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Obituary: Christopher Munnion, foreign correspondent

Christopher Munnion, foreign correspondent. Born: 24 April, 1940, in Chelmsford, England. Died: 28 September, 2010, in Johannesburg, South Africa, aged 70.

Timbuktu, Tuesday - In foreign correspondents' buccaneering heyday in Africa, this form of dateline was how their dispatches began in all newspapers, reputable or disreputable.

Sadly, with modern editorial design and style often taking precedent over content, the device has been discarded. But Chris Munnion, who has died on the continent he loved after a career as a renowned "glory days" correspondent, used the pre-modern dateline to huge effect in Banana, Sunday, his hilarious book of reminiscences about the reporting of Africa.

One of the Africa press corps' many untold stories, often more insightful and always more hilarious than those filed to their foreign editors, concerned the competition held among themselves during one of the Congo's frequent bouts of post-independence bloodshed. The object was to get to the Atlantic port of Banana, find a story there, and report it on a Sunday, thus beginning their dispatch with the dateline: Banana, Sunday.

As Munnion relates, one of his co-equal legendary Africa hands, Peter Younghusband, was the first to find a story in Banana, duly filing it on a Sunday. Unfortunately, Younghusband's foreign editor held the report over for a day and his golden words began "Banana, Monday."

In Banana, Sunday, Munnion also recalls what he and fellow foreign correspondents regard as the best opening paragraph ever written to a news story, one all would have loved as their own.

Again, it was by Younghusband, writing in the shadow of Sheba's Breasts, two symmetrical twin mountains in Swaziland. His report began minimally: "Sheba's Breasts, Saturday. I like it here."

The fun and frivolity of such anecdotes may suggest that Munnion was not a serious journalist. The opposite is the case. While he loved Africa and Africans and was a hilarious raconteur, he saw more brutality and horror there than the average human being could bear, not least when he was arrested and detained on the orders of former Ugandan military dictator Idi Amin.

With four other British correspondents, he was arrested in his Kampala hotel and taken to the Ugandan capital's notorious Makindye Prison, where political opponents of Amin were incarcerated, never to be seen again.

Munnion was beaten with rifle butts and thrown into a filthy cell with many Africans already lying on blankets on the concrete floor. Munnion had no idea what was going on, but he knew his detention had to be related in some way to a news bulletin that day saying thousands of Tanzanian soldiers had invaded Uganda.

At intervals Munnion's fellow prisoners were taken out and executed within earshot with sledgehammer blows to their skulls.Each prisoner in each batch was made to kill the next man and a soldier executed the last. Munnion estimated that some 20 of his fellow inmates were taken and killed in this way while he was incarcerated.

When two Asian men were thrown into the cell, having endured 24 hours of torture, Munnion helped staunch the blood from their wounds with pages torn from his notebook.

Although the trauma of this experience stayed with Munnion for the rest of his life, even then he retained his sense of the absurd, always so much part of the African story.

When he was arrested in Kampala, a soldier knocked him to the floor and planted a heavy army boot on his neck. At this point the hotel's deputy manager appeared, kneeled next to the correspondent's face-down body, and said in all seriousness: "Tell me, I have always wanted to be a foreign journalist. Can you help me to become a foreign journalist? You people have such a good life."

Munnion was told he had been arrested for being a spy and planning to assassinate Amin, who was eventually overthrown by the invading Tanzanian force.

The correspondent was later released and expelled by Amin: he was declared a prohibited immigrant by five other African countries and locked up in two more.

Ironically, a few days before his arrest, Amin had given him a characteristically outlandish interview, in the course of which Uganda's despot said he had uncovered an Israeli plot to poison the Nile before standing to salute Munnion while asking him to "tell the Queen I love her". Munnion was shepherded out of Amin's office past a row of cabinet ministers, waiting to see their head of state; most of them were executed shortly afterwards.

Chris Munnion was the son of a circus manager. His first job in journalism was with the Yorkshire Post, but within a remarkably short time, having joined the Daily Telegraph in Manchester aged barely 21, he was sent to the New York office on a short-term emergency posting.

His editor in New York ordered him to Atlanta to interview American composer Aaron Copland. Both Munnion and Copland were barely 5ft tall, but Copland was a homosexual, who took younger men as lovers, and Munnion was without doubt heterosexual. Copland met Munnion at Atlanta Airport and said the interview would have to be conducted in his limousine en route to the Atlanta concert hall. The vehicle was huge and neither man's feet touched the floor on the back seat.

Copland began by asking Munnion: "Do you blow, young man, do you blow?" To which the then nave and unworldly young foreign correspondent replied: "Well, sir, I did play the trumpet in the school orchestra."

Copland rocked back with laughter and, taking sufficient satisfaction from Munnion's reply, gave him a great interview.

Munnion became for three decades the Daily Telegraph's Africa correspondent, based in Rhodesia's capital Salisbury to record the last years of white rule.He was sympathetic to the stubborn and resilient white minority and presciently sceptical about the forthcoming benefits of rule under the first black majority head of state Robert Mugabe, still at the helm 30 years on. But he believed white prime minister Ian Smith was deluded if he thought white rule could continue indefinitely.

Recalling his last interview with Smith before Mugabe took power, Munnion said: "He (Smith] knew that he was lying and he knew that I knew he was lying. A summer thunderstorm was raging outside and each time he came out with an obvious untruth there was a flash of lightning."

Of the "exoticness" of reporting unceasing conflict in Africa, he said: "Being a foreign correspondent in Africa is hugely romantic, but why the title 'war correspondent' should carry so much glamour I really do not know.

"Reporting war has been the most dispiriting, soul-destroying experience I have ever had, especially in Africa. Ordinary people, in a war, behave very differently. It does de-humanise all concerned and carries no glamour."

Chris Munnion resigned from the Daily Telegraph when it attempted to recall him to London for what he described as "re-education". His immersion in Africa had made him an African and he never wanted to leave it. He freelanced for newspapers, wrote books, largely about wildlife, and fished for trout on a remote stream in the Drakensberg Mountains whose location he refused to reveal even to friends.

He died after a long battle with emphysema, leaving the bar rooms of the continent poorer for the loss of his raconteurial skills.

Even in his last days he retained his sense of the ridiculous, crooning croakily to visitors to his hospital bedside his own rendition of Bob Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door.

Christopher Munnion is survived by his wife, Denise, and a daughter from a previous marriage.

 
 
 

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