Submitted November 7, 2001.
Ugandan fisherman's journey watched by millions worldwide
By Carl Bialik
New York -- For an hour one Sunday night last month, Charles Tinkewimeru, a fisherman on Lake Victoria appeared on the television screens of millions of Americans.
Tinkewimeru, of Murama, Buhunga, Rukungiri, was the focal point of the October 14 episode of the public-television series "Africa." The episode followed Charles on his journey from his prosperous business catching Nile Perch in the largest lake in Africa, back to his village to attend some family business, and finally back to the lake to launch a new business: shuttling tourists to the chimp sanctuary on Ngamba Island.
Each of the eight one-hour "Africa" episodes showcased a region of the continent. This episode, focusing on the Great Lakes, contrasted reliably fertile Uganda with the Kilombero Valley of Tanzania and its dependence on uncertain but vital rainfall. Other episodes featured the Savannah of Kenya, a football team in Zanzibar, various regions of South Africa, and the rainforests of the Congo basin.
Co-produced by PBS New York affiliate’s Nature and National Geographic Television, the series was broadcast in over 50 African nations, including Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan.
In this episode, Uganda’s beautiful landscape and wildlife played a starring role alongside Charles. Every shot in the episode is exquisite. The opening scene is of some of the 650 fishermen of Kiimi Island in Lake Victoria, fishing at night and using artificial light to catch their prey. Later scenes in Charles’s hometown in southwestern Uganda are naturally beautiful; in some scenes in the lush region, Mount Mgahinga towers in the distance. Nature photographers also shot closeups of some of Uganda’s hundreds of birds, including the much-sought shoebill stork and Kampala’s own marabou stork.
The latter bird is the centerpiece of the program’s brief foray into Kampala. As Charles passes through the capital twice on his journey, the viewer sees sped-up images of town: the taxi park; a sign for an AIDS Information Center; and the bird Kampalans know so well, under a Bell Lager Sign. A marabou stork is also shown at a local slaughterhouse, as a narrator intones that it is well suited to the urban lifestyle.
Matt Thompson, who directed the filming of the scenes in Uganda in 1999, said he found the country "absolutely fantastic." He said, "I miss it amazingly now."
He also had kind words for Kampala. "It’s one of the nicest African cities I’ve been to," Thompson said. "There was quite a drive among people in terms of business. It seemed like a place of potential for lots of people."
The city scenes were deliberately sped up to contrast the pace of Charles’s life on Lake Victoria with the bustle of Kampala. This device was used in many of the series’ episodes, in which a voyage between city and countryside was a recurring theme.
Jennifer Lawson, executive producer of the series, said she sought out such stories to show many regions in each episode while following a character traveling between them, without contrivance.
Thompson found his leading man purely by luck. He heard about Charles while visiting Lake Victoria, and visited him. After going to some of the other Great Lakes, Thompson decided Charles was his man. "He was extremely charismatic and vivacious," Thompson said of Charles.
Being followed by a camera crew for three weeks at a time did not faze Charles in the least. "When I broached the subject with Charles, he was absolutely all for it," Thompson said of his filming proposal.
"He thought it was just hilarious." Some of his fellow fishermen were a bit more uncomfortable, but Thompson said Charles put them all at ease. "He was a complete star," Thompson said.
Lawson credited Dr. Nakanyike Musisi, the head of the Social Studies department at Makerere, with playing a key role in the program. "She was a tough advisor," Lawson said of Musisi. "She told us we needed to strengthen the role of women. She also said we couldn’t do a story of that region without looking at the role that the banana played."
Thompson, of the UK, previously had done a bit of shooting work in Africa working on wildlife shows, but this series gave him an opportunity to focus on human stories. He relished that chance.
Lawson felt that documentaries about people in Africa were sorely lacking. "What we wanted to do was to defy some of the lingering and pervasive stereotypes about Africa," Lawson said. "We thought perhaps the best way was through the lives of ordinary people." Hence, the series focused on the lives of people living in rural areas, where most Africans live. And the stories told are not political nor time-sensitive, which was also necessary because the footage was shot between 1997 and 2000.
The germ of the idea for the ambitious "Africa" series came to Lawson when she worked in Dar es Salaam from 1970 to 1972 on an assignment with Drum and Spear Press, a small nonprofit publishing house based in Washington, DC.
"During that time, writers from all over Africa were in exile in Tanzania, and I heard so many incredible stories, and met so many talented writers, that I felt, boy, these are stories that should be told in the States," Lawson recalls. "I was shocked at what you heard and saw in the States, which is so negative and stereotypical, infused with the stereotype of Africa as The Dark Continent."
Lawson made a couple of documentaries shortly after graduating from Columbia in 1974, but "Africa" was her first foray into filmmaking in decades. After conducting "considerable research" on her own, Lawson approached the New York affiliate of PBS with the idea, and they responded, "yes, we’d love to partner with you," according to Lawson. National Geographic had essentially the same reaction.
And despite the many financial and logistical hurdles to filming the series, Lawson said that she always experienced the support of her partners. She is thrilled with the final product, and with the media attention it has gotten in major U.S. magazines and newspapers which have been devoting most of their coverage to the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Now Lawson, after five long, hard, and ultimately satisfying years of fundraising for "Africa," is hooked on making documentaries. She is currently working on a project about music and how it reflects our cultures and values, which will bring her back to Africa. Thompson, meanwhile, is mainly developing ideas for future projects.
And what of Charles? The series left him in an uncertain state. With fish stocks being depleted, Charles was seen full of hope for his new venture, painting "Charles & Co. Island Tours" on the side of his new tourist boat. The PBS website about "Africa" reveals that Charles currently rents out equipment through his fishing company and also runs the tourist boat, and that he has been successful enough to pay for special schooling for his children.
Lawson and Thompson cannot say more; neither have been in touch with Charles recently, although Thompson said he planned to send Charles a copy of the episode in which he memorably played the starring role.Copyright © 2002 Carl Bialik
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