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

South Sudan in Crisis

a short story

Not My War

The plane rocked as she slowly lost altitude. My ears popped. The vast dun colored landscape below suddenly gave way to strips of green laced with a great muddy river down the center, the Nile: a river of mystery, of historical lore, of intrepid explorers, of elephant hunters and slavers.  Born in the mountains and lakes of Central Africa, it is the lifeblood of the continent, flowing northward to Egypt and the Mediterranean thousands of miles distant.  More recently the land below was scarred by ethnic conflict and civil war, but from altitude, it looked exotic. At least that was my mind set.  A scattering of dwellings below expanded into a virtual crosshatching of houses and roads, then boom, the wheels touched down with a screech and puffs of smoke.  I had arrived in Juba, new capital of the world’s newest country, South Sudan.

A tree hugging, liberal optimist by conviction, I come to South Sudan to do my part, to try to make a difference - not in the global scope of things - but in a very direct human way.  Perhaps still na├»ve, nonetheless I know rural Africa. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I taught English in a boys’ secondary school in Minaki, Tanzania for two years.  I relished the experience, especially contact with the kids, the opening of their horizons and the light in their eyes when they realized that dreams might come true. Back home in Virginia I taught for another year in Rockingham County junior high, but it wasn’t the same.  I yearned for Africa. When the chance came, I eagerly signed on with Children United, an Episcopal Church linked non-governmental organization that performs good works for children in South Sudan, many of whom are victims of war, most of whom go to bed hungry and all of whom want to hope.  CU runs a couple of orphanages and works in displaced persons camps.  I am ready.

I spotted a guy with a Children United sign.  Adam expedited me through the airport and drove me to the CU compound. There two matronly English women, Matilda and Margery – M&M in my brain’s registry – welcomed me to South Sudan.  They were delighted to have another hand on board and quickly sketched out plans to post me to oversee operations in Bar el Gazal.  Two days later, Adam again whisked me through the airport to a waiting World Food Program plane scheduled for Wau. (NGO practice is to book space on UN flights such as those operated by WFP.)   In the intervening two days I learned about CU programs and operations, accounting systems, money transfer arrangements, personnel policies, etc.  For a small organization, it was well organized and efficiently run.  I also got the chance to spend a few hours at the Juba orphanage, playing football with kids, reading to them and listening to their stories.  Indeed, they were victims of senseless violence. Families destroyed, fathers and brothers murdered, mothers raped, homesteads pillaged and burned.  The children’s resilience in the aftermath of such violence is astonishing.

Five humanitarian/UN aircraft were on Wau’s  full sized tarmac when I arrived. James, the driver, and Ibrahim, head of the local CU office greeted me warmly.  Although CU is Episcopal, Ibrahim is Muslim, as are many of Wau’s inhabitants.  The city itself has a population of about 150,000, more than half of the State’s 250,000 inhabitants. Several ten thousands of those folks are housed in several UN supervised Protection of Civilians (PoCs) or locally controlled Internally Displaced Persons  (IDP) camps.  Wau is dusty and run down, yet it is South Sudan’s second largest urban center.  Vehicle traffic was light, but pedestrians were many, as were donkeys. Commerce was well underway.  The temperature was well over one hundred degrees. Wau’s infrastructure, which includes the terminus of a now defunct railroad from Khartoum, is attributed to the fact that it was a bastion and entrepot of the Sudanese government during the decades long civil war.   This also explains the relatively large number of Muslims. The governor’s palace is a stately colonial era building situated on the banks of the Jur River. The spires of a grand mosque and a stately Catholic cathedral face off several blocks apart.  The CU office, and my not-air-conditioned lodging, is tucked away in a dilapidated house not far from the cathedral.

I got oriented to my small team.  I visited the program sites in the protection of civilian camps where CU provides nutritional supplemental feeding for malnourished kids.  You can tell an at risk child. They are skinny, have protruding bellies and often reddish hair. There were several dozen in each locale sitting on mats and slurping a healthy porridge out of red bowls.  Ibrahim told me however, that Dinka children, no matter the state of their health, often fail the skinny test because although long, their arms and legs are quite small around.  Many, however, grow to be towering adults. Dinka men often exceed 6 and a half feet and a number – like basketball player Manute Bol – get well over seven feet tall.

I made my official call on Governor Benjamin Baak in the late afternoon. He received me in his plush office with elaborate gold colored easy chairs and red rugs.  The governor reminded me of Jabba the Hut. He is a big jowly man, with a deep voice, but he welcomed me warmly and let me know that he is in charge.  I got the message. I know that foreigners have to stay on good terms with officials.  I will make sure not to run afoul of his writ.

After a few days in Wau, I decided to visit Raga, a town one hundred miles west where CU also had a small feeding program for which I was the nominal supervisor.  Ibrahim arranged for me to jump on a WFP plane for the trip, so off I went.  Raga was a pitiful version of Wau. It was smaller, dirtier, dustier, and sadder. Even the people seemed to sense they were really at the last stop on the road to nowhere.  Even so, it was a good visit. Our staff are doing their jobs, kids are getting fed.  Rather than wait another week for a return flight, I opted to join a three vehicle convoy headed back to Wau and got a seat in a MSF Toyota.  That would prove to be a bad decision.

My partner for the trip was Alain Henri.  Grizzled, 40 something, with a MSF cap jammed low on his brow.  Alain was a veteran of MSF operations in the region. He’d done time in Darfur and was in Bar el Gazal for the past two years.  Not a doctor, Alain was a logistics specialist – the man who moved supplies to where they were needed.  He had driven to Raga two days earlier, “no problems” he said toting stuff  for the MSF clinic at the IDP camp.  Our driver was named Vincent.

We bumped and jostled along the dusty track, never able to exceed thirty miles an hour.  Only several miles out of Raga, the number of homesteads along the road diminished, before long there were none.  We were the lead vehicle, which provided a distinct advantage because even at the slow speed the Toyota kicked up clouds of dust. Alain and I compared notes about our jobs and complaints about the heat and dust.  I noticed a gap in the road ahead, evidently a washout still left over from last year’s rains. Vincent braked, engaged four wheel drive, turned off the road onto a sandy trace that wound around bushes, then across the wash and back toward the road.  He stopped suddenly.  I looked up to see four armed men guns leveled standing in front of us.  “Merde,” Alain exclaimed, “I hope it is just a robbery.”  We were ordered out along with four persons from the trailing Toyotas.  One of the armed guys barked an order.  Vincent translated, “Empty your pockets, he wants money, watches and phones.”  We complied, but not quickly enough, the troops rained down blows and a few vicious whacks with gun butts.  Alain had a trickle of blood leak out below his cap. This little introduction to our captors was to repeat itself irregularly over the next few days.  After the thrashing, I spoke up. “We are humanitarian assistance workers, in South Sudan to help, to feed hungry people and care for the sick.”  The band looked befuddled. “Tell ‘em, Vincent”.  Vincent said a few words, but was harshly cut off.  “No interest,” Vincent muttered as we were marched off into the bush.  We walked about a half mile and ordered to sit.  Given an order translated as no talking, two of the bandits stood guard.  We sat for an hour or two, then jerked attentive when we heard a truck or trucks grinding up the road from Wau.  Shortly gunfire and explosions erupted back towards our vehicles.  Black smoke flared up into the sky.  Our guards exalted and danced around.  Maybe this is over I hoped. But no. Within minutes, a larger band of marauders tramped through the bush.  The obvious leader came over to us.  “A great victory,” he said. “ Seven SPLA dead. Now you come.”  “Wait,” I replied. “Let us go.  We are of no use to you.”  Major John, as he later told me to call him, was blunt, “no, you come.”

We tramped off.  Seven captives – Alain, me, Vincent, and four other South Sudan folks.  We walked for hours through the heat of the day. Ordered to be silent, the seven hostages were kept together with guards fore and aft. Other men in the group scouted ahead, ranged behind and out to the sides. Obviously, this was an ingrained, well-practiced movement through the landscape.  To me the landscape all looked the same. Flat land covered with scrub brush about ten feet high.  There was nothing different to see and no discernible trail.  And it was hot.  I stumbled along, thankful at least for a decent pair of shoes and a long sleeved shirt, but I had no hat and no water.  We finally arrived at a clearing with a round mud hut in the center.  Major John approached. “Camp”, he said, “we will rest here tonight.”  He motioned us into a lean-to type structure.  At least there was shade and we could talk a bit.  Being foreign to the heat, Alain and I suffered the most from the tribulations of the day.  One of the drivers confirmed that our captors were Ferrit, as was he.  He overheard conversation about us. They were puzzled about what to do with us – shoot us or let us go.  The group had no contact with headquarters so could not get orders, thus Major John decided to walk us to his general.

Just before dusk one of the soldiers brought us a couple of plastic bottles full of awful looking water and a half dozen roasted corn cobs. I drank thankfully, and munched a few rows of parched maize. 
We were roused before dawn. John came over. “Today, we walk early while it is cooler. We rest another day, then get to headquarters. ”  Off we went.  Same drill as yesterday, but it was easier. We walked for hours, Got bashed a bit during one of the brief rest stops, apparently just for the joy of the power of it. Our destination was similar, an isolated homestead, but this one had a family in it.  A woman brought water and porridge for us.

After a restless night, especially when the screaming shits hit, I felt weak when the morning trek began, but steeled myself to the ordeal, hoping that it was the last day.  Headquarters camp was indeed bigger – a virtual small village.  John went to find his commander.  An hour or two he came to us. Sheepishly, he confessed that the general was irritated that he captured us.  His task was to attack the SPLA, not take hostages.  While we’d been walking, WFP officials had contacted the general  through an intermediary.  For months WFP and the general had coordinated food deliveries to hungry villagers in  rebel territory.   Because of lack of communication with his men, the general could not confirm custody of the missing foreigners.  But now that he had us, he would deliver us to an agreed upon food delivery site.  Unfortunately, John noted, “it is another day’s walk away.”  

I asked John, “Why are you fighting?”  “Mostly we defend,” he replied,” We fight back when we can, then run and hide. Our leaders have decided this. I do as I am told. Yeah, I want peace, but is not my power.  Maybe war is fate. Elders say it has always been so.  Why are you here?” he asked, “this is not your war.”

Whoa, I paused, thought briefly about a platitude about helping victims, but no…

“Agreed,” I replied, “not my war.”

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Emperor and the Elephants

Folowing is a review of The Emperor and the Elephants - A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Story of Life during the late 1970s in the Central African Empire,  Peace Corps Writers, Oakland, CA. 2016.

This memoir of Peace Corps service by Richard W. Carroll, who went on to become a noted conservationist and activist leader of the World Wildlife Fund, recounts his early years in the Central African Empire.  Initially Carroll was a “fish guy” charged with inculcating the virtues of fish farming to rural residents.  This was an active and successful program in the CAE as long as some outside agency - the Peace Corps, the French or the UN - kept funding the production and distribution of fry, i.e. baby fish. Sadly, once the donors left, without new fish coming in at the bottom, the system collapsed. 

But during Carroll’s tenure, it all worked fine.  After a stint as a fish guy, Carroll sought and received a transfer to the nation’s nascent game park Manda-Gounda St. Floris in the far north east. The park was relatively undeveloped and un- assessed. Carroll’s task was to catalog what was there in terms of animals and plants, of which he found a profusion.  His experiences in this wild place are what propelled him onwards to a career as a wildlife professional.

In the book Carroll tells about people, places, animals and birds. He muses about life and its meanings.  His African adventure took place during the bizarre times when the Central African Republic’s tinpot dictator Jean Bedel Bokassa crowned himself emperor. Carroll provides an accurate description of the national scene and observations of what that meant, or did not, to the rural folks he dealt with on a daily basis.  Essentially, it was all dramatic theater that had few repercussions on rural life. The fact that national resources were stolen and squandered by the emperor and his ilk was just how life was. However, the larceny included not just tax money and foreign aid, but also within a three or four year window the slaughter of tens of thousands of elephants for their ivory.  (Hence the catchy title of this book.) Even today, years after Bokassa’s demise, poaching continues apace. 

After his Peace Corps days, Carroll returned to the renamed Central African Republic to do research on lowland gorillas and help found the Dzanga Sanga reserve near Bayanga in the south western forest.  Although Carroll alludes to this time and again in the book, he never really elaborates on what was involved in that much longer experience. I wanted more. 

Finally, included in the memoir are excerpts from several latter day speeches decrying poaching of elephants and rhinos, the bush meat trade, the timber industry, and mining. In the CAR all the rhinos are gone, as are most of the northern elephants. Only the forest elephants remain and they are threatened by poaching and human encroachment. 

In sum the book is sort of a hodgepodge of themes all of which have some linkages one to another. 

Disclaimer:  I too lived and worked in the CAR for a number of years (1974-76 and 1992-1995) from a perch at the U.S. embassy. Carroll and I may have crossed paths for a month or so in 1976. A former PCV myself in Kenya, I was a keen supporter of Peace Corps programs and volunteers and, despite its odd politics, the CAR was a great Peace Corps country. Volunteers had productive and happy tours. I visited both St Floris and Dzanga Sanga on numerous occasions, and found them wild and wonderful. I am saddened by the communal violence that has afflicted the CAR during the past few years and the toll it has taken on the people and their communities, but also the negative impact the violence has had on those special wild places. St. Floris is empty and Bayanga under siege. Carroll’s plea resonates.   

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Liberia's Iron Lady

Following is my review of  Madame President - The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper, Simon and Schuster, NY, 2017.

This is an authorized biography that is really glowing in its depiction of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected woman president. Ellen or Ma as she is called by many of her constituents rose to power via the votes of women. By 2005 Liberian women had had enough of war, of rape, of terror, of destroyed families, of lives lost and of livelihoods devastated. So when the time came they were rallied and did rally around to assure that a woman would lead Liberia out of perdition.  Ellen, who is still president, began that process, which continues today. 

A woman did not fit the mold for political leadership in Africa. So how Ellen rose to such heights is the grist of the book. She was not from the traditional ruling class of descendants of freed slaves from America that founded Liberia in the 19th century and who shamelessly ruled as an aristocratic class for 150 years. However, Ellen resembled them on account of a German grandfather. Light complexions counted for much in 20th century Liberia. Ellen’s father was an up-country African, son of a chief of the Gola tribe.  Ellen grew up privileged. She went to the right schools where she proved her academic mettle. She wed young, had four sons, but her marriage to Doc Sirleaf did not last; not the least because of physical abuse.  Ellen managed an American education and became an accomplished economist. For thirty years she was only sporadically in Liberia while otherwise gainfully employed in international finance by the World Bank, the United Nations or several private banks. 

Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf lamented Liberia’s slide into chaos and terror under Master Sergeant Samuel Doe who took power in 1980.  She initially supported Charles Taylor when he invaded in 1989 and thus began a new round of violence. Doe was killed in 1990, but civil war dragged on for years. Ellen quickly realized her error in endorsing Taylor as his true colors emerged. He was a violent, vengeful leader whose militia, including child soldiers, wreaked havoc on the citizenry. Thenceforth she opposed him and battled him politically at every turn, even running against him for the presidency in 1997. Taylor was ousted in 2003 and fair elections were held in 2005.  As the book recounts, politics in Liberia - as in most of Africa - was essentially a man’s game, so how Ellen and her supporters prevailed is a good story. But prevail she did; then as president used her knowledge, experience and contacts in the international system to get Liberia’s debt rescinded and to gain support for Liberia’s economic recovery. Most importantly, she ushered in a new era of peace. Her accomplishments led to a second term in 2011. 

Alas, just as matters were looking better, Ebola struck in 2014 and again Liberia went into crisis.  However, yet again Madame President’s steady hand and solid leadership helped surmount the problem. 

Author Cooper’s prose is precise and readable.  Although favorable towards Madame President for the most part, the author also frankly addressed shortcomings and lapses in judgment.  That criticism along with regular insertions of dialogue in Liberian English provided a good dose of reality and local color to the saga. 

I served in the U.S. embassy in 2002 while Taylor was in power and later led a team of observers for the 2005 voter registration drive, so am familiar with places, issues and some personalities mentioned in the book.  However, even persons with no inside knowledge of Liberia will find this biography fascinating and enlightening. It is indeed the story of a strong and determined woman. It is well worth reading.