Zain Verjee: A Beautiful Reflection Of An Emerging Continent

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Published: April 27, 2015


One thing remains clear and consistent about the African experience: there is no giving up. Spirit, drive and persistence are echoed in every aspect of this great continent—in its vast resources, landscape, wildlife, and most of all, its people. Take for instance, Zain Verjee, a young woman from Kenya who was once just a little introverted girl with an embarrassing skin disease. This same shy girl went on to become one of the most recognized names in international journalism interviewing such renowned figures as Tony Blair, Kofi Annan and Benazir Bhutto. Ms. Verjee, who was initially turned down time and again by CNN, eventually enjoyed a 14-year career at the global news network as a State Department correspondent, a newsreader for The Situation Room and a co-Anchor on CNN International’s Your World Today, World Report and World One.  And she’s far from finished.

Having revealed her battle with psoriasis, Ms. Verjee continues to be a bright representation of African potential and achievement as she now dares to spread the true story of the continent’s explosion of talent upon the world stage. Radiant Health Contributor, Nikki Igbo, got a chance to sit down and chat with Ms. Verjee about growing up with psoriasis, her latest career ventures, Zain Verjee Group and aKoma, and the beauty of the African story.

You have lived the life of a world citizen and enjoyed huge success and global recognition but you still manage to maintain a strong African identity and compassion for issues affecting the continent. What has kept you so grounded?

I identify most strongly with being Kenyan and I visit Kenya every year even though I’ve lived elsewhere for many years. I’m always re-grounded, reconnected and re-energized by the talent, warmth and creativity of the people there. Whenever I land in Nairobi, I always heave a sigh of relief and feel really happy because that’s where I feel most at home. My family still lives there. I see my mother and father quite often, so it is home. Professionally, I’ve been able to cover Africa and that has always given me leeway and opportunity to bring my own perspective to the table and to tell the kind of stories that really capture the tone of the emerging continent.

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Zain and her brother, Irfan, in Kenya

Recently you made the bold move to share your personal struggle with psoriasis, a disease with which you’ve been living since you were eight years old. What was your childhood like in Kenya while dealing with psoriasis?

My grandfather died when I was eight years old. I think the pressure of that emotional situation was a direct trigger of the psoriasis. During my childhood, the severity of my skin disease ebbed and flowed. Sometimes it was okay because I was in the sun and the salt water and less stressed. At other times, it would inflame badly and it was hard while I was at school and participating in sports. I didn’t want to be in the changing room while everyone was dressing so I’d use different tactics to hide like putting my shirt on while in the bathroom. During swimming, I’d pretend to have my period for many weeks. My condition became severely bad in my late teens and early 20s.

[MORE]: Understanding Psoriasis

What misconceptions did people have about this condition and what was the general reaction?

Because it’s a physically ugly disease when it’s severe, people react to it. They’re like, “Oh my God, what’s that? What do you have? ” Children would typically comment and stare.  People would react out of curiosity and pity. I felt a certain sense of discomfort, as if I wasn’t normal. As I grew older, I became so self-conscious that I didn’t even give people a chance to react because I was all about hiding. I assumed that I would be rejected or mocked in some way.

[MORE]: Understanding Psoriasis

But then you experienced a 10 year remission with a change in diet and a change in your mental outlook. That must have been something akin to a rebirth. What was that like and how did that impact your life’s trajectory?

It changed everything. I felt more confident. I didn’t feel like I was projecting happiness, yet feeling miserable inside; I felt free. I was very excited at twenty-something to be able to wear a dress and not worry about stockings or flakes.  In terms of potential romantic and sexual relationships, I felt like new because I’d always been so afraid. While my disease was bad, I stayed in Kenya. Then it went into remission and CNN offered me a job. Everyone who met me in the beginning and throughout my career saw a different side of me as I wasn’t suffering from anything. They saw physically how I truly felt inside.

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But you still live with psoriasis every day and, from what I can tell, it doesn’t define who you are or limit you from working toward your goals and dreams.

I currently have a very severe flare up of psoriasis, so I’m no longer in remission. I use heavy drugs and I’m not as disciplined as before with my diet. I’m looking for quick fixes. As soon as my psoriasis flares up, I become psychologically affected and can’t really function well in other professional aspects. I get angry quickly, moody. I feel depressed. I go into hiding. For example, I hosted a dinner at TUSK USA, which is a big dinner event here in New York. I couldn’t wear flesh-colored stockings and I had to wear thick black stockings, so I was in a bad mood when I put the stockings on. I’m okay with sharing that now.

People think that I don’t feel uncomfortable or upset or don’t shrink back. But it does affect me mentally, professionally and physically. It’s uncomfortable. I’m supposed to go on a beach vacation and I’m like, “Oh, should I go? Should I not go?” That’s my current situation which, ironically, is a result of the stress of (laughs) starting a new business and everything I’m experiencing professionally and personally.

We all tend to forget that celebrities are humans too. To reveal such a very personal and vulnerable side of yourself is one of the most heroic things that anyone can do especially someone who is constantly in the limelight.

Thank you so much for saying that! It was really hard, but I’ve reached a point in my life where I think, “What’s the point of hiding anymore?” I think it might help other young women as well. It also freed me from not being okay with whatever people are saying or from people staring.

What advice would you offer to others with this condition, particularly those living in African nations like Nigeria who may not necessarily have access to certain types of medications or clinical treatments?

Simply put, your mind can help your body. With love and support of family and friends around you, you can heal. Before, I didn’t give people the opportunity to accept me with my flaws. I thought that I always had to be perfect.  There’s no need to put pressure on yourself—especially as a young woman—to be perfect. If people love you and want to love you then give them the benefit of the doubt and don’t run in the other direction. They actually may respond faster than you think. Those who don’t, you don’t want them in your life anyway

On the medical side, be sure to ask all sorts of questions of your doctors. Don’t accept a single piece of advice as the only advice; get a second or third opinion. Be discerning and meticulous about what dermatologist you choose, their track record and whatever drug they’re offering you. There are many different drug and therapy options. There are heavier drugs, and I’ve taken all of them, such as methotrexate, topical steroids and biologic injections like Enbrel and Humira. They’re all very expensive and not much is known about their long term side effects. There’s ultraviolet light treatment or light therapy. If you’re in Africa or living in a warm climate, one of the best things to heal psoriasis is salt water, tea and sun. Take advantage of them. Also, drink lots of water because it’s good for you.

And what do you want others who are ignorant about psoriasis to know and understand?

Staring or looking, as interested as you are or concerned as you might be, really has an impact. Don’t stare. People with psoriasis are so sensitive to even the slightest movement of the way your eye flickers. It hurts. If a person has psoriasis on their hands or something, don’t shrink away. Don’t be afraid to touch. It’s not contagious. People with psoriasis often feel like lepers and they just want to fit in like everyone else. If you see someone that’s kind of removed a little bit, maybe encourage them.

Hopping back to some of those professional stresses you mentioned earlier, you left CNN to start your own production company. You’re also the brainchild behind aKoma. What should everyone know about Zain Verjee Group and aKoma?

The Zain Verjee Group is about telling the African story. It’s about talking to companies both inside and outside of Africa that are interested in Africa from a business perspective. It’s also about creating video, narratives and stories about capturing the new, exciting and energetic people and places of Africa. AKoma fits directly into the Zain Verjee Group vision. AKoma is all about telling African stories from African perspectives, but also so much more. We want to empower young African people to directly publish and tell their own stories so that it’s authentic. It’s about Africa. It’s about stories by young, cool Africans with ideas and innovations to share with the world. Hopefully, the next big Facebook, Google or Twitter will come from the geniuses in Africa. I don’t see why not.

zain plane

One huge challenge about telling African stories is the amount of ignorance out there on who and what Africa is. What is your biggest concern about addressing this challenge and why do you feel you’ll be victorious in doing so?

Africa is not just 54 countries. There are multiple ethnicities within those nations and it’s very heterogeneous. One of the biggest media pitfalls has been to approach Africa as one place. I definitely don’t want to make that mistake.  I want to present content from as local a perspective as possible, not Zain’s perspective but authentic, granular and local perspectives.

Many people throughout the world are beginning to recognize Africa’s big investment opportunity and its position as the last business frontier. Six out of ten of the fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. There’s a new narrative coming out and new interest in learning more about it.  For those who want to just funnel Africa into this Ebola, corruption, and ethnic conflict sort of place, they aren’t our audience. We’re targeting those who know and those who want to know more—people who have an open mind and want to connect.

With this in mind, I understand that you’re interested in having a presence in Nigeria. What and who are you looking for in terms of those plans?

I’m looking for people who are younger and cooler than me, who have a real creative flair and want to be connected to a bigger audience. I want Nigerians to feel like it’s not a one-way street. I’m not the oracle of Nigeria. You are. I don’t really need news reporting. I want creative lifestyle, opinions, sassy thinking, arguing, entertainment. I’m really open to what young Nigerians are doing and how they want their world, country and family portrayed.  I really am looking for someone who wants to take a risk. Someone who wants to have some fun. Someone who’s not afraid to try something new. I’m looking to help build talent. I’m looking for young Nigerians to work with, not for, me. I want them to work with me and for themselves. I’m looking for fresh ideas, fresh thinking and creativity.

You’ve also expressed a desire to pursue writing. You’ve already got a children’s book “Live & On the Air” under your belt. What’s next?

When I write I feel really happy. I feel like I’m in my own bubble and it takes my mind off of everything else. I’m working on finishing my Masters in Creative Writing at University of Oxford. I have five months left and I have these two 25,000-word essays to write, so I’m really stressed. I’m working on a few things, a novel about a Kenyan detective who solves murder mysteries, a sitcom about a television newsroom told from the perspective of a make-up artist and more children’s books as well.

What do you most want women to know and understand about living the best and healthiest life they possibly can?

It’s really important to always take time out for yourself and make yourself a priority. Treat your special time like a business meeting.  Treat the one thing you love to do and makes you happy as a non-movable appointment. Whatever it is—meditating, yoga, gym, cooking, wine-tasting, water-skiing, reading—it’s very important for mental well-being, personal growth and self-revitalization to be able to call that time for yourself. It’s imperative. Whether it’s an hour a week or one day, just disconnect from devices to slow down and reflect. Take time out for yourself because you’re just as important as everything going on in this turbulent world around us.

To learn more about aKoma‘s African creative community and enter to win the aKoma writing competition, visit www.akomanet.com.

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About Nikki Igbo

Nikki Igbo is a blogger, writer, editor and political scientist. She received her BA in Political Science from California State University at Fullerton and her MFA in Writing at Savannah College of Art and Design. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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