Mohamed Amin was a famous Kenyan photojournalist – there’s much more to his work than images of tragedy

By Tamara Antona Jimeno & Ismael Crespo Martínez

Kenyan photojournalist Mohamed Amin (1943-1996) rose to fame for documenting the 1984 famine in neighbouring Ethiopia with powerful images of the tragedy. He also captured the Ethiopian people’s suffering during the brutal reign of Mengistu Haile Mariam. These imagesbroadcast by the BBC, shocked the global public and had a significant international impact. They mobilised governments, individuals and institutions. This even led to Live Aid – the famous 1985 benefit concert to raise funds for victims of the famine.

As a result, some sources refer to Amin as “the man who moved the world”, reducing his visual work to this tragedy. As a lecturer and researcher in journalism, and a photographer and scholar completing a PhD on Amin, we recently published a paper on Amin’s vast earlier body of work.

Famine in Ethiopia, 1984. Courtesy The Mohamed Amin Collection

We wanted to highlight that Amin had already undertaken intense and prestigious work in Africa, Asia and the Middle East before these photos of tragedy. His visual collection, spanning from 1956 to 1996, comprises over 8,000 hours of video and approximately 3.5 million photographs.

It’s important that people understand the greater scope of Amin’s images: he captured the first shots of African lives after European imperialism. If French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was considered the eye of the world, Amin is the eye of postcolonial Africa.

International fame

On 23 October 1984, the UK public broadcaster, the BBC, aired a shocking report by journalist Michael Buerk, featuring images by Amin, on the Korem refugee camp in Ethiopia:

Death is all around. A child or an adult dies every 20 minutes. Korem, an insignificant town, has become a place of sorrow.

Ethiopia was under the Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had ousted the last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, through a military coup in 1974. In 1984, the country still had restricted areas for foreign media, but the BBC correspondent had been taken to the Ethiopian highlands by connections of Amin, a Kenyan cameraman and photojournalist.

Starving Ethiopians huddle at Korem Refugee Camp, 1984. Courtesy The Mohamed Amin Collection

The impact of the report was extraordinary. A story set in a developing country with no British angle was viewed by nearly a third of the adult British population. The images were quickly replicated by other international TV networks. Soon enough 425 TV channels worldwide had broadcast Amin’s images to a global audience of 470 million people. “Mo” Amin was making history. He had become the cameraman of the Ethiopian famine.

The images catalysed the largest humanitarian relief effort the world has ever witnessed. Public visibility turned Amin into an international celebrity. He and his family were received at the White House in the US in 1985. At the ceremony, US vice-president George Bush officially presented the cameraman with a symbolic cheque for two billion dollars in humanitarian aid for Africa.

Earlier work

Interest in Amin’s work stems from three main aspects. The first is his vast and diverse body of work. The second is his focus. He centred on Africa, outside the western media’s epicentre, with a pan-African perspective. The third is that his images capture postcolonial events as they unfolded, in a time before the mass globalisation of the internet and social media. His postcolonial coverage of African dictators, such as Jean-Bédel Bokassa (in the Central African Republic), Mobutu Sese Seko (Congo) and Idi Amin (Uganda) exemplify the importance of his earlier work.

President Idi Amin of Uganda playing with his son, 1970s. Courtesy The Mohamed Amin Collection.

The two main themes of his work are postcolonialism and everyday Africa. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, in the early period of African independence, his response to the western media’s portrayal of Africa was to create photo books that showed everyday African life from an African perspective. These publications allowed him to give his work a personal and pan-African orientation, freeing it from the daily urgency of serving western news interests. He created a total of 55 books of his own work.

A boy pretends to drive a rally car. Courtesy The Mohamed Amin Collection

His book Cradle of Mankind (1981) was the outcome of an expedition he led, considered to be one of the first circumnavigations of Lake Turkana and its desert to the north of Kenya. The aim of this adventure was to document the life of the six tribes living along the shores of the lake. The book was accompanied by exhibitions in Nairobi and London. The expedition earned him the honour of being admitted as a member of the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1982.

Miss Nairobi 1968. Courtesy The Mohamed Amin Collection

His documenting of African dictators reveals another extraordinary body of work, the camera up close and personal. The dictator Idi Amin, for example, granted him three exclusive personal interviews (in 1971, 1980 and 1985).

He also journeyed far beyond the continent. His works on Asia and the Middle East include books on Mecca (1980) and The Beauty of Pakistan (1983), among others.

Amin’s legacy

There is a constant stream of references to Amin’s work in the media, a couple of biographies have been written about him, and his images are constantly used to illustrate books and articles on tourism, nature or history. However, there are few academic studies of his work and fewer still international retrospective exhibitions.

Malcolm X in Tanzania in 1964. Courtesy The Mohamed Amin Collection

Currently, it’s possible to access just a small portion of his work online. In 2021, 25 years after his death, the Mohamed Amin Foundation made 6,553 digitised images available in 58 thematic reports and galleries through Google Arts & Culture. This is a small step towards showing his complete body of work.

The global impact of Amin’s photos and videos concerning the Ethiopian famine is undeniable. However, it’s important to emphasise that his broader legacy constitutes one of the single most extensive historical photographic archives of Africa ever created – and it deserves greater attention.

This article was first published on The Conversation

Kenyan pastoralists fight for a future adapted to climate change

By Peyton Fleming

  • Pastoralism provides much of the milk and protein consumed in Kenya, but it faces a perilous future especially from climate change but also a lack of infrastructure and land rights.
  • Recent droughts have exacerbated the challenges, leading to conflict between pastoralist communities struggling to find enough forage and water for livestock.
  • Fresh ideas and new programs are arising to help ease the situation in areas of northern Kenya, from where this dispatch originates.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

‘Wabi-sabi’ is a world view about finding beauty in nature’s imperfections.

It perfectly describes pastoralism in northern Kenya – where nomadic livestock herders scrape out a living by moving their animals from place to place in search of water and grass in a dry and unforgiving landscape.

For at least 10,000 years, this migratory lifestyle has supported more than a half-million Samburu, Turkana and Rendille communities scattered across this vast region dotted with thorn trees, dwarf shrubs and little else. It stretches from the dusty town of Isiolo in the south to the Ethiopia and Somalia borders in the north and east. Livestock, mostly goats, cattle and camels, are the primary food and income source for pastoralists living on these collectively owned and arid lands.

But pastoralism faces perilous threats today from climate change, population growth, land pressures and tribal conflicts. Warmer temperatures and more extreme droughts are increasing the number of livestock raids among tribes across the region. Land encroachment from agriculture interests and wildlife-focused conservancies in the south are also shrinking traditional grazing territories.

“Our biggest problem is climate change,” said Christopher Ogom, a Samburu pastoralist and local leader in the village of Gatab, who lost most of his goats and cattle during a devastating four-year drought that ended in April. “Food security is a big problem due to the loss of animals. Many people are still depending on relief (assistance).”

Ndurra Tarakino, a Rendille pastoralist with some of his camels at the Civicon borehole, a key water source for herders near Mount Kulal in northern Kenya. Image courtesy of Peyton Fleming.

And it isn’t just indigenous tribes with their deep cultural knowledge who are threatened by these trends. Pastoralism plays a critical role in conserving open landscapes that support elephants and giraffes which drive tourism. It protects biodiversity and provides carbon sinks, sequestering up to 5 million tons of carbon per acre per year. Pastoralism also provides much of the milk and meat consumed in Kenya.

I recently spent 10 days traveling to remote settlements, watering holes and villages across northern Kenya. I witnessed the challenges pastoralists are facing and the solutions that are giving them hope in this expanse of savannahs, scrublands and dry grasslands. Oddly enough, my trip began with rain.

Water holes, mud and camel milk

Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands in southern and northern Kenya are reeling from a string of recent withering droughts that turned grassland to dust, the longest one being from 2020 to early 2023. By last fall, according to ReliefWeb, more than 2.4 million livestock had perished for lack of food and water, and more than 4.2 million people were suffering from acute food insecurity.

The first seasonal rains returned for a few weeks in April, followed by a second round that began on Oct. 17, the first day of my trip north from Nairobi.

After passing through Isiolo, a key transport hub for Lorries heading to Ethiopia 170 miles north of the capital, the rugged empty landscape immediately became dry and brown, even after rains the night before. One hour later, I saw my first camels, first a handful, then dozens. Cow bells clanged around many of their necks while being herded by young pastoralist boys who survive for days at a time on camel milk.

Thirty miles further north, I visited a Rendille settlement, a cluster of two dozen huts made from tree branches and plastic. Nestled behind a mountain, the rainy season had transformed the bumpy path to the settlement into slurry of mud up to a foot deep.

A Rendille settlement purposefully located at the base of a mountain for water access and security from cattle raids. Image courtesy of Peyton Fleming.

The Rendille families moved here during the drought so they could have better access to a manmade water catchment that collects water from the mountain. The location is also considered safer for the women and young girls who live here mostly alone while men and boys are away with their herds.

Soon after leaving the settlement and traveling east, dozens of herds of goats, cattle and camels were assembled a few-hundred yards off the road. Moments later, I saw the reason why: A half-dozen concrete troughs filled to the brim with clean, bountiful water.

Basic infrastructure brings enormous value to this marginalized region crisscrossed by unmarked dirt roads on dried-out riverbeds. Take the new A2 highway, built by a Chinese company from Isiolo to the Ethiopian border: this has reduced travel times dramatically, allowing hay, food and livestock to be transported more quickly across the region.

Well-maintained boreholes – deep groundwater wells often outfitted with solar pumps – also improve local livelihoods. The borehole I visited is a direct result of a green energy boom underway in Kenya. When the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project, Africa’s largest wind power facility, was built a decade ago, the company dug a 420-meter-deep well to provide water for the construction crews (power from the wind farm is all going south to Nairobi; none is available for local pastoralists who live without electricity).

The community borehole, known as Civicon, is popular among Samburu and Rendille herders who come from all directions with their goats, camels and cattle. One of those herders is Ndurra Tarakino, a Rendille man who lost three of his children in a fight over livestock several years ago with the Turkana tribe. Today he’s herding about four dozen cattle and camels, along with more than 50 goats – a far cry from the size of his herds before the drought.

Still, he’s thankful he can bring his animals to this borehole instead of the longer, more arduous task of moving them up into a nearby mountain forest, Mount Kulal, whenever it gets dry. For years, herders like Tarakino lived on the lush green mountain with their livestock and families during droughts, but because of the environmental damage they were causing to the mountain’s rich diversity of trees, plants and birds, they were evicted seven years ago.

“This has made my life much easier,” said Tarakino, while awaiting his turn to bring his livestock to the borehole in the lowlands away from Mount Kulal. “We have no more need for the mountain.”

Clusters of camels, cattle and goats are a common sight in northern Kenya. Image courtesy of Peyton Fleming.

Coping with climate change

Twenty miles north, I stopped for two days at Gatab, a Samburu village of 3,700 people on Mount Kulal’s south side. At a meeting with four dozen members of the local Community Forest Association, made up of male elders, women and youth, myself and other visitors received an earful about the challenges the mountain is facing.

Climate change and dwindling water supplies were the biggest concerns. The mountain was no longer ‘misting’ because of hotter temperatures. Seasonal rains were less reliable. Droughts lasted years instead of months. It was all about water.

For as long as anyone could remember, the mountain’s numerous springs have always provided water. Not anymore. Even with the recent rains last spring, critical water sources near the top of Mount Kulal stopped producing during the summer and fall.

“Two springs that we depended on in the upper village are dry,” said Shadrack Lengoyiap, secretary of the Community Forest Association, speaking in mid-October. “There’s only one spring left in the forest that we can use (in Gatab).”

After heavy rains in early November, the springs began flowing again, but community members are still nervous about the future.

They offer specific suggestions for solving the water gap, including drilling new boreholes, pumping water from the Civicon borehole – even building a dam near the top of the mountain.

But who has the money to pay for a $200,000 borehole, let alone a dam? Certainly not Gatab or Marsabit County, where most families are living in poverty.

A Rendille girl with a camel in northern Kenya. Image courtesy of Peyton Fleming.

A more resilient pastoralism

There are lots of ideas for making pastoralism more financially viable, whether by modifying livestock practices, strengthening land rights, or diversifying economic livelihoods.

Securing pastoralists’ community land right is a foundational step that will provide stability and reduce conflicts over scarce land resources. With support from IMPACT Kenya, a nonprofit supporting Indigenous groups, more than a dozen pastoralist communities in Laikipia and Samburu counties have successfully registered their lands in the past three years.

Transitioning to climate-resilient livestock is another important step. Local pastoralists are increasingly switching from cattle to camels, which require less water and grass. Chickens, long a taboo among pastoralists, are becoming more commonplace in settlements, too. New mobile fencing innovations that shield livestock from wildlife attacks at night, while recharging vegetation, are also gaining traction in southern Kenya.

Mixed farming systems, which combine crop and livestock agriculture, are another ripe opportunity. Like many countries, Kenya has been aggressively pushing tree planting to reduce deforestation and climate change impacts. Many of these efforts, in Gatab and elsewhere, include fruit trees such as oranges, mangoes and avocados, which can improve diets and income diversification.

Putting fruit tree saplings in the hands of women and youth is an especially popular idea being pushed by government and nonprofit groups such as BOMA, which is supporting more than 100 women-led tree nurseries in Marsabit and Samburu counties.

A larger and more controversial opportunity is a carbon credit project which claims to increase carbon storage in areas of northern Kenya by managing Indigenous livestock grazing routes. Launched a decade ago, the Northern Kenya Rangelands Carbon Project has paid out millions of dollars in carbon credits to a dozen ‘community conservancies’ for modifying traditional grazing practices, protecting wildlife and other conservation activity. The projects, mostly in greener areas closer to Nairobi and wildlife parks, are financed with carbon offsets paid for by global companies.

The northern Kenya landscape is dry most of the year, making it unsuitable for growing crops. Image courtesy of Peyton Fleming.

While the project’s climate and community benefits – particularly in terms of benefits for local pastoralists – have been broadly questioned, community conservancies say the money helps pay for community activities like education and water sourcing that would otherwise be unavailable.

Yet there is no appetite for these projects further north near Mount Kulal, where an isolated mountain surrounded by a rugged desert is not suitable for elephants, lions and other wildlife that attract tourists.

“A conservancy to protect the forest is something we’d be open to,” said Christopher Ogom, chair of the Mount Kulal Community Forest Association. “But nobody has approached us to talk about it.”

For Malih Ole Kaunga, executive director of IMPACT Kenya, this is the challenge facing pastoralism in Kenya.

“Unless it can be commoditized with iconic wildlife and tourism, it’s easy to be overlooked and marginalized,” he said.

My visit underscored this thought: It’s too easy to focus government spending and carbon offsets to protect beloved wildlife and their habitats. Given that traditional pastoralists and their durable livelihoods have been protecting landscapes that deliver important – but less charismatic – benefits for thousands of years, they also deserve more support in terms of infrastructure, climate resiliency tools and legal land protections.

 This article was first published on Mongabay

John Hlatywayo: remembering a great Zimbabwean artist who was woefully neglected by history

By Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti

John Hlatywayo, who has died at 96, was a great painter, sculptor and mentor. However he is woefully neglected in the art history of Zimbabwe and southern Africa.

Belonging to an early generation of Zimbabwean artists, Hlatywayo was overshadowed by international interest in the nation’s mainstreamed stone sculptors. Yet he was one of Zimbabwe’s most versatile artists. He could work with different media and produce intriguing conceptual pieces. But he was mainly drawn to portraying aspects of people’s daily lives.

He trained in neighboring South Africa and went on to exhibit his work in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Salisbury (now Harare) and London. His pieces are in the collections of the Wits Art Museum and the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.

In 2018 I had the opportunity to interview Hlatywayo as one of the Black artist-teachers at the centre of my PhD thesis. My thesis tries to broaden Zimbabwe’s modern art canon, arguing for the inclusion of marginalized artist-teachers like Hlatywayo.

A selfless individual, Hlatywayo worked tirelessly to teach and develop art in his community. His story is also important to the region as it represents the transnational sharing of art traditions between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

John Hlatywayo has passed away at the age of 96. Courtesy Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti


Hlatywayo was born in 1927 at Chikore Mission in the Ndau-speaking Chipinge district of Rhodesia – today Zimbabwe. (Ndau is a Shona dialect spoken in southeastern Zimbabwe.)

At primary school at the Mount Selinda Institute, a US mission school, he took an interest in art classes offered by a US expatriate. As a carpentry and building trainee, he helped the self-sustaining institution with the construction of houses.

South Africa

In 1948 he set off for South Africa. He told me about how migrants were screened by officials at the Musina border post. Under the system implemented by the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association, those who were fit to work in the mines progressed to Johannesburg. The rest were taken to work on the nearby farms.

In Johannesburg he was settled in a compound among other migrant laborers who worked in the mines. Before long, he moved to Pretoria, finding work at a metal smelting plant, doubling as a “tea boy” serving a white manager with whom, he said, he never held a normal conversation.

Back in Johannesburg he teamed up with a cousin to start a carpentry shop. It was there that he met a client who ended up introducing him to celebrate South African artist Cecil Skotnes.

Art school

From 1952 to 1966 Skotnes ran the Polly Street Art Centre, converting the former Adult Non-European Recreation Centre into a place where artists would train and fraternize, regardless of their background in a racially divided South Africa during apartheid.

Art historians note that the teaching at the institution generally followed “international modernist styles” with Skotnes also inviting some artists of European origin to work with him. Scholars indicate that at the centre, knowledge and skills were imparted through mentorship or apprenticeship. The goal was to fast-track trainees into professional practice. Besides offering studio space and materials to Black South African artists, the centre also exhibited work along non-racial lines.

Hlatywayo worked at Polly Street from 1954 to 1960, meeting many other sculptors and painters – including Ephraim Ngatane, Durant Sihlali and Louis Maqhubela. His mentors were mainly Skotnes and South African sculptor Sydney Kumalo. This community had an immediate positive impact on his artistic development. Soon he had staged his first solo exhibition, with others to follow.


Two accounts highlighted by academics indicate that Hlatywayo’s work stood out. In 1960, he participated in the important Urban African Art show. Commenting in the Fontein Quarterly magazine, Skotnes singled out the work of Hlatywayo and Kumalo.

In 1963 he took part in a joint exhibition in Cape Town of Polly Street artists. Professor and gallerist Neville Dubow was so impressed by Hlatywayo’s work that he wrote, in the Cape Argus newspaper, that

Hlatywayo shows a firm feeling for organizing forms; he is adept in the monotype technique and is perhaps the most skilled craftsman of the group.

Rhodesia and Zimbabwe

In the mid-1960s Hlatywayo returned home and exhibited works in several institutions. His first solo show in Zimbabwe was at Gallery Delta in 1979. That same year, his work titled Woman won second prize at the annual WeldArt exhibition in Harare.

After independence in 1980, Hlatywayo’s work continued to be exhibited at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and at numerous international institutions.

As recently as 2016, towards the end of his long career as a multimedia artist, Hlatywayo participated in a two-man exhibition with Tafadzwa Gwetai, a Bulawayo-based painter and collage artist. The show, The People Watchers, was also presented in London. In it, Hlatywayo presents metal sculptures that are curved and elongated to capture emotion.

Teacher and mentor

But Hlatwayo was also a prominent teacher. Noticing how few adults showed an interest in art, he made pleas for schools to teach the subject, especially at primary school and in lower grades of high school. As he was quoted in the Rhodesia Herald in 1971:

“No education can claim to be complete that does not include teaching of art.”

Hlatywayo dreamed of starting his own art centre. When a building in Mbare was secured by the national gallery for art classes, he volunteered to teach there on a part-time basis. He also taught students from his home.

Besides creating and teaching, he also served on several panels and committees promoting art.

Why his story matters

Hlatywayo’s story highlights the cultural exchange between South Africa and Zimbabwe that continues to this day, with many Zimbabwean artists working with South African galleries. He also represents a gap in knowledge about Zimbabwean art that urgently needs to be filled to understand the contributions and influence of these neglected artists.

This Article was first published on The Conversation