Image and Narrative contributed by Sir Mohinder Dhillon, Kenya
The following text is a summarised and edited version of excerpts from an unpublished Autobiography of the contributor.
Looking back over the 80 years, I wonder how, as a simple village boy from Punjab who never even finished school, did I end up in Africa, dodging bullets to make a living from shooting hundreds of kilometres of film in some of the world’s most dangerous regions.
I come from the proud martial family of the Sikhs. I do not know the exact date of my birth, although my passport says 25 October 1931, Baburpur, Punjab. At the time, births were not registered, and parents habitually exaggerated the ages of their children in order to get them into school early and so have their own hands free during the day. Baburpur, formerly called Retla (the place of sand), was renamed after Mughal Emperor Babur who had reportedly camped near our village for a few weeks.
My father, Tek Singh-
My father, Tek Singh, was the first person in our village to get an education. He was an adventurous man, and in 1918 at the age of 17, he responded with enthusiasm to the recruiting posters for workers on the Uganda Railway in British East Africa. Believing that there was safety in numbers, he was joined by friends and former classmates from nearby villages and the determined young men collectively took up the challenge of seeking a better life abroad.
This grandiose project of Uganda Railways would change the lives of the tens of thousands of Indians who left home for a new life in an unknown land, most of them never to return. The so-called Lunatic Line laid between 1896 and 1901 from Mombasa into the interior of then-British East Africa to Lake Victoria and subsequently extended into what is now Uganda, opened up the East African hinterland to the outside world. The founding of towns, and their later development into cities, would go on to transform the economies of the region.
When Tek Singh announced his decision to go to East Africa, it upset my grandparents immensely. Their only son was going to ‘darkest Africa’, the prevalent view of Africa at the time (still the perception of many people today). The money for my father’s first train ticket to Bombay, and for the dhow that would carry him from there to Mombasa, was borrowed from a moneylender in the village at a steep interest rate.
For the young Tek Singh leaving the village was more than just an adventure. A great deal rested on how he would fare in distant East Africa. Back at home in India, his family would be depending on him for remittances. He also had young wife to think of. His marriage had taken place six years earlier, when Tek was just 11, and his betrothed, Kartar Kaur, was nine years old.
The railway journey from Babarpur to Bombay took two days and one night. And then it took another two days to find the Uganda Railway’s recruiting agent. His shopping list for the journey – then the cheapest way of crossing the Indian Ocean – included a charcoal stove, two bags of charcoal, all the rations needed for the journey, a sleeping mat, blankets, washing powder, bath soap, tea leaves, and fresh water.
Tek Singh – or Bau Ji, as he was fondly called at home – arrived in Mombasa with almost no money in his pockets. He found refuge at a nearby Sikh temple (Gurudwara), where he slept on the veranda braving the ravenous mosquitoes, exactly like how the thousands freshly arrived on the coast spent their first few nights. After a week, Bau Ji was provided a bachelor accommodation by the Uganda Railways. Later, he and two other young Sikhs shared a small railway house that had the luxury of a tiny garden. The trio of bachelors remained life-long friends.
Bau Ji had promptly written home, informing his parents of his safe arrival. The mail though travelled first by sea, and then by rail and horse-drawn carriage and by foot, and took as long as 12 weeks to arrive. By then, his parents had feared the worst. His wife, Kartar Kaur, for her part, was obliged to don widow’s attire (the customary white dress), and was forbidden to use cosmetics. She complied for form’s sake but Kartar refused to believe that her husband was not alive. Amid the uncertainty of my father’s absence, my grandfather Natha Singh lived long enough to hear that his son had indeed reached East Africa safely, but the suspense evidently proved too much for his health. When Bau Ji’s letter finally arrived, the family was overjoyed and distributed sweets to everybody, but my grandfather died shortly after that.
Bau Ji found himself working for a soon-to-be expanded colonial rail (and shipping) network, one that would come to be known, first as Kenya & Uganda Railways and Harbours, and then eventually (in 1948) as the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation. Almost 30 years would elapse before he felt he was ready to bring the rest of his family over to Kenya. Through the 30 years, Bau Ji had to be content with getting to see his family during periods of extended overseas leave. He was entitled, once in every five years, a ‘six month home leave’ in India. All but one of the rest of us seven siblings were conceived during successive home-leave visits from our father. My youngest brother Balbir was born in Kenya. Bau Ji was able to save money for the education of all six of his sons, including me. Later, Bau Ji sent money to build a primary school in our home village.
Although the India Bau Ji had left behind was riven by class divisions, the world to which he now belonged bore even sharper lines of demarcation. The less educated Sikhs, those who were good with their hands, became mechanics, masons and carpenters. Only well-educated Sikhs could expect to land responsible office jobs. Most of the Railway accountants and clerks were Goans, who also ran the catering department. The people from Goa, who had lived under Portuguese rule for more than 500 years, did not mix much with other Indians. They classified themselves as Portuguese. And they already had their own sports club, known as the Railway Goan Institute. There were very few Gujarati-speaking Indians working on the Railway. Some Sikhs left the Railways to venture into business, but it was rare.
Bau Ji, for his part, had very little time for any kind of life beyond the Railway. He would walk the 10 kms to work from his Railway quarters. He and his two friends Kishen Mangat and Basant Bindra were encouraged by the British Administration to form a Sikh hockey team so a hockey field and a modest clubhouse were duly built. It went on to become the Railway Asian Institute Sports Club. After work, he would walk back home, have his tea, then change into his running-shorts and pick up his Indian-made hockey stick to hone his hockey playing skills.
Our lives in Baburpur –
I spent my early childhood in much the same way as my father. We never travelled outside our district in Punjab. There were no road or rail connections nearby. The Television was yet to be invented and I did not even know that radios existed. I first saw a camera when we all travelled to Ludhiana in 1947 to have our passport pictures taken. The camera was one of those contraptions with a black shroud underneath which the photographer’s head would momentarily disappear. There were no newspapers or magazines from which to learn about the world outside Babarpur. While in India, I had never heard of Mahatma Gandhi. Not until 1948, when I was in Kenya, would I hear about Gandhi for the first time – and that was only because he had just been assassinated.
Some of my friends are shocked when I tell them that my main hobby in the village was cock-fighting. I was the proud owner of a champion white cockerel named Raja, or ‘king’. Raja was fed on almonds and garlic, which made him a formidable fighter. We couldn’t afford the luxury of eating almonds. But for Raja, I would settle for nothing less. Before Raja went into battle, I would fit needle-sharp steel caps over his fighting-spurs – the talons on the inner side of a cock’s leg. In their natural state, a cock’s spurs are sharp enough. But kitted out in steel spikes, Raja could strike deep into an opponent’s belly, killing that poor bird almost instantly. Talking about this makes me wonder how I could have been so cruel. Back then, however, as a 12-year-old, I got a great kick out of all this. Raja slept next to my bed, I was so proud of him. My other passion was kite-flying. Together, brother Joginder and I won the championship for both of our last two years in the village.
Leaving India –
Things began to change for us in April 1947 the announcement of our impending departure had come in a letter from Bau Ji, received in September 1946. Leaving for Africa just weeks before India got its independence did at least spare us the carnage of Partition. When we left, India was still a peaceful place. Yet, within just a few months of our departure, some two million Indians were to lose their lives.
The first time I stepped on to a train was in 1947, at the age of 16, when we were leaving India. It was in the same year that I first travelled by bus. This was a time when, for the first time ever, Indian national election campaigns were canvassing the villages. The year 1947 was thus a significant one in my life. Until then, I had passed my entire childhood without ever having seen either a car or a motorcycle. I saw a flush toilet for the first time only after we travelled to a nearby town to be immunised against smallpox and to receive our yellow-fever vaccinations.
First, we travelled by ox-cart to Malaudh, the small town nearest to Babarpur where I had been going to school. With Partition looming, electioneering was under way in earnest, new buses were being used to mobilise political support among rural populations. From Malaudh, we took a bus to Ludhiana. This was only the second bus I had ever travelled in..From there, we boarded the train for Bombay.
In Bombay, we found a cheap hotel, where – in order to cut costs – the whole family shared one large room, with the males in one corner and the women in another. In the floor of the room there were holes through which, peeping down, we could see parts of the room beneath. Like all Indian travellers in those days, we carried all our own bedding in a sturdy canvas roll, complete with thick leather straps, a leather handle and a special pillow compartment. The bustle of Bombay – the first big city I had ever seen – was overwhelming. On reaching a street, I’d just stand there, transfixed, sometimes for at least three minutes, not daring to cross if there were a car approaching, even from afar. Bombay was simply awe-inspiring.
In India, there were – even then – bribe agents or ‘facilitators’ everywhere to smooth your passage through the formalities of customs and immigration and to find suitable accommodation for you. At the Bombay seaport, a bribe had to be paid for every service that was rendered. We even had to bribe someone in order to establish who else needed to be bribed. Our bribe agent then made sure that we bribed all the right officials.
The ship, named the Khandala, was dirty and worn. Originally a coal carrier, it had been converted to service as a passenger liner. The journey took 14 days. We docked briefly at two ports along the way, Porbunder in Gujarat and Mahe in the Seychelles. Then one day we saw the lighthouse of Mombasa. A tugboat came out to meet us and escorted our ship through a narrow bay into the port. The Africa I arrived in was green and lush. Palm trees swayed in the breeze against a clear blue sky. What a marked contrast this was to the flat and dusty Punjab we had left behind.
As we approached the shore, I knew I had come to a wondrous land. There were large engineering cranes at work in the harbour. The first human beings who caught my eye on the shore – two white men wearing shorts and a white woman in a loose skirt – were doing something curious. They were swinging sticks up and down. Later I found out it was golf. There were Africans, Arabs, Swahilis and even a few Indians and Europeans. We were astonished by how cheerful and laid-back everybody seemed to be. Most of the people we had seen on the streets of Bombay, by contrast, had looked tense and miserable, as they rushed about from place to place.
After Babarpur, our modest Railway house in Nairobi had the look of a palace. Gurdev, my elder brother soon found a job as a Railway fireman. For two years, he fed coal into the burners of the steam-engines and he would come home with soot all over his face and on his overalls. After a two-year apprenticeship, he became a locomotive driver.
In India, we had been punished for everything in school – for poor grades, for failing to complete our homework, for showing up a few minutes late, even for laughing aloud in class. For a village boy used to squatting on a coarse jute mat on a hard, uneven cement floor, this was a luxurious learning environment. Most of the teachers in Nairobi were surprisingly lenient, moreover, they did not punish for failure, or for lagging behind, but only for behaving badly in class.
Outside of school, life was filled with excitement. We drank sticky soda pop and we begged for turns to ride the bicycles of our friends. I played billiards, snooker and skittles at the Railway Club. At school, we played hockey and table-tennis. Indeed, we became such dab hands at table-tennis that my brother Manjeet and I went on, in 1954 and again in 1955, to contest the final of the Kenya National Table Tennis Championship. I won the first encounter, but Manjeet took the second.
Bau Ji was himself an avid sportsman. His love of hockey in particular was to infect my younger brother, Joginder (Jindi), who went on to be selected as part of the national hockey team that represented Kenya at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
Joginder was sent to the prestigious St Thomas’s Teaching Hospital in London, where he eventually qualified as a doctor. Having then just represented Kenya at the Olympics, Joginder had easily found a place at the teaching hospital. Inderjeet went back to India, to a boarding college in Ludhiana, as Bau Ji could not afford to send him to a school in England. Later, upon returning to Kenya, Inderjeet became a popular radio and TV personality with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, and was for a while a heartthrob among the teenage set in Nairobi. Manjeet initially took up a job in Nairobi as a clerk in the Kenya Ministry of Works, before going into business. While at school, he received a shield from Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret. He was also awarded the Lord Mountbatten Boy Scouts’ Belt. All five of my brothers passed their ‘O’ level examinations. I was the sole exception, failing the exam.
A career in images –
One day Bau Ji gave me a basic, second-hand Box Brownie camera. Bought at a stock-clearance sale, it had cost him 25 shillings – the equivalent, then, of about US$ 3.50. This was the ‘poor man’s Rolleiflex’, with a fixed speed and fixed aperture. Neither he nor I knew it at the time, but this simple gift marked the beginning of a 60-year-long career in photography.
In the 1950s, in a prestigious international photographic magazine, I came across a photo essay by the Indian photographer, I.S Johar. His were pictures taken with a Box Brownie of landscapes featuring dramatic skies. Of course, all Johar’s images were in black-and-white, as colour film had yet to appear. His images, though, were a revelation to me. Taking my cue from Johar, I started using a yellow filter for all my outdoor pictures, and an orange one at times, for special effects.
My first photographs were of the Indian hockey team’s first to visit Kenya, early in 1948. In the team was the maestro Dhyan Chand, winner of three Olympic gold medals. Other great players I remember from that team were K S Babu, Manna Singh, the barefooted Peerumal and the South Indian Raju, as well as the two Anglo-Indians, R S Gentle and Claudius. For players with such an awesome reputation, all were astonishingly unassuming and gracious. None so much as batted an eyelid on being ambushed by me before a match with requests for their portraits. “Dhyan Chand,” I’d say, “Just stand there a minute, would you?” And the great man would duly oblige.
I could not afford to take my film off to a photographic studio for processing, so I learned to process film myself, in a small, makeshift dark room that I improvised in the windowless storeroom at our Railways house. I purchased developer powder and other chemicals from a studio in town. From that studio, I also borrowed a thin handbook, published I think by Britain’s Royal Photographic Society, entitled Photography Made Easy for Learners, which had detailed instructions on how to set up a home-processing lab.
I did not have an enlarger, so the photographs I produced were tiny, measuring just 2.25 by 3.25 inches. With no electric drum-dryer either, I would dry the wet pictures by slapping them on to the window panes in the kitchen, after washing down the glass with Lifebuoy soap. “Mohindri, that’s expensive soap,’ my mother or my sister would chide me. There was some friction, in that kitchen, between the cooks in the family and me, over my encroaching photographic activities. “A kitchen,” I was roundly informed, “is for cooking in – not for making pictures.”
My new-found joy at having discovered the wonders of photography did little to calm the guilt feelings that by now were haunting me. Here I was, a grown man of 20 without a job, still sponging off his parents at home. Having flunked my ‘O’ Level exams, I was beginning to feel anxious I might never find a meaningful job.
So one morning I plucked up enough courage to respond to one of the newspaper advertisements. The vacancy in question was for ‘a junior accounts clerk in an established pharmacy practice’. To my surprise, I received a notification that I was to come in for an interview. At the appointed time, I was shown into the office of the proprietor, an elderly Jewish woman called Edith Haller. I had heard of Ms. Haller, as she also owned one of the photographic studios in the town. Indeed, in those days most retail chemists operated a photographic service as well –where customers could hand in their exposed film and later collect the developed prints.
My formal interview with Ms Haller was mercifully brief. In short, my candidacy for the post of accounts clerk at the pharmacy was rejected almost at once. “What we need is a qualified bookkeeper,” Ms Haller explained. I was not unduly surprised but this time my frustration got the better of me and I nearly broke down in tears. In the doorway, as I was leaving Ms Haller’s office, I spun around suddenly. “Halle Studio,” I blurted out. “What about Halle Studio? Isn’t there something I can do there?” I told her about the little dark room I had established at home. I offered to bring in and to show her some of my photographs. I pleaded with Ms. Haller to be given a chance. She must have been utterly taken aback by my torrent of broken English, by my gangly appearance, by my ill-fitting, lop-sided turban. This was the first time I had ever addressed a white person at any length.
Ms Haller’s eyes lit up while I was talking. There and then, once I had said my piece, she told me she would put me on one month’s probation, starting immediately. From the moment I reported for duty, I was determined to show I was both capable and eager to learn. That job meant everything to me. My trainer Peter Howlett, although he did not say so, left me in no doubt that my brown skin might present a bit of a problem. Ms. Haller nevertheless confirmed me in my post at the end of the month-long probation period, for which I was paid 150 shillings (the equivalent, then, of about US$ 21). She also raised my monthly salary to 250 shillings (roughly US$ 35). I was mightily relieved and grateful; for now, at last, I had a proper job.
At the time, Kenya’s only daily newspaper, the East African Standard, did not have any staff photographers of its own. Instead, the paper relied on photographers hired from Halle Studio for its pictures of all events. Peter Howlett, the man who had been given the responsibility of training me – was Halle’s principal photographer and handled most of the commissions.
One line of work that kept Halle Studio very busy was photographing babies at their parents’ homes. Peter specialised in taking informal portraits of the babies using a single flash and it was my job to hold the flash unit. The unit was a very large, heavy box, separate from but wired up to the camera. I had to lug this box around, directing the flash at different angles so as to avoid casting an ugly shadow while Peter clicked away. Peter and I made a very successful team. We got many requests from proud young parents, while also going from door to door around some of the more affluent Nairobi suburbs, promoting our ‘Home Photography’. The response we received was generally enthusiastic, and before long we had an extensive customer base – and an impressive album of sample baby pictures.
We were also hired to take pictures of horse races, dog shows and other social events. As a colonial newspaper, the East African Standard – which commissioned most of these photographs – catered exclusively to the tastes of Kenya’s ruling British elite. One day, while Peter was away on holiday, the newspaper’s social editor, Lesley Clay, rang the Studio, requesting the services of a photographer. I took the call and offered to stand in for Peter. Ms Clay readily agreed to take a chance on me. “In a worst-case scenario,” she added, encouragingly, “we can probably do without a picture.” It turned out that Lesley wanted me to cover a horse show.
Ms. Clay was delighted with my photographs. Even I, when I processed and developed the pictures, was pleasantly surprised by how well they came out. This time the picture taken by Rolleiflex camera, and a 8×10 inch size was a magical thrill. This was the beginning of a long relationship with the Standard newspaper. Two dynamic white women – Ms. Haller and Ms. Clay – were thus responsible for both of the early breakthroughs in my career as a professional photographer.
With Lesley I attended countless society functions at which she would introduce her paper’s turbaned Sikh photographer to individual party guests. All were white, of course, and many would simply turn away on being introduced to me, shunning my presence.
The newspaper work kept me busy for years, until eventually the Standard employed a staff photographer, John Parry from England. In those days, the paper paid us peanuts for our photographs. The going rate was just five ten shillings (the equivalent at the time of about $ 1.20 60 US cents) per column-inch.
When the British declared a State of Emergency in Kenya in 1952, the Mau Mau struggle became the big news story. We took photographs of the brutal ‘screening’ of Africans in the streets; of detainees in the Manyani Camp; of British troops and supplies arriving at the Eastleigh Airport. I was not mature enough then to take in fully what was going on around me, even though this period was one of the most politically charged in the country’s history. The awakening of my political consciousness would come later, when I took photographs of the Hola Camp Massacre in 1959. It was when the real horrors of this conflict start to hit me.
Halle Studio –
In 1954, Ms. Halle fell ill, and her brother Arthur Haller, who was then the Government Maize Controller, persuaded me to buy the business from her. He even went so far as to find me a partner, in the person of Oded Katzler, a wholesaler of cardboard packaging. Katzler raised all the capital – amounting to the then formidable sum of 20,000 shillings. At first, Oded remained a sleeping partner in the business, but after 10 months I was able to buy him out. Upon acquiring Halle Studio, I immediately relocated the company to a rented first-floor office suite in central Nairobi. This was in Nairobi House, the historic building then located on the corner of Delamere Avenue and Government Road (now Kenyatta Avenue and Moi Avenue). The work was exciting, and although it did not pay well I was happy enough at the time, as I had developed a taste for photo journalism and news reporting. As time went by, my professional photographic assignments started taking me further afield. Increasingly, I was called upon to cover safaris and expeditions in remote parts of the country.
One evening in May 1958, my father – after coming home from work as usual – told me that he had some “wonderful news” for me. “Mohinder,” he said, “you are getting married.” Just like that.
Amarjeet Kaur Sandhu, known throughout her life as Ambi , was born in Kisumu, on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria, on September 20, 1940. She was educated at Kisumu Girls School, although, like me, she did not progress beyond ‘O’ Level. Bau Ji, for his part, was pleased to learn that Ambi had played tennis at school – at a time when Sikh girls were, for the first time, being allowed to play sports – was a strong point in her favour.
After our marriage, Ambi was not only conversant with all the studio’s day-to-day functions; she was also taking most of the passport, driver’s licence and ID photographs herself. This left me free to take on newspaper assignments at a moment’s notice. The result was that business at the studio picked up dramatically.
In those pre-Independence days, our bread-and-butter income came from a deal we had with the British Army to take ID photographs of its soldiers serving in Kenya, many of them then trying to suppress the Mau Mau uprising. On at least six days every month, whole lorry-loads of British soldiers would be dropped off to have their pictures taken. Sometimes, the queue would extend down the stairs on to the ground floor of Nairobi House and out into the street. Ambi would sometimes take pictures of more than 300 British soldiers in a single day.
Ambi loved working at the studio. She loved the busy days especially, when streams of people would walk in to have their pictures taken or to collect their prints. She made friends with other tenants in the building, whom she spoilt with her home-made samosas, earning her the nickname ‘Samosa Lady’. The work set Ambi apart from former school friends of hers, some of whom were now also newly married and living in Nairobi, but who – as housewives, most of them – had only limited interaction with the wider Nairobi public. Ambi never criticised her married former school friends openly, but she did, in private, after meeting up with them at weekends, “I am far too busy,” she used to say, “for all this idle chatter” finding the closed world of their incessant society gossip exasperating.
With Ambi at the studio, I could devote myself almost exclusively to news photography, initially for the East African Standard, and then – increasingly – for UPI and other international press agencies as well. Come 1959, I was spending less and less of my time in the studio, as assignments would call on me to leave Nairobi to cover events elsewhere in Kenya and throughout East Africa. When, in 1960, I began covering events across the whole of Africa, I would be away for lengthy periods, leaving Ambi to ‘hold the fort’ at Halle Studio. Having acquired a passion for photo-journalism, I had become ambitious. So, in 1959, I wrote to Planet News Photos (subsequently taken over by United Press International, UPI) asking if this international agency might consider taking my pictures. The reply I received was surprisingly short and to the point: ‘Yes, Please’ – just the two words; no further explanation required; no demands; no doubts even over whether I could deliver photographs of the desired standard. This stunning breakthrough would prove the making of my company Africapix Media Limited.
Mohinder Dhillon (Founder and CEO of Africapix Media Ltd.) was the first photo and TV journalist to capture the plight of Iranian Kurds behind Khomeini’s lines. His first pictures shocked the world generating a lot for sympathy of Kurdish sufferance. He was knighted by the Order of Saint Mary of Zion during a ceremony at the Royal Artillery Headquarters in Woolwich, U.K. on November 12th 2005. “The honors were conferred upon those who had made significant contribution to the society.
His films of Ethiopian famine finally moved the world into action resulting in one of the biggest famine relief operations in history. Relief planes from dozens of countries descended on little dirt air strips of Ethiopian countryside round the clock as if they were Heathrow or JFK airports. The very first pictures of the terrible Ethiopian famine was the combined effort of Mohinder Dhillon and Michael Buerk of BBC TV to gain entry into tightly controlled military ruled Ethiopia in 1984 opening the door for rest of the media and rest of the world.
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