For over a decade, she was the admired African female face in broadcast journalism as news anchor and reporter at CNN . She quit that job in July 2018 to much speculation and hullabaloo. Her book Beneath the Tamarind Tree – which has been described as the first definitive account of the 2014 Boko Haram abduction of the Chibok school girls in Nigeria, is due for release this July. Isha Sesay who won the Peabody Award for her coverage of the harrowing plight of the 276 girls, developed unprecedented access to the girls and their families, and in the book, she shares an intimate account of their plight – from the night Boko Haram attacked, exclusive details about their years in captivity, and their daring tales of escape.
Interview by reGina Jane Jere
There was a lot of speculation about your departure from CNN. Let’s set the record straight. Was the over emphasis on Donald Trump really the trigger or there is more as to why you left the post that made you a house-hold name and one of the most admired broadcast journalists out of Africa?
It was one of the reasons yes. But there were many interwoven factors that made me decide to call it a day. I had been with CNN for an incredible 13 years. And I am grateful for the opportunity, the places I visited and the people I met. But after 13 years, it started to feel like just a job and just routine. Eventually I was in a place which I didn’t particularly like – more so when there was so much of this focus and over emphasis on Donald Trump.
And I am not saying that he doesn’t deserve scrutiny or coverage. My problem is that he doesn’t deserve coverage that excludes coverage of everything else happening in the world. That was my issue.
I found it increasingly difficult night after night, sitting in there and its about what Trump has put in a tweet, ignoring what was happening in Yemen, Syria or DRCongo. When catastrophic events are taking place in the world, they were somehow minimised or sometimes completely ignored. It just did not sit well with me.
I had moved from England to America 13 years ago because at the time CNN was truly global. I packed my two suitcases back then because I wanted to be part of that. While I have immense respect for my colleagues and my bosses at CNN, and it was a very hard decision, but there was something in my conscience that did not sit well and I had to make this decision to leave.
What lessons did you learn over those long years at CNN? And because you became such an iconic face and many black girls (and boys) looked up to you as a face of success in the male-dominated if not white-washed western media. What advise do you have for them?
Like many other things in life – the lessons I learnt are both the good and the bad. And this is not an indictment of CNN, but one of the lessons I learnt is that in any news organisation, especially when it comes to large corporation like this, the news is set by a small number of people who when it comes down to it, finally decide what makes it to the screen, what makes it to the page. And I think eventually it becomes hard to reconcile with that, in alignment with the stories you want to tell.
And I would also like to say that with the democratisation of the media these days, through social media, everyone and anyone is able to kind of take to the page or be able to broadcast. This is an interesting thing to take note of, and there is no reason why in a big media organisation a small number of people should be deciding the news agenda.
These people should take advantage of the new landscape, because anyone can set out, record and be an observer of what they actually see in the world.
But I don’t mean everyone is or should be a journalist, not at all. What I am saying is we live in interesting times where the power does not solely lie with the big organisations or publications. A one man or woman citizen journalist can also play an important role in shaping the news today.
I therefore personally thought my agenda and role as journalist at CNN was not in alignment with where the network is at the moment, and I had to do something about it. I stopped enjoying what I used to do and did not want to do it anymore.
But again you asked about other triggers. One other is that my mother has been unwell ever since she had a stroke in 2016, and that was also part of my decision to no longer be at the network.
You were once the face of Inside Africa at CNN. And you have mentioned the need for balanced reporting, and the importance of citizen journalism. We all know how CNN and other western media contextualise African news. Having been in that terrain and now moving on to the next chapter of your career, how do you advise we cover Africa as African media ourselves? How will you now be telling the African story now?
First of all, most African media are also owned by global or corporate organisations or are state owned, which sells us short. But I would like to see more African publications and news networks – print or digital put more money, resources and more training into African journalism. It will be good to see this investment infused into all these structures and for journalists to be trained and paid fairly. Investment can help eliminate journalist from being manipulated in certain countries. I would also like to see more depth and breadth in our story-telling as African journalist.
It may be good to inject investment into African journalism; however, there is also the saying “he who pays the piper calls the tune” In that case we are still in the danger of losing the African narrative is it so? And should African governments be investing in African journalism too?
But when you look at big publications such as the Washington Posts or the New York Times, they are owned by wealthy families or the private sector. So I don’t really think in the African context, we should make it incumbent on governments to put money in journalism. How many countries in the world do that that? Look at the BBC in the UK.
What I would like to see is for African governments to create environments that allows media to operate freely without fear or interference. But we ultimately need to have private investment come in.
But again it brings me back to what I have talked about earlier – the democratisation of the media through technology and social media, which has opened up the space and making audiences less reliant on the big names. I am amazed by the stories that I read and see on social media – from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Botswana etc. It’s a remarkable landscape and what I would like to see is money put into it so that Africa can professionalise and monetize, and promote this space. We need to do that and that way we will own our African story.
You are coming back home so to speak – having enjoyed a press journey where you could report freely without repercussions – the same cannot be said in some parts of Africa where press freedom is still limited and as we speak there are countries who are limiting social media access. Its still a tall order isn’t it?
Which is a shame, because on one hand we hear it all the time, “Africa is open for Business” while at the same time the same governments are suppressing their own domestic press. It’s all wrongheaded and it is also a sign of our African governments’ democratic immaturity. I am still trying to understand why such a basic norm should still be an issue and be so difficult to take root in this century.
The thing about African leaders and all the concerns they have that press freedom will open them up to criticism, they have to know that press freedom also opens them up to praise where praise is due and where they are doing good things.
At the same time they need to be called to account. For me it doesn’t matter that Africa’s growth economically is 3.7 or 5 per cent. What is that growth if it is not inclusive growth, what is growth if the quality of life of the majority of African people is still basic and some people don’t even have their basic freedoms? I find it deeply frustrating.
So what is an Isha Sesay’s call to action?
I have been very privileged to havehad the space and prominence I had the chance to occupy and it gave me this profile. And I think it will be remiss of me not to use the profile I have, to call for greater freedoms of the press, as well as greater openness and accountability. If I didn’t do that, it would be a personal failing on my part. So I have make a call to action, no matter how small.
And I think that, like people always said to me when I used to travel and cover the continent – “but CNN always tells one story about Africa and it is always negative.” And I would say back then, it actually nuanced – it’s both the good and the bad. But increasingly, that has shrunk and attention has become more limited because most of it has gone to Trump, but back in the day there was a greater balance of stories.
Still on media, lets talk about how women are portrayed, more so the objectification and sexualisation of women on TV, adverts, music video film etc… And also reducing female talent to just beautiful face on telly. What is your experience and your view on this one?
I mean it is a bit like in the fashion industry, where a lot of designers are male, so when they are designing they do so with a completely unrealistic view of the female body. And as long as the men continue to dominate and control the levers of power in these industries, they control what goes out – the imagery and everything. The solution lies in having more women control what goes out there. You can tell when and where a woman has written the story or is behind the camera or editing a script, because when we do so, our brains and our minds are encapsulated into the narrative, its not about our looks.
But when the men are the portrayers of women , it of course becomes one dimensional. So for example if a male advertising executive wants to sell burgers, he uses a bunch of naked women and the culture around it allows that to be acceptable.
However, the bottom line is that we need to change our expectations as consumers, and as women we need to raise our standards and object more and simply stop being willing participants, in the sexualisation and objectification of women in the media.
We also need to start teaching our girls early in life that they are not sexual beings, that they are intelligent, strong and do not have to be docile, quite and subservient to anyone. Instil in them the sense of self-worth from a young age and telling them that they can be whom they want to be. And also it is crucial that men and boys are respectful to women and see the world as multi-dimensional.
The past year has big year with the #MeToo #TimeIsUp campaign. The issues raised do affect African women as well, but not much noise comes out of it. What is your view on the “unspoken” Africa’s MeToo moments?
Look, the reason why the #MeToo moment was able to break in the US is because women who had more economic power were able to come out and break the silence. But many women who feared they would never work again did not come out and suffered for a long time.
In Africa most women do not speak out because again it comes down to their economic disempowerment. What is the cost of speaking out? There are just no environments to even support them if they did.
But even where an African woman who has economic independence and power chooses to speak out, does the environment around her support her speaking out? Would her community rally behind her and support her? It is very common in Africa to blame the woman like “well she is the one who led him on”. It is also a fact that in most of Africa, the societies are very patriarchal.
Therefore on this issue, the environment African women operate in is markedly different with the one in the US where the courts and the police will operate with independence, objectivity and impartiality. And they will not give or get favours from someone who is rich. But you can’t guarantee that to a woman in most parts of Africa.
I am convinced that many African women want to speak out, but look at the environment around them – from the home, the police to the courts of law – who will pick them up and support them all the way?
Before we can discuss your project We can Lead, lets touch on the book your are wrting and is due out in 2019 – I hear it is about your passion and experiences you had covering the abducted Chibok Girls in Nigeria – a move I also hear ruffled some feathers in that country. Tell us more, what’s going on?
Yes I have made some public enemies in Nigeria because of my passion and views and coverage of the Chibok Girls story. It is very interesting when I think about the situation. I am like, you are angry with me because I am advocating for the freedom of these girls? It like in this part of the world, politics tramp the lives of these children. It was like speaking out for the girls was bothersome and troublesome to the chances of some politicians being elected into office. I am like really?
I take the writing of this book therefore as a responsibility. The book itself is part memoire, part reportage, part my retelling my journey on reporting on the story of the girls, but it also fuses my own personal involvement and also my mother’s story, who comes from a very similar background to the Chibok girls.
My mother comes from a home very similar to theirs, and the part of the world not very different from Chibok, she grew up in small village in a polygamous household, her parents were not formally educated, but my mother still rose be the first woman ever to vie for Vice Presidency in Sierra Leone. She is the other side of the coin of the Chibok girls, she is the example, she is where you can go. That is the power of education and why should I not champion that?
The issues you are helping tackle through your civic organisation We Can lead – Child marriage, reproductive health, FGM etc – talk us through the passion that drives you to do this, bearing in mind that gender stereotypes begin behind closed doors in most African homes where the boy child is still treated better and differently. You have your work cut out here isn’t it?
It has been an amazing journey so far with We Can Lead. We are in our second year and have around 608 young leaders in the programme so far. In the first year we ran different girls empowerment workshops and run them in different schools as well, and in the second year, they enter our young leaders development programme. I can say that this is the work I am most proud of. Seeing the transformation of these girls from that one year in which some could hardly speak or look you into the yes, to becoming these confident young women, is absolutely incredible. It is proof that how we raise our girls (and boys) matters and that if you give them different messages and different expectations, they can do and will think differently.
No one is born programmed to be disrespectful to women, no woman is born programmed to think she is less worthy, therefore they are programmed to think that way and if that is the case, then they can be de-programmed to think and act differently and have different aspirations and expectations.
But again you rightly point out, it begins the home. There we have to work with the parents as well through community engagement which is very important – the programme has to be holistic to work.
But again Isha in your new field of work with these girls, culture and traditional practices are also very embedded. How will you deal with age-old traditional, yet harmful practices that still exist – FGM, bride fattening or child marriage for example?
I don’t buy into any practice that undermines the human rights of girls or any human being for that matter. I reject all of them. When these were introduced, that was a time when our people didn’t know any better. But now someone explain to me the benefits of FGM as a right of passage. A right of passage to what and for who?
What is your view on the still gaping hole in the gender gap – be it in the corporate or political world? And do you have political leadership aspirations?
Oh I knew that was coming (laughs). Going into politics for me is not a top consideration right now. But I am never going say never.
But I totally agree and believe that we need more women in positions of power. We need more women as decision makers driving change and policy in all our communities. And when women take up these positions there work is more enduring. I strongly believe that if we had more women in power, we would be seeing those horrible stories of our young people making those dangerous journeys to cross into Europe and die at sea.
Do you see yourself as a celebrity?
I see myself as someone who is known to many people, but I don’t see myself as a celebrity.
Whom do you go to for advise?
It has always been my mother. Always. But I am now trying to figure out who will fill the gap. I do have some close friends whom I turn to, but no one with the wisdom of the mother.
Can you define your success and how others can learn from it?
That’s a tough one. May be I can define in terms of what have done and what I want to do further – and impact that will have. Therefore, if my actions have a positive impact, that is my definition of success.
You are very articulately knowledgeable, that surely comes with reading. What are you reading at the moment?
Currently I am reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. This book really puts life into perspective.
You have interviewed so many people in your career. Looking back, which question do you wish you had asked someone that you never did?
I can tell you that very easily. “Would you talk to me about those moments of struggle that broke you open, but helped make you who you are?”
And how would you answer that question yourself if it was put across to you?
The health situation with my mother I would say broke me open and has made me into a person far stronger and also realise that I needed to be on a very different path. I mean I left CNN part because of this. It has also made me the woman that I am becoming – more vocal and passionate about things that matter.
Finally, how would you describe a new African woman?
I think a new African woman is multi-dimensional. She can be all things she chooses and aspires to be. She can be a wife, she can a professional. She can be a mother, she can be childless. She can have her own choices unencumbered by other people. She is bold and unapologetic.
| PHOTOGRAPHY: Eniko Szucs | STYLIST: Arnold Milfort | HAIR & MAKEUP: Victor Noble using Mac cosmetics |