It took almost two months, since first reaching out to her, before I finally had a sit-down with Yvonne Okwara. And it wasn’t for the lack of trying.
We tried to get together so much so, that it got to a point I began to worry about my text messages coming across as spam. This was a sentiment Yvonne instantly dismissed; because in person, she’s graceful, and warm.
Yvonne and I finally meet at Eka Hotel’s Spur Restaurant, along Mombasa Road. When Yvonne arrives for our lunch, two things about her strike me the most: her frame, and her perfume.
On the day, Yvonne wore a perfume that had a strikingly beautiful, exotic, and inviting scent. I was, on more than one occasion, tempted to ask her what brand it was, but I chickened out; thinking the question may come across as too personal, tacky and or rude.
As for her physique, she is anything but what you’d imagine she is, seeing her working as a hard-hitting journalist, with the Kenya Television Network (KTN). Yvonne is very petite, a frame she carries well with confidence and a quiet, yet ever-present, sophistication.
In mannerism, Yvonne speaks in a lower register, she’s quick to laugh, and is very self aware.
Yvonne has, on a personal level, been through some serious challenges. A key one being, caring for her older brother, Albert, who struggles with a disability. When I bring up his name, Yvonne’s demeanor changes. On her face, I see a touch of sadness, pain, want and longing, all intertwined.
When Yvonne and I delve into other personal topics, such as marriage and friendships, I see the same common thread of formidable character shine through.
She is not one to conform to external pressures and expectations, not for any reason. Yvonne is who she is, and the rest of the world, well, the world can always adjust.
Yvonne, an alumnus of the All Saints Cathedral Primary School, Kianda High School and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), has quite a lot going for her careerwise and in life in general. But, what are some of the things that make her sad? “Injustice, abuse, neglect, and discrimination.”
It might also be important to note, that Yvonne, contrary to the near-nation-wide belief, is not Luo. She almost does not understand a single word of the language. She is also not Kisii.
Here’s more on KTN’s Yvonne Okwara-Matole:
Yvonne, you’ve only ever been interviewed once before, what made you agree to this interview?
I was intrigued. I checked out your blog and, goodness, you’re an excellent writer!
Also, you were very professional in all your texts. All of them. Extremely professional. A part of me decided to show up just out of curiosity. I was eager to meet this person who had been texting me.
Oh, I have no idea what to say to that.
You don’t have to say anything. But you’re impressive. Your communications left quite an impression. I also had to be a bit careful.
Careful? Why careful?
I’d read some of your features, and realised you pay attention to everything. So I thought to myself: “I have to be careful here. I have to really think about what I wear and how I show up.” (Laughs)
That’s interesting. Are you nervous about the interview?
I’m not nervous per se, but because of what I do, I don’t really enjoy being an interviewee. I believe I make a terrible guest, but let’s see how it goes.
What did you study at JKUAT?
I studied microbiology.
(Laughs) Yes, microbiology. I know, I get that reaction all the time.
Has microbiology come in handy with your journalism career?
It definitely has. Not literally, but in the approach.
I’m very fact-based, and research-based at work. I try and ensure all the stories I cover are based on something, and that’s an approach I picked up while studying microbiology.
How did you, then, get into the Media?
I started out doing a children’s show on KBC, before outgrowing it, naturally. Later on, I found myself on radio, at Hot 96, then joined the Nation group through QFM, QTV and, finally, made the move to KTN.
How long have you been at KTN?
About five years and a month now.
That’s a long time. Not a mean feat.
Not a mean feat at all. But I really enjoy the job. And I’m truly grateful for all the opportunities that have been accorded to me while at it. It’s been great.
Who are some of the professionals you look up to in the industry?
Joe Ageyo, my boss, who’s also my mentor. He’s been very instrumental for me in so many ways. He’s also allowed me to take on many risks on air. And I couldn’t be more appreciative of that.
Also, Kathleen Openda. She left mainstream media, but that woman is absolutely incredible!
What kind of risks did Joe help you take on?
A perfect example is, “My Take.” It wasn’t really planned out, I was giving my opinion one time on some regional East African affairs when he said I should do it for Kenya too.
I was terrified. I was like, “How could I possibly give personal opinions about the very things we go through in this country? That would be insane.” But Joe pushed me, and two years on, here we are.
You’ve been doing “My Take,” for two years? Really?
Yes. It’s been two years.
It doesn’t seem like it at all.
I know. Success is hardly ever overnight. Now everyone recognises it and people call me, and stop me, and ask when the next “My Take” is coming, or what’s going to be in it; but it didn’t catch on overnight. It’s taken time.
Do you think millennials understand that? The value of time and experience?
Some millennials do truly live up to the stereotype of being entitled. They haven’t understood what life really is yet and always appear to be living in a different world. You have to put in the time. You have to get experience. It doesn’t just happen. There is no substitute for experience. None!
Would that be your advice to millennials, careerwise?
Yes. Get as much experience as you can. Whether it’s paid or unpaid, whether you think it’s relevant or not, absorb every single experience. No experience is ever wasted.
However, not all millennials are entitled, are they?
No, not all of them. I’ve interacted with some incredible 20-something-year-olds. Incredible minds. Hard workers. Professionals.
Millennials are an interesting generation. And for those who take the time to humble themselves and maximise on everything they have, the world truly is theirs.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about journalism?
That it’s glamorous. It is not. There are more tough times than great times in this career.
Also, that journalists are friends with all the guests we interview and interact with. Not really.
No. I’m reminded of an article by Bitange Ndemo. He said when he left government, the very next day, his phone stopped ringing, and at some point, he had to keep checking to see if it was still working. No one called him anymore.
It is very sad. Previously, people called him a lot, but they would only look for him because he was serving a particular need, and when he stepped out of government, all that changed.
This is a note to everyone, to those who want to get into this industry, as well as those outside of it, fame is not all it’s made out to be.
Celebrities in Kenya, however, tend to hang out in cliques; do you subscribe to that way of life?
No. Cliques and “squads?” No. I’m most likely the outsider. (Laughs)
What do you do for fun?
I love long drives. I like waking up on a random day, looking at a map, picking a destination I’ve never been to, and going. That’s perfection for me.
Let’s switch gears, Albert, how is he?
(Takes a long pause) Yvonne. (Pauses again)
No rush. Take your time.
I get emotional when I talk about this.
Whenever you’re ready.
(Takes a sip of water) He’s as fine as he can be.
How old is he?
He’s 49 years old now.
Albert is deafblind, what exactly does that mean?
Deafblindness is an illness associated with German Measles. There are no signs and symptoms when one contracts German Measles, and unfortunately, my mother contracted it while pregnant with him. As one who is deafblind, Albert struggles with mental developmental issues, and he also cannot see, hear nor speak.
That must be very challenging; to especially be a carer for one who has none of those senses.
I can’t put it to words. It’s incredibly difficult. It’s more than difficult. It’s another thing all together.
One would ordinarily think, that it’s in such situations, where extended family, relatives, would come through and offer as much help as possible, has that been the case for you?
Relatives. (Shakes head) The less we say about this subject, the better for everyone.
Describe to me, what this entire experience has been like for you and your immediate family?
Yvonne, we’ve seen it all. We’ve been through it and then some. My family and I have been looked down upon, insulted, ex-communicated, deserted, abandoned, disinherited, you name it.
Do you think our society in general understands disability, or what it’s like to be surrounded by it?
No, people don’t really understand what it’s like, and I don’t blame them. It’s not their fault.
You can only truly understand that life if someone close to you struggles with a disability, or you struggle with it yourself.
How do you feel, when you know Albert doesn’t know what you do for a living, and can’t see what incredible work you do, and what a great advocate you are of him?
(Pauses) It’s heartbreaking. It’s the most heart-breaking thing. I always wanted him to walk me down the aisle; that never happened.
Marriage, did you ever feel the pressure to get married before you did?
No. Never. I don’t live my life like that. Never have. I do what I want to do, when I feel the time is right. I don’t pay attention to such things.
Do you feel any pressure to have children?
Not at all. It will happen if it’s meant to happen. I really, truly, don’t take to any societal pressures. Ever.
Because I’m such an intrinsic person, if there’s ever any pressure, it would have to be from myself. Never from the outside world.
Your husband is quite a bit older than you, did you receive criticism for it?
People talked. People said things. That’s what comes with having a job in the limelight, but again, no one lives my life but me.
My husband is my best friend, we get along incredibly well, and none of these other issues have ever mattered.
How did the both of you meet?
He’s a vet, we met when I had a sick pet.
That’s a spectacular rhyme.
I know, right? (Laughs heartily)
For the people who don’t want to get married, or don’t want to have children, and are clear about that, but continue to deal with societal pressures, what would you tell them?
First of all, it is completely fine if you don’t want any of these things. It’s fine! If you don’t want to get married, and you are religious, talk to your God, and then leave it at that. There’s no point in getting married for show only to lead a miserable life.
If you don’t want to have children, and you have a partner, talk to your God, then talk to your partner. These are the only two people who matter. No one else matters. Not even family. Family will talk, but eventually, they’ll get used to it. Stay true to yourself.
What do you wish you knew about relationships and friendships in your 20s?
Relationships take a lot of work. Every relationship does, and that’s okay. However, I wish I understood that when it comes to friendships, although they take work, they should never be painful. If a friendship hurts, it’s wrong.
I once had a friendship that I gave so much to. I wanted to sustain it so bad, and when that person didn’t feel the same way, it broke me. I was left pining over it for almost a year and a half, while this person moved on and appeared to be so happy with their life. That was hard. But I learnt my lesson.
Friendships should always be reciprocal. They should never, ever, be one way. Ever. If a friendship is one way, walk away, unapologetically.
When your family thinks of you, what do you hope comes to their mind?
I hope my mother is proud of me. I hope she looks at me and says, “I did that. I created that.”
I hope my sister thinks of me as her rock.
Your father, is he in the picture?
We can’t seem to make it work. We can’t seem to find a rhythm.
If you could ask God for one thing, what would it be?
Sight for my brother.
But, God. (Pauses) I was, for a long time, very angry with God. I used to think, He is God, He has the power to take away every hardship my family has been through. I was quite angry with him, then I made peace with it, and learnt to forgive, even Him.
Are you and God okay now?
(Bursts out laughing) Yes, we are okay. I made peace with it all. It is what it is.
Any last words?
Even with its hardships, I’m very grateful for the opportunities life has bestowed upon me. There are many other people who are more beautiful, more talented, and more skilled than I am.
These people can do my job much better than I can. I have no illusions about that. Never had. I just happen to be in this position, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I hope to always do my best. I hope I make my audience proud.