Michela Wrong talks to Nomad about her long reporting career, covering the horrors in Rwanda, coming under fire in Sarajevo and discovering a serene retreat in Naivaisha where she penned her latest book. She has worked for Reuters, the BBC and the Financial Times. She is also is the author of three non-fiction books on Africa,In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, I Didn’t Do It for You and It’s Our Turn to Eat, and one novel, Borderlines. She is based in London.
What keeps drawing you back to Africa?
I’ve been writing some African countries for so long now that the background is part of my own personal landscape. That makes for a particularly rich writing experience. I can compare the Yoweri Museveni, or Paul Kagame, or Idriss Deby or Isaias Afewerki I interviewed in the early 1990s to the men of today. In my notebooks sit interviews conducted with African ministers who were later assassinated, loyal intelligence officers and army generals who went on to establish opposition parties, intellectuals who confidently expounded their views and now believe something very different. Those are very interesting comparisons to be able to make.
Early impressions of East Africa as a reporter here?
When I first moved to Nairobi in 1995, I was coming from Kinshasa, in what was then Mobutu’s Zaire [now Democratic Republic of Congo], which was in a terribly decrepit, ramshackle state, a country locked in a dizzying downwards spiral. Kenya in particular and East Africa in general seemed very modern and sophisticated in comparison. There were malls and skyscrapers! The Yaya Centre had that famous escalator! The lifts worked! Nairobi residents seemed to be rushing around with purpose and drive! I came to the eventual conclusion that under the gloss, the Kenya and Zaire of the mid 1990s had a lot more in common than I’d at first registered: the debilitating corruption, for one thing, but it was an invigorating initial feeling.
A memorable incident from your time in Africa?
Sadly, the memories that stick tend to be grotesque: our brains retain the gruesome. I remember walking to a hilltop church outside the Rwandan town of Kibuye, three months after the genocide. It was a Sunday and a service was ending. The path ran between two parallel mounds of fresh earth that had been piled up by a bulldozer and I noticed a naked human foot sticking ludicrously out of it. It was obvious the mounds contained other bodies. The worshippers walked past without a glance. Inside the church I saw that the roof had been perforated by bullets – the sun was streaming through the holes. Many of those praying had probably played their part in killing those carelessly-buried victims, so of course they didn’t want to examine, or tidy up, their handiwork. Rwanda in 1994 was a great illustration of how religious belief and moral decency don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.
A reporting trip to Sarajevo in the middle of the Bosnian civil war. I’d been in conflict zones before, but there’s something uniquely chilling about lying awake listening to machine-gun fire in the distance. You can kid yourself that sporadic shots and explosions are more warning than intent, but with machine-gun fire there’s no kidding yourself: someone is aiming at another human being, with the express intention of killing them. It’s the only time I had to don a flak jacket. The one I’d been given by my newspaper was designed for a man, was far too big and immensely heavy – I needed help just getting it on each morning. An older, wiser, Reuters colleague told me later that he never got one because his plan was never to find himself in a situation where a flak jacket was required. That’s definitely my approach to dangerous assignments now.
What do you never travel without?
I’m not a superstitious person, but I do own a large old silver coin, a Mexican Morelos peso, given to me by a boyfriend who noticed that I liked silver things. It sits at the bottom of my handbag and makes me feel safe, as it reminds me of his affection and concern. The great thing about silver is it’s worth so little, it’s not worth stealing.
Favourite hotel in the world?
Crater Camp Lodge, a tented camp an hour’s drive from Naivasha, in the Rift Valley. It’s perched on a spooky, magical little lake which the flamingos fly to when they are bored of Nakuru and the other lakes. The cries of the two families of Colobus monkeys that are usually in residence in the trees fringing the water are bizarre: they sound like motorbikes revving. If you are careless enough to walk beneath them, they’ll douse you in urine. I don’t know what it’s like now but back when I was a regular guest the lodge, which filled up at weekends, went very quiet during the week. The perfect writing spot. I worked on my book on Eritrea there.
Favourite view in the world?
From the top of Primrose Hill in London. You’re presented with an amazing panorama, from the cranes picking over building sites down in Kings Cross and St Pancras, to the Post Office tower – which once looked cutting edge but now seems quaintly “retro” – to the white nipple that is St Paul’s and the gleaming Shard, dwarfing everything else. Across the sky, a ribbon of planes constantly unspools on the final approach to Heathrow. Beyond it all lie the dark hills of the North Downs. It’s a very Wordsworthian view of a working, ever-changing, vibrant city, not the most beautiful, but probably the most diverse.