When one couldn’t tell who was Tanzanian, Ugandan or Kenyan

Saturday March 28 2020
By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Early this month legendary photojournalist Mohinder Dhillon died in Nairobi, at the respectable age of 88.
Dhillon, was nicknamed while “Death wish Dhillon” by British troops in Yemen for his daring exploits, while covering the war there In 1967.

He photographed every big story of the last half of the 20th century in East and Central Africa; the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution and a slew of other hairy stories he richly writes of in his autobiography My Life, My Camera: the 1963-65 Simba Rebellion in today’s Democratic Republic Congo; the rise and fall of our friend Field Marshal Idi Amin in Uganda; to the end of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and ascendancies of comrade Robert Mugabe to the throne in Zimbabwe.

He trained his cameras many times on Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, and Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie.
He had a hell of a life, complete with a helicopter crash in Tanzania, which he survived.

In that, he was very much in the mould of an even more celebrated figure in East African and, indeed global, photojournalism, Kenyan photojournalist Mohamed “Mo” Amin.

Gave birth

Amin died in November 1996 when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 was hijacked and crashed into the Indian Ocean near Grande Comore island.


Most memorably, Mo’s filming of the 1984 Ethiopian famine brought international attention to the crisis and eventually gave birth to the Live Aid concerts. There’s hardly a war, a famine, a military coup, a murdering dictator, idealist revolutionaries, and everything in between, that Mo didn’t film.

Dhillon, therefore, represented the last of a unique generation of East African storytellers and creatives that are rare today.

They saw most things in big picture terms. They were not deterred by borders, and their pan-East Africanness became their hallmark.

One witnessed the same thing in music, where Afro7 reports; “As an evolving pre-independence early 60s city, Nairobi was reputed as the region’s core musical hub. A stream of instrumentalists, composers, musicians traversed the borders of East and Central African countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, formerly Zaire now Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi, Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe), Ivory Coast and Nigeria.

The last stop for many of these ‘visiting” artistes’ (some eventually settled in Kenya) was the ultra-modern 16-track Columbia Broadcasting Studio (CBS Records), then situated in downtown Nairobi.” Music bands were very cosmopolitan.

In football, it was difficult to tell which was the Ugandan, Kenyan, or Tanzanian player in the local clubs.

In literature, authors like Uganda’s Okot p’Bitek, Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and others of their ilk, were read essentially as East African writers.

My uncle was a senior police officer all his life in Kenya, clobbering the big-headed ones in line in Machakos, Kitale, all over. He retired with a relatively generous pension which, until he fell ill and eventually passed on not too long ago, he religiously crossed to withdraw at a Kenyan bank at the border.

East Africa was a scandalously incestuous region— until it wasn’t. It is still not quite clear what, deep down, broke. Or, indeed, if it broke.

Men like Dhillon and Mo might have known, except they didn’t overthink it. They refused to let borderlines get in the way of a good story

Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Twitter@cobbo3