Monday, October 20, 2008

Agathe's Obligation

A short story

It was just after dawn, but the morning was already hot and dry. There would not be much sweating today, Agathe thought to herself, I’ll just bake in the oven. She adjusted her police cap on her short cropped curly hair, cut up to a flat top. She looked smart in uniform; a light blue shirt, dark skirt and sensible shoes. A MINURCAT arm band identified her as part of the United Nations peace keeping operation in Chad. Of medium height with a solid build, Agathe had already lost the svelteness of her girlhood, a time she remembered with fondness in the far away green hills of southern Rwanda.

Eastern Chad was a wind swept land, covered now after the rains with wispy grass. Scraggly trees dotted the plains up to the edges of the rocky hills. Agathe smiled as she looked out upon hundreds of acres of maturing millet planted by the refugees. Coming as she did from generations of farmers, she knew how gratifying it was to see food bursting from the land. A good harvest would provide a nutritional buffer above the World Food Program rations. Additionally, some earned cash would greatly improve morale and the fairly miserable quality of rural life.

Agathe was happily greeted by dozens of children as she walked through the refugee settlement. She picked up Arabic phrases, but some kids called out in French or even in English. The refugees here were Sudanese whose families and tribes had flowed easily across the nearby border until Janjaweed raiders destroyed their herds and homes causing them to seek succor in Chad and international protection. Protection was Agathe’s job. She was one of six Rwandans assigned to the peace keeping operation in Chad. She along with fifty other police personnel from African nations were scattered among the twenty or so refugee camps strung out along the dusty frontier. They were backed up by a 3,000 man military force.

Policing the camp was not so tough. It was not the urban, packed camp, seething with political and ethnic hatred that Agathe experienced as a teenager in Zaire. There was no sense of impending doom and no swaggering, often drunk, genocidaires to avoid. Yet there were issues – politics bubbled along. The evil government of Bashir and his Janaweed thugs were thoroughly despised. Internal politics manifested themselves in the quest for extra ration cards, prominence on camp committees and thus access to international aid or NGO jobs. There were police issues, too. Domestic violence and petty theft were the most common, but individual disputes too regularly needed refereeing. Although it was not as big an issue here, in the northern camps, efforts had to be made to keep Sudanese rebel groups from recruiting youngsters for their military operations.

Agathe’s duty was to be present at the health clinic, to assure that the several hundred refugees stayed in line (they almost always did) and waited their turn. Once she had calmed emotional agitation after a (natural) death and she had otherwise ensured other orderly funeral processions. The clinic was a good place to listen and Agathe was frequently approached with various complaints.

“Madame?” a young woman queried.

“Yes,” Agathe responded, “Good morning.”

The girl introduced herself as Fatima. She was slender, fine featured, dressed head to foot in the local style in an off-yellow wrap; her head carefully covered. She nervously gathered her courage and asked if they could have a private talk. Agathe assured her that confidences would be respected.

“My uncle,” Fatima said, “wants to take me for a wife and says he will force me if I do not agree. I am only seventeen. He said today was the day. He will come for me tonight. My father is dead, my brothers too young and my mother depends on the family. She cannot help me. I detest this man. Living with him would mean slavery and rape. Can you help me? Can you hide me?” She began to weep quietly.

Agathe felt the girl’s desperation, but as yet no crime had been committed. Local culture sanctioned arranged marriages that often had some element of coercion to them, especially between older men and younger women. “Tell me more about him,” she asked.

“Moussa,” Fatima replied, “serves on the camp committee. He is a big man here, but carefully hides his ties to the rebels. He compels youth to leave their families to join the rebel forces in the bush.”

“Ah ha, so he is a recruiter?”

“Yes, but he also demands money, a tax from camp residents to support the war. And now he wants me.”

Agathe mulled this over. As a policewoman she had learned not to be hasty. Fatima’s story rang true and Agathe knew from painful personal experience the power that men held in the camps. No one – policeman or woman, soldier, peace keeper or responsible adult - had been there to help her when she was savagely raped over several days by a genocidaire gang inside the refugee camp in Zaire. Rather than defeat her, that incident convinced her to be strong and ultimately to join the police. Perhaps this was her test. She concluded this abduction won’t happen in this camp on this day.

“We need a plan,” Agathe told Fatima. She asked for the location of her mother’s compound and the whereabouts of her uncle’s. They conspired. “Okay, then,” Agathe concluded, “we’ll be ready, do your part.” Agathe hurried away.

Darkness fell like clockwork. Several hours later a feeble moon shown down through the lingering haze casting a muted light on the sleeping camp. Movement and cries arose from Fatima’s compound arousing the neighbors. Shortly Moussa dragged the protesting girl through the fence into the pathway.

“Halt,” a voice rang out and four lights blazed into startled faces. “Police. Let the child go.”

Moussa explained that it was a family matter, an arranged marriage in fact. He insisted on his status as a member of the camp committee. When interview by Agathe’s police superiors, Fatima said she was being taken, she thought, as an unwilling recruit for rebel forces. She told of Moussa’s role in seizing other youths, said she was only seventeen and wanted to stay with her mother.

“Moussa,” the policeman concluded, “we’ve long had an eye out for you. You know recruiting is not allowed. The punishment for it is expulsion from the camp. You will go with us now and tomorrow will be conveyed to Sudan, never to return to this camp under threat of prison.”

Still sputtering his importance, Moussa was led away.

Agathe exchanged a knowing nod with Fatima, then followed her leader into the dark.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Book Review - A Thousand Hills

Following is a review of A Thousand Hills : Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It by Stephen Kinzer, published by John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2008. I believe that I am well placed to comment on the book. I served as U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda from 1995 to 1999, knew President Kagame well and wrote a memoir, In the Aftermath of Genocide: The U.S. Role in Rwanda (iUniverse, 2005).

Author Stephen Kinzer, a journalist by profession, has written the latest book on Rwanda and one of the best studies ever of its enigmatic leader Paul Kagame. Kinzer uses Kagame’s life story as the structure for the book: flight from Rwanda as a small child, upbringing in Ugandan refugee camps, bitterness at being at “outsider,” signing on and rising to prominence in Uganda’s revolutionary army, plotting and executing an invasion of Rwanda, then taking over command of the Rwandan Patriotic Army and leading it to victory, halting the genocide and taking political power. Kinzer describes Kagame’s vision for a re-born, prosperous and hatred-free Rwanda and his dogged determination to pursue that goal. Finally, Kinzer notes that mostly due to his fierce will, Kagame’s vision is well on its way to achievement.

While sympathetic in tone, even sycophantic and apologetic at times, Kinzer did give space to Kagame’s critics and did show some of the great man’s warts. But overall, there is no hiding the fact that Kinzer admired Kagame’s military genius and his subsequent evolution into a substantive political leader and national president. Kinzer noted that without doubt, Rwanda’s post genocide success bears the unmistakable imprint of Paul Kagame.

The structure the book took was unusual. Kinzer used quoted transcripts of recent interviews with Kagame as commentary on historical events as they unfolded in the chronological narrative. That mechanism gave an interesting perspective – looking backwards – that helped explain occurrences, but also permitted revisionism. Hindsight is always clearer, especially as regards to motives. Perhaps because of that I have several qualms with the facts and the sequence of events as told in the book. I judge, for example that claims were overreaching to having devised a master strategy ahead of time for the first Zairian war leading to the removal of Mobutu. The evolution of conflict there was driven instead very much by the opportunities presented. No doubt Rwanda took good advantage of those opportunities, even in daring fashion, but the initial intervention was intended to empty the refugee camps, not to topple Mobutu. Secondly, I reject the notion that the USG informed any foreign intelligence services about Kagame’s departure from Ft. Leavenworth. I recall keeping his decision under wraps for several days. If someone put a lookout for him in Europe or Ethiopia, it was not the USG. American interests were best served by Kagame’s taking command of the RPF. Thirdly, I believe that the RPA/RPF leadership was quite collegial during its formative years and up to its first years in power. A committee of colonels did make many decisions collectively.

Back to the structure of the book, I found the juxtaposition of quotations to buttress the narrative disconcerting. There were no footnotes as such; instead there was an annex of page notes that did allow for some verification of who really said what, but often the citation was vague or from a “confidential conversation.” At least one (credited) exchange was lifted verbatim from my book and there appeared to be a lot of that in regard to other writings. A journalist’s technique, I suppose, as many news stories are structured in a similar fashion, i.e. report the story and use suitable quotations to prove it. But still, it did not strike me as the most credible way to get to the facts. I also thought that the final chapter invoking the high esteem of religiously motivated Americans for Kagame was pandering and under cut the more effective history presented earlier in the work.

My criticisms notwithstanding, A Thousand Hills does effectively tell the story of Rwanda, especially the story of Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Army. It is a gripping tale as the determination, perseverance and wisdom of the principal figures, chiefly Kagame himself, are carefully delineated. In short A Thousand Hills is a must read for those who want to better understand the complexities of Rwanda’s history and the basis for political and economic decisions being taken today. Finally, it has an excellent bibliography.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Eating Dirt

A short story

“Look at this,” she chortled slapping the newspaper down before me. “They’re eating dirt and think it cures AIDS.”

Indeed the head line screamed in boldest type. “Miracle Cure in Masaka!”

Times in Uganda in the mid-eighties were desperate. AIDS or “slim” in the vernacular was cutting a terrible swath through the population. Recognition of the scourge and its cause – sexual promiscuity – was beginning to crawl out from under a rock. There was growing public exposure of the malady and some very frank talk by President Museveni and other officials about the need to change irrevocably sexual behavior. Yet a deep sense of shame afflicted those who contracted the killer. They hid away and died quietly. Obituaries always referred to the cause of death as a “short illness.” And in those days before retro-virals were available, the terminal illness was usually short.

I read through the news story quickly. An elderly woman in Masaka, about eighty miles south of the capital, was telling her neighbors that her daughter, who had become skinny, weak and ill – obvious signs of AIDS – had rallied when fed a concoction of clay from her back yard. The old lady claimed traditional medical prowess and told the paper that she had used herbs and potions, including clay, for years to treat maladies. This remedy, this miracle, the paper asserted, could reverse the tide of death. It added that supplicants were beating a path to Masaka in search of the cure.

Normally, I would have joined in the chortle and recognized that sensationalism was a standard tactic to sell more papers, but I had recently lost another friend to AIDS. I saw the story more as a reflection of the desperation we all faced as this uncountable evil swept through the land. The stories of those lost were legion. As an expatriate I had no Ugandan relatives, but friends and their families were sorely afflicted. An outdoorsman, I had joined the Mountain Club of Uganda, whose members were a nice mix of foreigners and young Ugandans; all of us rock climbers and hikers. Outings included weekend trips to nearby granite outcroppings or a hike in the countryside. We mounted an annual ten-day expedition to the Ruwenzori’s and shorter trips to summit Uganda’s lesser mountains Our Ugandan colleagues were Ugandan yuppies – students and recent graduates of Makerere University. They included several medical students and others who by dint of their brains and perseverance were destined to be the next elite generation. Yet one by one our Ugandan colleagues were dying. There was nothing to chortle about.

I called Paul later in the day to ask his view of the Masaka cure. Endowed with an irrepressibly gregarious personality, he’d always been a straight shooter, although often embellishing his remarks with a twist of humor or a touch of irony. “Sure,” he said, “maybe she’s found it. An answer has to be somewhere. So far, clay from Masaka looks as good as anything from American laboratories. But,” he suggested, “let’s not guess, let’s go check it out.”

Why not, I thought. I ran the idea past the ambassador. He thought it was nuts, but told me to go if I wanted.

We set off the next morning. It was a beautiful clear day with clouds building up over the Lake. The road wove through banana plantations and small farms, and then straightened out crossing wide plains as it neared the expanses of Lake Victoria. Paul pointed out the bridges and culverts that had been battlegrounds when Museveni’s irregulars captured the capital several years earlier. Only one rusted hulk of a tank gave evidence of that struggle. Evidence of the new struggle, however, was ever present. Coffin making – and road side display of wares – was a growth industry.

Paul asked directions in Masaka. Shortly dozens of parked cars and a crowd of folks indicated we had come to the now famous shrine. It had turned into a commercial operation. For a couple of hundred shillings one could dig a basket full of backyard clay. Another couple of hundred shillings bought a consultation on the proper mixtures and dosage. The carnival air notwithstanding, there was an ardent sense of expectation. The intensity reminded me of religious pilgrims, for example, at Lourdes. Indeed it was a pilgrimage. I spoke hesitantly to several persons. Paul interpreted into Luganda as necessary. “This is our only hope.” “I believe God has blessed this place.” “My son is dying, this will save him.”

“Why not,” Paul said as he too scooped up a supply. “African magic does work. The Bible teaches that Jesus made miracles, and,” he concluded, “the worst might be clogged bowels.”

We talked a lot about faith, magic and hope on the way home. My western science told me it was all hokum, but I had undoubtedly seen a tremendous display of conviction by those in the old lady’s yard. I conceded that it was a slim straw to grasp, but what if there was some undiscovered mineral with medical properties?

Later I bounced the topic off Dr. Laura Hodge, an American epidemiologist striving to discover the true nature of the virus and how it took hold. She agreed that some old wives tales were based on solid science, but dismissed the clay as “Wishful thinking. It might improve a person’s will to live, but is essentially without medicinal merit.”

After several days on the front page, the story ran its course. A month or so later, I heard that the old lady’s daughter died after a “short illness.”

Yet hope remained an irrepressible part of an Ugandan day. Even in light of such tragedy, people pressed on, put on their best face and went out each day with a smile.

Book Review - A Farm Called Kishinev

Following is a review of A Farm Called Kishinev by Majorie Oludhe Macgoye. It was published by East African Educational Publishers, Nairobi, 2005.

Although presented in novel form, this book carefully recounts the efforts around the turn of the last century of the Zionist movement and the Imperial British government to create a Jewish settlement in what is today Kenya. The area in question was Uasin Gishu, the region surrounding Eldoret. At the time when the suggestion was under consideration, the Uasin Gishu plateau was deemed to be empty of African inhabitants and thus available for European settlement.

Arthur Marjore Macgoye, a muzungu who married into Kenya, did a superb job of research. She presents the facts, machinations and considerations - sometimes in excruciating detail - of those pushing or considering an East African option to Palestine. A commission was sent to the area, but despite its luke-warm endorsement, African was not chosen. Palestine remained the priority. As history shows there was no massive movement of European Jewry to Kenya.

From there the novel elaborates beyond the facts. Some Jews jumped a Zionist endorsement and immigrated. Their lives – arrival in Mombasa, travel to Londiani by rail, onward by ox cart, staking out a farm, becoming farmers, relations with nearby Nandi tribesmen and Boer farmers, the growth of Eldoret, and the internal challenges of remaining Jewish in a predominantly non-Jewish society – are the gist of the story. The trials and tribulations are recounted through the eyes of Benjamin, grandson of Isaac, the initial pioneer. By Benjamin’s time, Jewish families had truly become part of Kenya. This assimilation provides the opportunity for commentary on contemporary Kenyan society.

However, there is more. A second part of the book is a manuscript purportedly written by Isaac just before his death in 1943 and then finished by Benjamin that conjectures what Uasin Gishu would have been like if a Jewish homeland had been established in the region in 1898. The conjectures are an interesting bit of speculation.

A Farm Called Kishinev required dodged concentration because the narrative wandered around. Many details of the intricacies of Jewish culture escaped me, but I thought the Kenyan aspects to be accurate. This novel will appeal to those interested in Kenya’s history and in particular the role that the Jewish community played or might have played in Kenya’s development.