Rita Tinina: Astute storyteller in broadcast journalism

Rita Tinina requiem mass at Holy Family Basilica Nairobi, on Monday, March. 25, 2024. [Samson Wire. Standard]

Our weekly meeting on Tuesday was particularly sombre. It was the same day an autopsy of our late colleague Rita Tinina was to be conducted. She formed part of the agenda and in our prayers we thanked God for having known her as well as peace to her family.

It is the moment of silence that had me wondering, as I looked at the young wide-eyed journalists in the newsroom, “Do these young journalists really know who Rita Tinina is?”

Allow me to introduce Rita, I beg your pardon, Lady Rita Tinina; the first of her kind in Kenya, the television news scriptwriter extraordinaire, the perceptive keeper of history, the dexterous holder of the microphone, and, most importantly, a lady.

The Rita that is known to millions across the world, I dare say the world, because a video of her on location shooting a story has been viral in the popular social media platforms.

Many outside Kenya may not be aware that the journalist shooting her piece to camera in front of a caged lion, which then decides to shoot urine at her is Rita. That short video says a lot about her.

That was her kind of stories, not the ordinary man bites dog content but a news story all the same, and an extremely good one at that.

She was the kind of journalist who would be reporting about conservation of wildlife involving hanging out with lions in cages, to elephants in the wild, and then covering a political rally the next day, then lawyers and judges in the highest corridors of justice the next or interviewing presidents, both former and future presidents, before boarding a plan for an international case in the International Criminal Court, ICC.

Her exposure to all these stories and newsmakers made her a living archive of facts and history. Her eloquent delivery of any live news event about anything and from the top of her head, made her not only brilliant but also easy to assign a story. In every story she did lies greatness in delivery and production.

To quote what my senior editor and boss Kizito Namulanda said in our weekly meeting, “I hope that all of you watch Rita’s stories.” He paused before completing his train of thought, “She is the perfect example of a brilliant television journalist; from her scripts to her choice of shots and sound bytes she used in her stories. You all should look up to her.”

This I know very well, when I joined the KTN Newsroom two years ago, she must have been away on leave because a month later, I would meet her as I sat at my desk ready for the evening shift. “Young man!” she quipped with her subtle permanent smile. I will explain why 'young man' later. Technically, I was her editor, but that neither stopped her from calling me a young man, nor, prevented me from giving her my attention. Her voice was authoritative in the most convincing way possible, loud, not too loud, gentle not too gentle; perfect for television.

“I understand you are the editor on duty tonight.” She continued as I tried to change my smile to serious business, “My script is in.” she informed me. I will admit, I was nervous as I clicked on the script. I had worked with her but never had I read her scripts before they were proofread and cleared by her editor. Here I was, her editor now, going through her script. The script, was as I had watched many before this, in her seamless and poetic delivery of news stories.

Her former editors were right about her scripts, “Hard to correct, impossible not to enjoy the story. Short, sweet and simple.” In the few months that followed before she left for NTV, every script I went through taught me something new, reminded me historical facts and took the news bulletin many levels higher in quality.

That’s the Rita everyone knows. The Rita I know is more than just a journalist, she is the first lady of television news storytelling.

I first met Rita in the NTV newsroom two decades ago when I was an intern, still a student at the University of Nairobi. She was respectful, serious in crunch time, politely playful in newsroom downtime. She was hard to miss in the beehive of newsroom activities and noisy corridors. She contributed very little to the noise, save for her contagious laugh, but was indeed a very part of the buzz.

I once overheard in the newsroom, ‘The most important day is when you meet your maker.’ I can’t remember exactly when, but it was a funeral coverage of a very important person on air. He may have meant death, but I have always understood it as life; when a baby meets her mother for the first time or when someone meets a mentor or when one encounters a life-changing event–at that moment, a mother, the mentor or event, is one’s maker.

Allow me to explain. On my first assignment, Rita asked me to tag along, shadow her, and learn news-making firsthand. I did not hesitate. I collected my new notebook, which had dropped to the floor as I sprung from my seat.

“You will not need your suit jacket where we are going," she smiled as she advised me. She was right, because a few minutes later we were amongst a rowdy crowd of hawkers who were resisting eviction from a piece of land in Ngara, bordering downtown Nairobi.

One minute Rita was by my side, the next, she was in the middle of the crowd, interviewing a vocal trader. The interview was short-lived. Teargas filled the open-air marketplace and everyone was running in all directions but it did take Rita’s eyes off me as she shouted “young man, tripod. Run...!

Like a soldier, I deciphered the instructions quickly, moved as fast as my tight hand-me-down pants would allow, grabbed the camera tripod and ran to where we had parked the car, which was towards the police officers aiming teargas canisters at us.

I could not stop since Rita was ahead of me. Once we got to the safety of the car, she explained, “The tripod, the camera and the microphone are your shield. They are sacred, they should not be abused by anyone, including yourself.”

That single event made me who I am today. Despite the dangers present, Rita still got her story. Her script was not as I had written mine, she had information that was news to me and the final product, the story, an accurate representative and in-depth description and analysis of the event and a succinct understanding of the issues involved. Thus, I became ‘young man’ to Rita.

She was barely five years older than me yet she taught me everything I know today about journalism. She became a friend closer to an elder sister. She discouraged being part of the story, probably why the lion clip that went viral on the internet never bothered her. Her demeanor and character, just like her voice, was not loud but reverberated across the world through her work.

Rita, this is not from the keyboard, but from my heart. You may have run your race but your legacy lives on; your contribution to television journalism will not be forgotten.

Rest in peace