Zain Verjee started her career on the radio before going on to become one of CNN’s most respected television journalists. Today, Verjee is an entrepreneur in the digital space in Africa.
What is remarkable is that Verjee sustained a high-profile career in television despite suffering psoriasis, a skin ailment that manifests in the form of red spots and patches covered with silvery scales. For years, she endured this privately, drawing strength from family. The odds were stacked against her.
Born and raised in Nairobi to a Kenyan family of Indian ancestry, her early education was in Kenya before moving to Montreal, Canada, to study English Literature and Development Studies at McGill University. Verjee returned to Kenya and enrolled for a graduate degree in environmental studies. Meanwhile, she heard of a job opportunity in radio.
“A new radio station opened up called Capital Radio at the time. I started reading the traffic news. Then I filled in for a love line show at night where I started learning how to become a radio DJ. I gave romantic advice on the radio at age 21/22 and read poems and was soppy and played sad songs on air, which was great. When the embassy was bombed in 1998 [Al Qaeda bombings of United States’ embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam], it was close to the Capital FM radio station, so I got involved in reporting the story and so that really forced me to become more engaged in hard news. So I did some work for the BBC. Then I started working for Kenya Television network and then I applied to CNN,” says Verjee.
Given her limited experience, Verjee’s application was a long shot. However, she was not willing to back down.
“The manager at the time told me I didn’t have enough experience, I had never done breaking news and that I shouldn’t bother applying. But I continued to apply and I begged for a screen test and eventually managed to convince her after at least 10 or 15 email exchanges where I was bordering on becoming ‘stalkerish’. So she said ‘OK, fine! Come to Atlanta, I’m not going to pay you, I’m not going to hire you, you are going to have to pay your own way, but we will do a screen test and then go away’. So I did the screen test and then she said to me ‘I’m going to do something I’ve never done before, I’ll offer you a job on the spot, but as a writer, not as an anchor, and we’ll train you and if you are good, we’ll promote you. If not, then you can go back to Kenya after three years’. And it was amazing. I learned how to anchor, I learned how to write. Everyone at CNN helped me succeed and gave me many opportunities. And the journey evolved from there.”
Verjee’s persistence earned her a posting to the Unites States’ State Department as a foreign policy correspondent. This was during the difficult days of the Bush administration with Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State and the war in Iraq. She explains: “When I went to the State Department, I was very scared. I was very intimidated and nervous because I had no idea what to do. And I didn’t understand nor did I have sources and I didn’t have relationships that would give me information at the time. And I remember after making one phone call on a major story to the State Department spokesman at the time, I didn’t know who else to call so I was just pacing the corridors waiting for him to call me back because I didn’t know what else to do. I was really in a panic because the phones were ringing, there was pressure, there was information wanted, ‘match the story, break the story’; I was sweating bullets. But eventually I learned. The State Department press corps were fantastic. Condoleezza Rice was a great personality and powerhouse to cover. U.S. foreign policy was in an interesting moment at the time and CNN was really pushing me to be better than I thought I could be.”
All this while, Verjee had to manage her ailment whilst maintaining her poise in front of the cameras.
“Right before I applied to CNN in 1999, my skin condition was so bad I could barely walk properly. What happens is because it’s such a visually ugly disease, especially for a young woman, it psychologically has a terrible impact, and you get very afraid of exposing skin, you get afraid of close relationships, you are nervous; because now I was developing a profession in television, yet my face was the only thing I was projecting that was clear. So by the time I was at CNN, until I moved to London, I was in remission, so I was really more confident of myself. I was appreciating my own body, my own skin, my own freedom a lot more. And I didn’t have any struggles until I got to London when it inflamed again because I was stressed. It was a difficult adjustment for me at the beginning and it affected my immune system and my stability. So it became again very hard because on the one hand I was fighting my own body and trying to control it, and on the other hand, being glamorous and trying to present comfortably. And when my skin is bad, I become psychologically a bit disturbed and can’t focus. So I’m always having to cope with my skin as a way of personally dealing with the health issue, making sure that in my profession it doesn’t create the obstacle it once did.”
Of all the stories she anchored, Verjee singles out the brutal attack by Somali terrorist group, Al Shabaab, on the Westgate Shopping mall in Nairobi as the most challenging. The siege occurred in her backyard and most of the people and families affected were known to her. Verjee walked a fine line as she balanced her emotions covering such a personal story while upholding her professional responsibility.
Nairobi was also the scene of one of the scariest moments Verjee faced as a journalist. She was covering the protests that erupted after Kenya’s national elections in 2008 when an attempt to pre-empt a march by protesters resulted in Verjee being hit by a tear gas canister shot by the police.
“It was opposite Uhuru Park where the GSU paramilitary were. And they just started targeting journalists and they targeted me first because I was walking and talking. All of a sudden I heard a loud boom and a very sharp pain in my back, and my eyes started watering because it was teargas. It was in such close proximity that had that canister hit my face or my spine, we would have been having a very different conversation.”
In April 2014, Verjee made the decision to leave CNN. Her passion for Africa and desire to actively contribute to its growth led her to establish Akoma, a digital storytelling platform. With the new project, Verjee seeks to enable Africa’s digital generation to tell their stories.
“I believe it’s time young Africans who have access to smartphone technology and are increasingly connected to the digital world, get to say what they want. If they have an idea or an opinion, it should come authentically from us. It should come from something that is created by Africans that is just as good as the rest of the world’s innovations.”
A proud African, Verjee believes African women will shape the future of the continent. “I believe African women can set the benchmark for the world. The kind of passion, innovation, enthusiasm and opportunities that I have seen directly in the last six months engaging with many of these women leads me to believe that African women are shattering the glass ceiling and that some of the real innovation that will come will be from them.”
Verjee is surely leading the way.