The story of Zainab Boladale, the first presenter of African heritage in the RTÉ newsroom, is one of ambition and achievement but also reflects the worst aspects of Irish society. Donal O'Donoghue talks to her.

Stories always interested Zainab Boladale. As a teen, growing up in County Clare, she immersed herself in the lives of others, reading voraciously, both fiction and non-fiction. It made her think that maybe one day she too might become an author, chronicling other people’s stories.

In 2017, she became the first journalist of African heritage to work in the RTÉ newsroom and since then, she has covered umpteen stories through news2day and latterly on Nationwide (coming soon, the story of one-legged Tik Tok comic Ruth Codd). 

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But this is Zainab’s story, or at least a small part of it. Zainab, born in Lagos, has lived in Ennis since she was four. Utterly absorbed in Irish upbringing has left its mark, including the essential teabag supply on holidays abroad. "Barrys?" I ask (being from Cork). "No, any tea really, as long as it’s Irish."

Her favourite season is autumn, her favourite place is the coast of Clare (she recently holidayed there with her partner, Vessy) and she can converse fluently as Gaeilge. A bright and enthusiastic young woman, I mainly knew of Zainab as a news reporter and presenter but all shifted in November, when she tweeted that she had been the subject of online racist abuse for a couple of years via a YouTube channel.

"I would always have these comments on my articles and in the beginning, I’d just delete them," she says.

"But when I became a TV presenter, they would compile videos on YouTube of me presenting and put personal comments underneath about my skin colour and all that crap. Some were very graphic. I complained, it was taken down but then they came back. It was only when I read news articles saying that racism doesn’t exist in Ireland and everyone is welcome, that I felt I had to respond. So I tweeted out of frustration. I was surprised by the positive response I got because I had normalised my treatment in my mind, and in a way expected it."

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Zainab grew up in Clare in the early Noughties. "In my primary school, Coláiste Chríost Rí, there were kids from Poland and Nigeria as well as other African countries and some Traveller kids too. So I just felt like everyone else. There was a sense of community as we all could relate to each other. I only felt 'other’ when I went to secondary school.

"I always knew what racism was, but it was only then I knew what it was like to experience. It’s not the school’s fault or the kids, but they picked it up at home. I left that Gaelscoil in third year because I knew I wanted to do journalism in English but also I was overwhelmed by what happened."

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She changed schools and following her Leaving Cert,  studied journalism at Dublin City University, graduated n 2017 when she was named Journalist of the Year at the college’s Hybrid Awards. "I’ve always believed that Ireland is not a racist country but there are racist people in Ireland," she says.

"And the racism can be very subtle. My brother is just 12 and I’d hate to think that someone would call him something nasty in the playground for just being himself. Or that my sister would experience what I experienced. All those experiences have made me tougher, but it’s sad that we have to toughen up against that kind of abuse."

Zainab is one of the founders of Beyond Representation, established in early 2019 to champion women of colour in business, arts, media and fashion. "There are three of us, all with our own reasons for setting it up," she says.

"Personally, I had very few Irish role models growing up. One time, a young girl asked me ‘Do you think I could be an author?’ and I said ‘Sure, why not?’ and she said ‘But there are not a lot of black Irish authors’. She was only eight and I thought how sad that she couldn’t see herself as a black Irish author. But it also reminded me of myself where my role models in journalism were all white and they didn’t feel familiar."

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But that is changing, galvanised in part by the Black Lives Matter movement. "We are having conversations now in Ireland that I do not remember hearing before," says Zainab, who wrote a number of profiles of up-and-coming talents for a recent Irish Times series celebrating black Irish lives.

"It’s also amazing to see so many young black Irish people staying in Ireland when for so long they left, feeling that there was no place for them in their own country. Now they are staying to follow their path and their dreams. That is good for them as well as the future of Ireland. We all want to stay here because we love our country."