Ndimyake Mwakalyelye recently participated in the National Press Foundation’s Journalist to Journalist Global Health program in Washington DC. As the anchor of Voice of America’s TV program “In Focus,” Mwakalyelye covers a wide range of issues that are of interest to her audience in Africa. Voice of America is the official international public broadcaster of the United States Federal Government.
An experienced reporter and anchor, Mwakalyelye discusses improving the craft of journalism and journalism ethics. She was interviewed by NPF intern Gabrielle Gorder.
“It’s really about…contributing to the well being of all societies,” Ndimyake Mwakalyelye
Q: What is your background?
I was born in Tanzania and grew up in Zimbabwe. I spent my high school years in Zimbabwe. And I went to college here in the United States at Howard University and then American University. As I was enrolling in college, I decided that [journalism] is what I wanted to do because my family had been caught up in a lot of the political ranglings back in Zimbabwe and I just felt that I wanted to contribute somehow.
Q: What kind of perspective does your personal background give you on issues you report on?
It’s really broadened my perspective. I’ve got a little bit of knowledge about Tanzania, a little bit of knowledge about Zimbabwe and then also the US. My African perspective balanced out with the US perspective puts me in a position where I can make fair comparisons. So when somebody makes comparisons between say, the Zimbabwean judicial system and the US judicial system, it gives me the ability to say why one certain law or legislation works better in one country than in another.
Q: Why broadcast journalism?
I initially dabbled in print. I was trying to discover where would I fit in best and I just found the broadcasting aspect, for me, a little more engaging and a little more far-reaching than newspaper or print. Obviously print is limited to people who can read and write.
Q: Your TV program, “In Focus,” is a 30-minute daily news program based out of the Voice of America’s Washington DC headquarters and broadcast in Africa.
Yes it’s a 30 minute daily magazine-type show.
Q: When you say magazine- type, you mean it includes longer feature stories?
Yes, that’s what we strive for. At the top of the show we normally try to do [breaking news], but you’ll find that mostly toward the bottom part of the show it’s a lot of feature-y, interesting, versatile, different topics so that way we do give the audience something that they typically wouldn’t come across.
Q: How does “In Focus” differentiate itself from other news programs based and broadcast in Africa?
It’s very difficult because a lot of the news networks, especially those based in Africa, are very competitive these days. We broadcast from Washington to Africa where most countries are on average 6 to 7 hours ahead of us. So, it’s very difficult to address breaking news in a breaking news format. While people are not necessarily looking to us for breaking news, in terms of what is going on in Egypt or Somalia or wherever it is something is happening, they will look to us for what’s interesting and what’s the perspective of Africans who are abroad.
Q: What factors go into creating a news-rundown in the US that will be of interest to people in another time zone, on another continent?
Our stories are not necessarily in Africa but they are about Africa. People also want to know, what is life like outside of Africa? Africans want to know about Africans, Europeans, Asians and South Americans and Americans. They want to know what they can do to make their lives better.
Q: “In Focus” broadcasts also include news about Prince George’s County (a predominately African-American community in the DC metro area), African American cultural icons such as the singer-actress Lena Horne or influential voices of the civil rights movement such as Dorothy Height. Why are people in Africa interested in these stories? What do they gain by learning about them?
The whole civil rights struggle, the whole fight for equality… is something that a lot of Africans can relate to. A lot of African countries were colonized and a lot of them had to fight in all sorts of ways to gain their independence. There were a lot of movements that were launched to ensure that people get their rights to vote, to work, to live wherever they want. America has been the beacon of hope for a lot of people looking in. They know about the Martin Luther Kings…they know about the pioneers in the movements…the W.E.B. Du Bois (a civil rights activist from the 1880s, a founder of the NAACP and the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard University). Actually, to me it is always more amazing how people really aspire for those kinds of changes. Including Lena Horne, you know she was a strong voice for the oppressed community. That kind of exposure is really important for the general growth of the population. Anybody that can present an inspiring story that they feel they can emulate. People do take that and run with it.
Q: What is the world-viewership of “In Focus”? What is the program’s targeted audience?
We broadcast to sub-Saharan Africa the Africa. The Africa central hub has a viewership and listenership of about 7 to 11 million people in Africa.
Q: In those countries, do more people view television or get their news from radio, newspapers etc.?
Radio is still pretty much the main source of information for a lot of people… radio capability can be satellite powered or solar powered…10 people can listen to one radio station. Newspapers, do have a base but they’re not as widely used because of the illiteracy factor and also the expense factor. A lot of people share a paper and you’ll find that one newspaper can be circulated among so many people. It’s not always the freshest of news but as long as they get hold of a paper at some point. TV is growing but it’s expensive and very reliant on electricity. A lot of African countries have a very severe power shortage. Sometimes there is no electricity. You have a TV…but no power.
Q: Have you produced any journalistic works that you are particularly proud of? If so, what makes those pieces stand out to you?
You know, not yet. I’m really looking forward to doing some traveling in Africa and do some really in-depth stories on issues affecting real people and their real environment. Meantime, I am trying to do a good job but I still feel that I have yet to get to that point where I can say, “my best work is…”
Q: Is there anything you can do to prepare yourself for that moment?
Oh absolutely! Every time you shoot, you get better. Every time you write a story, you get better. Every time you broadcast something, you get better. I can only aspire to get better. Every time I approach a story I look at as if I were to tackle that really deep story, do I have the elements to do it yet? So, all that will help me when it comes time to do that big thing. I’d love it to be a documentary of some kind. Right now I still feel that I am building: learning the technique, the mechanisms of developing that story. All things are building towards that big…whatever that is.
Q: What has been the most challenging issue to cover?
There is always a debate in Africa about how Africa is portrayed negatively. But that is our job as journalists. Yes, talk about those who are doing well, but absolutely focus on those who are not doing well. So like now, there is this famine in the Horn. How are you going to expect me to tell that story and portray it positively? We need to make sure that the issues that need to come up, come up so that these issues are prevented. You don’t worry about, “ok these images are negative.” It’s not a creation. That’s a live woman. That’s a live child. I always feel that there is an effort to sweep these stories under the rug and to show the better side, but not everybody is appreciating the better side.
Sometimes, I go home to my village in Tanzania and there are no lights there. I’m used to going home at night after a long days work, take a nice hot shower, turn on the lights, turn on the gas stove [to cook] and go to bed… but for a lot of people that’s not their reality. Some people have never flipped an [electric] switch. Some people have never turned on a tap for water. Those are the things that I feel as journalists we can try to help change. I think sometimes the real issue is buried because so many people are making a big hullabaloo about the most insignificant things when the real issues are still happening and are not being tackled. Really as journalists we can change the world …through our medium, be it radio, be it TV or be it print.
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