INTERVIEW: Ghanaian BBC Komla Dumor’s last extensive interview

Komla Dumor was on set a day before... Picture: Courtesy BBC

Ghanaian BBC reporter, Komla Dumor, died of cardiac arrest Saturday morning in London. Since news of his passing broke Saturday, tributes have been pouring in torrents from all parts of the world. Those who know him well describe him as a quintessential journalist who did his best and left a legacy.

For those who don’t know him sufficiently, read the interview below, published in September 2013, and understand why the world is mourning this first-class reporter and broadcaster who died in his prime


His story is one of preparation meeting opportunity.

He was kicked out of medical school and so decided to find a new direction. Later, an advert in a newspaper caught his eye, and promised a new world of possibilities in a not-so-familiar path.

So, let‘s cut to the chase.

From being a traffic reporter on the streets of Accra, Ghana, to becoming the face and main anchor of BBC’s Focus on Africa, Komla Dumor has travelled the world and scaled the heights in pursuit of his broadcasting dreams.

More accustomed to being on the other side of the interview, Dumor proved his mastery of both worlds when he sat down with Sam Umukoro in this exclusive interview in London. Here, Dumor shares his passion for broadcast journalism, hiscareer journey thus far and how he balances his family and work life.

Sam Umukoro Interview: Did you envisage achieving this kind of success as a broadcast journalist?

Komla Dumor: Yes and No. No, because nobody knows what the future is going to be and my original career path was medicine. For years, I studied science; biology, went further to medical school and spent three years trying but it didn’t work out. So if you were to ask me back in 1988 when I first started medical school if I thought I would end up being a television news anchor, I will say, not in my wildest dreams. But you deal with disappointments and situations as best as you can, to some extent there has been a lot of luck, in the sense that if I had never seen a newspaper advert looking for a traffic reporter, perhaps I won’t have taken this career path. It happened when the university closed down in Ghana, university lecturers went on strike, as they do across West Africa, if that hadn’t happened, perhaps I wouldn’t have been in the position where I was looking for something else to do. But I think a lot of it has also been preparation. I have always been interested in news and grew up in a household where my parents made us read the newspapers everyday, watch the news and news programs, even as children. So I knew about television and current affairs, I knew about the BBC long before I worked there. It was a transition then to news and journalism after leaving school and going back to university, let’s just say preparation met opportunity. Again to answer your question, no, I never knew this will happen but when it did, I was prepared for it.

Sam Umukoro Interview: Why did you opt out of studying medicine?

Komla Dumor: There is no story to it. I did not pass the exams. I did not have the discipline to study medicine. Medicine is incredibly difficult and there is a certain degree of maturity that is required for you to be able to spend those long hours dissecting cadavers, and studying biochemistry. I was very young when I entered the university, I passed my JAMB exams at 16, by the time I was 17, I had never left my parents home, I gained admission into the University of Jos. I don’t know how it is now but it was a fantastic place to be, with fantastic climate. There were all kinds of people, amazing people from all over the country. Jos was really the melting pot in Nigeria; you could not help but be taken by the diversity and beauty of the place and these surroundings. I had never left my parents home until then and like any 17-year-old, so many things distracted me. By the time the second professional exams came around, I repeated it again, passed my anatomy and psychology exams, but couldn’t cross the biochemistry hurdle. So, I didn’t leave, I was kicked out of medical school.

Sam Umukoro Interview: How did your family react?

Komla Dumor: My family was distressed and disappointed. It would be for any parent who send their child to the university, pay tuition fees, support them financially and emotionally through the university, and for that child not to come back with a degree. Don’t forget my parents are African parents.

To have a child in medical school is something I think anybody will be incredibly proud of. My parents were very happy that I got in but for me to leave after so much investment of time and effort, they were obviously disappointed but they are wonderful people. They helped me get back on my feet and my younger brother is a doctor anyway (general laughter). So the family got its doctor but I think my parents were very generous and very forgiving of my failure as parents should be and I think they also take a lot of credit for helping to get back on my feet and helping me to find a new direction.

Sam Umukoro Interview: You grew up in Kano. What role did Nigeria play in shaping you as a person?

Komla Dumor: I’m from Ghana, and my history, heritage and connection to the country is not in doubt. My grandfather wrote our country’s national anthem and headed a number of public institutions in Ghana. My mother made amazing contributions to Ghana education and my older sister is currently chief executive of the Ghana Investment Promotions Centre. But I think Nigeria has played a very important role in who I am. I went to St. Thomas Secondary School, Kano, made friends there who are still my friends today.  I also still have the friends I made in the University of Jos, despite the fact that I failed medical school. The one thing that I really do like about Nigeria and Nigerians is the ability to dream big and be ambitious. Every country has its problems and there are challenges everywhere, but there is a level of ambition that I find among Nigerians that I think should be appreciated. I was reading some data just the other day about social mobility among African immigrants coming to the UK and Nigerians, I think, we are right at the top, in terms of those graduating, immigrant groups that finish high school, go to university, acquire decent education and jobs. Move the economic ladder, in terms of African immigrants to the UK, Nigerians are at the top and there is something to be said for that. I think it’s also the willingness to be confident in your own environment and elsewhere, Nigerians go anywhere, are outspoken and proud of who they are, regardless of the difficulties. I think this is something that all Africans should admire. I have travelled the continent and there are places I go to and see so many different qualities that different African groups bring to the table; I admire Kenyans, South Africans and Rwandans for certain things and Congolese, Liberians and Ivorians for other things. We are so diverse and everyone brings something to the table, but I wont trade my experiences in Nigeria for anything because they were formative and made a strong contribution. I am 100% Ghanaian, but I have a very strong affection and compassion for Nigeria.

Sam Umukoro Interview: You were the anchor of the BBC African Business Report and travelled round the continent, what do you think are the problems facing young African businesses?

Komla Dumor: You can talk about the technical things, like acquiring financing, red-tape, poor public policies and things like that, but I think those challenges are been increasingly overcome by creative young Africans. As I travel across the continent, I am finding young professionals who are seeing opportunity and overcoming the difficulties. That is what is really impressive, that they see the problems and figure out away around the problems, even though the problems are still there. Also impressive is that you will find many young Africans who are creating wealth for themselves without getting government contracts. You will find a number of Africans who are using technology to deliver services and make money for themselves and for their communities. What I see is Africans are increasingly finding solutions to the problems and not worrying so much about the problems but finding ways to achieve their goals regardless of whatever people say. That is what I have found impressive.

Sam Umukoro Interview: This question is not exactly looking for a one-stop solution, but from your experience, what is the road map to economic development of Africa?

Komla Dumor: I think investment in young people and education. Look at the kind progress a number of countries have made between now and 2015. Most of the fastest growing economies are African, these are interventions been made by African policy makers and there is something to be said for that.

Let’s be clear, I am not in a position where I can say this is what Africa needs, I think Africans know what they need. I also won’t be so patronising to say because I have reported on these stories, I know what the solutions are, but I think the solutions are being found and applied. The evidence shows that a number of African countries with proper economic management are producing results, I think the challenge for those of us who are journalists or in media is to assess if these interventions are producing the kind of outcomes the continent needs; in terms of reducing the total mortality, getting more kids into school, more young people into universities and technical colleges, and then most importantly, if the economies are expanding quickly enough for them to get the jobs that they need, because getting a job has an impact across the board. They are able to provide for their families and live the kind of comfortable life that expands the middle class, which is a good thing for the continent. Those are the stories we need to look out for and assess whether the policy makers are delivering on the promise of the economic interventions.

Read on here.

This interview was first published on the website Sam Umukoro Interview on September 1, 2013. We have their permission to republish.

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