Mimi Fawaz has an arresting personality. The City University of London graduate, who describes herself as half-Nigerian (her mother is from Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria), is also intelligent, humble and passionate about her job.
Mimi is a renowned journalist at Vox Africa TV and has worked with CNN, ESPN and ITV. Described as the ‘driving force behind UK’s first original African football show’, she has successfully carved a niche for herself in a field dominated by men.
Versatile and goal-driven, Mimi is a news presenter and also anchors a sports programme (Sports 360) on Vox Africa TV. “I want to tell the African story, in the world of sport generally, and bring positive stories because we are doing so many great things on the international scene and not many people know about that. So, the opportunity came for me to do that and I grabbed it,” she said about her foray into sports journalism.
She has also interviewed many African stars, from Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba to Nigeria’s P-Square.
At Vox Africa TV studios in London, where this exclusive with Sam Umukoro Interview held, Mimi talks about her life, passion for journalism, her challenges and triumphs, and the country she is tipping to win the FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You were born to a Lebanese father and Nigerian mother, but you like talking about your ‘Nigerianess’. Is that a more convenient claim for you?
Mimi Fawaz: No, it’s because it is part of my heritage. I lived in Nigeria. I grew up here and I know more about it. I’ve never lived in Lebanon. I was born there, but I’ve never lived there. I grew up on my mum’s side of the family not my dad’s side of the family. So, that’s basically why I claim more of my Nigerian side.
SUI: Why did you decide to study journalism?
Mimi Fawaz: You know we journalists are nosey people; we want to know more about the world, let people know what’s going on in the world and so on. For me, I watched documentaries, I was studying international relations in the university, and then I watched a documentary on Ethiopian families in the 80’s and I made up my mind then that this was what I wanted to do – become a journalist. I also studied at City University, London where I got my masters there in journalism. So, it kicked off from there.
SUI: You’ve worked with CNN and ESPN. Now you anchor a sports programme on VOX Africa TV. Why did you choose that platform?
Mimi Fawaz: At the core I’m African. And at the end of the day you want to work on projects where you can make a difference. At VOX Africa, I was really thrown to the deep end, but it gave me the opportunity to create my own programme. I’ve never worked on an entire programme, so I had to learn the ropes. Although I had produced before on ITV news stories – producing a one hour show is a very different thing.
So, I was excited to have the opportunity to start my own show and it was about African football. I grew up watching (the late) Rashidi Yekini. I watched the African Cup of Nations with my mum and I admired his skill and his prowess. So I wanted to cover African football, the African story, and let people know what’s going on in Africa and in the world of sports generally and bring positive story out of there, because we are doing so many great things on the international scene and not many people know about that.
The opportunity came for me to do that and I grabbed it.
SUI: You’ve interviewed a lot of sports personalities. Who would you say have had the most impact on you?
Mimi Fawaz: They are so many. I’ve interviewed so many great African sports legends; Didier Drogba is one that I’ve interviewed several times before – he’s a living legend in African football. It was remarkable because he’s also involved with the Ivory Coast reconciliation for peace and I thought it’s so important.
Beyond being a football star, the glitz and glam of it, he’s trying to bring peace to his country and I really admired that because football is like a religion in Africa. Another one is Salomon Kalou, I don’t think he gets enough attention for the positive works that he does. Also, he is building a hospital in the Ivory Coast, which is not cheap. I really admire that about him.
Going back to Nigeria, my own country, Kanu Nwankwo is a player that I’ve interviewed before. And I greatly admire him for his philanthropy also, how he brings people to hospitals in India to try and give people in Nigeria an opportune life, and tries to build his own heart hospital in Nigeria. My job has been great because I’ve been able to mix sport with people who are actually using their face to do better in their communities and improve their communities. These are some of the football stars I’ve interviewed who are actually making a difference in their countries.
SUI: How rewarding has being a journalist been for you?
Mimi Fawaz: It’s funny because people in Europe think that when you are a journalist you are making a lot of money, which is just not true. You do it for the love of journalism, that’s the reason I do my job here. I remember when I tweeted I was running to catch the bus to come to work and I was running late, and a follower tweeted saying why are you catching a bus, don’t you have like a Porsche car or something? I laughed.
A lot of people have the misconception that because you are a journalist and you are on the screen, then you are making a lot of money; that’s not true for all journalists. For me, it’s not like I’m making loads and loads of money and I’m rolling around in Rolls Royce, I’m doing journalism because I love it, I’m passionate about what I do. I believe that one should be passionate about any job that one does and not be driven by money. That’s why I do the job that I do and work for VOX Africa. That’s why I want to bring positive stories about Africa.
SUI: What are the challenges you faced before getting to this level?
Mimi Fawaz: I started as an intern at CNN where you do a lot of ground work; learn how to transcribe an interview, and write word for word what’s someone is saying in an interview, which takes long hours to do. I was also a runner, a runner at the bottom, where you’ll run around, whether it’s bringing tea, coffee or making photocopy.
What people who are trying to get into the industry today should try and learn is, learn as much as possible behind the scenes, learn how to produce a story, learn not just by producing, and learn about how to tell a story. What images are good to capture? Learn about writing scripts, how to interview people… all those things are so important and I did it for a long time. I still make my mistakes though, I’m still learning, I don’t want people to see me as a finished product because I’m still evolving, I’m still learning, I think people need to learn a lot about that.
I think it was hard for me but I was lucky, I had people along the way that opened doors for me, and who believed in me because many times you’ll at some point feel like quitting, like when I was starting out in the industry and I wasn’t getting anywhere. But then I had wonderful people around me who said, “don’t quit, you can do it.”
It’s a tough industry and people think you just turn out nice, it’s not. You’ll have to put a lot of work into it, with dedication and commitment and I had people along the way who, if I wanted to quit, would say don’t quit. They supported me and I think that got me to where I am today.
SUI: How do we develop sport in Africa?
Mimi Fawaz: I think how you develop sport in Africa is by, for example, doing what Jamaicans do. This is because they are investing locally in schools, and winning competitions at an early age for these athletes to compete nationally. That’s a great way to get athletes involved not just football, because for example – sprinting, weight lifting, boxing. There are other sports that people want to do. I used to play volleyball; I wasn’t a football player or a sprinter.
The government should invest in grassroots, in schools where people are encouraged to play sports and get them to compete at national levels. I think that will encourage a lot more people to get in other sports as well.
SUI: What are the chances of African teams at the FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil?
Mimi Fawaz: I think they stand a very good chance. I had a debate with a Ghanaian friend of mine the other day and she thinks that Ghana is going to go as far as the semi finals or even winning from a so-called group of death. I think that’s going to be difficult for Ghana, not because I’m Nigerian, I’m not bias here but I think that Nigeria does stand a better chance of going as far as the semi finals.
I’ve followed the progress of (Super Eagles coach) Stephen Keshi for a while now and I was at the 2013 African Cup of Nations when they won. I think he’s done very well to mix youth with experience.
Ivory Coast is another team that I think could do very well, because they have experience to get them far in the World Cup. Also, this is the last time for a lot of the golden generation players like Drogba, Yaya Toure, for example, to shine for the national team. They’ve got a great squad. I do wish all the five African teams the best.
SUI: Which team are you tipping to win the World Cup?
Mimi Fawaz: I think Germany or Spain. They have a history of doing so well.
SUI: Journalism is quite a tasking profession and you work unusual hours, long hours, sometimes. How does your partner cope with this?
Mimi Fawaz: (laughs) It’s a funny question, right now I’m riding solo. So, that’s where I am in my life right now. I’m focusing on my job and we’ll see what the future holds.
SUI: What’s your advice to young Africans who aspire to be like you?
Mimi Fawaz: I think that they should never quit, just because you fall once or get knocked down is not failure, and that’s a step to success, if anything they should definitely show steps to commitment and dedication. People should look at doing work experience.
When I finished from the university, I bought a media book, I looked at all the media organisations and I circled the ones that I thought as options and I called everywhere. I called around until finally I got a couple of internships. My first job was in prints, I was doing food reviews for a newspaper here in London. I started out here until I moved on to CNN, ESPN, you name it. So, I would advise youths that want to get into the media, whether it is print, radio or TV – get as much work experience as possible, because that will teach you a lot about the industry.
SUI: What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve had as a journalist?
Mimi Fawaz: I don’t think I’ve had an embarrassing moment but I’ve had a scary moment. The scariest moment for me was me interviewing the president of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, for the first time ever. He was in Brussels for a conference. I had never interviewed a head of state in my entire life before.
So, that was nerve-racking and I thought, maybe I didn’t ask the right questions but he was impressed. Because he was in a hurry, I made sure I kept my interview short, but I later went to Tanzania and did a full length interview with him at the presidential palace.
SUI: What’s your guiding principle?
Mimi Fawaz: Stay true to myself – if you stay true to yourself, you will stay true to the audience. Also, you have to believe in yourself at some point because you’re never going to please everybody.
People are going to criticise and undermine you, I’ve had that happen to me before because I’m a woman in the football industry and some would think, “What does she know?” But you have to believe in yourself and your professionalism, and I think that will speak for itself in the end.
SUI: How do you cope as a female sports journalist, in the midst of footballers, especially when they decide to cross some boundaries because of your gender?
Mimi Fawaz: It’s funny because many times I’m asked that question. A lot of male sports journalists have friends in the industry but they never get to be asked how they cross over. But I’m a professional and at the end of the day, people will come across me and some contacts might end up as friends on the professional level, but that’s where it stays.
SUI: Have you had any awkward situation in such circumstances?
Mimi Fawaz: Of course, there have been awkward moments.
SUI: How did you handle it?
Mimi Fawaz: Stay professional at all cost, that is my advice to any young woman that wants to come to the industry, because at the end of the day people will respect you for staying professional and not crossing those boundaries.
SUI: I know you have other interests outside sport. What’s your take on the growing music industry in Nigeria?
Mimi Fawaz: One of the reasons why Nigeria has overtaken South Africa now as number one economy in Africa is the rise in the music industry and the entertainment industry. And I’m so happy to see that more people are recognising Afro beats and the Nigerian music industry. So, I just hope that it keeps growing and people pay more attention and more artistes are coming into the market. I love Afro beat. I’ve also done a live interview with P-Square when they came to VOX Africa.
SUI: You are passionate about charity work. Do you plan to do anything in that line in Nigeria someday?
Mimi Fawaz: Absolutely, I would love to do something in Nigeria. There is a charity now that I support at the moment, SOS Children’s Village charity and they asked me if I wanted to pick a particular country to support and I asked them which country needs the most help right now, that they should decide where to use the money. So, they are using it in Zambia right now for an orphanage, but I would love to definitely do more for people in Nigeria and even beyond. In the UK, I did stuff at Habitat for Humanity.
I helped to build homes, with my twin brother, for people from underprivileged communities. Yes, I’d love to help once I get my feet on the ground. I’ll like to get much more involved. What I’ve started getting involved in right now is mentoring, talking to youths that want to come into the industry. I was invited by Kick It Out about a month ago, when they had a conference in Wembley, to be involved in their programme.
It was an honour for me to have been asked because it is such a reputable organisation, and I’m currently mentoring some people from that event.
The interview was culled from www.samumukoro.com
Photo credit, Yemi Fawaz and samumukoro.com