June 6, 2009 / 6:29 PM / in 8 years

Hollywood to portray Kenya's "Pirate Whisperer"

MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - When agents for Hollywood actor Samuel L Jackson came looking for Andrew Mwangura in Kenya, he could not meet them -- he was on the run.

<p>Andrew Mwangura, director of the Mombasa-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Program, talks on his cell phone after an interview with Reuters in Kenya's capital Nairobi June 3, 2009.REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya )</p>

The man they call the “Pirate Whisperer” was dodging both local authorities and well-connected criminals who were chasing him for exposing the international links of a wave of hijackings afflicting the busy international shipping routes off Somalia.

“I said I was in trouble, come back again when the coast is clear,” Mwangura told Reuters in an interview at Mombasa port.

Tinseltown plans to make an action movie about the piracy scourge. Jackson is to play Mwangura -- the quiet 47-year-old founder of the non-profit East African Seafarers’ Assistance Program with seemingly unrivalled contacts with maritime groups, ships, ports and even pirates around east Africa.

Himself a former seaman, Mwangura breaks news time and time again on seizures and releases of ships by Somali pirates, revealing details of ransom payments in what has become a multimillion dollar business.

He is a hero to seamen, but a pain for the pirates’ financiers, said to be sitting in Nairobi, Dubai and London, managing the business by calls to the gangs’ satellite phones. There are strong suspicions that officials in the region could be involved, and Mwangura has not been shy of saying that.

FILM RIGHTS

Now Jackson and filmmaker Andras Hamori have secured the rights to his life story -- but getting a chance to sit down and talk scripts has been more difficult than expected.

Mwangura fell foul of the Kenyan government last year after the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 tanks, was hijacked en route to Mombasa. Mwangura said the consignment was really for south Sudan -- and not Kenya, as officially claimed.

In October, on his way to a talk-show where he was due to speak to the relatives of the Russian and Ukrainian crew, Mwangura was arrested.

“They were waiting for me in Moscow and Kiev on camera. But I was taken to police headquarters for interrogation.”

Mwangura spent nine days in jail. One frightening night, he said he was woken by security agents who wanted to take him out of the prison for reasons unknown.

“I think maybe they wanted to harm me,” he said.

His cellmates joined hands to prevent the guards from taking him, and he was left in jail.

Mwangura was charged with making alarming statements to foreign media and for possessing $2 worth of marijuana. The government called him a frontman and spokesman for the pirates.

He says the charges were trumped up to silence him, and the marijuana was planted. Charges were dropped last month.

“They were trying to stop me but they lost. You cannot stop a calling,” he said.

FEAR OF ATTACK

Mwangura still fears he may be attacked, not by the government now but by criminals unhappy with the light he shines on their activities. But he is now in contact with the filmmakers, and ready to collaborate with the project.

At first, the father-of-two was hesitant. “I‘m not a movie actor, I don’t want to spoil their movie,” he said.

The film makers reassured him that they just wanted to capture the real Mwangura for their story. Experts will shadow him for a couple of weeks to get the feel of his mannerisms.

At first he kept the film quiet, even from his wife, but now the news is out.

“Local media, TV and radio. People are calling, congratulating. Others come up with ideas -- they say to do the film in a few different languages: Chinese, Pinoy, Arabic and Vietnamese, to represent the seafarers of the world. But I have no power on that, it is up to them.”

Mwangura is amazed at how often his name appears in a Google search, and the National Museum of Kenya wants to record his story for posterity too.

He says he has no time to watch films and still has not seen a Samuel L Jackson movie. But he hopes the film project will help to raise public awareness of seafarers, the “forgotten people” as he calls them, who keep sea trade alive.

Editing by Kevin Liffey

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