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BBC Pidgin: Celebrating a year of impact

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Ordinarily, we knew we were in for some exciting times. But quite honestly, we were not so sure how much of it awaited us. That was one year ago. Today, as the BBC Pidgin Service marks its first year anniversary, we are in no doubt about how exciting the past 12 months has been and what the future holds.

The remit for setting up the service was simple – BBC World Service set out to expand its reach among the young and female audiences in West and Central Africa, and by doing so would achieve a shift in perception.  BBC Pidgin was the first of 12 languages to be launched as part of the World Service expansion,It was very important that by setting up the service the BBC was not focusing on reporting about negative reports about Africa but connect more with the continent’s needs and aspirations. This, we have achieved through more original reporting from within the region. It is also the reason why every day the team has consistently delivered impactful stories about our region and the world on our website, Facebook, Instagram and one minute radio output known as the BBC Pidgin Minute.

In the beginning, there were people who just couldn’t believe that the BBC now reports in Pidgin. “Did you say you work for the BBC Pidgin?” was one of the most common questions our colleagues had to answer from obviously curious members of public that they had to interview. There were also those who responded to our reporters by saying “BBC Pidgin? I no fit speak Pidgin oooo.”

We had many challenges, the key one being that Pidgin is a largely spoken language and hardly has a commonly agreed spelling or written format across the region. So at the beginning we were constantly challenged by audiences in Ghana who thought certain words should be spelt the Ghanaian way while Cameroon audiences would disagree just as Sierra Leonean, Liberian and Nigerian audiences would prefer a different approach.

In the last year, we have had to take the lead by gradually aiming to standardize Pidgin as spoken and written across West and Central Africa while creating some form of generally acceptable usage across the region. True to the popular saying that the morning tells the day, signs that the BBC Pidgin Service has come to redefine the media landscape in West and Central Africa with impactful journalism, came quite early. Two days before the BBC launched the Pidgin Service, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari returned from a three-month medical vacation in the UK. The President, who at that time had been much awaited, returned to the country on a Saturday. By the following Monday, he was expected back at his duty post. But President Buhari was a no show. Predictably, there were many questions and there was an answer. His media aide said the President had to stay away from office because “rodents” had taken over his work space.

For us at the BBC Pidgin Service, it was our first day on the beat and we reported the story in the inimitable Pidgin style: “How Rat Chase President Buhari from Office.” It was as if the world was waiting for us and our story line. The report went viral and BBC Pidgin was quoted by many major newspapers and online publications in Nigeria and around the world just within 24 hours of its existence!

As it turned out, that was only a sign of things to come. One impactful report after the other, BBC Pidgin has not only being referenced by local media in Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Sierra Leone and elsewhere in Africa, it has also been quoted by the Guardian UK, The Sun UK, Independent UK, New York Times and several other international media in different parts of the world.Such recognition however didn’t come entirely as a surprise to our team of young, enterprising and creative journalists spread across West and Central Africa

For instance, BBC Pidgin was at the forefront of the reporting of how Nigerians stranded in Libya are treated in the North African country. We were one of the first media to get an exclusive interview with Libya returnees, one of whom told the story of how she was sold and resold three times over as a sex slave.

That story like other scoops the BBC Pidgin Service consistently churns out, also went viral and was referenced by several media organisations in our region. Having led in telling the gory tales of how Nigerians were treated in Libya, we also led in bringing out some glimmer of hope from that sordid episode. BBC Pidgin broke the story of two young Nigerians who met while at the slavery camp in Libya, fell in love and by the time they were rescued by the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, they returned to Nigeria with an eight-month-old baby. Theirs was a story of love in odd places.

Again, that is one story that instantly became a talk of the town. There have been several other reports like that. In Ghana for instance, the BBC Pidgin drew the attention of the West African nation to a practice that ensures that menstruating young girls often miss school because they are forbidden from crossing a particular river while on their monthly cycle.

An age long practice, many Ghanaians didn’t know it was still alive and active until we broke the story. We were also the first to bring global attention to the story of two young Ghanaians who had to drop out of school due to poverty but didn’t allow their dreams to get killed by a lack of fund. While staying at home and helping with the farm, they came up with a solution to the electricity challenge facing their country. The boys now generate electricity using cassava. Since BBC Pidgin reported the story, the young men have been approached by government agencies in Ghana seeking to help develop their dream.

Such is the life changing impact of the sort of journalism we do at the BBC Pidgin Service. Only recently, we broke the story of 10-year-old Karim Waris, a hyper realism artist whose wonder skills have gone on to not only pleasantly surprise Nigerians, but have also won him the admiration of the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron. Since we broke the boy’s story, he has become an instant celebrity recognised both within and outside Nigeria.

The story of Waris is however only an example of the kind of instant impact that the BBC Pidgin journalism creates. Another example can be found in an investigative documentary the BBC Pidgin Service released in May 2018. Titled “Sweet, sweet codeine,” the investigative documentary, jointly produced with the BBC Africa Eye, an investigative arm of BBC Africa literally caused an earthquake in the Nigerian pharmaceutical industry with the after effect spreading across the continent into Ghana, Kenya, The Gambia, Uganda and a few other places.

Less than 24 hours after the shocking documentary was released, the Nigerian government placed an outright ban on the production, importation and distribution of codeine in Nigeria. Not only that, pharmaceutical companies indicted by the undercover reporting in the documentary were shut by NAFDAC and codeine products worth billions of Naira have so far been confiscated by the Nigerian authorities.

It is therefore not surprising that today the Pidgin vibe has really caught on from Ghana to Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria among others. As we mark one year of our operations, BBC Pidgin has had the privilege of securing interviews in Pidgin with dignitaries like the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mr Paul Arkwright; Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote; the world’s richest man, Bill Gates; Nigeria’s Vice President Professor Yemi Osinbajo; former Nigeria President Olusegun Obasanjo and French President Emmanuel Macron, among others.

This is only indicative of one thing: The future is indeed very bright. It is even more exciting as we have recently launched the first Pidgin Essay writing competition to be floated by an international media in the region. The competition, which is open to tertiary students who are 18 years and above and studying on the continent, seeks to promote the culture of writing in Pidgin.

In a way, the BBC Pidgin Service seems to have come full cycle in one year. At the beginning, we could never have guessed we were starting something really exciting, today, we know how exciting it has been but we are now gripped with the anticipation of greater impact we are set to make on our continent and the world. Welcome to the age of Pidgin!
Soyinka, a multiple award-winning journalist, is the editor of BBC Pidgin Service.  www.bbc.com/pidgin.


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