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From the February 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 2)

Books

A Passage to Africa


Sarah Penny, Mail & Guardian (liberal), Johannesburg, South Africa, Nov. 21, 2001

Edward Said has remarked of V.S. Naipaul, this year’s 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 he’s 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 Naipaul’s philosophical counterpoint.

A Passage to Africa (Little, Brown, U.K.) is the story of Aligiah’s 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 Aligiah’s 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 lifestyle—a 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 journalist’s 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 he’s 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 personal dignity.”

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 didn’t 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. There’s an obsession with working out where you come from, what country you are a citizen of. I’m 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. “It’s a con because there is no middle ground between victim and perpetrator. Mine is a journalism of advocacy. It’s 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 don’t know the truth. The whole experience made me realize that certainty is a very frail thing.”


 
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