When Joseph Mathenge was kicked out by Daily Nation in 2008 and later by Standard, many wrote him off. But his Westgate Mall attack photos and footage that shook the world turned him into a celebrity and winner of Africa’s prestigious journalism award. BUSINESS TODAY talked to the reigning CNN Multichoice Africa Journalist of the Year on how the Westgate attach turned his life around.
Two years ago today, Joseph Mathenge was driving past Dedan Kimathi statue in Nairobi’s CBD and, being a Saturday, was lucky to get parking not far from the Stanley Hotel. Time was of the essence as he prepared to shoot video and take still photos for a friend’s wedding later that afternoon.
Mr Mathenge, the former mainstream newspaper photographer who won the 2014 CNN Multichoice Journalist of the Year Award for 2014, desperately needed the Ksh10,000 from that job. “My son had been diagnosed with cancer and the day before we had a fundraiser that fell short of the targeted Sh800,000 needed for treatment in India. Yet we had only days to go,” says Mathenge, the 41-year-old single father of one.
At about 10.30am as he waited for his son, Geoff Kihato, who doubled as his assistant, to head to Kabete for the wedding, Mr Mathenge received a desperate call from a friend appealing for rescue at Westgate Mall.
Joseph Mathenge receives the CNN Journalist of the Year Award last year from Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete.
“It was dilemma,” he recalls. “My son was sick, and I was headed for a function to make money for his treatment and here is someone sending me a distress call.”
Within a dozen or so minutes they arrived at Westgate Mall and thus begun a day that would change the life of a photographer who had been kicked out of the Daily Nation, and later Standard, newsrooms for “non-performance.”
A group of terrorists had attacked Westgate Mall, then a melting pot of Nairobi’s middle-class and home to all manner of classy shops from supermarkets, clothes, eateries and banks. When Mr Mathenge arrived at the scene, he says, he saw people stampeding out of the mall, some drenched in blood, as shooting continued inside where a number of shoppers had been taken hostage. His journalistic instinct was still very much alive and they started rolling their cameras.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON: Mathenge’s son, Geoff, was part of the action.
Geoff, 21, an IT student at St Pauls University in Nairobi, then a trainee photographer, grabbed the opportunity. “I told Geoff to stay back but he refused, so I asked him to follow my instructions as this was a risky thing,” he says. “We passed someone who had been shot and run over by a car and a dead security guard. Our cameras could take both still and video.”
Inside the Westgate Mall, with the help of police officers, they got their way to the top floor where a local radio station was holding a children’s cooking competition. Here they found more dead bodies in what appeared like a scene from a horror movie. “The photos helped the police to study the building as they didn’t have the map,” says Mr Mathenge.
Eventually, they found the lady who had called him earlier and helped her out. He also encountered Ms Faith Mulee Wambua-Lüdeling with her two children, who would turn out to be one of the most powerful and heart-rending images of the Westgate. “I told her in Swahili to play dead until they are rescued and they did it quite well,” says Mr Mathenge.
Mr Mathenge had exclusive footage. No other cameraman had moved beyond few metres of the building as it was cordoned off. “It took me a day to release the photos and footage. I had nowhere to publish the photos since I am just a freelance journalist, but I knew the images would be useful for the country. Memories fade but pictures don’t,” he said.
Indeed for the next few days, the exclusive footage featured on both local and international television and his images in newspapers globally. “Whatever I got from selling the photos and footage was sufficient to take my son to India for treatment,” he says.
Mathenge was declared the CNN Multichoice African Journalist of the Year Awards Winner for 2014 essentially because of his daring and outstanding work, alongside his son, in covering the attack on West Gate Mall on September 21, 2013. It was a significant but tragic event and Mr Mathenge, through the lenses of his cameras, brought Kenya’s misery to the world’s attention.
He photographed the young woman and her two children lying flat on the floor feigning death. “Fearing that we could be the attackers, she refused to get up when we told her to run to safety,” he recalls, “My video clip of her clip was replayed around the world for days plus many other pictures of people being rescued, others bleeding from the gunshots, security personnel and the dead.”
Mr Mathenge says the images of dead bodies did not disturb him psychologically. Working for mainstream media, he had covered massacres and violent scenes in which people were injured or killed, including the Marsabit massacre where he had to hide among dead bodies to escape bandit fire. He was also among the first photographers to arrive at the 1998 bomb blast in Nairobi. But he says, “Westgate was the mother of all.” Young Geoff was meeting such a scene for the first time but his father says he coped well.
Mr Mathenge became, in fact, the first photographer to win the overall journalism award globally. “I had never participated in any completion during my career, but a friend who works as a journalist with AP (Associated Press) advised me to enter the photos in the competition and assured me it would win the award,” he says.
For Mathenge, the award was a culmination of hard work and endurance as a journalist. From Nation, he got a job with Standard but was again thrown out after two months. Then he decided to do his own things. “Everything I do with my camera I take it seriously. Whatever I do with it, however small, I focus on it because you just never know what it will turn out to be,” he says.
Mentoring young journalists
As CNN Multichoice Journalist of the Year, Mr Mathenge has started a programme to mentor young journalists. He says you can make a bigger impact as a freelance photographer than while attached to a media house.
“In the newsroom you are tied, you can’t move out. At times you will be reprimanded for covering offbeat events. For example, I was denied permission to cover the Marsabit massacre but jumped onto the helicopter taking journalists. My images were outstanding,” he says. “I cannot be tamed, and perhaps that is why I could not survive in the newsroom.”
After leaving the newsroom, Mr Mathenge tried several things, such as training photographers, documentaries and general photography. “There’s no media without a camera. Press conferences can’t proceed before cameras arrive. Prominent people like Mother Teresa and Wangari Maathai wouldn’t be known without the camera,” he observes. “Through the lens we get to know people.”
He says media houses should recognise and nurture talented journalists instead of taming them. Many journalists can do a great job with good mentorship, he says, noting how top guys in newsrooms often stifle talent. “The day Kibaki and Raila were signing the national accord,” he says, breaking into laughter, “I was sent to cover the flagging off a pick-up at Afya House.” In fact, that event flagged off his quest for a meaningful role in society.
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