/ 9 April 2010

It’s our turn to eat: The story of John Githongo

It’s our turn to eat: the story of A Kenyan Whistle Blower
by Michela Wrong (Fourth Estate, Harper Collins)

Michela Wrong tells the story of John Githongo, a journalist and civil rights campaigner who, in 2003, was co-opted by the Kenya government to be its corruption buster. Three years later Githongo was on the run from the Kenyan government. He pitched up on Wrong’s doorstep in London looking for a bolt hole, bringing with him a dossier of evidence implicating several government ministers in arms-deal corruption.

On one level this book reads like a political thriller. Among several gut-churningly audacious intelligence-gathering techniques, which Wrong relates, Githongo secretly recorded his conversations with key players in the scandal.

Although Wrong’s narrative storytelling technique may raise ethical questions — for example, she dramatises the scenes in which Githongo either confronts, or is confronted by, his corrupt colleagues — she is faced with the challenge of narrating the slow, cancerous spread of corruption in a fast-paced, readable way.

Wrong’s blend of genres and storytelling techniques is successful, and not unexpectedly so, as her track record as a journalist on this continent includes six years as Africa correspondent for Reuters, the BBC and the Financial Times. Her debut book, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz (2001), is an account of the messy transfer of power from Mobutu to Kabila in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the late 1990s and has been well received by critics. Her second book, I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation (2005), tells the story of how Western nations have used Eritrea as a geopolitical doormat from the time it was an Italian colony and the Cold War, to the present day. With It’s Our Turn to Eat, her third book, Wrong has cemented her position as a niche investigative journalist.

Although Wrong has a long way to go to match John Pilger’s prodigious output of investigative documentaries, she is gradually developing a powerful narrative style of her own, which includes strongly sketched characters, such as Githongo, whom she uses to tell a larger story about African nations in the 21st century.

There have been some mutterings, especially in Kenya, about why Wrong, a Westerner, should tell Githongo’s story, and not Githongo himself.

But although her book is partly a biography of Githongo, it is also partly a history of Kenya, tracing the origins of its present-day tribalism and corruption back to colonialism.

Wrong also analyses the continuing influence of Kenya’s former colonial master, Britain; in particular the necessarily parasitic, two-way relationship between both countries.

Despite the reservations about Wrong’s handling of Githongo’s story, her book is an important contribution to the investigative journalism genre, particularly in Africa, where the efforts of whistle-blowers such as Githongo to hold their governments to account are more often punished than rewarded.