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What Obama Will Do for Africa: A Conversation with Salim Amin

Posted: 12/03/08 12:15 PM ET

At the News Xchange international broadcast conference in Valencia before Thanksgiving, I talked with Salim Amin, a Kenyan and the founder of A24 Media, Africa's first online agency for video and photography. We spoke at length about the continent, which Salim has covered widely as a journalist, about Africans' expectations for President-elect Obama and about the larger Muslim world, including a few prescient remarks on India. Salim came to Valencia not only to promote A24 but also to present the annual Mohamed Amin award, founded in honor of his father Mo' Amin, Africa's greatest photo-journalist, who died during the 1996 hijacking of an Ethiopian Airlines flight while helping other passengers exit the plane, downed in the Indian Ocean.

I have changed the order of our rambling conversation to begin with Salim's Kenya and Barack Obama.

Tell me about Kenyans' reaction to Obama's election.

Kenyans celebrated, Africa celebrated an election victory by a great man, I think, but they celebrated wrongly. You know you ask me about Kenya and Obama -- Obama is going to do nothing for Kenya. He is going to do nothing for Africa in the short term, because he has enough problems. At the end of the day, he's an American, he's the president of the United States. The United States must be his priority, and he will be judged very badly if his foreign policy takes precedence over his domestic policy. He has got a whole mountain of doodoo to sort out, and he needs to concentrate his first four years, at least, on fixing this economic crisis, on Iraq, on a number of things -- and I think Africans are under the impression we have this saviour. Kenyans are thinking, 'he's one of our own.' He's not one of our own -- he spent half a day with his father in his whole life. You know, he's not one of our own.

He's made at least one trip to Kenya --

He made one trip in 2006. I met him a couple of times in 2006. He's amazing --

When he met his grandmother.

Yes, when he came to see his grandmother. When he was much younger -- he's come before. He came as a Senator in 2006. But he came when he was a kid, about sixteen, seventeen years old. I think he's been back three times total. So obviously he feels it's important to know where his roots are. The fact that he has got an African background. For me personally, I think the wonderful opportunity he has -- for the first time ever an American president can talk tough to African leaders and not be accused of being racist, and not be accused of being imperialist, colonialist. He can actually sit down with African leaders and say, 'You know what, guys, cut the shit. I want you to clean up your corruption, clean up your bad governments. I want you to clean up your human rights; I want you to do all these things, and you can't turn to me and say I'm a racist, big white guy coming in from America and tell you how to run your country. I've been here. I've got roots in this continent. I know what's right and wrong. And you guys better listen, or you're gonna get put out to pasture.' And I think that's a great opportunity for the continent to start cleaning up its act. And having somebody like him in --

A number of times on the campaign trail, and in fact recently, when other topics dropped off, because in the end you got to win -- he still kept talking about Congo. Do you think he might try to do something?

I think he will. I think he'll have to look at all -- I think for him his biggest foreign policy problem is Israel and Palestine. I think he's got to sort out the Palestinian issue. I think he may have the best shot of -- in a long time. Since Clinton got very close to sorting it out. I think Obama will have a really good shot at doing it.

In the beginning I thought he will be able to put himself in Palestinian shoes and see the world from their perspective. And that really to my mind is the crux of the problem in the Middle East, the fact that we are supposedly a country of justice and fairness, but we haven't treated both sides in that way equally. And so I'm looking at what he said and did during the election -- so pro-Israel -- in terms of got to get elected, so I hope I'm right about that. But I don't know.

I think he'll find that any solution to that problem would change a lot of the dynamics, will reduce a hell of a lot of the terrorism, for starters. Because all these terrorists always hinge back on our Palestinian brothers aren't getting treated like this -- and that's why we hate Israel and we hate America, or whatever. And it would solve a lot of things. I think what we've seen in the last two months with this economic crisis is a very subtle, or not so subtle, shift in global power. You see Gordon Brown and others going to Saudi Arabia, pretty much with their hands out, saying, 'Guys, help us out here.' And the Arabs, instead of just saying, 'Okay, here's some money,' they're saying, 'Okay, we'll help you out, but in exchange we're gonna buy up chunks of your financial institutions.' And they're being very smart about it, because they have the liquidity now. And whoever is advising them -- the young Arabs are that smart anyway -- whoever is advising them is very smart, is saying, "Buy up Barclays Bank, buy up Goldman Sachs, buy up large chunks of these companies.' So in two or three years' time not only do you control the oil, you also control the majority of the financial institutions in this country. So if he's smart, he's gonna realize, Obama is gonna realize that he has to work with the emerging economies, with these emerging powers -- China, India, the Middle East -- where all the money is, at the moment.

Well, that's what I think about him -- he is the person who realizes our country has to learn to play well with others.

And what he can do is hopefully exert influence on the Arabs. To say, 'Listen, guys, you are the only guys who can solve this Palestinian problem. Really speaking, it's supposed to be your solution.' Whether you pump in enough money to create a separate state that is the Palestinian State, that doesn't infringe on Israel's rights or territory or anything like that, but you have enough money to actually create something there that will appease most people. You never please everybody, but it will please most people. If he's smart, he will do that -- he will use that influence and that good will that he has -- because the Arabs feel that the struggle African-Americans have faced in America is very similar to what they bring to the world now, that struggle for acceptance, for being seen as more than the fact that we have a lot of money, the struggle to be accepted, to be seen as part of a global village. And I think they will sympathize very much with where he is coming from in his roots. Which will give him leverage, a lot of leverage to actually sit down at the table with them and to come up with some agreement. If he can sort that out, a lot of his terrorism problems, his Middle East problems, will disappear.

I think on Africa, there's a lot of problems in Africa that he needs to deal with, has to tackle one at a time -- obviously, a big crisis comes up, that's something you have to deal with. How much time he can devote to that, I don't know.

You've covered any number of crises in Africa. You and your father both.

I was basically a producer-cameraman, shooting very young obviously because of him. Shooting still. And then I went to university in Vancouver and did my journalism degree there and came back in '92, graduated in '92. In December '92 was Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. The Marines went into Somalia, and I basically ended up spending eighteen months in Mogadishu, covering that for Reuters -- at that time we were the bureau for Reuters in Africa. Did that, did Rwanda and the genocide in '94 -- we were the first crews into Rwanda. And Sudan and various other wars, and when he died in '96 then I had to take over the business side of the company -- I didn't know anything about the business end of this profession. I had never met any of these guys [at News Xchange]. I had just gone into the field, took instructions and shot news. That was what I loved doing. I didn't understand paperwork, didn't like doing paperwork -- but now it's ended up I'm doing exactly that -- that's all I do now is deploy -- do Camerapix.

Camerapix he started in 1963 when he was eighteen years old. In Tanzania. He was born in Kenya, but my grandfather was brought over by the British to build the railway from India -- that was India before partition -- so my uncles and aunts were born in different parts of East Africa as the railway moved. So he was born in Kenya but brought up in Tanzania. Then got deported from Tanzania when he was twenty-two, after spending twenty-eight days in total confinement in prison in Zanzibar for filming the first evidence of Soviet KGB training camps in Zanzibar, when they were building a missile base, in Zanzibar -- they were denying this at the height of the Cuban missile crisis -- they were denying that they were building anything in Zanzibar. He managed to get into a camp and film and photograph Soviet instructors and Cuban instructors training Zanzibaris and building this missile base. And so the KGB picked him up after the film was shown and threw him in jail for twenty-eight days -- tortured, beat him. And then President Nyerere at that time did a deal that they would release him but on the condition they deported him out of Tanzania.

And Kenya was willing to take him?

Kenya was willing, because at that time it was [the] East African community. He was born in Kenya -- they couldn't really refuse entry to him. So he moved to Kenya twenty-two, twenty-three years old, started up again, and over the next twenty -- seventeen, eighteen -- years did the biggest stories of the continent. He was the only cameraman allowed in and out of Idi Amin's Uganda. The film The Last King of Scotland was based on his recollections. The book, by Giles Foden, was based on his recollections of Idi Amin. And so -- massive story in the 80's -- his big story was the famine of '84. Pictures that [Bob] Geldof saw that started Live Aid and Band Aid and Canal [broadcasting]. And that was what made him I guess world-famous in the industry. Then he lost his left arm in Ethiopia in 1991. It was blown off by a rocket-propelled grenade; an ammunition dump exploded that took off his left arm. And NASA built him a bionic arm that was designed specifically to operate a camera, that had bio-electrics. Within three or four months, he was back filming, and then he died aboard the hijacked plane crash. It was a hell of a life. So I made a film on his life; I made a documentary on his life a couple of years ago. And Danny Glover has just picked up the rights to make the motion picture. So hopefully he'll make the feature film next year -- they've just written the script, and hopefully we can start shooting next year.

What was it like going into Mogadishu?

Mogadishu was, for me, a watershed in my career. I lost a lot of the passion I had for front-line news because so many of our colleagues were killed -- all in one day, beaten to death by Somali mobs. And at that point I kind of -- I don't know if it was like I became chicken or I just kind of lost the taste for front-line news. I did it for a couple of years after that, and I realized very quickly that if you're really not into it, if you're scared and you're going into these places, the chances of something happening to you are much more. You know, there's the gung-ho sort of guys that go in -- they don't care -- they usually get out okay. But if you go in with the mind-set 'I don't really want to be here,' there's more of a chance of something going wrong. I realized -- you know what -- I didn't -- at that point I had just got married and knew I really didn't want to do this anymore. So I call it I'm lucky; I fell into something completely by chance.

But you went into Rwanda.

We were the first people into Rwanda. The shots, the first pictures of the genocide, it was all our stuff. It's all my footage and the Camerapix teams' footage. So I did that.

They [Rwandans] regarded you as outsiders?

Yes, and they kind of left us alone for the time being. For the initial side. And then it became really bad. But I just didn't want to be there. I did it because it was my job, and I didn't know how to tell my -- I didn't know how to say to my dad, 'I can't do this,' because he was like, 'Chickenshit -- what do you mean you can't do this? Yes, you can. You will.' He wasn't someone that brokered any kind of, ah, you know -- 'if I can do it, why can't you?' That kind of attitude. So in a way I'm glad that I kind of -- you know there's no doubt about the circumstances under which I took over the company, but I found a niche that I actually think I'm pretty good at. In terms of managing a news-gathering operation, building camera crews, using new technology, starting up the training school in Kenya to train up journalists, then now launching A24.

Earlier today you were talking about the Somali pirates story -- how did you get it?

We got that from freelancers that are working in Mogadishu.

They must have a death wish. [The Committee to Protect Journalists calls Somalia one of the most dangerous postings for reporters. Several have been kidnapped in 2008. Nasteh Dahir, working for the BBC, was killed in June.]

Well, yeah, but you know the thing is, what I found so amazing about the guy from Zimbabwe [Mike Saburi, who won the 2008 Amin award for his coverage of Zimbabwean political unrest] -- there are some amazing African journalists working in very difficult conditions, for no money, but are passionate and want the world to know their story, from their own perspective. This is what drove us to start A24, an initiative like this -- that lack of understanding of Africa by the western media, the fact that it's always been parachute journalists come in to tell the stories and then leave and lose interest very quickly unless it's, you know, figures in the tens of thousands that have died, or on the move -- like Congo and the refugees and so on. Unless it's those big stories, they don't really care about anything else. And no matter how good a foreign correspondent is, you can't have somebody that comes into the continent for two weeks or three weeks and expect them to understand the history and the context and the various things that led up to this disaster -- these things didn't just appear out of nowhere, you know.

There's a history of why there was violence in Kenya post-election -- it wasn't a flawed election -- it was the whole forty/forty-five year history of tribal/ethnic hatred of each other, you know -- the one section of the population feeling that they've been dumped, that they're not getting the fair shake of the pot. You can't just -- and that's what we found -- a lot of irresponsible reporting by the West. You know, we can sit and cry about colonialism, and that's what Africans tend to do -- we blame colonialism for everything. We have to say -- my attitude is -- it's been fifty years since we were given independence. We got to start taking accountability for our own actions and get our act together. Nobody's going to come in and do it for us. We got to take responsibility for what we do, and the only way we'll do that is if we set up our own -- for me the media is one way to -- keep that accountability, to keep information flowing around the continent, whose leaders specialize in restricting information, to keep themselves in power.

And I just feel, as you know from the wonderful work that you guys do -- information is power, and if you inform people -- one of my father's favorite expressions was, 'Let it never be said that they didn't know.' People may not -- you can't control what people may do with that information; but never let it be said that they can come back to you and say, 'We didn't know that this was happening.' Give them the information, and then trust in humanity to make the right decisions.

And you know, the famine of '84 taught me this lesson, which I didn't realize how important that footage was, until after he died, and then I learned so much more about him, after he died, than when he was alive -- he was just my dad, you know -- he was just my dad. I didn't know what kind of influence he had on this industry, and globally. But the original footage that he shot of the famine, with Michael Buerk -- at that time, NBC and the BBC and Reuters were all part of VizNews -- they all owned shares of VizNews, which was an agency. So he was the VizNews bureau chief for Africa. So he shot it for the BBC. The BBC aired it, and it got this amazing response in England. And at that time, the BBC said [to American journalists], 'This amazing footage, this incredible story -- we think you guys need to see this.' And this was, remember, October of '84. Election time coming in. The Americans were like, you know, 'We're in the middle of a presidential election -- not interested in another story about a famine in Africa -- who cares?'

They thought they weren't interested until they saw the pictures --

That's exactly it. So BBC made the decision, took the cost of the satellite feed, and so on -- very expensive. 'Look, we're just gonna pay for this feed, send it to your newsroom.' And Tom Brokaw was in the NBC newsroom, and Tom -- very good friends with my dad -- and subsequently, I know him very well. And he said to me when we met a few years later -- he said, you know, 'It was a quarter to six in the evening, busiest time in the newsroom; I was waiting for the [evening news] bulletin.' And these pictures came in from London, and he said his entire career, as the Vietnam correspondent and doing all these big stories, he said, 'I've never ever seen a newsroom go completely silent while these pictures were coming in,' and he said, 'and seasoned journalists, hardened newsmen were sitting there crying.' And somebody turned to him and said, 'If we don't put this on, we shouldn't be in this business.'

It proved that the American people care, if you give them the information. They generated the single greatest act of charity of the twentieth century, pre-tsunami, the single largest act of giving in history. It proved that they care. You give them information; they will do something about it. And they made governments accountable. They made the U.S. government pledge a billion dollars immediately for relief effort. But it could have come down to the decision of one foreign editor, to say, you know what, 'We're not interested in these pictures. I don't care what the American people think.' But that's what I feel sometimes news has come to these days -- the decisions of a handful of people that --

Well, that's the great thing now about new media, about internet media --

Exactly. This is the revolution that is happening, that people have other access to information and can make informed decisions, one hopes. But the problem still is that -- you know, I've traveled around the United States extensively, and I've never met an American not interested in where I come from. They may not know anything about Kenya, they may not know anything about Africa, but they're curious, they're interested. And I just feel it's the fault of the media in America and in other parts of the world that they don't give these people this information. They assume they want to see Madonna, want to see Britney Spears, they don't want to see anything serious, interesting about another part of the world -- whether it's Africa or not.

We return to the subject of Barack Obama and the economic crisis with which he will have to deal.

America is complicated by the fact that economically it's no longer the superpower. If GM and companies like that can go under. They have to understand they can't compete on that financial level, now, with the emerging markets in China and India and the Middle East --

That's the playing well with others. In a way, we're still the superpower, but in another way we're in transition mode. We have to transition to sharing with others, to act globally --

Exactly. Because this crisis has affected everybody. We're all so connected -- electronically, whatever.

Just to mention India -- because we've already picked on China today [in the News Xchange discussion of media coverage of China during the Olympics] -- but India is going to be a huge economy, and we have a lot to figure out about how to deal with their internal strife. I was struck by the numbers of religious reprisals [this year] in India --

They have a lot of religious problems, and with the castes. There's Pakistan, there's Kashmir. Pakistan is a failed state; it's going bankrupt. And if the Taliban increase their stronghold in Pakistan, we have a serious problem -- these mad mullahs sitting with their finger on a nuclear weapon -- that could be even more potentially dangerous than the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He's got to sort that out. He can send more troops, but you have to look back at the history. You've got to ask -- well, the Taliban was defeated. Why have they come back? Only because they have the support of some of the people in the country [Afghanistan]. Why are these people so disillusioned with Karzai and his people there that they would go back to supporting this really extremist form of the Islamic religion? Why would they do that?

It's a discussion I have with many people about suicide bombers. Why do people blow themselves up? It's a good question. What would make you and me, as two reasonably sane, educated people, put a bomb on, strap a bomb on yourself and know that you are going to die, to take whoever else with you -- what drives you to that desperation? That you would do something like that? Is it because you've seen your family slaughtered in front of you? You really have no options left in life -- so I'm going to strap a bomb on now and blow myself up.

There are two issues here. I could put myself into a Palestinian woman's shoes, and I could see why I would do it--it's the weapon my people have got, and I'm sacrificing for the future, my children, the other children in my land. That's one reason. But I do think there is a kind of indoctrination --

Absolutely. There is this brainwashing. But again I've always felt God has created us -- his most amazing creation. Why we've never been duplicated. You can't duplicate the human body because it's such an amazing piece of machinery. It's difficult to brainwash somebody who doesn't want to be brainwashed. It's difficult to change somebody's attitude. We have this natural preservation of our own life. We'll do things to kind of look after ourselves at some point. It's a natural thing that we have. So to move to that level where you have no fear for your own life at all and are willing to sacrifice for the cause or whatever it might be -- it takes -- something seriously bad has happened to you or to your family that pushes you to the level where you can take it.

There's no quick fix solution to any of these problems. And that's the thing. Obama needs to take his time. And I just hope your country will give him that time.

He's good about taking his time. He'll listen to all the advice. He'll aggregate -- he's great at making connections and holding them. He's got that kind of mind. We're very lucky to have him.

Yes. I just hope you'll give him a chance. We want him for eight years.

 

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