Sharon Tshipa is a woman who wears many hats. She’s a freelance news agent for many different international news bureaus including Xinhua News Agency in China and the French newswire service AFP, among others. She prepares both video and text news for these agencies. She is also the co-founder and chairperson of the local NGO, Botswana Society for Human Development.
At the end of last year, many might have heard her name for the first time as a fiction writer, when she received third place in the inaugural Poetavango Award for Short Story with her story “Reality for Sale”. Despite her busy schedule, I managed to get an interview with her.
I asked her what her typical day consisted of. “Freelancing has its calm, lazy days and crazy, busy days,” she said. “A calm, lazy day would be spent hunting down story ideas, writing pitches and waiting for story approvals from my ‘bosses’. ….How crazy-busy a day becomes depends on which agency I’m dealing with at a given time, worst still, if it’s that nightmarish day in which I have to submit to at least two agencies. The craziest days are days wherein I am submitting a video story with the shelf life of a banana – in contrast to a magazine video. It means being at the event way before time just so I shoot some cutaways and establishing shots, after which I cover the event, interview people on the side-lines, rush to my work station to edit the footage…After editing the footage, I write the script to accompany it. The most annoying part with video packages is having to transcribe what the speakers (sound bites) are saying word for word.
“The pressure is worse when it is a major story because your editor will be calling constantly to see if things are going right… Selling news is about reaching our clients first. It is about being the first to break the news worldwide. If it is a really big story, I do twice the amount of work. I compile 30 seconds of video footage and submit it as a breaking news piece that will be followed an hour and half later by the complete news package.”
She said she started writing when a friend of hers (writer Cheryl Ntumy) introduced her to writer and poet Barolong Seboni who had started Petlo Literary Artists. She became a member in 2009, and helped with the book, Sechele 1: A Historical Play.
I asked her how she broke into freelancing for such high-profile news agencies. “One word. FRIENDS. I started with Xinhua News Agency, Botswana Bureau. They wanted a video freelancer, a friend recommended me. While working for them, my media friends increased in number. One recommended me for yet another agency which was looking for a Botswana videographer, and it kept happening that way. When they contact you of course they want your CV, but most importantly samples of your work, text, video or photography. If they love your work, you are in. But I am where I am because of friends that believe in me.”
She has been lucky to have been chosen twice to participate in the Pan-African Writivism programme. The programme holds workshops around the continent and then pairs worthy participants with established writers who act as mentors. Last year she was mentored by Nigerian Chinelo Okparanta, author of Happiness Like Water and Under the Udala Tree. The year, before that she was mentored by Kenyan Okwiri Odour who won the Caine Prize in 2014.
For Sharon, the best thing about the Writivism programme is the connections she has made. “Because of this project I have many writer friends across Africa – especially Nigeria - poets and fiction writers. They send me their work to edit or just to comment on, and I do the same with mine. I thank this project for giving me such an impressive support system.”
What advice does Sharon have for aspiring writers? “Read a lot— I know, writers say that a lot. Write a lot – in other words, practise, sharpen your skills. Do not keep your work to yourself. Yes, I know it is not easy to let someone look at your work, but someone has to. Go through the embarrassment of letting someone look at your ‘terrible work’, swallow your pride and take the constructive criticism, go back and re-write – it is worth it in the long run. Finally, rejection and being ignored comes with the territory, don’t give up.”