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Why I Left CNN – Femi Oke

Femi Oke, a Nigerian-born broadcaster, once worked for Cable News Network, CNN, where she presented weather reports and Inside Africa, a documentary on Africa. Since leaving CNN, she has been working for the National Public Radio in New York. Femi Oke, who was recently in Nigeria as a guest at this year’s Garden City Literary Festival in Port Harcourt, tells Nehru Odeh why she left CNN.

There have been so many tales as to how and why you left CNN.

For certain reasons, I never go to the internet because I read all kinds of crazy stuff there about why I left CNN. In the absence of reasons, people make up their own reason. I worked with CNN for about 10 years. My job was based in Atlanta and my other half was based in New York. Anybody who knows the geography of the United States knows what it is like and you have been trying to have a relationship. It is really difficult. That was really difficult. And if you really want to take it to the next level, somebody would have to move closer to somebody else. I thought about my career.

I had an established career and I loved my work. But I wondered if I want to leave behind a bunch of tapes and no family or if it is better to have a relationship, a family and all of the things inside. In fact, that was the most important thing and I wanted to have that, and not a bunch of tapes. That was my reason and it was very personal. And when I left CNN, I wrote back that I would be reporting for them. So, I didn’t feel I had to say goodbye everybody.

And working in a 24-hour news network, there was no way to say goodbye to everybody anyway. I just felt my family is the best job I have in my entire career, the best career decision I have ever made in terms of what it can allow me do during that time and since that time. It was a hard decision to make, especially leaving Inside Africa. It was just like I was leaving behind my child. Because I had rocked that show from the very first day. I have been doing reports for that show, and I was the host. It was a show that I loved so much. But I don’t think one TV programme should shape your entire life. Sometimes, you have to let go. I made a contribution and now what else is out there in the world. Nigerians are always shocked that I left CNN.

You started journalism as a kid. What was the attraction?

I like meeting people, I like talking to people and I am curious about their stories; I like going out reporting. And I had that curiousity when I was really young. When I was a child, like seven, I would collect evening news of my family for a whole week and on Friday, we would eat rice, red stew, chicken and all that. That would be our Friday dinner and I would do all the stories and newscast. Even when I was a very little kid, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, which made it very easy. You know when you are a kid, you just pursue what you wanted to do.

You studied English Literature at the University of Birmingham. Which comes first: your passion for broadcasting or your love for literature? Did you study literature because you wanted to be a broadcaster?

I knew automatically that I would be a broadcaster. I read all the time. I consumed books like people consume sweets and desserts. And my best present would be a pile of books, not just one book but a whole series. And my little nieces and nephews would be like: “Aunty Femi, I want this game book, I want this computer.” And I would get the books. I loved books. When I was a kid, I used to read a lot. Everything was very natural––the reading, meeting people, talking to people.

I was talking to friends when I was a kid. I would just be chatting, which was exactly what you do as a journalist. For me, it was like you had to walk up to strangers and ask some questions. That is the way it is and I was doing that when I was a little kid. I don’t think the book came first and then, broadcasting. Everything seemed to merge. It seemed to mean much to me to study English because I love reading books very much.

Was your family against your choice of career?

They were not against my career choice. My parents were very strict; they were also very liberal. They were strict in the sense that we all had to go to university. That was not negotiable, but what we studied was our choice. They did not insist that we must study law or medicine; we could study whatever we liked. But they didn’t really understand what I was doing with my profession, with journalism. My extended family in Nigeria would be telling my mum and dad that they saw Femi and suddenly they realised what it is I actually do, because I would be on the radio and TV.

I have been on the radio since I was a kid. I had a really long career. My parents had no idea what this was about, but when I said I interviwed President Yar’Adua, they were like: “Okay now, we understand.” When I said I was going to meet the ambassador of so and so, then they began to make the connection.

Though they are now aware, they are not impressed because they know it is about studying and hard work. You can’t be impressed by your own daughter that way. But they like to hear the compliments. In church, my mother would like to hear; she can tell you very proudly. But the most important thing is working hard and studying hard. My mother always says these things.

You travelled extensively while presenting Inside Africa. Were you scared of going to some of the continent’s strife-riven nations?

No. I wanted to go to those places because those places were where you have to tell people to go. I remember begging my boss to let me go to Southern Sudan. I said the United Nations wanted to take me to Sudan and I wanted to go. He said no and I asked why? He said: “If anything happens to you, I am responsible and I don’t want that responsibility of having to call your family, telling people in the office that something bad has happened to you.” And just after that time, he said certain terrible things happened in Sudan (laughs).

I couldn’t really argue with him. But to me, what people have to do to survive in those extreme situations are not the stories you can hear on the news. You have to see how people manage everyday––in Iraq, in Afganistan and parts of Sudan. That, for me, is how people connect with those stories. You can do the big set-piece stories: Libya was born or some famine. But how to get to that part is the thing I am really interested in. I am interested in people’s stories. I am always excited if anybody says he wants to go there. It’s exciting to me; it’s an adventure. When I told people I was going to Port Hacourt, they said: “Oh my God! Be careful!” But I wanted to come here.

I contemplated it. But I also know that it is a thing I need to do and want to do. But sometimes, you have a bigger platform doing it internationally than within a country.

That’s how I am comfortable doing things. But there is a way that business operates in Nigeria and some other places that I am uncomfortable with. That is just the reality of the way we live and how we have to live. For me, that is a big sacrifice. I was in Abuja 18 months ago. There was a whole lot of people I couldn’t control––about five or six lines. And they were asking: “What do you have for us for the weekend?” Six lines of people all asking for something for the weekend! Nobody in Abuja would even blink at that. But it upsets me that they are in a situation where they have to do that; that they were in a situation where they are not paid enough. These are the representatives of Nigerians at the airport.

Having been to Nigeria, do you think this country is as bad as people view it from outside?

No place is ever as bad as people see it from outside. In some ways, it is worse because one thing that gets one down all the time is the traffic. Traffic should not be a part of your day every single day, your entire life. It is dispiriting. People are talking about the big things like the Abuja bombing or the hectic lifestyle in Nigeria. But I think it is the smaller things that matter most. For example, when I am putting on my make-up and the lights go off, I am like: Damn! Am I supposed to bring my torch with me? I think it is those little things that make Nigerians very resilient because it is those things they have to cope with every single day. It is not the big thing; everybody has this big thing––bombings, issues with the environment and so on.

If you were in Nigeria, do you think you would have attained this height, given the nature of the Nigerian society ?

I would not last five minutes in Nigeria. I have known this for a long time. I have known the way to be a good Nigerian child. I respect my parents, I bow down, I am very well behaved. In that sense, I am very Nigerian. But in the sense of the idea that I am none, from the comments we were hearing today, steam was coming out of my ears.

It is strange to hear that the idea of equal rights for women is a threat to men. If you are in my bedroom and you are my husband, I have the right to have you right now and anytime I want. The idea that you will go to work as a lawyer and come back and make dinner are things that I don’t even have to deal with. And I wonder what kind of woman I would be if I had grown up in Lagos. Would I be the same person even in New York? I don’t know because I think cultures shape you. If someone tells me that I have to have a man who can have at least one other girl friend, it is strange.

That is not happening to me in New York. If I were in Lagos, it is going to be pretty much impossible for that not to happen to me, even if my beautiful man says: “No, it’s just you darling.” But if you talk to Nigerian women about that, they have the mechanisms to cope with that. I don’t want to know how to cope with that. That is not on my list of things to know how to cope with.

If I grew up here, I won’t last five minutes. I think you will kick me out. There are other things that make me very Nigerian: working really hard, the idea that anything is possible, the idea that as a nation we are smart and we can do whatever we set our minds to. These things are very interesting. I see great Nigerians all over the world and I see great Nigerians here in Nigeria and I relate to that very well.

The gender politics thing? Absolutely not. It is another reason why I am not sure I can live here. Let me give an example. When I was about 20 and in the university outside of London, I would drive to London to see my parents and drive back. And my Nigerian uncle would be shocked that I was driving myself and that I lived in a house outside of my parents’. Those things really upset them. And they were telling my parents they were not bringing me up the right way. I have cousins who didn’t own cars or didn’t drive until they were 30. But that is the bit of being Nigerian that I am not. I don’t like that bit. It is okay for the guys to stay out all night and have fun with girlfriends. That is not okay with me. It is not strictly a Nigerian thing, it is part of how African men and African women live.

Growing up, what books made an impression on you?

I read so many things. My teachers often called me up for reading rubbish. I read James Bond. I would read absolutely everything. I would read Shakespeare. I read Middle March, Jane Eyre and all of those things. And I would read books just for the fun of reading books. I would read books the way people read comics. And now that I am older, I read English literature, American literature, but I don’t know of enough African literature. Now, I am taking a course on African literature, where I am reading and discovering books that I should have read when I was a kid. I am so lucky that I know some African writers and they are very kind to me: they come to my book club.

Any memorable interviews during your days at CNN?

The ones that really affect me are when people show you parts of their life that are very personal and informative. That’s incredible, even if that person is a politician or a a celebrity. I like to give the people outside Africa a sense of how Africans live. It is not always about war and HIV. I think that is my mission and I am a bit biased. As a journalist, I should be more objective. But I always want people to understand Africa better and the only way you can do that is to get them to meet Africans and get a glimpse into Africans’ lives. I felt that was my job at CNN.

If you hadn’t been a journalist, what would you have been?

I would just be a journalist. I have been doing it since I was seven. What else is there? I would love to be an actor. To be honest, I did act when I was younger. The thing about that profession is that you can work as hard as you like and could still be incredibly unsuccesful as an actor. There is a lot of luck involved in that. Acting is about how much involved you get in that acting process. I love being on stage. But if I am asked to do a report or to do a documentary, I am reaching a lot of people and it is not just about my enjoyment; it is about communicating with a lot of people. So, maybe theatre. If I wasn’t going to be a journalist, I would be the producer. If I am not the producer, I would be the director. I have done all of these things, but somewhere in that group of jobs, I would still be a journalist.

Were you to work in a Yoruba setting, how would you do it?

I could do it. I would have an accent, perhaps a London accent. When I was younger and was speaking Yoruba, my family would laugh at me, which made me want to stop. Also, my family decided they were not going to teach me properly because they didn’t want me to have an accent. That was in the 60s and early 70s, when there was more racism in the United Kingdom and they didn’t want people to pick on me or to pick me out as having a Nigerian accent. Really, the truth is that when children are bilingual, they may not have an accent. They would speak Yoruba or they would speak English without in fact having Yoruba accent. But parents didn’t know that. We are now at a time when it is fashionable to have more than one language. I have on my desk at home two Yoruba courses.

I have enough to read on my workbook for the book club, let alone taking my Yoruba course. So, it’s really upsetting for me that my parents didn’t teach me at a time when it would have been fun.

But I understand when people speak it and I get some meaning of it. But to be asked to broadcast it, then I am going to have to take my courses more seriously and study them at home. Now, I am meeting many Nigerians of the third and fourth generation who don’t speak Yoruba and that makes me very very sad because it means their kids are not going to speak Yoruba. I am going to learn it properly. How can my kids not speak Yoruba? I find it embarrassing.

People say there are people in Lagos whose kids can’t speak Yoruba. If they cannot speak Yoruba, is there no other mother tongue that they can speak?

I am shocked! I need to speak with their parents. But I have to find time in my schedule where I am going to study it properly. I know the greetings, I know a little bit. But that is not good enough.

You look too young for your age. What is the secret of your youthfulness?

I think you just inherit what you inherit. We have great skin anyway. I don’t see a wrinkle between us. And I was extra blessed to have parents who have great, fantastic skin. I remember it was my 40th birthday and there was this great wrinkle cream in the UK and I asked my mum to get me that cream. “You don’t need any cream. I didn’t use any cream until I was 60,” she said. My mother is very young. People don’t believe she was 70 two years ago. You won’t even notice she is over 50. The bad thing is that sometimes, people don’t realise how mature you are and they treat you like an intern. Now, I am getting to be older than the people that I work with, but they don’t realise it. I never used to be worried about my age, but now when I tell people my age, they are so shocked. It makes me feel a little weird to mention my age.

How different is your current place of work from CNN?

I am based in New York. I work for National Public Radio, which is the equivalent of the BBC in America. I am Senior Editor, which makes me to be in charge of senior editorial decisions that are made. I work for the Morning News Show, a big show that is aired in the morning. I get up very early in the morning, but I also finish about 10 a.m., which is kind of nice so that I can do a lot of other things. I read the morning news and do the current affairs show. We are in partnership with the New York Times and the BBC. Sometimes I report, sometimes I write.

In your travels round the world what are those things that you experience that you can’t easily forget?

I think when people just open themselves up and say I want to show you a little bit of my life it could be a head of state. These things are really special things that happen to you everyday. You have these incredible stories because people see you and they feel very comfortable with you because you are in their home. I remember doing an interview with Lucky Dube in South Africa and he said his girlfriend was mad at me. I asked why? He said she accused him of having a crush on me. I remember that conversation with Lucky Dube. I like his work. When he died, I remembered him telling me that and laughing. These are passionate moments. For instance, making Bishop Desmond Tutu laugh, which is not difficult because he laughs a lot. But spending that one-on-one time with him.

Things you get to do as a journalist are very privileged. As a CNN journalist, there are so many people who watch you. People usually come and embrace you because they feel like you are their sister, their aunty. I think when you travel, you see that. I really feel very lucky to have that opportunity and I think it would continue. I don’t think people would forget that I was on CNN.

Source: The News Magazine

Femi Oke

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