It is September 3, 1988, and a five-year-old Zain Asher had her hands full with chores in her family’s London apartment after a return trip from their home country Nigeria. The family would receive a phone call that would alter the trajectory of their lives. The voice on the other end of the line, which later turned out to be a family friend, would reveal that her dad and brother whom they were to meet at the airport in the UK had been involved in a ghastly auto crash.

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“One of them is dead and we don’t know which it is,” the caller tells Asher’s then-pregnant mum in a flat voice readily evoking cold shivers that shook the family to its core.

The crash had happened in Nigeria and all who rode in the vehicle involved died except for Asher’s brother who was only discovered to still be breathing just as emergency responders were set to put away the corpses in the morgue. The brother is Chiwetel Ejiofor, the award-winning actor.

Remarking that it was devastating would be an understatement as successive years saw Asher and her siblings get raised by a single mother whose resilience would secure a bright future for the family.

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Now confronted with the burden of raising four children in the Global North at a time when racism and subjugation on people of colour were rife, Asher’s mother, Obiajulu Ejiofor, had to make tough choices and impose stiff rules of discipline on her kids. She would often find articles from international publications about success stories involving Africans who overcame adversity to become people of repute. She would put the newspaper clippings on the wall.

Never did she predict that a gesture meant to detach the family from negative narratives about black people in the media would cause Asher to pursue a broadcast journalism career, driven by the exploits of Femi Oke, a Nigerian presenter.

Zain Asher Ejiofor

Asher, speaking to TheCable Lifestyle during her touchdown in Lagos from the US where she resides, admitted that the tragedy that struck her family, growing up in a humble home, and her mum’s strict parenting measures shaped her into who she has become — a globally revered broadcaster bearing up the torch for other women in journalism.

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“My mum grew up during the Biafra war. She was a teenager when it broke out and suffered a lot during that time. Her brother died. He was asthmatic but there was also the issue of getting food as well. Hence, we were never really sure how much of what prompted his death was as a result of a lack of medicine or starvation,” she narrated, from the other side of a rather comfy restaurant roundtable located close to the poolside of a luxury hotel in Ikoyi, Lagos.

“She is a proud Igbo and Nigerian woman, as I am. I love Enugu. I spent two years of my childhood there. I have a special place in my heart for that part of the south-east. I speak Igbo, not perfectly, but well. I’m a proud Nigerian.

“Mum raised us to value our studies and ourselves. She taught us to fight. I wrote ‘Where The Children Take Us’. It is a book about our journey. I  wrote it in celebration of my mother because she raised us to surpass expectations. I obviously work at CNN. My brother is an Oscar-nominated actor; my other brother is a successful businessman. It’s all down to the kind of mother I had. We didn’t have it easy but I had a childhood that prepared me for real life.”

Born in London, Asher grew up in West Norwood where her mother was a pharmacist working in Brixton and her father, Arinze, was a doctor before his death in the crash. Asher attended Oxford University and graduated in 2005 with a degree in French and Spanish. The following year, she attended the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, in New York City. In 2021, Asher was named an honourary fellow of Keble College, Oxford University.

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After graduation, Asher initially worked as a receptionist at a production company before eventually becoming a freelance reporter at News 12 Brooklyn where she covered local news. She also worked as a reporter for Money, a media outlet where she authored personal finance articles about careers and investing before later moving to CNN.

In 2012, Asher met a CNN executive who invited her to New York for a screen test. She was first hired as a business correspondent before becoming an anchor at CNN International based in Atlanta. In 2014, she reported from Abuja on the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. She anchored breaking news coverage during the August 2020 explosion in Beirut, the #EndSARS protests, and the deaths of Fidel Castro, Muhammad Ali, and George Michael.

Asher now anchors ‘One World with Zain Asher’, a news show airing weekdays on CNNI, and is based in New York.

IMPORTANCE OF REPRESENTATION FOR BLACK WOMEN

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The broadcaster, while recalling her primordial career struggles and how she started out as a receptionist, stressed the importance of representation for black women in the struggle to achieve gender equity within the media space.

“We haven’t gotten there yet. Representation means that a young girl, like myself, can see someone that looks like me presenting on an international media outlet and aspiring for similar dreams. It means I can see, appreciate, and understand my potential because I see people who look like me doing the same thing. It’s powerful,” she said.

“For me, Femi Oke was that person. I saw her on the BBC and on various news programmes while I was growing up. It was then I realised this was really a dream that I can pursue as well. When I saw her on CNN eventually, I reached out and she gave me her phone number. I called her, we spoke, and she gave me invaluable advice about making it in the newsroom. When I eventually applied to CNN many years later, she took me under her wings.

“Obviously, I’m hardworking but I can’t underplay the role of representation. Having her in my life changed things. It’s important that we, as women, do that for other women, whether it’s through mentorship or supporting each other within or outside our places of work. It’s something I often try to do as a way of giving back. Even it changes the life of just one other female journalist who has similar aspirations to your own, it can indeed change the world.”

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Zain Asher Ejiofor

‘WE NEED MEN ALLIES’

Lawmakers in Nigeria had recently voted against a bill on creating special seats for women in national and state assemblies and threw out another seeking a “reserve quota” for women on appointments. Wading in, Asher argued that gender bias in the high echelons of leadership and political circles where state-defining decisions are made is now difficult to undo because it has become so innate and imbued in the culture so that it is now taken as the norm.

“I’ve had conversations with women and these bills were brought up a lot of times. What happened with the gender bills was disappointing. I know some of them were resuscitated and are being looked at again. But the fact that they failed initially struck a chord in no good way. You need to have female leadership in, not just journalism, but across all industries, including politics because it is where the future of this country is being decided,” the journalist said.

“There’s bias and it exists globally, not in Nigeria alone. Similar issues are playing out in the US where I live. There are simply not enough women in leadership positions. I often ask myself how women can achieve more and be well represented when bias does exist. I think things like protests can help just as much as women supporting women.

“I’m a mother myself raising two boys. The most important contribution I can make to this fight is raising boys who become teenagers and men who value women. That’s how we can level the playing field. We need the men as allies.”



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