[An interview with]

Michela Wrong

Sep 24, 2011

‘Use a condom’, and ‘Don’t eat any salads’. I think that’s the best advice you can give anyone in Africa. “

After nearly 19 years reporting on some of the most dire situations in Africa, it’s great to see that British journalist and author Michela Wrong still has a sense of humour. 
As a journalist for top-ranked news agencies such as Reuters, the BBC, and the Financial Times, Wrong has covered a significant part of the world. However, and quite by accident, she has developed into an expert in East African affairs. She’s covered: war and politics in the Congo, corruption in Kenya, a post-genoicde Rwanda, and the oft-forgotten small nation of Eritrea; amongst many other stories, and countries.
The outcome of Wrong’s extensive coverage has led her to author three critically acclaimed books:

1) In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo (2001)
2) I Didn’t Do It For You: How the world betrayed a small African nation (2005)
3) It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower (2009) 

All three books were influential, and important for African history. The first, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz won Michela Wrong the PEN James Sterne award for non-fiction, and advanced the analysis of the DRCs complex history. The second, I Didn’t Do It For You, told the story of the tiny, and generally ignored country of Eritrea. She was, and still remains, one of the only people to write a comprehensive history of the nation. The third, It’s Our Turn to Eat, told the story of John Githongo, a Kenyan man who exposed corruption high up in the Kenyan government. This book has continued to educate the world on the problems that still exist in Kenya regarding corruption.

In May of 2011 I had the privilege of speaking with John Githongo, and knew then that I would love the opportunity to speak with the woman who had the courage to tell his story. 

With a wealth of knowledge on key African issues, there is much I WANNA KNOW from Michela Wrong. 

I had the pleasure of speaking with Michela Wrong from her home in London, England. 

From Eritrea, to the controversy her work has created, to being a female journalist, to the misconceptions of Africa, to a warning about salads, we cover it all. 

Ryan Kohls: You are one of the few journalists/authors to write a book on Eritrean history. Can you tell me a little bit about the journey that led you to writing; “I Didn’t Do It For You?”
Michela Wrong: Yes, it’s a fairly specialised interest. When I was researching it the only book on Eritrea I could find in ordinary bookshops was Dan Connell’s “Against All Odds” – and that came out in 1993. There was also a book by Justin Hill, who had been a teacher in Eritrea, and that was it at the time.
The reason I decided to write that book was that I had been to Eritrea reporting for the Financial Times and I found it peculiarly intriguing and gripping and compelling, in part because I’m half Italian and Italy’s colonial imprint can still be felt. But the book was really conceived as a reaction to “In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz”, my book about Congo, which was pretty dark. I wanted to find a more optimistic story to tell about Africa and at that time, Eritrea looked like the polar opposite of Congo. This was a country that had a very clear sense of its own destiny and knew exactly what it didn’t want to do. The Eritreans had turned their backs on colonial and superpower influences. They didn’t want to play the aid game. That all seemed very refreshing after writing about Mobutu.
While I was researching the book, Isaias Afewerki began arresting his critics in government and the slow slide began and I realised that because I’d been out of the country I hadn’t fully registered the importance of changes taking place. So you could say that the book was the result on an original misapprehension.
But I’m very glad I wrote it, and I remain as engaged as I can be with what’s going on in Eritrea, given that the last time I applied for a visa I wasn’t granted it. The book is not sold there, you can’t buy it in Asmara.
RK: There was quite a strong reaction to the book. Many Ethiopians seem to believe you supported a very pro-Eritrean side of history, and disagree with your analysis. What kind of reactions have you encountered?


MW: I’ve had varying reactions from Ethiopians, actually, and I was very intrigued recently to discover that it’s on sale in a bookshop in Addis Ababa, which I hadn’t anticipated.
But that reaction doesn’t dismay me. Prior to writing that book I had gone to SOAS, and looked up all the books in its library on the Horn of Africa. And all of the ones I could find, dating back to the 19th century, the Empire, and Haile Selassie, were written from an entirely Ethiopian perspective. I was quite consciously writing a history that was trying to right that imbalance. I wasn’t trying to be even-handed, because I don’t think history has been even-handed with Eritrea. I think it was about time to see that opposing perspective, which is what you get in Eritrea. I didn’t see too many places – apart from Connell – where that was recorded. If Ethiopians say it’s vision is biased towards Eritrea, well, that was exactly the point.


RK: Eritrea seems to be in a tragic place in its history. Many in the media are beginning to call it a “failed state.” Do you agree with this analysis?

Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki. He’s been in power since Eritrea’s independence in 1993.

MW: I would never use that phrase to describe Eritrea. I think it’s a state that functions very efficiently, it just happens to be police state very few of us would want to live in. There’s currently speculation over whether there has been any famine in Eritrea, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if people aren’t going hungry, because this is a very efficiently run country. There’s been a huge amount of work put into the roads, dams, bridges and hospitals; the government oversees the distribution of basic commodities. The country is run on a very tight rein. But hundreds of thousands of young Eritreans don’t want to live there, because they don’t have any personal freedoms – aren’t free to decide, for example, what to do when they finish school, it’s all decided by the state. When I hear the phrase “failed state” I think of places like Somalia where you don’t have anything approaching effective government, in Eritrea you certainly do.


RK: A lot of Eritrea’s post-colonial destiny has been shaped by the leadership of Isaias Afewerki. Do you see him as a benevolent dictator, or do you believe he is willingly leading his country to ruin?


MW: I think the phrase “benevolent dictator” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. I don’t think dictators can be a benevolent. They may seem that way to the West for a bit, but in the long term it’s another matter. I think Afewerki has run a pretty destructive foreign policy for Eritrea. To meddle and support the rebel groups  active in all your neighbouring states and to be seen as the friend of terrorist organizations is not good diplomacy. Supporting rebel movements with Islamic affiliations was always going to alienate America, so that was a major mistake. He’s isolated his country, made a series of blunders, and the population is paying the price.


RK: I had the pleasure of speaking with John Githongo recently, and heard about his trials and tribulations since leaking the corruption scandals in Kenya. I was wondering what impact the book has had on your personal life in terms of safety and ability to travel?


MW: This book created a furore I hadn’t anticipated when writing it. I was very aware that most of the book’s content was already in the public domain. The revelations about Anglo-Leasing had already been in the newspapers in great detail. I was taken aback by the fuss, amazed to find out that the book can only be bought under the counter in Kenya. I think it’s an exaggerated reaction, especially since John Githongo is living back in Kenya, which shows there’s nothing in the book that’s going to bring down the regime. But I think certain books just acquire an aura of being hot, controversial and dangerous. 

Githongo and Wrong in London

A number of people told me it would not be good for my personal safety to travel there immediately after publication, so I stayed away for a while and when I did go back I did the sensible things: stayed with friends, kept moving around. When I spoke at a book festival in Nairobi people in the audience said they had assumed I’d been declared persona non grata. But I’ve been granted a visa there twice in the last six months and I’m sure I won’t be denied it in future. In the eyes of the public it will probably remain a “hot” book, however. I don’t think any Kenyan would want to be seen reading it in public.


RK: Despite the overwhelming evidence of mass corruption in Kenya, little progress has been made. Why do you think the publicly known, large-scale corruption is only getting worse?


Kenyan Anti-Corruption Commission’s Director, Patrick Lumumba.

MW: You’ve got to look at who’s running the country. You have a transition government that was set up after extremely violent elections as the result of a deal done between two political elites. These are not fresh politicians who came in with the goal of changing things.There’s no interest in clearing up corruption. The Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission’s recent dissolution was absolutely predictable. It was clear that its director, Patrick Lumumba, was going through the motions when it came to the big corruption scandals.


The people who run Kenya now are preparing for the next election, during which they hope to win power for a considerable number of years, and they are looting the economy, building up their war chests, in preparation for that contest. I don’t see anyone in a political position having any interest in do anything about corruption.


RK: That’s quite discouraging.


MW: Yes, it is. There’s no traction at the moment. You can have people stand up and denounce corruption, but you still have a very ethnically polarized contest for power that hasn’t changed since my book came out. When politicians denounce corruption what they’re really doing is denouncing corruption by other, rival ethnic groups.


RK: Can you tell me a little bit about your journey that led you into journalism?


MW: I had a very classical journalist career in that I did a journalism postgraduate course in Cardiff, Wales. Then I joined Reuters. They were always interested in people with foreign languages and I spoke French, Italian and Spanish so that made me someone they were interested in.  I worked for them for nearly 10 years, in various foreign postings.


RK: I’ve read that you sort of got into African journalism by chance. Is that true?


Michela giving a talk for TED in 2009.

MW: Yeah, it was a slow burn. You hear of situations where people say, “I went to Africa, and I fell in love and knew I was going to spend my life working there.” I had no idea I would be spending as much time as I have working on Africa. It was really just another posting. It’s been an unexpected turn in my career.


RK: Now that you’ve had a lengthy career living, and working in Africa, what do you believe are some of the biggest challenges reporting from the continent?


MW: One of the biggest challenges is almost always language. I was lucky because I had French; which worked in places like Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Ivory Coast. The basic tool of journalism is communication, so if you can’t talk to people, you can’t get their story. So I was glad to have the languages I had, but other ones, like Swahili or Portuguese, would have been very useful too.


RK: Are there any restraints you’ve encountered as a female journalist?


MW: I have done some work in the Middle East: the border between Turkey and Iraq and in Pakistan, briefly. I found it very difficult to work in those circumstances because you constantly have to watch what you wear, who you speak to, how you behave, remind yourself not to shake hands with men. I found it really tough.


That really hasn’t been an issue in many of the African countries I’ve worked in. As a woman you’re pretty free to work wherever you go. I think that’s partly why a disproportionate number of Western female journalists end up in Africa.
It’s really, really irritating to work in place where you have to cover your head, because a whole load of other things go along with covering your head. I found it oppressive.


RK: When I spoke with Al-Jazeera reporter, Peter Greste, he discussed tribalism as being the biggest misconception coming out of Africa. He saw it as a tool being used to simplify and misrepresent many of the problems facing Africa. What do you think is the biggest misconception outsiders have towards Africa?

Bob Geldof.

MW: I agree with him that it’s often done in a simplistic way, but I think you can also get distorted reporting when you try too hard to eliminate the tribal issue, too. The BBC is often very politically correct and tries to eliminate this element from its stories but in the process it removes a key characteristic. You’ll see a report from the slums which presents a clash as being rich vs poor, whereas it’s really about Kikuyu landlords and Luo tenants. If you take that bit out and say it’s rich vs. poor you’ve completely misinterpreted the story.


What I would single out for criticism is the Western vision of Africa as a continent it has to save. It’s a perspective shaped by aid agencies, by the Bonos and the Geldofs of this world, acting with the best of intentions, but it’s very unhelpful and extremely patronizing. I think we’ve got to stop thinking that’s it’s up to rich Western people to save Africa.

RK: Do you believe that the job being done by major news sources on Africa is sufficient? What needs to be improved?


MW: Well, there is a lot of great journalism coming out of Africa, particularly in Kenya and South Africa. Nigeria’s media is not bad, either. But there is still a problem of a failure of confidence. And funding. A Kenyan newspaper will use Reuters, AFP or AP when they run items about other African countries, even if it’s news from their next-door neighbour. Africa isn’t covering itself yet; it’s relying on Western agencies to do that. That comes at a price, because what you then get is the viewpoint of Western journalists.
If you pick up a South African newspaper they won’t have anything about corruption in Kenya, for example, in their foreign news section. They’re far more interested in what’s happening in London, Switzerland, Washington and Israel. That’s a legacy of Africa’s colonial history. Africa has to find its own voice, it shouldn’t be looking at events through the eyes of CNN. Al-Jazeera is producing some really great coverage of Africa at the moment, but a lot of its English-language correspondents originally came from the BBC. There’s still not enough African coverage of Africa.
RK: Your job and the places you choose to cover are very dangerous. Do you find yourself feeling in danger often?
MW: The people who are exposed to the real danger – and I have lost some friends and colleagues – are always cameramen. They take the risks. I was lucky enough to be working for the Financial Times in Africa and they weren’t interested in frontline reports of bullets flying, they wanted analysis. That suited me just fine. I would never describe myself as a war correspondent.
I think I’m pretty cautious and careful. I have had the odd hair-raising incident; mostly in Kenya, bizarrely enough.
RK: What advice do you have for journalists who want to cover Africa?


MW: I would say: ‘Brush up your languages if you have any’.


What else would I say? ‘Take your malaria pills’, ‘Use a condom’, and ‘Don’t eat salads’. I think that’s probably the best advice you can give anyone in Africa.


RK: I hear you’re currently working on a novel. What’s the progress on that?


MW: Yeah, I’m doing that at the moment. I’m about half way through.


RK: Are you still reluctant to reveal what it’s about?


MW: (laughs) It’s set in the Horn of Africa, that’s as specific as I want to be.


1) check out here personal website: http://www.michelawrong.com/intro.html


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