The Nine Lives of Mohamed Amin

On August 29th, 1943, a baby boy is born to a railway engineer and a meek housewife in the small town of Eastleigh in Nairobi Kenya. The boy joins a team of six siblings who grow up together forming the strong unfettered bonds of family. Like most families then the young boy’s family is of humble descent and making ends meet proved tough. The father to the young boy seeks greener pastures and exoduses together with the entire family to the neighboring Tanganyika. In Tanganyika, the young boy joins school and routinely does as all school-going children do; go to school. The young boy is Mohamed ‘Mo’ Amin.

In the second year of his high school education, at 19 years, ‘Mo’ Amin developed an immense passion for photography and decided to call quits. I can only imagine how his engineer father was agitated at how his son lousily viewed education. In the 1960s, leaving school mid-way for photography was considered perfidy and defiance of unpardonable nature. ‘Mo’ Amin’s mind was however made up. He seemed ready for the roller coaster that his life was about to take.

Mohamed Amin then left Tanganyika and headed to Kenya. At the time in 1963, Kenya becomes a sovereign state that shares its head of state with the United Kingdom and other states under Queen Elizabeth the second. Mzee Jomo Kenyatta at the time held office as Prime Minister and Head of Government with Malcolm John MacDonald as the Governor-General of Kenya. ‘Mo’ Amin found his way through photography and gained eminence. In 1964 when Kenya becomes a republic and Mzee Jomo Kenyatta is handed instruments of power by the British to have absolute authority over the country, Mohamed Amin is the designated photographer. Consequently, any key event in Kenya in the 60s happened to be captured by Mohamed Amin.

At around this same time, there occurs a revolution in Zanzibar where the Sultan of Zanzibar and his mainly Arab government is to be overthrown by the local African revolutionaries. Mohamed Amin was all ears and aware of what was going down at that side of the world and immediately found his way there. He walked into feared territories and interviewed the rebels trying to get their slants. A photojournalist documenting a revolution hardly goes unnoticed and so he is captured, detained, and tortured for 28 days. The torture he underwent was so intense that he lost 28 pounds for the 28 days; an equivalent of losing 14 kgs in 28 days. He was however released and immediately came back to Kenya.

Amin kept up with the grind of being both a photojournalist and videographer for any major event worth reporting. He developed an unmatched work ethic that no one in his time had. A story is told of one of his crew members, a video editor, who was getting married. On the eve of the crew member’s wedding, ‘Mo’ Amin keeps him at the office editing videos to be presented to the newsrooms that evening. At 1 pm when everybody thought the groom would not show up, Mohamed Amin arrived driving him. They participated in the marriage union for one hour and immediately got back to the office and kept up with video editing. I wonder how the poor bride coped that day and the entire time they remained married. Mohamed Amin thrived on the phrase, ‘Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like or don’t have to do them.’

One Saturday morning of July 1969 along Government Road today known as Moi Avenue, Thomas Odhiambo Mboya walks into Chaani’s Pharmacy to purchase an assortment of drugs. Upon exiting, he is gunned down by three shots. The shocking news spread fast and caught the ears of Mohamed Amin who was within the CBD. Your guess is as good as mine, he rushed to the scene and began documenting the process of resuscitation. Upon the arrival of an ambulance that was to lift Mboya to Nairobi Hospital, ‘Mo’ Amin hopped into the ambulance together with the frailing Tom Mboya. No journalist to this present day has ever pulled such a stunt. Unfortunately, Tom Mboya succumbed. Any photo of Tom Mboya in his last moments that is given reference to this day was captured by Mohamed Amin. He quickly gained international recognition for the exclusive footage he had obtained then.

With ‘Mo’ Amin’s elevation to insane levels as a photojournalist, he became renowned. In 1971 in Uganda there was a coup d’etat and Idi Amin Dada went on to overthrow the government of Milton Obote the then President. After the successful coup, Mohamed Amin one day made a call to State House, Uganda. He wanted to have an interview with Idi Amin.

“Good morning State House Uganda, I request to have a TV interview with Idi Amin. My name is ‘Mo’ Amin.”

“You are ‘Mo’ Amin and you wish to interview Idi Amin?”

“Yes Sir.”

The receiver thinking that both Amin’s are related, an interview was granted. Idi Amin and Mohamed Amin since then were considered bosom buddies.

In 1984, there occurred the greatest famine yet the world had ever witnessed in Ethiopia. Mohamed Amin being Mohamed Amin made his way to Ethiopia and begged the regime for airtime to cover the happenings to draw the attention of the world. The attention of the world he did attract. For six continuous months, he documented incredible disheartening footage of the worst scenarios of the famine. The world was moved. The famous song “We Are the World” was composed and released on March 7th, 1985. The song comprised 46 vocalists who may have formed the ultimate musical supergroup of all time on a serious mission. Since the release of that song, over $63 million (equivalent to $149 million today) has been raised for humanitarian causes. 90% of that money was channeled to African relief programs. Mohamed Amin had changed the world’s narrative. It couldn’t get better than that.

Most people thought that after such a life-changing moment for Mohamed Amin, he would retire from active journalism. No, he did not. In 1991 still in Ethiopia, there was an attempted coup against President Mengistu Haile Mariam. ‘Mo’ Amin was at the forefront in documenting the events including interviewing the rebels on top of war tankers. One night after a full-packed day of capturing moments of the rebellion, while he was in his hotel room he sees an explosion through the window. The explosion occurred in an armory dumpsite. At the break of dawn, ‘Mo’ Amin together with one of his crew members found their way to the site to try to get first-hand information as to what had transpired the previous night. While there, another detonation occurs and a huge explosion goes off. The explosion was so huge that his crew member was hit on the torso by a sharp nail and died instantly. For Mohamed Amin, his hand was ripped into pieces and that led to him being fixed with a prosthetic arm.

On 23rd November 1996, Zulu Flight 961 of Ethiopian Airlines was scheduled to serve the route Addis Ababa – Nairobi – Brazzaville – Lagos – Abidjan. Of the 175 passengers on board, Mohamed Amin was one of them. He was on a short business trip in Ethiopia and was headed to Nairobi. The plane was hijacked by three Ethiopians who wanted to seek asylum in Australia. Airplanes are designed to carry fuel just enough for the designated journey. The hijackers made an outrageous command for the pilot to fly the plane to Australia. The plane had 3 hours’ worth of flight fuel. The flight to Australia needed jet fuel worth 11 hours. It was an impossible mission for the pilot. There is no means the pilot did not use to convince the hijackers that there was a need for more fuel. The hijackers insisted the plane be flown to Australia. By the time the two plane engines had gone out, the 100-tonne plane was gliding over the Indian Ocean near Grande Comore, Comoros Islands. The pilot had no choice other than ditch the plane into the ocean. In the last moments towards the ditching, Mohamed Amin stood up to the hijackers and confronted them imploring them to be reasonable. The plane crashed into the Indian Ocean near the shores of Comoros Islands. 125 of the 175 passengers and crew on board, including the three hijackers, died. The crash was captured on video. ‘Mo’ Amin at the time of the crash was on his feet and his body hit the fuselage several times killing him instantly.

Amin was a man of his time. He won every journalistic award you could think of. In his lifetime, he took over 4 million photos and over 13,000 hours of video footage. Mohamed Amin Foundation was created to keep on his legacy. MOFORCE Training for Television and Film was also created which was a project of the Mohamed Amin Foundation.

3 thoughts on “The Nine Lives of Mohamed Amin”

  1. From scooping the world to saving it.
    Mo’s impact countinues to be felt on a daily ,a determined,driven,strong fallen hero he was .
    While always committed to capturing the continent’s harsh realities during his four decades in the field,he was able to gather information at first hand without hesitataing.
    Nice piece Moses….good job thirsting for more.


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