KELVIN MBEWE, Lusaka
THE northeastern Nigeria has been at war with Boko Haram for about eight years now. In Maiduguri, the Nigerian city where Boko Haram was born, residents are sometimes afraid of their own girls.
The militant group is increasingly using girls as suicide bombers. In the past six years, women are reported to have accounted for the majority of suicide bombings by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, according to a report released in August by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
The report actually says Boko Haram has deployed more female bombers than any other terrorist group in history. It says Boko Haram is four times more likely to deploy girl bombers than boys.
When Kwangu Liwewe was working as west African bureau chief for eNCA in Nigeria, she found herself with an assignment in Maiduguri.
“My experience in Nigeria covering Boko Haram was an interesting and challenging time. The first point of call for me in covering this story was research. I had to equip myself with in-depth knowledge about the insurgency group. Who are they, what do they stand for, their history, modus operandi,” Kwangu, who joined eNCA in 1998, says.
“It was impossible to establish contacts with them so we had to rely on journalists in the region who they trusted. Remember they are against western education, so them talking to a female international journalist was a pipe dream.”
But Kwangu, who was born in the 70s, managed.
“Another challenge was accessing the story because it was suicidal to go to Maiduguri, in fact, no planes were flying there, only way was to be embedded with the army,” she says.
While in Nigeria, Kwangu also covered the Dana Air Flight 992, which resulted in the deaths of all 153 people on board and 10 more on the ground. The crash, in which the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 aircraft operating the flight crashed into a furniture works and printing press building in the Iju-ishaga neighbourhood of Lagos, is one of the deadliest aviation disasters involving a McDonnell Douglas MD-83.
“One of the most interesting stories I covered in Nigeria was the Dana Air Flight 992 air crash that killed all 159 on board. I vividly remember that fatal Sunday afternoon,” Kwangu says.
“My cameraman and I were one of the first journalists on the scene and we had to navigate the hectic Lagos traffic by using Okada [motorcycle] as we abandoned our car when we realised it would take hours to reach the scene. The visuals of burning bodies are still graphic in my mind.”
Kwangu’s career as a journalist was largely, if not wholly, influenced by her father, the late football commentator Dennis Liwewe.
“It was interesting growing up as the daughter of Dennis Liwewe, he was very popular when I was very young,” she says.
“When I was a little girl, I would escort him to different shows such as the Sports Review, which he had every Sunday, and each time he was on Kwacha Good Morning Zambia, my siblings and I would be with him.
“I used to see a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes and would interact with personalities such as Goretti Mapulanga, late Charles Mando, Doreen Mukanzo, Frank Mutubila and many more. They were my uncles and aunties. That is how I grew my interest in journalism.
“At home, he [Mr Liwewe] was a very staunch Christian and a disciplinarian but a very loving father.”
Initially, Kwangu, who did her primary and secondary school in Zambia and Zimbabwe, entered the University of Zambia (UNZA) and was in the School of Humanities before she convinced herself that that was not her thing.
She joined UNZA in 1988 but dropped out and instead enrolled for a diploma in journalism at Evelyn Hone College in Lusaka in 1990.
“When I graduated, I started work as an intern at ZNBC in 1994. I worked there until I was confirmed as a reporter. I would gather news until I started casting on radio and television,” she says.
“From there, I decided I needed to make a step in my career and that’s how I moved to Malawi and if you recall my father originally comes from there and I have relatives there. Malawi had just launched a television station, and I got a job at MBC (Malawian Broadcasting Corporation), which is radio and then I moved to television.”
After three years of work, Kwangu moved on. She decided to go for further studies in the United Kingdom in 2000.
“I could not stand media personnel dressing in political party regalia in the newsroom,” she says. “Things like that would bother me. That is how I resigned and left to study further in the United Kingdom. By then Malawi was a young democracy and as the head of the newsroom, I had issues with reporters wearing party colours, when we were supposed to be non-partisan.”
Kwangu got a scholarship from Sky News to study for her masters at City University in London. After completing, she stayed for some years before moving to South Africa where she got a job at the South African Press Association (SAPA), where she worked for three years before moving to eNCA as a reporter.
“When eNCA started developing an Africa desk, I developed interest and I started work there as a senior reporter, and then, they launched a west African bureau in Nigeria and I went there as the bureau chief, where I worked for two years,” she says.
“It was great covering west Africa. There was no dull moment in Nigeria, Mali, Senegal and other countries. There were bomb blasts, plane crushes, corruption cases, and Boko Haram attacks. It was great and I think this is what opened up my scope as a journalist.”
Kwangu returned to South Africa after two years and took over a current affairs show called Africa 360 when the anchor left.
“Later, when I was in South Africa, Mnet approached me when they launched a new channel called Zambezi Magic, so I applied for that job and I got it. It became a different ball game because I was coming from hard news to entertainment. I got there as a content executive, which is a very administrative job,” she says.
“As a journalist, it has been a fantastic journey working in different countries. I have leant a lot of cultural differences. People ask questions like how did you survive in Nigeria? But the secret is adapting, I told myself that I have found myself in this situation and I just have to adapt. That’s how I managed to survive in different countries. I learnt different lifestyles. I think it’s good not to be stationed in one place.”
Late journalist, Bill Saidi, who worked as editor at the Times of Zambia and The Herald in Zimbabwe, in his memoirs, talked about the agony and the ecstasy of journalism. You can sometimes die on the job.
For all that journalism comes with, Kwangu has been driven by something deep, and money is not one of them.
“If it was, I wouldn’t have been a journalist. I have so much love for this profession that I can’t do anything else. I was born to do this,” she says.
“Journalism is a God-given gift for me despite it being a low paying job. For me, money was not in the equation even though you can make a lot of money as a journalist if you write for other publications.”
Kwangu believes the Zambian media still has work to do on the technical side of things.
“I worked on a 24-hour news channel at eNCA. They deal with breaking news, live crossings, they have the equipment but I don’t think Zambia has reached that level yet. I have watched the news but have not seen any live cross-overs in the news bulletin. Those are the differences on the technical point of view,” she says.
Kwangu, who is doing her second master’s degree in human rights and democracy, was born in Kitwe but moved to Lusaka at the age of three. She is the last born.
“I have three siblings, two brothers and one sister. I am the last born and that is what the name Kwangu means. That is why my Facebook page says Kwangu wa Liwewe, meaning the last born of the Liwewes,” says the single mom of two daughters.
Kwangu is now working as a communication consultant in the region.