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Hollywood beckons Kenya’s pirate negotiator

Xan Rice

Mombasa: He is a number scribbled in a captain’s cabin, a name inside a Somali pirate’s head, a voice of reassurance to the family of a captured seaman. His government wants him behind bars while strangers rush to shake his hand. He is, according to one headline writer, the Pirate Whisperer, and his story could soon be known around the world.

“So you’re going to Hollywood,” shouted a security guard as Andrew Mwangura walked through his hometown of Mombasa, Kenya, this week.

Actually, Hollywood is coming to Mr. Mwangura, who runs the non-profit East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme and has become a pivotal figure in reporting and resolving hijacking cases off the coast of Somalia in recent years. The actor Samuel L. Jackson has teamed up with filmmaker Andras Hamori to secure the life rights to Mr. Mwangura’s story for a new action movie about Somali piracy. Mr. Jackson is set to play Mr. Mwangura, a soft-spoken 47-year-old who lives in a two-bedroom house outside Mombasa with no running water or electricity. Short of money and worried about personal safety — he says he has received several death threats recently — he keeps his office in his pocket, four mobile phones that seldom stop ringing.

“The film will be a great honour for seamen everywhere,” said Mr. Mwangura.

Mr. Mwangura is in a unique position to tell the story. A former seaman, he has spent 20 years helping colleagues who have been underpaid, exploited or caught up in other trouble at sea. The trouble has often involved Somalia.

As far back as the early 1990s, when Somalia descended into chaos, Mr. Mwangura started receiving reports about foreign vessels kidnapped off the Somali coast. At first he publicly condemned the attacks. Then one day a Somali hostage-taker called him after finding his emergency contact number on board a captured ship. “He said to me: ‘We are not the pirates — you seafarers and the foreign ship owners working illegally in our waters are the real pirates’.”

The man sent Mr. Mwangura photographs and lists of ships that were plundering Somali fish stocks, sometimes within five nautical miles of the shore, and damaging the local fishing boats and equipment. “I realised that these Somalis were vigilantes, not pirates,” said Mr. Mwangura. “What they were doing was wrong, but the illegal fishing and dumping was wrong too.”

But as the anarchy on land dragged on, the vigilante nature of the Somali attacks began to shift to straight criminality. “People got greedy,” said Mr. Mwangura. “The Somali mafioso realised this hostage-taking was a way to make good money.” Mr. Mwangura suddenly found his phones ringing night and day. “The messages come from Somalia, from crewmen and their relatives, ship owners who have lost contact with a boat, or diplomatic missions. It is not always direct — the message can go from Somalia to India to London and then to me — but it always gets to me somehow.”

Mr. Mwangura, in turn, quickly sends information to his contacts using text messages, to save on the cost of calls. Once he has the facts, he immediately gives it to journalists, which he says is his way of communicating with the families of the hostages.

“We don’t exactly know how Andrew gets his information — that’s a grey area for us — but in most cases it’s very accurate,” said Cyrus Modi, manager of the International Maritime Bureau in London. “He does a very good job in protecting the interests of the seafarers.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

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