Ahmed Juma Bhalo is a Kiswahili anchor and reporter at K24 TV in Kenya. A rising star in the Kenya news business and highly regarded as the next Ahmed Darwesh (deceased), Ahmed reveals that his success didn’t come to him overnight. Here is his story.
You are a natural in front of the camera and it almost seems that you were born to be an anchor. How did you get started in broadcasting and what influenced your love for media?
Throughout school, my teachers and classmates would always compliment me on my reading. I was that kid who was chosen every day to read the set books in front of the class while my classmates and teachers listened on. I remember when I was in Form 2 in Khamis High School (Mombasa), I got a bit too confident and volunteered to present the sports news in front of the entire school. It was a tormenting experience for me.
That’s a scary experience for most kids. You must have been shaking quite badly.
Yes, I thought I wouldn’t make it through the presentation.
How long did you do that for? How long did you present sports to the school?
Fortunately, I did it only once. I transferred to Rasul High School a year later. At Rasul, my schoolmates used to report incidents to me, and I would record myself reporting the incidents on my camera. I think that’s when my love of journalism developed. After I graduated from high school, I used to wear a borrowed suit from my neighbour, hold a pretend microphone against my chest and imitate newscasters. I really did it for the laughs. The people in my neighbourhood loved my performances. I also had a Youtube Channel where I uploaded my “anchoring” videos purely for entertainment’s sake.
Your first stint as a professional anchorman was at K24 TV.
Yes. I also did field reporting.
How was your first job like?
K24 actually hired me as a trainee when I was still a student at the University of Nairobi. That was on December 22, 2011. One week later, I anchoring live on air. It was excited but I was also very nervous.
Ahmed in his early anchoring days
How long did you do this for?
I worked at K24 for two years before being laid off during a mass retrenchment on August 8th, 2013.
That must have been devastating. How did the redundancy affect you?
It affected me both financially and psychologically. My faith, however, helped tremendously during this difficult time; I was always taught to be grateful for all circumstances, both good and bad. Everything happens according to God’s will and my redundancy was what was fated for me. Deep in my heart, I knew that losing my job was not the end of the world. Nikajiamsha, nikapangusa magoti (I got up and dusted my knees). I knew that this was all part of a journey and that being jobless wasn’t my final destination.
That’s an amazing attitude.
Alhamdulillah (Thanks be to God)
During this difficult time of uncertainty, did you reach out to any support system? What were your coping strategies?
I just shook off that feeling of despair and refused to let my employment status define me. I was young and I wanted to earn a halal living. When I relocated back to Mombasa, I became a small business owner selling and delivering chicken to local residents. Those were my Kuku Pap days.
Delivering chicken to a customer
That’s one thing I admire about you. You didn’t think that selling chicken was beneath you. You made a living selling chicken and you did it with a smile on your face. I saw your Facebook adverts. Your work ethic earned you many supporters and admirers along the way.
Yes, I did get a lot of support from a lot of people. Some of them would come from as far away as Nyali to come buy chicken from me in town. That’s almost a 45-minute commute. There were many butcheries along the way but what they wanted was to support me and my business. I felt appreciated. I will never forget that feeling.
I sold chicken but I kept my passions alive through citizen journalism.
Are you referring to your wildly popular Kiswahili Facebook series, Viumbe vya Mombasa?
Yes. A lot of people followed it. It was similar to the ‘Humans of New York’ blog, but I interviewed the people on the streets of Mombasa.
During a ‘Viumbe vya Mombasa’ interview
Who was your most memorable kiumbe (human)?
I’ll never forget Mzee Abdallah Alwy Al Ahdaly. He was a 68 year old man who used to sell labania, a local sweet. Many men of his age in Mombasa are usually self-retired. They sit at home all day and get taken care of their children. Mzee rejected this lifestyle- he chose to keep on working. He was proud of himself. There are thousands of young men and women in Mombasa who are jobless but they are extremely picky with their jobs. They’d rather waste their lives idling at home all day than sell on the streets. Mzee al Ahdaly’s personal philosophy was to always earn his own money using his own labour. He insisted that the youth need to develop a less picky mentality towards work.
Did you sell chicken for a long time?
No. A few months after my relocation to Mombasa, I was offered a job at KBC as a Kiswahili reporter. I did that for a year and then moved back to K24 to serve as a Kiswahili news anchor.
You are persistent with your dreams. What does persistence mean to you?
It’s about being focused and knowing what you want.
I love this.
Tell me more about your family dynamic. You come from a family of cultural and academic giants. How did your family’s fame affect you?
I come from an interesting family. Some of my uncles were journalists, ambassadors, and historians. My father, Juma Bhalo, was a taarab musician who was world famous for his singing. My love for KiSwahili was greatly influenced by him. When I first started my TV job, I used to call myself Ahmed Bhalo. Before long I changed it to Ahmed Juma Bhalo, it was an issue of reclaiming my father-son identity. I wanted to be known as the son of THE Juma Bhalo.
I was also greatly inspired by my uncle, the great poet Ustadh Ahmad Nassir Juma Bhalo. He was the composer for most of my father’s songs; his command of the Kiswahili language is profound.
In what way did your parents inspire you? What’s the most important thing that they have contributed to your success?
My mom is, and will always be my number one fan. She has always been supportive of my career choice. Initially, my dad was against me pursuing journalism. He wanted me to be an advocate for reasons I have never understood. However I stood my ground and insisted on journalism, and he eventually supported my career dreams. He supported me financially and paid for my university education. I am where I am today because of what he sacrificed for me. Alhamdulillah, I am a proud son of two beautiful souls.
You obviously enjoy doing your current job. Where would you want to be in 5 years time?
I am going back to school for my Masters, InshaAllah. There are other plans in the works but wouldn’t want to reveal them now. Tukutane (let’s meet) in 5 years.
I can’t wait.
What advice would you give to youngsters wanting to do what you do?
Journalism is a passion and a calling. If you have the passion for it, just soldier on. It is a great profession, I am living my dream.
Journalism is self-made. Would you agree with that statement? You have to go after the stories and create your own brand…isn’t it?
You are what you mould yourself to be. Your brand is in your hands.
Absolutely. Here’s one last question to conclude this interview: What is your definition of success?
Success to me is about having three things: peace of mind, a family that supports each other; and a good relationship with your Creator.
THANK YOU, AHMED!
With co-host, Mwanaisha Chidzuga
You can find Ahmed on TV every weekend hosting the Kiswahili news at K24 or follow him on Facebook.
(All photos were used by permission from Ahmed’s Facebook page)