I Became A Journalist At The Age Of 14
Nigerian-born Femi Oke is a very popular face on Cable News Network (CNN). In this interview with Babajide Kolade-Otitoju held recently at Mozambique's Polona Hotel, the petite journalist spoke of her passion for the job and future plans.
Q: Can you tell us how your journey into journalism began?
A: Permit me, I knew what I wanted to be right from when I was a child. Certain evenings, myself and my sisters would go to the swimming club, and then at the end of the evening, we'd come home and then we'd do vice, chicken and peas and then I would do the evening news bulletin. And we had a famous news cast called News at Ten. And on the news cast they would have the Big Ben clocking with time on the hour, so I would do the family headlines too. So with each time, I would do little bits of family news.
Since when I was really young, I was the newscaster at the dinner table on Friday nights. When I then went to school, and I was a teenager, I worked for a talk radio station called LBC, which is London Broadcasting Corporation. I worked for them while I was still in school. By the time I was at the university, I'd already done six years in radio and I worked in the university for the BBC. And when I finished my degree in English Literature, I went straight to work for the BBC. So I think one of the positive things about my childhood was that I absolutely knew what I was going to do from when I was a kid. And I was so focused about doing it. I find a lot of young people come up to me and saying I want to be a journalist or I want to be on TV either being in their mid-twenties or late twenties, and then it's a struggle because it's a very popular field. A very popular profession. So I was lucky that I really knew, when I was a kid, what I wanted to do.
Q: What really was the attraction? A lot of those you grew up must have preferred professions like banking, engineering?
A: Yeah, Medicine and Law. Just like every Nigerian parent wants their child to be either a doctor or a lawyer. The great thing about my parents was that, for Nigerians, they were very liberal. They didn't care what I studied, but I had to go to university. No boyfriends, no going out, no dancing. I had to study and get my degree and then I could do whatever I liked. They didn't mind what degree. They didn't understand television or radio. Nobody in the family had ever done that. But they were very supportive. As long as I got a degree I could be what I like. So I'm very lucky I have those kinds of parents who are open-minded.
Q: Were you influenced by certain journalists while growing up?
A: When I was a kid in the sixties, there were very many journalists like me too. In fact, the two people who had the biggest profiles are still in the profession as newscasters on the BBC and until recently, there was another newscaster called Trevor McDonald. And they were the two newscasters of colour in the British Broadcasting team. Now, we are many more. But I had no role models. And I think it's just that I love to meet people, I like doing radio interviews. I was very good where I was. And it just suited my personality.
Q: And you didn't particularly like print journalism?
A: No. I went straight into radio. I was on radio from when I was a child.
Q: At what time did you begin to appear on TV?
A: I was on radio from when I was 14 and my first TV show, I was 20 years old. So I could say I became a journalist at the age of 14!
Q: How did you join CNN?
A: That was, let me think, almost seven years ago to the day when I first got on air on CNN. I was reading a broadcast magazine in the UK called Book Oft and there was a four-page advertisement and it said CNN was looking for a Weather Correspondent. And one of my little hobbies was studying it because I was fascinated by the weather. And I said okay, I might soon be off to Atlanta. I was watching TV one night and I picked up the phone and this gentleman said 'this is CNN, we'll like to fly you to America' And I said okay, you're right. And he said he was ready and they want me to fly out as soon as possible. I actually put them off for several weeks. Because one needed to learn the whole geographies of the whole world and two, it was extremely intimidating. I mean, myself and a lot of people watch CNN, which is a huge newsbrand, and you know you see terrible news and you see how they do their stuff, I tell you it was extremely intimidating. But I did eventually get on the plane and I went to CNN, Atlanta. I spent an entire day there. And they grilled me for the whole day. They'd leave me with people and then leave me to talk and they'd asked them what I was striking, how I communicated. This was on for about eight hours and the next morning, they called me at the hotel I was staying and then they said, 'you've got the job, when are you moving to America?' And that was it. So I always say to people, whatever your ambition is, really go for it. There's no reason why you shouldn't work for CNN, why you shouldn't work for a major broadcasting organisation.
Q: How challenging have you found your new beat, Inside Africa? Because up till now, a lot of people believe that there was no balance in that documentary on CNN about the corruptive tendencies of Nigerians and it caused a lot of furore at home?
A: Yes. I remember that story and I did see the reactions on that. I think it's a work in progress. Definitely. And I definitely think Africa has an image that is not necessarily correct to the rest of the world. But I also think it's the duty of Africans to work on that. It's the duty of Africans to work on that. Some of that is rooted in some truth. Some of our good leaders could be better. Some of our practices could be better. And I definitely think we actually have to say to ourselves: 'okay, how do we show to the rest of the world that this is Africa?' And it's not always for the rest of the world to report about Africa. Africans tell African stories the African way. And I think that I'm being part of that full circle. Not that why did CNN do this, why didn't CNN also bla bla?
Q: Apart from TV reporting, what other passions do you have?
A: I spend so much time on TV, they make a joke about it. They always say, 'you gonna live here? Do you sleep in the building?' Because I have my proper full-time job, which is telling the weather everyday. But I'm very lucky because of the Inside Africa, so I am also putting stories together, writing the scripts, doing the reports. I do a lot of travelling and a lot of sittings. I've just come back from Ghana, Liberia. I finish my day and then I will work into 2-3a.m. So my passion is my job. But I think sometimes, if you watch my work, I think you can tell that I love what I do. But often than not, I do like to go to the movie. I really love films. I think it's just a great way to escape and I really enjoy films. When I go to the cinema, I watch two or three at the same time. And my friends won't permit me. Because they just want to go to the movie and I stay all night. I watch two or three movies that way, I catch up with everything. So most times I have to go to the cinema by myself. Isn't that terrible?
Q: Does any other person in your linear family share your crave for the job?
A: No. It's completely bizarre. I'm the only person in the family. My father is a lawyer, my mother was a lecturer and, everybody is a professional in my family. But nobody [craves work], and this is a really interesting thing. My parents would tell my family in Nigeria, 'oh Femi is on TV' or 'Femi is on radio,' and they'd be like, 'ah ah now, what does that mean, what did she drink? You know, you're too free with the girls,' because I have three sisters, or 'you're too free with the girls to just let them do whatever they want to do.' So I kept doing this for years. Then I went to CNN, and suddenly my family in Lagos and Abuja, they could see me, and then they are, 'ah... We see what Femi is doing.' So it's just me going to CNN, where we have a global platform, for them to really appreciate what I do. As for now, my mother doesn't have satellite so she doesn't watch me. So they'll call my mother and say, 'oh, we saw Femi and she's wearing this jacket,' 'oh, we saw Femi in Uganda and she was riding a motorbike.' And my mother'd say, 'ah ah darling, you have to be careful, Don't they have proper transport at CNN?' And I'll say: 'Mom, I was doing a promotion on Uganda.' So I can be on TV in Atlanta and my extended family in Nigeria gets to see it. I'm very proud that's possible.
Q: Where exactly in Nigeria are you from?
A: I'm from Lagos.
Q: How long have your parents been living abroad?
A: Oh my goodness, over forty years. I was born there. They went to study and they never went back home. In fact, this week in South Africa, we're doing a story about a Nigerian university that's trying to encourage students to study in Nigeria. They say many students go overseas and when they go overseas, they become passionate to stay and to work. And that's exactly what happened to my parents. They went to study for a few years and they started a family and then they never went back to Lagos. You know, those times in the 60s and 70s were difficult times in Nigeria. So I think it was hard for them [to change their country of abode], and for many Nigerians, because it's a big community in London, so many couldn't go back to Nigeria when things were so tough.
Q: You seem to have a real liking for well-tailored suits?
A: Ah! So you appreciate my wardrobe. And see, I'm quite cheap. I always watch what I buy.
Q: Where do you shop?
A: Mostly London. Even though I live in America, I like to buy clothes in London. I always put my arms up and people in the sales wonder why is she putting her arms up. Because when I'm doing the weather report, I have to stretch the arms. So it has to work. That's to ensure that my clothes actually hang okay.
Q: What's your favourite colour?
A: Oh my goodness. I go with colours which look good on black skin. Orange looks fantastic. Red looks very good. So anything that can make you look very striking. And I like bright colours.
Q: ]Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
A: Do you know what I'd like to do? I'll like to visit the troubled ... Because I get to go to Africa so often, and each time I have to get on the plane to go back it's really hard for me. It's really difficult. And it's strange for me to have my African roots and to never have lived in Africa. Never in my whole life. I spend a lot of time here and in many different countries. But I never lived in Africa and I really feel that at some point in my life, I have to live in my own continent. And I really want to do that. I'm really going to try hard.