By Mukurima X Muriuki-Los Angeles
My name is Zain Verjee and I was born and raised in Kenya. I schooled in Nairobi until when I was 17 years old and my parents decided to send me to Canada to pursue university education. I would stay in Canada for 5 years, first pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and then enrolling for a Master’s degree in the same field.
Life was wonderful in Kenya. It was diverse, multicultural and I grew up thinking that anything was possible. My main challenge was personal, suffering from a skin disorder called psoriasis.
While pursuing my Master’s studies, my thesis data collection required that I travel back home. I managed to finish the data collection earlier than I had anticipated. Around the same time, my dad mentioned to me about this new radio station called Capital FM in Nairobi, and he wanted me to find out if they were hiring! Fortunately, they were looking for someone to read Traffic News; I applied and I got the job!
After a while reading Traffic News, I started the Love-Life show and my family and friends thought I sounded great on radio! Remember that I was supposed to travel back to Canada to finish my studies, but being a radio DJ was in itself fulfilling and something that I developed a passion for. This would entail the most obvious decision relative to my studies-deferral. That is exactly what I did!
When the American embassy was attacked by the Al Qaeda terrorist cell, I remember seeing smoke billow from the explosion site. At that time I was doing the morning show at Capital FM. Images of desperation, anguish and pain of innocent civilians left an indelible imprint and influenced my decision to focus on covering “Hard news,” meaning serious news with widespread importance affecting the society.
My first opportunity at reading news as a presenter was availed by KTN. It was a momentous time because KTN was the only available alternative to KBC. However, granted that there were not so many options in terms of local television stations, it was easy to make a mistake and go unnoticed. At least back then you could not be crucified on social media for making a mistake like it happens today. My greatest challenge was that on some occasions I did not know what I doing because I had not received any media-related training. Luckily for me, in addition to learning from my mistakes, I also had innumerable support from everybody around me.
While still at KTN, I had bigger dreams-I wanted to step it up and to this end, I would send several job applications to CNN. However, every application I submitted was rejected. I can easily count about 12 times that I received the ‘regret’ letter. But I never gave up. I still believed that I was a good fit for an international media house and my persistence paid off when one day I received a letter from CNN inviting me for a screen test! The catch though was that CNN could not cover any travel-related cost and I had to foot this on my own. I only made one request that they would give me a copy of my screen test tape and they agreed. I dutifully travelled to Atlanta, did a quiz and some others tests and was ready to return back home the next day.
The following day, I went back to the CNN offices to pick the screen test tape as I had earlier requested. I met this lady and as we talked, she inquired about my nationality a few other questions, and believe it or not, she told me, “You are hired.” She went told me that she would teach me how to be a writer and a producer and if I am not any good within 3 years, I could leave and go back home. In 2000, at 25 years of age, I packed my bags headed for Atlanta-Georgia.
Working at CNN was challenging. At first I was scared and nervous, yet excited to be working for a leader in the media industry. I did not know how international news was produced and there was pressure at a high level. I also had to learn how to drive! I met a lot of great Kenyans and Tanzanians that made my life easier while CNN colleagues became a family. Even though I was offered beginner’s salary, the value I got was greater than the money I was earning. I was taught how to write, to produce, and to present. I enjoyed the intellectual challenges, the edge and the drive to be better, to lean and to win on merit. After 6 months, I had my first show, and the rest is history.
My biggest moment at CNN was getting to cover Condoleezza Rice who was then the head of America’s foreign policy. I would travel with her, alongside other journalists, as part of the media team. It was such a great experience being on the first and fast lane of foreign policy. It behooved me to research and know what was going on in the world in order to stay up to date, and this made me grow as a journalist.
It has been difficult balancing between career and personal life. I have not made an effort to invest in a relationship or marriage but I am now making it a priority.
My challenge for Kenyans living abroad is that they have to always fly the Kenyan flag, to be loyal to both the country you are in, and the country you are from. Kenyans in Diaspora must utilize their enormous talents and intelligence to contribute to better societies in both places.
Currently, I am working with a talented team to build a storytelling and content platform for Africa called aKoma. It is for anyone, professional or amateur, who has an interest in Africa to write, and tell their story to the world. Click here to be part of aKoma.