They say that a good story is able to interpret fact and information, exhibit skills of observation, and analyses but essentially a good story has to have heart. It has to tell a story.
Kanu Ahaoma’s story titled ‘Badagry: A walk through the slave route’ leaves you with a strange nostalgic lump in your throat. I say ‘Strange’ because it isn’t exactly a memory that you are a part of but still his description of the journey takes the reader to a place that feels all so familiar, yet you know nothing about. The theme of the story is driven by the narrative and its vivid prose style evokes emotions and tingles ones imagination, reminding the reader about that interconnection between history, memory and the present. It is no wonder the story bagged Ahaoma the Tourism Prize for the CNN Africa Journalist Award in 2012.
Here is an excerpt
“I walked towards the beach shore and looked ahead; the tide was high and I could taste the salty wind. The sight of the coconuts that whispered as their branches touched was not appealing to me. I tried to imagine the slaves entering the small boats that took them to the merchant ships which took them to destinations of bondage but could only see the high sea.
I grabbed some sand and clasped it tightly, imagination had eluded me. Some of us picked sea shells as memorabilia.”
Kanu Ahaoma is a Journalist and Editor at National Daily newspaper, No stranger to awards, he has also been a recipient of the Nigerian Media Merit Award. In lieu of the social media revolution, a lack of National identity and the epidemic that is brown paper envelopes, Kanu and I delve into historic preservation and more.
Do awards help your journalism career here in Nigeria? And if they do, how does it help?
Yes-awards do help journalism career both in Nigeria and elsewhere. Let me start by saying that getting recognition and rewards for stories you have done is very encouraging and lights up a fire in you to do more. Let me give a scenario; when you are doing a story and face the challenges, the extreme difficulties a typical journalist is faced with in Nigeria, nobody knows. Many media organizations don’t pay salaries and some that do pay; the enumeration you get is peanuts and cannot be described as a living wage. Now, in all these hard times, with temptation coming your way in the profession; temptations of compromising; temptations of not doing thorough research and most journalists in Nigeria work without an insurance cover. Now, after going through some of these horrendous experiences, you are then honoured, it feels every exciting and delighting to know that your every effort is being watched and you earned the respect of those honouring you with the award. It fires something inside you to continue.
The story that won you the CNN African Journalist Award was about Badagry. What was special about that story for you?
The story that won me the tourism prize in the CNN Multichoice African Journalist Award 2012 is entitled Badagry: A Walk Through the Slave Route. The slave trade has been a topic that has really interested me as a child and I had watched so many films and read books about the infamous period in the history of Africa and the West. Visiting Badagry for the first time that day was an eye opener for me. Like I said in the story, I went to be part of an imaginary journey that occurred so many years ago. What was really special in that story is that I was coming face to face with that era in time; seeing the chains, going into the rooms they were locked up and seeing documents of transaction; receipts of slaves sold and touching items that were exchanged for human beings really got me facing reality. It was no longer a story I read on history books or watching Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley’s popular film, Roots. I was walking on the same soil the slaves worked and it was real. The reality of that period was what I would say made that visit special.
I visited the Marda Barracks officers mess recently, and read about Nigerian soldiers who fought in the First World War and realized an incredible amount of national history that we as a people are unaware of. What are your thoughts on why our governments aren’t doing enough to archive record and promote our history?
I would respond to that question by saying that we have persons in government that don’t understand the worth of preserving history; we have square pegs in round holes and as far as politics keeps beclouding good judgment in terms of appointments, we can never get it right. Take a look at all the persons that have occupied the Ministry of Arts and Culture or even Tourism; they are always government appointees that are being rewarded for their campaign contributions. This is the bane we have in this country. The very sad part of this crop of persons is that they travel abroad and find it very welcoming to attend historic museums, monuments or places of interest and they cannot even recreate what they witness outside the shores of the country when they come back to Nigeria. The civil war that occurred from 1967-1970 is partly to be blamed for this ugly culture and when power was left in the hands of military officers who know next to nothing about preserving history, the decay started. Many of those in charge now grew up in that culture and that’s why we seem not to be very conscious about preserving our past. But some few states have identified the importance of keeping a part of our history in good conditions; states like Abia, Lagos, Osun, Niger and Kano have done well in this regard.
I was once told that our loss of history is a part of the reason for our fragmented identity. What are your thoughts on this?
I will agree with that line of thought because prior to the war as I mentioned earlier, there was some standard in our cultural identity and our history and tradition were well preserved. Even with the inception of colonial rule and with its exit in 1960, not much of the cultural aspect of Nigeria as a nation was grossly affected as we see today. The war contributed immensely in introducing sectionalism, tribalism and total disregard for history. How many schools in Nigeria do you see discussing that 1967-1970 war history in Nigeria? Popular author, Chimamanda Adichie said she grew up seeing the scars of the war around her but the government and most Nigerians pretend that period in history never occurred. Take the exploits of Queen Amina for example; there should be a very befitting relic to tell her stories and also that of the Aba women riots and all that. But we are too tribalized to care what happens to our collective history but individually or as a sectionalized entity, we tend to be more proactive.
It also seems that we read and learn more about our history outside of the country than in the country. Why?
I like the slogan of a publishing house that is striving to revive literature in Nigeria; I am talking about Kachifo, it says, telling our stories ourselves. Yes, we tend to learn some of our history from outside Nigeria; maybe from Wikipedia and Google and some academic research papers written by persons not Nigerians. I commend the effort people from the West take to leave some of our history for us to read but the danger in that is that when we refuse to do what we are supposed to do as a people, then others will do it for us and will do it in a way that suits their audience. And mind you, we are not inclusive in that audience; that audience is the West. I have an uncle who was a major actor in the Nzegwo coup and was also active during the civil war but he has not written a memoir. The late Ikemba Nnewi and Eze Igbo Gburugburu, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu of blessed memory, departed without a memoir about the war and all I can ask is Why? Until the IBBs, the Obasanjos and every other person that has played a part in events that shaped how we are in this country then we will keep living in denials and living on fragments of information pieced together by other people. I have a hunch that Half of a Yellow Sun, the award winning novel by Chimamanda Adichie may have prompted Prof Chinua Achebe to give us There Was a Country. And I am aware that one of my mentors, Prof Okey Ndibe, is working on his book about the war, My Biafran Eyes. We need to start telling our stories ourselves.
When I visited the Hector Pieterson museum in Johannesburg, there was an overwhelming emotion that crept all over me, much like the way you described the experiences in your story. Why do you think it is that the past still has such a huge impact on the present decades after an event that you weren’t even a part of?
It’s the mystery in knowing that something happened and you are aware of it theoretically and when you are faced with the reality of that period, that person, that place, you will be encapsulated with a better understanding which leaves you thanking God for the freedom we live in today. This reality makes you understand the sacrifices people made for you to be where you are. It may have happened a long time ago, decades ago but when you come in contact with that time, something in you gives way to appreciation of the fact that the world which may be a better place for you now was not that fair to others.
As a reader, what I found striking about the story was how you allowed the narrative drive the theme. Some have described the style as narrative journalism, the new journalism and even creative non-fiction. A lot of our newspapers still follow that data driven reportage pattern, which can very easily lack heart and soul when telling a story. Do you think this had any effect on your story as a contender?
Like I said, I went to the Badagry Slave Port to have an imaginary journey; I wanted my imagination to drive me. I wanted to feel like a slave way back in 1867 and imagine what it was like. I tried to let the reality of what I was seeing, touching and breathing guide me. I just told a story of that experience. I used the narrative form because that was the only method I could achieve that experience for my readers; I took them along. I will not agree with the data driven reportage of our newspapers most times is not suitable; it depends on the story you want to tell. Human angle stories take a shape different from a news story; it depends on the style. I might want to tell a story of a distressed bank from the angle of the customer who lost everything; I might forget the data and instead focus on how that financial crisis will affect the person as a human being. It depends on the style. But the good thing about Narrative-Journalism is that it takes the reader, viewer or listener along. CNN, Aljazeera and other international media organizers have developed that style to an extent that Richard Quest would even dress like a Chef and try to cut tomatoes in a story about a restaurant just to make the audience understand how it feels. It is about expressing the experience.
It has become a global issue that the news agenda is now driven by advertisers as subscription is no longer a sustainability factor to the life blood of newspapers and other privately owned media. As a result, certain stories would barely make the inner pages talk less of the front page. Is this a threat to the media as a fourth estate or is the idea of a fourth estate now obsolete?
The most formidable threat to the conventional media is the new media; the internet and especially social networking sites. News now travels at the speed of the internet. With a Smart phone, every phone user is a potential journalist because they have been enabled to convey news. So many breaking News stories are now done via Blackberry phones, social networks like Twitter, Facebook and this is what I foresee as the threat that the print media and other news organisations would face. Advertisers are driven by outreach in circulation; the more widely circulated and read a newspaper is read is a determining factor. But nowadays, the equation has changed; we now hear cliques like “hits” on blogs and websites and some form of advertising has gone online. Even individuals with blogs are now competing with media houses on patronage from corporate bodies who look out for the medium that best serves their interest in advertising their services. Blogs like Linda Ikeji Blog and Bella Naija are as patronized by financial institutions as they do newspapers like Punch, Guardian and ThisDay. Subscription is gradually going obsolete because the new media like Twitter and Facebook has made news to be delivered in short and concise form.
With brown envelopes becoming a normal part of the media business here in Nigeria, can audiences really trust what they read in newspapers?
Brown Envelopes and bribes will remain the bane of Nigerian journalism for a long time to come if certain radical steps are not taken to attempt stopping this cancer that has eaten every aspect of journalism practice in this country. And I will tell you that Publishers of newspapers and politicians that came into the business for their selfish interest are to blame. There is no doubting the fact that publishing a newspaper is capital intensive but a media organization should not carry more than it can cater for; we cannot all report everything. But politicians and publishers with hidden agendas who come into this business has further spread the virus that I will say we are at a stage where it has become a tradition. If a reporter is not paid for close to four-five months, how do you expect that reporter to be objective? I am not saying that there are not journalists that are honest and hard working in the profession but many are exposed to harsh times; very little salaries that are not paid as and when due and even, in some media houses, the reporters are made to do the work of vendors, subscription and is expected to be focused which is near impossible. The audience is more or less in the same situation with the reporters and I believe they have the choice to make either to trust the reports churned out or not. But I will tell you categorically that despite the abnormalities and deficiencies, the media in Nigeria is one of the most vibrant because they have learnt through the hard way even when there was no FOI(Freedom Of Information) Act to help them.
Journalism is not exactly a very well paid field, and definitely not well paid here in Nigeria. As a result, journalists double as PR agents in order to survive and sometimes news stories become subliminal advertorials. In the end, how do you think this will affect the credibility of the profession?
I think the dearth of PR agencies caused by some of the corporate bodies has led to this dual status of journalists. But the organisation has to have a policy on what amounts to a PR story or not. The Editors have to be more thorough to make sure that objectivity is not jeopardized. I blame the corporate bodies of this trend because in searching for a shortcut, they bypassed PR agencies and relied more on journalists who they felt they could call a Press Conference and give press releases to use. Yes, it has affected professionalism and credibility but good and credible journalists cannot be hidden; it all shows in your stories and I must tell you, your colleagues will have that respect for you despite all odds.
What kinds of stories do you enjoy working on most and why?
I love doing human angle stories; stories that affect humanity personally. I also do investigative stories especially on corruption and human rights abuses. I like traveling a lot so do tourism stories as I love writing about places. I like doing these stories because that is what my career for now demands of me and also, I just love writing.
Do you think journalism still has a role to play in the change process both on a local and global level?
Journalism has a lot of role to play if not the major role to play in both local and global affairs. Nigerian journalists should stand up to the challenge and do stories. We have so many untold stories than any other country in Africa and with the vibrancy of our media, many things are yet to be accomplished.