Friday, June 7, 2024

In the Jungle of Exclusives: African Eyes and Other Solecisms of Seeing


By Tunji Olalere

  • Title: Through My African Eyes
  • Author: Jeff Koinange
  • Publisher: Footprint Press
  • Number of pages: 258
  • Year of publication: 2014
  • Category: Autobiography

‘I wanted to bring the African story to an American audience and let them decide, instead of blocking it and forgetting about us’.

Former CNN Africa Correspondent, Jeff Koinange, has taken to the page to give an account of the nearly five decades he has spent on earth in his autobiography, Through My African Eyes.

In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Koinange’s face and voice bore witness to many of the pulverising events that threatened to make Sub-Saharan Africa dust. From wars to famines, insurgencies and terrorism, his was the black face bringing news to the world, as the Americans had it mapped.

The autobiography opens with a boast, ‘There is little about the continent that I have not heard, seen or felt’. It then labours under the weight of this boast to give the definitive bird’s-eye account of conflicts from Sierra Leone to Liberia, from the creeks of the Niger-Delta to the jungles in Congo. It fails – not once, not twice – to communicate a grasp of the complicated background to many of these tragedies.

The writing is crisp and the depictions are graphic. Koinange, however, is the unreliable narrator of his own autobiography. He warns at the beginning of the book that the descriptions of some of the events have been reconstructed to protect some of the characters. This should persuade the reader to oppose their thumb to their index finger for that proverbial pinch of salt. Also, there are facts that do not check out. M K O Abiola of Nigeria, for instance, did not win a 1988 election because there was none.

The intrepidity with which the author sought his stories sometimes bordered on the suicidal. Courage is not alien to Koinange’s genes. His grandfather, High Chief Koinange wa Mbiyu of the Kikuyu, was a leader of the Mau Mau uprising that culminated in Kenya’s independence in 1963. Koinange’s first book was a biography of this illustrious man whose loyalty to the British flipped to insurgency when his lands were seized from him. His son, Koinange’s father, was imprisoned during that agitation.

Koinange was raised by a no-nonsense mother who was widowed only a few months after his birth. Born in Kiambaa, Kenya, 7 January 1966, as the fourth child and second son, the responsibility fell to his mother to put Koinange and his siblings through the best schools at the cost of her own comfort. Koinange attended elite schools in Nairobi with the children of business moguls, top government functionaries and politicians. He excelled in both academics and sports, where he captained the school’s first soccer and rugby elevens.

Against his mother’s wish, he trained and worked as a flight attendant with the defunct Pan Am Airways. His time with Pan Am saw him yielding to a restless spirit and wanderlust, and foreshadowed a peripatetic life on the trail of ‘exclusives’. His group, of mostly African stewards, serviced the African leg (from Monrovia) of the Pan Am flight from New York to Nairobi. He recalls being applauded by passengers after they listened to flight announcements in his baritone, and how some of them implored him to train his voice and put it to good use.

This book is a litany of epiphanies. Koinange connects the dots of his life’s trajectory using certain events that inspired life-changing decisions. One learns, for instance, that while on a tour of Goree Island ­­­– the ‘temporary storage’ for slaves captured from the West African hinterland on their way to Europe – he decided to quit his job with Pan Am and seek a college education; that Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990 fired in him the desire to tell the African Story; that the death of celebrated photographer ‘Mo’ Amin spurred him to carry the torch for the African continent.

There is no disputing the fact that he told the stories of Africa, after a fashion. Jeff Koinange reported from the flooded villages of cyclone-stricken Mozambique, where a baby was delivered in the canopy of trees. He followed the march of Laurent Kabila and his teenage soldiers, in their oversized military fatigues, as they entered Kinshasha to end Mobutu Sese Seko’s reign. He covered the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where child soldiers conducted carnage.

One of the shocking accounts in the autobiography describes how, while in the company of some child soldiers, one of the boys hauled a heavy sack for miles and would not let anyone else help him with it or take a look at its content. It was only on arrival at their destination that the boy dropped the bag in exhaustion and a number of human heads rolled out. He had been collecting the heads as trophies for working his way up the militia ladder.

Noms de guerre such as General Terminator, General Butt Naked, and Bulldog were borne by children, in their pre-teens and early adolescence, whose minds had been inscribed by the power-thirsty hands of psychopathic warlords, dictators, and rebel leaders. Eleven-year-olds of the Small Boys Unit (SBU) wielded AK-47s and RPGs without any ideas of what to do were it to be pen and paper. They decimated settlements and laid waste to centuries of civilisation and infrastructure, unable to appreciate the import of their actions. These children were the real tragedy of the power tussle between revolutionaries and sit-tight emperors of neo-colonised states.

Koinange has kind words for some of the villains of the Sub-Saharan dystopia. He calls the war criminal Charles Taylor a misunderstood leader. He fondly recalls hobnobbing with despots and their ministers, attending lavish parties at their instance, and being driven in bulletproof jeeps into jungles and battlefields by paranoid dictators.

Through My African Eyes also pays tribute to the memory of journalists and cameramen who died in the fields of war: Myles Tierney, felled by a deluge of bullets in Freetown; Dan Eldon and Hos Maina, knifed to death on the streets of Mogadishu; Mohammed ‘Mo’ Amin who went down with a hijacked plane. Behind-the-scenes tales of courage, of near-deaths and ill timing provide insights into the price of a story and the motivations of those who seek it. Koinange concludes after mourning his dead colleagues that ‘no story was worth dying for’.

Two stories in the autobiography offer a break from the type of gloomy reportage characteristic of the coverage of Africa in the early 2000s. Paul Kagame’s effort at rebuilding an inclusive Rwanda in the wake of the genocide of 1994 is a rare flash of leadership in a world beset by parochialism and vindictiveness. Dr Dennis Mukwege Mukengere’s work in Bukavu bound the bodies and hearts of rape victims in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

Whether Koinange indeed tells his stories through African eyes is debatable. His fascination with all things American is barely concealed. The reader confirms the colonisation of Koinange’s psyche in the many pages of America-worship. He was naturalised as an American citizen at a time when Kenya had no provision for dual citizenship. He justifies that decision saying it is because of the ‘unrealistic entry procedures into most airports around the world that Africans are subjected to’.

In his American accent and perhaps in the Americanisation of his name, from Geoffrey to Jeff, one sees the heart of an African child with a lot to prove, with a craving for acceptance and validation by the West. He used his black skin to gain access to African stories previously shut to foreigners. Unfortunately, he has only an American sensibility with which to relate these stories to the world.

On the personal front, we get a glimpse of his first marriage to Sonya, a Panamanian, which ended in 1994 because they ‘grew apart’. The book captures the anxieties of childlessness and the eventual happiness at the birth of his long-sought child with his second wife, Shaila.

Koinange glosses over the circumstances of his departure from CNN with a flippant sentence concerning a sex scandal. This infamous affair, involving an allegation of date rape and a 66-year-old grandmother, Marianne Briner, is largely believed to be the reason he left CNN. Considering how much detail, most times unnecessary, that he gives about the lives of his colleagues and friends, one would have thought that Koinange would use his autobiography to tell it all and inter these allegations in a deep grave.

One does not come away from this autobiography with a feeling of having read a thousand stories masterfully woven into one. The modesty of African-ness absent, the autobiography reads for the most part like self-adulation and preening – admittedly, there is a thin line between self-confidence and arrogance. One learns of Koinange’s Emmy and Peabody awards, his friendship with Madiba, his prodigal-son relationship with Olusegun Obasanjo, and wonders what the vainglory adds to the story.

Mr Koinange reached high: from a perfect GP in community college to a scholarship to New York University, from the back seat in NBC to the front lines, in Sierra Leone, in Afghanistan, he sought and still seeks immortality. He may not have a city named after him like another journalist, Henry Morton Stanley, once had but he undoubtedly is a ceiling breaker in his industry.

Photograph: ‘Busted’ by Jan Truter

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Tunji Olalere
Tunji Olalere
Tunji Olalere writes from Lagos.

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