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Stories make the world and Zainab Bala is one storyteller taking the audacious path of telling difficult stories both as a broadcaster and as a filmmaker. This interview took us through the good, bad and ugly of being a journalist in Nigeria.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
My name is Zainab Bala, a broadcast journalist, journalistic documentary filmmaker, media entrepreneur and a proud mother. I am Hausa-Fulani from Northern Nigeria. I am the 2021 winner of the Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling for my documentary, the Almajiri, which exposed the neglect and abuse of children in an Almajiri School located in the Federal Capital Territory. I am the creator of The Scoop, a human interest digital media platform that focuses on the under-reported in society. I am also a professional voice over artist and a corporate show host.
That’s an interesting resume. I’m curious, what was your childhood like?
I was an only child for a very long time before my parents got divorced. So, I had an upbringing from three different families. It was hard trying to fit into some of the families I grew up in. Being away from my mother had a serious effect on my mental health, but as a child, you don’t get to deeply feel that disconnection until when you are older. One thing I can remember vividly about my childhood is the nature of these families. Two out of the three were typical Hausa families where you are expected to get married at a very young age, you don’t get to explore as a woman and have a successful career. My mother saved me from all of these when she took me back and educated me. I would say my childhood had a lot of emotional roller coasters that made me who I am today.
Wow! Amidst all these, did you ever envision yourself becoming a journalist?
To be honest, NO. I wanted to be a singer but because of how the industry is perceived, my parents objected to that and I had to let it go. Then I looked inward trying to lay my hands on what I could do that would give me that fulfilment. They also emphasized the fact that as a Muslim lady, it is inappropriate to be part of such an environment. I decided to read about journalism, and I picked interest in the part where you humanise stories.
Yes, I noticed that your stories always have a human angle to them, and often, they can be sad stories. Does covering these kinds of stories have an impact on your mental health?
I must say yes it does. There is a story I covered about a woman who lost her son to suicide. While on the field, my mental state got messed up. I had to take a break for a week to cool off that emotional strain. As journalists, our job is not just to tell people’s stories, we are also affected by these stories and what we need to do is give ourselves time to heal through that process as well.
I know that as humans, no matter how benevolent we are, we can’t help everyone. Do you ever feel helpless covering the stories of people you are unable to help? If yes, how do you deal with this?
You know, this has been a challenge for me. I have been able to reach out to some of the characters in the stories I tell. There is a story about Aisha, a girl who lost her ability to walk as a toddler. A non-governmental organization saw her story and they decided to pay her tuition till she graduates from primary school, bought her a wheelchair and supported her family.
I felt fulfilled because that help came through The Scoop. Others have also been able to benefit through their stories but for those who were not able to get any support, it leaves me with so much sadness, but also hope and I keep reaching out to those who I think can help support them. The scoop is planning to reach out to donor organisations to seek support for every story it tells. I think through this, we are not only telling their stories but also helping them get some form of relief. We have been able to do some of these interventions single-handedly but it’s not enough.
You are doing such good work! As a Muslim female journalist living in northern Nigeria, do you find your experience to be rather peculiar? How does your identity interact with your job?
Let me start with this short story. When I went to serve in Adamawa state in 2017, I met amazing people at Gotel Communications who were able to make my job easy along the way. I can vividly remember an incident where there was no anchor to read the news for the day and the news editor asked if I had gone live on air before. I replied “no”, then she asked me to read the first sentence. After reading, she said “Zainab you will deliver the news today” I was nervous. Suddenly a lady came asking “is she the one reading the news?” The editor answered “yes”. She immediately said, “are you placing this Hausa novice on screen?”
I would say I get a lot of these reactions from quite many people because I am a northern Muslim and they don’t think I could have anything to offer. But I think the narrative is changing because we have more northern Muslim women doing amazing things home and abroad. I have also had a situation where I applied for jobs and I was asked if I can be on air without covering my hair. Right now the narrative has changed for me because of some of the things I was able to accomplish. People no longer see just Zainab the hijab-wearing broadcaster, but Zainab the passionate journalist.
What is your highest(best) moment as a journalist so far?
I would say winning the Michael Elliott Award for me is one of the best moments as a journalist because it shows that hard work pays. To be able to get recognition at an international level is indeed a privilege. This award has also opened doors to bigger and better opportunities, opportunities to meet people you can’t ordinarily have access to that would help you grow as a journalist.
I’m glad you brought that up. Let’s talk about The Almajiri; what inspired you to create that documentary?
The Almajiri was inspired by my zeal to erase the notion about the nonchalant attitude of the Islamic and northern community towards child rights. In a formal Islamic context, the Almajiri School is supposed to be like a home for a child, a place where he/she can thrive, putting in place all necessary architecture and supplies that the child needs to learn effectively. Unfortunately, the situation is different. This documentary seeks to educate the public on the implications of exposing these children to hardships and what the Holy Quran says about exposing children to dangers.
What is your favourite story you ever told and why is it your favourite?
My favourite Scoop is the suicide story. I love this story because there is so much to learn from a mother who lost her only son to suicide after going through so much to educate him. Her message to others is also captivating, highlighting the fact that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that those who have children should cherish every moment. This story also tells us that when you see people smiling it doesn’t mean they are emotionally alright – there could be so much going on with them.
What do you think is the most underreported story in Nigeria?
Maternal mortality. Despite having one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, many cases of women dying during childbirth in Nigeria are still unreported according to UN global estimates.
Let’s talk about the money: does being a journalist pay well? Is there a discrepancy between what you earn and what your male counterparts earn?
I would say journalism is a service to humanity, service to your host community, and there isn’t much money that comes with it. In Nigeria, it’s worse because there is no form of insurance for journalists. The only thing that will keep you going is passion. Honesty, there isn’t any discrepancy between what I earn and what my male counterparts earn.
I remember being a little girl and wanting to be a journalist. I was discouraged and ended up studying something entirely different. I don’t regret it, but sometimes I wonder about other girls like me who are unable to study their dream course. How do you think we can help more girls become journalists?
l think we can start by being mentors to them. Showing them the bigger picture and the importance of journalism to humanity. I would also say speaking to them about how to own their voice regardless of what is happening around the profession will go a long way in helping them actualize their dreams. The face of journalism is changing with technology, and this has more appeal for the younger generation – leveraging this will make journalism more interesting rather than timid.
Thank you for that! What is the one thing you wished every Nigerian knew?
I wish every Nigerian knew that putting the people first, is far better than putting political party, tribe and extreme religious ideologies first.
This has been super inspiring, Zainab and I wish you the best as you continue to tell impactful stories.
A lot of the gaps that exist across the sectors can be found in Zainab’s stories; mental health, gender, culture and religion existing along political lines in Nigeria. Storytellers do the work of providing context, nuance and vision for us. If we’re ever going to change the world, we will do it, one story at a time.