American gloss helps Kenyan newsman shine

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"What is it about Jeff Koinange," asked a Kenyan journalist, "that seems to generate so much spontaneous combustion every time he shows his face on our TV screens? The booming baritone voice? The Americanese accent and infuriatingly mispronounced names?

The emblematic `Aaaaaaaand here's the news?' The crew cut? What?"

Since his return from the United States a year ago, Jeff Koinange has become the best-known and most controversial broadcaster in Kenya. His unique style puts him head and shoulders above the country's other (admittedly charismatically stunted) television presenters.

"Initially I got a lot of criticism," admits the 30-year-old broadcaster, whose return home was secured with job offers from Reuters news agency and KTN, one of two national television stations. "People said I was a hoax because of my American accent but that's been toned down. Soon after I started reading the news, women would come up to me to shake my hand and talk. Men would mostly scowl at me. And kids, well they'd just stand there looking at me like I was something in the zoo." He gets an average of 75 or 80 fan letters a week.

Koinange's success produced a squabble between his two employers, previously content to share him. He did his last newscast for KTN this month and will concentrate on an off-screen job for Reuters TV. But media oblivion is unlikely.

His grandfather was Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiu, head of the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest tribe. One of the founders of the Mau-Mau insurgency which hastened independence from Britain in 1963, Chief Koinange served nine years in prison for his guerrilla activities, along with Jeff's father and a host of other family members.

One of four children, grandson Koinange was brought up in the Kikuyu heartland of Kiambu, just outside Nairobi. After school he got a job as a flight attendant with Pan Am.

A year and a half later he had got into New York University to study broadcast journalism. Jobs with American broadcasters ABC News and NBC News followed and it looked like young Koinange was headed for a successful media career in America.

"It was great living in the States," says Koinange, "but after nine years I figured I'd have to make a decision. I could either be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond. I'd always seen myself coming home to Kenya and I decided to give it a go."

After the bright lights of Broadway, Koinange admits his return to run- down Nairobi was "a rude awakening, a hell of a culture shock". It wasn't so much that he thought of himself more as an American than as a Kenyan. It was how his fellow-countrymen perceived him. People would tell him his behaviour was "un-African". Even today his sister tells him he doesn't act like an African.

Koinange has his sights set on a pan-African show, "a sort of Larry King Live, with interviews with people who are really trying to change this continent". Not just the Nyereres and the Mandelas, he says, but also ordinary people, the ones who are combating Aids, and trying to make Africa a better place in which to live.