When sheleadsasfrica.com executive editor Efam Awo Dovi met with the gorgeous GTV news anchor and host of Women’s Voice, Selikem Acolatse-Apaloo over lunch, the agenda was to discuss possible collaboration to give women bigger voice. But she quickly found out that the woman who gives voice to the voiceless, also needed a voice.
Selikem talked about her career journey in media at Ghana’s national broadcaster, the difficulties and challenges of juggling a demanding profession with motherhood, and the joys and prides of giving a voice to those who could not have been heard. Interestingly, she did not want a career in media. But when she got exposed to the profession, some of her God-given qualities made her susceptible to the bug called journalism. Efam shares excerpts of their conversation:
Sheleadsafrica.com — You came from a family of media professionals, how did that influence your decision to go into journalism?
I never wanted to be in the media. My father was in the media and my older sister is also in the media. But growing up, I observed that it was a profession that put a lot of pressure on a person. My father had too much to deal with and he worked really hard but had to cope with the hazards of the job as well so I wasn’t going to go into it.
Sheleadsafrica.com — What happened?
National Service happened. When I finished University of Ghana, my national service letter came and the posting was to GBC (Ghana Broadcasting Corporation). My father said he had nothing to do with it and my dad is a disciplinarian and would not even help to connect you to someone because he would want you to learn and grow yourself. We understood that this wasn’t coming from him so just a mere coincidence. Whiles doing the national service, there was something I loved (about journalism) and I think it was the meeting people part. I started off as a production assistant for the Unique Breakfast Drive. I will go meet people at the entrance, walk them into the studio, give them coffee. I will call to remind you of your programme. I was that girl in national service who was everywhere. After the Unique Breakfast Drive, you will see me all over the place: radio drama which involved acting the scripts – I found it exciting; I was interested in sports reporting, everything. Everybody was using me to do one thing or the other and I liked that as compared to being laid back and not doing anything.
Eventually, there was an opportunity for one of us to join a team of newsreaders who were undergoing re-training for one month. My boss selected me and even at that time there were no prospects of me staying. One day, we were asked to record an announcement, I gave the recording and I heard it was sent all over the place, people were saying: “we’ve got some talent here”.
Sheleadsafrica.com — Was that your big break?
I was given a year’s contract to work with GBC but they were going to move me from the production work to journalism and they were taking me to the radio newsroom. I didn’t want to go there; my father was there. And, I didn’t like GBC, but, there was something about going out there seeing the stories and so much vulnerability in society — I could not ignore that. There is something about giving that person a voice when they have no means of expressing how they feel. There is something about that that gets to me. So reporting became fantastic.
I went to work one morning and I saw my name on the reader’s list. I had started rehearsing. I would take scripts from the senior readers and I will take it home. I will sit in front of the mirror and adjust myself and I would read and present the news. I was doing that even when I was at radio production. So when I was called up, I was sort of ready.
When I started, the compliments were good but criticisms came about the tone, lack of clarity — I used to swallow my words a lot and so those were rough edges that we had to shape.
But, sometimes when you are good and you have flare and you know it from within and you start off, the world might not be ready for it and that was what I faced. There was a lot of anger from within the organisation because of the name. There was a perception that my father was the one who gave me the job, they didn’t know that I was recommended based on the training programme and that I was on contract and not even an employee then. There were those moments when I really felt like this was a mistake maybe I should start looking elsewhere.
Then television put out an advert for news presenters and my boss from Unique FM called me up and said: ‘look this is your big break.’ My reply was, I know this place and it is not going to be any different, I am going to face all the criticisms. But he encouraged me. I went through an English examination, essay writing, multiple choice questions — the toughest recruitment I have ever seen. We had interviews, and we had audition sessions. We were 100 and something and only 20 were picked out of that number. I was among the 20, eight were taken to television and the rest were taken to radio as news presenters, newscasters and that is how come I ended up in television.
I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity by Francisca Ashietey Odunton who was an anchor at the time. It was for news in brief, and that is what did it for me. I started with news in brief but eventually I started doing the sports news and what happened was that Francisca left the television newsroom and went to the legal department. Her position became vacant and she recommended me.
I went in there and I had to strive hard to prove everybody wrong that I was worth it. I had to start reading a lot more. I rehearsed even harder. I tried as much as possible to make sure that when it came to professionalism, I was always doing the right thing. I would watch other presenters; I would learn from my peers as well, I would pick up on everyone’s mistakes. I was very critical; I am still very critical.
Sheleadsafrica.com – It seems to me you are enjoying this
Yes, I am. I like the look on a person’s face when their story gets told and I like that I can be used as a channel to bring that look of joy and satisfaction to someone’s face even if it is one person. And that is what keeps me going.
Sheleadsafrica.com – You were telling me about the difficulties when you started Women’s Voices
When breaking out into a new space — and this is women empowerment in a largely patriarchal environment — there will be people who shrug off and say: “it is the usual feminist programme again.
But we also had problems with the timing of the programme. To have a programme on air that is targeted at women, you want to put it at a time when they will be home and have time to watch. Unfortunately, it didn’t work in our favor or in my favor in this case. And myself as a working mother, in order for me to finish up and get home was also another thing we had to think about.
Initially, getting people onto the show was so difficult. I had to convince them continuously and constantly that the show was worth it. Even women achievers kept on asking why they should appear, considering what they had achieved. You have people who will just give an excuse and those ones who will agree and speak to you so nicely and the day comes and they didn’t show up.
Sheleadsafrica.com – How did you deal with that?
love people, I am interested in people, I love to see people develop, I am a people’s person, getting people to warm up to me basically is not difficult. And that is what makes some of the interviews (I do) very interesting. People find it hard disarming people but it comes to me easily. They open up, they speak, they are happy about the outcome of the programme, they like how they expressed themselves, they are glad that it was so smooth and there were no issues, and I managed to make it fun.
It was difficult getting sponsorship, I decided to do something: anyone who appeared on my programme I will personally send a message when you leave. I will see you off personally downstairs and out of the studio. The following morning, I will send you a message as we do it traditionally, to say thank you. I was doing that consistently. For every occasion, I will make sure you know that you are on my mind. Over a period of time there were people who were connecting as friends, they will call you and tell you about things they are doing and suggest you talk about it. I will get their profile and ideas, and what they want to do for women and the context in which it can benefit others.
I have also learnt that my word should be my word. If I can’t make it, I won’t tell you that I can make it. If I have given you a date for a programme you get that date no matter what. I wouldn’t take you off.
When I started, people were concerned that they weren’t seeing prominent faces but it was equally interesting. I realised that these are not “big faces” but they were doing so much where they are so it is like making little stars shine. For instance, I brought a lady, who is a university graduate and is basically a fishmonger. She lives in Kumasi and people in Kumasi do not get fresh fish. This business has grown and now some of her customers are expatriates.
Sheleadsafrica.com — You are a mother of 3, how are you juggling all that?
I married quite early into the profession. At the time when I got married, I was now warming up to it and there was more time. Now, there is no time and now the children are here. It is always a challenge. Sometimes, you wake up at 4a.m. and go to bed at 11p.m. Sometimes, I wake up at 2 to 3 a.m. to send my guests their synopsis. You have to find your way to make it work. I try to make sure that I am not trying to be perfect. I let myself go when I am tired.
If I were asked to do a national assignment and most of the time, apart from the interviews, that is what takes my time a lot — you are doing commentary, live reporting. Sometimes, you have to leave home very early. In those cases, I have had to sacrifice and deal with the guilt, knowing that my children can’t have mother-time. I hate it when they wake up and they do not see me. I don’t like to see them leave for school without seeing me. I have had to leave my 2-month old baby in the hands of a complete stranger, a nanny, and feel that it was okay. I can’t do it all, I can’t have it all either. I balance when I can. On weekends when I am less busy and if there is no assignment, I am playing with the kids — when I say playing, I mean I am really playing. I am enjoying their rhymes, we are dancing, jumping together to the songs on my phone.
Some sacrifices are huge but you need to look at it. How huge is your sacrifice — is it something you can live with? Is it something I can confront in the future?
Sheleadsafrica.com – What was the biggest sacrifice you had to make?
I was called when I was on maternity leave to come and do the presidential debate. At the time, I had lost my mother-in-law. My husband who is very supportive had travelled. A 2-month old baby, one four and one two, I thought what can I do, how will I handle this. I took them to school, went to pick them from school, called up an aunty and dropped everyone with her. Then, I came for the debate, it finished around 11p.m., I wanted to go back to my home with the children. My aunty looked at me and said ‘why, you’re tired; you can’t go home at this time; look at the children; you are now going to breastfeed.’ I had to sleepover but I was up by 6a.m. the next morning to get the children ready and we were on our way home to get them ready for school.
My help at the time had misbehaved and that was a very difficult moment for us all. I asked myself many questions — what if something terrible had happened to the baby, what would I have said to myself? I struggled with it.
Interestingly, when God gives you a big opportunity, it always comes with a challenge. Some of our biggest challenges are our best moments to shine. Hosting the Presidential Debate changed a lot of things in my career. On a daily basis, I have people calling me all over who want to be on “Women’s Voice” and I also interviewed the President in a one-on-one encounter. That changed my career. I feel that after all it wasn’t such a bad thing. God will not give you something that you cannot take. I have learnt my lessons.
Sheleadsafrica.com – What advice do you have for the younger ones?
Prepare yourself for the best but know that the best always comes with something else that we do not like. Prepare yourself to go to the mill. Success doesn’t happen in one day. I do not call myself successful even now, knowing that it will take time. Whiles you have not been discovered or your time has not come, do not waste it. Do everything you can. Learn as much as you can. Be humble, work hard, keep your focus because you are going somewhere. So I ask you, where are you going? If you know where you are going and you have that on your mind, keep your mind on it because the time will come when you will know that this is where you are going and you are actually on the path, because initially it didn’t look like you are on the right path and that is what a lot of young girls struggle with. We struggle to even find our purpose in the first place. Why am I here, what am I here to do – Start asking yourselves those questions and by the time you discover what you are here to do you will see that somehow it is tied down to everything you have been through in life.
For me, the journey doesn’t end here. It has got to move on to another level. I have found a great way to connect with people and young people. I have young people coming to me in the office every day. So yes, I went through all this to mentor the next generation and that is what I am doing — Selikem Acolatse Leads Africa.