Travels in Africa

Fred and Donanne Hunter


Derek walks along Nairobi’s Uhuru Highway, having just had lunch with a colleague overlooking the pool at the Inter-Continental Hotel. Up ahead he sees an African approaching. The man is late twenties, early thirties, probably employed from the looks of him, perhaps in a government office. He wears on his body a long-sleeved shirt and washable trousers that look recently washed. On his face he wears a look of distress as if an unexpected calamity has befallen him.
“Hello,” says the African. He assumes Derek is a tourist. “Are you liking Kenya?”
“Hello,” replies Derek. The slightest of smiles appears on his face because he is almost certain he knows what is coming. “I like Kenya very much.” He does not regard what is coming as an imposition. In fact, as a journalist, he sees it suddenly as an opportunity. “I live here.”
This revelation sends a look of confusion onto the African’s face. But the approach has been made and he perseveres. “I wonder if you could help me,” he says. “I’ve had a spot of bad luck. My bus for Mombasa has left without me. My coat was on it with my ticket and my wallet. I wonder: could you give me some help.”
“I’m sorry about that,” replies Derek. “I think I understand your situation.”
This statement could mean several things. As the two men regard one another, they consider those different meanings.
“Could you help me?” the African asks again. “Do you know where I could hitch a ride to the coast?”
“Perhaps you could help me,” suggests Derek. “I’m a journalist. I’d very much like to talk to a man who needs to get to Mombasa.”
Derek watches the African watch him, wondering if he should persevere. The African asks, “Have I talked to you before?”
“I don’t get to talk with average Kenyans very often,” admits Derek. “What if we sat down somewhere and you told me your story?”
The African is uncertain. Usually when he makes an approach, it is the tourist who is uncertain, although many are quite generous.
“I think I understand your line of work,” Derek assures the man, his tone of voice sympathetic. “Could you tell me about it?”
The African pauses to consider this. “You’d put it in a newspaper?”
“In America.” Derek takes his notebook out of his jacket pocket. “I could call you Kamau. Is that all right? You’re Kikuyu, aren’t you?’
The African is still uncertain.
“Let’s find some shade and sit down.” Derek leads the African to shade under a tree and sits. Finally the African sits as well. It’s nice to get off his feet, to escape the sun. And who knows? There just might be some bus money after he and the journalist talk.
“You are Kikuyu, aren’t you?”
The African nods.
“How old?”
“Thirty-four,” says Kamau because he has now become Kamau. “Kamau” is a name as familiar to Kikuyus as “Smith” is to Anglo-Saxons. “I used to be a school teacher. But I’m doing this now.”
Derek looks interested and makes a note in his pad. “Why’s that?”
“They wanted me to take a tribal oath and I refused.”
“A tribal oath’s a bad thing?”
“Mau Mau came out of tribal oathing. That led to a lot of killing.” Kamau hesitates for a moment. “I was sacked for refusing.” He gives a sheepish smile. “I didn’t understand the game.”
“You have a family?”
“A wife and two children: a boy, four, a girl a year and a half.” Kamau shrugs. “So I said, ‘Give me my job back. I’ll take your oath. But they wouldn’t.” There is a pause. “Now I do this.”
“Do you live in Nairobi?”
“In Kiambu Town. I go to see my family on the shamba at weekends.”
“You ride the bus into Nairobi every day?”
Kamau gives a crooked grin. “I’m a professional man. I ride the bus like other professionals.”
With Derek’s encouragement Kamau details his profession. He works Uhuru Highway between the National Museum and the Inter-Continental Hotel. He engages tourists in conversation. He tells them that he is a visitor from Mombasa who has had a bit of bad luck. His return bus has left without him. He asks about hitching a ride because he’s broke; his wallet is on the bus. Sympathetic tourists sometimes buy him a cup of tea or a meal; often they give him money.
“I came here a year ago, looking for work. When I ran out of money, I had to ask tourists for handouts.”
Kamau tells Derek that in a good week he may pull in two hundred shillings. (Not quite $30 at the time.) In a run of four good weeks – if such a thing ever occurred – he would make slightly more than his monthly salary as a teacher. That puts him ahead of many employed Kenyans.
Kamau economizes where he can. His daily bus fare is four shillings, about 60 American cents. He eats one meal a day at two shillings. He rents a room at thirty shillings a month. When he gets a little money ahead, he goes back to the shamba, or farm, to visit his family.
“So what do you think of the profession?” Derek asks Kamau.
“I don’t like it,” he admits. “There are risks. I have to be secretive.”
“Does your wife know?”
Kamau studies that question. “This work holds no future,” he says. “I’m thirty-four. I have a secondary school education. But how will I educate my children? I need a regular job.”
When Derek and Kamau part, they shake hands. Derek promises not to recognize Kamau if he passes him on Uhuru Highway. He feels strongly that journalists should not pay for stories. Still, he gives Kamau forty shillings, twenty percent of a week’s take. So it’s been a good half hour for Kamau.
It’s also a good afternoon for Derek. He writes up the story in his office and files it. He’s supposed to file three times a week so he’s done a third of a week’s work. It’s an off-beat story that will probably work well for his paper. The paper has a front page column where off-beat stories are prized.
In fact, Kamau’s story lands there and Derek even gets an infrequent attaboy from his editor.

Derek and his colleagues in the World Press, as they rollickingly called themselves, were eager to get a look at General Idi Amin Dada, not only because he had overthrown the government of Ugandan President Milton Obote and now headed the caretaker government that promised new elections. It was also because Amin, head of Uganda’s army, was considered a lightweight, a kind of a buffoon. The question was: What was he really?
Their opportunity came once Amin allowed the long-delayed funeral of Edward Mutesa, to occur. Mutesa had been King of the Baganda people, Uganda’s most important traditional ruler; Obote had chased him off to England where he died.
The funeral was one of those African tribal rituals becoming ever rarer and the World Press assembled in Kampala to witness it. While there they met with General Amin and several of his top officers. The journalists sat, spread out along a wall. The generals stood before them to answer questions and speak about the future.
In the army for twenty-five years, Amin had risen from assistant cook to the officer ranks under the British. In 1962 a year or two after independence he became Deputy Commander of the Army. He had been the Ugandan light heavyweight boxing champion for a decade, was a good swimmer, and a fine rugby forward. He had an easy camaraderie with men. The q & a with him and his officers was like a barracks-room bull session. There were jokes and raillery tossed back and forth between the news guys and the officers. Amin seemed more like a jovial, burly, hard-drinking master sergeant than a head of state.
At one point he invited the news guys, “If you don’t believe me, ask one of these fellas here.” Amin pointed to his generals.
He did not, of course, expect anyone to take him up on this suggestion. To his horror Derek watched one of his hands gesture toward a general. He heard unbidden words from his throat call out, “Is he right?” What ensued was a moment of stunned silence. During it Derek felt a cold wash of apprehension flush down his back. “You idiot!” he thought. “What the hell are you doing?”
After several seconds the sidekick general realized he’d been addressed. In responding his frightened tongue tripped over his teeth. He managed, “Whatever the boss says.” The byplay revealed the new leader’s toughness.
That new leader guffawed. Relieved laughter sprang from the news guys as if the event involved barracks room banter.
Even so, when the impromptu news conference ended, Derek’s colleagues shunned him. One of them muttered, “What the fuck was that?”
If Derek had not made a favorable impression at the news conference, General Amin had. His burying Mutesa had placated the Baganda people. Harmonizing tribal tensions was a must for Uganda governance. Maybe Amin was going to initiate a time of tribal harmony. He appeared to be off to a good start for whatever he intended to do. Still, his reaction to Derek’s gaffe had suggested that Amin might deal in menace as well as jokes.
Amin had, of course, given the customary assurances that he was a soldier, not a politician; that the military government would act as a caretaker until elections could be held; that elections would occur when “the situation” normalized. Such assurances were pro forma, part of the coup drill.
As time passed, General Amin forgot about elections. He named himself Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. He also did things that made it clear he lacked a background in statecraft. For example, he intentionally offended the Brits. He announced his desire to marry Princess Anne of England. The barracks rocked with laughter at that for the ranks understood that “marry” was a euphemism. So the general deftly amused, titillated and pleased his supporters.
He also made the beautiful Princess Elizabeth of Toro both a temporary consort and his foreign minister. The World Press thought that a head of state sleeping with his foreign minister was a little curious, even for Africa.
Then rumors began to seep out of Uganda that Amin had begun to purge from the army the Acholi and Lango soldiers, Obote’s tribal brothers, with whom the deposed president had manned the military. They were being replaced by Amin’s tribal brothers, the Kakwa. So much for tribal harmony. That purging was likely to provoke serious trouble. Members of the World Press, who thought they had seen all of Amin’s antics, took the matter seriously.
Very soon there were whispers of violence. Of murders. Of government opponents being thrown off bridges. Members of the World Press found that their Uganda contacts became unavailable. Sources at Kampala’s Makerere University refused to comment. Derek and his colleagues did not really know what was going on.
So they asked themselves journalism’s tough questions: Isn’t our job to know what’s happening? If necessary, oughtn’t we to go and find out?
One of them tried to do that. Nick Stroh, a free-lancer for Detroit papers, had based himself in Kampala because so many other journalists worked out of Nairobi. Stroh and a friend, Robert Siedle, a lecturer at Makerere, drove out of the capital to an army barracks in the far southwestern reaches of the country. There they interviewed a Lieutenant Colonel Ali, the local commander, about Acholi-Kakwa tribal tensions in the army.
Colonel Ali grew alarmed that Stroh knew more than he should and that he intended to publish what he knew. As Stroh and Siedle left the barracks, Ali’s troops attacked their car and killed them. No inquest was made into the murders.
That incident sobered Derek and his colleagues in Nairobi. Still, they needed to know what was going on. They decided to go en masse to Kampala, four or five at a time. It was unlikely that as a group that they would encounter danger.
Several of the news guys, including Derek, resolved to fly to Kampala one Saturday. Andrew Torchia of the Associated Press arrived there the night before. As he went through customs, his passport was lifted. He was taken to a hotel and placed under a house arrest. Andy was able to contact his wife. Marian Torchia began working the phones. Among other places, she called the White House, demanding that it force Amin to release her husband.
The news of Andy’s house arrest spread quickly among the World Press. Derek was advised to cancel his trip to Kampala later that day. He did. So did others. None of The World Press would take a chance on Uganda. Torchia was soon released. But his arrest frightened his colleagues. None of the journalists would venture to Idi Amin’s country.

At this time Derek worked out of a spare room at the house. But the house really belonged to the new baby and to Murugi who cared for him. Derek found a room in an office block in downtown Nairobi. It was a tiny space, several floors up, with a window from which he could look into the offices of his colleague from the Los Angeles Times. Into it he moved a table, a chair, a lamp, the Grundig radio and his portable typewriter.
During this time foreign correspondents stayed in Nairobi, unwilling to risk what might happen to them in Uganda. They knew bad things were happening to the north. But they did not know exactly what those bad things were and they could not confirm the rumors they heard.
Then one morning a unknown young African appeared at the office Derek rented. He claimed that a journalist colleague in the World Press had suggested that he call on Derek. The young man claimed to be the son of a Ugandan general; he had fled to Nairobi, he asserted, seeking safety. He offered to give Derek solid information about what was happening in Uganda.
The offer was tempting. The young African seemed well educated and knowledgeable. But who was he really? The son of a Ugandan general? Derek didn’t think so. He felt as if he were being visited by a dealer in blood diamonds who was trying to unload them before he was killed.
In fact, the nuggets of information the informant offered truly resembled diamonds. Derek no longer had contacts in Uganda. Solid word-diamonds, they were exactly what he needed.
Credibility was the holy grail of Derek’s paper. The bigger guys could get it wrong. But people trusted Derek’s paper. They also counted on it to report the news. Derek’s dilemma was that he and his paper could not pretend that the violence in Uganda did not exist.
Was Derek willing to bet his career on this young man? Ethical questions assailed him. Could he trust this fellow? Was he actually offering news tips? Or something he concocted? What did he really want? Not money. Clearly it was unethical to pay an informant for news tips. (Not that it didn’t happen.) The young man might be working for persons who wanted to twist Derek’s copy. The situation was the dodgiest Derek encountered while reporting from Africa.
If he used the young man’s tips, might the tips determine the news? Might he get addicted to them? Might the informant start expecting money for them? Derek knew that his colleagues were using the tips. They were way out ahead of him on the story.
What to do? He needed a place to start.
So Derek listened to what the informant had to report.. At first he considered it only as “background.” Happily. it gave him a beginning understanding of happenings in Uganda. But he never fully trusted the young man. Throughout the entire exchange he puzzled as to why the young man would offer news tips likely to jeopardize his father. Derek did what he could to check out the tips. Still, he kept asking himself, was he Dr. Faustus lending an ear to Mephisto?
Once he decided to take a chance, he found it challenging to actually introduce the tips into his copy. A correspondent figured out how to write around what he did not know. He learned to cite “observers” and unnamed sources. All of that was Foreign Correspondence 101. Still Derek wondered if in slipping the tips into his dispatches he was writing the end of his career.
As things worked out, he was never called upon to source his information. His reputation was not sullied. But sometimes months later a newsman was called upon to justify his copy. Derek never stopped being nervous.

Suddenly, out of the blue, Amin announced that all Asians must leave Uganda. “Asians” from India and Pakistan, many resident in East Africa for generations, many Uganda-born, some with Uganda citizenship, would be forced to depart by November 7. Those who did not leave would be put into military transit camps.
The announcement stunned East Africa. Asians comprised the shopkeeper community. What would happen to commerce in the region? Where would the Asians go? Many had British Commonwealth citizenship. Asians in Kenya wondered if they would also be affected. Some began to send money to safe havens in Europe.
Derek reported the moves against the Asians. Near the deadline for them to depart he went to the Nairobi train station. The expelled Asians would pass through it en route to the Indian Ocean coast. The trains were locked. The Asians would be caged in them when the trains stopped in Nairobi.
At the station Derek ran up and down the platform, shouting questions to the passengers, holding a recorder microphone to the train windows. A photo of his back appeared in the East African Standard as he held a microphone up to a window where three Asian men were witnessing to their plight.
He recorded the Asians’ stories. “At Kampala railway station,” reported a young father, “each and everything they are checking. Whichever they likes, they takes.” The man continued, “At Tororo soldiers nakeded one lady here. Completely. All clothes off before us in the train. They didn’t find anything.”
“At Tororo,” said a young construction foreman who had worked in East Africa for eight years, “they remove us our clothes, all of us in here. They took our money. Uganda currency, five and ten shilling notes.”
A small business owner complained, “My sawmill is worth 2.5 million shillings (then about $350,000), and they did not give me one bob. They took our money, our travelers checks, everything. I left my brand new car.”
The men in the train claimed that Ugandan soldiers were kidnapping Asian girls.
As the deportees spoke to him, Derek grew aware of Kenyan Asians moving close to listen. Kenyan Asian businessmen also questioned those locked in the train, wondering what might happen to them and their families. They shouted through the chug of shunting locomotives, through hissing acrid-smelling smoke. Derek noticed young Sikhs in turbans, handing passengers soft drinks, sweet cakes and ice-cream cones.
And he noticed the silent women. In pastel saris they moved with anxious grace through the muted sunlight, chattering children pulling at their arms. They searched the train’s forlorn faces for relatives. Their eyes bespoke the pain and uncertainty of being Asian in East Africa.
In his office Derek batted out a dispatch for his newspaper of scenes from the train platform. He recorded radio spots for Group W Broadcasting and used the voices he had recorded at the station. Meanwhile, the locked train made its way across Kenya to Mombasa and the ships that would take shopkeepers, mechanics, restaurant owners, their wives and children to homelands they had never seen.

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful series of insights from the journalistic viewpoint on political happenings in the heyday of Idi Amin. I especially liked the first segment of the ex-school teacher having to make a living selling lies to tourists. Having just returned from Africa, I value this peek into the lives of Africans decades ago. In some countries, the situation is not better, and we can see the results today of past misdeeds. Our guide there asked us to note the desperation of people in Zimbabwe vs the relative calm and prosperity of Botswanans. Leadership matters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


© 2024 Travels in Africa

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑