Inaugural BBC World News Komla Dumor Award Winner
As an entrepreneur, a radio host, and a dancer, Ugandan journalist Nancy Kacungira wears many hats, including a position as the most popular news anchor at Kenya’s KTN network. In 2015, Nancy won the inaugural BBC World News Komla Dumor Award, which honors the late Ghanaian newscaster. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Nancy about her remarkable rise to the top at the forefront of East African journalism.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a journalist?
When I was very young I used to sometimes take a newspaper and read the stories out loud to my cat, pretending to be a news presenter. My grown-up career initially took a very different path, although communication was always part of whatever I did. I worked as a graphic designer and then a radio presenter before rediscovering my childhood love for telling stories when I transitioned to television news.
You did your Masters in the UK. Why did you decide to leave? What drew you back to the continent?
I always knew that I would return home after my studies, because I felt a strong sense of duty to where I come from. I did consider staying in London to work for a few years, since everyone I spoke to advised that the exposure would be good for me. However, I still felt that my contribution would be more significant back home. So after I handed in my thesis I left the UK immediately—I didn’t even attend my graduation!
You’re a Ugandan who grew up in Tanzania and works in Kenya. While Western media tends to speak about the monolithic entity of “Africa,” what is unique to you about each of these places?
It’s difficult to point out unique characteristics for an entire country, but each one that I’ve lived in is tied to certain experiences and stages in my life. Tanzania remains in my mind the peaceful, laid-back environment in which I enjoyed childhood games like “rede” (dodgeball) and “mdako” (a game of throwing and catching pebbles). When I first visited Uganda I was struck by the redness of the soil and just how green it seemed to be everywhere. After living there for many years I came to know it as the vibrant, sometimes chaotic home where life is to be enjoyed no matter the circumstances. Kenya comes off much sterner, more aggressive and competitive than the two neighbours.
Kenyans are famously quite vocal on Twitter. Why do you think there is such a degree of outspokenness in comparison to other African countries?
I’ve heard Kenyans describe themselves as being a very “politically-minded” people. There seems to be more of a tradition of civic engagement in Kenya than in some of the other neighbouring countries, one that spills over onto social media. There is also the issue of access. For example, the numbers attached to total users and penetration for social media in Kenya are about three times higher than Uganda’s.
What’s your favorite medium – print, radio, or television?
My favorite medium depends on what I’m trying to communicate. Certain stories or pieces of communication lend themselves better to a particular medium. Print allows you more room to fully explore and express ideas, give context and analyze things. Radio encourages creativity, inviting you to paint pictures and tell stories with only sound and silence. Television is rich in terms of audio-visual devices at your disposal, but typically gives you limited time and space.
You’ve called yourself an introvert in the past. How does the help or hinder your work?
I believe every strength or weakness can be a double-edged sword. People’s strongest characteristics will often also be their flaws, so I choose to focus on the positives of my character and learn how to use them to overcome the very weakness they could become. As an introvert, I am energised more by spending time alone, than with big groups of people. Whether it helps or hinders my work is always about perspective. I’ve learned to be comfortable with the fact that I’ll never be the loud, boisterous, life-of-the-party type, but I can achieve the same results in my own quiet way, and make deep and meaningful connections by fully engaging a few people at a time. Being introverted also means that I am able to spend time thinking deeply and critically about a subject without getting bored by it, which is useful when I’m doing research!
Does being a woman shape your approach to journalism?
I obviously know of and have experienced some of the unique challenges that women face in the workplace, but I’ve never personally felt that my gender should ultimately define what I can or can’t do in my career, or make certain things harder for me. I’ve never met a man who thinks about how being a man defines his approach to his profession; and in the same way, my mindset is that it is my character that ultimately defines me and not my gender. I am not more entitled or less entitled to anything just because I’m a woman. I approach work and challenges as opportunities to understand and better my personality, whether or not those challenges come my way because of my gender. Having said that, I still believe I have a role to play in mentoring younger women and doing whatever I can to stand up for women’s rights because there certainly still exists a systemic discrimination of women in the workplace.
What is your favorite story you’ve covered?
My favorite story was about some African-Americans who have decided to move permanently to Africa; there are more than 3,000 living in Ghana. I went there and interviewed some of them including one New Yorker who, at the age of fifty, visited Africa for the first time on a business trip and went to a slave castle as part of the tour. Discovering this part of a history she’d never been taught about affected her so much, she decided she was going to move back to the land her ancestors came from. She has lived in Ghana for twenty-six years now. Her deep passion and commitment to Africa and its history left a lasting impression. It was very inspiring, and I was very excited to see the story go viral on social media with more than a million views!
What story was the most difficult to cover?
Working in Kenya, the terrorist attacks on Garissa University College in Kenya that left 148 people dead, most of them students, was difficult for our newsroom as a whole. The sheer senselessness of these young people losing their lives in such a horrific way is something you hope will never happen again.
How do you remain objective as a journalist on topics you care about?
I do this by constantly remembering that as a journalist, I am not writing or reporting for myself, or for self-gratification. I am a public servant. I look at my job as one that sets out to inform, not infer. By exercising the same principle time and time again, regardless of the story, remaining objective becomes easier to do as a trained response rather than an emotional decision made on a case-by-case basis.
When you won the BBC World Komla Dumor Award, you got the chance to report from Africa for the BBC. What is it like to cover Africa for an outlet based in the West versus covering Africa for an African-based news outlet?
The biggest difference was that of local and global scope. As a journalist covering news within Kenya, Uganda, or East Africa in general, the considerations in terms of what is relevant to the audience are different from thinking about a global audience, some of whom may not know much about the country you are covering at all. It was a great experience because it gave me the opportunity to “connect-the-dots,” so to speak—to see how the local and regional stories I regularly cover fit into and relate with a wider global conversation.
What was it like to moderate the first Ugandan presidential debate?
Moderating Uganda’s first ever presidential debate was a huge privilege and responsibility, and a duty that I took very seriously. What I loved most was how the debate got the country talking about the candidates and their ideas. I heard many people say that they had planned not to vote, but watching the debate and hearing some of the candidates’ ideas gave them the impetus to do so. I think this was the biggest win, as voter apathy—especially in the urban areas—continues to be one of the signs of waning interest in civic engagement in Uganda.