It’s a dark and strange way to earn a living – in which you can die. If you survive, it is often prostrate on a pile of pills or swimming in an ocean of alcohol.
It is a painful story for one of Africa’s most accomplished journalists, Angus Shaw, to tell. It is also painful to listen to his excruciating experiences.
“A warzone produces two types of journalistic victims – one is shot at and injured or dies and the other type ends up screwed up in their brains,” says Shaw.
“I realized that you can’t drown your sorrows because your sorrows in most cases have learned how to swim. I try not to worry about things I cannot change and always remember that as a journalist my role is to shed light and not to bring change.”
Shaw had his own fight with alcohol. In covering wars in three decades, he says it was not all gloomy.
“People should know that the African story is not all about wars, poverty and savagery. Journalism for me has been enriching, rewarding, except financially,” he chuckles.
Shaw has been on the frontline in a string of Africa’s nastiest wars: Liberia, Rwanda’s genocide, Ethiopia, Somalia, two wars in Mozambique. In Zimbabwe, the country of his birth, he saw war as both a journalist and a conscript.
The story of the Shaw family is intertwined with a century of tumult in Africa. His grandfather came north from South Africa with the pioneer column in 1890. Settlers were looking for gold and diamonds but ended up farming. Shaw’s grandfather and father prospered in tobacco and lived the life of Riley.
“My father was part of the Salisbury Club and, like many of his peers, he drank hard and worked hard. Due to his drinking lifestyle one day he forgot to come and pick me up from school and only showed up late and drunk.”
Shaw senior also smashed his car into the Salisbury Club, a gentlemen’s club in Harare, after a few drinks with one wheel of his car landing in the hotel lobby. The authorities took his driver’s licence. So, he had to be driven later by his chauffer over 1,500 miles from his Miegunyah farm, 30 kilometers from Harare to Durban, for the Durban July horse race.
Along the way, Shaw’s father put money away for his son to choose between business or school. Shaw chose the latter and went to a minor public school in England.
“After a short stint in the United Kingdom, I returned to Southern Rhodesia, where I would start my journalism career at the Rhodesian Herald in 1970. Those days there were no journalism schools so one had to go for attachment,” he says.
Shaw was soon thrust into reporting the violent bush war leading up to Mozambican independence in 1975. When Samora Machel took over Mozambique, a civil war broke out that would last nearly three decades.
“In Mozambique we were traveling in the company of the Zimbabwean forces and UN peacekeepers. The Zimbabwean forces were mainly protecting their pipeline, while Samora Machel was fighting to keep control from the Renamo rebels.”
After Mozambique, the Rhodesian army drafted him to fight the guerrillas back home.
After he served his time in the rank, he left to interview nationalist exiles in Lusaka and Dar es Salaam. It was not easy.
“Every able bodied white man going through an airport needed to have a clearance,” he says.
“All of the nationalist leaders whose names are inscribed on roads in the capital, Harare, related to me on first name basis.”
They included Robert Mugabe, Josiah Tongogara and Simon Mazorodze.
“I first met Robert Mugabe when I had gone to the townships. I asked if I could interview him and he said he could only talk to me if I arranged a press conference for him in the city center, which I did.”
His experiences in his country’s war would lead to his first book- Kandaya, Another Time, Another Place.
When he moved on it was to the hell of Idi Amin’s Uganda.
“Kampala was on fire, the city was in ruins as there were bodies all over. What I saw made World War Two look elementary,” he says.
The 1978-79 Ugandan war pitted the Tanzanian liberation forces against Amin’s army.
“There were mass graves and as we accompanied the liberation forces to Luzira prison where opponents of Amin were caged, one could not fight back emotions. Prisoners were starved and in one of those prison cells, I threw up. It’s all about wealth, power and corruption,” says Shaw, whom many journalist friends believe is too ideological.
His memories of the Ugandan war would lead to his second book, written in a hotel room in London, Last To Kill, The Rise And Fall Of Idi Amin.
“I wrote the last chapter of this book in the plane to London. A limousine waited for me at Heathrow Airport and with Concorde the book was on its way the following day to New York. Four days later, the book was on sale.”
There was no stopping after Uganda.
“In 1979, I also went to cover the Somalia-Ethiopia war. This was a conventional desert war and because of a 16-hour drive on a tractor when one was injured, many died before they could reach medical services. The hum of trucks, tractors and aircrafts drowned the heat of the desert. Journalists were isolated as fighting forces didn’t want anyone outside to know what was happening,” he says.
Shaw returned to Somalia after a clan war broke out. This war almost took his life.
“This was during the famine relief efforts that turned nasty. There were Americans, Germans, Canadians and UN representatives. Americans took a lot of causalities and it’s the same war that Mujahedeen shot down an American Black Hawk,” he says.
Hollywood made a movie out of this, called Black Hawk Down. The reality was worse.
“Americans were sending bodies back home in body bags. One African American said to me ‘we came to help our brothers but they are shooting us’.”
Shaw says war reporting can be seductive as well as disruptive.
“I remember being in Nairobi and felt it strange not to hear any gunshots.”
“I was lucky not to be killed; it was dangerous that we had to always move with bodyguards. Out of seven foreign correspondents that were covering the clan war in Somalia, four died in the country.”
Then came Rwanda in 1994.
“I spent several months there, I saw nice people killing nice people. I cannot describe the experience,” he says.
Nearly a million people are believed to have died in this ethnic war in 100 days.
“The United Nations had burned their fingers in Somalia and when they sent peacekeepers in Rwanda, they didn’t send enough. We went to various massacre sights, in some places we saw people running through the bushes with machetes. In Rwanda we saw piles and piles of bodies.”
What Shaw saw in Rwanda would never leave him.
“I have never been a church person, when you see such horror; you look to the skies and ask God what’s going on. That is where I saw that human nature is imperfect,” he says.
After traveling and covering wars it was time to write about events in his country.
“Between 1988 and 1998 we experienced a lot of multicultural and multiracial relations. The country was prospering but as Mugabe started losing power, all that changed,” says Shaw.
Shaw survived war, but in peacetime Zimbabwe, he was arrested three times. Mugabe saw journalists as agents of the West and supporters of his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai. From his journalism experiences sprang a third book, Mutoko Madness, A Memoir Of Angus Shaw.
“Seven years ago, I went into rehabilitation after a friend convinced me to. I was taught to count my blessings.”
He also believes the changing nature of news gathering led to him being rendered redundant.
“The media has changed so much; I am an old newspaper guy. News agencies are having a hard time. You can’t write a story with 700 words. I like ink on my fingers.”
Shaw has proved this in the dangerous business of shedding light in Africa.