AFTER spending more than 20 years outside Tanzania as an international radio broadcaster and the United Nations Peacekeeping staff, she decided it was an opportune time to return home.This is Valerie Msoka, a former broadcaster with Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam (RTD) and the Kiswahili Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
She was also a UN staff who served both in Southern Sudan and Iraq. Valerie's work experience is unique. It is worth mentioning that she is one of the few (if not only) Tanzanian journalists with a wide experience in covering war zones.
As a BBC radio presenter, she covered conflict zones in Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Sudan and Iraq. Her last stint as a UN peace keeper was in Iraq where she spent about three years.
Initially, Valerie was employed by RTD as a radio technician. She then switched to broadcasting, before successfully applying for the BBC job which she happily took up in 1992. My immediate question to Valerie was: "How come you left a well-paid job and decided to return home?"
This deep-voiced lady in her early 50s had this to say during an interview in Dar es Salaam this week. "After my experience in the war zones, I made up my mind that going back home would be the best thing to do.
To me, home was a paradise. There is one important thing that Tanzania must be proud of. It is the peace and harmony that we have enjoyed for years. After my vast experience, especially in the war-torn countries, I dare say being Tanzanian is enough a gift."
I was curious to know more about her former friends and colleagues at the then Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam (RTD) now Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation (TBC). Ms Eddah Sanga, a retired RTD broadcaster and programme manager worked with Valerie as her colleague and supervisor. She describes her as hard working and a good team player.
"Valerie Msoka is intelligent, likes to help others wherever she plays the role of leadership. She has all the leadership qualities," says Ms Eddah Sanga of her former colleague. Ms Valerie's long experience in covering war zones started immediately after joining the BBC in 1992.
"It was not a choice, I am after all a journalist - all journalists either go to a story or are sent to cover one," she said, adding that was her case for Mozambique, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi and Uganda while she was working with the BBC World Service.
She adds; "Having reported and witnessed wars and their effects, I wanted to be part of the peace building process, hence, my shift to Sudan and Iraq. Peace building is an on-going process and I feel privileged to have played a part in these two countries."
Ms Valerie Msoka left the BBC in 2005 and joined the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission as radio broadcaster where she was assigned Sudan to start a radio station following the 2005 Peace Mission Agreement between Sudan and South Sudan.
"In Sudan I built a radio station called Miraya (meaning mirror in Sudanese local vernacular). Sudan chose the name with a purpose to see themselves through the mirror," she narrated. After agreeing on the peace process, Sudan requested to have peace keeping mission to oversee the Peace Accord.
So when I went there I thought there would be a radio. I followed the procedure to meet the Chief of UN mission operations in Sudan and the people to make the radio working. When it came to grant the licence, the President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir said no, saying the political climate in the country then did not allow for the radio to operate in Sudan.
She said she was told I could go to South Sudan there was nothing wrong. South Sudan invited me to start the radio there. In South Sudan she was shown a piece of land where the radio station was to be built. The radio became autonomous-and this is where the power of radio broadcasting was evident - it gave the UN space to preach the value of peace in South Sudan.
In understanding well the history of peace, we at Miraya, made partnership with Hirondele Foundation and went to Uganda to recruit broadcasters because we wanted the radio to have regional representation and inclusiveness. We were looking for creativity and enthusiasm.
But, according to her, this did not work out well because the Sudan is very tribalist-every tribe in South Sudan wanted to hear their language over the radio. My immediate task, therefore, was to recruit youth in different languages, sat under a tree and started programmes.
In less than a year (in June 2006) radio Miraya went on air. It was a radio that informed the Sudanese about the peace programmes. Radio Miraya played a big role in South Sudan's election in 2010 in which Salva Kiir was elected and the referendum of 2011 that gave birth to the Republic of South Sudan.
As a radio broadcaster, Valerie says, she gained lot of experience from managing Radio Miraya. She could see how people of South Sudan, whom after 20 years of civil war, were eager to return home and build their country.
"To me, it was living and dealing with the war. And Radio Miraya was a peace keeping radio. It therefore became very popular because it was geared towards peace keeping, development and construction. It also played the role of educating people on social and welfare issues including health (especially the importance of immunization to their children), economy, gender, politics and education," recalls this mother of three who lives in London.
Apart from managing the radio, Valerie says she also became a counsellor to youths who were traumatized by the civil war. According to her, many were child soldiers and to manage people who have come out of war is very difficult. "If one does not understand the effects of war, should go to South Sudan.
You have to understand where these people come from. I was amazed how South Sudanese love Tanzania. They say because it is a peaceful country. They call it the country of Nyerere," she explained.
She recalls the enthusiasm displayed during the referendum, saying prior to it Radio Miraya mobilized people to turn out in big numbers to go and vote for peace. "The turnout was massive because they believed there was nothing that could explain how bad oppression was and they wanted to come out of it."
One incident that Valerie says will never forget was how President Salva Kiir used Miraya radio to deliver New Year greetings to the people of South Sudan in 2010. It impacted their lives in many ways. People tuned to the radio.
She says by the time she left South Sudan she managed to put up 13 booster stations in the whole of South Sudan. "It was a lot of effort to be part of the history and I was privileged to be part of their history," she says of the experience with South Sudan.
The radio broadcaster confirms, during interview, that stories of the children gave her the capability of working with the young men and women in South Sudan. Most of the staff at the radio station had at one point been in the long civil war of their country. In South Sudan it was witnessing the effects of war and learning or adapting to such a situation. However, it is something one can never get used to it.
She has this to say of her experience in Iraq. "The UN like the BBC conducts a one-week hazard course before allowing you to enter Iraq. Failure of the course means you cannot enter Iraq. It is an intensive course on awareness of the dangers in a zone such as Iraq.
Flying in and out of Baghdad follows tight security procedures. Now imagine, on finally arriving in Baghdad at ten o'clock in the night, the siren goes off. We had to rush to the safety shelter leaving our luggage behind. We stayed there for half an hour before we were informed that it was 'clear' and we could move.
I had to look for the luggage that I had thrown while running for shelter and board the bus to the final destination. It is dark and you finally reach the camp. "And you are given the keys to your accommodation and the siren goes off again. You have luggage, you are heavy yourself because you are wearing protective gear. You drop everything and run under the bed as it seems to be the only safe place.
I did pray later and asked God, 'what have I done?' I could not imagine living in such a place. But then I asked myself what of the Iraqis? They live like this every day. And then I met some of the Iraqi staff. And the stories they have. This is just one, your neighbour's son loses a leg and as you carry the young boy to the car, to take him to hospital, he demands his leg back.
"You run and get any leg that you find, and the boy refuses it saying it is not his. You bring another and this time say it is definitely just a change of colour because it is no longer attached on his body. You lie and that what haunts you that you might have spent more time looking for the leg. This is a colleague who you find crying in the office remembering what he should have done. You console by reminding him of the fact that he saved a life that was great. He lives with that."
After years of the civil war in Mozambique between FRELIMO and the RENAMO rebels, an election was to be held in the country - the first multi-party election. As a BBC Swahili reporter, Valerie had to go to the northern areas where Kiswahili was widely spoken.
"That was my first experience of travelling in army helicopters where the comfortable seats of the normal planes are not there. While my permit allowed me to travel in most areas it did not ensure that I had a place to sleep. Because of the elections there were a lot of monitors who had taken up all the hotel rooms.
Thus, for two nights I had to sleep at a radio station and pay the hotel to give me a room to take a bath. I do remember an incidence where in the middle of driving from one place to another the taxi driver asked me where I was going and on telling him I was going to meet the FRELIMO representative of that areas he stoped his taxi and asked me to get out.
I asked him why he was doing that he said because I was supporting a party that he does not support. I had to walk from that nowhere place, following the road to the next town. When I finally arrived, the FRELIMO representative told me I was late. When I explained why, he could only sympathise.
I got my interview and filed it to London. Election fever does that to people," this was quite frightening but I believed God was with me all the time. The conflicts of the great lakes area followed one another or were at times happening at the same time. Immediately after the Rwanda genocide, Valerie was sent to Rwanda as part of a series of programmes on children in conflict areas.
"The thing is, when you hear the news on the radio or see the reports on television you are horrified," I saw all this. About the effect on the people on the genocide, there were those who lost relatives and those who participated in the killings, the empty houses, the church with the skeletons. There were hospitals where people and children still in shock at what had happened.
In DRC my reporting took me to Goma. At that particular time the rebels also had a hold on that area. "Before going to hazardous areas the BBC conducts training to enable correspondents to cope and be aware of the potential dangers. However, while in Goma the training went out of the window.
"This was because I did not know that when people are aware of the rebels approach, the lights are switched off and everyone drops to the ground and crawls away. I was thus literally pulled down by my guide and all my recording equipment came tumbling down after me. I asked him where we were headed and he told me to shut up - in a safe environment I'm sure he would have said please be quiet.
After we emerged on the road side I asked who were those shooting and he asked whether I wanted to know or to stay alive. I was alive to file a story for 'Amka na BBC'." Travelling from Burundi was another experience. There were few buses and the fighting in the border areas of Rwanda, DRC and Burundi meant that for example to travel from DRC to Rwanda I had to go through Cameroon because at that time there were hostilities between the two countries.
In Burundi, she says, the critical area was the area of a forest that was known at that time as the rebel hideout. "We had to ensure we passed it early when the rebels were resting after night raids. But once in Burundi, you had to be able to know which areas you could go and not go.
The correspondents in Bujumbura at that time refused point blank to venture into those areas- they lived there, I would leave for London. However, it was in Bujumbura where a ten year old girl told me how she saw a pregnant woman being sliced by the rebels and her baby being torn from her stomach. This bleeding woman was then given a mortar and pestle and told to pound her "baby". When she turned to run away, she was shot in the back. Such is war.
" I remember going to Gulu, Northern Uganda when Joseph Kony was still the feared warlord. As I booked in the hotel, I was told that if I heard footsteps in the night I should wake up and look outside because sometime the message had come that Kony was on the way and that meant people were silently moving out of the area. I did not sleep the first two nights, waiting for the footsteps.
On the third night I slept, I was exhausted and had got used to be being in the area. But there was no getting used to the stories told by the children who had escaped Kony. Some were severely scarred because they had been cut by a sword as a form of punishment. Some had contracted HIV because of the being made wives of the rebels.
"The children told me tales of how they had to kill those who were weak or risk being killed themselves and how after walking for miles on end and there was no water they had to drink each other's urine. They told me how they used to be beaten until they fainted for very small mistakes. But they could not even start to explain their fear as they escaped - being caught meant being maimed for life or dying," Valerie says of her experience in Northern Uganda.
One of our listeners once wrote to the BBC that I was the Christiane Amapour of the Swahili Service. I had to find out who that was - the then CNN reporter. Another wrote that anytime you hear Valerie reporting there is a conflict/problem, this is how she was referred to be her colleagues in BBC. In yet another interesting experience for Valerie is that most listeners including, some of BBC correspondents thought she was a man and were shocked when they saw her picture. It is because of her deep voice.