At a time her mates were still grappling with simple words and meanings, she was already competing for novels with her seniors at the college library. No wonder, before she left primary school, she had read almost all the D.O Fagunwa books. By the time she would write her West African School Certificate Examination, she had read many James Hadley Chase and Charles Dickens novels. Welcome to the world of Funke Egbemode, the President of Nigerian Guild of Editors and Managing Director, The New Telegraph. A graduate of English Language from the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, Egbemode’s determination to write had taken her first to Prime People in 1989 and she has not looked back since then. Twenty-eight years after, the Osun State-born journalist has surpassed many of her expectations in journalism, and she has been highly favoured by God. Raheem Akingbolu spoke to Egbemode in Lagos
Mrs. Funke Egbemode had gone into the labour market in 1989 with the determination to conquer the world with her pen. Though not sure of the platform, young Funke had her mind fixed on writing. She says, “I wouldn’t say I started out to be a journalist; I just wanted to write. I am a daughter of two teachers and I was exposed to books very early in life; from lady bird books, to the simplified editions of Charles Dickens and Shakespeare.
“By the age of 11, I had read almost all the simplified editions of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. My father had that kind of library. He was a teacher, an examiner, a WAEC maker and Yoruba author. He’s retired now, and I had the opportunity of reading both in English and Yoruba. So I had the opportunity of reading wide. By age 12, I had read all of D.O Fagunwa books. I was an avid reader. By the time I finished secondary school, I had read all James Hardly Chase books I could lay my hands on. I read plenty of fiction, so I knew that I wanted to write. Journalism for me was something that offered a platform for my passion. I wanted to write like the writers I read.”
Egbemode’s journey to the newsroom began during her National Youth Service Corps programme. She had gone to see a cousin who was a production manager with the old Prime People magazine. He cousin introduced her to the general manager who asked if she wanted to work or just visited. The production manager directed her to see the editor, Felix Akagbo, a Sierra Leonean.
“The editor gave me a research assignment and I went to the National Library and researched. They later gave me an assignment and I started freelancing from there. That was the beginning of it,” she says.
Girl Child Education
Many would wonders how her parents believed so much in the girl child education at a time when some parents had aversion to it. But to Mr. and Mrs. Egbemode what mattered was the seriousness of the child, not the sex.
Egbemode says, “I think it’s because he was a teacher and my mother was also a teacher. My maternal grandfather was a distributor with John Holt. My father didn’t marry from a family where education wasn’t priced. So he wanted all his children – four of us girls – to be graduates. In investing in us, he didn’t separate the boys from the girls; he invested in all of us.”
Looking back, Egbemode believes she has surpassed many of her expectations. “I didn’t really make any plan. I just wanted to do the best I could at every level. Some people said I must have mapped out what I wanted to do. I did not map out what I wanted to do.”
Egbemode has a word of advice for women planning to go into journalism.
“For a lady or anybody coming into journalism, you must have a passion for it because it’s not about money. I went to do counselling in Vivian Fowler sometime ago and I told them, the money will eventually come, but you must come with your passion. It is your passion that will open the doors. However, two things are important if you plan to grow in the industry: hard work and focus.”
To her, female journalists cannot marry just anybody. They should marry mature men who can cope with the demands of the profession. She describes men who marry female journalists as special men, men who want to support their wives.
Egbemode says her late husband was a special man. He accepted and supported her. She says, “My late husband was a good man. He wanted to own what is good. My success didn’t intimidate him. He believed he owned me because I was his wife. He was not somebody who had issues with me taking photographs with governors. Not a person who thought your taking photographs with the president means you knew the president. To him, it was my job.
“You can take photographs with seven governors one day, and then they don’t pick your calls in the evening. You’ve finished your work, you’ve gone, and they’ve also gone their way. You have to marry a man who understands the dynamics of the profession.”
How does Egbemode balance her roles as a journalist, wife, and mother?
“It’s a struggle, but it’s a struggle that has paid off,” she says. “You have to juggle the balls and make sure none falls. I won’t tell you that it’s easy. And any female journalist, editor or not, will tell you that. When I’m going home these days and I see my female colleagues in the newsroom, I feel for them being at work at 9pm. You just need an understanding family and even an understanding mother-in-law. You need everybody to support you because everybody who supports you is sowing. And everybody who supports a female journalist eventually reaps because when she becomes something, you are all there to share the limelight.”
She continues, “For me, it was tough because I married at an early stage and I had all my children in journalism, juggling with difficult pregnancies and raising children. I was still breastfeeding when I became an editor for the first time. I became an editor when my last child was 11 months old. I’ll work all week and I would cook on Sundays for the week because I love to cook my own food and I love my late husband to eat my food. If I had to give instruction for anybody in the house to cook for him, it would be to make his rice or amala; I would cook the soup.”
Egbemode talks about some of her columns, which brought her into the limelight. “The name of the column then was Single Girls before it became Intimate Affairs and Adam’s Apple. Because I wasn’t married then so it was Single Girls. I would say exposure for me happened early. But then, when I moved to Punch, the door opened wider. And since then, it has been opening wider.”
She says, “I started with Prime People, which is not like today’s soft sell titles. It was a human interest publication; plenty of investigation went into it. Moving around looking for the odd, uncommon and stories that touched the heart. But I would say the columns in Punch made more people know me. And being a columnist, I produced other pages. I covered entertainment; I was a bit all over the place even during my child bearing days.”
A woman with a strong personality, Egbemode says she cannot be intimidated. “Intimidation by men in the industry, no!” she says. “I am an Aderanti, raised by a very strong man and a very determined woman. It’s difficult to intimidate me. In the news room, it’s about what you are doing. No editor is really interested in whether you are wearing skirt or trouser; it’s about what you can do. I had strong editors from the beginning, like Gboyega Okegbenro who would make me do what everyone else was doing. I did production nights where you wear overall and go from Lithography to press at 2am. I never felt intimidated by the fact that I was surrounded by men. And I even tell people that once in a while, I forget that I’m a woman because I have been working with men and comfortable wearing my trousers. I do whatever they are doing.
“We go to ‘parish’ together and I tell them that I’m a non-communicant of the Parrish of ‘Saint Bottles Cathedral’. So I fit in with my folks and that has helped me a lot. For instance, they call me the president of the Guild, I’m sure they no longer see me as a woman. They see me as one of them because I’ve been part of the business for a while. The only time I practised journalism outside the newsroom was when I went to be Special Adviser on Media to the first female Speaker of the House of Representative, Patricia Eteh, and the little time I spent at the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation. Before I joined The Sun and later Daily Telegraph. I have worked in Prime People, Punch, Post Express and THISDAY, where I was once an Associate Editor.”
Egbemode speaks on her headship of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. ‘’I’m first among equals because everybody that I’m leading is qualified to lead,” she says. “The pressure is there not to drop the ball and disappoint them. The way I became president of the Guild was like by voice vote. That has its own pressure. I must not do anything that would disappoint them and then, I want to leave behind a Guild that is better than the one that I found. That’s a lot of work. The guild had been led consistently by great people, from the late Mrs. Remi Oyo, Onyema Okechukwu, Baba Dantiye, Garba Muhammed, Garba Shehu, and Gbenga Adefaye to our own Femi Adeshina. These are people that have done great work. So the pressure is there.”
As she prepares to finish Adeshina’s tenure and contest in the next one month for her own full tenure, Egbemode says she is already getting plenty of support. One thing is paramount on her mind: she wants to put together a scheme that would allow editors to plan for life after the chair.
“All what editors do is work; they give their passion. Even when their health fails, they continue to work. And then, suddenly, they are removed, they find out they have nowhere else to go. They are used to working 18 hours, and they now have 18 hours on their hands with nothing to do with it,” she says, adding, “So I’m working on a scheme with the present executive and I will continue with the new team come April 29, by the grace of God.”