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The story of Kok Nam

Everybody in Mozambique knows this man. The children follow him every morning on his way to work with his camera hanging over his shoulder, calling “Hey Kok Nam! Take a picture of us!”. And every day his reply is the same. “Tomorrow”. In the rural areas of Mozambique like Cabo Delgrado, Nampula and Gaza, adults come up to touch him and shake his hand.

But who is Kok Nam?

“Kok Nam is a very good photographer, one of the best in Mozambique,” says Carlos Cardosa, a journalist and friend of Kok Nam. “I think the reason why he is so popular is that — unlike other people who are good at their work — he is humble. His greatness does not go to his head.

“The people of Mozambique love him so much that they call him the Colonel General of photography,” continues Carlos. “Now, where in the whole of Africa would you find a Chinese person honoured in such a way?”


Learn and Teach met Kok Nam on a short visit to Maputo last month. He cooked us a finger-licking supper of prawns and rice, and told us his story.

It begins 50 years ago on 19 December 1939. On that day, a fat and smiling baby was born to a Chinese couple living near the city of Maputo. After four daughters, the parents were very happy that the fat baby was a boy.

“So they called me Kok Nam, which means South of China,” says the smiling photographer. “You see, my parents were from the South of China. When I was born, they were so happy that it made them think of home.”

Kok Nam’s parents never went back to China. In the 70’s, when the struggle for independence in Mozambique got fierce, the whole family left for America. Kok Nam was the only one to stay behind.


As a young boy, Kok Nam went to a Chinese school for six years and then went to work as an apprentice for a photograph­ic shop. It was there that he learnt the art of photography. It was also there that the boy learnt to hate dark rooms. “I spent so much time developing photos in the dark room. That is why today I don’t develop my own photos!” he laughs.

Later Kok Nam got a job as a photographer for Mozambique’s second biggest newspaper, called Diario de Mozambique (Diary of Mozambique). Afterwards, he moved to a newspaper called Voz Africana (African Voice).

“This was a very popular weekly paper and was read by intellectuals, workers and peasants. It spoke of how the workers were exploited by the Portuguese colonialists. It wrote stories about the low wages of African workers, about chibalo — the system of forced labour and about the bad living conditions.

“During this time, I worked with many interesting people. One of those was Jose Luis Cabaco who is the number 2 in FRELIMO and the former Minister of Information. I also worked with Luis Bernado Honwana who is today Minister of Culture.”

Round about 1968 or 1969, a group of right-wingers bought the paper and it was eventually closed. The African Voice would remain closed until after independence in 1974.


In 1970, seven pro­gressive journalists, including Kok Nam, started a magazine called Tempo. From the beginning, Tempo supported FRELIMO as the liberation move­ment of Mozam­bique. When FRE­LIMO defeated the Salazaar govern­ment, Tempo was chosen to publish the FRELIMO Party Programme.

During the struggle for independence, Tempo was heavily censored. Kok Nam remembers those days: “We had to send three magazines worth of stories to the Censorship Com­missioner. When it came back, they had put a cross through so much that we only had enough information for one magazine!”

Today, twenty years later, Tempo is still going strong. Kok Nam is still with tho magazine, the only member of the editorial staff to have stayed so long.

The magazine prints more than 40 000 copies a time. But many more people read it, says Kok Nam. “People are poor and so they share magazines. The other day, I saw a youngster read­ing an old copy of Tempo from 1987.”


Kok Nam’s work has taken him all around Mozambique and the world. He has met and photographed Bishop Tutu, Dr. Boesak, Robert Mugabe, Oliver Tambo and the famous general Giap of the Vietnamese army that defeated America. But the person who remains closest to his heart is Samora Machel, the late president of Mozambique.

Kok Nam first met Machel in 1974. At the time, Machel was in the bush in Tanzania where FRELIMO had their base at Naschingwea, near Pembe in Mozambique.

“The first time I saw Samora speak I knew this was a master of mass communication,” says Kok Nam. “He just knew how to speak to people. That day he was speaking to over a thousand new guerrillas. He was like a magnet when he began speaking. He was dressed in a guerrilla uniform and looking very smart. He made all of us feel good.”

Proudly, Kok Nam shows us a photograph of Machel speaking to the people who have just joined Frelimo’s army.


It was on these trips that Kok Nam came to know Samora’s intelligence and sense of humour. He tells this story. One day at a press conference in Botswana, a journalist from South Africa stood up and asked Machel about a Mozambican pilot who had run away from Mozambique to join the SADF with his Russian fighter aircraft.

“Tell me,” asked Machel.” ‘How many black pilots do you have in South Africa?’ The South African journalist took a while before he answered: “Not one.” Samora then told him with a smile of satisfaction: “You are wrong! You have one, and he was made in Mozambique! That was Samora at his sharpest!” says Kok Nam.

Kok Nam tells us that many people think that he was Samora Machel’s personal photographer. “That’s not true. I just happened to be asked by the Ministry of Information to go with Machel on one of his visits overseas, and then I found myself going to many places with him and the FRELIMO leadership. I think they asked me to go with Samora because I could be trusted and I was a professional in my job.”

He was with Machel at Nkomati, at the United Nations and in Nigeria and Europe. The day Machel was killed in a plane crash in 1986, Kok Nam rushed to the scene to say goodbye to his old friend and leader. This was one of the saddest moments in Kok Nam’s life.


We asked Kok Nam why he takes photographs. “I believe that every photograph records more than a story. It records history. Photojournalists record history through images,” he says. “These photographs are the property of the people of Mozambique. This is our history.

“That is why I don’t believe that a photographer in any country can say they are neutral, they don’t want to get involved in politics and so on. There is no such a thing. In photography you must take sides because you are taking photographs in the society where you live. You cannot stand aside from the people’s problems.

“When I take a photograph of RENAMO bandits killing innocent people, I take a photograph with a lot of anger. But when I photograph the children, the workers, the peasants and those working for a just society I take a photograph with a lot of love and respect for what they are struggling for.”

Kok Nam has some strong words about the job of a journalist. To be a photojournalist or journalist, you have to be brave, says Kok Nam. “The war has made many journalists afraid to travel. But how can you write a good story sitting in an air-conditioned office and speaking on the telephone? Our profession is a risky one — if you do not want risk, then you must write about beauty queens.”


We ask Kok Nam if he would like to visit South Africa. “I would love to!” he says. “I want to show the people my slides and my photographs and to talk of Mozambique and how our struggles are one and the same thing. South Africa must learn to forget racism. The rainbow does not only belong to Mozambique. It belongs to the whole of Africa. We in this region must learn to live together and solve our economic and political problems as one people.”

“But there is another reason why I want to go to South Africa. I want to photo­graph Mandela with his people next to the ANC flag, and next to the red flag.”

We ask Kok Nam if he has other loves besides photography. “Yes!” he says. “I love my children, Nuno and Michelle. I love cooking, especially prawns and rice. And I love jazz.” We promise to send him two tapes when we get back.

“But most of all I love this hot beautiful country and I love the South of Africa. Maybe I should call myself Nam Africa — South of Africa”. We all laugh, believing that this name really tells the story of Kok Nam’s work and wishes. Perhaps one day Southern Africa will live in peace, and Kok Nam will be there to record it for us.

NEW WORDS humble — someone who is humble does not think he or she is better than others intellectuals — great thinkers censor — if a government censors something you write, it tells you what you can and cannot say magnet — a person who is magnetic draws people to him or her photojoumalist — a newspaper reporter who only takes photos


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