What does history sound like? Kenyan film explores mystery

The Sound Man is about the sights and sounds Ramadhan heard and saw through wars and tragedies.

Thursday March 24 2016

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A three-in-one conference — the International Press Institute Congress, the World Media Summit, and the Al Jazeera Forum — just ended in the Qatari capital, Doha.

Without doubt, one of the highlights was a side event, a mercifully short documentary by Salim Amin’s Nairobi-based Camerapix, The Sound Man.

Directed by Chip Duncan, The Sound Man, which has won 14 awards so far and got on the final list of 20 to be considered for an Oscar in the documentary section, has a simple premise.

It is the story of soft spoken Camerapix’s location sound man, 63-year-old Abdul Ramadhan. Ramadhan has worked with Camerapix for 43 years, having been hired by its legendary founder and Salim’s father, photojournalist Mohamed “Mo” Amin.

Whether it be the 1980s lethal famine in Ethiopia, the Sudan civil war, the genocide in Rwanda, the long madness in Somalia, the revolution in Ethiopia, up to the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya, Ramadhan was there, a silent presence with Mo and later with photojournalist Patrick Muiruri.


The documentary is a story about the sounds Ramadhan heard and the sights he saw through wars and tragedies, and where it has all left him.

It is one of those documentaries that sneak up on you like a thief in the night.

I will not spoil it all for you, but, for one, despite having travelled all around the continent and made good, Ramadhan still lives in Kibera slum, where he was born.

Not in a shack, he has a nice house, but as his wife, who is a revelation in the documentary, tells it, “Abdul is Kibera, and Kibera is Abdul”. He will not leave, though he does not want his children to make their lives there.

There is some very disturbing, probably previously unseen, archival material Ramadhan and Muiruri shot during the 1994 Rwanda genocide and unnerving 1992 shots from the Sudan war.

As the horror upon horrors that Ramadhan witnessed unfold, you find yourself wondering how one man can witness all that and remain sane.

The answer comes from the left field. In July 1993, after spending nearly two weeks in Somalia, Ramadhan left to take a break in Nairobi.

At the airport, he met and handed over the equipment to sound man Anthony Macharia, who was rotating in to take over from him.

He warned Macharia that, with tensions between the American troops and Somalis high in Mogadishu, the situation was dangerous. He needed to be more cautious than usual.

Three days later, on July 12, 1993, Macharia was dead. He, together with Reuters journalists Dan Eldon and Hos Maina, along with German photographer Hansi Krauss, were beaten and stoned to death by Somali crowds angered by an attack by American helicopter gunships.


Ramadhan had been stoic and cool until then. He breaks down when he speaks about Macharia. The camera lingers. There are seconds of silence - and few dry eyes in the room.

It is a telling insight into how journalists, and presumably aid workers, deal with so much death.

You might be able to establish the professional and emotional distance that is necessary if you are to record and report on these tragedies, if the people are foreigners.

But there is really no way you can build such an emotional wall around your feelings when the victims are your own - your friends, your family, your community. It always gets to you.

And then, the bigger question of the meaning of all the carnage and pain. In a question-and-answer after the screening, Salim said both Ramadhan and Muiruri still have an optimistic view about the future of Africa because in all the insanity they recorded, they also encountered remarkable courage and goodness.

A journalist in the audience argued that all the gore was part of the grind of African nation formation.

For as happened in Europe and Asia in times past, a modern Africa will not emerge out of a rainbow one beautiful morning.

A lot of things will break, and modern Africa will also be forged by iron and blood.

Whatever it is, The Sound Man tells us that the people who draft that history are not only the photographers and journalists who go head to head with the events, but equally the “small people” who record their rhythms from the sidelines.

The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. [email protected]