3 years

New Year Issue

Out of Africa

James Astill is the Lexington columnist of The Economist and a contributor to Open
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The romance of being a foreign correspondent
I wouldn’t walk there if I were you,” advised my companion, pointing to a disturbed patch of sand, as he squinted against the early morning light, sparkling off the Atlantic waves. It was where, a few weeks previously, a pile of corpses had been hastily buried after a salvo of rebel missiles hit the beach. We were in Monrovia, capital of the West African country of Liberia, which at that time, June 2003, was one of the most awful places on earth.

The regime of Charles Taylor, the country’s latest tyrant, who, greedy for diamonds, had unleashed rebel wars across West Africa, was on its knees. At the height of his influence, Taylor was raking in millions of dollars a year, from the illegal plunder of Liberia’s tropical forests and diamond fields in next-door Sierra Leone. The signature atrocity of his rebel proxies there was to chop off the arms and legs of any civilian luckless enough to fall under their control. Mass rape, cannibalism, sorcery and enslavement were among Taylor’s boys’ other many crimes. But now the gangster leader, in the inevitable way of African wars, was facing his comeuppance at the hands of newer, zestier, more determined gangsters— those whose shells had caused carnage on Monrovia beach.

Launched into Liberia by the dictator of another neighbour, Guinea, these rebels (who called themselves Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) were at the gates of the capital. I was in Liberia to report on their progress. Rattling through potholes in a jerry-rigged car, I had spent days skirting the frontline, speaking to child soldiers wearing pink show-caps, dresses and women’s wigs: because Liberia’s half-witted, fiercely superstitious, fighters thought that, if hit by a bullet when disguised, only their alter-ego would die. Putrefying corpses littered the roads. One time, a child soldier I was interviewing, high on drugs, wrenched the thigh bones off a rebel corpse as we spoke, and began beating out a grisly percussion.

But I was on the beach that morning, shortly after dawn, not to dig up corpses, but to surf. It was what my companion, a Scottish aid worker, had more or less come to Liberia for, as he had informed me over a drink the previous evening. The breakers were out of this world, he said, so we had arranged to meet on the beach and try a few. As we splashed out into the surf, shivering inside our wet-suits, my companion cheerily pointed back to another interesting landmark on the beach, the spot where Taylor’s predecessor, an army sergeant and coupster, had stripped and tied 13 of his own predecessor’s cabinet ministers to posts and had them machine-gunned by drunken soldiers.

This sort of outrageous colour and circumstance was all part of the gig of being a foreign correspondent in Africa, my first proper job. An escapee from academia, I had been dispatched to Nairobi by The Guardian three years earlier, with a pittance of a retainer and a promise of travel expenses if my copy was any good. It was the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me. I was 27 years old, had no great journalistic experience, and had been charged with covering East, West and Central Africa, including around 30-odd countries and a dozen appalling wars, for one of the few Western newspapers seriously interested in them.

What followed was heaven: a grind of arduous, sometimes dangerous, reporting and more arduous writing, as I learned my trade. It was, for the most part, immensely enjoyable and satisfying; also punctuated by spells of sickness and riot, chiefly among my closest rivals and friends, a band of similar young, ambitious, hard-travelling members of the Nairobi press pack.

After that surf in Monrovia, I filed my Liberia despatches and boarded a flight to Freetown, Sierra Leone’s nearby capital. The small plane was caught in a tropical storm and forced to circle for two hours until, almost out of fuel, the pilot dived headlong into the tempest. Lightning flashed past the windows and most of the passengers screamed in full-throated certainty of imminent death as the plane groaned, rattled and dropped like stone. After we landed, improbably in one piece, the passengers flopped out onto the pitted concrete runway to offer up prayers of thanks for their deliverance.

It was good to be back in Freetown, the elegance of whose red-tiled, seaside suburbs had just about survived the predations of war. But I came down with a nasty bout of malaria shortly after, and spent a week, drenched in sweat, feeling as close to death as I hope ever to live through, in the house of a dissolute former British army officer I knew. I was half-heartedly tended to by one of his grumpy but beautiful concubines. Almost two stones lighter, I next headed to Europe and a family wedding; “All well in Africa?” everyone asked. “Never better,” I said, for I had never been so happy.

Africa has always been the cradle of foreign correspondent careers—real, fictional and sometimes, it seems, somewhere in between. From Winston Churchill to William Boot, hapless hero of Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s great satire of foreign correspondence, a stream of young reporters, mostly British and American, have roved the continent, usually on the cheap, trusting their luck in sometimes dicey circumstances, while serving up a flow of wild tales to distract their editors from weightier geopolitics.

‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ the media saying goes, and Africa has always been good for gore. Wandering the continent’s battlefields in the early 2000s, with a notebook, pen, wallet of dollars and nothing else for protection besides the goodwill of almost everyone, victims and killers, I met, I reported on violence and killing in Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

I grew used to the corpses of young men, inured to the sweet smell of putrefying flesh, the staccato sound of gunfire— the most unmistakable sound there is. It could play hell with your nerves, though; remember that old war correspondent saw about jumping out of your skin to the sound of fireworks? That really happened to me—I had taken cover in a suburban garden in Richmond, west London, before recalling that it was Guy Fawkes night, not another bush battle.

We Africa corrs used to joke about such things. It really was a hoot. But I will never forget the young man who asked me for water, in September 2002, as I wandered a battlefield in Sudan. He was called David Matwok, and almost my age. After drinking from my water bottle, we discussed the violence that had just taken place. He was calm, almost chatty and a fine athletic man, save where a couple of Kalashnikov bullet had smashed up his lower legs. I asked my guide, a member of the victorious rebels, a group which now rules the new state of South Sudan, what would happen to David. “The hyenas can have him,” he shrugged. I am haunted to recall it; as I am by a fear that, maybe, I did not mind it nearly enough at the time.

There was, to be sure, plenty that was absurd about this work. Africa was not all grimness. (Or if it was, why did we all love it so much?) Even back then, in the latter stages of the civil wars that raged after the Cold War, there were signs of the urbanisation and booming middle-class that is the continent’s great hope today. But you would hardly know that from our reporting. I never actually heard any fellow reporter ask, “Anyone here been raped and speaks English?”—the title of a sardonic memoir of foreign correspondence by Edward Behr, a British journalist. But some of our reporting came too close to matching that sentiment.

In the Nairobi pack, there was more than a dash of Scoop, too, especially among us Brits. Our American colleagues, working for the well-resourced New York Times, LA Times and The Washington Post, tended to be seasoned newsmen, rewarded with a plum foreign posting after years of slogging it out on the metro pages. We were younger, greener, more amateurish. In a huddle of foreign correspondents around some government or aid agency spokesman, you could always pick the Brits: we were the ones, in ignorance of short-hand, labouring to transcribe every word of the interview in wrist-aching, long-hand. And indeed, the eccentricities of one or two of my colleagues, exaggerated by Africa’s madcap happenstance, could have been lifted straight from Waugh’s masterpiece.

None was more eccentric than the man from The Daily Telegraph, Adrian Blomfield, a White Kenyan whose family had founded one of Nairobi’s first private schools, of which his father was headmaster. Besides being certainly the most absent-minded person I have ever met, at least under the age of 80, Adrian was also one of the mildest-mannered. So when his mother insisted he disguise himself, from the school costume box, as a priest for an impending trip to Congo, he did as she asked. How we, his friends and rivals, laughed at Adrian when he turned up, en route to Congo, in Burundi, where the rest of us had gathered for an election, with his dog- collar and crucifix.

Only, it turned out, Adrian’s mother had had a point. A couple of days later, while travelling by motorbike along the Congolese shore of Lake Tanganyika, Adrian was stopped at a rebel checkpoint, marched up an adjacent hill, and asked to say funeral rites over the corpse of a dead rebel. Oddly, he was not even wearing his disguise at the time; the rebels simply could not imagine that anyone but a missionary would be mad enough to venture unguarded into their area. Rather than risk disappointing them, Adrian did as they asked. As the corpse was lowered into the ground, he drew crosses in the air and recited aloud, in ignorance of any Catholic prayer, a few half-remembered lines of Virgil’s Aeneid.

Why would anyone entrust the responsibility of reporting such grave events, the massacres and mass rapes, the famines and state failures, to such untrained, occasionally shambolic, rapscallions as we were? Well, here are two reasons.

First, because we were often all they had, foreign embassies and aid agencies having substantially pulled back from Africa at that time. Africans themselves were invariably convinced that there was a Western hand pulling the strings in their tragic conflicts, much as Pakistanis and Afghans are today. The truth was more humiliating. Not only was there often no Western spy for thousands of miles, but Western governments, which once viewed Africa as an important Cold War theatre, were barely interested in their latest agonies. In that absence of more serious political attention, our despatches, as well as those filed by human rights and aid workers, were often the only reliable account of what was going on.

And, for a second reason, most of us accepted that burden as a sacred duty. We considered our reports, almost always pieced together from eyewitness accounts, rarely from secondary sources, an important record. We filed them in a competitive spirit—we were pleased to get the splash, or, on occasion, best one another to a story. But we often cooperated, sharing a sense of obligation to the poor Africans we spent our days with.

Knowing a story well, as a journalist, you can normally smell out confabulation, or outright lying, in others’ reporting of it. But I can recall almost no instance in which I had cause to doubt the veracity of my colleagues’ reporting in Africa; though as we often worked alone and in remote places it would not have been hard for any of us to exaggerate. Unarticulated, for we did not admit to being idealists, we were battling to create a frail record of things, mostly dreadful, that might otherwise pass unnoticed. Adrian, disorganised though he was, was superb at that. I have never seen a braver or better foreign news hack.

It was this combination of freedom, duty and adventure that made reporting from Africa so unique. Yet the same spirit informs the best foreign corresponding from anywhere— including regions, such as the Middle East, South- East Asia and Af-Pak with comparable, if almost invariably more predictable, stories. In all such places, foreign press packs roam; only, they tend to be smaller these days.

During my years in Nairobi, at least 10 American and six British newspapers and magazines maintained at least one staff correspondent in Africa, plus usually several retained stringers. In addition, there were at least a score of second-tier American and British newspapers—The Miami Herald, The Scotsman—with enough of a budget for foreign news to keep a gang of out-and-out freelancers on the road and fed. And, bear in mind, if our wages were modest, the cost of travel in Africa was not. A weeklong trip around West Africa, expected to produce a feature or two, might easily cost $3,000 in expenses; it was rarely hard to find a commission for such travels.

That was then. On a transit through Nairobi a couple of years ago, I chanced upon an old colleague, a Zimbabwean cameraman, at the airport. Things were different now, he said. The Nairobi press pack was hugely depleted, as was the whole Africa corps. Half the British and American publications had withdrawn their correspondents from the continent; one or two, including The Chicago Tribune, no longer had foreign correspondents at all. And for those who remained, working had become a constant struggle for commissions. My friend had been grounded for weeks; the BBC, who he mostly worked for, would now only authorise big, guaranteed news trips. There were no more speculative sallies into forgotten wars; no more gatherings of the Nairobi press pack for an election in Burundi, a fly-speck country that most newspaper editors would struggle to find on the map.

Penury, due to the ongoing disruption of newspaper business models, is not all that is changing my trade. Ever since America led the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (an event I watched unfold on CNN from Bunia, a remote, slaughter-prone outpost in eastern Congo), Western newspapers have come increasingly to rely on ‘embedding’ their reporters with American and allied troops. This is not entirely new. The man usually acknowledged as the first war correspondent, William Howard Russell, of The Times, was ‘embedded’ with the British cavalry when he witnessed the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. But the scale of it in the Iraq war—including 700 embedded reporters during the initial invasion—was unprecedented. It spawned serious concerns about a lack of objectivity in their reporting, which grew with the general doubts about the war’s legality, conduct and wisdom.

This change is not all bad. Embedded reporting—which I have often done in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Waziristan and even, during a memorable couple of days with the French Foreign Legion, Cote d’Ivoire—can provide an extraordinary, sometime perilous close-up view of a battlefield. If your subject is the men you are embedded with, it provides wonderful material; I will always recall the frantic, heroic, terrified response of the US soldiers I was with when our convoy in Mosul, Iraq, was hit by a roadside bomb. But such reporting, though valid and interesting, is much less valuable than the dispassionate view of a campaign that foreign correspondents should always aim for.

The coterminous growth of jihadism has meanwhile made it additionally hard for journalists to escape the bubble of embeddedness and operate freely. Wandering all those battlefields in Africa was possible because foreign journalists were rarely considered the enemy. That is no longer the case: of the 59 journalists killed this year, 73 per cent were murdered, over half of them by jihadists. And this has in turn contributed to another sorry development in my trade, making the reporter’s experience of danger an increasingly large part of the story. This is at best a proxy for the suffering of war-caught civilians, but more often vainglorious and insidious: an erosion of foreign correspondents’ basic duty, to selflessly and objectively report on the world as others experience it.

My trade is becoming depleted, and, I sometimes fear, diminished by these incidences. But the news is not only bad. If the archetypal foreign correspondent, American and British, generally White and male, is becoming rarer, he is being replaced by a more diverse cohort of reporters, including from China, India and elsewhere.

More important, he is being replaced, and to a degree rendered obsolete, by increasingly able and courageous local reporters, in Africa and everywhere. They accounted for the vast majority of those slain journalists. Reinforced by digital media, which has put video cameras into the hands of untrained reporters, in the remotest places, this growth has provided more, more timely, and often more accurate coverage of world events, especially in remote places, than ever existed before.

That is a great change; but, though I admit I am a partial judge, it is not an equal exchange. Even coverage of India, with its excellent and multitudinous channels, websites, newspapers and magazines, is improved, I would argue, by the contributions the best foreign correspondents can make to it.

Writing for a remote audience, they are less liable to be caught up in the noise of transient politics. Their ability to place national events in an international context is a particular strength of the best foreign reporting. And if they are liable, in Indian eyes, to misunderstand or over-simplify, or even misrepresent, that may nonetheless be a cautionary reflection of the impression India gives to the world, unwitting or undeserved as it may be.

In short, my trade is still useful. I hope it will survive, to shrink the world, record its madness and its changes. And delight those lucky journalists to whom the task falls, too. There is no better working life.