John Reader

John Reader was a photo-journalist based in Nairobi from 1969 to 1979. Africa: A Biography of the Continent is out from Penguin.

Scram from Africa

John Reader, 16 March 2000

Tom Mboya, a leading minister in the Kenyan Government and widely spoken of as the man who would succeed President Jomo Kenyatta, was shot dead on a Nairobi street on Saturday, 5 July 1969. Mboya, whom Keith Kyle describes in this excellent book as ‘one of the most gifted leaders modern black Africa has yet produced’, belonged to Kenya’s second most powerful ethnic group, the Luo. The man arrested for killing him (a soldier who had undergone special forces training in Bulgaria) came from Kenya’s most powerful ethnic group, the Kikuyu. He was tried, found guilty on entirely circumstantial evidence and executed. During his trial the accused man referred pointedly to ‘big men’, and many felt they should have been picked up and questioned about their role in the killing. The ‘big men’ were not identified, however, though few doubted that it was a political assassination, and pundits warned that widespread violence between Luo and Kikuyu would follow ‘as surely as the tick bird follows the rhino’. Tribalism was about to give a demonstration of Africa at its most savage – and the world’s media flocked to Kenya.

Clipping Their Whiskers: slavery

John Reader, 28 October 1999

I have three daughters and could have sold them several times over in the places I have visited where slavery in some form or other is still customary practice. Most recently in Timbuktu, for instance, on an evening stroll beyond the confines of the town, tramping through the dunes with my Tuareg informant, Mohamed Ali, while a camel train trudged by with a load of gravestone-sized slabs of salt from the mines at Taoudeni. We were talking about our families, and I showed Mohamed a photograph of my youngest daughter on a pony, taken when she was 15. He immediately offered 200 camels for her, with or without the pony, assuring me she would be happy and well cared for as his second wife in Araouane, an oasis 250 kilometres north of Timbuktu, where she would join his first wife as an honoured member of the extended family. Timbuktu itself would not be a good place for her to stay, he explained, because in Timbuktu all women eventually become bandy-legged – which I assumed was an oblique way of telling me that females in urban areas cannot be trusted to observe moral etiquette.

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