Komla Dumor: The African Journalist Who 'Lifted The Continent'

Jan 22, 2014
Originally published on January 22, 2014 9:40 pm

Americans probably didn't know the name Komla Dumor unless they were real news junkies. But for Africans, he was a household name for anyone who followed news across the continent.

As the BBC's most prominent reporter and host covering Africa, he was quite likely the most recognized journalist on the continent. Dumor, a native of Ghana with a master's degree from Harvard University, started as a traffic reporter for a local radio station in the Ghanaian capital Accra. But a few years later, he joined the BBC in 2006 and quickly became a star in the organization.

He stood out for both his presence — he was tall, had a deep baritone voice, a shaved head and a smile that was visible from miles away — and the quality of his reporting. He seemed equally at home interviewing presidents or walking through the streets of a shantytown.

He roamed the continent for several years until the BBC made him the host of Focus on Africa, a television program launched in 2012. And last year New Africa magazine put him on its list of the 100 most influential Africans.

Dumor, who was just 41, died of a heart attack Saturday at his home outside London.

"Ghana is in mourning. People are even putting up black ribbons at the radio station where Komla worked" in Accra, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's Africa correspondent, told NPR's Tell Me More. "This country is still in shock. It can't believe that one of its most popular figures, somebody who had a good word, and a smile, and a chuckle for everyone, has died so suddenly."

Ghana's President John Dramani Mahama was among those who expressed condolences, calling Dumor "one of the most illustrious sons of Ghana."

As a producer for NPR, I often saw Dumor on my travels in Africa. Just last month, we ran into each other in Soweto, South Africa, as we covered the events surrounding the death of Nelson Mandela.

We were in line for six hours just to get our government-issued accreditation. Dumor didn't ask for VIP treatment, and didn't complain like the hundreds of other journalists in line. He and I shared a smoke and a laugh, and we waited — me in my cargo pants and T-shirt, and Komla, in his standard blue suit, dapper shoes and trademark dark-rimmed glasses.

We talked about Mandela's legacy and why South Africans were celebrating his death more than mourning it.

"This is how we [Africans] do it. We mourn, then we celebrate life; this is how we do it here," he said.

He had great insight into Africa and it came across as he explained the continent — the good and the bad — with clarity, context and compassion.

He felt Africa had long been underreported and misreported, and he made it his mission to change that.

"Komla had become much more than a journalist to so many people," Quist-Arcton said. "He stepped onto the television screen. He stepped into their living rooms. He smiled the whole time. Yes, he covered the difficult stories in Africa, and I think people felt very close to him. People speak of him very much as a friend. He lifted the continent. They felt that he made people understand that there are all sorts of things going on in Africa, not just bad things."

Asked what he loved about Africa, Dumor once said: "Its resilience. After all we have been through, we are still here."

He is survived by his wife and three children as well as his extended family in Ghana.

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Now for a sorrowful farewell. BBC journalist Komla Dumor, who was from Ghana, has been called the face and voice of Africa. And in a relatively short period, he's been credited with helping to change the face of African news around the world.


KOMLA DUMOR: Journalists have a responsibility to be objective, to hold their governments to accounts because to a large extent, they are the voice, if you like, of ordinary people who may not, in some cases, be able to express themselves. So I think the best they can do is to follow those responsibilities, ask the difficult questions, make sure that they are transparent and above all, objective and balanced. And I think the continents will be the better for it.

HEADLEE: Komla Dumor died over the weekend at just 41 years old. His sudden death has shocked his many supporters in Africa and around the world who watch him on the television and hear him on the radio. There's been a global outpouring of grief and sympathies. He dropped out of medical school and took a job as a traffic reporter at a popular local radio station in Ghana's capital. Then became the morning show anchor before moving to the BBC in London in 2006. We wanted to learn more about Komla Dumor, so we've called upon two fellow journalists who knew him. NPR's Jonathan Blakley is a producer for NPR's International Desk. He's here in our Washington studios. And we're also joined by NPR's Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She joins us from Accra, Ghana. Welcome to both of you.



HEADLEE: Ofeibea, what is the mood like in Ghana?

QUIST-ARCTON: Ghana is in mourning. People are even putting up black ribbons at the radio station where Komla worked for a decade or so as the Super Morning Show host, has put up red and another funeral color in Ghana here is red and black. And outside the journalism house, they've got black banners out. This country is still in shock - can't believe that one of its most popular figures, somebody who had a good word and a smile and a chuckle for everyone has died so suddenly.

And of course, he was known here in Ghana because he's a Ghanaian. But the fact that he was plucked by the BBC in 2006 to go and work in London, first on radio and television, meant he became an international superstar. And Ghanaians have been so proud of having Komla Dumor as an ambassador for Ghana and for Africa. So everyone is feeling bereft here, I can say.

HEADLEE: Why this reaction to the death of a journalist?

QUIST-ARCTON: Because I think Komla became much more than a journalist to so many people, and not just in Ghana. He stepped onto the television screen, he stepped into their living rooms. And it's the fact that he, you know, he smiled the whole time. Yes, he covered the difficult stories in Africa. And I think people felt very close to him. People speak of him very much as a friend. He lifted the continent, they felt - that he made people understand that there are all sorts of things going on in Africa, not just bad things. And as he said in that clip we heard earlier, balance and be as independent as you can but tell all stories about this continent. I think many people felt that he made them understand Africa better.

HEADLEE: Jonathan, you worked alongside Komla when you were in South Africa covering Mandela's death. Many people describe him as, sort of, immediately standing out, that he was different from everybody around him. What was it about him that made him stand out?

BLAKLEY: I was among hundreds of journalists waiting for accreditation to cover the events surrounding Madiba's funeral. And when you're around that many journalists everyone kind of looks the same. But you look forward and you see this tall man in his black-rimmed glasses and that familiar blue suit. And there's no question that he was not only Ghana's most familiar face in media. I believe he was the most familiar face on the continent. And he carried himself that way but with a distinction that few people have. We were in line for six hours. It was just an amazing line to get credentials. And we were, at one point we were next to each other and he remembers me.

So he's, Jonathan, and gave me a big hug and we shared a laugh, smiled, talked about family and we shared a cigarette. And he told me that he was being asked by some folks why is there so much joy in the air that Mandela's dead? And he explained it quite frankly - this is the way Africans are. Africans mourn and then we celebrate their life. And I'm sure in Ghana there's a lot of mourning going on, but soon there will be a lot of celebration for Komla as well.

HEADLEE: So Ofeibea, for a man who went to the BBC in 2006, it's now 2014. That's a relatively short international career. How will his work be remembered and his legacy?

QUIST-ARCTON: I think, you know, Jonathan has said he stands out. Komla was huge. He was a big man - tall with a big face, a big smile. I mean, he was born to broadcast. He had this huge baritone voice, you know? And he would play with it. He would use it in the most remarkable ways depending on what he was broadcasting about. But, I mean, we heard him speaking seriously at the beginning. But, Komla was playing basketball, you know, in the studio on television. He would twiddle a soccer ball on his finger right there in front of the cameras. During the soccer World Cup in 2010 in South Africa, he was doing a very, you know, balanced report about all of the teams. And he said, but now I'm going to show you my colors. He lifted his shirt and showed his Ghanaian team soccer jersey. And there was just such amazing applause.

All around him, and it was mostly South Africans around him as well as Ghanaians. So it was the fact that he was able to relate so well to people. People were who Komla was interested in. He said that he was telling the story of Africa, and the story of Africa was Africa's people. And I think that is what people are going to remember. And then the fact that he spoke to everyone. He talked to presidents and princes. He talked to paupers, he talked to people on the backs of taxis. He would, you know, flirt with a mother and a farmer, you know, pushing her wheelbarrow. He was so accessible. And I think that is what is so important. Journalism used to be a little bit, you know, stiff. But that completely changed when Komla Dumor was on the screen. And people felt, he could be my brother, my son, my husband, my father. And I think that will be his legacy. Plus, the fact that he felt Africa was so important, was his passion, and he wanted to bring the stories of Africa to the continent and to the world.

HEADLEE: And, Jonathan, let me ask you the same question. How do you feel his legacy will be felt even internationally? Do you think these are changes that will continue to resonate?

BLAKLEY: There will only be one Komla, no question about that. I think that Komla was able to give us a lens of Africa that few journalists are able to give us. And he was able to report with context, clarity and compassion. And I almost - he was an old-school journalist. He was young, 41. But he still had those old-school journalism traits. He was a very, very thorough journalist. And even though he was young, and of the journalists of the new generation, if you will, he still had old-school reporting skills and an old-school spirit that came across.

HEADLEE: I hate to think that thoroughness is old-school, but I guess it is. That's Jonathan Blakley, NPR's International Desk producer. He joined us here in our DC studios. And Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's Africa correspondent. She joined us from Accra. Both of them remembering Komla Dumor, BBC journalist who passed away at the very young age of 41. Thanks to both of you.

BLAKLEY: You're welcome.

QUIST-ARCTON: Komla, rest in peace.

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Tune in for more talk tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.