Monday, 14 March 2011


Last week I returned to the University of Edinburgh for the second time in two years to give a seminar in the Centre of African Studies. In February 2010 I was 'Explaining Popobawa'; this time I was talking about 'Images and Counter-Images of the Zanzibar Revolution', at the end of a day-long workshop on 'Representations of a Continent: Public and private visual images in data collection in Africa', organised by Tom Molony in CAS. It was a fascinating day, with a richly illustrated presentation by Sandy Robertson on 'Picturing Africa', and another by Tom and his colleague Steve Kerr (who had flown in from Saint Augustine University in Mwanza) on the practical, technical and ethical issues raised by their collaborative project on 'Images of Nyerere'. As my old friend Marcus Banks has remarked, "visual research can sometimes lead in unexpected directions" (2001: 74). More than this, it can provide new ways of (quite literally [sic]) seeing a subject, and I certainly found this when preparing my own presentation.

One of the subjects I explored in my seminar was the use that different participants in the Zanzibar Revolution had made of photographs to project particular images of themselves and their role in events. The self-styled "Field Marshal" John Okello (1937-c.1971), who portrayed himself as the military leader of the Revolution, was the master of this kind of manipulation, which mirrored his theatrical comportment and threatening behaviour, and his notorious use of radio broadcasts and verbal violence to spread the "Terror" that accompanied the Revolution. His last-but-one visit to Dar es Salaam in March 1964 was rumoured to include a mission "to pick up the scores of copies of a photographic portrait of himself that he had ordered" (Petterson 2002: 175). And the photos of himself and others reproduced in his Revolution in Zanzibar (1967) have remained a prime source of images for commentators, including scholars and website authors.

Mo Amin in later life
Okello's manipulation of imagery was matched, and in some respects supported by, the machinations of Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu (1924-96), the left-wing intellectual of the Revolution. When the Revolution began in the early hours of Sunday 12th January 1964, Babu was in Dar es Salaam, having fled there earlier to escape arrest in the wake of the banning of his Umma Party by the newly independent government. Although many later accounts imply that he knew nothing about the imminent outbreak of violence, it's clear that he had some forewarning: "On Friday [10th January] I heard over here in Dar es Salaam from someone - a member of the Afro-Shirazis - that something would happen very soon. Well, you know, you always heard those stories. But I thought this might be true" (Babu, quoted in Smith 1973: 96). The next day, Saturday 11th, he telephoned the young photographer Mohamed "Mo" Amin (1943-96). Mo had opened his Camerapix studio in Dar in March 1963, and had made Babu's acquaintaince during subsequent assignments in Zanzibar:
'If you want a big story you should be in Zanzibar tomorrow.'
'There's a big story. Take your cameras. You'll get an exclusive.'
'What kind of story?'
Babu would say no more. When Amin learned from his own sources that the Sultan had given the opposition Afro-Shirazi Party permission to hold a fete, he dismissed the story as non-newsworthy and thought no more about it. Until 0430 on Sunday 12 January, when he was woken by the telephone and a voice saying: 'There's shooting all over Zanzibar.' (Tetley 1988: 46-47)
Okello photographed by Mo Amin (from Tetley 1988: 45)
Mo caught the 0700 hrs flight to Zanzibar, but the pilot was refused permission to land. Later the same day he sailed to Zanzibar with two fellow journalists in a dhow hired from Bagamoyo. The same boat was used to carry Mo's film back to the mainland every day, and for four days his footage of the revolutionary violence and its consequences "led world television bulletins [and] hit the front pages of the world's Press" (Tetley 1988: 48). But he was also used by the revolutionaries:
Soon after landing on the island he was pressed into service to take the first official pictures of the revolution's leaders. One of them - Babu, his confidante - had become the new regime's Minister for External Affairs. Meeting Babu in a crowd of excited revolutionaries in Zanzibar's seething streets he told him he needed permission to charter a plane to ship his film. Time was critical, and the airport was still  closed.
'Give me a piece of paper,' said Babu.
'I don't have any.'
Looking around him, Babu saw a discarded detergent carton, picked it up, tore off the flap and scribbled a crude but official note clearing a plane to land at Zanzibar. (Tetley 1988: 48)
Mo's imprisonment in 1966 (Tetley 1988: 70-71)
In the end Mo's relationship with Babu wasn't enough to make him feel safe, and after armed revolutionaires tried to snatch his camera while he filmed the boat carrying British subjects and deported journalists off the island, he jumped on board and joined them. This didn't stop him from returning to Zanzibar on a number of later occasions, though his determination to get a scoop was eventually rewarded with a 27-day imprisonment in one of the island's most notorious gaols (Tetley 1988: 53, 54, 57-61, 65-72). The Zanzibar Revolution was Mo's first frontline job and he went on, of course, to become one the world's most famous photojournalists. But the Revolution is only mentioned briefly in a more recent tourist guide produced by Camerapix, which includes colour shots taken on the island by Mo (Mercer 1999: 71).

Babu pretending to row (from Okello 1967: between 112-113)
Back to the first day of the Revolution: while Mo was sailing across to Zanzibar, Babu was also looking for transport to the island, together with Abeid Amani Karume (who had only just left Zanzibar, at Okello's insistence), Abdalla Kassim Hanga (who had also hurried across to the mainland, allegedly to discuss a separate plot), and other Afro-Shirazi Party leaders. They eventually obtained the use of an old lifeboat (with a glass bottom for reef viewing) that belonged to Mischa Fainzilber, an Israeli entreprenuer and master-of-many-trades who was already well known to Babu.* They left Kunduchi at midnight but didn't reach Kizimkazi until around six o'clock in the morning (of Monday 15th January): the crossing should only have taken a couple of hours but one of the boat's two engines packed in on the way. At Kizimkazi they were met by a large crowd of people, and borrowed the local headmaster's car to send for transport from Zanzibar town.

We know this and more from a detailed account by the boat's pilot, Ahmed Ali Ghulam Hussein, nicknamed "Shebe" (Chapter 13 of Ghassany 2010). We also know that "On his arrival Babu arranged for himself to be photographed, for propaganda purposes, paddling a canoe" (Clayton 1981: 82, fn.65). Whether this was a  "canoe" or outrigger, it certainly wasn't the boat that brought Babu and his companions to the island. Whether this photo was taken later, in Zanzibar town harbour, or whether Mo was involved, I don't know. Like a number of other photographic plates in Okello's book (1967), it's credited to I.P., an agency that I've yet to identify (International Press?). Whatever the case, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that Babu was hoping to manipulate future perceptions of his less than heroic return to Zanzibar. Okello - or his editor - simply reproduced the photo and (added?) its deceptive caption without further comment.

Despite their skill as propagandists, neither Babu nor Okello foresaw the course of the Revolution. They were both outmanoeuvred by the outwardly less sophisticated Karume, who became the first President. After his early ejection from Zanzibar, Okello later disappeared in Amin's Uganda. After the union with Tanganyika, Babu was sidelined as a minister on the mainland, detained for six years after Karume's assassination, and ended his days in exile in London.

* I met Mischa (whose name also appears as Misha, Fainsilber, Feinsilber and Finsilber) in early 1982 when I stayed at Silversands, the hotel that he'd handed over to the University of Dar es Salaam. My research supervisor Ray Abrahams knew him somewhat better before this, and he was immortalised as "Willi", proprietor of the "Haven of Peace" beach hotel, in Shiva Naipaul's North of South (1978: for this and reference to some of Mischa's other enterprises see Chachage 1995: 66-67).


Banks, Marcus 2001. Visual Methods in Social Research. London: Sage Publications.

Chachage, Chachage Seithy L. 1995. The meek shall inherit the earth but not the mining rights: the mining industry and accumulation in Tanzania. In Peter Gibbon (ed.) Liberalised Development in Tanzania: Studies on Accumulation Processes and Local Institutions. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet. 37-108.

Clayton, Anthony 1981. The Zanzibar Revolution and its Aftermath. London: C. Hurst & Company.

Ghassany, Harith 2010. Kwaheri Ukoloni, Kwaheri Uhuru! Zanzibar na Mapinduzi ya Afrabia. Lulu Enterprises Inc.

Mercer, Graham 1999. The Beauty of Zanzibar. Nairobi: Camerapix Publishers International.

Naipaul, Shiva 1978. North of South: An African Journey. London: Penguin Books.

Okello, John 1967. Revolution in Zanzibar. Nairobi: East African Publishing House.

Othman, Haroub (ed.) 2001. Babu: I Saw the Future and it Works. Essays Celebrating the Life of Comrade Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu 1924-1996. Dar es Salaam: E&D Limited.

Petterson, Don 2002. Revolution in Zanzibar: An American's Cold War Tale. Boulder: Westview Press.

Smith, William Edgett 1973. Nyerere of Tanzania. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd. [originally published in 1972 as We Must Run While They Walk: A Portrait of Africa's Julius Nyerere. New York: Random House.]

Tetley, Brian 1988. Mo: The Story of Mohamed Amin[,] Front-line Camerman. London: Moonstone Books.

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