An Interview with Paul Kenyon

Richard Ali


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I’ve often thought that the interview is a separate genre of literature, right up the with the trio of poetry, prose and drama, above ‘genre’ in the narrow American sense where just about everything gets the label. There is dialogue so there are elements of drama. It is written in sentences, with each response forming an integrated whole, in the manner of a short story, something capable of explication. Lastly, an interview where participants have struck a balance is a perfect thing akin to verse. Yet, beyond even this, making my argument, the interview is a scope into at least two lives, psychological give-and-take that makes an open-ended social statement. It was with this mindset that I approached Paul Kenyon, noted journalist and traveler, whose latest book, Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa, is the central subject of our discussion.

In the nature of the genre, we started off in northern England, where the heather grows in the moors and in the course of our conversation, we stop in the Sudan where a minder, sent by the state to keep an eye on Paul, turned out to be a secret poet interested in enrichening his English grammar, whatever else he might be. In my reading of Dictatorland, a memorable character was a retired boxer in the Congo, formerly Zaire, who had a front row view of the Mobutu regime. In this interview, we explore why I found him so compelling. And there is more so many people, so many lives. Travel writing of the quality Mr. Kenyon delivers in his book gives us a passport to past and present in all its multilayered complexity. It is a pleasure to concretize Paul’s book while at the same time expanding it beyond the pages of Dictatorland.

Richard Ali: Thanks for this interview, Paul. First off, tell us about your background. A book like Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa must have involved a specific way of living and thinking to write …

Paul Kenyon: I was raised on the remote, cold, windy moors of Northern England; very different from where my passion in life eventually took me. At the start of my career, I was an investigative journalist for the BBC in London. I did all kinds of daring undercover stories, from secretly filming Iran’s nuclear facilities to faking my own death in Haiti to expose a gang of fraudsters. It was the kind of work where the adrenalin was stuck on permanent high. I had death threats. The BBC installed cameras outside my home. But I was never happier than when on a plane heading for a new and risky country.

Then, in 2007 I made a trip to West Africa. I was filming the migration route from Ghana, through Burkina Faso into Niger and across the desert into Libya and onto the Mediterranean. I got to know many people along the route, and ended up making four films about the journey for the BBC. In Ghana, I fell in love with the endless jungle roads through the western region, the aroma of roasting cocoa and of forest fires, the salty air buffeting the coast. The people were hospitable, and always had a view about the British and colonialism. I loved the long savannah roads through Burkina, the tumbling cactus, the bony cattle kicking up dust. And in Libya it was the intrigue, the secrecy, the brave people who spoke to me quietly in their homes about life under Gaddafi.

RA: Clearly, from your writing, you have gotten quite a sense of the continent. So, why Africa? What informed your choice of subject?

PK: The more I traveled across the continent, the more I read, and the more the BBC saw me as an Africa expert. I investigated child labor in the chocolate industry in Cote d’Ivoire, people-smuggling in Senegal and Guinea. I filmed in Sudan, and tried to get across the border into Eritrea. I was starting to water the seed of an idea. I wanted people outside Africa to understand this was a land of such promise, of such fertility and such rich resources. I was appalled by the ignorance of people back home who would say, “It’s so dirt poor!” I would explain that Africa has some of the richest countries on earth, that we in Europe were the original sinners in terms of corruption and plundering, and that we created the conditions that followed.

It became something of an obsession. I was devouring books on colonial history, and reading accounts of African dictatorships in the British Library. Then I began organizing myself like I would for any journalistic investigation. I tracked down people who were there at the time—old colonials in Nigeria when oil was first discovered, government ministers from the Mobutu era in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), western oil men who had met the young Gaddafi. I spent many months trying to find people who had a ringside seat for some of the most seismic events in recent African history.

RA: The idea of finding people who had a ringside seat is in itself interesting, but when we are talking of the history of countries and the fate, even the lives, of millions, one might also ponder what these people did with their perspective and influence. This is essentially a question of moral philosophy. There are the villains of this book—the big ones, such as Mobutu, Dan Etete, and Mugabe—but what of the smaller, supportive cast who you might have met. Did they feel a sense they should have done different, or more? What was your evaluation?

PK: I treated none of them as the “author’s friend.” My background as an investigative journalist means I am suspicious of everyone. It can be quite wearying for the people around me. My process was to speak to all sides, to track down perpetrator and victim, jailer and jailed, to compare their accounts with mainstream histories of Africa, and then to form an opinion.

I might gently nudge the reader one way or the other, but my job is to present the facts as I understand them, without hyperbole or overheated prose. Of course, Mobutu’s No. 2, Mokonda Bonza, who I spent time with, sitting beside his swimming pool and feeding his pet monkeys, is a case in point. He was polite, hospitable, intelligent, but how could he justify his role in the regime?  As one would expect, he portrayed himself as having put the breaks on Mobutu’s megalomania. Things, he said, would have been far worse without him.  He was the “goodie” working from the inside.

We can never know the truth. There were no independent witnesses, just him and Mobutu. All I can do is put it out there and allow the reader to decide.

To be fair, his testimony was quite compelling, but, then, it would be, wouldn’t it?  Or he wouldn’t have invited me into his house in the first place.

RA: Recently there has been the question of the balance of reportage of stories about Africa. Even when the subjects, such as the characters masquerading as statesmen that people your book, are of valid journalistic interest. The questions arise around what stories can be made to do—notions of a “dark continent” and “black Africa” preceded colonization, for example. Are you sensitive to this issue? How have you tried to deal with this?

PK: Some of it I dealt with by going back to original sources, people who witnessed events with their own eyes. I think that is the key to balanced journalism and writing. There are no shortcuts. The good thing about investigating the decolonization era is that this is still relatively recent history. I was just in time. Several of the people I interviewed died between the writing and publication of the book. But you raise a good point, and I think you are really asking, politely, how a Brit can report Africa without seeing it through the lens of colonial prejudice. Fair enough! Well, I spoke so widely to my contacts across the continent and traveled so widely, I think—if anything—the opposite was true. I didn’t assume blame at the start of any story. I remained neutral. Even with Mugabe, where the evidence clearly showed his many strengths at the start of his career, I was eager to point them out, as I was with the many injustices inflicted by the British before him.

There were surprises: Mobutu’s tenacity, his intellect, his ability to outwit the Americans; Houphouet-Boigny’s business acumen, and his skilled navigation of French politics. On the subject of “the dark continent,” I forced myself to read almost every volume written by Henry Morton Stanley. His tone, his language, his conceit, were all grim reminders of how the colonial brain worked and the care I should take when reading that narrative. But, of course, there were exceptions. Some of the colonial pensioners I spoke with had stayed on voluntarily, well after the Europeans left, teaching, preaching, and raising families there. They had a genuine affection for the continent.

RA: Could you share what goes through your mind when you are sitting in a plane about to make its descent to some new city, or perhaps in an SUV about to cross some ominous geographical or mental border, and maybe the possibility of a new story or an idea for research hits you? It would be interesting to hear what perhaps attends the “adrenaline rush” of an experienced travel writer.

PK: I used to dash to the airport with little else but my passport and notebook, unconcerned whether I had left my front door swinging open and all the lights on at home. It was all about the story, and the journey to the story, dealing with paramilitaries, blagging my way across borders, sneaking into countries undercover. It was chaotic and adrenalin-fueled, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

These days my approach is cooler. I will admit that, the night before leaving, I am often seized by the idea that I should back out and not travel at all. “Why do I keep choosing the unknown?” I ask myself. “Will my wife be able to cope?” “What if this is the last time I get in a cab on the leafy road outside our house and wave goodbye?”

But all those negative thoughts begin to drain away once I am in the cab. By the time I reach Heathrow, it’s as though I have entered a portal into a different life. And then I am living in the moment. Most of my life has been spent in investigative filmmaking, and that means the story changes from hour to hour. Nothing is certain. I am looking to expose corruption and injustice, and because that normally involves the rich and powerful, I know that getting out of the country will usually be more difficult than getting in.

I stand at the top of the plane steps, breathe in the air, and wonder what kind of adventures lie ahead.  And then, on many occasions, I remember the secret filming equipment in my hand luggage and start thinking about how I’m going to get it through customs. What’s driving me is the challenge of finding a story that no one else has discovered, and one in which the perpetrator—because there is normally a “baddie” in these stories—will make every effort to stop me. Paradoxically, the more difficult a story is, the more I want it. This is not a healthy way to live.

RA: May we step away from the traveling and the writing to a different sort of geography, that of the mind of the victims of dictatorships? Some of these voices are captured in Dictatorland. What do you make of the “hope” we see in the minds of several characters, African, off center of your book—Papa Marcel, for example, in Kinshasa who says they felt pride in Mobutu’s Zaire at some point, or the woman Zenabo who sought her son in the cocoa fields—what are your thoughts about this? Where does this hope, in countries so hideously poorly governed, come from?

PK: These are the people I long to spend time with. These are the people who quietly go about their lives, raising families, staying out of trouble, but who have a secret stash of remarkable stories, of life-experiences, of observations about events no one else has shared. They are the real witnesses of history. There is an originality and authenticity about their stories, which you never get with well-schooled politicians and businessmen. These are the people I seek out. It would have been easy, for example, to condemn Mobutu’s leadership from start to finish. But Papa Marcel had lived through it, and his account had not been steered towards the politically acceptable. It had not been refined by re-telling. He had not adapted it to what a journalist might want to hear. These were the pure, virgin memories of a retired boxer who had seen hope, energy, and independence in the early Mobutu, and whose life had shone for a time because of it.

Where does this hope come from? I have seen it in refugee camps across the border from Eritrea, in stick-and-dirt villages in Burkina Faso, in the face of migrants leaving the shores of Libya. I like to think there is something inextinguishable in the human spirit, and that when all else is squeezed from us we can still appreciate a cloudless sky, or the sound of a loved one breathing at night, and in that we find hope.

RA: I like to think of travel writers as today’s explorers, you know, the idea that the known world is not as known as we imagine it—the street, the city, even countries in the case of your book, yield new experiences and knowledge to some reader somewhere. Yet, travel sometimes abuts with danger, and sometimes involves risking one’s life. Have you been in such sticky situations while doing your work? What are the most interesting ones in retrospect?

PK: Sitting at my desk in London, some of the things I have done seem reckless. But, at the time, in the moment, they appeared the “least worse” options. You are right, we feel like explorers because we are trying to discover something original, something untouched by anyone else. My two stickiest situations weren’t in Africa.

One was in Colombia when we were flying in an old Huey helicopter—the sort used in Vietnam—over the jungle. I had my legs dangling outside the door when we started receiving incoming fire from a cocaine factory below. The other, which was, in hindsight, a whole lot more dangerous, was when we were detained in Tehran for taking secret footage of their nuclear bases. We were snatched at the airport on the way out. I remember the physical sensation in my stomach. It was like the food passing through me had turned into cold lead.

On a lighter note, there was a misunderstanding that produced a sticky situation in a remote part of Cote d’Ivoire. We came to a crossroads in the jungle and the driver asked if I wanted to take the long route back or use “Keednar Road,” which, he said, was quicker. The light was fading and we needed to get a move on. Tired and, I regret, a little impatient, I asked, “Why are we even having the debate, if Keednar Road is quicker? Take Keednar Road!” The driver looked anxious. About an hour later, driving through the dark on a narrow road that appeared to have no traffic apart from ourselves, I asked the driver to stop for a toilet break. He shook his head, quite frantically.  “Why not?” I asked. The fixer turned to me and said, “Well, like he told you at the start, this is ‘kidnap road,’ there are gangs all over here who might ambush us.”

RA: That’s quite a story! It highlights the issue of one’s safety out on the road in places where one, to refer to the HSBC ad, simply lacks “local knowledge” and often does not even speak the local language. How do you go about making the interpersonal connections that are so crucial to building trust in Africa, as a travel writer? Some of the more memorable stories in Dictatorland were yielded by friends to friends. How have you managed this?

PK: Those interpersonal connections are so crucial. I feel strongly that international journalism is retreating into a shell, upon which is written “GOOGLE SEARCH.” I meet young reporters who have never left the building, let alone the country, and are horrified when I suggest getting out there.   You have to be on the ground, allowing things to move at their own pace. I often find stories just off stage, among the helpers, the hotel receptionists, the fixers, the drivers, the translators. I learned early on that these were the people to plug into. Even those who, on the surface, are there to hinder—they offer an opportunity.

In Sudan, I was initially annoyed that an intelligence officer from the much-feared NISS (National Intelligence and Security Service) was dispatched to accompany me everywhere. I would need to spend a week with him in the car, eating, sleeping, talking about our families. When I saw him writing fastidiously in his notebook, I assumed he was composing his report on me. In fact, he was writing love poetry, in English, and asked me to check the grammar. Our conversations turned out to be fruitful.

Out of necessity, I need to rely quite heavily on fixers—men and women who live locally and already have a network of contacts. They are often successful journalists in their own right. They prepare the ground for when I arrive, introducing me to people, helping me get around. However, on numerous occasions, it is the fixers themselves whose families have intrigued me. In the DRC, I was fascinated by the rule of King Leopold, and wanted to make clear in Dictatorland that this is not ancient history, we can still reach out and touch that era through those alive today. And so it was, my fixer’s grandfather turned out to be in his mid-80s. His father had been around during Leopold, in the early 1900s. There it was, a direct link.

The secret though, whether a writer or simply a traveller, is to keep one’s mind wide open, to be quietly inquisitive with everyone, no matter how unrelated to your story, and to muster the energy to walk to the far end of the village when everyone’s telling you there’s nothing more to see.

RA: As a travel writer, the landscape is incomplete without the people, and with travel one routinely goes beyond the apparent. Hence this question: Where have you found the quality of greatness?  

PK: I have to say, I have never encountered greatness in the office of any politician, anywhere. I have, perhaps, been impressed by certain politicians’ ability to survive against all odds. The energy, the determination, the cunning required to hold onto power, to convince an entire people you can best serve their future, the master, perhaps, being Mobutu, and his carefully staged weeping as he pretended to give up the presidency. Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Cote d’Ivoire was certainly impressive in his early years, winning himself a seat in the French cabinet, and creating a liberal free market economy based on cocoa, which gave rise to the “Ivorian Miracle.” He may have even been close to greatness, but for his titanic appetite for corruption.

I did, however, find greatness in a quiet young man from Ghana, an Imam from near the coast. He was helping me find people about to undertake the dangerous migration journey across the Sahara to Libya, and then by boat to Europe. After getting to know him for a week or two, I realized he could speak Italian. “How so?” I asked. Reluctantly, he explained he had once made the journey across the Mediterranean himself many years before becoming an Imam.

This was his story: after two days at sea in a leaky wooden boat, along with fifty or so others, he had only a tiny pot of spicy fish sauce to eat. He had nearly emptied the pot when he saw a weary Nigerian staring hungrily at him. He gave the man the last of his food, despite being dizzy with hunger himself.  There were only five lifejackets on board. The Nigerian was sitting on top of them. Later that night, the boat began to sink. As the men fell into the water one by one, it was the Nigerian who decided how to distribute the lifejackets. He gave one to the Ghanaian. Only five people survived.  Everyone else perished.

The greatness of the Ghanaian was not just in the selflessness he showed by sharing his food with a stranger, but the fact that, after such trauma, he had returned home, become an Imam in a poor village, and given his life to the community.

RA: Speaking of equipment, the readers of Panorama are often amateur travelers themselves and one always wonders if one is packing right. How do you do it? What’s in Paul Kenyon’s case as he heads out to a story? I remember a trip to East Africa where I wound up miserable half the time because I had not packed the right clothes. So, tell us: clothes, cameras, equipment and such, what have you found most trusty and appropriate in your career?

PK: Aha!  This question never gets any easier!

  1. 1 pair of robust jeans; they can soak up dirt, sweat, beer, and no one gives a damn if they are stained and stinking.
  2. 1 pair smart trousers and jacket, in case of meeting with officials. These inevitably end up creased and damp, but at least I make the effort.
  3. Martens boots. Great for monsoon, treading on crushed glass etc., but can also be made smart with a lick of polish.
  4. I get easily sunburned. I wear a scarf, too, to protect my neck. Drench it in cold water whenever you get the chance. Great for keeping cool.
  5. A camera is, I know, a must for most travelers. I usually rely on my cameraman, and use his. It’s a Canon 5D. It can be used for TV quality moving pictures, or stills. It’s a good choice because it attracts less attention from officials than a movie camera. In war zones, some cameramen dispense altogether with their normal heavy kit and use a 5D. It’s easily hidden.

I always carry a bag or porridge oats.  It’s light, and just needs water. Great slow energy-release food.

Laptop.  Always a difficult one, this, because of the obvious risk of theft. I keep it with me at all times in a small rucksack. I even sleep with it, if the guesthouse looks a bit dodgy.

Then there is the eternal question of what to do with your money: leave it in the hotel or take it with you? Where’s safest? We’ve all experienced that rising tide of anxiety as we leave a wad of dollars in a flimsy-looking hotel safe. But, similarly, you don’t want to be mugged whilst carrying a month’s worth of money in your wallet. So, my tip for hostile locations is to spread the risk. I normally have some notes in my sock, a few dollars in a spare jacket in the suitcase, some in my dirty underwear … Always keep a separate stash of small notes to use as tips, rather than waving the whole wad around.

RA: It recently came to light that Gaddafi’s supposed successor, his son Saif al-Islam, has been released from prison, despite at one stage being sentenced to death. It is even rumored he is planning to stand as a Presidential candidate whilst the country is torn between warring militias and two rival governments. You have visited Libya many times, what are your memories of the country during the research and writing of Dictatorland? What are your thoughts now?

PK: During Gaddafi I traveled deep into the Sahara Desert, to the oasis of Ghat in the Fezzan region. The landscape is stunning. Rolling Martian dunes, towering cliff faces that no one has ever scaled, giant dislocated rocks that seem to have fallen from the sky. I slept on the sand, rather oddly with a platoon of Gaddafi’s soldiers, and I remember the sand radiating this deep warmth throughout the chilly night. I remember jeep rides churning a column of dust towards the early evening moon, and 10-year old boys roaring recklessly through Green Square on huge motorbikes, and adults walking baby gazelles on a leash.

The human landscape of the country has always been more elusive. I have never visited a country where a people were so hermetically sealed in. Gaddafi’s control over potential dissent was complete.

I was in Benghazi during the Civil War, when Gaddafi announced on the radio that he was going to take back the city and hunt down its people like rats in the sewers. I remember people being terrified. The war was far from won. I, too, was terrified. We had to get out. We were told Gaddafi’s tanks were on the outskirts, that there would be a bloodbath. We hid in the back of a jeep and were driven out towards Egypt. At the time, because I had seen the faces of elderly people running into their homes, waiting for the slaughter, I supported international intervention. But now, look! I don’t mind admitting I was wrong. Regime change was not the answer. Diplomacy could have been made to work.

RA: Quite true. So, final words: what would you like to say about traveling and travel writing in general? There’s so much interest in it, academic and amateur, the question of diversity, which we at Panorama take very seriously, and much more. What do you think of it? Where is it going?

PK: If two people hack through a tropical rainforest side-by-side, or simply stroll together to the local bus stop, their accounts will, and should be, very different. The way in which we respond to stimuli is infinitely rich and varied, which is what makes travel writing so intoxicating. In the cocoa farms of Cote d’Ivoire my eyes are taken by the cool, leafy tunnels through the undergrowth, but to the locals they are simply a route to work. On the Eritrean border I was excited to meet the barefooted security guards and stare out into the miles of dusty emptiness separating this hermit-kingdom from Sudan, which to a fleeing refugee is a parched desert barrier where soldiers might shoot at them at any moment.

Do we want to hear from the perspective of those familiar with the environment, or those seeing it through fresh eyes? The former may add context and experience, but may overlook features which time has worn into the familiar. The newcomer may offer fresh, original insights into scenes which the local may view as humdrum and routine.  So, the answer is, we need both.

I particularly enjoyed Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland, in which she revisits the Nigeria of her childhood and explores the legacy of her father, Ken, the human rights activist. She is in the unusual position of being both an insider and an outsider at the same time.

RA: Thank you very much for you time, Paul. It was an absolute pleasure.

PK: You’re welcome!

Richard Ali

is the

Africa Editor for Panorama.


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