WIN Profile: Beatrice Kangai, journalist of the year

Beatrice Kangai, an online sub-editor at the Nation Media Group and an alumna from the 2018 Women in News Leadership Accelerator, was recently named Kenya’s Journalist of the Year at the country’s Annual Journalism Excellence Awards 2021. She also took home the Investigative Story of the Year award for a daring cross-border foray, which she chronicled in ‘Smuggled from Nairobi to Johannesburg’. We spoke to her about her incredible journey. 

Congratulations on your two wins – Journalist of the Year and Investigative Story of the Year – what do these awards mean to you?
They mean a lot, especially in terms of recognition. What I do on a daily basis, being an online sub-editor, does not come with a lot of visibility. So stepping out of what I normally do and then getting recognised for it feels really good. I write, but this was the first time I had done something on this scale – a long and involving investigative piece. 

The story ‘Smuggled’ was quite daring, what got you interested in doing it?
I’ve always wanted to travel to South Africa by road. It was a bucket list item. So, I started researching the process of making the trip, thinking I would eventually go some day in the distant future. 

I called friends living in South Africa to find out what I would need, like the budget, the route, and so on. In the conversations that followed, however, I kept being told that getting the visa would not be easy. A few people mentioned that there was another way I could get through the South African border without a visa. When the conversation turned to smuggling, I thought there was a story I could do.

Some months later, the Aga Khan University in Kenya called for applications for an Impact Reporting Fellowship, and I applied for it. I had a budget of $2,000. My pitch was accepted and I got ready to travel. 

It was your first time going undercover – what was the overriding concern you had?
I was worried about blowing my cover. I had applied for a visa through the official process and got it. However, it detailed that I was a journalist going to South Africa to report on Kenyan migrants in the country, yet I had told the smugglers that I did not have a visa. There were various border points where we had to hand over our passports to them, and I was scared they would open mine up and spot my visa and reason for travel.

Did you ever worry about your personal security?
I was not too worried because I was travelling with two other women in the car, and one of them had a child. We were a small group and we were together all nine days of travel. If we were stopping somewhere for the night, we would sleep in the same room. I felt safe.

What was your proudest moment throughout the process of writing ‘Smuggled’?
Definitely surviving the journey, writing the story and having it published. It took some time to get the story up because we wanted an impactful presentation, but when it finally ran, it was such a huge relief.

What challenges cropped up that you hadn’t anticipated? 
I ended up in a South African jail for five days. As I was leaving the country, I was arrested at the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg for failing to report to an immigration officer on entry six days earlier.  Although I had got an emergency pass that would allow me to leave and head back to Nairobi, the immigration officers raised issues over the fact that they had no record of my getting into South Africa. I was booked into jail and by the time I was able to get the help I needed, five days had gone by. 

What did completing the story tell you about yourself or your potential?
That I may not be cut out for such stories (laughs). I felt sorry for the people I was travelling with and like I was betraying them. I used deceit to get information from them – they were opening up to me because I had pretended to be one of them. If they knew I was a journalist, they probably wouldn’t have given me as much information as they did. So the deceit was something I had to deal with.

What has been the outcome of the story from a legislative standpoint?
I was called up and met with immigration officials to give them the information they needed to make their borders safer. However, people will always look for opportunities to better their lives and will travel outside their countries if they think that will improve their options. And if it gets difficult to get visas, then they will use shortcuts to get around such obstacles. 

Would you have done anything differently?
Definitely – first, in getting the visa, I wouldn’t have gone with the fact that I am a journalist. Second, when gathering the story, I would have liked to have more audio and video clips to present a more immersive narration and bring the experience to life – from the long drives to the scenery or the moment we landed in South Africa.

This is the kind of story that brings out the best and worst in people – what played out for you from this perspective? 
I had friends who were ready to fly down to South Africa to secure my release or just be in the country because they were worried that I was all alone. I tried not to share too many details with my mother to protect her, but I suspect she eventually found out, so when I got back home, she was among the first people I called to assure I was ok.

Do you have any other big projects in the pipeline? 
I have one, but Covid-19 disrupted everything. It also involves travelling to a foreign land and I plan to pursue it once I am able to. It is a story that will require that I go undercover, again. But I am looking forward to it because it is around an issue that is affecting Kenyans and needs to be brought to light. 

You were part of the 2018 WIN Leadership Accelerator cohort. What impact did this have on your storytelling?
It really motivated me and fired me up to pursue the story. I was in training at around the same time that I was finishing up my research, and we were getting almost daily reminders to do more and challenge ourselves, so it fit perfectly.

Has this story cured your desire to travel to South Africa by road – this time for a more leisurely reason?
I really don’t think I would want to travel down by road again – I think it would bring up some memories of that journey that I don’t need to replay. I don’t even look at some of those places on a map. I don’t want to remember the maggot-infested bathrooms we would shower in, or the state of some of the rooms we slept in. But I would definitely be open to flying to the countries we covered.

You can read Beatrice Kangai’s story ‘Smuggled’ on:

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