From A Passage to Africa


  • This passage is an extract from his autobiography, A Passage to Africa, where he wrote about his life and experiences as a TV reporter working mainly in Africa:
    • It is in this context that he writes this passage about a report he made when he was covering the civil war in Somalia for the BBC.
  • It asks the question; what does it mean to be a journalist?
  • It expects you to have prior knowledge on the civil war in Somalia.
  • It is written in a serious tone.
  • The first rule of a journalist is that he must not interfere with what he is reporting.


  • General audience.


  • An autobiographical extract which is also an interior monologue:
    • Interior monologue – A long speech that addresses one’s own feelings.


  • Explains the author’s own role as a reporter and expresses his thoughts and feelings about a particularly challenging incident (the smile).
  • Trying to challenge newsreaders to make us think of our role.
    • Should the people who sit in their living rooms not do something about what they see? Is that not what our role as sentient creatures demands of us.

Understanding the Text:

What kinds of pictures and stories do the television news companies want?

  • Powerful images – “the most striking pictures.” (example)
  • Disturbing or morbid images – “ghoulish manner of journalists on the hunt for the most striking pictures.”
    • Suggests that journalists exist to seek out morbid details.
  • Stories that are increasingly more shocking – “pictures that stun the editors one day are written off as the same old stuff the next.”
    • The quotation which states that the search for the shocking is like the ”craving for a drug” is also particularly powerful in this context:
      • It suggests that news companies want to be able to take us out of our comfort zone.

What do the television news companies not want to show or report?

  • Yesterday’s news – “old pictures are written off as the same old stuff.” (example)
    • People were becoming inured to the horrors of war.
  • Anything that is overly disturbing – “’famine away from the headlines, a famine of quiet suffering and lonely death’.”
  • News that may cause political consequences – there is no mention of the enemies of the “deposed dictator” which suggestively lays all the blame for the situation suffered by those in Gufgaduud on the said dictator where both the enemies and allies of the said dictator are clearly jointly responsible for the devastation in Somalia.

What do we learn about TV audiences from this passage?

  • Aloft and separated from the sufferings of others – “people in the comfort of their sitting rooms back home.”
    • It makes us ask the question; how can anyone not care about such suffering and still call himself human.
    • The noun ‘comfort’ suggests that TV audiences do not understand the suffering of the people:
      • The phrase ‘sitting rooms’  is also suggestive of comfort which supports this point.
  • Inured to tragedies of others – “the search for the shocking is like the craving for a drug: you require heavier and more frequent doses the longer you’re at it.” Notice that the “search” mentioned in the above quote also implies the audience’s “search for the shocking” as much as it does the journalist’s.
  • Ignorant of more disturbing crimes against humanity, ignorant of the tragedy of individuals – “’famine away from the headlines, a famine of quiet suffering and lonely death’.”

The Man’s Smile:

Statements Evidence
It reverses the roles of the writer as a reporter and the subject “This smile had turned the tables on that tacit agreement.” – The use of the phrase “turned the tables” clearly implies a reversal of the roles of reporter and subject.
It asks questions of the writer which cut to the heart “How should I feel to be standing there so strong and confident?”– The use of a question poised at the writer clearly supports the statement in this case.
It stimulates action by the writer “I resolved there and then that I would write the story of Gufgaduud with all the power and purpose I could muster.” – Use of the word “resolved” implies that action is indeed stimulated in the writer by that man’s smile.
It affects the writer very powerfully “It [the smile] moved me in a way that went beyond pity or revulsion.” – The fact that the smile moved the writer “beyond pity and revulsion” clearly indicates just how powerfully the author is affected by that simple display of emotion.

I think that the significance of the smile is to question the concept of reporter-subject relationship. And to give us reason, perhaps, to reassess our beliefs therein. Furthermore, it can be seen from the way in which Alagiah reacts, that the smile is the seminal moment of his life. Essentially the smile asks that we respect the fact that the reporter does not have to be the active one and the subject does not have to be the passive one, contrary to Alagiah’s words on lines 60-61.


What Can I say About Language?

  • Alagiah is, in this passage, writing both as a journalist and about being a journalist.
    • He describes what he saw in a vivid way but at the same time he gives the reader an insight into the world of reporting where journalists compete with each other to get the highest ratings.
  • The first paragraph is constructed as a framing paragraph that describes the setting of the piece as well as what the piece will be exploring.
  • ‘Tacit agreement’ an agreement that has not been stated but is understood.

Words to indicate the pride of the dispossessed:

  • ‘as if he means to go out and till the soil once all this is over’
    • The fact that this farmer ‘keeps his hoe next to the mat with which… they will shroud his corpse’ shows how proud he is of his way of life.
      • A hoe is a rake used to till the soil.
  • Furthermore, when the translator returns with the answer as to why the man had smiled he says that ‘it’s just that he was embarrassed to be found in this condition’:
    • How proud a man must be of his way of life to feel embarrassed when found in a pitiable condition that did not even result because of their own actions?

Words to produce irony:

  • ‘To be in a feeding centre is to hear and smell the excretion of fluid’:
    • It is ironic that a feeding centre does not deal with food but rather has to deal with excrement.
  • ‘In those brief moments there had been a smile’ – It is ironic that a man can smile in the midst of such poverty.
    • The irony of the smile was what the passage was leading towards.
  • ‘It was the feeble smile that goes with apology, the kind of smile you might give if you felt you had done something wrong’ – How ironic that this man should smile a smile of guilt when all he has done is suffer at the hands of another.

Words that suggest cultural references:

  • ‘fused into the gentle V-shape of a boomerang’ – this is a culturally inappropriate reference.
    • The fact that ‘it was rotting; she was rotting’ suggests necrosis.

Words that suggest political tension:

  • ‘Betrayed’ – This adjective is used to describe the faces of the people Alagiah sees in his travels and suggests political tension.
    • Faces of humans in suffering.
    • Betrayal of a people by their leaders.
  • ‘deposed dictator… took revenge on whoever it found in its way’:
    • Again there is the suggestion of political tension and betrayal of the people by their leaders.

Words that describe location:

  • ‘a village in the back of beyond’ – This phrase suggests that Gufgaduud is very isolated and remote. It is also a rather informal phrase.

Informal language perhaps to provide the writing with a sense of familiarity which allows the audience to empathise with those being described:

  • ‘same old stuff’ – This phrase is informal and allows the reader to better understand the complex world of the journalist.
  • ‘I owe you one.’ – This phrase is very informal and very personal.

Emotive words are used to convey the world of the victims.

  • Adjectives emphasise their poverty – e.g. hungry, lean, scared. (example)
    • These adjectives also emphasise the bad quality of life.
  • The use of powerful language to generates stronger emotions in the reader:
    • E.g. resolved (in the place of decided), revulsion (in the place of disgust).
  • The use of words and phrases to describe the suffering of the victims:
    • ‘final, enervating stages of terminal hunger’:
      • ‘Enervating’ means weakening.
  • The use of repetition to convey the hopelessness of life:
    • ‘No rage, no whimpering’:
      • The fact that there was no rage seems to suggest that Habiba had died without reluctance perhaps implying that life had been like hell on earth anyway thus dying would have been like a blessing. This idea is further expounded upon later by the words ‘frictionless [(without resistance)], motionless deliverance from a state of half-life to death itself’:
        • This is a echo of Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’.
        • The use of the word deliverance in this context can also be said to be paradoxical:
          • Deliverance usually means that one’s life is saved.
          • However, since the ‘twin evils of hunger and disease’ were rampant, I suppose deliverance is rather appropriate, in a perverse sort of way.
  • The use of simple, declarative statements and short sentences:
    • ‘Habiba had died.’
      • This captures the cruelty of their existence accurately and rather dispassionately.
  • The use of adverbs to generate greater empathy in the reader – e.g. surreptitiously.

Words give you a vivid image of the world of the television journalist.

  • They are like predators – e.g. “on the hunt.” (example)
  • They may not display any emotion in reports, but they still feel this emotion and can do nothing about it:
    • The antithesis in the words ‘pity and revulsion’.
      • In stating the opposite, an individual brings out a contrast in the meanings (e.g., the definition, interpretation, or semantics) by an obvious contrast in the expression.
  • The callousness of journalism – ‘It’s a taboo that has yet to be breached’:
    • Referring to the fact that journalists never report their own emotions.
  • ‘The journalist is active, the subject is passive’ – This is the principle of non-interference.
    • It means that the journalist observes and the subject bears the observation:
      • A passive verb describes an action that something performs as a result of another action.
      • An active verb describes a motion of an object that is consciously initiated by said object:
        • Kick is an active verb.
        • Kicked is a passive verb.
  • There should not be, yet there is in this case, a relationship between the journalist and the subject:
    • ‘If he was embarrassed to be found weakened by hunger… how should I feel to be standing there so strong and confident?’
      • This is the moral question that was presented to Alagiah at the time and is the question he asks of the readers in this passage.
        • It also marks the seminal moment of Alagiah’s life.
      • This is the central question about the nature of journalism.
  • Journalists are like ghouls searching for fresh corpses – “in the ghoulish manner of journalists.”
  • ‘What might have appalled us when we’d started out our trip just a few days before no longer impressed us much.’
    • Suggests that journalists are exactly like drug addicts.
  • ‘It seemed at the time, and still does, the only adequate answer a reporter can give to the man’s question.’
    • The question in this case is the question poised by the man’s smile.
    • The answer Alagiah proposes is to ‘write the story of Gufgaduud with all the power and purpose I could muster.’
      • The fact that he has ‘resolved’ to do this suggests that he does not know what to do as a journalist since journalists are meant to be dispassionate observers but he feels that he must do something as a human being.
  • They are like drug addicts for the “search for the shocking is like the craving for a drug: you require heavier and more frequent doses the longer you’re at it.”

Sentence structure is varied to engage the reader.

  • Incomplete sentences are used for effect, for instance: “And then there was the face I will never forget.” (example)
  • Short and simple sentences are used for impact – “Habiba had died.”
  • The use of repetition in sentences adds to the overall effect that Alagiah’s words has on the reader – “No rage, no whimpering.”


  • Revulsion: Disgust.
  • Surreptitiously: Secretly, slyly, cunningly.
  • Inured: Hardened.
  • Seminal moment: Turning point. A moment that changes the way one thinks.
  • Callous: (a negative and judgemental term) It means that someone is cold and without feelings.