Thursday, December 6, 2007

Djibouti - I remember a Gift

In 1986 I was making a tour of U.S. embassies in eastern Africa. I was in Djibouti, a small desert country at the southern mouth of the Red Sea. Neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia, then at relative peace, had been warring for years. As a result many thousands of ethnic Somali tribesmen from the Ogaden Region of Ethiopia had sought refuge in Djibouti. They were confined to United Nations run camps located in the arid hinterland of one of the most desolate nations in Africa. I visited one of the camps, which grouped several thousand refugees who had lived there for months; essentially on a moonscape.

This refugee camp was a bleak and seemingly hopeless place. Yet, the elders of the camp committee greeted me graciously and guided me on a tour of their squalid domain. Green plastic sheeting provided cover from the sun. Bags of U.S. donated maize and tins of vegetable oil were stacked in the food distribution warehouse. A one-tent school was operating, as was a small clinic. Flies buzzed incessantly. However, the camp committee was most anxious that I see their newly acquired well, water pump and garden.

We walked up a rock-strewn ravine past the cemetery where several new graves provided mute testimony to the ravages of disease and malnutrition. Beyond, nestled in slope of the valley in the region where there was not a blade of vegetation visible for miles, was a small patch of green. The elders showed me how boys carried water from the new well to the plots where they had managed to coax several scraggly tomato plants and other vegetables from the hard earth. The chief pointed with pride to the first water melon, about the size of a small soccer ball. He then had it picked. He presented it to me with great ceremony and thanks for America’s concern and assistance. I was overwhelmed. The camp’s children were desperate for this sort of nourishment, yet it was given unhesitating to a stranger – to someone who obviously had no need for it. Yet, I had to accept. This was a gift from the heart. I managed to utter thanks and a few words of encouragement. We then shared the bits of melon.

In the years since, I have always been struck how people with so little and with such great needs could give so easily. Yet we with so much, find it hard to give a little.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Zambia - Book Review of The Unheard

The Unheard – a memoir of deafness and Africa

by Josh Swiller; Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2007

If you yearn to relive the angst, frustrations, self-doubt and self discovery of your Peace Corps experience, this may be the book for you. Josh Swiller who served in northern Zambia in the early 1990s was an unusual volunteer who apparently had an unusually conflict ridden tour. Perhaps, as he himself would admit, it was his combative personality, but also – as he repeatedly refers to in the book – it was because the town where he was assigned was just mean and devoid of effective leadership. In any case, common cultural misunderstandings often flared up into major confrontations, especially when our idealistic hero put his foot down and stood firm on his scruples.

Josh’s experience was sadly typical in many respects. He was puzzlement to the community. Why was he there? Why was he impotent to wave a magic wand and heal the diseased and dying or provide wells, jobs or education? Ultimately since he could not work wonders, what was amiss? On Josh’s side, he too wondered why he was there. What was he to do to promote development? And how to do it? Especially since the community’s response was nearly zero. Finally, what did he accomplish?

Josh carried an additional burden as a deaf man. He could partially understand one-on-one when his hearing aids were working, but in crowds or with background noise intelligible sounds ceased. Josh wrote frankly about his deafness and the issues that he had to deal with - exclusion from group conversations for example. But part of his motivation to join the Peace Corps was to find himself and to find a place where deafness mattered less. He said he found that in Zambia. Being white and American was odd enough; no one seemed concerned with his deafness.

Josh forged a solid friendship with Augustine Jere who served as his guide to Zambian culture and the strange town they lived in. Ultimately, this friendship was tested by culture and corrupt, even evil, circumstances. Without divulging the story, let me say that it tracks. Zambians, their town, expectations and frailties come alive. The author writes compellingly. Former PCVs will recognize the reality of the world Swiller so ably describes and will admire his tenacity even while deploring his (self admitted) foolishness in attempting to deal with it.

Reviewed by Robert E. Gribbin, December 2007

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Book review - The Camel Bookmobile

The Camel Bookmobile

Marsha Hamilton

Harper Collins, New York, 2007

This novel has an odd, but quite descriptive title. The story revolves around a camel carried bookmobile that operates out of Garissa into Kenya’s northern reaches. The delivery of books to isolated nomadic villages brings into play the tension of the novel - the clash of worlds. Modern Africa and America represented by the books and the warm-hearted do-gooder young New York librarian on one hand and the tradition bound villagers of Midima on the other.

Books turn the village topsy turvy. Some welcome the introduction of new ideas and wider windows on the world. They – a teacher, a progressive grandmother and many youths – see that change in Kenya is inevitable and that the village or at least some villagers ought to join the outside world. Elders and cynics scorn the effort seeing it realistically as undermining the culture, tradition and bush knowledge that sustained the tribe for generations.

Our heroine Fi Sweeny brings her naiveté about Africa and western values to bear. She gets caught up in the inner tensions of village relationships where she herself is a catalyst interrupting the predictability of rural timelessness. As is true with PCVs, Fi learns more about love, hope, and life than she gives in her exchanges with villagers. The engaging story plays out against the backdrop of impending drought where the very survival of the semi-nomadic people is menaced.

The various elements of the plot and characters permit the author to observe alternatively cynically or sympathetically about the intrusions of the modern world into traditional life, the role of women and motivations behind humanitarian good works. The various characters are nicely developed. The village setting is authentically rendered. The story has good pace and keeps the reader guessing until the end.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Nigeria - book review of Half of a Yellow Sun

Book: Half of a Yellow Sun

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Published: Farafina, Lagos 2006

Reviewer: Robert E. Gribbin

I spent the last three months in Nigeria. It was indeed a fascinating place. Under new President Yar'Adua it was full of energy and the expectation that problems can be solved and that the nation can look forward to a brighter, more prosperous future. Nigeria today has moved far beyond the passions of the 1967-70 Biafran civil war, yet some of the issues of disenfranchisement and tribalism remain as troublesome impediments to true national unity. Chimamanda Adichie's novel, that all of Nigeria is reading, is a haunting reminder of the enmity of the war, the arrogance, the violence and the hardship that was visited upon the Igbo people.

The title of the novel evokes the half of a yellow sun that was the central emblem on the Biafran flag. The sun also figured on the uniforms of Biafran soldiers. The half sun initially is symbolically seen as a rising sun representing the hopes and expectations of the new state. However, as the story progresses and Biafra descends into a besieged hell of poverty, starvation and collapse, the sun is clearly setting. Dreams are over and lives are irreparably changed.

The story focuses on a rich Igbo family, especially twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, whose personalities are quite different. Tracking them and their various relationships to family, lovers and friends provides background for the war and a soap operatic setting for the plot that finally gathers together and moves forward seriously to delve into what happens when the normal stresses of living are overwhelmed by senseless violence. Much of the novel is viewed through the perspective of Igwu, a young naive houseboy called to service in the home of Professor Odengigbo, a fervent believer in the Biafran cause, who becomes Olanna's husband. Although Igwu does not understand his social superiors, he carefully observes them and gets to love them (and they him). Several delightful passages in the novel reflect Igwu's village naivete when he puzzles about middle class life style.

Hanging over the domesticity of Odengibo and Olanna's university household in Igbo territory were the tribal politics of Nigeria in the sixties. Following the assassination of Prime Minister Balewa (a northerner) in 1966 by Igbo officers, a series of pogroms and massacres were visited upon Igbo migrants in northern Nigeria. Thousands died and tens of thousands retreated to the Igbo heartland. Another coup d'etat brought northern officers to power. Rejecting that change, Igbo nationalists declared Biafra independent. The Federal Government responded by beginning a "police action" that morphed into civil war.

Although it only presents the Igbo perspective, this book is not about the politics of the war. Rather, it is about people - rich, middle class and peasant alike - all of whom become victims of forces beyond their control. Part of the tragedy of the Biafran civil war was the absolute conviction by the Igbo people, as represented by characters in the novel, that their destiny was to be free and independent. Consequently, they stoically accepted the enormous hardship visited upon them as Biafra was battered and starved into submission. This is that story: the pride, the courage, the resourcefulness and the initiative as folks coped with the collapse of their lives, with death, disease, starvation, betrayal and ultimately, defeat.

The central characters of the novel fill out nicely as the story progresses. They become real as they struggle with circumstances and against the doom that the reader knows lies ahead. Dramatically told, Chimamanda Adichie has written a compelling narrative of human resilience in the face of tragedy.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Sudan's Lost Boys - a book review

What Is the What – the Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng

Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s, San Francisco, 2006

Whew! In novel form this book tells all you ever needed to know about the Lost Boys of Sudan. The story begins with the civil war violence in 1983 that shattered the peaceful villages where Sudanese of various backgrounds lived together more or less harmoniously. Fleeing destruction of their world by Arab marauders, first hundreds, then thousands, even ten thousands of black African youngsters – mostly boys, but a few girls and later whole families - began to trek from their villages into the unknown in search of safety and peace. Months and hundreds of miles later, these refugees found little succor in squalid camps in Ethiopia. Later they were forced to move hundreds more miles back through the Sudan into northern Kenya. There they settled into a teeming camp that became home for ten years. Finally, several thousand of these wanderers were granted refuge in America.

Their walk was of epic proportions. The traumatized children were afflicted by disease, weariness, malnutrition, hunger, lack of leadership and rogue SPLA soldiers. They were pursued by raiders, shunned by most villagers, attacked by government warplanes and some were eaten by lions. Yet they mustered their courage, buried their dead along the way, supported one another and buoyed by hope, they marched onward across the swamps and deserts of Sudan. Pinyudo camp in Ethiopia was not the paradise they envisaged, but offered a year’s respite. Yet that too unraveled in an orgy of violence. Again the boys trudged onward. Beset by troubles and responsibilities that most children never encounter, they grew up on the walk and in the camps.

They settled into a more predictable limbo in Kakuma camp in northern Kenya where they went to school and became young adults. Ultimately as word of their travails spread, several thousand Lost Boys and Girls were admitted into the United States to begin new lives in America. It was a dream, but the reality of the dream was fraught with new obstacles of how to cope with America and how to come to terms with themselves and their pasts.

The novelization of Achak’s story with him as an engaging narrator permits the Lost Boys saga to be told in detail and with great emotion. The author uses flashbacks from present day Atlanta to recall events. Achak’s insight into himself and his relationships with others is genuinely touching. Not only are readers educated on the terrors of Sudan and the trek, but also on the reality that unsophisticated young African men confront in contemporary American society.

Geographical fault finder that I am, I noted two errors: Kitale, Kenya was referred to as Ketale in several passages and Kenyatta Airport was regularly misspelled as Kinyatta.

In summary, the saga of the Lost Boys is overwhelming. This book delivers a full dose of intensity - at times it was too much. I had to take a few breaks. Even so, What is the What is a worthy read. Finally, even though it was mentioned from time to time during the narrative, I never really understood what the what might be – perhaps some sort of universal truth - so the title of the book escaped me entirely.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Rwanda Abolishes Capital Punishment

On July 25, 2007 the government of Rwanda abolished capital punishment. This carefully considered decision sent different messages throughout society. Some citizens were heartened; others quite distressed. However, in several ways the decision will permit the justice system to function more effectively in bringing the many thousands still charged with genocide and crimes against humanity to answer for their actions. Those already convicted and sentenced to die will while out their days in jail.

Lack of accountability for crimes of ethnic hatred was among the contributing factors to the 1994 genocide. Perpetrators of sporadic pogroms aimed at the Tutsi since 1960 had never been held accountable. This impunity led planners of the 1994 event to believe that they too could escape punishment for the ethnic slaughter they unleashed. However, despite the murder of nearly a million people, the perpetrators did not escape. Many were apprehended and held for trial.

Ending impunity and trying over 100,000 persons for genocide crimes was and remains a complicated task. Trials began in 1997 and the first convictions occurred in that year when execution was the law of the land.

In my book In the Aftermath of Genocide: the U.S. Role in Rwanda I write about the executions that occurred on April 25, 1998. Twenty-two persons died that day, four in Kigali.

“In Kigali the four convicted – Froudouard Karamira, Silas Munyagishari, Elie Nshimiyimana, and Virginie Mukankusi – were brought by truck to a field outside the Nyamirambo stadium. About twenty thousand persons somberly watched as the genocidaires were lined up, tied to stakes, and black hoods slid over their heads. There was no ceremony. A team of soldiers shot them at close range with automatic rifles. Another soldier administered a pistol coup de grace to each head. It was quickly finished. The bodies were carted away in the same truck that brought them. The crowd dispersed.

“The government had made its point. Impunity was at an end…. Having made the point the government carried out no further executions in 1998. This restraint began to pose a problem. I did not think the government wanted to execute the hundreds or possibly thousands of prisoners who would be given capital punishment. That would be a lot of vengeance for one government to administer. Suppose then that only the worst offenders were chosen for execution – but how to choose? They would all be convicted under the same law, and all equally guilty. Rwanda’s solution to this conundrum seems to be patience. Those sentenced to die remain in prison awaiting the carrying out of their punishment.”

Since those first executions, no further were done. About a thousand persons have been sitting on death row since 1998 with more added each year. Annulling the death penalty will now commute death sentences to life imprisonment. This relieves the government of the problem of potentially having to execute a thousand prisoners. Of course, it avoids the international outcry that would have resulted if a program of such executions were begun. Presumably the prisoners and their families welcome the change. Opponents of the death penalty are also pleased as are Rwandans who believe that national reconciliation can best be accomplished without further shedding of blood. Yet many survivors are disappointed and dismayed, even feeling betrayed. They had long awaited a final rendition of justice for those who murdered family and friends. They seek a sense of closure they will never have.

On the wider perspective of justice, absence of the death penalty opens the door for the extradition of genocidaires identified and even arrested in Europe, Canada and in other non-capital punishment nations. Heretofore such nations refused to extradite accused to Rwanda on account of the possibility of capital punishment. Now, they will be expected to comply with proper extradition requests. Similarly with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that sits is Arusha, Tanzania. One impediment to close cooperation between the ICTR and Rwandan judicial officials was the existence of the death penalty. With the annulment cooperation should improve. Over the longer term as the ICTR winds up operations in coming years, cases can be transferred to Rwanda for adjudication and convicts for incarceration.

In summary, given the circumstances abolishing the death penalty was the right thing to do. Domestically, Rwandans know that impunity is finished and that justice is being meted out. Genocidaires are answering for their crimes. Life in an African prison is no bed of roses. Internationally, Rwanda is doing the right thing that enhances its reputation and its ability to apprehend more of the “big fish” genocidaires.

Nigeria - The Irony of Kleptocracy

By all reports Nigeria is among the most corrupt nations on earth. Little is accomplished without due consideration. Sadly, corruption has become the political and economic culture of the country. Patron-client relationships govern all aspects of life. For example, candidates for political office are nominated and selected by cultivating supporters with funds and promises. Such comity is extended with the certainty that when installed in office, officials will royally compensate their sponsors from government treasuries. Patronage includes flat out payments with diverted money, as well as jobs, travel, special privileges – building plots in cities, for example - and other patently illegal transactions including un-competed contracts and payments for projects that are not just never completed, but never begun at all. Moreover, people expect to pay “fees” for any service – public or private

Not only are billions in oil revenues blatantly misused, but a portion of Nigeria’s oil wealth is stolen daily via the simple means of pumping crude from isolated wellheads or draining a pipeline. More sophisticated theft involves over-invoicing, under-loading or a variety of slights-of-hand with documents.

Even the criminal system operates through corruption. Internet scams that capitalize on greed reflect endemic acceptance of corruption. Although violent theft and carjackings are commonplace, there has been a rising tide of kidnapping for ransom, extortion and protection rackets.

Because of embedded corruption nothing works efficiently or effectively, but the largest loss to society is that little of Nigeria’s enormous wealth is invested productively for the benefit of the nation. Roads are woeful, the railroad defunct, port infrastructure dilapidated, refineries inoperative and power generation minimal. The industrial sector is faltering and agriculture all but collapsed. Schools, hospitals, and clinics operate under shameful conditions. Most quality of life indicators are in decline. All this in one of the world’s great producers of hydrocarbons!

Is there hope for reform? Well, yes, a little. Successive governments, including the new administration of President Yar Adua have created and empowered anti-corruption commissions designed to identify and prosecute the worst offenders. So far, while some “big men” have been called to account, the record is not encouraging that such institutions can stem the tide. Concomitantly, however, there is increased understanding by civil society organizations, the people as a whole and even elected officials that the system is not tenable over the long haul. Anarchy, as is now occurring in the delta region is a reality that might spread. Disaffection leading to Islamic fundamentalism in the north is also on the rise. Fear of such threats to the state strengthens reform elements.

The irony is that had Nigeria’s wealth been properly invested, the whole economy would have expanded dramatically. All ships would have risen on the rising tide, including those of the small numbers of elite who have benefited disproportionately from corruption. Instead of the distortion that now exists with one percent of the population outlandishly rich, a small middle class composing a second tier and a poverty stricken majority in a distant last place, Nigeria might have more equitable income distribution and a public sector to be proud of.

Friday, July 13, 2007

East Africa - Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari

Following is a review of Paul Theroux's latest travel book, which is now several years old. The review also appears on the web site of the Friends of Kenya.

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux,Houghton Mifflin, NY 2003

Dark Star Safari – Overland from Cairo to Cape Town marked Theroux’s return to Africa in the year 2000 after thirty years absence. He strove to travel the length of the continent as a solo voyager using local transportation such as buses, trucks and trains. Using his other travel books as models, he closely observed those whom he met and commented trenchantly, candidly and cynically about them. The value of the book is that Theroux writes so well that his observations ring of truthfulness – whether or not they are accurate. The compilation of anecdotes forms a body of work that paints a realistic picture of contemporary Africa. Furthermore, because he revisits territory and situations known to RPCVs, we have the advantage of seeing again places and people we once encountered.

Since this column focuses on Kenya, I will confine myself to comments about the East Africa section of Theroux’s journey, i.e. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Theroux came down the great north road from Moyale on a cattle truck, an overlander truck and with a missionary. Because he was refused a ride, Theroux gave vent to his negative opinion of AID workers and their undertakings. “They were in general oafish self-dramatizing prigs, and often complete bastards.” Theroux, however, was an equal opportunity basher, noting the provinciality of Kenya’s northern residents who were apprehensive about troubles in Ethiopia, Theroux observed, “These ignorant inhabitants, traveling on a hideous road in an over-heated desert, in a neglected province of one of the most corrupt and distressed and crime-ridden countries in Africa, regarded sunny, threadbare, but dignified Ethiopia as a war zone.” As did the locals Theroux feared shifta bandits. He was told by a driver, however, “They do not want your life, bwana, they want your shoes.” Theroux reflected that indeed human life was cheap in Africa; shoes had more utility.

Seeing the slums outside Nairobi, Theroux said, “it was clear that the Kenya I had known was gone. I didn’t mind; perhaps the newness would make this trip all the more memorable.” Theroux did find a new Kenya, where inhabitants were savaged by Moi’s thugs, harassed on crowded crime ridden streets, governed by a self-serving ruling class, afflicted by HIV/AIDS and gripped by a sense of desperation that he encountered in all African cities. He noted that whenever a city grew bigger, “it got uglier, messier, more dangerous, an effect of bad planning, underfunding and graft.”

The author did not stay long in Nairobi but hurried on through Nakuru, Kericho and Kisumu. He was not impressed. He noted the lack of any modern development. He blamed ineffectual international assistance programs for being a complete waste of money, but also recognized that Africans themselves had botched most opportunities. He saw one “booming industry” upon leaving Kisumu – coffin makers – “a perfect image for a country that seemed terminally ill.”

Theroux returned to his personal past in Kampala where he had taught for several years at Makerere University. He found Uganda marginally better than Kenya; at least it was imbued with a sense of forward motion. In contacting old friends he discovered that the surroundings of the political debates had changed, but the underlying terms were the same. How to develop? Who should rule? How? What systems would work for Africa? Obviously there were no answers to these questions. While awaiting permission to board a lake ferry, Theroux wandered around the city he once knew and reflected on the changes wrought by thirty years in Uganda, in Ugandans, and in himself.

Finally aboard a rail-car carrier to Mwanza, Theroux entered into a Zen like state that would successfully carry him across the lake, on by rail to Dar and via the TanZam towards Malawi. Although he enjoyed the people, Theroux observed, “The dogmatic, motto-chanting Tanzanians had been humbled. No one talked of imperialism and neocolonialism now, nor of the evils of capitalism – though they could have, for even capitalism had failed in Tanzania.”

Errors: I always stumble upon geographical mix-ups. I am surprised that “fact checkers” don’t do a better job. Talking about volcanoes, Theroux said that “Mt. Lengai in Rwanda” was erupting. However, Mt. Lengai is dormant and in Tanzania. All the Rwandan volcanoes are dormant, but Mts. Nyiragongo and Nyamulagira in neighboring Congo remain active. Theroux noted that he had hoped to visit “Kabila” in western Uganda to see chimpanzees. There is no Kabila. I assume he meant Kabale Forest where chimps are easily seen. Similarly, he listed Lake Tanzania as one of the East African great lakes. Its name is Tanganyika.

Theroux ‘s journey began before East Africa and continued on afterwards. His take on other countries and people encountered are equally realistic, albeit amusing or infuriating. Theroux wanted to be in-the-mix, but not of it. He sought to retain a dispassionate perspective, but never hesitated to share scathing judgments. He was proud of his undertaking, but arrogant in judging that the sojourns, travels, observations and works of others were somehow less noble. Even so, a reader cannot help but like the guy. He went and did it and told it like he saw it.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

USA - Drive to Alaska

Following is a piece that I did for the Washington Post travel section, but they have not used it yet.

The Trip: A fifteen thousand mile odyssey from Virginia to the land of the midnight sun – west across the prairies, north along the spine of the Rockies, up the Alcan Highway, north to Dawson, Yukon, “Top of the World” highway into Alaska, north to the Artic Circle, then almost every road in that vast state (there are not that many), back south on the ferry through the inside passage, zip across the lower 48 to home. Whew!

Who went? Me; Connie, my wife, and our 2003 Jeep.

When? July to mid-September.

Why? I had been there briefly in 1992 and knew that Alaska needed more time. There is just too much to see. Recently retired, we had the time and the vehicle; besides, we had not been on a really good road trip since driving around East Africa for two months in 1999.

How long? We did not rush. Twelve weeks.

Getting there was …three quarters of the adventure. Each day was new. The road rolled out before us. Mountains loomed, glaciers gushed, bears prowled, flowers bloomed in profusion, rivers roared, fish jumped. Most roads were well paved and, once past the Canadian mountain parks, traffic was light.

First Alaskan moment: Stopping in the rain and mud at the ramshackle log cabin café at Boundary replete with moose antlers and assorted junk stacked around the yard, but a warm welcome, hot coffee and cinnamon buns inside.

Best museums: A guided walking tour of historical buildings – the court house, customs house, old church, and the army post - in the town of Eagle (population 60) exposed a rich trove of sleds, vehicles, pelts and paraphernalia from the gold rush era 100 years ago. Eagle has few visitors so everything was hands on – touch, sit, feel. A second delight was the hammer collection in Haines that displays virtually thousands of hammers of all descriptions. I also recommend the state museum in Anchorage, the oil pipeline display in Valdez, sourdough cabins in Hope, and Native American artists at work in Sitka.

It was all worth it when…. after two days of camping in the cold rain and mist at Wonder Lake in Denali Park, I arose at 3:00 am and in the dawn’s early light discovered Mt. McKinley, the mother of mountains, towering above. She was out and crystal clear for two days, fading again into the clouds only when we departed.

Wildlife: We saw lots of bears – black, grizzly, brown – along the Alcan, and all around Alaska, but especially in Denali Park where we also had encounters with moose, wolves, caribou and ground squirrels. In the waters we saw tens of thousands of salmon spawning, otters floating, sea lions bellowing and whales breaching. Eagles, hawks, puffins and kittiwake gulls crowded the skies. Good binoculars were essential.

Scariest moments: We hiked for several hours daily – rain or shine. In Alaska we had lots of rain. I wore bear bells and when evidence, i.e. fresh scat, indicated ursine presence nearby, I clapped and sang out, “I can run fastest. Catch Connie!” Fortunately, this was effective; the only bear I met at close quarters completely ignored me.

Best golf: Yes, I carted my clubs along. The links type course at Haines cannot be bested anywhere in the world for its spectacular setting along the fiord surrounded by snow capped mountains and hanging glaciers. It was a decent nine hole layout as well, but the eagles all stayed in the trees.

Thrill: Flying in a small plane below the mountain peaks over the vast Davison glacier and looking up to spot mountain goats on the ledges.

Favorite meal: An hour long boat ride from Homer took us to Halibut Cove, an artists’ enclave, where we dined at The Saltry on scrumptious fresh seafood before a roaring fire on the covered outdoor deck. A good bottle of wine made it perfect!

Hostelries: We stayed at brand name motels, mom and pop’s, even a double wide motel, b&b’s, our tents, with friends, park and fishing lodges, and a cabin on the ferry. We especially liked two old hotels with the charm of an earlier epoch: the Van Gilder in Seward and Hotel Halsingland in Haines. Be warned, however, that all lodging in Alaska – no matter the quality – is about twice the price of “outside,” i.e. the lower 48.

Biggest disappointment: Not the bugs, the distance, the prices, my failure to catch a really big fish, but the weather. August/September 2006 was mostly chilly (day time highs in the fifties at best) and wet. However, long daylight was nice and the few sunny days were magnificent.

While we were there: Alaskans squabbled, then elected a newcomer woman governor over seasoned pros. They voted a cruise ship tax (that will be passed on to passengers.) They vociferously debated routing of a natural gas pipeline, whined about federal controls on federal land, rejoiced in the $1000 per capita payout from the state’s Permanent Fund, bemoaned the extension of the 81st Stryker Brigade in Iraq, and mourned the passing of Iditarod legend, Susan Butcher.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Kenya - Not so Ferocious African Bees

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya in the late sixties, I shared a ramshackle European farm house with two other PCVs. Despite its dilapidation, it was certainly not a rural African hut. We had indoor plumbing, running water (when the 1913 vintage pump could be coaxed into operation), electrical outlets (but no generator), even a phone line and telephone number (but no instrument). Nonetheless, it was acceptable shelter.

What did remain magnificent, however, were the flowers. We had a profusion of roses, day lilies and flowering bushes of all types. Orange and lime trees continued to produce abundantly. The most redolent white trumpet shaped flowers grew on bushes some ten feet high. We called them the bee trees because they attracted bees. Hundreds, if not thousands, buzzed around incessantly. When the indoor plumbing was inoperative on account of lack of water, the dash through the bee trees to the outdoor facility had to be timed so as not to agitate the bees. Even so, we got used to them and coexisted amiably.

One of my housemates, Dennis, observed one day that the bees were getting louder and flying constantly around the windows to his room. Investigation behind the shrubs showed that, sure enough, bees were streaming in and out of the crawl space. Our Nandi tribesman night watchman, confirmed that bees had moved in and were making honey. He proposed a solution. He said he had some friends who knew bees and collected honey. In exchange for the bulk of the honey, they would rid us of the hive. We cut the deal. Within a day or two, one of the experts inspected the site. He said his team would return when the time was right.

We waited expectantly, but no one showed. The dry hot days stretched out. The bees buzzed. Dennis could not sleep at night from the hum below. Finally, the rains began, first in the afternoon, followed by a long evening soak. The next rainy night the bee men arrived. In the pouring rain, they stripped naked, busted into the crawl space, pushed a smoky torch under the house (I feared they’d burn the whole place down) and began passing out buckets of honey comb. Soon they located the queen, placed her and a quivering mass of insects into a paper box to cart off to more salubrious surroundings.

With some delight one of the bee men told me that bees did not associate wet hairless human skin with the enemy. However, they would attack furry creatures with frenzy. Woe be to the bee man who was not shaven! The night, the smoke and the rain also confused the bees, impeded flying and communication.

We got a half bucket of delicious honey out of the deal and patched up the hole the next morning.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Kenya - The Struggle for Democracy

This is a book review of a new academic oriented collection of essays about Kenya's democractic prospects.

Kenya – The Struggle for Democracy

Godwin R. Murunga & Shadrack W. Nasong’o, editors

Zed Books, NY, 2007

Kenya – The Struggle for Democracy, still hot from the printer, is a compilation of scholarly essays about contemporary Kenya. The individual pieces are honest and blunt. Authors make no effort to hide prejudices that are aimed at colonialism, the Kenyatta and Moi regimes. Judgments on the Kibaki era are hedged, but various contributors fear it too is becoming engulfed in the same vortex of oligarchic power that has plagued Kenya for generations.

The editors state at the outset that contributors to the book are young academics not tainted by sell-out to the system. Further, the editors claim, young academics never benefited from mentoring that ought to have been their due from the previous generation (who did sell out). This is only the first of many themes of opportunities lost that run through the tome.

Readers be warned that Kenya – The Struggle for Democracy is an academic book replete with footnotes and citations of other learned works. Language too is quite erudite – often it seems deliberately so – sentences occasionally need several readings in order to make sense. Yet, there is a great deal of extremely good sense in this book.

The overall thrust of the book is to discuss in the Kenyan context the various elements that make up a democratic society. The basic charge against Kenya is that colonialism extended into Kenyattaism and Moism and even Kibakism without substantial change in the format of how government works, i.e. by coercion and intimidation. Although the leadership changed, authoritarian rule only became worse as Kenyatta and Moi expanded the powers of the presidency and then used those powers to assure their predominance. Yet against this backdrop, there was throughout an effort by many to push for democracy, popular participation and accountability. Topics covered in the book include the evolution of civil society organizations, the growth of religious movements and their political roles, the problems encountered by opposition political parties, the growth of youth movements and abuses of the same during multiparty elections, the stymied participation of women, missed opportunities by intellectuals, abuses perpetrated by the police, the impact of structural adjustment policies and the confusing roles of donors.

I judged the chapter on political parties to be among the most interesting, not only for its accurate history of the convoluted opposition to the Kenyatta and Moi regimes, but more on account of the analysis of why opposition did not function well and continues to operate poorly. The explanation that African polities do not accommodate a loyal opposition, i.e. you are either with me or an enemy, rings true in the Kenyan context, but is buttressed by the fact that no parties, expect perhaps KANU for a time, really have had any existence outside an electoral period. Beyond temporary coalitions designed solely to oust Moi, Kenya has no parties of issues –– only parties of “big men” who organize, pay for and selfishly direct “their” parties. This explains why Kenya has 55 registered parties, most of which are simply vehicles for personal ambitions. The author of this chapter argued that until political parties themselves become internally democratic they cannot become “democratic institutions” and realistically foment democracy.

The chapter on women explained convincingly how women were sidelined from national life during the last half century. The exclusion they experienced during colonial times arose mostly from the nature of their subsistence labor which kept them out of the “modern” sector and away from education. Such marginalization was augmented after independence when a perverted form of “traditional” patriarchy pushed them further into the corners of national life. Today Kenyan women account for only 6 percent of public figures; nearly last place in Africa. One solution might be an electoral system of proportional representation for Parliament. Countries with these systems, such as Rwanda (48 %), tend to have much higher proportions of women in public roles.

The discussion of intellectuals was a telling indictment by the author of his peers. He alleged that Kenyan intellectuals have not stood up to their responsibility to foster democracy. Several reasons for this lacuna are put forward: fear of reprisals,love of the good life, co-optation by the powers-that-be, failure of the older generation to give way to the new or simply shirking of duty. The introspection shown by this chapter demonstrates the guilt felt by many intellectuals for the failure of Kenya, both historically and currently, to achieve its democratic potential.

The chapter on the police provided details on how the police and security services evolved under Kenyatta and Moi to become the essential bulwark of presidential power. Instances of assassination, torture, and other egregious abuses of authority are cited as well as the erosion of the rule of law and the compromise of the judiciary. It is a troubling read, but necessary to understand the fear and intimidation that permeated political society and kept the opposition in check. The author hopes that under Kibaki abuses are being corrected, but gives little evidence that the system has undergone fundamental reform.

Finally, the book concludes with two chapters that link Kenya’s political troubles and tensions of the last half century to its economic woes. There were certainly causal links as bad decisions (both political and economic) and bad luck (mostly economic) led to a spiral of decline. The poor internal Kenyan economic dynamic was further destabilized by changing and contradictory policies imposed by the World Bank, IMF and donor nations. Although there is an effort to level blame for economic failures, there is more of an explanation of what happened and an appeal for consistency in the future.

Kenya – The Struggle for Democracy, is full of current information and realistic history. For those ready for a graduate-school level tome, it is a useful guide to crucial Kenyan issues.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Central African Republic - "Passing Through"

Following is a story I wrote based on my experience as Vice Consul in Bangui. Although elements of the piece are true, overall it is fiction.

Passing Through

It had been a good month for vendors, but poor for commerce. The string of salesmen stopping by home or office in the shady African backwater capital had offered poached ivory - usually small tusks indicating taken from females – smelly leopard skins, or carefully produced leather pouches containing a half dozen little brown stones – diamonds they averred. A few businessmen laid out artistic wares, mostly masks from neighboring Zaire. I was intrigued by a few of those, but had only added one to my collection. As for the ivory and leopard skins I explained that international commerce in either was illegal so I could not and would not buy. The seller, of course, saw this riposte as a bargaining ploy and tried to haggle on. I usually listened to the diamond merchants’ stories about how these were from a clandestine dig, had been brought home by a brother, were the family treasure but now needed to be sold for medicine – ergo, they could be had cheaply. I had no ability to tell if the little rocks were uncut diamonds, pieces of glass or whatever, but I did suggest that the purveyor take them to the American-owned, diamond purchasing office downtown for analysis and possible purchase. Once I asked Fred, the U.S. rep for the office, if any walk-ins really had good stuff. He said that often they did have small industrial grade stones, which, he said, reflected nation-wide artisan production. Only once, he told me, had he really bought a very nice gem stone from a street vendor. He cautioned me not to buy raw diamonds from anyone. He added that the broken glass sellers never stopped by his place for an estimate.

Lately, there was a new wrinkle to sales pitches. Emile, the receptionist buzzed me to advise that a “commercant” wanted to see me. This gent was well dressed and spoke good French. He said he had come upon a “strategic material” that he knew the U.S. needed to corral. After prodding, he confided that it was the uranium used in nuclear bombs. It had come from mines in Zaire. Although he said he could not reveal how he had come to possess it, he affirmed it was radioactive. I asked him to describe what he was talking about: was it liquid or solid, how was it packed? How did he know it was radioactive?

In reply he said it was solid. That answer immediately piqued my interest. This was not just another “red lead” approach. Mercury that had been used in various sorts of x-ray machines circulated in little vials throughout Central Africa. If some of this stuff was slightly radioactive, that was nothing compared to its danger as mercury – especially when used by some “guérisseur” as part of a local cure. Given America’s nuclear might, red lead was flogged from time to time by the street vendors that came to see me.

I remembered a cable from Kinshasa several months back that detailed the disappearance some years ago of a very small quantity of material from the nuclear facility at the university there. Apparently the stolen stuff had no possible weapons implications, but it was real, processed, radioactive and possibly dangerous if kept near people. At the time I had visions of a whole family being poisoned from sleeping near a little brown suitcase with the missing uranium in it.

I asked for a moment, dug out the cable – I did do a little proper filing now and then – and warned my interlocutor of what he might have. He was crestfallen when I said the U.S. government did not want to purchase his item. He blustered that he would go to the French, Soviets or Chinese. I said fine, his stuff really had no value except at the research center from which it had been stolen. He left in a huff.

I recounted this encounter to Joe, the Peace Corps director, over our luncheon beer on the terrace of the New Palace Hotel. Joe, in turn, passed on word from a PCV in Mbaiki, a town at the edge of the great Congo basin forest, some seventy miles south of town. Rob reported that he had first heard about then finally met a bedraggled “blanc” in the market. The man in question said his name was Thomas (pronounced Tow-ma in the French fashion) and that he was an American. Rob invited him home for a meal and heard a bit of his story. Essentially Thomas had been living with a pygmy band for over a year roaming through the vast forest.

Except for a missionary zealot who had vanished while testing the upper rapids of the Oubangui River some ten years earlier – and was presumably eaten by crocodiles - I had no current lookouts for missing Americans. Thomas intrigued us. Was his story truthful and if so, why? We mulled it over, but having run into a number of wayward individuals over the years, reckoned that he probably had his motives. I had no mandate to go look for this guy, but asked Joe to tell Rob to tell Thomas that if he needed any assistance to come see me.

Over the next couple of days, I thought more about Thomas. I grew curiouser and curiouser. Why would some one purposely seek out a stone age existence? Not just for a week or two as an adventure, but for a year or more. I decided to touch base with the local pygmy watchers. Ian, a Quebecois, was part of a university medical team studying pygmies. I had visited their field clinic in the forest. They measured, took blood, obtained family histories, etc. all part of a greater quest to find Eve, the mother of us all. Ian confirmed that his team had picked up rumors from pygmy contacts to the effect that a white shadow was lurking deep in the forest. He thought that was a relatively new phenomenon, but added that the pygmies were full of apocryphal stories. It was impossible to separate fiction from fact. My other pygmy expert was a missionary whose group was translating the Bible into African tongues, including Yaka, the language of the Bayaka, the pygmies of the region. Jim said they started with a few Bible stories like Joseph’s coat of many colors and David and Goliath, both of which had worked well elsewhere in country. He candidly confessed, however, that neither story registered with the pygmies. They did not wear clothes, so coveting a coat made no sense. Additionally, they were not at all violent, so a war based story was equally irrelevant. But in response to my question about a white guy with a pygmy band, Jim hadn’t heard it.

Then in one of those serendipitous moments, Emile buzzed to say that a Monsieur Thomas was there to see me. Yep, he was as described – a gaunt, pale-faced young man sporting a scraggly beard. He wore an old tee shirt, shorts and flip flops. He held an Australian bush hat in hand. Introducing himself as Thomas Breaux, he said he heard from Rob that I might help him. I noted that as the American Vice Consul I was charged with seeing to the welfare of Americans in the country. There were things I could do and things I couldn’t. But first, I asked that he tell me about himself. I was curious as to why he was living with pygmies.

He stumbled at first, advised that he had not spoken much English lately. He also seemed reluctant to tell much, so I just got a bare outline. He had been with an overland London to Nairobi group called Siafu. Thomas said group dynamics were poor; people were selfish, bickering and snarling at each other after several weeks in the truck. He’d had enough, so when they camped near Boda to photo the pygmies, Thomas said he packed his stuff, told the driver to screw himself and walked away. After the overlanders left, he gradually became friendly with Adamo, one of the young Bayaka men. He later learned that his friend was just a visitor to the fringes of civilization. His family group lived far off in the forest. To make things short, he accompanied Adamo on his return trip home. They walked for several weeks. By then Thomas said he was so lost in the forest that he had no way out, even if he wanted to leave.

Instead Thomas said he adjusted, took each day as it came – just like the pygmies did. He gradually learned their language. As his cigarettes and lighter expired, he lost what utility he had to them, although certainly he retained his entertainment value. The pygmies laughed a lot – at him, at each other, at themselves. They always saw the bright side of circumstances. Life was uncomplicated. Search for food, link up nets for hunting, pause for a while in this or that camp, then move on. Although puzzled over him, the small band included Thomas without rancor. Thomas said he learned an enormous amount of forest lore, some Bayaka songs, but more especially the value of human relationships, of gentleness, tolerance and inclusion. He admitted that he needed that healing. When the time came several weeks ago, when Adamo told him they were approaching a town, Thomas said he too knew that his sojourn with the people of the forest was over.

He guessed he needed to reconnect and to tell his father where he was. Their last contact came before Thomas left New York. I offered to stake him to a phone call, but he demurred. His telex essentially said, “Alive and well in Bangui, send money.”

Two days later, Thomas passed by to say thanks. He had just gotten money from the bank. He’d decided to continue on to Kenya. He said goodbye and walked towards the Zaire ferry.

Such people come and go through our lives. I did not really know Thomas at all, yet his small saga taught me something about simplifying complexities and the value of trusting relationships. Yet, it seemed that within his own family, Thomas could not practice his own new gospel.

Of course, I never knew what happened to him.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Central African Republic - Buffeted by Troubles

I worry about the Central African Republic. I suppose not many people do. It’s a small isolated nation in the heart of Africa. Surrounded by troubles in Sudan, Chad and Congo, nonetheless the CAR has proven capable of surfacing indigenous travails; most of which revolve around tribal politics or bad governance. The saddest part of the CAR’s plight is that nothing need be so bad. Ample opportunities to correct matters have been squandered over the years by self-serving politicians, military chiefs and even the people themselves via passivism in the face of egregious abuses and electoral choices that backfired. Yet, despite the malaise and corruption that belie the country, people are ever optimistic that matters will improve.

Currently, however, unrelated strife in two sections of the country poses difficulties. First, in the far northeast around the town of Birao – truly one of the most isolated towns in all of Africa – the Sudanese Darfur conflict spilled across the border in the form of raids by Janjaweed militias on horseback. The Birao region has much in common with Darfur. It is true Sahaelean land where the conflict between herders and agriculturalists mirrors the imbroglio across the border. Fighting around Birao, however, was exacerbated by CAR army troops who, being southerners from the woodlands and forests to the south, were incapable of distinguishing friend from foe, so chased everyone. With the support of French air power, the CAR army has prevailed for the time being, but Birao town was emptied and the citizenry highly annoyed. The CAR army is simply incapable of maintaining a strong military presence in the northeast; so how matters will shake out in the region in the months to come remains unknown. Perhaps one positive aspect of the fighting is the provision of an additional reason for the UN Security Council to act more vigorously vis a vis Darfur because the Council does have the specific mandate to contain international aggression.

Further west in the northern CAR around the town of Paoua near the Chadian border, the CAR’s internal politics are the cause for strife. The area in trouble is the home region of ousted and exiled President Felix Patasse. The incumbent government of President Francois Bozize continues to believe – with legitimate cause – that the region remains supportive of the ex-president. Thus, it over-reacts with violence to minor sparks of opposition. Short of more inclusive political reconciliation, which is unlikely, the region will remain a tinderbox; mostly to the detriment of rural inhabitants caught in the melee of government heavy-handedness.

One small bright spot in the CAR is in the far southeast along the upper reaches of the Mbomou River and border with the Congo and Sudan. There nearly forty thousand refugees from Sudan’s southern civil war settled since the 1980s and even before. Conclusion of that war in the Sudan in 2004 resulted in massive returns of these refugees to their ancestral homelands around Torit. To its credit the CAR had welcomed and assisted the refugees over the years. They, in fact, quadrupled the population of the thinly peopled east. Yet, despite the hospitality, they were still Sudanese refugees whose stay was temporary. When circumstances were right for their exodus, they went home.

So what can the outside world do for the CAR? There are no easy formulas. A regional, UN backed peace keeping mission has fostered peace in the capital, but doesn’t have the capacity (or mandate) to project forces. France, the former colonial power, retains interest and involvement in the CAR, but is reluctant to do too much. The U.S. has minimal diplomatic presence, few resources and little interest. The UN system responds adequately to humanitarian and refugee issues, but the remoteness of the needy areas limits effectiveness. So ultimately, it is up to the Central Africans themselves to shed the political and economic malaise that engulfs them. That is a tall order that can only be accomplished by many little steps. There is a continuing effort to rectify problems, but don’t expect too much. Meanwhile, worry.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Golf in Africa

Following is a piece that I wrote about my golfing experiences in Africa that was published in the April 2007 edition of the Foreign Service Journal.

Best and Worst Golf Courses

One valid subjective measure for rating an overseas post is the quality of the golf experience. In that spirit, I offer the following observations.

On becoming the consul in Mombasa, Kenya, I rented a house that backed up to the Nyali Club golf course. It was finally time for me to learn the game and become inculcated into the arcana of golf rules and, especially the formality of a British-origin club. I joined and, depending upon the season, played upon lush green fairways or hard-packed clay over fossilized coral rock. I regularly jumped my back fence for a few practice holes in the early evening. Baby monkeys carted off balls, doum palms ate them and the rough hid puff adders. Most refreshing during competitions was a cold fresh lime drink under the palm trees between nines.

The course in the middle of Kampala was full of ardent players. Thought modest, the prizes - a bicycle, a set of kitchen utensils or a bottle of scotch – were items beyond the reach of many players. Despite the fact that few players were British, an English sense of decorum prevailed. One did not fail to doff his hat upon entering the bar. Most entertaining were rule-committee arguments and rulings conducted in an open fashion over beers on the terrace. Real tension rose once a year in the regional competition organized on tribal lines; we foreigners were allocated any region where more players were needed. In keeping with Uganda’s strife plagued politics, the contest was war by other means. However, it all ended amicably in a huge drunk.

The course in Bangui became one of my favorites. It was not much of a course, with poorly mown fairways and oiled-sand greens, but it had very cold beer. As it happened either Political officer Stacy Kazacos, the only Central African Republic member Martin Yando, or I won every competition for about a year. This infuriated the largely French membership. My triumph was to capture the CAR national championship in 1995. Unfortunately, that was the last year it was played: the golf course succumbed to the ravages of civil strife, and has not reopened.

Kigali has a winding nine-hole course that crosses and recrosses an infernal stream. A challenging course, its fairways are narrow and grass greens unpredictable. The club had a mixed membership of Rwandans (mostly army officers who learned the game in Uganda) and international personnel. I tried to interest now-President Kagame in golf, but he preferred tennis (he rarely lost). Once a year we decorated the club house with left over July 4 bunting and played for the “American Cup.” We cooked hotdogs. I gave away putters, bags, balls to the winners.

Other memorable African courses that I know include Firestone East, located on a vast rubber plantation in Liberia. The main challenge was getting to and from the course, 40 miles from the capital. Players had to run a gauntlet of roadblocks manned by former dictator Charles Taylor’s goons and child soldiers.

The midtown course in Kinshasa is low lying with lots of water hazards. One rarely lost a ball, however, on account of the ever-present “crocodiles” – men who waited patiently by each pond, waded in and retrieved your ball for a small sum. In contrast the course in N’Djamena, Chad, had little vegetation but lots of sand. We carried around a swath of outdoor carpet to hit from into inconsistent oiled browns. Heat was the issue in Chad. It was already 95 degrees when we started at 9 a.m. and often 120 by the finish.

Djibouti’s course resembles Chad’s: sand and rock decorated by remnants of plastic trash bags. Heat and humidity, each about a 100, necessitated a dawn start. I would roust a caddy off his sleeping mat – they slept on the club veranda – and head out. One morning with a tail wind and good bounces, I had a legitimate sub-par round. The golf gods were telling me that even in Djibouti, they smile down on lunatics. A year later, my crowning achievement came on the course in Bujumbura. I aced hole number 12, a 180-yard, uphill par 3…bounce, bounce, in!

So which is the best or the worst? I can’t say. I liked them all. I needed them all! For without a golf course, any post is the pits.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Rwanda - President Bizimungu Freed

Lost in the flurry of reports from Rwanda last weekend commemorating the 1994 genocide was the news that President Paul Kagame pardoned former President Pasteur Bizimungu and released him from prison. Bizimungu had served five years of a fifteen year sentence for treason. Bizimungu was reportedly delighted (who would not be?) with the news. He was cautioned by officials to become a law abiding citizen.

Bizimungu’s initial arrest and conviction were contentious. Although there was probably some corruption mud on him, his troubles really arose from political reasons. As a Hutu, President during the early RPF era (1994 to 2000) and untainted by genocide, Bizimungu was apparently deemed to pose a credible threat to continued insider dominance by Kagame and the clique around him. After falling out with the inner leadership and resigning in 2000, Bizimungu announced his intention to contest for the top post in the upcoming election with his own new party on his own platform. However, fearing a possible return to ethnic politics, the Tutsi element was determined to prevail. Accordingly, a number of measures were adopted to make it impossible (as in Bizimungu’s case) or very difficult as regarding the effort by former Prime Minister Twagiramungu or other Hutus to run. Naturally, little of this was couched overtly in ethnic terms, even though the code was known by all.

I judged at the time that President Kagame had little to fear from an electoral challenger. He had the name recognition, the power of the military and the power of incumbency. He was the savior of Rwanda and its true leader. Given the way that Rwandan society works, his election would almost be automatic. Yet, electoral success was assured by arrest of Bizimungu and intimidation of other candidates. The message as (correctly) read by voters was continuation of Kagame’s rule.

Once won, however, the question arose of what to do with Bizimungu? Charges (even partially trumped up ones) could not be dropped as that would fly in the face of Rwanda’s very determined efforts to institute a rule-of-law regime nationwide, especially in dealing with genocidaires (which Bizimungu was not, but resolving his case prematurely would smack of favoritism). Also, failure to move forward on the Bizimungu case would indicate that the charges against him were more political than real. Finally, stubbornly proud Rwanda did not want to be perceived as caving to international pressure to free the former president. Thus, the legal process had to run its course. This involved a trial, conviction, sentencing and appeals. Only when all the legal maneuverings were complete could exercise of the presidential power of commutation be considered.

To his credit, when the time was propitious President Kagame exercised his power and had his former colleague released. I judge the decision to have been overdue, but it certainly was a mark of political maturity. Pasteur Bizimungu poses no political threat to the regime, yet his release does indicate that old animosities must pass on and that all Rwandans can and ought to live together harmoniously. That is good news. Rhetoric and reality should always match.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Kenya - Who killed Robert Ouku?

On the morning of February 16, 1990 the Voice of Kenya radio announced that the mutilated and partially burned body of Robert Ouko, Kenya’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, had been found near his home in Koru. The minister had been reported as missing a day earlier.

Ouku’s death ushered in a long series of inquiries, investigations and speculations, but since the trail led into the highest reaches of Kenyan politics, further pursuit of culprits was stonewalled. No one has ever been charged with the crime.

Professors David William Cohen and E.S. Atieno Odhihambo wrote a book entitled The Risks of Knowledge: Investigations into the Death of the Hon. Minister John Robert Ouko in Kenya, 1990, Athens, Ohio University Press, 2004. The authors recount what is known and unknown about the minister’s death.

Risks of Knowledge is a difficult book to describe and an awkward one to read. It is an erudite mélange of scholarship, sensationalist reporting and stilted legalese. The authors have multiple goals that they spell out in the introduction. Foremost is to assess how the investigations into Foreign Minister Ouko’s murder transformed Kenyan society. The authors assert that the knowledge revealed both wittingly and unwittingly, shed light on ambition, corruption and the practice of politics by Kenya’s most powerful people. Among the consequences of the investigations was the exposure of various efforts to cover-up the high level involvement undertaken in order to confuse and keep the public in the dark. The authors stated that this objective failed as the brouhaha surrounding such blatant attempts to obfuscate led to expanded and ultimately successful efforts to reform and to democratize Kenya.

Like the investigations themselves, the book wanders around a bit jumping from the material at hand to ruminations on its meaning and impact. However, the book does provide a solid structure for revisiting the murder. In turn it highlights evidence of “the white car” seen by the housekeeper, the site of the death, the missing note that perhaps named the abductors, Ouko’s whereabouts in the days before the murder, the minister’s state of mind, corruption linked to the molasses factory, Ouko’s falling out with President Moi, theories of family problems, and special branch abuses. At times the book reads like a murder mystery, yet as the authors point out early, there are no conclusions as to who did it? or why? only mounting evidence that permits readers to draw their own conclusions. Nonetheless, the mounting evidence and the authors’ analysis of it provide fascinating insights into Kenyan political society.

I kept waiting for the authors to deliver a promised discussion of how the investigation elevated the status of servants (such persons including housekeeper Selina and herdsman Shikuku provided the bulk of the damning testimony), granting them credibility in a society that tended to ignore the thoughts and observations of the lower classes, but other than the statement to that effect there was little analysis of this facet.

My disclaimer: Since I lived briefly in Koru as a PCV (1968) and worked in that area for nearly two years, I easily recalled the physical geography relevant to the murder. Although I did not know the minister, I knew other “big men” who owned farms in the sugar zone. Additionally, I gleaned some understanding of the dynamics of Luo politics, at least from the perspective of the common man. Finally, from a later diplomatic posting in next door Uganda, I assisted Ouku’s brother Barrack Mbajah to join his son in the U.S. in 1991.

Those who served in Kenya during the early nineties undoubtedly recall the ongoing soap opera of the investigations, especially the commission’s months long hearings that were reported verbatim in the Daily Nation. All that verbiage will jump back out at you as you read this book. For others who knew Kenya before or after this event, this book serves as a good divider. Earlier observers of the political scene, recalling Mboya’s and Kariuki’s deaths, would perhaps not be terribly surprised, albeit disappointed, that assassination would occur again. Later observers will more realistically appreciate the political currents unleashed by Ouko’s death and the changes subsequently wrought. In any case, Risks of Knowledge is an interesting foray into a complex topic. If you have patience, it is an excellent read.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Rwanda - Commemoration of the Genocide

April 7, 2007 marks the 13th anniversary of the commencement of Rwanda's terrible genocide. During the hundred days that followed April 7, 1994, almost a million souls perished in a cataclysm of violence that stunned the world...and the world did not respond to the violence. Consequently, guilt for the massive loss of life rests not only on the perpetrators, but also on those who stood by, both willingly and un-willingly, and did nothing. Without resolving issues of responsibility, it is, of course, proper that we pause again to honor the dead and the victims of this tragedy.

As U.S. Ambassador in Rwanda I attended a number of memorial services for the victims. Each year on April 7, a national commemoration was held. Such events involved the exhumation of a mass grave at a genocide site, then proper reburial of the victims. These were sobering occasions when the true horror of genocide was clear to see. Yet they were also healing sessions with prayers and speeches. The dead could now rest in peace. Those present recommitted themselves never to let such events happened again.

I was not in Rwanda when the genocide occurred, but I became the U.S. Ambassador there in the years afterwards. My tasks were recovery, return refugees, reconstruction and reconciliation. I wrote about these undertakings in my book "In the Aftermath of Genocide: the U.S. Role in Rwanda" (go to for more info). Reconciliation was the most nebulous of these tasks. How to contribute to a healing process between individuals and communities that were so decisively torn apart by hatred? Many Rwandans considered that the rendering of justice to be an important step. The U.S. could help there, so we created programs to help reconstitute the judicial system, train personnel, help draft a genocide law, etc. Socially, we supported a number of survivor groups, especially women's organizations, that inter alia worked to rebuild trust and communication between ethnic groups. Yet there was only so much outsiders could do. Reconciliation, that is admission of guilt, then forgiveness, are mostly individual decisions. Aid programs, church efforts, discussion groups, government attention to the issues, all could build a climate conducive to reconciliation, but the individuals involved had to make the decisions.

Even as people were coming to grips with such internalized issues, they had, had to get on with their lives. In this Rwandans were more successful. Homes were repaired, fields planted and commerce reignited. The refugees did return. The new ethic of "get along" promulgated by the government was accepted. After a while, peace and predictability returned to the hillsides.

One of the post-genocide/refugee return success stories was the placement of lost, orphaned or abandoned children with families throughout the nation. Initially over a hundred thousand children were collected into camps, orphanages and institutions. One model orphanage was run by an elderly American lady, the late Mrs. Roz Carr. A massive effort was undertaken to reunite the children with their families, extended families or place them in adoptive homes. This succeeded in fairly short order. By 2000 only several thousand children remained in group settings.

Following is an excerpt from my book that highlights this success.

" I visited an orphanage we supported in Rubungo just outside Kigali. A gracious lady, one of the sponsors of the orphanage, showed me around and explained how successful they were in placing children with extended or foster families. So much so, she said, that the institution would be closed within six months. In the meantime, she pointed with great pride to a cow contentedly chewing its cud in an adjacent pasture. She said the cow was newly acquired and would provide milk for the remaining children. She elaborated, saying that the cow had come to the orphanage as bride price. A girl in their charge agreed to marry, and the husband-to-be's family insisted that traditional practices be followed. Otherwise they believed the marriage would not be legitimate. Accordingly, a family group from the groom's side and a team of sponsors from the orphanage conducted traditional negotiations and settled on the cow as the bride price.

I found this transaction to be a remarkable statement of resilience and hope. Despite all the tragedy, lives went on. Customs adapted. "

Friday, March 23, 2007

Rwanda - Gacaca

Rwanda's community level justice system dubbed Gacaca is designed to deliver justice to tens of thousands of persons implicated in the genocide of 1994. Over a hundred Gacaca courts are obligated to hear the "less severe" cases of persons who may not have killed, but who were otherwise involved in the slaughters. Initially, part of the idea of Gacaca was to relieve the regular court system of the burden of dealing with tens of thousands of genocide cases, as well as to reduce the number of people imprisoned. The regular courts would deal with about 10,000 category 1 individuals and Gacaca courts with about 75,000 other cases. But beware of what you wish for. Rather than reduce the number of cases, opening the Gacaca process to community accusations has dramatically increased the number of cases. Currently more than 800,000 cases are registered and the number of prisoners has rebounded.

Rwandan authorities are just beginning to think about how to resolve this intense, and unexpected, overload. Clearly mechanisms must be found to winnow down the numbers, but key to Gacaca justice - in principle - is local rather than central control. At the current scale Gacaca has serious economic, social and political implications. Economic because so many people are tied up in judicial proceedings and unable to farm or work or otherwise get on with their lives. Furthermore at the 800,000 level about one of every five adults is charged. A huge prison population costs money. Socially constant recrimination and airing of wounds creates new animosities and thus hinders reconciliation. Additionally, abuses of Gacaca to settle non-genocide scores such as land disputes are being documented. Politically Gacaca stings the Hutu majority that views it as Tutsi mandated retribution and not even handed justice. Continuation of such ethnically charged emotion does not bode well for long term political stability.

What are the solutions? First, Gacaca is not going away. Some new legislation will probably be crafted to reduce the numbers of accused, perhaps via a statue of limitations for certain offenses, revised sentencing guidelines or more just plain clemency. Additionally, there will be internal regulations that contribute to dismissal of many cases. Beyond that Rwanda is going to have to find a way to grapple with the political implications. Clearly justice must be delivered, but the sense of political victimization ought to be mitigated.

Following is a story I wrote about Gacaca.

Best Served Cold

Under a bright blue sky the light breeze roiled the stalks of grass on the sun dappled hill. The idyllic scene, however, was the setting for a long running sequence of nasty, emotional, heart wrenching dramas that played out every few days. Five serious citizens, three men, two women sat behind a table arraigned under several massive eucalyptus trees. A crowd of several hundred spectators splayed out on school benches, their own chairs or on the ground around them. Gacaca court was in session.

A free lance stringer, I had come to Rwanda some ten years after its terrible genocide to see for myself – and to get a good story – of how justice was being delivered. My interpreter Emile explained that these community courts were designed to handle the less severe cases. “Less severe?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “Not so many murderers, but those who have confessed and those who supported or profited from genocide in other ways.”

Emile was from this region fifty miles southwest of the capital and had chosen this hillside to visit because he said the case against Evariste Nahimana was odd. He was both a killer and a savior. It promised to be an intense discussion.

I felt like a voyeur intruding upon this airing of local passions. What right did I, a foreigner, have to listen and to judge events that were unfathomable? Yet, I stayed screwed to my seat as the dialogue began.

With a nod from the presiding elder the defendant was ushered to a seat before the table. He was a haggard man, of indeterminate middle age, skinny with a gaunt face and sunken eyes. I supposed that ten years of prison would age a man. He was dressed conventionally in trousers and a fraying yellow shirt. Appropriately deferential to the court and the community, he sat patiently as instructed. The president read the committal document from the Ministry of Justice as well as the brief confession Nahimana signed in prison. Next he turned to an old woman – not one of the court members - who being bent at the waist from years of agricultural toil, slowly rose. She identified Nahimana and recited his linage on the hillside. Without doubt this court had jurisdiction.

Emile gave me the gist of the confession. Nahimana had joined the killing bands late, only because he was coerced to do so by agents of the burgomaster. He was assigned to help hunt down Tutsis who had fled from their homesteads and hidden in the papyrus swamps. He said he did participate in searches and was compelled by his companions to chop two boys – teenagers he did not know - found that first day. Thus bloodied, Evariste was included in the evening feast of roasted goat meat – an animal seized and slaughtered by other marauders that day. Thereafter, Nahimana confessed, he went to do the ‘work’ required of him by his band. He witnessed several more killings, but stated he did no more chopping himself. He added that he went with heavy heart and thrashed about in the swamps without truly searching. Once, however, he spotted two women, Agnes and Felicia, hiding, cringing in fear with only their mouths poked above the murky water. He motioned to them not to fear and directed nearby hunters to move along.

The task before the Gacaca court was to hear testimony about Nahimana in order to prove or disprove his statement.

A survivor spoke, reciting the known facts that several hundred Tutsi from this hillside had been massacred. He called their family names. Some died when the interahamwe attacked the mission church nearby, others in their homes, more at roadblocks mounted by the burgomaster’s militia, and still more were chopped or bludgeoned to death after being dragged from the swamps. While the leaders were well known, few lived to identify the killers. Outraged, the victim shook his finger at the assembly stating, “We demand justice. End impunity. Don’t let those who killed and their families conspire to silence.” He concluded that Evariste was a self-confessed killer, his allegation of mercy probably invented, and that he deserved his fate.

A woman, a neighbor of Nahimana’s, stated her conviction that Evariste was fundamentally a good man from a known family. Sadly, like many in the commune, he had succumbed to the madness of the moment. She believed his reluctance to participate in events and his sparing of the Tutsi women.

A Gacaca judge asked if Agnes or Felicia survived? After some murmuring, someone responded that she had heard that Agnes did live, but that she was in Kigali and had never returned to the colline. The judge queried if anyone could substantiate the delivery of mercy to the two women. No one responded.

A man who lived near the swamp acknowledged that he had seen Evariste among the band that prowled the edges of the swamp and probed its depths. He said he was told by others from the band that Evariste chopped the two boys. He added that their bodies probably still lay un-recovered, sunken into the dark vegetation-choked water.

With little else to be said, the judges deliberated among themselves. After a half hour or so, the president delivered their verdict. Nahimana’s act of mercy could not be substantiated, but his act of murder was affirmed. He was to be returned to prison to serve another five years.

On the drive back to Kigali, Emile expressed satisfaction with the verdict. He confided that if not for my presence; that is, a white foreigner critically observing the proceedings, Nahimana would probably have gotten off easier. He added that Evariste’s act of mercy had really occurred. His cousin Agnes had confirmed it to him. “But,” I remonstrated, “you made no acknowledgement. You should have spoken out.”

“No,” Emile replied, “the two he killed were my brothers.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Kenya - Moon Rocket

I see it now in my mind’s eye – from my house in Songhor - wind blown tufts of light green sugar cane surging like a great sea on Kenya’s Kanu Plains to wash gently against the thousand foot heights of the Nandi Escarpment. Some thirty miles distant, Lake Victoria Nyanza glimmered in the late afternoon sun. The image is clear, yet complicated by the rush of other images, faces, smells, sounds - by the sheer exuberance of memories that so indelibly marked this time in my life.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central Nyanza charged with supervising the construction of a rural water system designed to pipe potable water to 1200 farms on three government sponsored Settlement Sugar Schemes. I worked most closely with a group of eight men whom I trained in the skilled work of the project. When resting we kibitzed and talked. They had many questions.

Maurice almost always began. With a twinkle in his eye, he probed for the amazing differences he reckoned inherent between whites and blacks. He questioned me incessantly about why I had come to Kenya. I’m not sure he ever really understood my response. Maybe, presuming that I myself knew the answer, I couldn’t articulate it well. Altruism was beyond Maurice’s comprehension, but a thirst for adventure seemed to be a satisfactory motive. Another exchange went like this.

“Robert,” Maurice asked, “Is it true that Mzungus (Europeans) eat frogs?”

I pondered. “Yes,” I replied. “Some Mzungus eat frogs, but only the legs. When fried up they taste a bit like chicken.”

Maurice looked skeptical. “Really,” he frowned. “Frogs.” He concluded, “Mzungus are very weird.”

Inspired, I noted, “You know, Europeans think that eating termites is very strange.”

Maurice absorbed this information, then shot back with a surprised query. “Why?” he asked, “termites are good.”

A more telling exchange occurred in July 1969. Americans had just landed on the moon. The guys were very interested in this news - more intently than I would have expected.

“So Robert,” Maurice began, “Is it true that Americans have landed on the moon?”

“Yes,” I responded pointing to the wisp of a moon still visible in the morning sky. “They are up there now.”

This confirmation engendered discussion of rocket ships and airplanes, which demonstrated these poorly schooled rural men’s lack of appreciation for the science and the technological accomplishment of the moon trip. Francis who was more cynical than his colleagues observed, “If Americans can build airplanes then certainly they can build a rocket.” He was puzzled however, by the fact that it had taken so long to get to the moon. “After all,” he noted pointing again to the moon, “You can see it right there!” This again raised the question as to whether the landing had really happened.

Ligolo, older, taller and stronger with his front teeth knocked out in the traditional Luo style, and who rarely participated in these exchanges, cleared his throat. The men craned anxiously in his direction when he asked the crucial question. “So Robert,” he paused, “What color is God?”

I was stunned. I had no context for the question. Yet obviously it lay at the heart of their concern. James, the most worldly of the crew who sported sunglasses and who shed his family name Oyier in favor of Bondi in honor of agent 007, saw my consternation and came to my aid.

“Robert,” he said, “We Luo people believe that God takes several forms and that he lives, at times at least, on the moon. The issue goes to the nature of God. If God is good, he is black like Africans. However, if he is evil, he is red.” James continued, “Ligolo’s question is fair. If Americans have gone to the moon like you say, they must have seen God. So, what color is he?”

I admitted it was a good question, and with further discussion I learned more about Luo beliefs, but I had no answer. However, we agreed to look for the answer. I brought international editions of Time and Newsweek back from Kisumu the next week and we scrutinized the stories and pictures for evidence, but – of course – found none.

I realized afterwards that this was one of those quintessential moments when each of my friends took one more step into the modern world and away from tribal traditions. The trappings of old beliefs diminished against the onslaught of new reality.

Before too long the issue of God on the moon faded away. Soon Luo owned and operated sugar trucks and buses, perhaps subconsciously reflecting this religious heritage, soon started bearing names like “Moon Rocket” or “Apollo 12.”

In the years since, I have subsequently reflected with some sadness how man’s crowning technological achievement of the 20th Century unintentionally undermined beliefs that had sustained Luo people for generations.