Sorious Samura is an award winning documentarian. His first film, Cry Freetown, won an Emmy and a Peabody making him the first Sierra Leonean journalist to take home these prestigious awards. Since that time, Samura has produced a number of social-impact documentaries, using his signature style of embedding himself with his subjects to experience their lives firsthand.
As a documentary journalist, Samura is passionate about Africa and empowering journalists to tell their own stories. To help African journalists reach their goals, he has partnered with other journalists to launch Africa Investigates, a documentary series that provides the funding and resources needed to produce high quality investigative stories from across the continent.
I recently spoke with Samura about his career, the next generation of African journalists and what it means to him for Africans to be able to tell their own stories.
Selase Kove (SK) You’ve often advocated for getting Africans to tell the African story. What exactly do you mean by that?
Sorious Samura (SS) It is clear when you look around the globe, America became what it is today because Americans actually understood how to package their country and their stories in such a way that people outside could understand America, get to understand who Americans are. Same thing for Europeans. Yet in Africa, we’ve had our stories told by non-Africans and guess what, they only scratch the surface. When it comes to the context and the details that really matter, they leave out what makes you understand the balance and appreciate the nuance. When I started going to the West, all people knew about Africa were diseases, corruption, wars and famine. It’s all about the negatives.
That is not to say we do not have challenges, but the stories need to be balanced so that you understand that the people are not just victims, but are constantly doing something even when the odds are stacked against them. It is that perspective that has never been there when Westerners came to tell our stories. To that end, we need to get Africans to tell it from the bottom up so that people see something completely different of the Africa that we live in. In other words, people will get the whole picture of the continent.
(SK) Are you saying that the story will be different if Africans told it?
(SS) Clearly, the set of people we have worked with, and the ways the African storytellers are now going [journalists to be specific] are giving us dimension, perspectives that have been lacking when an outsider comes in. It is not all positives, but there are certain things outsiders who tell us our story cannot say because of political correctness. Whether it is tribalism, whether people are ignorant, you have to call things by their proper names. In most cases, these African storytellers have lived it. There’s a saying: ‘if you want to actually understand my situation, walk a mile in my shoes’. That’s where the difference lies for who tells the story.
(SK) For Cry Freetown, you were with the rebel army and embedded yourself with the soldiers in the heat of the war. Why will you go to such lengths for a story?
(SS) We were desperate because when the war was going on, there were very few western journalists who really cared. Having lived in the west at that time I saw the impact that even ordinary footage from Kosovo was having on the populace in the United Kingdom. That helped people of the UK to put pressure on their government to do something. Even though we in Sierra Leone had the most brutal sort of war going on, the attention was on Kosovo because it was the story that was out there. So my take was that if I am able to get whatever shocking images I was witnessing and convince the Western media to use those materials, I hoped people will be able to see the madness and maybe come to our aid.
And in order to understand what was going on I had to come out from my safe place to film and show the world what was going on. Of course, the rebels beat me with guns and belts, but I wanted two things: one, to witness what was going on and show to the rest of the world.
(SK) Is there anything about embedding one’s self in a story that you think we are seeing less or more of these days?
(SS) There are positive and negative sides to this. Sometimes you only end up saying things from the perspective of the fighters that you embed yourself with, because you slowly become part of that team. At the same time, if some of the guys are deemed the good guys you will want the world to see the challenges that they are facing or the madness they are dealing with. This is often the case when you’re dealing with rebels in a war zone. Although these days we don’t have any conventional wars except surprising terrorist or bomb attacks, you still will want people to see the conditions under which some of these government forces or peacekeepers are working. Sadly, we couldn’t get a lot of balanced stories during the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, because most journalists were often telling the story from one perspective. Perhaps, that’s what made Al Jazeera popular because they were seen to be offering balanced perspectives from the forces as well as the locals.
(SK) So you went on stage for the prestigious Rory Peck Award without a speech. What happened?
(SS) It was quite interesting, because I never considered myself a journalist during that period. It was at a place in London and the award ceremony was held on top of one of the stations I used to clean.
When I got nominated, I said to my family and friends, ‘let’s just go, but I was not going to win anything’. So we went and when my name was announced I was shocked as a winner and then a second call came as an overall winner.
While still in shock, I got on the stage, stood there and spoke from the heart. I asked the audience “where you guys when my people were killing each other?” What I did was to call for an end to inequality in reportage, to say that all lives mattered. Surprisingly, folks were not offended. Rather, they gave me a standing ovation. Later, I had people saying this is the sort of voice we have been looking for in Africa. It ultimately led me to accept a job in journalism and that’s what got me where I am today.
(SK) What have you been working on these days?
(SS) Of course we just finished season 3 the Africa Investigates documentary series. One of the stories I did was about the Muslim clerics who have been murdered in Uganda. For the past two years, they’ve killed about twelve sheikhs and until now, nobody has been found. Our job was to peel the story layer by layer and try to figure out what’s in the middle of all the allegations and accusations being made by the government. We sought out to journalistically open a sort of thorough-forensic investigation and that’s exactly what we did.
So that’s just one project from Africa Investigates as a whole. Personally, I do have a few stories that I’ve been working on and I think one of them is still on the fire, something to do with Mugabe’s wife. We are still trying to get access into Eretria as well, to understand what’s really going on in that country as more and more returnees are fleeing the country every day.
(SK) You are well known for this concept of experiencing the subject matter, as a result of your ‘Living With’ series. What was your entry point into this?
(SS) Well first of all I remember the whole concept started in 2004. Hunger was still desperately killing people in Ethiopia, so we decided at Insight that we have to tell the story because we knew they were getting close to crisis. The challenge at the time was how we could keep the story about hunger interesting enough. I remember we were brainstorming one Tuesday morning when Ron, our Editor-in-Chief said “Let’s starve Sorious.”
But you could sense this whole political correctness around the table. No one wanted to be called a racist for wanting to starve a black man as part of the story. “Ron, are you crazy?” was all one of my colleagues could muster. I understood Ron’s concept right away, so I agreed.
The Living With series emphasizes the idea that when you walk a mile in somebody’s shoes, you will understand their situation. And as someone who has the opportunity to articulate that situation on the world’s biggest stage you do it better. When you live with these people you win their trust and once you win their trust, you will be surprised at how they will open up. It’s one reason why most of my stories – whether it is Living with AIDS, Living with Hunger, and Living with Refugees – bring out a sort of unmediated frankness and ease that you don’t get when you just walk up and start interviewing them.
(SK) If you were not doing this, what else would you have been doing?
(SS) I started as a stage actor in Sierra Leone. While acting, I was almost like an activist actor because we were just using the stage to perform plays that show some of the real dark things that were happening in government and the society. We had moments where we were even arrested by the then government and kept in police cells overnight.
My life has always been about standing up for the poor, the innocent, the voiceless and the powerless. I was born into a family of storytellers. My grandfather was a storyteller and my Dad used to go around villages, telling stories. Those were fictitious stories. Now, I get the opportunity to tell true stories that I hope could bring an impact.
Journalism should be like holding a big mirror in front of the people, so that they see themselves, they see their mistakes, the possibility and the opportunities. When we allow outsiders to play these roles, we never get to see how we are reflected in the mirror, because they take it to their countries and we never get to see or question whatever they show.
(SK) Which one person makes you want to be a better person?
(SS) I once had a teacher in primary school called Raymond Dele-Charley. At a time when some teachers were asking us for bribes or sending us off to get them girlfriends, Dele led me to understand what respect and integrity meant. He never did any of such things and his sense of self-integrity, the decency, and the honesty was just inspiring. When all seemed to be losing their heads, I could lay my life and say he never took any bribes whatsoever.
(SK) When it comes to how the world perceives Africa, do you think much has changed?
(SS) Slowly, I think Africa is being viewed with some respect now. I think that is largely due to the respect that the Chinese are showing. The Chinese have come here and are treating us a little bit like equals even though whatever they bring in is not flowing down as it should. But in times past, we have been treated like children by bigger powers who used to employ the stick-and-carrot technique. But now, some of these countries have realized they have a new player and that new player is threatening them with this stick-and-carrot idea. So now they are beginning to treat us as equals, so there is a little bit of change there.
But I also think there are quite a good number of stories on perception that were presented by the very first set of colonial journalists who turned up here and started writing about us. Most children born in the West who are less travelled don’t believe that we have standard infrastructures here. Few people ask me what it feels like to live in a mud house and stuff like that. It’s up to us to equally start thinking of changing the narratives because slowly there are things that are changing and we’ve got to let people understand that Africa, is not one big country; it is a continent. What is happening in Botswana, Rwanda or Senegal is good news; why is it not being reported?
(SK) Let’s talk about the present and next generation of Africans. What responsibility do you feel towards them?
(SS) You know, they say Rome was not built in a day. If you look at the West now it took them over 300 to 400 years to get to where they are today but today if you look at where they are, it gives you not only hopes, but confidence in human beings. One good thing happening to Africans today that I think is god-sent is the social media. Slowly, Africans are now able to see what’s happening in different corners of the continent and it’s the young generation that has become vibrant. They are participating in engaging discussions and that is now helping them to realize they have power. They are holding their governments and even the Western media to account. For instance, CNN made a mistake and twittered something about the pope coming to war torn Africa while this man was only visiting three countries. Straightaway the young generation took to twitter challenging the assertion. So there is a sense that the young generation is going to be empowered. I would have been pessimistic years back, but now I have sense of hope that even if the main stream media fails, social media is not going to fail the future generation to sit up and pay attention.
Personally I feel the need to make sure that the young generation understands what integrity means. I just want them to understand that whether you are poor or not doesn’t mean you should sell your soul to the devil. I think you should understand what it means to hold high self-esteem by being a decent human being. If they are decent people, it’ll just be a matter of time to bring lasting change to this continent.