of formal media training so I kept taking every opportunity to learn. I applied for training programmes and talked to seasoned journalists. I was also very persistent and strove to bring something unique to the table,” says the three-time Annual Journalism Excellence Awards (AJEA) nominee.
This saw him clinch the CNN MultiChoice Africa Award in 2012 for a story on Maasai Morans who were using cricket in the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM) dubbed Maasai Cricket Warriors. In 2015, he won the inaugural Mo Amin Award for a story on doping in athletics that was recognised by World Anti-Doping Agency who warned Kenyan authorities against laxity in taking action against the vice.
Nine years in the industry have definitely not gone without their fair share of challenges, the biggest being self-doubt which he says he had to intentionally fight to overcome.
“My media journey has been one of gradual steps forward. Even when I took a step forward and two steps backward, the highlights have been incremental. I thank God for this because it gave me a chance to take it all in at every level. Sometimes when success comes at a very young age, you can lose your head,” says the journalist who describes himself as dependable, resolute, bold and helpful.
To him, any other challenge was preparing him for greater things. One of these greater things is his most notable award yet which came in September 2018 when he became the first Kenyan journalist to win the BBC World News Komla Dumor Award for his passion for giving Africans a voice. According to the panel, this was what set him apart. His story-telling ability as well as his on-screen presence also impressed the judging panel.
Unknown to many, he had been shortlisted twice before but did not clinch it. Interestingly, Komla Dumor, the Ghanaian journalist the award is named after, also did not have formal journalism training. Steady effort, consistency and persistence, he reveals, is what has worked for him.
The London experience
As part of the prize, he travelled to BBC’s head offices in London for training, an experience he terms as enlightening and humbling. “In Kenya, people might easily recognise you on the streets but there, in the midst of 20,000 other journalists, you realise that you are just one small part of the puzzle. The way they also take the information they put out seriously is something as Kenyan media we should emulate especially now in the wake of fake news,” he emphasises.
He also challenges other Kenyan journalists and media professionals to take up solution-focused journalism, something he is vocal about on social media and on his website – www.waihigamwaura.com.
“We have so many negative stories about Africa but journalism does not have to be ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. We should also talk about the solutions and stop obsessing over politics. Personally, I want to tell African stories in a different way and also be able to help people,” he reiterates while revealing that he is now focusing on more human rights and investigative pieces.
Impacting young people
Having had great mentors and role models, Waihiga is keen on helping young people make their mark as well. He especially advises young journalists to carve their niche, take up training opportunities, work hard and be persistent and ready to work long hours. He also cautions them against getting into it for the fame and being quick to welcome new friends when things seem to be going well. These, he says, keep him grounded in a time when news anchors are treated as celebrities. He specially credits his wife, gospel musician Joyce Omondi, for his success as they are able to challenge each other for both personal and professional growth.
Keeping his private life out of social media has also helped him keep a level head. Waihiga is also involved in ministry in church and seeks to inspire young people to stay faithful even as they achieve success in the world. “I hope to live what I preach and encourage others through my work,” he concludes.