By HAKEEM ADAM
Fiifi Anaman was no stranger to me because I was friends with his cousin Kwame Osei who made me notice not only what he was doing, but also how rapidly he was rising. So when he messaged me one morning to tell me that Anaman had won “Best Column” during the International Sports Press Association’s 2015 Sport Media Pearl Awards in the United Arab Emirates, torrents of emotion besieged me. First, pride that Anaman was being internationally recognized for the monumental work he was doing. Then I became very angry because there was very little coverage on the young man who has brought the world many untold stories like that of Ghana’s abandoned amputee footballers – a story shortlisted for the CNN Multichoice African Journalist of the Year award – or Bayan Mahmud’s riveting tale from Bawku to Buenos Aires.
A master storyteller, he did not have anyone willing to tell his story properly. I knew then that I had to get the complete picture of the mesmerising portrait being painted by his writing career and hope it inspires others as it had me. Anaman’s success might be considered a stroke of luck to some, but his rapid journey from a blogger to a journalist working with some of the world’s most acclaimed sports networks deserves keen attention.
“Sports in Ghana is a mess. Ghana has a lot of natural greatness but how to harness it is problematic. Even in the 1950s, people were saying Ghanaians have a natural talent for football. We are building things from top – down.”
A Special Hunger
Anaman and I sat under the gentle warmth and calm breeze of the University of Ghana at sunset. He had an iridescent glow in his eyes and his voice tinged with experience and confidence. The first question I asked was why he thought there was no buzz on him winning the award. His remarks hinted at elements of his character; being a bit reclusive and out of the spotlight, he does not really care about the politics of journalism. He is happy with the luxuries and experience being at some of journalism’s hallowed grounds at such a young age has given him and yearns to tell those daring stories no one else seems interested in.
That said, it was not straight sixes off the bat for him. After becoming disillusioned with the constricting atmosphere of the Achimota School’s boarding house system, he switched to being a day student and discovered a hunger for information powered by the internet:
“It was when I became a day student that I developed this voracious appetite for knowledge. In hindsight, had I not had that freedom, I wouldn’t have developed this fast…I was on the internet all the time and I picked up so much.”
With this new zest to take on the world, Anaman combined his writing with the beautiful game of football; both of which he loved as a child. He began to practice his art through his blog, which he started in December 2011 and eventually found a following that encouraged him to do more. Ever eager to learn and explore, he sent in applications to many websites, the majority of which turned him down. And then, he had his big break:
“Goal.com was setting up their Ghana domain and I emailed the editor Kent Mensah, introduced myself and referred him to my blog… I remember him saying in his first email to me after reading my blog that I have what it takes to be a fine football journalist. I did not even know what that meant.”
As darkness fell, we fought off mosquitoes and delved further into Anaman’s career and mentorship experience. He has an uncanny ability to not only recall comments which spurred him on to be the best version of himself, but also key dates like when a particular article was published or when he received one message or the other. Consequently, he possesses an arsenal of journalistic tools like critical thinking and attention to detail; both of which have helped him hone his craft.
That said, Anaman encountered a bigger challenge at Goal.com: in addition to dealing with deadlines, school and other commitments, he had to reacquaint himself with the local Ghanaian football league he, and most Ghanaians, had fallen out of love with. He also had to make sure his work measured up to the very high international standards Goal.com expected.
“I used to spend a lot of time at the Legon hall ICT, sometimes the whole night just researching and I writing. I was so obsessed because I had a passion but also because I saw that I could do so much if I buried myself in it [writing]… I just kept going which led to my first paid job; an internship at AllSports…I was sent there by Gary Al-Smith, he was one of my role models, still is one of my role models.”
Getting His Hands Dirty
At All Sports, Anaman was swimming in the deep end and experienced his baptism in fire while working as a junior writer. He struggled to balance the workload of writing for a commercial sports website and eventually burnt out. He and AllSports parted amicably. However, Anaman did not quit writing but rather continued to work as a freelancer. It was during this period that he first met C. K. Gyamfi, a man to whom Anaman would later become a biographer.
Successful individuals often point to a specific experience or instance that defined their careers or set the tone for the person they would become. For Anaman, his defining moment came in the form “Bawku to Buenos Aires” – a freelance article he wrote for Goal.com capturing the incredible story and journey of Bayan Mahmud, a Ghanaian boy from Bawku who stowed away in a ship all the way to Argentina.
“I think that was my career-defining article because it made people take notice of me. Seeing all this buzz, [All Sports] called and encouraged me to come back. I didn’t want to go because I don’t thrive under a lot of pressure – and this is a negative but I’m still working on it – in trying to avoid working for them, I quoted some ridiculous sum during negotiations and they still hired me. I eventually went back, not because of the money but because they demonstrated how much they value me and started there from 2013 through to October 2014.”
Following his freelance pieces on Mahmud and Gyamfi, the opportunities Anaman had only dreamed of applying for all came running into his welcoming arms. The hours of effort he poured into his writing, not compromising on standards or refusing an opportunity to learn, soon paid off. Anaman describes being “so mind blown” when he received an email from the Telegraph and was selected as one of 32 writers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, representing Ghana. He sums it up simply: “If it’s good, somebody will notice.”
The in-demand journalist also wrote for ESPN, but again, the workload proved too much of a burden and his bright flame burned out. In a bid to recover and get back to writing, Anaman tapped into his pain as a fan following the shambolic performance of Ghana’s Black Stars at the World Cup, coming up what he describes as “a very emotional article”.
“I was very emotional about how the Black Stars let the nation down. I mean, you’re at the World Cup, money should be the least of your worries. Of course, you’re supposed to be paid, but you’re at the World Cup representing your nation. No one is paying us the fans …I said damn everything they call objectivity and all that, this is a fan speaking. I know I am a journalist but I am also a fan.”
As Anaman recounted the experience, I saw hints of the frustration and indecision he must have felt before he decided to set aside his journalistic principles and let his emotions spill out. He was a football fan first. His willingness to be vulnerable and take a risk led to his article How the Black Stars stabbed the nation in cold blood, winning at the awards in Abu Dhabi.
The Man Behind the Words
The first thing that struck me about Anaman’s personality was his insatiable hunger to learn and grow. Having achieved relative successes in the infancy of his career, you would think he would be over confident about his skill or even complacent. Yet throughout our chat, he constantly spoke about how he can continue to grow. From film to art, music to life and death, our conversation meanders through each as he shares very candid observations that motivate him.
“I am not interested in being ahead of anybody. I’m just interested in challenging myself, finding new ways of writing sentences, finding new stories. And that’s what I always do. I try to challenge myself.”
When we finally begin to talk about his family, the glimmer in Anaman’s eyes intensifies. His affinity for his family who have supported him from the get-go is also something I begin to admire about him. For Anaman, his parents stoked the passion he had for football and writing, playing a key role in him securing his interviews with former Ghanaian President John Kufuor and C.K. Gymafi .The young journalist fondly recollects how his father always encouraged him to go after what he believes in while being pragmatic about his son getting a degree. When he speaks of his mother’s support, his voice softens:
“My mother has always been there, always encouraging me. When I went to Nairobi [for the CNN MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year Awards], it was my first time out of Ghana and my mother made it a point to be with me. She said even if she had to borrow money to be there she was going to do it and I remember that I didn’t understand because I really didn’t want her to go out of her way to be there. But in hindsight, I think in the surreal blur of the moment, I underestimated how much it must have meant to her.”
School was another area I wanted to probe Anaman about. How did he manage to combine a hugely successful, pressure filled, high octane writing career that involved unpaid labour at some point, travel and sleepless nights with the pressures of university and its own set of headaches? Did he ever think of dropping out? His soft laugh at the question bewilders me a bit; then he begins to talk about sacrifice:
“This is an unpopular opinion but many times. At Level 200 I missed most of my lectures and it even got to the point that I was missing IAs [interim assessments]…that’s how bad it was. But I am a master of last minute, so I always manage to sail through…. I might not be the best student but I look to learn from the experience.”
It is hard to put a price on passion but the 21-year old knew what he could become. Inspiring comments from others who saw his potential encouraged him to bring it out and this ultimately meant school had to suffer, as he could not spilt his focus perfectly. Now, in his final two months, he laughs at how lucky he was to have survived it all.
Anaman didn’t just leave anything to chance when it came to following the thing he loves. The spectrum of his work, especially the long form pieces he is addicted to, show just how much learning he had to do, all fuelled by his hunger to grow. This is how he managed to self-motivate and improve himself. It therefore came as no surprise when he said that he did not enter competitions because people were praising his work or because he wanted to win but because he wanted to know if his work measured up to the standards he aspired to.
“To be named a finalist means you’re already a winner but the winning thing is like a formality. They have to choose one for the record.”
The Reward of Hard work
In its final stages of development, C.K. Gyamfi’s biography is set to become the first football biography in Ghana. For Anaman, the book is his first complete body of work and a marker for how settled he feels. Now, he looks to experiment further with his writing; to expand and explore stories in all aspects of life that he finds interesting. His reason is simple: “There are stories everywhere”.
While recognition, awards and nominations have given him the comfort and platform to be more ambitious than he was before, Anaman does not see his success as personal. Instead, he appreciates it for what it means to all those who followed his struggle and are inspired by his journey and hard work.
By the time we conclude the interview, the night had arrived. Walking back to Legon Hall where he lives, Anaman shared his happiest moment with me – when he received an email from a 12-year old girl telling him how she was inspired by him.
“I never hesitate when someone needs help, when someone needs inspiration because I know the value of inspiration. Because somebody inspired me, Gary Al-Smith. When I met him he was a young guy, a go-getter and now I am somebody’s Gary Al-Smith. “
All this at 21 years, amidst very personal challenges, economic downturns and power irregularity, Fiifi Anaman’s story is a crack of the whip for young writers like myself. The overarching theme in his success is learning and granted everyone’s circumstance is unique; we can all appreciate the value of improving ourselves not for money but for passion.