As a primary sponsor of the CNN African Journalist of the Year Awards,
The CNN African Journalist of the Year competition was established in August 1995 to encourage, promote and recognize excellence in African journalism. The first awards ceremony honoring six winners took place in Ghana in August 1995. In 2013, the program received entries from 42 countries across the continent, with 27 finalists chosen from 11 countries. Awards are presented in several categories, including Culture, Digital Platform, Environment, Sport, General News and Television Features.
Read about Tolu's journey in his own words here:
I can’t remember when I first heard about Eko Atlantic City, the most ambitious land reclamation project in the history of Africa’s most populated (or second most populated, depending on whose census figures you’re looking at) city.
The first time I wrote about Eko Atlantic it was for ARISE Magazine. It was a story I co-wrote with Helen Jennings, editor of the magazine, in 2011. She had recently visited Nigeria, and had the transcript of a long interview with the Managing Director of the Company whose project Eko Atlantic was. It was my job to turn that Q & A into a story. I did lots of research, and a couple of interviews of my own, to bring context and roundedness to the piece.
I think I am obsessed with the idea of Lagos. I don’t know how much of this has to do with the fact that I grew up away from it, in the much saner cities of Abeokuta and Ibadan, about 60 and 100 miles north of Lagos, respectively; and that, while growing up, it was the city to which one went, occasionally, and never failed to return from with a pounding headache.
It was also the city in which my father was born, and my grandmother had lived most of her life. I still recall an early-1990s holiday with her, in her apartment in Ogba, with my cousins. There must have been at least six of us, all children. How she managed to safely herd us all around time, hopping from rickety bus to rickety bus, still beats my imagination. (And says a lot about the kind of woman she is).
In 2004, weeks after graduating from University, I moved to Lagos, to work as an intern pharmacist at the city’s famous, government-run psychiatric hospital. Since then I have called the city home. (The headaches had long since vanished, perhaps in anticipatory approval of my new status as ‘Lagosian’).
In 2009, a story I wrote, on Lagos’ iconic yellow-and-black public transport buses (commissioned by Glide, the inflight magazine of the now defunct Virgin Nigeria Airways) won the Arts and Culture Prize in the 2009 CNN African Journalism Awards.
In March 2012, I got an email from Ventures Africa magazine. They wanted to know if I would write a 4,000-word piece on Eko Atlantic City.
They wanted something that went beyond the idea of the city as a record-breaking construction project. They wanted it to be a story that focused on the human elements; the “personalities” behind the scenes, pushing the vision along.
Ventures asked for a story outline, which I sent the outline at the end of April. In early May – I think it must have been the May 1 Workers Day holiday – I visited the site. I didn’t think I was going to be allowed in officially, or given a chance to speak at length with anyone there, so I considered the idea of making my way on my own.
I drove to Victoria Island, home to Bar Beach, the most popular in Lagos, and the first of the many beaches lined up eastwards, along the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf of Guinea. I got onto Beach through its official entrance (the Eko Atlantic City official entrance was a kilometer away, up the road; back then Bar Beach and what we knew to be ‘Eko Atlantic’ abutted each other).
In the distance, from Bar Beach, I could see the machinery spitting out the new city. I walked in across Bar Beach, in the direction of Eko Atlantic, and learned one crucial lesson: on sand, distances look deceptively diminished (I should have known that from reading, as a child, that Tintin adventure that took place in the deserts of Arabia).
I walked for what seemed like a long time, until I was close enough to see what looked like living quarters; makeshift cabins lined on the sands, men and vans coming and going; the air heavy with a sense of purpose. And then I had to debate with myself how close I could afford to get. Would I be accosted and thrown off the property?
I kept walking, keeping a respectable distance from the activity going on. Shortly afterwards, I found my man. He was all by himself, cooking. I felt less nervous about approaching a man who was all by himself, hustling up a meal.
I met a friendly man, willing to talk. (I don’t exactly remember, but he may actually have offered me some food when he finished cooking). It didn’t take me long to know that that man, and his stories, would form the backbone of the story I was writing.
I found him fascinating. Many of his stories ended up having little to do with Eko Atlantic City, but I listened to them all anyway, taking copious notes, which I still plan to use in some way or the other in the future.
At the end of May I attended a ‘Future Cities’ conference in Lagos, put together by the Economist Magazine. It provided me the opportunity to speak to a couple of interesting people, including American journalist and blogger Robert Neuwirth, and, very briefly, the Eko Atlantic City Managing Director.
I submitted my final draft of the story in July 2012. The editors had suggestions for rewriting, so I had to do another day or two of work. The story was eventually published in October 2012, as part of the inaugural issue of Ventures Africa (dated October/November 2012).
It was the one of the few stories of mine written in 2012 that qualified for entry to the CNN Multichoice journalism awards for 2013. And then in July 2013, one year after I finished writing it, I got the phone call from London informing me I had been shortlisted for the 2013 CNN awards.
It is important to point out that I firmly believe that awards should not be the only – or even primary – standard by which we judge anything, whether it’s journalism or investment banking proficiency. But I must also add that awards can be incredibly important in helping validate a journalist’s often lonely, not-always-pleasurable forays into researching and interviewing and writing and rewriting.
I was definitely no less excited in 2013 than I was in 2009 when I was first shortlisted for the CNN Multichoice African Journalism Prize. I knew what lay ahead – a trip to an African country (packed full of activity, no doubt – CNN knows how to pack 42 hours into 24), the chance to meet a bunch of amazing journalists from across the continent, lots of partying and pictures, and, finally, the overwhelming, you-will-never-get-used-to-this-no-matter-how-often-you’re-shortlisted nervousness of awards night (none of the shortlisted has any idea whether they’ll be winners or not until the announcements are made).
Four months after the ceremony, I look back, grateful for the opportunity to call myself a journalist, grateful to all the sponsors of the awards (my category, Business & Economics, was sponsored by Coca Cola), grateful to the guys at Ventures Africa for commissioning the story and helping shape it into something readable, and above all grateful to a Nigeria whose penchant for manufacturing the most interesting stories (see Nollywood) almost makes up for its failings at manufacturing much that is of significant industrial value.
About the Author
Tolu Ogunlesi is a journalist, blogger and cultural commentator. He has written for the Financial Times, Forbes Africa, CNN.com, NEXT, Al Jazeera, Ventures Africa, Economist.com and the Huffington Post. He is a two-time winner of the CNN Multichoice African Journalism Awards, as well as a 2013 Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellow. He writes a weekly column for The Punch newspaper and lives in Lagos.