Special Feature

Sir Mohinder Dhillon, ‘Mo’ to his friends, was a remarkable Kenyan. From an unschooled village lad in the Punjab, India, to becoming a world-famous frontline news cameraman; his life story is the stuff of legends. Official photographer to Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia; a near fatal helicopter crash on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro; coverage of the horrific Ethiopian Famine 1984-86; a bone-chilling escape from a firing squad in the Congo; filming Africa’s bruising independence struggles and war situations in Vietnam, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan; dining with Charlie Chaplin; a bizarre association with the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin …. truly the stuff of legends!

And just as amazing are the qualities of this ‘gentle giant’ behind the camera: humble; courageous; generous; caring – a fighter for social justice; chivalrous; erudite; …. these are just some of the accolades friends have used to describe Mo.

We at AwaaZ would like to collect and record the thoughts and sentiments of Mo’s friends in Nairobi to whom he gave so much in one way or another. The national and international acclaim will be widely available. Fortunately he has also left us a memoir – the 3-part trilogy, My Camera, My Life and there is to be a posthumous publication titled Witness to History – an exciting pictorial anthology of pre- and post-independence East Africa.

We thank these friends for their prompt response to our request, and especially to the Kenya Asian Forum for its solidarity and unanimity over the years.

Go well, gentle giant, go well.

Child of Asia, who grew up to be a true son of Africa, and a man of the world; who valued humanity and had the biggest heart; whose wit and joy was cloaked in a gentle spirit that redefined the term ‘gentleman’. Knight of Imperial Ethiopian Order of St Mary of Zion, you were born in India, became Kenyan through migration and chose to love Kenya as home.

You will be missed. Deeply. We who loved you and were privileged to know you will miss you, even as we cherish the legacy of history and visual and verbal archives you left us.

My favourite memory of you... the joyful privilege it was to spend time reading through and then talking to you about your amazing autobiography. It was like stepping into a time-machine that zipped me straight back into time. And here you were as my guide, taking me with you from the humblest of beginnings to touring the world as the personal photographer of The Emperor Haile Selassie. From the war zones of the world, to the hearthstones of the homes that made you who you were. That night for the book launch we didn't stop talking until I stepped out of the car - you insisted on personally making sure I got home, and the stories kept coming until that very last moment.

Shukrani mzee. May those you loved so deeply who went before welcome you to that next phase of life with joyful celebration. Go well.

Mshai Mwangola

When I first worked with Mohinder Dhillon in 1990, he was a world-renowned photojournalist in the golden years of his career. We were filming for the United Nations in Uganda, traversing the foothills of the Ruwenzoris to record child vaccinations in tiny rural villages. I was a young documentary director, fresh from the BBC. He was in his late fifties but physically fitter than many colleagues half his age. The favoured format at the time was 16mm film, a cumbersome medium with which to work in torrid conditions, requiring a change of reel every ten minutes and the transportation on foot of countless aluminium boxes carrying this or that essential accessory.

But Mohinder was like a duck in water. Having started out with the still more unwieldy 35 mm format, he never let a minute go to waste, negotiating all the time with subjects – frequently squealing infants, and on one occasion a young woman in labour – as though he were a kindly uncle who would never compromise their dignity for a cheap shot. It was the start of a relationship that would see me work with Mohinder on dozens of occasions all over Africa, before age and infirmity finally caught up with him.

Mohinder’s career spanned half a century, beginning with stills work for Kenyan newspapers in the 1950s, and ending not long after the murderous bomb blast that shook Nairobi in August 1998. Within this timeframe, he covered the Ethiopian Famine, the Vietnam War, and Britain’s last stand at Aden among many events that shaped the second half of the twentieth century.

He was never formally trained in his craft, but what he lacked in technical finesse was more then offset by his extraordinary physical courage, and he filmed in some of the world’s most volatile hotspots at considerable danger to his life on countless occasions. Despite his international reputation, he remained modest to a fault, his shy demeanour accentuated by a stammer that left him ill at ease in front of the camera himself. 

Mohinder was always far more than a camera operator. To the end of his life, his legendary compassion kept him busy on his computer, frequently expressing his heartfelt views on the state of humanity to all and sundry. In an age when retirement frequently amounts to a second career, he became an author, recording his memoirs in copious detail in the three volume book, My Camera, My Life. A second, much shorter book, Witness to History, was just being completed when Mohinder passed away.

As a man, Mohinder defied categorisation. With colleagues and friends from all over the world, he was the quintessential global citizen, long before that concept gained common currency. His philosophy of life was driven by the notion that a human being was not really living unless they lived for other people. It was a maxim that governed every day of his life, to the end.

Richard Vaughan

I met Uncle Mo in the run up to the constitutional referendum and we immediately hit it off. Although we were 40 years apart in age I am privileged to have been able to call this wonderful man...'my friend'. We caught up whenever we got a chance and hung out and of course he laughingly bullied me and I bullied him right back. Over the past 10 years of our friendship I attended and danced at his son's wedding and he counselled me through the passing of one of my dearest friends. He has always had time for me, was always patient and supportive. As I continue to recall and reflect on our endless conversations, debates and discussions I can only hope and pray that I was as good a friend to him and to others as he was to me.

Attiya Warris

An understated accolade in English is to describe a man as a thoroughly decent chap. Mohinder Dhillon was one such. I should lead the reader to his autobiography, in which he describes our meeting on a film set in 1987. We are the Children was shot in Northern Kenya, yet another initiative to raise money in order to help the victims of the Ethiopian Famine. Mo was assigned to chronicle the experience on camera. For the sake of anecdote, it featured Ted Danson (read Cheers), Zia Mohyeddin (read Lawrence of Arabia), Ally Sheedy (of The Breakfast Club), Stefan Kalifa (a Bond villain) and Judith Ivey (a Tony Award winner). I played the local primary school teacher, unsuitably clad in coat, sweater and tie, despite the stifling heat. Mo took time to come and tell me he was proud that I was more than holding my own in such distinguished company. There was no need for him to do that. Thereafter, I narrated for his company, Africapix. And we met, on and off, at various social functions, having conversations of varying length. But it was my virtual encounter with Mo, as reviewer of his autobiography for Awaaz, which confirmed the qualities I had long suspected. Supreme amongst them was a complete absence of rancour or vindictiveness, allied to undeniable courage, an unquenchable zest for life and an essential humanity. Mo was proof, if proof were needed, that it is within us all to become more than the sum of our parts.

John Sibi-Okumu

I joined the Dhillon household in 1985 as a casual labourer in the garden. I was 27 years old. At the end of the month Mzee and Mama Ambi asked me to stay on. Some months on the house-maid left the job so I was asked to replace her. Mzee’s father came to visit us from India, he was very friendly, we got on well. He said I was ‘hard-working’ and taught me how to cook. Mama Ambi encouraged me to get married which I did. Mzee used to travel a lot so I did not see much of him. In one of his safaris he was badly injured and was brought back to Kenya in a plane; I was shocked to see that he could not walk. I decided I would help him to walk again. I massaged and exercised him and fed him good nutritious food and after a year he was able to walk.

I got to know Mzee well – he was the kindest and most generous man I have ever known. I left his employment in 2014 to care for my mother after my father died. Mzee was like a father to me – that is why I had to come for his funeral. I shall miss him.

Peter Mulelu

It is not possible to speak of such a colossus, an icon of humanity with mere words. The sense of loss is immense, because a library, a museum and an archive of human being-ness has left us. There is an ineffable something gone in a man who could be described in the old sense of a man’s man; one who lives, or strives to live by high values, who roars - to the end - against any form of injustice, a lover of humanity and of nature, a giant in heart and spirit who hungered to know, to understand. Who was not too lofty to be corrected, to be redirected, and to try something new. We shared intense moments as he started the drafting of his memoir, learned things of the heart, of the shadows as he revealed his humanity. I asked about the things humans ask about: how do you forgive? How do you rise above the wounds of life? How do you still choose humanity? His large eyes, his gentle stutter, his subtle shrug, the slight twinkle: I-I am human, as you are. It was a benediction, it sounded like a calling. Cherished Mo… I watched them roll your body on the gurney towards the door behind which the fire lit for you waited to receive you. I heard you say; this too, this is human. I am still learning, my dear Elder. I will not suggest that you rest in peace; that would bore you to death. However, travel well, travel wild and give the forces that disorder existence hell. Your legacy is assured, for you are sheltered in at least a thousand human hearts.

Yvonne Owour

For the full publication and more kindly use the link below:

By Ali Zaidi

My wife is black, beautiful and strong. I was born and grew up in India, and am none of the above. My wife is a Sculptor. Her name is Irene Wanjiru she makes big, bold, fierce carvings in wood. When she attacks a virgin log with an adze, you had better stand back as the chips fly. She rocks back on her heels, adze flung back as far as her arms will stretch, then slams it down into the wood in a swooping arc that takes your breath away. Poetry in motion, violent and alive!

My wife cannot sit still. She loves to work - the harder and more demanding the work the better. Having brought up three children under the usual circumstances - never enough money for their needs, essential purchases always being put off till the end of the month, husband always in the bar - she became restless and did a modest catering business for a few months.

But she soon found that while you can take a pound of love and cook it in the stew if you are doing it for family and friends, it just isn’t fun cooking for total strangers. Then she discovered sculpture more or less by accident, enrolling in a workshop in the Kuona studio in Nairobi’s National museum.

Karim Hirji comments on `Babri Masjid: A Case of Criminal Trespass’ (Awaaz Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 3) by Nandita Haksar

By Karim Hirji

The Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India was built five hundred years ago under the first Moghul emperor, Babur. What, if any, structure had stood at the site? Was it a Hindu temple? A year-2003 report by the Archeological Survey of India supports the case that the site was home to an ancient temple. Other archeologists dispute this finding. Yet, these are not just academic questions: they lie at the heart of Hindu-Muslim relations in India today.

After a Hindu extremist mob illegally demolished the mosque in 1992, the issue landed in the courts. The long legal battle culminated in November 2019, when the Indian Supreme Court issued a ruling reserving the entire site for a Hindu temple. In effect, the Court endorsed the claim of an ancient Hindu temple existing at the site. Was it a just ruling, based on evidence and constitutional law? Or was it a politically driven, lop-sided decision?

In an article entitled `Babri Masjid: A Case of Criminal Trespass’ (Awaaz Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 3) Nandita Haksar presents a strong case that the Supreme Court verdict set aside available evidence and repudiated its constitutional mandate - in a secular, democratic nation - to render judgments not influenced by religious or political considerations. The ensuing miscarriage of justice does not, in her view, bode well for interreligious harmony in India and the region.

The Babri Mosque has been a flashpoint for ignition of serious conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India and its neighboring states for two centuries. Haksar is appropriately cognizant of its social import. However, her article focuses unduly on legalistic analysis, does not attend to the fundamental function of law and courts in society, gives a circumscribed overview of the socio-historic context, and projects the dubious view that a single event or ruling can determine the course of regional and national history. While granting that India did make significant progress towards realizing democratic norms and practices, viewing the issue simply in the framework of the `world’s greatest democracy’, obscures the play of relevant structural factors. The Supreme Court ruling together with the recent trends in Hindu-Muslim relations in India cannot be understood without addressing these points.

Lai Brown, The National Organising Secretary of the Automobile, Boatyards and Technical Equipment and Allied Staff Union (AUTOBATE), an affiliate of the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria.

On 21 June 2019, the ILO Convention C190 against Violence and Harassment, and accompanying Recommendation R206 were adopted at the International Labour Conference (ILC). These new international labour conventions received record votes at the ILC, demonstrating an overwhelming consensus for a world of work free of violence and harassment.

While the convention was voted for by representatives of the workers, governments and employers, it is important to understand that popular actions precipitated the adoption of C190 and R206. These were organized by ordinary working-class people, particularly women in workplaces, communities and on the streets, who demonstrated through their actions that they would no longer tolerate harassment, and violence against them.

There were widespread protest movements which advanced the fight against sexual harassment, putting this on the front burner of global public opinion in 2017. A clear outcome of this was the #MeToo Movement in which a looming figure, Harvey Weinstein who has just been found guilty and jailed, was shown for the monster he is, as unfortunately many other predators with power are. History is not simply made by institutions; rather people make institution and history.

Nandita Haksar: ‘We do not seem to realize that the cultural diversity of 220 communities in the Northeast is a resource for development’

A jumble of assertions has engulfed India over the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and plans for a National Register of Citizens (NRC). Similarly, the normally harmless exercise of updating the National Population Register (NPR) has now become controversial.

A majoritarian government with a brute majority in Parliament seems to have plunged the country into social turmoil of a kind not witnessed in the past six decades. Students are up in arms on the most docile of campuses and middle-class folk have been holding protests in the streets.

Civil Society spoke to Nandita Haksar on what to make of these developments. A civil rights lawyer, activist and a close observer of life and politics in the Northeast, Haksar’s is a clear and knowledgeable voice. Excerpts from a lengthy conversation at her home in Dona Paula in Goa where Haksar now lives with her husband, Sebastian M. Hongray, an author, human rights activist and a Naga.

As a human rights activist who has worked extensively in the Northeast on people’s rights, how do you see CAA-NRC-NPR? 

As a human rights lawyer I have one major  concern  which goes beyond the current debates on the NRC in the Northeast or for the country as a whole.

The census has always been about collecting information for the purpose of governance and control over population. The old census was a part of data collection; the new kind of census using new technologies (mainly based on artificial intelligence) leads to the creation of metadata. Edward Snowden has shown us how metadata is being used for worldwide surveillance. And he has also demonstrated how dangerous it is for citizens because there is no legal framework in place for the protection of individuals (or nations) who are victims of breach in data security.

Coming to the Northeast, we have seen how the collection of data for the NRC led to disenfranchisement of thousands of men, women and children and illegal detentions, families torn apart and people living with fear, insecurity and uncertainty.

There is no legal framework for redress of the grievances of the magnitude that we have seen with the NRC in Assam. There is no remedy for the 1.9 million people left out of the NRC in Assam except to approach lawyers individually and, till their turn comes, endure endless pain, insecurity and humiliation.

Courts are equipped to deal with individual violations of fundamental rights, not with violations on this massive scale.

As far as the Northeast is concerned, I have three or four things to say.

I first went to the Northeast in 1982. I remember the first petition filed by someone in Manipur against Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Half that petition was on the issue of Nepali migrants. It is true that India has a special agreement with regard to Nepali migrants but, from the perspective of Northeast tribal communities whether it is Nepali Hindu, Bangladeshi Hindu or Muslim or Chakma Buddhists, all these migrants threaten the fragile ecology and diversity of cultures in the Northeast.

In India many people in civil society have refused to acknowledge the problem as the tribal peoples of the Northeast see it. The problem is simply this: many communities feel endangered by relentless migration from across the international border.

In 2011 my husband and I decided to drive across the Northeast for four months. We touched on all the borders. When we went to the Bangladesh border we could see people streaming in. While I feel deep empathy for migrants who are forced to leave their homes because of religious persecution, climate change, or economic deprivation, we also need to balance their interests with the interests of citizens. I see it as a conflict between human rights and humanitarian concerns.

However, the non-tribal communities living in the Northeast have other concerns. The Muslims living in the Northeast have faced discrimination and prejudice. They have also been targets of violence, the most well-known example is the Nellie massacre. But in Nagaland we saw how brutal and savage an attack on Muslims can be when Nagas lynched an alleged Bangladeshi and murdered him on suspicion of rape but did not so much as protest against a pastor from Kerala who had been involved in the rape and sexual assault of children under his care in Jaipur.

Apolitical Intellectuals

Volume 17, Issue 1 | Published 08/07/2020  

One day
the apolitical
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.

They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out slowly,
like a sweet fire
small and alone.

No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats with ‘the idea
of the nothing’
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.

By Felistus Mwalia, Programme Officer for the Route to Food Initiative

The use of pesticides in Kenya, gives Kenyans reason to question the safety of food. Research has shown that there are products on the market that have proven chronic health effects and negative environmental impacts (RTFI, 2019). The rise in cancer cases, different allergies and other non-communicable diseases can be attributed to the country’s food system, which is increasingly dependent on agro-chemical inputs. The drive to ensure food security has perhaps overtaken concerns on the quality and safety of our food. Government interventions are mainly focused on food production – increasing the quantity of food available – neglecting important aspects of food quality.

Farmers in Kenya, the majority of whom are smallholders who consistently produce more than 70% of the food we eat, are promised higher yields with the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Depending on external inputs for production is capital-intensive and not environmentally sustainable, meaning it is not well suited to Kenya’s smallholder farming context. Of particular concern is the toxic effects of some of the pesticides on non-target organisms and users.

Agriculture accounts for about 24% of Kenya’s GDP with an estimated 75% of the population working in the sector either directly or indirectly. As an agricultural economy and while  promoting mainly conventional agriculture, Kenya’s demand for pesticides is relatively high and steadily increasing. In 2018 Kenya imported 17,803 tons valued at $128million. These pesticides are an assortment of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, fumigants, rodenticides, growth regulators, defoliators, proteins, surfactants and wetting agents. Of the total pesticide imports, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides account for about 87% in terms of volume and 88% of the total cost of pesticide imports (AAK, 2018).

It’s remarkable that the volume of imported insecticides, herbicides and fungicides has more than doubled within four years from 6,400 tons in 2015 to 15,600 tons in 2018, with a growth rate of 144%. The increase in pesticide use requires necessary safe guards to control how they are applied. Safe guards include amongst other things, the provision of personal protection gear, training for farmers and local agro-vets on how pesticides should be used and adequate product labelling. The responsibility for ‘safe use’, is borne by both government agencies and manufacturers.

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By Njuki Githethwa, a Kenyan writer and Activist

The third of the series of the workshops held by the Review of African Political Economy, better known by the acronym of ROAPE took place on 26 and 27 November, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The workshop was held under the title: Resistance and Transformation in Africa: A Workshop for movements and activist – scholars.

A host of radical scholars and activists, most from Africa participated in this workshop. This paper is a reflection of the theme and content of this workshop.

Scholars as activists, activists as scholars

There are varied contestations whether the radicalism of movements, scholars and activists are similar. Can scholars be part of the movements for social justice while primarily located in the realms of academia? In other words, can scholars be radical without necessarily being active in social movements? Is there meaning for theory without active practice? Likewise is argued for radical activists. The futility of activism without a concrete theory underlying the activism and images of the alternative world they are struggling to create. The widely held consensus is that theory does not have meaning without practice, to paraphrase Marx, Lenin, Fanon, Cabral among others.  Likewise, activism is futile without being grounded in theory.

This is where vogue terms in movements theorizing and practices come into play. Of scholar activists for those whose field of play is academia but stretch out in activist struggles, the theory meeting practice. Of the activist scholars engaged in practical struggles but who dabble in scholarly study and discourses on social movements to understand and give meaning to their activism, practice meeting theory.

This is the convergence of the organic intellectual referred to by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian philosopher and political activist. Issa Shivji in his presentation titled, Metamorphosis of the revolutionary intellectual - elaborates on Gramsci’s concept of the organic intellectual: