by Richard Odilu
Toyosi Ogunseye is a young brave and vivacious Nigerian. She dared to follow her dreams and convictions and was recently rewarded with a CNN African Journalist Award. YNaija’s Richard Odilu speaks with her…
So you, a young female Nigerian, wins a CNN African Journalist Award. The question that comes to my mind is ‘what made her stand out?’
(Laughs) I don’t know, I just try to do my job to the best of my ability and make sure that I am professional about it. Before I left my office I was discussing with a senior colleague. I said that most of our colleagues treats our jobs as hobbies, we don’t treat with it with professionalism, because most of us enjoy what we do, so in the line of duty we forget the professional side and treat it as our hobby. The moment we start treating journalism as our hobby, so many things may go wrong. It is fine when you enjoy what you do but be professional about it as well.
Journalism is my bread and butter, I don’t do any other thing, and I do it well because I am paid to do it. I try to be as professional as possible, and I keep asking questions. I try to be fair, and I like to reveal the story behind the story. I don’t like to do stories done by many people. I feel ashamed when I do common piece stories. I want to do stories that will make people go ‘whoa! Is this really happening, is this true?’ , human angle stories particularly that will bring what’s happening to the attention of the government , I try to do my job well and follow people the best way I can.
What does your professional schedule look like?
I don’t have a schedule. For example I can’t tell you this is what I will be doing today. I have a few calls to make now. When I finish making the calls, then I might tell you what I may be doing tomorrow, and when tomorrow comes it might change because the people I am supposed to meet with may say ‘sorry we are busy, please come back on Friday’, and that means I will not have a story for Sunday and I will start thinking of what next to be done. This makes it difficult to say I have a professional schedule. The only thing that is constant are my Monday meetings by eight o’clock (laughs).
Instant success, some of the time, transforms people, has it transformed you?
This is me, the Toyosi before and after, this is still me. I don’t think I like the word ‘instant success’ because I am of the opinion that success isn’t instant. I have done this job for seven years, so it’s not instant at all. Nothing has changed. It only happened A few weeks ago but nothing has changed, I am still me.
I understand you have been applying for this award for seven years…
Yes! I don’t give up; even if I didn’t win this year I would have applied next year.
Have you any idea why you won this year’s award, when your previous applications didn’t even get a nomination?
Now that you’ve just asked this question, I think it was God’s will in my estimation, because I think I have done better stories that I have sent in for that same award but didn’t get a mention. I think it was just God’s way of saying this is your time to win. I will be exaggerating if I say I won because of this or that, because I know that I have done, in my estimation, better stories that didn’t even get a nomination.
Could you recount your reaction when you got the news of your win?
I was very happy. It’s the biggest journalism prize for Africans in Africa, and I wasn’t expecting it. I got a call from Maggie Eagles as I was having lunch in cafeteria with my boss and we were gisting. I was pitching a story idea and I got this call from an unknown number and I thought ‘who is this person hiding his or her caller identity?’ I stood up to receive the call. I went ‘hello’ and received the response, ‘hello, my name is Maggie Eagles and I just called to congratulate you …’ and I screamed. You know she talked for about ten minutes and I didn’t hear everything she said. I was too happy, water was just falling from my eyes and my boss was asking, ‘what’s happening? Why are you crying so soon?’, then I told him and he was jumping, and I didn’t know who was more excited. I told all my bosses and they were all jumping, they were very excited for me.
I guess this award has made you a member of the elite’s reporters in the world and would have cast a new look about you to your colleagues.
I don’t know what’s on their mind, so I really can’t tell. But I can tell you categorically that they are all happy for me.
As a young girl did you know you would take this path some day?
I knew I was going to be a writer but never knew I would become a journalist.
So how did you get here?
That’s a very long story (laughs). In my second year in the university, I was discussing with a friend of mine. It was my twentieth birthday and I was telling her that I wanted to write and she said she wanted to make jewelry and I told her that we should make it happen, that we don’t have to wait till graduation before we pursue our passions. I had this journal where I used to write so many things, so the following day I just picked a copy of ‘The Sun’ newspaper; I looked at the address behind and went there. I asked to see the news editor whom was Mr. Musa Egbemana at the time, I said ‘Good afternoon sir, my name is Toyosi Ogunseye, a second year bio-chemistry student of the University of Lagos and I want to write for you’. It was production time, he looked at me and had this expression of ‘excuse me, where are you coming from?’ I showed him my journal, one big looking tattered object, and tried to prove to him that I could write, and he said ‘no, no, no, if you want to write for me this is not the kind of thing I want to see, so he said go bring me two stories from anywhere and come with it on Friday by 10.00 am’.
I went back to school and there was a story of a student that was killed by cultists and another of a student that drowned by the Lagoon and their posters were everywhere on campus, so I tore it off the wall and did a story on them and reported back to The Sun. He liked the story and he used it, then took me to Mr. Femi Adeshina who was the editor then, and he said to the editor ‘sir, she is still in school but she just did two stories which I loved so much’ but the editor replied him saying, ‘we don’t employ undergraduates but go finish your school and come back’.
As soon as we left his office Mr. Musa told me not to mind what he said but I should keep sending in my stories and he’ll ensure I am paid for them, and that was around January/February, seven years ago, and I kept sending my stories and they were using it. And two months after, I think April, I did a story about four students that died, and a day before their demise, I saw them taking a group picture outside my department, and heard later they died when they were returning from a disco party in a car accident. I went to the photographer I saw taking their picture earlier and got the pictures from him and did a story with it. The next day I bought The Sun and I saw the story – ‘From Disco to Grave’ – and the next day I got a call from Mr. Adeshina. He said ‘ Okay, you can come now, I will give you the job, that was how I started’.
What was the drive behind the story that has placed you on the world stage?
There was this lady in my office – my Chairman’s secretary – that took her child to LUTH and was not satisfied with the treatment she got. She came back to the office and was discussing with my boss, how she went to LUTH and two children died in her presence and she couldn’t believe she was in Lagos, in a Federal Government Hospital. Then my boss called me up and the woman gave me the summary of all that happened. My boss asked me if there was any story in it and I requested that I go and investigate.
The following day I went to LUTH, and I couldn’t go inside the ward because it’s quite small. The doctors, nurses, and mothers will identify a stranger. Each mother stays with the child, and you must know someone or must be visiting. It’s a small room, and a stranger can’t just walk into it else you risk drawing attention your way. So I figured if I must succeed then I will require inside help. My opportunity came when I saw a mother shouting at a doctor, I don’t know what it was about but figured she was displeased with the treatment her child was receiving, so I went to her later and introduced myself and my aim, and needed a disguise for a week. She told me not to worry, that she will pretend that I am her younger sister, and said we should go in. The disguise worked, because everyone thought I was her younger sister that was looking after the baby. I stayed there for forty-eight hours and saw things I did not believe I would see, I saw more than enough to write the story.
Apart from the award, was there any other pay off for the story?
It definitely it paid off. The health minister read the story and he took some actions. They had started constructing a new ward when I did the story but hadn’t completed it, but after the story, they completed it and moved the kids there.
Are there not days when you think about the dangers of your job?
There is no job without its danger; the question should be how do you do your job without anyone running after your life to kill you? It boils down to the rules of objectivity, fair play, truth, and balance. I have to get both sides of the story. It’s not easy, I must admit, to get their side of the story but you have to give them almost the same amount of space to defend themselves of the allegations you throw their way. By that way you’ve already calmed frail nerves. Fine, the person you are investigating is not happy but at the same time the two sides of the story are there. Any person can see you’ve done a thorough job, that you are not fabricating stories nor telling lies – no addition or subtraction. You will save your life that way. (Laughs)