I can remember the day that I came to learn about terrorists who hijack planes. My parents seemed shocked and they kept throwing a certain name all around. I was really not sure what they were talking about and when my dad told me that Mohamed Amin had died, I thought it must be Idi Amin’s relative. But he further clarified that it was the man with one bionic arm who was a cameraman. I never gave it much thought even though the newspapers and the televisions were talking all about a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines plane that had crash-landed a few meters off the beach in Comoros.
Mohamed ‘Mo’ Amin had been the unfortunate hero. The one-armed man had tried to take control from the two hijackers who were just young men. Years later, I came to learn that through his pictures in Ethiopia during the drought of 1984-85 had moved the world. The pop stars in America lead by the big stars of back then, Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and others had recorded a song that would be a hit and help save thousands of other lives in Ethiopia. And for a very long time that was who Mo Amin would remain to be.
That was until last week when I got movies from my neighbor. There was the disc labeled Mo & Me. When Al-Jazeera had screened it, I never got the chance to watch it. I was not going to waste this moment. Salim Amin, CEO and Managing Director of Africa24 Media and Camerapix, is the famous son of Mo Amin. In this documentary he seeks to know more about the man he called father but would only see him for 3 months in every year. Mo was busy. Salim’s journey takes him from Nairobi where his grandparents had settled during the construction of the Mombasa-Kampala railway line. After the railway line is done, Salim’s grandparents move into neighboring Tanganyika (present day Tanzania Mainland) where Mo is born.
He is an enterprising young man who will go out of his way to help the family in any way that he can. At the age of 11 he buys his very first camera and starts to take pictures around Tanganyika and this is where his talent is noticeable. Mo soon drops out of class and decides to take photography seriously as a career. He is the first person to take pictures of John Gideon Okello when Tito decides to lead a mutiny in Zanzibar. The very first images showing Russian troops training in Zanzibar were captured by Mo. These images handed him three things; a prison sentence, fame as a superb photographer and a reason to leave Tanzania for Kenya where he would set up his first office.
Making Kenya his base allowed Mo to do more than just capture pictures of Nairobi’s life. The world had started seeing Nairobi as the entry-point into East Africa so he could easily land jobs with international media. Marriage for Mo was a problem even though he got married when he was back in Tanzania. It was done secretly since he was getting married to someone from another Islamic background different from his and the parents were not comfortable. It was in Nairobi that he got his only son and heir, Salim Amin.
Ethiopia defines Mo Amin in two ways, he stood on top of the world as a photography master and he lost an arm. Mo Amin had to trek to one of those places that are quite far so that he could photograph the people of Ethiopia who were dying from the government’s lack of response to their plight. The images from that place brought Africa to the eyes of the world and the largest relief effort was organized. Mo had gone to cover the even of having weapons blasted out of existence and was filming when he lost his right arm. The explosion caught him and his arm had to be amputated at just below the shoulder. An year later, he had been fitted with a bionic arm and he was back to his rogue ways as the cameraman known as Six Cameras Amin.
This documentary does not glorify Amin as the man who was the first person to interview Idi Amin Dada while exiled in Saudi Arabia. Neither was he the glorious man who took pictures of Idi Amin Dada’s victims after they had been shot by the police. He still is not the man who took one of the last pictures of Emperor Haile Selassie. He was a father who took his son to shoot the Safari Rally. He was the husband to a lonely wife. He was the boss to the people at Camerapix. He was a shrewd businessman. He was the man who went to receive his OBE from Queen Elizabeth in coat-tails and a bowler hat, not with his wife and son on the side but his English girlfriend. The man who came late for his son’s wedding straight from a shoot. It shows both the man and the hero. And I am lucky that I got to watch it on Kenya’s Mashujaa Day (Heroes’ Day) because I believe Mo Amin is one hero.
The documentary was produced in 2005 by Camerapix in collaboration with Al-Jazeera International.