Zain Verjee: The Kenyan-born former CNN anchor who is passionate about changing the representation of Africa in the media.

By Ebimo Amungo

Zain Verjee is African, she wears her African identity with pride as she navigates the world as a journalist and media tycoon. And as she works to promote corporate brands and organizational reputations through her eponymous media group, one mission remains at the core of her essence, a determination to change how her beloved continent is represented by the global media.

Zain Verjee is one of the world’s most respected and recognized journalists, with an action-packed background and experience at CNN as an anchor, reporter, and master interviewer. She was born on February 11, 1974, in Nairobi, Kenya and is also one of the Africa’s greatest ambassadors.


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Heritage

Zain Verjee is a member of the Ismaili and Oshwall Muslim communities, an Indian community known for their industry and philanthropy in Kenya. Her great-great grandfather, Suleman Verjee, sailed on a dhow from the island of Diu, off the coast of Gujarat State in India and arrived the port of Mombasa, Kenya in 1850.

Her grandfather, Hussein Verjee was the first President of the East African Indian Congress and was one of the few Asians who maintained a close friendship with the late President Jomo Kenyatta. Hussein was politically active in resisting the British and advocating for more freedoms for all Kenyans. In recognition of his contributions to Kenya, the local British Government at the time, named a road in his honor — though years later it was renamed Tubman Road.

Parents

Zain Verjee is the first born of two children. Her father, Johnny Verjee is a hotelier while her mother, Yasmin, is a DNA sequencing and forensic expert. Her father was born in Nairobi while her mother grew up in Kisumu but was born in Kisii.

Zain with her brother, Irfan

Zain has a brother, Irfan and she  describes her upbringing as being privileged, but imbued with the core values of humility, compassion and respect.

Education

Verjee attended Hillcrest Preparatory School and Hillcrest Secondary School in Nairobi. She went to McGill University in Montreal, Canada where she studied English for her undergraduate degree. She obtained a masters at York University in Toronto and another a master’s in creative writing from Oxford University.

Media career in Kenya

Unknown to many, Zain Verjee’s career as a journalist started modestly. While in Kenya to gather data for her master’s research project Zain learnt that a new radio station, 98.4 Capital FM in Nairobi was looking for someone to read Traffic News. She applied and got the job. She later started the Love-Life show. Zain found her new job as a radio DJ to be fulfilling and decided to defer her studies to pursue her new found passion.

Reporting Hard News

She got a job as an anchor and reporter on Kenya Television Network in 1998 as she sough to get more involved in “Hard news” reporting. This was after she witnessed  images of desperation, anguish and pain of civilians who were victims of the attack on the American embassy in Nairobi by Al queada terrorist.

CNN Career

While still at KTN, Zain sent several job applications to CNN and was rejected 12 times before being invited to a test screening in Atlanta, Georgia. She got the job and started her career in CNN in 2000, when she   25 years. She spent 14 years at CNN as an anchor and correspondent, living in Atlanta, Washington DC and London.

Zain the CNN anchor

Prior to leaving CNN in April 2014, Verjee was the anchor of CNN International‘s European daytime program “World One”. She worked as a newsreader for The Situation Room, as a State Department correspondent, and as a co-anchor of CNN International’s Your World Today with Jim Clancy. Zain Verjee, however, considers her biggest moment at CNN was getting to cover Condoleezza Rice who was then the head of America’s foreign policy.

“It was such a great experience being on the first and fast lane of foreign policy. It behooved me to research and know what was going on in the world in order to stay up to date, and this made me grow as a journalist.” Zain Verjee said

Entrepreneurship

Since leaving CNN, Zain Verjee has plunged herself into various entrepreneurial activities and is today the CEO of the Zain Verjee Group. She has assembled a heavy hitting team of strategists, communicators, digital influencers and content creators for her organization. The firm has worked with Bloomberg Media, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Equity Group Foundation of Kenya, World Health Organization, The MiSK Foundation, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa on their communications and public relations

Zain Verjee is also the cofounder and content creator Amplify via aKoma Media, a content creator fellowship with participants from East/West Africa and the US, in partnership with MasterCard Foundation. It is for anyone, professional or amateur, who has an interest in Africa to write, and tell their story to the world

Skin Condition

In 2014 while still with CNN, Zain Verjee announced to the world in an  article that beneath the news anchor’s poise and groomed appearance she had been hiding a painful secret as  she suffered from a skin disorder called psoriasis since she was 8 years old. Psoriasis is caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking healthy skin cells which makes the skin build up into bumpy red patches covered with white scales and plaques that spreads round the body.

She wrote: ‘I had fish-like scales. There are tiny red islands floating on the surface of my skin. They combine to create continents with jagged surfaces. They turn black and start to smell. There is blood and pus. I suffered from psoriasis.

Zain Verjee controls psoriasis by sticking to a strict diet and staying healthy

Needless to say, the disease took a toll on her personal life as she suffered bouts of self-loathing and defeatism and avoided relationships. Zain was able to control the disease with the help of meditation, visualization and a strict, simple diet, diet and better health practices and the disease was in remission for a decade. Psoriasis is however a life long condition.

Relationships and marriage

Zain Verjee is not married and has kept a tight lid on her relationships.

“I have not made an effort to invest in a relationship or marriage but I am now making it a priority. A few years ago, my parents wouldn’t be happy when I took a man home, now they’re very happy when I do take a man home, she says. I’m working on it,” she says.

Proud to be a Kenyan

Zain Verjee is proud of her Kenyan heritage. She speaks Gujarati, Kiswahili and conversational French and this has allowed her to be a multicultural ambassador for Kenya.

Proud ambassador of Kenya: Zain Verjee in a warm embrace with President Uhuru Kenyatta

Speaking on the Kenyan diaspora, Zain said

“My challenge for Kenyans living abroad is that they have to always fly the Kenyan flag, to be loyal to both the country you are in, and the country you are from. Kenyans in Diaspora must utilize their enormous talents and intelligence to contribute to better societies in both places.”

Hmmm. No caption

Zain was particularly joyful when in 2018 Asians in Kenya were designated as the 44th tribe in that multiethnic country. She noted that

“For me, as a Kenyan Asian woman, it means I’m now — finally — a first-class citizen in my country.”

Residence

Verjee resides in the Los Angeles area and Nairobi, Kenya. Zain Verjee Group also has operations in New York

Zain Verjee  is the author of a children’s book, ‘Live and On the Air’. She is also chairman for Wildlife Direct International and a Board Member of the Equity Group Foundation International

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