Editor’s Note: On the 50th anniversary of Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper in March 2010, Mr. Bill Fairbairn, a former reporter with the paper, dug into his memory and photo archives and contributed a story and photographs for Simerg readers. We are pleased to share this slightly edited version of his lively piece as His Highness the Aga Khan arrives in Kenya (see photo, above) to inaugurate the Nation Media Group’s new state-of-the-art printing press on Thursday, March 17, 2016.
BY BILL FAIRBAIRN
Special to Simerg. Copyright.
My name is Bill Fairbairn and I arrived in Nairobi looking for a newspaper job in 1964. I had worked on the Rhodesia Herald in Salisbury and the Northern News in Ndola, Zambia. Things were dangerous for a reporter working across the border from the war in Katanga. So I left the Copperbelt to tour South Africa, and return home by ship to Scotland.
When I arrived at a Cape Town youth hostel, a fellow hosteller said he had just come down from Nairobi and that white journalists were leaving since Kenya had become independent. He said newspapers were looking for staff. I did an about turn mainly because I was not at all keen on leaving Africa.
I hitchhiked to Durban, took a passenger ship to Dar-es-Salaam and arrived by bus in Nairobi as a stringer/correspondent working for the American magazine Newsweek. The Newsweek bureau had no fulltime openings and the East African Standard’s publisher was in Britain recruiting journalists.
So with my resume I went across to the Daily Nation office and they told me to sit down at the editing desk to show them what I could do.
Michael Curtis and Jack Beverley hired me on a two-year contract on the spot. I was soon enjoying my work on the Nation but disturbed by its biblical slogan The truth will set you free on the front page. To my delight a few months later, the slogan was removed from the newspaper.
Memorable for me was interviewing President Jomo Kenyatta, who had a train reconstructed for his personal needs travelling from Nairobi to Mombasa. Mr Kenyatta told me he disliked flying and enjoyed a big bed aboard the train.
One of the alarming experiences was my attempt to photograph Elsa, the lioness of the movie Born Free, starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers. The Open Roads Film Company of London had fenced off the beach at Malindi for film purposes, so I hired an African boatman to row me to the nearby island to which Elsa was supposed to swim. But I had chosen the wrong day for the event. So eventually we rowed to the beach. Who but Bill Travers and the lioness should walk toward me. My camera clicked and the lion’s ears flickered as they passed by. The film director came racing up saying I was trespassing. He ordered me on my way. I told him I was from the Nation and sought a photograph of Elsa swimming in the sea. He said that would not be possible since they wanted that photograph for billboards when the film went to the cinemas.
My photograph of Elsa on the beach appeared in the Daily Nation along with an article saying Elsa had never been more a prisoner. It prompted a letter from the film company inviting news photographers to their camp to take pictures. They did so from inside a cage with the lions outside!
Socially, I was the only white player on the Daily Nation cricket team and a keen visiting snooker player at the Aga Khan Club in Nairobi.
A standing joke that was repeated many times was when the Nation was getting ready to begin publishing. Publisher Michael Curtis was awaiting a key item of machinery for the rotary press. When a plywood box arrived he assumed that was it. He called the staff downstairs to ceremoniously open it. It contained stationary items such as pencils, pens and rulers! However the key gadget did arrive some time later.
I must say that the first two African editors of the Nation were extremely capable. Hilary Ng’weno and James Githi, I believe, were their names. They built for the future.
For my own part I have completed almost 60 years in newspaper work on three continents and written books, including one on Africa, which I sent to His Highness the Aga Khan.
Date posted: March 16, 2016.
About the writer: Bill Fairbairn, journalist and author, is currently a (volunteer) features editor for Riverviews Park Review, an independent community newspaper in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, where he lives with his wife Janina. His journalism career since 1950 took in stints in Britain, Africa, France and Canada. He has worked for several newspapers including The Sheffield Telegraph, The Sun, The Scotsman and The Vancouver Province and has taught journalism in British Columbia and recently in Ottawa. In his latest book The Printer’s Devil, Fairbairn outlines some of the people and events he encountered across Canada working for newspapers, radio and magazine.