Sunday May 30 2010

‘I’m an international creature’

By Robert Kalumba


For Africans both in the continent and in the Diaspora, Sesay is the African face of CNN. She’s the de-facto ambassador, the link between the international network and the millions that watch it on the continent. “Oh my God don’t put all that burden on me,’’ she laughs, adding, “I’m flattered and humbled that people see me that way.’’

Ms Sesay

I meet Isha Sesay for an interview in the Serena Hotel lobby dressed in a dark yellow T-shirt and black trousers looking pristine and beautiful. As she keeps me on hold for a few minutes and talks on her phone, I notice something interesting. She actually looks more stunning and cheerful off screen than she does on it! Could it be that sometimes the bad news that she delivers gives her that serious look, I wonder. “Sorry about that. My names are Isha Sesay, good morning,” she smiles as she gets off her phone.

Sesay is in town as the main host for tonight’s (Saturday) event, the CNN Multichoice African Journalism Award that will be held at Serena Hotel. The occasion that is in its 15th year, celebrates and recognises the best in African journalism. However, for some African journalists, today’s celebrations come with a backdrop of press intimidation from the state.

“You know that problem is not only in Africa. It’s a global issue. Journalists in many countries are faced with intimidation and harassment by their governments. But what these awards do is to open up the discussion concerning press freedom. If one is awarded by CNN for a compelling story about a government project gone wrong due to corruption, then that’s an endorsement internationally for good journalism. That recognition can work both ways. For the journalist, it’s a massive boost and encouragement and for the government, it’s an eye opener into what counts for real journalism.” Speaking of journalism, Sesay’s journey to the CNN’s global headquarters in Atlanta has been amazing – from presenting sports in UK to anchoring news in America.

Television career
She started her television career as a researcher for a popular talk show in Britain known as Kilroy. In the beginning, she wasn’t paid any salary for her research. She was simply volunteering.

In 1998 to 2001, Sesay presented a wide range of programmes across the BBC networks. In 2002, she then moved to sports presenting on Sky Sports. For three years she presented the show Good Morning Sports Fans for Sky Sports. She considers the high points of that period among others, travelling with the members of the Arsenal football team following an exhibition match in support of Nwankwo Kanu’s heart foundation. She later moved on to the UK broadcaster ITN where she anchored ITV’s Early Morning News programme as well as the widely watched breakfast programme GMTV.

In November 2005, Sesay crossed borders to America and became a news anchor for CNN, based at the network’s global headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. For many young Ugandan television presenters, her television story is really fascinating. They would love to be like her. But how does a burgeoning African television presenter end up in the big international television studios? “I won’t lie and tell you that you have to work hard and that’s it. I wouldn’t be truthful to you. However, in addition to education and working hard at your craft, you have to put yourself in front of those people that make the decisions.

I didn’t get the opportunity of working at CNN that simply. I did everything; presenting kids’ shows, researching for free etc and all that time, I was readying myself - and if an opportunity arose, I would walk up to those that matter and say, ‘Hey I’m here and I’m ready’. So with tenacity and discipline, one can succeed. In addition to that, there is also luck…and a whole load of other factors really,” she laughs.

Programme host
Sesay hosts the famous Inside Africa for CNN, a programme that deals exclusively with African stories. One of their famous former presenters was the Kenyan Jeff Koinange. So there must be some sort of pressure since she is of African descent to impress at CNN or any other big international networks, right?
“Let’s say I’m mindful of the fact that I’m of African descent. However, that is not the reason for my working hard. I’m competitive as an individual and nobody can drive me as hard as I drive myself. I always want to keep excelling, that’s in my nature.”

For many African journalists, winning a CNN award is right up there among their career achievements. But what exactly comes out of winning? Can it further one’s career, perhaps open doors or would it lay smartly on one’s desk at home until it gathers some dust?
This partnership CNN has with Multichoice has been invaluable. They give the awards a huge platform across Africa since Dstv is seen across the continent. This kind of embeds the awards on the continent. It gives them credibility.

As for the overall winner, they get a three weeks internship at CNN’s global headquarters where they get a fully hands-on training. The skills they learn better them and their colleagues back home. ”

Sesay is one person who has climbed the ladder quite impressively. The fact that she has an African background gives her success a positive dimension to it, the kind that is inspirational. So where does she see herself in the future?
“Cant I be happy with now?” she laughs.
“I just want to better myself as a journalist.”