Each one of us, (if you are lucky enough) gets asked what they would like to be in life. This oftentimes happens particularly during our formative stages in life.
It is very common in our elementary schools with teachers gauging the level of focus of their pupils.
In high school, where it is now believed that one is almost sound enough to identify their life trajectory, we encounter similar questions. In most instances, I always got shocked when a handful of my peers could not state clearly or seemed to have no idea at all about what they would be in life.
While others flip flopped, it was already clear to me what I wanted to be. A journalist by all means.
Growing up, that was the only dream. And it appears nature conspired to give it to me, as the great Brazilian motivational and best-selling author Paulo Coelho exhorts in the Alchemist, ‘And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.’’
Identifying your bearings early and sticking to them
One of the most difficult things in charting your career path is actually knowing what you want early enough and doing something about it.
For me, the practical exposure to radio began in the early 90s, coinciding with my beginning of formal education.
I loved radio. I always have.
Anyway, besides radio, growing up, I was naturally a gifted ‘intelligence’ gatherer, going by my standards then. Young as I was, I knew virtually everything that transpired in my village. I liked politics too (I would later study political science) and followed the political issues in the country. This thing has been in my DNA.
It is a fact that anyone seeking to make a career in the communications field knows well it is no mean task. It is one thing having the desire, it is another actualizing it.
So as I grew up, I always wanted to be a journalist. In fact, it was the only job I ever had in mind. The other was the military, but here still, as a communicator. I was always fascinated by the people doing the announcements during the military displays and always felt it was my thing.
When I finished high school at the Wangulu Secondary School in Vihiga County (I missed the university cut of points), I first applied for the Cadet intakes in the military. I remember writing that infamous application with high expectations that I would make it. I did not qualify.
I guess because of my poor mathematics grade (I have failed mathematics most of my life). I have won my failure in mathematics like a badge of honour.
I may have done better in lower classes now that it was about additions and subtractions. But when we began algebra to the Pythagoras theorem, I totally lost the drift and I have never recovered on this front. Anyway, that’s a story for another day. Let us focus on what is important.
But I have loved communications in all its shades. So the next application I did was for training in journalism. This was sheer luck.
Seizing the path ahead
On this very day, I was busy herding my father’s cows along the busy Eldoret-Malaba highway and I have some sort of an epiphany. Some idea comes to my mind. Some inner voice told me to go buy the day’s newspaper. It is a Friday.
So I requested for some KSh. 50 from my mother and rushed to the nearby shopping centre and bought a newspaper. By happenstance, in the Daily Nation, I see an advertisement for intakes by the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication (KIMC). I was immediately fascinated by that. I decided to apply for a diploma in Broadcast Journalism. My immediate assessment of the course was that it had something to do with radio or TV broadcasting.
After that, I forgot about the application and went on with life. But somewhere along the way, and beyond belief, I received a letter of admission to KIMC. But there was a problem. My father has just retired from the Police Force (now Police Service). He was yet to be paid his benefits. So basically there was no money for me to report to college!
We are meant to report by latest 30th September 2005.
Anyway, I saw my father frantically call someone at the Pensions department, literally begging him to fast-track his dues. It took a bit of time, but I eventually reported to college in October, precisely on 11th October, over a month after my peers had (by the way, on the previous day, 10th October and which used to be marked as Moi Day, I made the first attempt at reporting to college but we were turn away.)
The three year diploma at KIMC is quite intensive and provides a hands-on experience that is never available in most colleges, including reputable universities around.
It was no wonder then that a majority of the students we schooled with had actually received university admissions but chose to pursue their passion in the media training.
I later pursued an undergraduate degree with a double major in Political Science and Communication at the University of Nairobi. I always have something with politics as it was a taught cause at KIMC.
Anyway, the long and short of this is that I have worked as a communications professional for 12 years now and in my experience there are a few lessons I have picked that I feel can unlock the potential in each one of us.
Passion is the ignition key to all success
Communications, like other vocations like teaching and preaching, is a calling. If you don’t have it, don’t waste your time. This is why you see engineers, medical doctors, lawyers and others practicing communications because of the passion. I would call it the ignition key to a successful career in this field.
But passion alone is not enough. It must be complemented with the right actions, a positive attitude, including the desire to know the world around you. This is through reading books, newspapers, watching TV, listening to radio or using online platforms to shape your mind.
Without the complementary efforts, your passion is just an ignition key without the switch!
While preparing myself to a future career in communications, I had a passion for current news, and the events shaping the world. That explains how in primary school, for instance, I knew almost all the Members of Parliament in Kenya, all the ministers, presidents and capital cities of majority of the countries in the world, the world’s geographical features (longest rivers, largest lakes, tallest mountains etc.).
I also dabbled in poetry recitations and the incredible period that I represented my primary school, Rabuor Kaura Primary School, at the Zonal, Divisional and District levels in the then Homa Bay District (present day Homa Bay County) remain etched in my memory with indelible ink. I owe this to my then English teacher, the late Mrs. Elizabeth for spotting my talent and nurturing it.
The most memorable of the poetry recitations was arguably at the district level where I finished fourth out of 12 competitors. Standing on the stage at the Homa Bay High School in a borrowed uniform and shoes, I set my eyes onto a future, that finds me where I am now.
I also cannot forget a gem of a book that my father bought me when I joined high school, known as the Student’s Companion that had virtually knowledge on anything under the sun!Unfortunately during my one year stint at Orero Boys High School, this gem was among the 12 text books that were stolen from my locker in the one day while we went for lunch. I had over trusted folks!
I complemented this with exceptional language skills. From primary through to high school, I always had a knack for languages, particularly English and Kiswahili.
Arm yourself with the right training
A genius without opportunity, as the saying goes, is like gold in a mine. Regardless of all the passion you have, you need to be forged, like iron, so that you can translate the passion into a meaningful effort.
Getting the right training college is key. For me joining the KIMC added immeasurable value to my quest to be a journalist. The availability of necessary educational facilities, the radio and TV studios and lecturers who were themselves seasoned media practitioners in their own right, really focused my attention to the most important skills I needed.
For instance, I studied photography for three years. Learning through space and time and appreciating the evolution of the technology, right from the pinhole camera to the present digital revolution was quite phenomenal.
I cannot forget the lecturers who took us through the motions of news and feature righting. How to craft a winning headline, the leads and structuring the news in the 5Ws and H format. The inverted pyramid and the other skills. These ones you can’t acquire on the streets.
I remember by the time we finished the first year, we already were competent news writers. As I proceeded for my first internship at the Kenya News Agency (KNA), the transition was seamless.
So making a conscious decision to choose the right training institution can mean a whole world of difference to you.
Know your weaknesses and work on them ruthlessly
When I joined KIMC, I had just come straight from the village. In fact my coming to college was my very first time in Nairobi, at least as an adult.
There was real culture shock for me but I had to adjust quickly. I did not have a lot of public speaking confidence. In class, I could barely raise my hand to ask a question, even if I knew the answer, let alone participate in any discourse.
I knew too that I wasn’t a great writer, at least with standards required at that level. So I devised a plan. I deliberately decided that I would spent most of my time in the library, reading past newspapers and novels. That did it. Within a period of six months, I was already making significant progress. My writing was improving a great deal.
At KIMC, all journalism students were given scrap books in which we were expected to paste articles written and published in newspapers. So I gave it a try, writing letters to the editor, to the Daily Nation, Taifa Leo, the Standard and the People Daily. The Star newspaper hadn’t come to scene yet.
To my surprise, my letters were being published, frequently. I was making progress!
In no time, I was among the most active students in our class, contributing to sessions, asking questions and enriching debates. I spent time at the library. Saturday mornings were my library rituals as were after classes in the evenings. My reading culture has become my second nature.
As Aristotle aptly reminded us, ‘‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence therefore, is not an act, but a habit.’’
Focus on the goal
Now that you have the passion and are getting the right training, you need not lose the fact that you got a goal to achieve. The time you spend in college must count by what strategy you adopt to realize your objective.
While in college, choose activities and friends who you know will provide a favourable environment for you to succeed. Create a network of useful allies. While at KIMC, I focused my energies on bettering myself in every way possible. I participated actively in the publishing a college magazine which we called, Mwangaza as a deputy editor.
At the same time, in 2007 the college established a radio station, the Education Communication Network (ECN Radio),now broadcasting on 99.9 FM in Nairobi, that was meant to provide practical learning to students. Again, I was on the frontline and among the pioneer broadcasters at the station. At one point I was the team leader of about 23 energetic and self-motivated students who were churning out exceptional broadcasts.
By the time we were graduating, I was named the best student in my class and with one year experience in broadcasting to boot! In short, we left college with recommendation letters!
The long and short of it is that by the time were graduating in November 2008, I had already secured a job.
Many of the students we worked with at ECN went on to land jobs in various media houses, government agencies while some of them went on to secure opportunities abroad.
Never stop learning and reskilling yourself
After college I applied for numerous jobs in media houses in Nairobi. I remember at the time trekking across the city of a thousand lights dropping my application letters.
I am forever grateful that out of all the places I applied for, only the BBC ever responded with a regret. I have never forgotten that.
So when I got my first job in radio in 2008, I was very excited. At the time I was joining the Radio Umoja 101.5FM in Nairobi (now defunct), it was broadcasting in both English and Kiswahili. The normal programmes were predominantly in Kiswahili, while the news was always done in English.
It was still grappling with what identity it would adopt in terms of the focus of the programming.
So yes, I got an afternoon show, which I presented in Kiswahili. But at the top of the hour, I could read the news in English, in the same programme. Tough one, uh?
But I managed it. It was a normal experience for us, so we saw nothing funny with it. Afterwards, with changes in the radio station, I was presenting the breakfast show.
As a new Programmes Manager came in, there was a new direction in terms of the house style. That’s the period I came to learn a bit more of on-air etiquette, like never talking over music, or interrupting a nice song with unnecessary talk. I gained pleasure in shaping daily conversations on topical issues in the country. Here’s a pick of one of my best shows at the station.
I learnt how to plan my show well by working with the clock backwards and constantly playing back my recordings to identify areas of continual improvement.
The Programmes Manager of course made it a habit to listen to all our shows and give us comments afterwards. While initially it seemed a bit awkward being put to task over a show you thought was the best, I learnt invaluable lessons that have remained with me to date.
I discovered, to my pleasant surprise, that while on air I used to speak so fast that some words were never coherent and that my listeners may have been suffering in the process!
I used this experience as a learning curve that made me a better person.
I tried my hands at sports news too. I remember the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations whose updates I co-presented with a colleague, Mr. Rick Ogola. You can listen to the sports updates below.
But my watershed moment came in the very year when I was sponsored by the Internews (International NGO that fosters independent media and access to information worldwide) to cover the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC)’s hearings in Northern Kenya in Isiolo.
At the hearings, I met two widows;Khadija Ahmed Osman and Fatuma Ibrahim.What I came face to face with tormented my soul. Hearing the atrocities that befell the people during the Shifta War mademe cringe in my skin. The stories were unbelievable as they were horrendous.
My view of the world was changed dramatically,listening to the victims narrate their ordeals.That day,my tears flowed freely as I listened.I have never been the same again. You can listen to the feature story I did from the TJRC sittings below.
Never take your eyes off new frontiers
Like any other career, the communications career is an extremely dynamic one. New realities require that you must constantly scan your environment and adapt as quickly as possible.
One of the greatest lessons we picked from KIMC was that our journalism skills were applicable anywhere, including in a mortuary, as long as communications is required.
So we always had a broad view in terms of our career prospects and no one insisted or had the expectation that they had to work in a media house.
That explains why many of my peers went into the security agencies where they are still applying the same skills we learnt in journalism school.
After a about four productive years in radio, I had to cast my eyes on the horizon and see what lay yonder. I shifted gears from the studio to the corporate space where I now work as a Communications Officer.
In this new role I have had to relearn and unlearn and acquire new perspectives of the broad nature of communications. Now I am confronting issues to do with forming and managing perceptions, managing reputations of organizations, and providing counsel to executives on reputational risks, and how communication can cure those risks.
I now grapple with managing favourable relations between my employer and various stakeholders and the online space has become my office where I constantly engage diverse people on a broad range of issues.
Belong to a professional organization
In every industry, there exist professional bodies that seek to advance the interests of the members. In the communications industry, a number of them exist.
In Kenya, the Public Relations Society of Kenya (PRSK), is the umbrella body for communications practitioners while the Media Council of Kenya (MCK) accredits journalists working in Kenya. Others are the Marketing Society of Kenya (MSK) and the Association of Practitioners in Advertising (APA). This list is not exhaustive though. There are new societies mushrooming every day to champion different interests of diverse professionals. Choose what works for you.
Membership to any of these organizations helps you to create a formidable professional network and accessing various capacity building opportunities that broaden your professional horizon in so many ways.
Everyday therefore becomes a learning process.
These lessons I have acquired are not in any way exhaustive, but can help illuminate your path if you wish to venture into the communications field.
They may not work every time for everybody. Pick what fits your circumstances!
Good luck on the journey ahead!
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