9:00am, that was the agreed time, and so five minutes to the top of the hour, I stood poised to knock at Richard Dowden’s house.
“You early” he said, “ I thought I might have a few minutes to drop off my wife.” I found myself ushered into his home, and ordered to ‘feel at home’.
10 minutes later he was back and after making himself a cup of coffee and tea for me, we sat down for that interview.
Dowden is described by some as the Africa experts Africa expert, he is the Director of the Royal African Society, Britain’s prime Africa organisation, working to foster better understanding of Africa in the UK and throughout the world and author of Africa Altered States, Ordinary Miracles.
At just 21, nearly 41 years ago, he went to Uganda as a volunteer teacher with a catholic organisation. “I was quite motivated to live with, rather than help … see what its like to live in quite a poor place.” He didn’t want to teach in a town or state run school, which is how he ended up in rural Masaka. Idi Amin had just taken over government and Dowden describes the time as interesting and exciting but less than two years later, his stay in Uganda came to an abrupt end. Amin had turned on Britain and it was no longer safe for them to stay.
Back home, he then worked in Northern Ireland as a peace worker trying to bring communities together.
His fascination with Africa had grown while in Uganda and during the holidays he had travelled across to Kenya through Tanzania, Zambia to Southern Africa, and Malawi. “It was the most exciting interesting time of my life”.
He is still not sure how he became a journalist though he says he always wanted to be one. “I guess I sort of turned into one. I never believed I would actually make it. I have been very lucky, being in the right place at the right time.”
He then returned to Africa as a reporter covering some of the continent’s biggest events including the fall of Addis Ababa. “I was there when the troops took over the city, two journalists were killed and Mohammed Amin – renown Kenyan photojournalist – lost his arm, I got a great story”. Sadly the story was no more than a little strip in the paper, because of the royal divorce.
To his chagrin, he missed Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom having chosen to remain in the crowd. The crowd was unruly and police kept beating at shoving them back. He describes it as being in a big wave, one minute they were moving forward the next back. “ I was there and all I was trying to do was stay on my feet”.
Dowden also reported on other issues, including the end of the first gulf war, the liberation of Kuwait and the drive with some Americans into Iraq. His interview with Flora Keays in 1983 led to the resignation of one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite ministers.
He worked as a reporter at the Times, an editor at the Independent and as Africa Editor at the Economist.
Drawn to Africa because of the openness of the people and how accommodating they are, it was a not difficult for Dowden to take on the position of Director of the Royal African Society when he was approached in 2002. “It was a very warm place I don’t just mean the weather”.
Since taking office Dowden has implemented a program of modernisation. He started the Africa business breakfast, the Africa film festival last year, and this year there will be a book festival.
Coming from the background of a journalist, he aims to keep Africa on the agenda at Westminster and he is the first to admit, that’s no mean fit.
Despite his busy schedule, at least 71 meetings a year, Dowden still manages to find time to write, more as a commentator than a reporter and has a blog. “By tribe I am journalist … and I will always be”.