Celestine Karoney always wanted to pursue a career in law. When a curve ball meant that her first love didn’t work out, she opted for Information Sciences where, in her third year of study, she realised that media was her passion: And so began her career in sports media.
From sports intern at Kenya Television Network to BBC Africa sports reporter, Karoney tells a story of triumph over challenges as she built her portfolio of work over the years.
In this in-depth interview with gsport Editor, Kass Naidoo, Karoney generously shares her career lessons, and urges women in sports media to work hard for their successes.
She also speaks about what the world can learn from Kenya about the promotion of women in sport, how South Africa’s Carol Tshabalala is one of the women who inspires her and how she would like to impact women’s sport.
Celestine, how are you keeping it together during the COVID-19 lockdown?
A daily workout allows me to get out and get in some fresh air and this is actually the most important part of my day – It really helps me clear my mind, plan my day (stories I want to work on), and maintain a semblance of routine which was broken by the stay-at-home order here in Kenya. We don’t have a complete lockdown, just a dawn to dusk curfew with everyone encouraged to stay home, schools, restaurants, gyms and many social places shutdown.
How has work changed for you during these times?
Thankfully I am able to work from home and that means still having busy days although modified from what I am used to. Where I would go out and do TV shoots on a normal day, my new normal is working on web and radio stories. This at least means I get to work on different aspects of my journalism (web/radio).
I am also doing more radio bulletins for BBC Focus on Africa and this has been interesting in times where there is no live sport. It can be difficult to think about the stories we want to do and times like these means we all need to get a bit more creative. Sportsmen and women are finding creative ways to stay fit/keep mentally strong and we are also being creative in the stories we source and how we tell.
You are approaching fifteen years in media. Was it always your dream to make it this far, when you look back to the time you broke into the industry as a trainee reporter in 2006?
Growing up, journalism was never a career option for me. I had never thought looked at it as a way in which I’d like my life to go. All I ever wanted to be was a lawyer, maybe because I was always talkative and always challenged almost everything I was told as a child.
But life throws us curveballs and mine was when I couldn’t make the cut for a law degree, I opted to do a Bachelor of Science in Information Sciences. In my third year when we began to specialise, that is when the media idea started to unfold. I realised I preferred my media and communication courses, and that ended up being my major.
From then on, it felt as though the things in the universe lined up for me to go into media. I got an internship in May 2006 at a leading private media house in Kenya (KTN), and in December 2006 I landed my first job – just before I graduated from university as a trainee reporter.
“I remember during the interviews when they asked me which genre of news I wanted to report, I didn’t even hesitate, “sports”, that’s what I told them.” – BBC Africa sports reporter Celestine Karoney
Around that time there weren’t many female journalists in the industry in Kenya.
That, coupled with the fact that my internship had been in production and not editorial work, I knew I had a lot of work to do to prove myself, and I was lucky that those who trained me in the job were patient and understanding.
You have had the opportunity to travel the African continent and destinations around the world to cover sport, what has been your biggest highlight?
Hmmmm… Not easy to answer because I find that every event is relative. But if I was to pick one, I’d say my first ever international assignment – the 2007 Special Olympics in Shanghai, China. This is a highlight for me mainly for the eye-opening nature of the assignment more than anything. Barely one year after getting employed my media house sent me to competition.
Until this point I had never really covered special Olympics events and in the weeks to the competition there was so much to do locally I didn’t have much time to interact with the athletes who I was going to cover.
In hindsight, this was the biggest lesson I learned when it came to preparing for an international assignment for a local journalist, if you can, always make time to interact with some of the athletes you are going to cover, goes a long way once in competition, easier to get interviews because you already have a rapport.
Anyway, as I was saying, there wasn’t much to do groundwork for the trip and suddenly I was off on my first solo travel abroad, first international assignment and first TV assignment without a camera person. Until this point I had never done my own camerawork so there was a lot of learning on the job.
When I arrived at the assignment the fact that events were held in different venues meant I also needed to make calls on what to cover and when, many at times in Nairobi this was done by the editor, but here I was with an eight-hour time difference, meaning I needed to think on my feet and make judgement calls.
In the end I figured it all out and had some outstanding responses from my editors.
“For me though, all these challenges as I saw them at the time are what would be the biggest learning points as I grew in the profession. It taught me discipline and organisation.” – BBC Africa sports reporter Celestine Karoney
I am a very organised person almost to a point of OCD but this taught me a different organisation, organisation of purpose especially where content is concerned and how to get there.
When you are a young journalist everyone tells you identify the crux of the story, but sometimes it is not as easy as many people think and here all alone in a foreign country (of course I was also able to rely on my editors at the time), I was able to sharpen this skill, and it is a skill that needs constant work even as you develop years of experience in the trade.
What is my story, how do I achieve telling it in the right way to suit my audience?
Another highlight for me in this tournament was with special Olympics one works with one big obstacle, mental health issues.
Before covering the special Olympics, I had never come into contact with people who suffered such conditions, and so to speak with them daily and learn patience when interviewing them was a very big lesson for me and it would shape how I interact generally with interviewees going forward, learning to exercise understanding.
You are currently with the BBC Africa in Kenya. Tell us about the journey to get this point in your life?
I started off as a trainee reporter in KTN (Kenya Television Network) back in 2006. I worked at KTN for the next five years covering local and international events in athletics (IAAF World championships 2011), rugby (2009 Dubai & Hong Kong 7s Series as well as 2009 7s World Cup) and the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
In 2011 December I joined CGTN Africa (formerly CCTV News) an international media house based in Beijing as an African sports correspondents. Here, I was able to work across the continent covering major competitions like AFCON, Women’s Cup of Nations, and continental rugby, athletics and basketball tournaments, among others.
After six years it was time for change and that is when the opportunity at BBC Africa came about and I was able to get a position.
Now, this just seems like a list of places I have worked and events covered but to me it is the face of years of hard work often defined by long hours, moments of self-doubt and ultimately courage to take risks which have since paid off, although most importantly the unseen faces and hands of people who encouraged me and gave me a platform to grow.
What have your learnt along the way?
Always strive to improve!
We are only as good as our last story, so we must always want to be better in our next story, because I believe learning never ends, no matter how small the improvement. And I guess this goes for anything we do in life striving to be better versions of ourselves everyday goes a long way.
Especially in an age where technology is changing how we do business, audiences needs always shifting we must constantly desire to progress our story telling. Part of this process is always doing your research and questioning, not for the sake of it, but so that you can offer clarity and understanding on issues.
Keep paying attention – we do this job and after a couple of years it becomes a part of you and you could identify the main talking points and story lines a mile away, or even turn around a story in minutes.
But sometimes if we aren’t careful we can become complacent, and that is where we stop paying attention to the small details, and you can easily lose focus.
Relationships matter – I am not very good at relationships; my friends can tell you I can go for months without talking to either of them.
“But in this industry, I learned that reaching out to people who you often interview/use as sources is very helpful.” – BBC Africa sports reporter Celestine Karoney
Even when there’s no story to tell, keeping your communication lines open often means when you’ll need that inside line on a story, it’ll come a bit easily because trust has been built. You’ll always encounter people for the first time and you’ll still be expected to get a story out of them but these first encounters will be the window to establish a relationship.
Take care of yourself – I know this seems like a, ‘duh’, statement. But in my experience, when working your way up in this industry, especially in many African countries where getting into the profession can be a struggle, especially for sports which is such a niche.
Breaking through is sometimes about long hours and sacrifice (well nothing good in life comes easy). But, over time, I found that even once I was a bit more established, work would consume my life.
This is a risk in a job like ours which knows no holidays, and in a world of 24-7 consumption and competition between mediums in this digital age, it can be exhausting.
So, always remember that the story will be done, either by you or someone else so sometimes take a back step, reset and you’ll find that this way even the long hours are bearable. At the end of a the day it is only a job and your health should come first. These days it is encouraging to see more media houses invested in the well-being of their workforce and this allows you time for yourself, there is after-all more to life, or so I have heard.
It is still a challenge for women to break into sports media. What is the situation like in Kenya?
When I first joined the media in 2006 I could only count female sports journalists with one hand, excluding me. Some had come in and moved on to other areas of communication and PR but those who stayed on weren’t many.
“Today, every media house has female sports journalists, and the industry has grown in this respect.” – BBC Africa sports reporter Celestine Karoney
And where TV sometimes is seen as popular choice, in Kenya print, radio and TV almost have equal numbers which is very good.
Also, the distribution of these jobs goes far beyond the newsroom and into production. Those unable to get into mainstream media are working online, and this is very encouraging for our industry.
How would you describe the state of women’s sport on the African continent and what can we do to raise the profile?
The state of women’s sport in Africa can be viewed through the lens of the different sports. Some are flourishing while others leave a lot to be desired. We can say individual sports like athletics, tennis, squash, swimming etc are seeing a lot of women excelling because more often than not it is their own prerogative to succeed.
They don’t necessarily depend on set structures at either national or regional settings to achieve success. In team sports like football, rugby, netball, volleyball etc we find that many at times the women’s game is not doing very well. In football for example, many countries are still struggling to ensure there’s a consistent domestic league for women and this leaves many who want to take part in the sport at a disadvantage.
Women in Africa want to be part of the sports industry and reap the benefits that comes with it, and one way we can raise profile of women’s sport in the continent is governments providing the environment for them to flourish.
Many women do not have access to sports like men do at a young age.
If there is a push by government to encourage schools to have as many girls as boys participating in sports, is a crucial step in not just improving the numbers but also generating more interest among girls because it would also mean providing a safe environment for girls to compete in sports.
This will also mean changing social and cultural mindsets in some more conservative cultures which can contribute in the long run to raising the profile of women’s sports because more parents will be happy to allow their girls go into sports.
The profile can also be raised by using those who went before us to encourage the next generation. Role models in my view play an important role in keeping a trend alive or developing new ones, in this case, the trend is women/girls in sport.
“It is very easy for a 10-year-old to say I want to be like Nawal-El-Moutawakel or Thembi Kgatlana because these are women who’ve been there, done it and succeeded.” – BBC Africa sports reporter Celestine Karoney
We in the media can also play a role in raising the profile of such sports by holding the custodians of these sports to account. That way they will be compelled to provide the necessary support, because many federations around the continent receive funds for the development of women sports from their international federations.
What can the world learn from Kenya about women’s sport?
Like many African countries Kenya struggles with its team sports but where there has been excellence is athletics and from here there are lessons to be shared.
For a long time, men outshone women in athletics, Kenya’s most popular sport. In fact it wasn’t until 2008 that a Kenyan woman won gold at the Olympics (that year they actually won two 800m Pamela Jelimo and 1500m Nancy Lagat). By 2016 Olympics the gold medals were split at three for each category with women having a bigger overall tally of seven medals and the men six. That one medal may not be significant but it was the first-time women had beat men.
There has been an improvement in female performance from around 2005 and when I speak to most women they tell me the answer lies in support. For many of them, the ability to have a spouse who’d take on the responsibility of watching most of the things at home means they can purely concentrate on their training without worrying about home-making a role that is mostly left to women in Africa. It seems there has a cultural shift where men are beginning to realise that they too can take off the burden from their wives at home and let them be focused on a single task of building careers.
In Kenya being an athlete sometimes means living away from home six out of seven days in a week, for many women this can be difficult with children at home, but for those getting maximum support they are able to achieve this without fear.
Marathon world record holder Brigid Kosgei is one such example, she told me living in camp allows her to focus better and that her husband being able to care for their 7-year-old twins means she sleeps well at night without worrying if they ate well or other worries mothers have.
In Brigid’s case, her husband also used to be an athlete, and she told me they decided as a couple that since she had more opportunity at success, that he should shelve his dreams and let her pursue hers. They did just that and it is paying off as she continues to grow in strength. So beyond hard work and discipline, support at home is one thing that maybe Kenyan athletics can use as an example to the rest of the Africa/world when it comes to women in sport.
Who are the women in the industry who inspire you?
Evelyn Watta – Kenyan sports journalist based in Spain; AIPS Vice President. I joined the media industry when Evelyn was the only other female sports journalist in a private media house. She is a brilliant journalist who I often seek advice from. Over the years she has grown to work beyond Kenya, currently works with the Olympic channel and also into management as a Vice President of the global sports association for journalists AIPS.
Christiane Amanpour – CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, is for me, the epitome of a career journalist. Working your way up to your own TV show and gaining respect in your field through your work.
Carol Tshabalala – On the continent Carol is a beacon for women in sports media in a glorious career that we all admire. I remember meeting her once at an awards ceremony in event as a young reporter and she was happy to spend a few moments and chat with me, I respected that.
What is your advice to women who want to carve out a career in sports media?
It can be a very rewarding career but only if you put in the hard work, there are no shortcuts and sometimes it will be difficult but I am a firm believer that if you put in the work, you’ll reap the rewards.
What would you still like to achieve as a woman in sport?
Have more social impact through my storytelling and be able to in my own way effect some change especially for women be it in the field of play, administration of sport or in sports media.
Photo 1 caption: One of the first female spots journalists in Kenya, Celestine Karoney talks to Kass Naidoo about her journey from sports intern on Kenya Television to sports reporter on BBC Africa as she approaches fifteen years in sports media. Photo: Supplied
Photo 2 caption: Celestine Karoney at work in Iten, Kenya. Photo: Supplied
Photo 3 caption: Celestine Karoney pictured with 2019 400m world champ, the Nigerian-born Bahraini sprinter Salwa Eid Naser (centre), and fellow Kenyan sports journalist, Evelyn Watta. Photo: Supplied
Photo 4 caption: Pictured while interviewing Zimbabwe Sports Minister Kirsty Coventry, Celestine Karoney had no option other than to become proficient at work work as an all-rounder ever since her very first foreign assignment. Photo: Supplied
Photo 5 caption: Celestine Karoney is snapped talking with fellow Kenyan sports journalist Spanish-based AIPS Vice President, Evelyn Watta, at an athletics meet. Photo: Supplied