Monday, August 6, 2018

Horrors from the Lord's Resistance Army

Thirty Girls by Susan Minot, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2014

This is kind of an odd book. It is a fictional treatment of the true story of the abduction and abuse of thirty girls from St. Mary’s school in northern Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army. That part of the book is vivid and compelling in describing what happened to the girls; how they were beaten, raped and forced to comply with the weird practices of Joseph Kony’s cult.  Through reminisces of girls who escaped, the book also provides insight into how they handled the trauma psychologically.  Some cooped, others did not.  Similarly with their families, some viewed the girls as irreparably damaged. Others welcomed them home. But life could never be the same.

The other part of the book tracks the vague quest of a thirty something American journalist Jane who pitches up in East Africa with the hazy idea of writing about the girls. She falls in with a company of Kenya cowboys and world vagabonds and their sybarite lifestyle.  Jane hasn’t much of a back-story, but she lives for the moment even as she wonders about her place in life. Later she is struck by the realization of the unpredictability of violence. 

The plot of the story unfolds as the jaundiced westerners travel to Uganda to detail the girls’ stories. So finally the two parts of the book begin to jive.  Author Minot throws an unexpected twist into the plot at the last minute, but one which serves to underscore the theme of random violence. 
Readers cannot help but feel sympathy for the abducted girls and the horrors they endured.  At the same time the western sybarites garner only disgust. Yet folks on both sides reveal universal truths - relationships matter and you have to deal with what confronts you.  

For readers interested in Uganda and the impact of the Lord’s Resistance Army on the Acholi people, this is a useful book.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Aid Condundrum - Good or Bad?

A Dancer in the Dust by Thomas H. Cook, The Mysterious Press, New York, 2014.

This novel of Africa is set in a fictitious nation of Lubanda where tribal politics and violent change are rampart, but that is mostly the background for the plot, which revolves around the murder of Martine, a Lubandan born young white woman. Who did it and why?  During an earlier stint as a do-gooder in Lubanda protagonist Ray knew and loved Martine.  He deeply regrets the inadvertent role he may have played in her demise.  Now twenty years later another murder draws Ray, now a New York risk assessment counselor, into Marine’s long ago unsolved death and the riddles of current Lubandan politics. 

The story unfolds in jerks and starts as memories of old times interrupt the current chronicle.  In time amidst much introspection Ray makes progress in solving both murders. Along the way descriptions and the reality of Africa are  well presented.  By using a fictitious setting, author Cook is able to pontificate about political and developmental issues in Africa - and he does.   An overall theme that ultimately comes to fruition is whether western aid largess actually encourages development or rather does it stifle indigenous efforts and engender a begging mentality?  

Although I tired of the risk assessment digressions, A Dancer in the Dust is an entertaining  read.

Redemption through Good Works - Tale of a Mysterious Life

In Full Flight - A Story of Africa and Atonement by John Hemingway, Alfred A. Knof, New York, 2018.

This is a biography of Dr. Anne Spoerry, a key medical provider for Kenya’s Flying Doctors.  From the 1950s to 1999, Dr. Spoerry, or Mama Daktari as she was known to tens of thousands of Kenyans, flew to the far reaches of Kenya’s forgotten regions to provide medical care.  Indeed, her legacy of service is astounding, but there was more.  Why was she so driven? Why was she so guarded about relationships? Why was Dr. Anne so reluctant to reveal her past or even discuss World War II events?  There was a mystery here and one that author Hemingway pondered over for years and even quizzed Anne about - only to be brusquely reprimanded.  Only after her death was he able to unravel most - but not yet all - of the story.

The book is a compelling read as the complicated personality of Dr. Spoerry is peeled back layer by layer as her personal history is chronicled.  Born to a wealthy French/Swiss family, she was studying medicine in Paris when WWII erupted.  She joined the resistance and worked for it until her cell was arrested. She was sent to prison by the Nazis and ultimately interned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.  This is where clarity loses focus.  What did Anne do or not do?  Whatever the specifics - and Hemingway goes to great length to elucidate them - Anne had a case to answer.  So with family concurrence she ran and ended up in Kenya.

Putting the past behind her Anne found a new life as a doctor to highland communities. After enduring Mau Mau in Ol Kalou, she bought a farm in nearby Subukia.  There she learned to fly and joined the Flying Doctors. For the next forty years she flew and doctored, becoming a legend.

Hemingway’s biography is remarkable not just for its readability - it reads like a page-turner thriller -  but for the research he obviously put in to it.  His study of the complex personality of Anne Spoerry is meritorious.  She was driven by inner forces, both devils and angels.  Apparently she came to terms with herself, although always remaining something of enigma to friends.   As the story unwinds, readers gain insight into Kenya over the past sixty years and how the nation has evolved, especially in terms of race relations. 

In Full Flight is highly recommended.      

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Predjudice and Passion in Nakuru

Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani.

This slow starting novel centers around the Hotel Jakaranda (deliberately spelled with a “k”), which was purportedly among the first buildings in Nakuru.  Originally a house constructed by an Englishman, over the years it morphed into a hotel.   The sketchy plot of the novel initially focuses on Rajan, a young Kenyan raised Indian, a singer at the hotel,  and his quest for a mysterious girl who kisses him one night.  Throughout Rajan is never sure of what he is culturally - Punjabi or African.  That is part of the point of the novel: how did all the various groups assimilate - or not- into modern Kenya?  However, the story expands backwards encompassing those who built the lunatic express - the Indian laborers and fundis, as well as the English managers - all observed quizzically by Africans. 

 In elaborating on various life stories author Kimani weaves complex webs of interactions among Indians, between Indians and English and with Africans.  All told the novel becomes a window into the railway’s history in Kenya and the plethora of misunderstandings caused by incompatible cultures.  Finally, the story does find some traction as these various threads begin to combine into a more coherent narrative. 

The Indian characters, especially Babu, the central one, are fairly well developed, but others Englishmen  MacDonald and Turnbull are caricatures. Surprisingly, Africans don’t figure much in the story, except as needed to make the plot nudge forward, as observers and, of course, as the Kenyan background.

Geographically the novel takes some liberties, but that is normal in a novel. Kimani regularly tosses in Swahili, which is sometimes translated, that gives the setting credibility. Finally, those who know Kenya will note that Kimani skirts very carefully around politics, even those of the independence era, opting not even to name the first president instead referring to him only as “the Big Man”.

This is a fine Kenyan authored novel.  Stick with it your will enjoy it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Tensions in Gorilla camp

Following is a review of 

A Forest in the Clouds: My Year Among the Mountain Gorillas in the Remote Enclave of Dian Fossey. by  John Fowler,  Pegasus Books, Ltd, NY. 2018

An animal loving undergraduate, John Fowler signed up for an adventure - to serve as a student researcher with the famous gorilla lady Dian Fossey in the wilds of the Virunga Volcanoes.  He went off naively, but encountered a situation fraught with issues;  most of which were caused by the erratic personality of Ms. Fossey.  This memoir is a candid recitation of the year with the gorillas- and contains some marvelous reflections of interactions with great beasts -  but more of the book focuses on the unpredictable actions and moods of Dian.  By the time John arrived at Karisoke camp, Dian had spent over ten years in the field. Her physical health was poor and her mental balance questionable.  Students like John posed no academic threat to Dian and she shamelessly intimidated and bossed them around. They rarely knew where they stood, but stoically went about the tasks laid upon them. 

Readers will get an honest portrait of Dian Fossey.  In reality she was much different from her glamorous public persona.  As one quote from the book says “to not know her, is to love her.” Dian was a very troubled and difficult person as this memoir reveals, yet she still must be credited with bringing the endangered gorillas to the world’s attention and thus, by extension, setting into motion the extensive programs now in place to safeguard them.  But Dian never embraced those programs and in fact fought against them.   

The book is a bit of gossip, and is only a yearlong snapshot of  Dian’s career, yet it does truly portray what was happening during that year.  It must have taken much soul searching for John to write this book as it does certainly demolish at least part of Dian’s myth. 

Readers interested in gorillas, Rwanda, and Dian Fossey will find this an interesting read.  I can personally testify to the accuracy of the recitations because I was the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Kigali at the time, and involved in the effort and arrangements  designed to get Dian off the mountain and into Cornell University in order to review her notes and write her book