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Veteran Africa reporter, and now foreign editor of the Economist, Robert Guest talks about mock executions and being stranded in Kinshasa. On a lighter note, he recalls a lemur with a penchant for itching his balls with a fork. He is the author of the Shackled Continent, a book on how Africa can prosper.

Robert in India January 2011

Impressions from reporting in Kenya?

I love visiting Kenya, though it’s always complicated and hard to keep up with what’s going on. I’ve met a lot of really smart Kenyans, and a lot of brave ones, too. I’ve watched the way Kenya has been transformed by technology, for example, leading the world in its adoption of mobile money.

I was last in Nairobi a few months ago, talking to a telecoms executive who explained to me how incredibly useful it would be if Kenya was able to process and analyse all the data produced by people paying for things with M-Pesa, which is a very exciting idea. On the same trip, in marked contrast, I also interviewed human-rights campaigners in Mombasa who were worried at the number of Muslim youths who were being “disappeared” by the police. ย 

If you could pick out one anecdote from your time in Africa, which would it be?

My wife Emma and I were on a scuba-diving holiday in Madagascar. We were eating bananes flambees, a scrumptious dish of bananas swimming in rum and set on fire. Our guide book told us that a banane flambee is the local slang for a ladies’ man, which amused us.

As we were eating, a tame lemur jumped onto a nearby empty table and started vigorously scratching himself with a fork. He scratched himself all over, and I mean everywhere. Then he put the fork back down and hopped away, leaving it for the next unsuspecting diner to use it.

Hairiest reporting trip?

I got stuck in Kinshasa [in DRC] in August 1998, just as the great Congo war was starting. I came in across the river by boat from Brazzaville [in neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville]. I was only planning to spend a week there, but Rwandan-backed rebels attacked the airport just before I was supposed to fly out, so my flight was cancelled.

The atmosphere in the city was pretty grim. There were bodies in the street of suspected rebels who had been doused with petrol and set alight. The radio urged locals to “bring a machete, a spear, an arrow, a hoe, spades, rakes, nails, truncheons, electric irons, barbed wire, stones, and the like, in order, dear listeners, to kill the Rwandan Tutsis.” I wasn’t a Tutsi, but I was still scared.

A couple of my colleagues were put through mock executions by Congolese soldiers. I got out after two weeks, back over the river by boat again. I had run out of money, so I borrowed $1,000 from another journalist and booked myself onto the first flight out of Brazzaville, regardless of where it was heading.

What do you never travel without?

Something to read. I used to lug around stacks of paper books, to make sure that I was never stuck on a bus or in an airport with nothing to read. Now I just load books into a tablet. The latest books on wherever I am travelling to, plus all the past issues of The Economist and a crime novel or two. Wonderful.

Favourite hotel in the world

The Victoria Falls hotel was lovely when I went there in the late 1990s. Emma and I spent an idyllic weekend holding hands and admiring the “Smoke that Thunders”. The only downside was that virtually no one else was there – recent footage of police beating up protesters in Harare 700 km away had convinced all the tourists that Zimbabwe was too dangerous to visit.

Favourite view in the world

I love the view over Lake Kivu from the Orchids Hotel in Bukavu. But if it’s jacaranda season in Johannesburg, you can’t beat the view from the Four Seasons at Westcliff. You’re looking down on one of the biggest cities in Africa, but all you can see is a carpet of purple blossoms stretching for miles. And if you look closely through the trees, you can just make out the tigers in the zoo.

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