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Remembering Gary Strieker, who helped establish CNN’s presence in Africa




CNN

Gary Strieker had every reason to be pessimistic. Starving people, brutal murders and many other horrific events he covered as an international journalist unfolded before his eyes.

Yet Strieker never lost his optimistic spirit or his passion for shedding light on crucial but often understated stories about the environment and global health.

Strieker – who died in July this year aged 78 – was CNN’s first Nairobi bureau chief, helping the network open its reporting hub in the Kenyan capital in 1985. Colleagues say he covered the entire African continent – ​​sometimes as a single man. tape – during the network’s early years when newsgathering budgets were lean.

“He was passionate about (Africa) and he wanted to share that love of the continent with all of its madness and violence, but also its beauty and fun,” said Kim Norgaard, CNN’s senior operations director for fundraising. international news.

Strieker won an Emmy Award in 1992 for his role in CNN’s coverage of Somalia’s civil war and is credited with being one of the first television journalists to enter Rwanda as the genocide unfolded. took place there in the spring of 1994.

He spent the latter part of his career focusing on global environmental issues – most recently producing “This American Land” which airs on PBS stations across the United States.

This career change took place in the mid-1990s after meeting Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, who shared Strieker’s passion for conservation and the environment.

“(Gary) had this idea that he wanted to be CNN’s environmental reporter,” Norgaard said. “Every year or so we had (a) conference in Atlanta and I went there with Gary and heard Ted yell, ‘Gary! Come sit here! and he announces to everyone: ‘Gary is our guy in Africa!’

“They sat down and started talking and then Gary just mentioned this idea about the environment (report) to him and I remember Ted turned around, looked at Tom Johnson (the president of CNN at the time ) and said, ‘Tom, this is awesome! I love this, let’s make this happen!’

Other colleagues who recalled the story said Johnson later swore, half-jokingly, never to sit a correspondent next to Turner again.

In 1997, Strieker and his second wife Christine moved to Atlanta where he worked as CNN’s global environmental correspondent. His reporting on the bushmeat crisis in Central Africa, as well as deforestation in Indonesia, Peru and Papua New Guinea, won him the National Press Club’s top prize for environmental reporting in 2000.

“Gary was, in many ways, ahead of his time – he was pushing for environmental reporting years before any other network,” Norgaard recalls.

Norgaard, a former CNN Johannesburg bureau chief, was a junior editor at the network’s international bureau in Atlanta when he started working with Strieker.

“I was born and raised in Africa, so we had a special understanding,” he said.

Strieker was different from many international correspondents of the time who, according to Norgaard, could be “really pissed off” and rude when calling the international office.

“It was never him,” Norgaard said. “He was always calm, courteous… that’s what I’ll never forget about Gary. I didn’t know him that well, but he’s someone you consider a friend.

Born in the small town of Breese, Illinois on July 7, 1944, Strieker grew up in San Diego, California, eventually earning a law degree from UC-Hastings in San Francisco. Strieker and his first wife, Phyllis, joined one of the first US Peace Corps teams in 1968 on a mission to the newly independent African kingdom of Swaziland – now Eswatini.

Strieker spent five years in Swaziland as legal adviser to the new sovereign government and helped draft a bill to protect Swazi land rights. During this time, her eldest daughter Lindsay was born. Strieker took a job with Citibank in Beirut in 1975 at the start of the Lebanese civil war before returning to Africa as Citibank’s resident vice president for its regional office in Nairobi, Kenya.

Strieker’s twin daughters, Rachel and Alison, were born in Nairobi, and some health complications put Alison’s life at risk.

Courtesy of the Strieker family

“The doctor at the hospital who was looking after me was very nonchalant and said, ‘Well…we’ll see if she makes it through the night,'” Alison Strieker said, recalling her father’s story . “And my dad said, ‘Can we do something?’ and the doctor said, “She needs blood for a transfusion.”

Gary Strieker said he had nurses test his blood type and found it to be a match. Years later, Alison said her father saved her life a second time by donating his kidney.

“He’s my favorite person on earth,” said Alison Strieker. “I still have his kidney to this day.”

As his daughters grew up, they were the center of his life, and he captured many moments of their young lives on camera and an old Kodak “Brownie” camera.

Her passion for photography sparked her pivot to journalism.

“Photography interested him primarily not only in pictures, but also in telling a story…about people, places and animals that have no voice – and that seemed to be his true passion,” recalls Alison Strieker.

After a brief stint at ABC News, he joined CNN in the early 1980s, setting up the network’s new office in Nairobi and becoming its only correspondent on the African continent at the time.

“Gary entered the world of reporting in African countries at a time in the 1980s when long-running conflicts in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia coincided with drought and famine (and) led to major crises refugees,” recalled former CNN editor Eli Flournoy. .

“Gary was there on the ground, year after year, covering, documenting, illustrating these endemic conflicts.”

Strieker has had plenty of close calls during his journalism career.

“He was in crash landings on planes, he was in car crashes where other people died — he was just very dedicated,” his eldest daughter Lindsay Strieker said.

gary strieker beeper rwanda

CNN

After a car accident in Rwanda, he was pronounced dead and taken to the morgue.

‘He woke up in the morgue with a toe tag attached and said it nearly killed the medical worker when he sat down,’ recalls Jim Clancy, former CNN presenter and correspondent international.

He again came close to death while reporting on the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Kikwit, Democratic Republic of Congo, which left hundreds dead.

“Gary…entered fearlessly and covered the Ebola patients and operations of the (Kikwit) hospital, which was one of the first of its kind to deal with an infectious outbreak like Ebola,” Flournoy recalls . “It was a very, very dangerous environment.”

At some point, local authorities began to implement a quarantine and approached Strieker, who they believed had been exposed to Ebola.

“They were going to put him in the Ebola wing of the hospital,” Flournoy said.

Equipped with a satellite phone, Strieker called the international office in a panic.

“He (said) ‘We have to do something to prevent this from happening because I will almost certainly die if I am quarantined in this hospital,'” Flournoy said.

After a “crazy stampede” that involved numerous phone calls and the intervention of United Nations officials, Strieker was allowed to leave the country instead.

“Gary continued to be unflappable, determined to lean into the facts of the story while still being able to find the human story in the larger conflict,” Flournoy said. “He was a remarkable storyteller.”

Strieker has never lost his curiosity or his energy to shine a light on critical stories about people affected by global health and environmental crises.

“It was never about having his face on TV or getting a higher Nielsen rating,” said Dave Timko, who worked with Strieker on “This American Land.”

Strieker only cared about using its platforms to tell the stories of people around the world who were in need.

“Sometimes he would say, ‘If I don’t go to these places, nobody makes these fuss,'” his widow Christine Nkini Strieker said.

He was a devoted father to the couple’s two children, Reid, 20, and Nandi, 16, sharing dinnertime stories with them about his adventures and spending every moment he could with his family when he was not on a mission.

Even when he fell ill, Christine said Strieker was determined to get better so he could start working again.

“He refused to say, I’m too sick to do anything,” she said.

Following Strieker’s passing in July, friends and former colleagues flooded a shared Facebook page with memories – all telling of Strieker’s incredible stories, his quiet bravery amid incredibly dangerous reporting assignments, his spirit and his true dedication in the profession of journalism.

“His message to us was: ‘Life, with its ups and downs, is an adventure – and it’s important to stay curious and compassionate,’” said his daughter Rachel.

It’s a bit of comfort for the loved ones he leaves behind, including his five surviving children and three grandchildren, who are picking up the pieces after his passing.

“The more we don’t look at the sadness, the more we look at the positive in the life he gave us – that’s what I want my kids to continue,” Christine Strieker said.

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