Sophie Ikenye exudes confidence and can switch from a girlie giggle to a straight face in a matter of seconds as she speaks on different aspects close to her heart and work. A seasoned journalist, the presenter of the BBC’s daily African news programme, Focus on Africa on BBC World News TV, has covered key events in Africa, including the 2011 Nigerian presidential elections, the on-going crisis in Libya and spearheaded the coverage of the 2013 Kenyan elections. Ikenye has interviewed more than 10 African presidents and other prominent personalities. The strong believer in giving the less advantaged a voice, Ikenye last week spent time in Kampala.
Describe Sophie, the woman and Sophie the journalist.
Sophie the woman is a girl who was born in North Eastern Kenya and grew up in a very strict family. A person who was told and taught to build character and work hard for what they want to achieve. Sophie is compassionate and curious. Curiosity is what built the journalist in me. Therein also comes the resilience and hard work that I was taught.
Did you always dream of being a journalist?
I have always been a very curious person by nature. I love to learn, meet people and also to know things first, so that I can be able to tell others. I know this is very selfish but that’s me.
You pride with telling the African story, from your perspective, what exactly is the African story?
There is no single African story, we are not one people. We are 54 countries and we are diverse, our cultures are different and yet this diversity is what makes us what we are, it is that diversity that makes us amazing people.
What has been cutting across most of the countries you have covered over the years?
The biggest concern has been coming from young people.
Issues that affect them for the last two years have been things such as immigration, revolutions and all are effects of economic conditions or conflicts.
The other concern has always been the hunt for jobs. You hear stories from people who are graduates, but are sweeping the streets, asking for jobs but there is no space for them not because there is no need, but there is simply no created space for them.
What issues do you believe are largely under covered by media?
I think we need to do more stories that inspire. Today as much as people say bad news is good news, there is a lot of apathy for bad news especially among young people.
They are looking at a millionaire and thinking, ‘I really want to know what you went through’, but these people haven’t written books on their experiences.
Youth want to know what lessons they can learn and apply to their lives. What is the trick? These are the kind of stories media should cover to inspire others to do better.
What about you, where do you draw your inspiration from?
Mine have kept changing. When I joined media, I used to admire an anchor on CNN, I felt so drawn in. As I got more experience, I got to see people in the field like Lyse Doucet, people who are bold and for me, that is a big deal. There are various qualities I admire in different reporters. My biggest inspiration though are my audiences, I couldn’t be where I’m today if it wasn’t them.
You have interviewed many personalities, who left a mark on you?
I find the most engaging interviews are those that are solution based especially with young people and innovators. I spoke to a young man who had innovated a wheel chair that could climb stairs and would tell you when to take your medicine, drink water or even eat food. He was inspired by an aunty who had issues with their back, so he felt he had to do something to make their life easier.
You interviewed Angelina Jolie, what was that like?
She is a great woman. She knew what she wanted with the interview. I’m told she actually picked the show and picked me, I thought that was a good plus. She was happy to meet me. It was a bit tense because she never knew what kind of questions we would ask. We were talking about her work and there were scandals in UHCR that time. When she walked in, you could see the veins on her neck stand out. And everyone around her was awed, even the lighting people forgot to light me. She came in greeted me and when I asked how the babies were, her face lit up and she just relaxed, the interview went well.
Who would get you star struck?
If I interviewed Obama, I would be star struck, he looks like a good interviewee. I think I would forget my questions. However, we prepare a lot for big interviews, so you are psychologically prepared not to be star struck. I interviewed President Museveni, I know he is interesting and has strong opinions; you simply have no time to be star struck with these personalities.
Which was that interview you would rather forget?
There are quite a number actually, it happens and you feel bad. I did an interview with an American Cameroonian woman who had created a bleaching cream. Before it, I was uncomfortable and told my editor I wasn’t so sure about the direction this interview would take. It was so embarrassing. I asked her why she bleaches her skin, she said ‘why not?’ I put a picture of her before and after bleaching. She looked so beautiful before. I asked what was wrong with that girl, why did she have to change. She said ‘why not, what’s wrong with it. Sophie you have a perm don’t you? Sophie, we all do fake things don’t we?’ Turning this thing round was something else; I never answered her but just kept asking other questions. When it comes to issues like skin or hair, these are tough interviews because women feel differently, so I normally don’t take a stand on these issues.
As a broadcast journalist do you feel under pressure to look good?
Yes, you need to look good; people like people who look good, you don’t want to look drab. But look good comfortably, don’t dress in something that will make you feel like you are not yourself.
What is your secret? How do you take care of yourself?
I try to exercise a bit. I do Pilates. I’m lucky to have a good metabolism system, so I really eat anything I like. Also just laugh and be happy. I love listening to people to laugh a lot.
Female TV journalists tread the thin line between appearance and substance. You find good looking women who are not journalists employed on broadcast media. What are your thoughts?
It is not journalism if you are just there to look good, for the body, not the mind. A journalist has to be hungry, has to care about what she is delivering not what she looks like. It is good to look good but what are you delivering?
Which issues are close to your heart?
I love agriculture. I did a series called Farming is cool , because today young people are leaving their white collar jobs and going to farming. Some are successful; they have transferred the skills they learnt in office to the farm.
In South Africa, I met a young trendy girl with a Mohawk taking care of a big farm, she left a good job in Sandstone. A young man in Kenya went into fish farming and came up with a fish biscuit. When I see young people take up agriculture which is the backbone of our economies, I get very happy.
How much of women issues have you covered?
Quite a lot, we recently had a series, Women you should know, that looks at women who have broken the glass ceiling so to speak in the corporate world and other fields that would be considered male dominated.
What do you think is the gap in coverage of women issues? What are we not focusing on?
We are concentrating on the so called experts and neglecting the ground person, for instance, taking to the administrator, not the teacher. We need to get close to those women whom we always replace with representatives. We should focus on the real players.
We should talk about women’s issues more in the public domain. We should talk to them and about them.
How do you think women can empower themselves in their careers and personal life?
Don’t lose your feminine instinct, it works especially for journalists. We are compassionate people and this helps. You can do stories others find out of reach.
Also, it is not all about work. I’m single and sometimes I feel I have concentrated a lot on my career. People will remember you for your achievements, but at the end of the day, you want to be around loving people and care for people.
What are some challenges you have faced in your career?
It depends on the situation. The challenge would be based on my work and how easy or hard it is to get the people I want on set or to get the kind of story everyone is talking about. How you create trust and contacts in the streets.
Sometimes, we get embarrassed when people ask why we are not covering particular stories, yet it’s because we don’t have the documents.
My other challenge is how to attract young audiences. Today, news consumption is digital, we have to embrace this, people don’t have time to watch TV.
Have you been maginalised as a woman in your career?
I wouldn’t say I have, because I’m very assertive. They do mess with me, but I strategise and say something. You have to say something otherwise it’s easy for people to step on your toes.
What life lessons have you drawn from your career?
Patience has been one of the major ones and to open my eyes. I learn everyday, that is the only way I have learnt to improve on what I do. Also open mindedness and listening to others.
You were listed among 100 influential young Africans of 2016, how has this changed your life?
It has given me more responsibility. I feel like I have to deliver. It was a blessing and huge surprise, but also puts you in a position where you feel all eyes are on you.
We are special as women and I don’t think any other human being can do what a woman can do. I’m not talking about jobs, but the ability to balance emotions, the things you can keep in your heart and still manage a smile.
Things she loves
I like eating and love reading. I read a lot and this is one thing I acquired when I moved to London. People read a lot on the train. It keeps my mind busy. I enjoy Music and dancing too. I wouldn’t figure out a painting, but music is my thing.
On media being impactful
While we have to angle our stories to our target audiences, what we need to do as media is tell the African story as it needs to be told. It is hard to remove the politics of everyday from media, but it should be possible for us to consciously choose development issues that resonate across the world.
I went to Our Lady of Mercy Primary School, Pangani Girls High school and Kenya Institute of Mass Communication.