In Komla Dumor, we not only lost a TEDxEuston speaker, but we lost a friend and brother, who in his day job as lead presenter on BBC’s programme Focus on Africa, does what we try hard to do once a year at TEDxEuston – tell our stories with our voice. We lost Komla on Saturday 18/01/14 and Ike Anya offers this tribute on behalf of the entire TEDxEuston team.
It was a late summer evening in 2012, and we were gathered in a beautiful small hidden restaurant that Nkem, one of our team members had found in Holborn. TEDxEuston 2012 was a few months away and we were having one of our rare physical meetings to finalize the arrangements.
The first item on the agenda as we exchanged banter was the speaker list. This is something that always causes animated discussion as we try to create a mix of interesting speakers, with team members arguing passionately for their nominees. It was unusual for us to still be discussing speakers but a confirmed speaker had dropped out and so we had to pick another person.
Chikwe, had suggested Komla Dumor, and there had been enthusiastic nods and yells of assent from across the room.
“Komla who?” I asked sheepishly, sensing that my infrequent television viewing had once again landed me in a tight spot.
I was soon put right by the rest of the team, who explained that he was this amazing Ghanaian journalist presenting programmes with verve and passion on BBC television, seen in living rooms across Africa, and one of the few African journalists so prominently covering the continent on a global medium.
We agreed to shortlist him, but there was still the issue of how to make contact with him. We all agreed to explore our network of contacts and see how we could reach him. We were also slightly concerned that he might resent being a late addition to the list, but we thought we would take the chance anyway.
The next day, when I logged on to Facebook, there was a message from Rolake ,a Nigerian banker in London; she had sent me a message after reading one of my pieces some months before and we had become Facebook friends even though we had never met. In this new message, she apologized for her presumption in approaching me and wondered if our list of speakers for TEDxEuston 2012 had been finalized. She was asking, she said because she knew someone who would make a great speaker.
Her message read:
“Anyway, a thought just occurred to me. I wonder whether you could invite a friend, Ghanaian and senior broadcast journalist at the BBC, Komla Dumor to be a TEDxEuston speaker. He is anchor for Focus on Africa, BBC World News. He’s a great speaker, well travelled, and has some really amazing stories to share. Just thought I’d plug him a bit in case you’re still looking for interesting people. He hasn’t asked me to do this, I just thought he’d make a great addition to the line up. If not, there’s always 2013 I guess”
I quickly wrote back saying we had just the previous day agreed that we would like to approach him but did not have any direct contacts with him, so could she introduce us, she did and he immediately agreed to speak.
On the day of the event, he mingled easily with the team members, volunteers and other speakers, many of whom he knew already from his extensive travels across the continent.
I was co-hosting with my colleague Adaugo, we had divvied up the speaker introductions and I was responsible for introducing Komla. We had rehearsed our introductions all day the previous day, and because I preferred to present without notes, I had more or less memorized Komla’s introduction. I talked about how he had started as a medical student in Ghana and had then left for a career in journalism in Ghana rising to his current role at the BBC.
As I went to the Green Room where he was being fitted with a microphone, I found him exchanging banter with the team members there. As I walked him to the stage, I asked if he was okay and he told me, “ This is what I do every day” And then he whispered in my ear, “ Please, when you’re introducing me, don’t say anything about Ghana.”
Don’t say anything about Ghana? I thought, my whole intro was riddled with references to Ghana.
The applause for the previous speaker was just dying out and so I had no choice but to walk out on stage and ad-lib furiously, deleting every mention of Ghana and all the while wondering why.
Komla took to the stage, and within moments, had the whole hall on their feet singing the Nigerian national anthem. And then he proceeded to deliver a humorous, honest and powerful talk on telling the African story. He received a standing ovation, and when the talks were put up a few months later, it was quickly viewed by thousands of people. Even in his passing, the talk will remain online as a tribute to what he stood for.
When we first heard the rumour of his death earlier today, we refused to believe it, how could someone so vibrant and full of life have slipped away like that.
That evening, walking out of a cinema where I had just finished watching Twelve Years A Slave, my phone buzzed. It was Chikwe confirming that the news was true. Feeling fragile and more aware than ever from the film of the importance of diversity in stories told, the news hurt.
But I was glad that Komla had the opportunity of sharing his story with us, and that we had had the privilege of bringing it to the world.
As a commentator today said, it is not often that Presidents and market-women are united in grief. Komla did that, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and colleagues, as we join them in bidding him, a great son of Africa, adieu.
To quote from the Nigerian national anthem that you led us through at TEDxEuston, “the labours of our heroes past shall never be in vain”…..keep well Bro!