Sir Mohinder Dhillon, ‘Mo’ to his friends, was a remarkable Kenyan. From an unschooled village lad in the Punjab, India, to becoming a world-famous frontline news cameraman; his life story is the stuff of legends. Official photographer to Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia; a near fatal helicopter crash on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro; coverage of the horrific Ethiopian Famine 1984-86; a bone-chilling escape from a firing squad in the Congo; filming Africa’s bruising independence struggles and war situations in Vietnam, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan; dining with Charlie Chaplin; a bizarre association with the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin …. truly the stuff of legends!
And just as amazing are the qualities of this ‘gentle giant’ behind the camera: humble; courageous; generous; caring – a fighter for social justice; chivalrous; erudite; …. these are just some of the accolades friends have used to describe Mo.
We at AwaaZ would like to collect and record the thoughts and sentiments of Mo’s friends in Nairobi to whom he gave so much in one way or another. The national and international acclaim will be widely available. Fortunately he has also left us a memoir – the 3-part trilogy, My Camera, My Life and there is to be a posthumous publication titled Witness to History – an exciting pictorial anthology of pre- and post-independence East Africa.
We thank these friends for their prompt response to our request, and especially to the Kenya Asian Forum for its solidarity and unanimity over the years.
Go well, gentle giant, go well.
Child of Asia, who grew up to be a true son of Africa, and a man of the world; who valued humanity and had the biggest heart; whose wit and joy was cloaked in a gentle spirit that redefined the term ‘gentleman’. Knight of Imperial Ethiopian Order of St Mary of Zion, you were born in India, became Kenyan through migration and chose to love Kenya as home.
You will be missed. Deeply. We who loved you and were privileged to know you will miss you, even as we cherish the legacy of history and visual and verbal archives you left us.
My favourite memory of you... the joyful privilege it was to spend time reading through and then talking to you about your amazing autobiography. It was like stepping into a time-machine that zipped me straight back into time. And here you were as my guide, taking me with you from the humblest of beginnings to touring the world as the personal photographer of The Emperor Haile Selassie. From the war zones of the world, to the hearthstones of the homes that made you who you were. That night for the book launch we didn't stop talking until I stepped out of the car - you insisted on personally making sure I got home, and the stories kept coming until that very last moment.
Shukrani mzee. May those you loved so deeply who went before welcome you to that next phase of life with joyful celebration. Go well.
When I first worked with Mohinder Dhillon in 1990, he was a world-renowned photojournalist in the golden years of his career. We were filming for the United Nations in Uganda, traversing the foothills of the Ruwenzoris to record child vaccinations in tiny rural villages. I was a young documentary director, fresh from the BBC. He was in his late fifties but physically fitter than many colleagues half his age. The favoured format at the time was 16mm film, a cumbersome medium with which to work in torrid conditions, requiring a change of reel every ten minutes and the transportation on foot of countless aluminium boxes carrying this or that essential accessory.
But Mohinder was like a duck in water. Having started out with the still more unwieldy 35 mm format, he never let a minute go to waste, negotiating all the time with subjects – frequently squealing infants, and on one occasion a young woman in labour – as though he were a kindly uncle who would never compromise their dignity for a cheap shot. It was the start of a relationship that would see me work with Mohinder on dozens of occasions all over Africa, before age and infirmity finally caught up with him.
Mohinder’s career spanned half a century, beginning with stills work for Kenyan newspapers in the 1950s, and ending not long after the murderous bomb blast that shook Nairobi in August 1998. Within this timeframe, he covered the Ethiopian Famine, the Vietnam War, and Britain’s last stand at Aden among many events that shaped the second half of the twentieth century.
He was never formally trained in his craft, but what he lacked in technical finesse was more then offset by his extraordinary physical courage, and he filmed in some of the world’s most volatile hotspots at considerable danger to his life on countless occasions. Despite his international reputation, he remained modest to a fault, his shy demeanour accentuated by a stammer that left him ill at ease in front of the camera himself.
Mohinder was always far more than a camera operator. To the end of his life, his legendary compassion kept him busy on his computer, frequently expressing his heartfelt views on the state of humanity to all and sundry. In an age when retirement frequently amounts to a second career, he became an author, recording his memoirs in copious detail in the three volume book, My Camera, My Life. A second, much shorter book, Witness to History, was just being completed when Mohinder passed away.
As a man, Mohinder defied categorisation. With colleagues and friends from all over the world, he was the quintessential global citizen, long before that concept gained common currency. His philosophy of life was driven by the notion that a human being was not really living unless they lived for other people. It was a maxim that governed every day of his life, to the end.
I met Uncle Mo in the run up to the constitutional referendum and we immediately hit it off. Although we were 40 years apart in age I am privileged to have been able to call this wonderful man...'my friend'. We caught up whenever we got a chance and hung out and of course he laughingly bullied me and I bullied him right back. Over the past 10 years of our friendship I attended and danced at his son's wedding and he counselled me through the passing of one of my dearest friends. He has always had time for me, was always patient and supportive. As I continue to recall and reflect on our endless conversations, debates and discussions I can only hope and pray that I was as good a friend to him and to others as he was to me.
An understated accolade in English is to describe a man as a thoroughly decent chap. Mohinder Dhillon was one such. I should lead the reader to his autobiography, in which he describes our meeting on a film set in 1987. We are the Children was shot in Northern Kenya, yet another initiative to raise money in order to help the victims of the Ethiopian Famine. Mo was assigned to chronicle the experience on camera. For the sake of anecdote, it featured Ted Danson (read Cheers), Zia Mohyeddin (read Lawrence of Arabia), Ally Sheedy (of The Breakfast Club), Stefan Kalifa (a Bond villain) and Judith Ivey (a Tony Award winner). I played the local primary school teacher, unsuitably clad in coat, sweater and tie, despite the stifling heat. Mo took time to come and tell me he was proud that I was more than holding my own in such distinguished company. There was no need for him to do that. Thereafter, I narrated for his company, Africapix. And we met, on and off, at various social functions, having conversations of varying length. But it was my virtual encounter with Mo, as reviewer of his autobiography for Awaaz, which confirmed the qualities I had long suspected. Supreme amongst them was a complete absence of rancour or vindictiveness, allied to undeniable courage, an unquenchable zest for life and an essential humanity. Mo was proof, if proof were needed, that it is within us all to become more than the sum of our parts.
I joined the Dhillon household in 1985 as a casual labourer in the garden. I was 27 years old. At the end of the month Mzee and Mama Ambi asked me to stay on. Some months on the house-maid left the job so I was asked to replace her. Mzee’s father came to visit us from India, he was very friendly, we got on well. He said I was ‘hard-working’ and taught me how to cook. Mama Ambi encouraged me to get married which I did. Mzee used to travel a lot so I did not see much of him. In one of his safaris he was badly injured and was brought back to Kenya in a plane; I was shocked to see that he could not walk. I decided I would help him to walk again. I massaged and exercised him and fed him good nutritious food and after a year he was able to walk.
I got to know Mzee well – he was the kindest and most generous man I have ever known. I left his employment in 2014 to care for my mother after my father died. Mzee was like a father to me – that is why I had to come for his funeral. I shall miss him.
It is not possible to speak of such a colossus, an icon of humanity with mere words. The sense of loss is immense, because a library, a museum and an archive of human being-ness has left us. There is an ineffable something gone in a man who could be described in the old sense of a man’s man; one who lives, or strives to live by high values, who roars - to the end - against any form of injustice, a lover of humanity and of nature, a giant in heart and spirit who hungered to know, to understand. Who was not too lofty to be corrected, to be redirected, and to try something new. We shared intense moments as he started the drafting of his memoir, learned things of the heart, of the shadows as he revealed his humanity. I asked about the things humans ask about: how do you forgive? How do you rise above the wounds of life? How do you still choose humanity? His large eyes, his gentle stutter, his subtle shrug, the slight twinkle: I-I am human, as you are. It was a benediction, it sounded like a calling. Cherished Mo… I watched them roll your body on the gurney towards the door behind which the fire lit for you waited to receive you. I heard you say; this too, this is human. I am still learning, my dear Elder. I will not suggest that you rest in peace; that would bore you to death. However, travel well, travel wild and give the forces that disorder existence hell. Your legacy is assured, for you are sheltered in at least a thousand human hearts.
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