Mo Amin: My Favorite Songs and Moments

Learn more about the Kenyan photojournalist through his choice of music.

By Mohamed Amin Foundation

Mohamed Amin with Sue Lawley (1992) by Mohamed AminMohamed Amin Foundation

Desert Island Discs with Mo Amin

In 1992, photojournalist Mo Amin was interviewed by Sue Lawley for the BBC castaway series Desert Island Discs. When asked what to bring to a deserted island, he chose his prosthetic arm, a satellite dish and TV set, and the book 'The Life of President John F. Kennedy'. Here are the eight songs he chose to be on his playlist. 

#1: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 'Clarinet Concerto in A Major'

Sue Lawley: Part of Mozart 'Clarinet Concerto in A Major' played by Jack Brymer with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Neville Marriner. You have been no stranger, Mo, over the past 30 years to war, famine, assassinations, massacres across Africa and Asia. Do you still feel the same level of fear when you go into a situation or have you developed a kind of professional immunity?

Mohamed Amin: No, I don’t think there’s such a thing as professional immunity, I do feel the fear when you are going to dangerous areas. What I try to do and the fact that I’m still alive although slightly less complete than when I was born, is take the risks but very calculated risks. I would go into a situation if I felt that I had a 50% chance of coming back. If I felt my odds were worse than that, then I wouldn’t go in at all.

#2: Bette Midler 'Wind Beneath My Wings'

SL:  How did you discover, Mohamed, in the first place what you wanted to do, was it a love for photography, was it a nose for news, how did you get going?

MA: I was in school in Dar es Salaam as a child at 14 years of age and we had a photographic society in our school and I succeeded in becoming a member. I had to hide my interest in photography from my family because my parents particularly they are very religious, very orthodox, and taking pictures in Islam is not something that was encouraged certainly not at that time.

I started taking interest in news pictures and I remember the very first pictures that ever got published were published in the local newspaper, Tanganyika Standard, were of Bobby Job. I was a Queen’s Scout and we were cleaning the gardens of the statehouse and the Governor, then Sir Richard Turnbull, gave us a bob, for what we were doing and I took some pictures and those were the first pictures to ever have been published.

#3: Frank Sinatra 'My Way'

MA: My record number three is a record that I have chosen really as a message to my friends to remind them that I’m not about to change. I’m often accused of being a bigheaded, stubborn, belligerent, awkward person to work with because I have always in the end done things my way.

SL: So you set up your own business, Mohamed Amin, in the early 1960s in Dar Es Salaam first as a stills man, and then filming. Do you remember what the first job was you did for television?

MA :The first television story that I did was of two white South Africans who broke out of jail, stole a plane and arrived in Dar Es Salaam. I filmed the story and I did not know to whom I should sell it. I then called the British High Commission and I asked for the television stations in Briton and they gave me the address of BBC and ITN. I then asked them, 'Do you know who pays more" and they said "ITN", so I sent the story to ITN and got 25 pounds for it and then thereafter I continued filming, as well as taking stills. 

#4: Miriam Makeba 'Malaika'

MA: My next piece of music is a very popular and famous Swahili song. This particular one was sung by Miriam Makeba, but it has become a symbol of African liberation movements, a symbol of African culture because the song was put together in the late 50s and early 60s and Miriam Makeba, who is a South African singer, was very much involved with the liberations movements, and the song is 'Malaika'.

SL: We were talking about contacts Mo, one of the most significant people you cultivated over the years was Idi Amin, who came to power in Uganda of course in 1971. How did you come to know him?

MA: It was actually quite by accident, the day he overthrew the then president Obote, there were a number of us journalists trying to get into Uganda and we were sitting at this charter companies office who would not fly unless we had permission and the phone rang and I just happen to be next to the phone so I picked it up and the guy on the other end said, “This is the command post,” so I said can I talk to General Amin and he said, “ Who is calling?” and I said my name is Mohamed Amin, and a couple of clicks and I was through to General Amin. I did not think for a second that the operator thought that I was some relative of his. So I was talking to General Amin and explaining to him that we were a group of journalists, we wanted to come to Uganda and he sort of burst out laughing and he said, “Yes you are welcome, everything is great, people love me, you can come over.” 

#5: Nat King Cole 'Smile'

MA:  The next record that I have chosen is to remind myself in times of difficulties, in times of trouble, in times when I’m going through a crisis, that I’m still a lot better off than I could be and I think this particular piece of music by Nat King Cole, 'Smile', brings that message across to me.

SL: Tell me then, Mohamed Amin, about Ethiopia 1984 and the terrible starvation there. It was known there was a famine, wasn’t it, it was the scale of the thing that was such a shock.  

MA: The famine had actually been there for quite a long time and I had covered famine thousands of times before but we were aware that the situation was much worse in Northern Ethiopia and for 10 years before, nobody during those 10 years had been allowed to go into those areas. It was the worst sight that I think anybody could ever see. We were in one camp there were over 80,000 people there, and there was a little bit of food there, possibly enough for 30 or 40 people and looking at this official, the Ethiopian official, he was trying to be fair to the people which was absolutely ridiculous, because 80,000 people and they were all going to die and there was just really no hope, it was so shattering to see a scene like that.

#6: Band Aid 'Do They Know It's Christmas?'

MA:  My next choice is a tribute to the one person who, after seeing the famine pictures in October 1984, got the world to rally around and raise literally billions of dollars worth of help for the famine victims in Ethiopia at the time. This tribute is to Bob Geldof, who got banded together and the song is, 'Do they know it’s Christmas?'

SL: Band Aid and 'Do They Know It’s Christmas?'. We should say, Mohamed Amin, that there’s another side to your work, which is that you do film and you do enjoy filming wildlife. Which is strange really because I would have thought that it required quite a different mentality from the hot newsman at work, you know that you required patience and time and quite the dedication.

MA:  I took a fascination with wildlife right from my early days, in fact when we were living in Dar Es Salaam, we lived right in the bush. In fact, we were the first house actually built in that area, which was full of wildlife and having been fascinated by the wildlife that I saw as a child, I grew into spending a fair amount of time taking pictures around wildlife. While I’m not a very patient person, I find that going into the bush, spending time there, is like a holiday for me. I worked just as hard as I would do covering a hot news story but I would spend hours and hours, sometimes as much as several days, spending nights out in the bush taking pictures of animals.

#7: Anarkali 'Aaja Ab To Aaja'

MA:  My next record is an unusual choice, it’s a beautiful Indian song. It reminds me of my roots where my parents originally came from and it’s just a beautiful story of this young dancing girl who was in love with one of the great Mughal Emperors, who later became an emperor, and the song is 'Aaja Ab To Aaja' by Anarkali.

SL: I wonder if Mohamed you have coped with the loss of your arm in such a matter of fact way because of the death and disaster that you have witnessed over the years, that maybe when you looked down and saw that half of your arm had been blown away, it was almost as if it was just another incident.

MA: It was obviously quite a shock to see my arm blown away but looking back on what happened, I considered myself extremely lucky to have gotten away so lightly. You know having grown up in quite a religious family and with basic principles in life, my attitude was, well, life has got to go on, and I just do the best I can without the arm.

#8: Genesis 'Land Of Confusion'

MA:  My last record is quite a powerful piece of music that I used in one of my documentaries called 'Give Me Shelter'. I made this film about five years ago, having travelled to 30 or so countries around the world to look at the condition that homeless people were living in. I'm told about a quarter of the world's population do not have adequate homes, the scenes that I saw in some of those countries, particularly in South America, were just absolutely shattering and when I was looking for music to go with these pictures, I chose this piece of music by Genesis which is, 'Land Of Confusion'.   

SL: Genesis and 'Land Of Confusion'. So which of the eight, Mohamed, is the favourite one, if you could only take one of them?

MA: My favourite one would be 'My Way'.

SL: Frank Sinatra 'My Way'. Just to reassert your belligerence, your determination. And your book, you’ve got Shakespeare waiting for you, you have the Bible which would not be much use to you, we can substitute that with the Quran if you like. But what about your own choice of book?

MA: I think my choice would be 'The Life of John F. Kennedy'. He was always my favourite person, my favourite leader, in my early years and I have had immense admiration for him. I’m just very fond of reading books about him and I have just read about every book that I can lay hands on.

SL: And your luxury?

MA: Well I think you should allow me two luxuries. You should allow me my arm, which everybody else has got. And then I would like a satellite dish with a TV set to receive the pictures while I'm planning my escape from the island. 

Credits: Story

Listen to the original interview on BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0093xs5

Credits: All media
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