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My interest in Africa led me to journalism—Barnaby Phillips

What informed your decision to become a journalist?It was something that I drifted into, rather than a conscious decision. I was an undergraduate at Oxford,…

What informed your decision to become a journalist?
It was something that I drifted into, rather than a conscious decision. I was an undergraduate at Oxford, where I read Modern History. There were people at Oxford who had a burning desire to be a journalist from a young age, but I was not one of them. Because I wasn’t sure what to do next, I went on to London University (the School of Oriental and African Studies) where I did a master’s in African politics and history. I had an interest in Africa from the years I’d spent in Kenya as a child. Whilst I was doing that master’s, I met several people who worked in Bush House for the BBC World Service. They told me there were jobs going in the Africa Service, on the Focus on Africa and Network Africa programmes. I had also started writing for a magazine called ‘African Economic Digest’, which was based in London but part of the Concord Group, owned by the late Chief MKO Abiola. So I took my cuttings from ‘African Economic Digest’ to the BBC, and they were kind enough to offer me a job. I ended up staying there for 15 years. So it was my interest in Africa that led me into journalism, rather than the other way round.
Did your growing up in Kenya influence this interest in Africa?
Undoubtedly. Those years in Kenya influenced me, my brother and my parents very profoundly. We loved the beautiful scenery and natural wonders of East Africa. And we learnt about different peoples and cultures, and what connects us as human beings. My parents sent me to a Nairobi City Council, where I was in a very small minority as a white child. Most of the children were black Kenyans, and there were also many Indians. That was a very educative experience for a young boy from London. I like to think I will have a life-long affiliation with Africa, and it began in Nairobi in the 1970s.
In the 25 years you have been a journalist, what has been the most interesting story you’ve worked on?
I’ve had the opportunity to cover some very moving and significant stories: for example wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Darfur, the HIV Aids pandemic in Southern Africa, the election of President Obama in the United States, and the economic crisis in Europe. But the story that has brought me the most personal satisfaction is the tale of Isaac Fadoyebo and the African soldiers that fought in Burma in the Second World War. Everything fell perfectly into place when we made the documentary ‘Burma Boy’ for Al Jazeera English in 2011; both in Nigeria and in Burma (Myanmar). I’m grateful to Al Jazeera for giving me the chance to make that film, and backing it financially. It evoked a very warm reaction around the world, but perhaps especially in Nigeria. That’s when I decided I had to write a book on the same story, which is how ‘Another Man’s War’ came into being.
You’ve mentioned witnessing horrific scenes in Nigeria during your stay as a BBC correspondent. Can you tell us about this and how it affected you?
I was in Nigeria in quite a turbulent time, from 1998-2001. I saw ethnic and/or religious violence in Kano, Kaduna, Lagos, Sagamu, Warri and other places. I can’t forget what I saw, and it’s only human that it should affect me, even though I see myself as quite a well-adjusted person. As a journalist, I’m instinctively in favour of the free flow of information. But of course I worried whether my reports for the BBC from one part of the country might provoke retaliatory violence in another. That’s not an easy dilemma for a reporter to confront. In the long run, though, I’m convinced Nigeria has to discuss all its tensions and problems openly. Suppressing information, bottling it up, cannot be the answer. In fact, it tends to lead to greater problems further down the line.
Did you ever feel at a point that you would really want to walk away from journalism and do something else?
I’ve thought about working for an aid organisation or going back to something more academic. News reporting is exciting, addictive even, but it is also very transitory…here today, gone tomorrow. And, at its worst, international TV reporting can be very superficial…you know how it goes, reporter A arrives in country B, where he/she has never been before, and doesn’t speak the language, but is stuck in front of a live camera, explaining the situation in the country to the world.
Of course, it’s not always like that, there are many excellent, knowledgeable and brave reporters, and journalism has brought me many wonderful experiences. Being a foreign correspondent is an enormous privilege and responsibility; it gives you the right to talk to everyone in a given society, from the president to the homeless person in the street. Their respective problems may be very different, but understanding them will help you understand that society.
So, in summary, I haven’t yet found anything else as appealing as journalism!
You are a committed BBC man and you still have a soft spot for the BBC, what informed the decision to move to Al Jazeera when it was just starting off?
It was 2006, and I was due to return to London with the BBC after many years in Africa. The BBC was offering me a not very exciting job back at Bush House, when I was approached by Al Jazeera English, which was just starting up. I knew many of the journalists who were joining Al Jazeera, and they were people I respected. Because it was a new channel, it offered me new opportunities to re-invent myself. If you like, I could be a bigger fish in a smaller sea. With the benefit of hindsight it was the right decision, because Al Jazeera has been a great adventure, and Al Jazeera English is a very good channel of which I’m proud. But it was a wrench to leave the BBC, for which I have enormous respect. I see BBC World Service Radio as the gold standard of balanced and fair reporting, something we should all strive for.
Is there any chance you may leave journalism for full time writing?
I have a cousin who works in publishing in England. He tells me there are only approximately 300 people in the UK who actually make a living from writing books. Those 300 people are exceptionally talented, but also very lucky. The vast majority of authors have to do something else to make a living…whether it is working as a waiter in a restaurant, or teaching writing at a university. So the short answer to your question is ‘no’, because writing will not pay my mortgage or feed my family. I wish it did, but I have to be realistic. I should also stress that I wrote ‘Another Man’s War’ as a labour of love, not out of any mistaken illusions that it would provide me with a significant income. I also wanted to test myself in new ways, to find out whether, after 25 years of radio and TV reporting, I actually had the mental capacity and discipline to write a 100,000 word book. I think all of us need to carry on testing ourselves in new ways, so that we don’t stagnate.

Returning to Nigeria after years away, what differences have you noticed?
I see contradictory trends. In Lagos, I drove round Surelere this week using street maps downloaded onto my smart phone, past green roundabouts and along clearly marked streets. I saw cinemas and traffic lights. That is not the Lagos I remember! I can also see that in material terms many of my Lagosian friends are better off; they have more money, they have mortgages and they pay taxes. All of that is good. But when they talk about events in the north-east, they often seem to be talking about a different country. They are horrified and outraged by the violence against innocent people and especially children, but they feel no more directly affected by it than I do living in London. And that’s another change-when I lived in Nigeria I would travel round the north freely. I met wonderful people all over northern Nigeria. Sadly, my movements in the north would be much more circumscribed now, and some areas would be completely off limits to me.

While researching for Another Man’s War, you had to read lots of accounts by British officers. Why was it important to you to find an alternative narrative?
It’s relatively easy to find accounts by the British Officers who led the 100,000 African soldiers who fought in Burma. It’s much harder to find out what the Africans themselves thought. There were so many questions that burned inside me; why did these Africans join the British Army? Were they volunteers or were they compelled to do so? What did they make of their experiences in the jungles of Burma? How did their war service change them as individuals, and what role did they subsequently play in the struggle for independence from the British? The answers to all these questions are complex, but I attempt to answer them in ‘Another Man’s War’. Isaac’s own beautifully written account, ‘A Stroke of Unbelievable Luck’ (published by the University of Wisconsin’s African Studies Programme’) was an essential source for me.
How did it feel when you found Isaac Fadayebo and Shuyiman’s family, who would later become main characters in your book?
I was elated to track them both down. When I first read Isaac’s memoir in 2009, I worked out that he would be in his mid-80s if he was still alive. My good fortune was to find Isaac when he was still in good health. He was a gentleman, modest and gracious and, I believe, pleased that someone was interested in his story. I hope he enjoyed the film. Of course, I was sad when he passed away in 2012, and I wish he could have read the book I’ve written about his life. But his funeral was a celebration of a long and successful life, his family have helped me fill in many of the gaps. I hope my book will inspire Nigerian writers to find the many other ‘Isaac Fadoyebos’ in their society- unsung heroes who are struggling courageously to make Nigeria a better place.
Finding Shuyiman’s family was a big challenge. Isaac could not give me a precise location of where  he›d been attacked in Burma. The very detailed memoirs of a British officer helped me.  One of my concerns was that because the family are a Muslim minority in Burma (the people whom today are referred to as ‘Rohingyas’) there was a chance they’d been displaced in all the instability in Rakhine State (formerly known as the Arakan) since the Second World War. In which case, I would never have found them. It wasn’t easy- we were entering a militarily sensitive area, and we had to be quite discreet in our movements. With the help of some very resourceful guides, we found Shuyiman’s village, and located the family. To discover that they treasured the memory of Isaac, just as he had been thinking of them for the past 67 years, was an extraordinary moment.

Obviously you invested a lot into writing this book. What was the feeling like when you held the first copy of Another Man’s War in your hand?
Anyone who has written a book will tell you it’s an amazing feeling. I was taking a bus through central London the other day and I saw it on display in a bookshop through the window- that was quite special! But I’m a perfectionist, and now that I’ve finished, one or two people have sent me documents and references that would have helped me with my research. That’s frustrating because it makes me feel…”oh no, I wish I had known about that at the time I was writing, if I had done, the book would have been richer for it”.

What was the greatest challenge you dealt with in writing and researching this story?
One challenge was that Isaac had passed away in 2012, before I started writing. Although I had done several lengthy interviews with him, and had his own excellent memoir to hand, there were some questions I wanted to ask him that I could not. For example, where was he when he heard that the Japanese had finally surrendered and World War 2 was over? Where was he on the night that Nigeria became independent from Britain, and how did he feel? I’ll never know the answers to those questions, and many others.
Another challenge was the sections where I write about Burma’s history. I felt more comfortable writing about Nigeria simply because I’m more familiar with the country. I’ve lived in Nigeria, I have many Nigerian friends, I’ve read many books about Nigerian history. I don’t have that close connection to Burma, which has a very complex history, so I was more nervous about that section.
But the real challenge was time. I had taken six months leave from Al Jazeera to write the book. That’s not very long, and I was under pressure. I cycled to the British Library in London every morning, turned off the wifi and internet connection, and tried to write a 1,000 words a day. I also had to discipline myself in terms of not doing too much research. The subjects I was looking at – Nigeria’s history, Africa in the Second World War, the Burma campaign, Africa and Burma after independence- are huge, and the temptation was to carry on reading forever. That would have been disastrous, because I would have been swamped by information. I found that by starting to write before my research was finished, it was actually easier to absorb much of the information I came across at a later stage.
Are you likely to write about another interesting story you have discovered in the line of your work or will your writing take a different dimension?
Honestly I don’t know. I feel that ‘Another Man’s War’ was a book that was growing inside me for a long time, ever since I lived in Nigeria, really. Now that it’s finished I feel a bit bereft, but I also enjoyed the process so much that I would love to write another book one day. I don’t know when, and I don’t know what the subject will be. But our world is full of amazing stories…so I just need to find another one!

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