Dan Eldon was born in London on September 18th, 1970, and from a very early age displayed signs of an excellent sense of humor. When Dan was seven years old, he and his three-year-old sister Amy moved to Nairobi, Kenya with their parents, Kathy and Mike Eldon. His most vivid early memory of Kenya was a confrontation with a baboon who snatched his chocolate mousse and scratched Dan’s arm, leaving him with a healthy respect for baboons and a craving for chocolate mousse.
In Kenya, Dan attended a British school where he developed a “schoolphobia” after being attacked too many times by a vicious math teacher, armed with a sneaker. He convinced his parents to transfer him to the International School of Kenya, attended by students representing 46 nationalities. There he blossomed, particularly enjoying such activities as staying in a Maasai village, a trip to the exotic Arab island of Lamu off the coast of Kenya, and climbing Mt. Kenya.
Dan was lucky to have many Kenyan friends, including Lengai Croze, who took him for many adventures in the gorge behind his home. Another friend was Lara Leakey, granddaughter of anthropologist Louis Leakey, who discovered many of the most ancient human ancestral bones in the world. Both Lengai and Lara lived next to the Nairobi Game Park, and were used to nightly visits from rhino, leopard, giraffe and lion.
In 1982, Dan narrowly missed being caught up in the coup in Kenya, but he was around to experience the aftermath of that political upheaval. Early on, he joined his journalist mother on her assignments, and soon was taking pictures, which were used in the local newspapers.
Dan started helping others from a young age. When he was 14, he started a fund-raising campaign for open-heart surgery to save the life of Atieno, a young Kenyan girl. Together with his sister and friends, he raised $5,000 but due to neglect by the hospital Atieno died.
When Dan was 15, he helped support a Maasai family buy buying their hand-made jewelry, later selling it to fellow students and friends. It was during this time that he started to create journals: fat, bulging books filled with collages, photographs and whimsical drawings. He often used satire and cartoons to comment on what he saw around him, but kept the journals as very personal statements, which he shared with only a few people.
During Dan’s high school years, he held many charity fund-raising dances in the “Mkebe,” a large tin shed in the backyard of the Eldon home. There, scores of students gathered, paying an entrance fee, which went towards Dan’s latest charity. Always looking for a way to raise funds, he also produced colorful tee shirts of his own design, and even launched a collection of brightly printed boxer shorts.
Dan graduated from the International School of Kenya in 1988, winning the International Relations and Community Service awards, as well as being voted most outstanding student by his classmates. He addressed his class, emphasizing in importance of crossing cultural barriers and caring for others.
Throughout his life, Dan was fortunate in being able to travel extensively, and had visited 46 countries by the time of his death. In addition, he studied seven languages in school and out of it. He returned nearly every summer to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home of his grandparents, Russell and Louise Knapp. From the age of 8 to 18, Dan attended Camp Wapsi in Central City, Iowa, where he learned about Native Americans.
In the autumn of 1988, Dan Started his “year off” before going to college. It was, as he described, really a “year on” and for him, felt more challenging than going straight into college. He left his home in Kenya and traveled to New York City, where he had been offered a job at Mademoiselle Magazine. He was by far the youngest employee at the time, and although he loved his position, he found being in New York to be a cold, lonely and difficult experience.
In January, he moved to a warmer climate, and enrolled in the Pasadena Community College in California. Immediately, he began to plot a way to get back to Africa. He devised a scheme whereby he would lead a group of young people from Nairobi to Malawi. That summer, he and a friend researched the journey, and drove Dan’s Land Rover, Deziree, across five African countries, fending off thieves and border guards on the way. They found staying in local jails the safest solution to security problems, and often spent the night locked up in cells to the amusement of prison wardens.
Armed with this information, Dan, who had transferred to UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), set up a charity, which he named Student Transport Aid. He attracted the interest of local television stations and newspapers, and together with 15 friends, raised $25,000 for their venture. The friends, representing six countries, met in Nairobi and traveled thousands of miles together in three vehicles to their destination, a refugee camp in Malawi. There, they donated one of their vehicles to the Save the Children Fund, as well as money for three wells, and blankets for a children’s hospital.
Dan returned to UCLA in the autumn of 1990 and began to plan another adventure, which necessitated a move to London after Christmas. He attended Richmond College and organized the purchase of yet another Land Rover, which he equipped for a trip to Morocco that summer. His scheme was to buy bracelets and belts to sell in America for Student Transport Aid. Attacked by Moroccan thieves and delayed by a very sick Land Rover, he spent a fitful summer in Marrakesh, before arriving home just in time to ship $5,000 worth of bounty to America.
Selling the jewelry and belts was not easy, but wearing a World War II leather pilot’s helmet, Dan patrolled the beaches of Los Angeles, as well as glitzy Rodeo Drive, and managed to move much of his merchandise. Dan used a mixture of bluster and charm that won friends and followers of all races and social classes.
In 1991, Dan returned to UCLA for one semester, all the time planning his next trip, which was to be across the Sahara. Early in 1992, he moved to Mt. Vernon, Iowa, to attend classes at Cornell College. He found the winter to be very cold, but enjoyed the friendliness and peace of that campus so different from the challenging experiences he had had at the downtown Los Angeles campus of UCLA.
In April, Dan flew to Kenya, where he worked as a third assistant director on a feature film, Lost in Africa. As the most junior person on the production, he was up at 5:00 a.m., and was the last in bed. His greatest moment was when he was required to locate seven camels, and slept the night with the smelly, noisy beasts tethered next to him for fear of losing them and their keepers.
During the summer of 1992, the famine in Somalia was raging. Dan flew from Kenya to the southern Somali town of Baidoa, where he shot some of the first pictures to touch the conscience of millions. The international news agency, Reuters, spotted his work, and by Christmas, Dan was working for the company, shooting the increasingly desperate situation. He followed the story closely and was present at the U.S. Marine landing, where a barrage of international photographers and journalists were waiting for the American soldiers as they crept, faces blackened, off their landing craft in Mogadishu.
Throughout the spring of 1993, Dan stayed in Mogadishu, both horrified and fascinated by the violence and tragedy he recorded. The situation worsened, and the death of Pakistani peacekeepers turned the conflict into an international incident. During this time, Dan’s pictures were featured in newspapers and magazines around the world. On June 12, 1993 his photo made a double-page spread in Newsweek magazine, as well as the covers on papers everywhere.
Dan kept his spirits up by starting a variety of businesses in Mogadishu. His tee shirts, caps, bags, and postcards were in hot demand, especially the cult tee shirt that said “Viva Somalia… thank you for not looting.” The first two hundred of those shirts were looted.
In April of 1993, Dan published his first book, Somalia, a collection of photographs and collages which sold rapidly to aid workers and soldiers posted to the country considered by most to be more dangerous than Bosnia.
But Dan always felt protected in Mogadishu. He spoke the African languages of Swahili and enough Somali to swear at the thieves who often tried to steal his equipment. He moved easily from the notorious Bahara Market, home of Mogadishu’s most dangerous criminals, to dine with the heads of aid missions, generals, and UN advisors. Initially viewed as another enthusiastic youngster, he soon earned the title of a true professional, along with the respect of his colleagues, friends, and locals, who called him the “Mayor of Mogadishu” because of his friendliness to all.
The violence and horror of the situation was extremely hard on Dan. Although he had “had enough” by late June of 1993, he agreed to stay on to cover the unfolding events. Dan was covering the violent famine in Somalia when, on July 12, US Marines made the fateful mistake of bombing what they mistakingly thought was a council of warlords in Mogadishu. Many innocent lives were lost, and in the ensuing riot, Dan and three other journalists were killed.
The journalists who died that day were Hos Maina, Anthony Macharia, Hansi Krauss, and Dan Eldon.