At 13 years old, the Ugandan girl only aspired to be a minibus conductor but is instead now head honcho of a global radio station.
Within 18 years, Rachael Akidi Okwiri has risen to be head of BBC East Africa Languages, responsible for five language services broadcasting to the East and Horn of Africa in Swahili, Somali, Amharic, Tigrinya and Afaan Oromo.
As the BBC Focus on Africa radio programme celebrated 60 years of existence on August 15, 2020, Akidi looks back on her journey in journalism that started in 2003, with mirth.
Her ambition as a primary school pupil at Lake Victoria School in Entebbe was to become a bus conductor because her uncle owned a minibus and she used to see the conductor collect a lot of money from passengers.
“We were at lunch with my sister, Stella, when my mother asked what we aspired to become in the future. When I said I wanted to be a bus conductor, my mother’s jaw dropped,” she recalls.
But her focus later changed when she started admiring the work and life of Toya Kilama, who worked with the presidential press unit and was a regular feature on Uganda Television.
The former editor of BBC Focus on Africa programme says her later attraction to journalism was partly influenced by her father, a keen consumer of TV news.
As she put it; “I grew up watching news and developed a passion to become a journalist so I could travel widely and rub solders with the high and mighty”.
At Makerere University, Akidi wrote leisure and travel pieces for the Daily Monitor from eastern Uganda, where she was attached to the Directorate of Water Development as a student trainee.
But broadcast journalism was her burning ambition which led her to join Mama FM on part-time basis where she read news bulletins on Saturdays.
Her long career with BBC started in 2002 when she managed to convince then editor, Robin White, and his assistant, Ben Mallow to take her in.
“Despite little experience in journalism as a student, I had the passion and drive. But I later underwent intensive internal training that sharpened my focus as a journalist,” she said.
Akidi joined the BBC World Service as a producer in 2002 and has worked across various platforms and programmes including Network Africa, the World Today and Focus on Africa TV.
Besides overseeing the launch of radio services for the Horn of Africa, she successfully led the relocation of the editorial teams to its new facility in Nairobi.
Prior to this, she was editor of the BBC’s flagship radio programme Focus on Africa, where she spearheaded introduction of digital production that enabled the development of @BBCAfrica into a key digital brand.
She also led the development and launch of the BBC’s global monthly programme, BBC Africa Debate which has become a global showcase for the thought and discussion taking place in Africa.
Frontrow coup d'état
Among milestone stories she has done and edited, the 43-year-old singles out the Central African Republic in March 2003, when the coup that ousted president Ange-Félix Patassé, occurred during the live broadcast.
Focus on Africa was on air with correspondent Joseph Benamse reporting that the renegade, Francois Bozize was matching on the capital Bangui.
“It was astonishing that the fighting that started while we were on air, and by the end of the 45 minutes of the programme, the government had been overthrown,” she recalls.
However, she says Focus on Africa, that has been a strong brand in the continent for over 50 years, must out of necessity reinvent itself to adapt to demographic and technological changes to retain its base and expand.