Category Archives: Kenya

Sinbad

What do you do with an image that you think is great but has a fatal flaw? Well, nothing, it floats around your archive like an orphan.

This is one of my favorite ‘orphans’, a image of the charismatic man who calls himself Sinbad, taken on Lamu island, Kenya. There is no remedy for the amputated hand.

Sinbad, his tourist name, was all about attracting business, hence the shades, the hat and his little dhow.

Sinbad’s technique was to unrelentingly hassle you the moment you set foot upon the island until you limply complied to whatever he had for sale. This was the preferred method of extracting off traveller types. But once you had paid your dues, well, the rest of your stay was hassle free.

I bear no grudge – Islanders need to make a living – but there was a time when you could go to Lamu without the tourist persona hanging on you, buy at local prices, meet people on equal terms. A steady flow of visitors, caught by the romance of open roofed nights and warm monsoon breezes, have set the tourist trap forever.

Wilfred Thesiger in Lamu island, Kenya

Somewhere between 1987-89 I took the picture on the left of Lamu fort (built between 1813 and 1821) . For Xmas 1990 I was given the book “Visions of Nomads” by Wilfred Thesiger and in it found the image on the right. I’m not precisely sure of the date for the Thesiger image – minus however long it takes for a coconut tree to double in height!

Mombasa old port, 1997

Despite a “No photography” sign at the gates of the old port, I was granted permission to enter with my camera. I found labourers loading boxes onto a destitute looking motorised dhow and a khaki clad customs officer lording over the scene with his bendy stick. I flagged down a fisherman with his dugout to take me out for a better angle and I found myself amongst a sorry selection of rusty ships.

Lamu, 1987

“At high tide, when the seawater level is almost as high as that of the drains, rats are forced through the drains. Little boys enjoy catching them and showing them to little old ladies from Chicago. After such displays of doubtful goodwill, it’s highly unlikely that the ladies will make another visit to Lamu. Attempts have been made to eliminate the rats, many of which are larger than the Lamu cats. The last real effort was made in the 1950s. In 1959 the district commissioner proudly reported that 949 rats were caught, but a little later he laments, ‘Again the courage and stamina of the Lamu cats failed them and it is believed that rats actually eat cats here.’ – Lamu district annual report, Kenya 1959” ~ excerpt from ‘Cargoes of the East’ Esmond Bradley Martin.

How to make a living in paradise

Tony created the perfect situation. He became the ‘yachties’ marine SSB radio connection within the western Indian Ocean, guiding boats into the protected Kilifi creek. Care was required for yachts to pass beneath the newly built 21m high bridge but once through Tony provided anchorage and facilities below his house.

Mohammed Amin (Mo)

Coming from a rather ‘information sheltered’ upbringing in Kenya, I was exposed rather late to the photographers who make it into the history of photography compilations. Those that I was exposed to, seem unremarkable in comparison. Their work mostly graced the coffee table, or the touristy section of the bookshop, with titles like, Beautiful Kenya, or Vanishing Africa (some of them awesome photographers in their own right).

One of these photographers, Mo (Mohamed Amin), became very well known.

I remember him for two things, his pictures of sunsets – some that showed the sun so high in the sky that the scene could never have been so orange, as though he’d not been bothered to wait, and had thrown on an orange filter to get the effect – and for his images of “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”

But neither of those are what made him big, big. In 1984 he hit the world stage with what might as well be one of the first links in the chain of starving people pictures.

Aidan Hartley in his absolutely ripping book ‘Zanzibar Chest‘ writes:

“His greatest triumph was TV footage, voiced over by the BBC’s Michael Buerk, of the first pictures to break the 1984 Ethiopian famine. Mo’s pictures whipped up publicity, rock songs and concerts that raised funds for food that probably saved a further two million from hungry deaths. He may have seemed diffident but he was as conceited as hell and never let you forget about his fame

“Mo proudly showed me his office. Covering the walls were framed snaps of Mo with Bob Geldof, Queen Elizabeth giving Mo his MBE medal, Mo with Sidney Pointer, Mo with sundry Third world despots, honorary degrees, TV awards and a platinum disk of the song ‘We are the world’.”

In Africa one has to be able to face blood and guts. Facing the whimsical Idi Amin is likely to make you shake your head in disbelief, while expecting at any moment a sudden death sentence after a joke turned sour.

Mo had one major talent of many, he was always on the spot:

‘He was no media cowboy, no thrill seeker…. he was brave and committed, and his genius was being there when it happened.’ – Michael Buerk

He died in the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines Flight 96 crash, November 23, 1996.