an area of the map for world news.
February 2002 issue of
World Press Review
(VOL. 49, No. 2)
A Passage to Africa
Penny, Mail & Guardian (liberal), Johannesburg, South
Africa, Nov. 21, 2001
Edward Said has
remarked of V.S. Naipaul, this years recipient of the
Nobel Prize for literature, that while Naipaul is considered
an important witness to the disintegration and hypocrisy
of the Third World, in the post-colonial world hes a marked
man as a purveyor of stereotypes and disgust for the world that
produced him. If this is true, then George Aligiah, former
BBC Africa correspondent and author of A Passage to Africa,
is Naipauls philosophical counterpoint.
A Passage to Africa (Little, Brown, U.K.) is the story
of Aligiahs relationship with the continent. It began
in 1961 at the age of 5 when his Tamil family migrated from
Ceylon to freshly independent Ghana to start a new life. Many
Tamils found employment as replacement civil servants for the
outgoing colonials under Kwame Nkrumah, and the childhood memoir
part of the book is colorful and fascinating, recalling all
the wonder of a migrant child who finds himself in the heady
optimistic milieu of the first African country to ostensibly
throw off its shackles.
But Aligiahs boyhood was interrupted by another African
first, a military coup, and he was sent to boarding school in
England. As an adult, Aligiah joined the BBC and traveled extensively
in Africa, being based in Johannesburg between 1994 and 1998.
The chapters about working for the BBC offer a racy glimpse
into this high-adrenaline lifestylea world where snappers
(photographers) compete against reporters doing stand-ups,
where the race is always on to get the pictures and the story
ahead of the others.
Aligiah finds himself in Liberia interviewing child generals,
in Somalia desperate for a rescue plane, in Zaire being regaled
with a theatrical tank show staged by a wobbly Mobutu Sese Seko.
The revelations of the journalists stratagems, the uneasy
codependence of the press and the aid agencies, the reality
of the bribing and cajoling and schmoozing to get access to
information, and the sheer fatiguing routine of feeding the
press machine are gripping.
Aligiah is optimistic about Africa. Despite everything hes
seen, he still believes that Africa has a fair shot at getting
it right, on her own terms. He says of Ugandan President Yoweri
Museveni, self-reliance became his guiding principal.
Of Nelson Mandela, he represented moral certainty and
To white South Africans peering out from the bars of their suburban
siege architecture and taking umbrage at societal transformation,
he points out that they have entirely escaped the kind of coercion
he has seen firsthand elsewhere.
Aligiah recently returned to South Africa for a few days to
promote the book. I ask him how he became involved in his particular
brand of journalism. In the first place it was my history,
he says. I watched my family being hounded out of the
land of their birth. My work now is the result of all the things
that I picked up along the way.
Does the BBC see him as having a more personally involved take
on events here than British-born correspondents? They
didnt send me here because of that. Lots of people write
about Africa. But I do have the ability to write as an insider.
I can never ignore the fact that I know this continent in a
different way from the others.
People always want to put you in a box. Theres an
obsession with working out where you come from, what country
you are a citizen of. Im interested in diversity. The
whole point of multiculturalism is not to ghettoize. In London
we live in Hackney because we wanted our children to grow up
among many cultures.
He recounts how Mandela told a group of international reporters:
You are privileged people. You can observe from near but
judge from afar. But for Aligiah this kind of disassociation
was never possible. He cannot aspire to notions of objectivity.
Its a con because there is no middle ground between
victim and perpetrator. Mine is a journalism of advocacy. Its
a more difficult form of journalism when you try to distinguish
right and wrong.
In his book Aligiah details the most striking example of this
ambivalence. In the refugee camps at Goma in Zaire in 1994,
he meets and employs a Hutu translator, a local
person on whose assistance much of the journalists effectiveness
depends. A close relationship develops between the two men.
Returning to Kigali a year later, Aligiah finds the translator
in prison, accused of genocide. Convinced of his innocence,
Aligiah tries to intervene. But the elderly distraught witness
who recounts how the translator offered his own Tutsi wife to
the militia is equally convincing. Questioned about this now,
Aligiah frowns: I still dont know the truth. The
whole experience made me realize that certainty is a very frail