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Author Podcast: Michela Wrong

abstract:

Michela Wrong spent†six years as a correspondent covering events in Africa for Reuters, the BBC, and The Financial Times† prior to writing her book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. Printed by Harper Perennial and on its second edition, it is a history of the Congo and President Mobutuís 32-year reign.† It has been heralded by The Economist as a book that is destined to become a classic.† She spoke with us from her home in London.

article:

April 05, 2006

THE INTERVIEW

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Part I: Dispatches from Africa

BB: Michela, thank you for speaking with us this morning.† I wanted to ask if you could tell us about your career as a foreign correspondent, and covering Africa for six years, and when you decided to write your book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz?

MW: Sure.† In fact, itís been thirteen years because that book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz is actually six years old, so Iíve been writing about Africa for thirteen years.† I began my life as a Reuterís correspondent, working for Reuters News Agency and I was posted to Rome, I was posted to Paris, and I was posted to Ivory Coast.† I then left Reuters, tried to work for a paper, and ended up being sacked, not for any reason except I was one of those waves of redundancies that sweep through the British press.† At that stage I was remembering my year in Ivory Coast and thinking how interesting I had found it, how invigorating it had been, and I had only done it for a brief year.†

So I decided at that stage to go to Zaire. It was called Zaire, now it's called Democratic Republic of Congo, and to set myself up as a stringer there, which means that youíre freelancing, you just get paid for each article you write.† That is what I did and thatís when I started getting really intrigued by Africa because I was one of only two international correspondents based in Kinshasa and youíre very much on your own, so youíre just doing the stories that interest you and youíre uncovering a place entirely on your own.†

It was the year 1994, so it was also the year of the Rwandan genocide so I was spending a lot of time across the border in Rwanda in the wake of the genocide.† That of course was such a fascinating and traumatic period to be covering that I found that I wanted to do more and more.† I moved to the Financial Times, I became their correspondent in Nairobi. †I did that for four years and the interest has really blossomed since then.† The problem with journalism is that you always want to write about things in a slightly deeper way; you donít really get a chance when youíre a journalist, so I decided to leave full-time journalism and started writing six years ago.

BB: How long did it take you to complete the book once you started?

MW: Well, "Mr. Kurtz" was a very fast experience.† It was the first book I had ever written and I was terrified that if I spent too long on it I would run out of money.† Nobody was paying my salary, I had never been without an employer, or somebody sending me paycheques, so I was under a huge amount of panicky pressure.† I wrote it in eleven months, which was very short, and now that Iíve done two books I realize what a short space of time that was.† But I was really tapping in, during this eleven months, to this six years of experience.† I had been going back to Kinshasa, I had covered the fall of Mobutu, I had covered the invasion of the AFDL, this rebel movement in the east, so it wasnít eleven months worth of research, it was really eleven months of writing up the knowledge accumulated during that time.

BB: So how was it that you came to be in Kinshasa, as you mentioned a few moments ago, as the rebel troops were coming in?† Was it a decision you made?

MW: Oh yes, very much.† I was in Nairobi at the time, I was working for the Financial Times along with all the other journalists there, and we were looking at what was happening with this rebel movement in the Congo.† It had started in the East, it had started moving across the country, it was largely walking across the country, and as it moved, villages were turning out to welcome these rebel troops, and the existing army troops of Mobutu, who had been defending and fighting these people, were just taking off their uniforms and joining in.†

So it became very clear that Mobutu was doomed.† He was dying of prostate cancer as well, which we all knew.† So we decided, as journalists, that we had to go there and cover the story.† But it was a matter of trying to time it so you didnít spend too long there, because itís a very expensive place, Kinshasa, and you tend to run out of money very quickly.†

So we thought we had got there the last week, so we would be there just in time for the fall.† And I remember flying there and thinking it would be just a matter of days.† Six weeks later Mobutu finally left, so it was quite a long wait.† But a fascinating time, of course, and quite a tense time because it wasnít clear what was going to happen.† In the end, it was one of the most peaceful rebel takeovers of an African city ever, but of course you didnít know that before hand.

BB: No, you couldnít know in advance, exactly.† In the beginning of your book you mentioned as you looked out the window from the hotel, seeing the troops pull up, and wondering what would lie ahead. It was very engaging.†

MW: Yes, and in the end, all of Mobutuís special presidential guards, his elite, the only people likely to fight for him by the end, they just decided to cut and run.† They had it all worked out, they changed out of their uniforms in the hotel where I was staying, and then they headed across the river, and it had all been prepared in advance, and we sort of suddenly realized that we had been staying in rooms next to these people who we had thought were just ordinary members of the Congolese middle classes. So that was quite amusing.

Part II: A Journalistís Perspective

BB:† So how do you determine your own personal safety-risk coefficient when youíre a journalist in the field?† What†is your criteria?

MW: Well, I had a very different experience from most people.† I worked for essentially a financial newspaper, the Financial Times, and they were absolutely hysterical at the thought that I would ever expose myself to any danger and they just didnít want me to do that kind of reporting, because anyway, you know, they didnít really want to hear what it was like for me to be crouching in a trench with bullets whizzing around my ears, their readers were very contemptuous of that kind of reporting.† So their instructions to me were, ďIf you think anything is dangerous, donít even think about doing it,Ē which was quite a nice position to be in, because I was under no pressure at all to do anything that I thought might be risky.†

The truth is, in places like Africa, the people who tend to be killed, and I have had friends and colleagues killed, and far too many for my liking, they tend to be cameramen because they have no choice.† They are young men usually, who have to go in, and they have to go up close, and they have to risk the bullets.† Theyíre the adrenalin junkies, and this is sort of what gets them going, and they are very brave, foolhardy young men, and a lot of them do die as a result.†

But if youíre working for a newspaper, you often simply donít need to see these things up close.† You need to talk to people, you need to hear people explaining to you what is going on, why things are happening, especially my newspaper which was concerned with why things were happening.† You donít get those things on the front lines, so you donít have to take those risks.†

The other major things that kill people in Africa are things like malaria and road accidents.† So if you take your malaria treatments, and you always make sure you have a decent driver, youíre probably doing the most sensible thing you can.

BB:† Thatís interesting advice.† Now you have interviewed Iím sure hundreds of people and I was wondering, do you keep in touch with any of them?

MW: Oh yes, I do.† I live in London now, but Iím constantly going backwards and forwards to Africa and doing a month here or there, often in Kenya, where Iím going to be writing my next book.† But the growth of the Internet has been a wonderful thing in Africa.† Even the most God-forsaken little village in the middle of Congo or the wilds of northern Kenya will often have a cyber net cafť.† This means you can keep in touch with people whom before, it was impossible to remain in contact with.†

The other great invention has been the mobile phone.† This has really opened up the continent, and it has meant that you can keep these ties going.† I have a few people who I help.† I kind of despair of the aid industry, and I have a few people who I send money back to in Congo, in Eritrea, where my last book was written about, and friendships, people who you just want to know what is going on with them.† The Internet has made this possible.

BB: Oh, thatís wonderful.† What is your impression of the current situation in the DRC today?† There is a historic demand and for, and elevated prices of copper and cobalt from Katanga Province, which has some of the worldís richest resources in those minerals.† The democratic election is scheduled for June, and there is a renewed sense of hope in the international community for restored stability in this region.† Youíve been on the ground.† What do you think?

MW: Well, I have to say I havenít actually been in DRCóIím going there in ten days timeóbut I havenít been there in quite a few years, so I just do what a lot of other people do, and I read what I see in the news agencies and I listen to the radio and I talk to people who have been there more recently than I have.

My concerns are, I think there is a huge amount of international goodwill to DRC, and a huge amount of aid money is going in, and its got the biggest UN force in the world operating there.† Certainly some very hopeful things have happened, these elections are coming up, thereís been an agreement on a new constitution, and we do have a government of national unity, which is made up of former rebel movements and the group that was controlling Kinshasa at the time.†

I think that I remain weary.† I desperately hope Congo is going to pull through.† My concern is that it has spent so many years divided down the middle virtually: with the government in Kinshasa controlling half of the country, and then various rebel movements scrapping over the rest.† I wonder if that period has now not been too long, and whether it can re-unite.†

I think there are practical things people should look at, because it doesnít matter how much aid goes into a country, itís a question of how it's being spent.† Really basic things like, all these rebel forces have supposedly been integrated into the army, but we hear this hasnít really happened; theyíre not really integrating.† We hear they are not being paid their salaries. Thatís very dangerous in Congo, because it means you could have a mutiny. †Are the teachers being paid, if not, why not?† Are the civil servants being paid?† I suspect they probably arenít.

There are some very practical things on the ground.† There are all these fantastic mineral resources; Congo remains the richest country in Africa in its potential.† Where are these mineral resources going?† Are they going back to the regions and benefiting ordinary people, or are they being stolen as they have so many times in the past?† I think often we hear lots about aid levels, and lots of grand talk from people in positions of power.† But I would really like to know whether on the ground, this is really having an impact, and Iím skeptical at the moment.

Part III: Africa: Looking Ahead

BB: Iíve been reading Jeffery Sachsí book, The End of Poverty, and he is obviously a fabulous economist, and a person with tremendous experience around the world, and he is optimistic, but I think with some realistic approaches.† Have you read that book, can you comment?

MW: I have to say, Iíve just ordered it and I havenít yet read it.† From what I hear about it, Iím a little skeptical.† I find his plans seem to be very grandiose for Africa.† He has a model project heís running in Kenya, and I remember hearing him speak.† I was working in Kenya at the time.†

He was saying how the west could easily afford to place a free national health service in Kenya, and I thought, ďWell in my country, my government is struggling to provide British taxpayers with service, will we really be able to take on Kenyaís service?Ē† Somehow I doubt the readiness to do so here.†

I think the problem I have with his approach, from the sound of it, is that there is a sort of feeling of Ďwe can save Africaí and I get slightly jittery when I hear people talk like that. I think Geldof speaks in these terms, so does Bono, and the whole Gleneagles approach at that G-8 summit, ďIf we can only be generous enough, if we can spend more money, then we can save the continent.Ē† And I think, you know, it's not really clear that anything weíve done in the past has helped, it might be making it worse.† I think Will Easterlyís book, White Manís Burden, which has just come out makes that argument. It is a very interesting counterpoint to Sachsí book.† I think the idea that the only thing wrong in Africa is that we, the West, are not being generous enough, I think thereís something wrong with that argument.†

BB:† Yes, you did speak in your book to the national perception in Africa as a fatalistic society†that looks to other people to solve their situation.† I think education as you pointed out, and forward progress in taking control of their own government institutions and education policiesÖ

MW:† Yes, and I think that is what is going to happen.† The interesting thing is to watch the African diaspora, it's enormous.† In your country, in my country itís a very aspirational diaspora, it's very educated, experienced, multi-lingual. But the question is whether those people, who are sending money back day-in, day-out to their countries and their communities, and already doing a huge amount to help that continent, I wonder whether they will also go back themselves and give their brainpower back to the continent which desperately needs it?†

I think we are seeing that in some places like Liberia where Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is a member of that diaspora.† We need to see a whole generation of people doing that very actively, and I believe those people will save Africa, not Westerners contributing aid from over here.

BB: Right.† Now what are you working on currently?

MW: My next book is going to be about Kenya, and itís going to be about the corruption issue in Kenya and the fight against corruption in Kenya.† It's going to be focusing in part on a very remarkable man called John Githongo, who is the anti-corruption czar, who used to work for the current Kenyan government.† That government came in replacing Daniel Arap Moi and saying it was going to sweep away grass and sleaze and start again, and it was going to be whiter than white.†

What John Githongo found was that this was very far from being the case.† He found out so many nasty, sleazy secrets that he had to flee into exile and he is now living in Britain, in Oxford.† I think his case really shows the issues and challenges facing Africa, not just Kenya.† You have a man who stood up and became a whistle-blower, and said, ďIím not personally going to join in this system and Iím not going to allow it to happen under my watch.Ē†

So heís a very interesting man, and I think what is happening in Kenya to this day is a very interesting test case, and probably an indication of what will happen in the future, where you have a public that is absolutely fed up and very angry with seeing the same old game, the same old sleazy business practices, the same old dirty deals being struck by people in government; and a government that is very antiquated, a lot of politicians are very old and are very used to doing things a certain way.† I donít think theyíre realizing that their voters and their public are very fed-up with all of this.

BB: Well, thank you Michela, I really appreciate you speaking with us today.† Your insights on the country, and the region, and the politics are just so unique.† Itís wonderful.

MW: Itís been a pleasure.

Books and Links

I Didn't Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation

Eritrea is virtually unknown to the Western world, and†yet its†history,†Michela writes, is a story "about [the Colonial] betrayal, repeated across the generations, and how the expectation of betrayal can both create an extraordinary inner strength and distort a national psyche."†Allow this veteran correspondent to guide you through Africa - one country at at time.

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