By the time I meet Zain Verjee at CNN’s offices in London, about 10.30am British summertime, the Kenyan star of international TV news has already been awake for eight hours. The impeccably dressed co-anchor of CNN Today and World News has been breaking the day’s top stories to millions of pyjama-clad, cereal-crunching viewers all morning long.
Over tea, Verjee is abuzz with tales of Makmende, the latest phenomenon to grip East Africa. She has been punching out Twitter messages on the subject for the past 24 hours. Makmende, Kenya’s answer to action hero Chuck Norris or Blaxploitation movie legend John Shaft, is a fictional character, a kind of macho throwback to the 1970s adopted by Kenyan pop group Just-a-Band.
“Makmende knows tomorrow’s news today,” she typed on her Twitter feed yesterday, following the vein of satirical factoids which play on the character’s supposed virility, masculinity and sophistication. “This morning I wrote ‘Makmende can fix breaking news’. And someone else tweets back: ‘Makmende gets his Vitamin C by chewing an Orange sim card’.”
“I got my co-anchor, Don Riddell, into it. He’s like, ‘what are you writing on Twitter, what the hell is this Makmende?’ Then I explained to him and he started tweeting it.” What started as a bit of fun from a three-piece in Nairobi soon became an international phenomenon. “In the span of one day I got two- maybe three-hundred followers from Kenya all re-tweeting what I said,” she says, in amazement.
For Verjee, joining in with the Makmende craze is not merely fun, it is an opportunity, using social media, to reconnect with her homeland. “I have a lot of followers,” she admits, “but this has been a little eye opening for me today. “I communicated to more people – personally.”
Raised in the affluent Parklands suburb of Kenya’s capital, Verjee has links to three Commonwealth countries – four if you count the United Kingdom, where she now lives and works. Her parents are of Indian heritage and she also holds citizenship in Canada, where she moved in her late teens to study English.
But where is her heart? “It is Kenya,” she says, nearly cutting me off. “Culturally, ethnically, I have been brought up in Indian culture, but I have never lived in India. Canada – I studied in Canada for seven years, but I haven’t been there since I graduated – I don’t really have close ties. So I cheer [Kenyan football team] the Harambee Stars. My family still live there – I consider myself very much Kenyan.”
Since she was young, Verjee’s father has run a meat and fish distribution business. Her mother works as a scientist researching into animal diseases.
Following a stint at Capital FM, Verjee was snapped up by the Kenyan Television Network, who recognised her potential on the airwaves. She spent time anchoring the station’s prime-time news and presenting documentaries before she got her big break on the international news scene. Joining Central News Network, she was soon posted to the United States’ State Department and became a fixture reporting world news and politics.
Like all great interviewers, Verjee is not afraid of asking impertinent questions. “Does it bother you… that the US is so loathed?” she once asked flustered looking Condoleezza Rice, then Secretary of State. But neither has she been impervious to the odd gaffe. One apparently innocuous story about airline snacks quickly became an internet sensation after Verjee mispronounced the word ‘peanuts’ – to-date the blooper has been seen by close to half a million viewers.
Like a well-trodden war reporter, Verjee has been no stranger to danger either. Covering the January 2008 Kenyan elections for CNN, she famously found herself caught in a fracas between protestors and government forces. A volatile situation quickly turned even uglier as Verjee herself was hit by a tear gas canister as she filmed a piece to camera. It was, she admits, the most frightening moment of her career.
“Yes… I was terrified. I thought I’d been shot. I didn’t compute that it was [tear gas],” she recalls. “I only felt pain, so at that point my first reaction was, ‘Oh my God’, and I kept looking for blood, but I couldn’t see it, except lightly.”
In the footage, Verjee looks clearly stunned but somehow retains her trademark stoicism. You look very calm, I say. “I know, everybody says that! Everyone says, ‘Oh my God, you didn’t even swear!’ It’s funny, I feel sometimes when I’m under the most stress I sometimes will not react because I’m processing what’s happening. In that situation I didn’t really know how I was reacting until I went back and looked at it.”
Verjee is philosophical about the effect on herself of covering those violent elections. Posted to Nairobi – her neck of the woods – she thought she would be secure, she explains. But in the heat of the moment, she admits she was terrified. “It was ironic,” says Verjee, “It was at home in an environment where I have always felt the safest. It was outside the Serena Hotel, a beautiful five-star hotel that I’ve been to many times.”
The ensuing election violence brought not only bitterness to Kenya, but also a dilemma for Verjee as she struggled to retain her professional impartiality. “Yeah it was personal as well as professional,” she says. “It was a definite conflict. It’s very hard to be disengaged with a country you love and have grown up in when the streets you’ve walked in and the holiday spots you go to are up in flames and everyone is at each others’ throats.”
“In a situation like that there is a greater responsibility because you don’t want to fear monger. You don’t want to spread misinformation. And so that is a really, really important thing. You have a lot of power.”
“But I think my knowledge and experience of Kenya helped me report better. I didn’t try to shy away from it and go, ‘well I’m a journalist and I can’t comment’. My parents were there and my friends were there and it was very close to home. It was difficult, but you have to kind of walk that line.”
As a follower of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam, faith clearly has an influence on Verjee’s outlook, even if she retains a certain distance from it in her daily routine. “I’m not an active practiser, but, spiritually and psychologically, I would say it does play a part,” she says. “One of things the Ismailis believe in is intellectualising faith and that the intellect supersedes everything else.” Religion has taught her, above all else, the importance of the “right to interpret things for oneself,” she insists.
With a profession packed with dangerous assignments and a gruelling morning schedule, you would think that the self-confessed news junkie has a difficult time of letting her hair down. But the “upside” of coming in at “dreadful hours” is that she can leave early – normally by 11 or 12 o’clock each day, she says. From CNN’s office in central London, Verjee usually heads off to the gym or the restaurant: “I lunch a lot because the evenings are hard to socialise.”
Resisting heavy-going literature, these days Verjee reads either adventure or crime novels or pursues her own writing. Already the author of an autobiographical children’s book about her early career as a television reporter, she confesses that she is now working on a new book. But, as if protecting the anonymity of a source, she remains tight-lipped about it.
“I’m refining it – I’m not trying to be cagey – but I’m refining the concept,” she says, warily. “I want to use my experiences in that kind of format, a children’s book series, but make it more interesting and appealing for slightly older children. And then I’m trying more sophisticated writing, which I’m not great at, but it’s fun to experiment. More like a novel – historical fiction, creative novel writing, short stories – those sorts of genres.”
“I write in the afternoons, I do my own little dabbling – it’s a really disciplined thing. I’ll be really tired and feel really uncreative but I’ll sit there and I’ll force myself.”
Steering away from her own writing, Verjee confesses that she still gets handwritten fanmail. “I do, yes,” she admits, roaring with laughter, though bashful about it. Her fans do not apparently shy away from offering feedback on her work. “There is such a wide range,” she recalls. “Some of which I can’t even quote here. A lot of it is complementary. Some of it is critical on my reporting. Some of it is what I wear, how I look, the different flavours of my hairstyles over the years. But by far the most mail I have is from home.”
With home now hundreds of miles away, shy of the odd election, the opportunities to work there are limited. So, will she ever return to Kenya? “People have been asking me that lately. I think right now, no, because I’m in a pretty good position in London. I’m getting lots of new opportunities – more experience.”
“But down the road there is always the possibility. I love home. The Kenyan media environment has become pretty exciting, and you know, I wouldn’t rule out playing a part in that – in whatever capacity.”
Then what more, exactly, does she want to achieve as a globetrotting broadcaster? What news event, which has not yet happened, does Verjee want to get the ultimate ‘exclusive’ on? “The discovery of the lost continent of Atlantis, maybe?” she answers whimsically. “If we are ever visited by extra terrestrial life, I’d like that first interview!”
“More seriously on Earth I’d say… the second revolution in Iran or the fall of the dictatorship in North Korea.” As to the people she still wants to interview, Verjee’s wish-list is long and packed with the standard as well as some surprising figures – from the realistic to the fantastical.
“I’d like to interview Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar. I’d like to interview Kim Yong-il of North Korea.” Then, after a pause, it comes to her. She smiles. “Makmende. That’s the other person I’d like to interview.”
– Published in The Standard and Home (Kenya), 2010