Journalism ’99: Nam Kiwanuka

“When you’re open about your life, somewhere along the line you’ll help someone,” said Nam Kiwanuka, who
studied Journalism at Ryerson from 1994 to 1999.
Photograph by Dasha Zolota.

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[A]s I hurried down Bloor Street, looking for High Park Avenue, I made three wrong turns before spotting a curly haired, waving woman with a stroller on the corner.

Crossing the street to meet Nam Kiwanuka, my first thought was, “Obviously I would get lost, today of all days. What is she going to think?”

The Ryerson alumna seemed to have no problem though; she smiled and asked if 30 minutes would be enough time to talk. Her 11-month-old son, Eli, would be waking from his nap soon.

As we sat down on a bench in High Park, Kiwanuka started off by talking about how she graduated from Ryerson’s journalism program in 1999. Kiwanuka, laughing, described her education as “literally ‘D’ for degree.”

During school, she was so concerned with getting an internship that she sometimes forfeited going to class. Internships meant experience and experience meant getting a job in the future.

She often experienced up to 18 hour days, which included a full-time job, a full course load, and an internship at MuchMusic.

Besides being a VJ on MuchMusic for several years, Kiwanuka was the second woman in Canada to host a sports show – NBA XL on Sportsnet. She described the sports journalism industry as testosterone-filled and at times, intimidating.

“I think that if you are female and you go into a male-dominated field, you have to have really thick skin,” she stated.

Often times, the two or three female journalists she would see at sporting events would often blend in with the males, wearing pants suits and tough attitudes.

[F]ollowing several other journalism gigs, Kiwanuka switched over to freelance videotaping and writing for BBC’s “Focus on Africa” column.

“I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, because I grew up in Uganda during the war,” she said. “I wanted to merge my love of television and give back to something bigger.”

In a sense, Kiwanuka wanted to go to Africa to help out because of “survival guilt.” Her family was able to leave the country, while many others weren’t, so it was her turn to help.

Her issue was with the media’s portrayal of Africa. Kiwanuka described the reporting as “doom and gloom,” focusing on AIDS, war, and human rights abuse.

“It takes away the dignity of the people,” she said.

Adding on to the problem, western society often views the world from a materialistic perspective, placing possessions over values.

“We lived in a shack, and we didn’t have shoes, but we were happy,” Kiwanuka said of her childhood.

She went on to give an example of how disabled African women were able to start businesses, eventually own property and take care of their families.

“There are so many people within their own communities trying to change,” she continued.

“They’re not waiting for the international community to save them. You just have to give people an opportunity. There are a lot of people doing great things, and it’s time we hear about it.”

[K]iwanuka worked in Sierra Leone with Journalists for Human Rights, and later with Malaria Bites. With all of the traveling and advocating she was doing, balance was still necessary.

“I think family and friends are foremost. Without them, there’s no point,” Kiwanuka said. “For a long time I was obsessed with my career, and I wasn’t happy.”

Being happy also meant having a passion in life, and pursuing it.

“There’s nothing worse than doing something you hate for the next 50 years of your life,” she said.

Continuing, she said when you share that dream, “when you’re open about your life, somewhere along the line you’ll help someone.”

From Kiwanuka’s perspective, helping people can be as simple as returning emails and phone calls, as a return of respect.

Kiwanuka also said that if given the opportunity to travel, take it.

“It’s such a gift to have a Canadian passport. When you travel it puts the whole world into perspective,” she said, zipping up her jacket.

As the sun began to dip behind the trees, I checked my phone to find that two hours had passed. We got up, and Kiwanuka said she would walk me to the subway station.

As we parted ways, one of the last things Kiwanuka said to me that stood out in my mind.

“Follow your passion, follow your gut instinct, and always, always, always be kind to whoever you meet.”

Dasha Zolota, Journalism ’15