Saturday, December 26, 2009

Killing Neighbors - Webs of Violence in Rwanda

A book review of Killing Neighbors – Webs of Violence in Rwanda, By Lee Ann Fujii. Published by Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2009.

This is a scholarly tome that investigates individual motives behind the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Professor Fujii started with the premise that ethnic hatred, ethnic fear, or both, were key to enticing individuals to participate in the killings. Although she noted and elaborated on the facts that the overall climate that fostered genocide repeatedly stressed such themes, Ms. Fujii did not find those motivations operating at the individual level. Instead she discovered a complex web of motivations that varied from individual to individual.

The methodology of the research was to interview dozens of people from two separate hillsides (communities); one in the north where the civil war that preceded the genocide was fought and the other in the central zone that saw no violence until the genocide began. Many of those interviewed were prisoners who had plead guilty and were incarcerated for genocide activities. Presumably they spoke the truth because they nothing to hide. Others interviewed were family members of killers as well as survivors.

First there were differentiations by Hutu killers between Tutsi they knew, i.e. friends and neighbors, and those who were not known. Hutu killing mobs were always that - mobs. They were invariably groups that acted in concert where the power of collectiveness was overwhelming. Professor Fujii recorded no instances where one individual killed another. To the contrary when one-on-one encounters were described, respondents said that they warned the potential victim of danger.

Dr. Fujii found that familial and social ties were instrumental in compelling participation in killing groups. Individuals were usually brought in by local authorities or relatives, but some were recruited by peers. Some joined willingly, others were shamed into participation or intimidated into joining. Few envisaged booty and little was realized. Mostly Fujii concluded it was group dynamics that stoked the fires of genocide and kept them burning. Individuals who would not (and did not) act on their own became swept up in the group objective of elimination of the Tutsi.

Overall the book makes an important contribution into understanding genocide in Rwanda, but does it shed light on tribal violence elsewhere, in Kenya for example? Professor Fujii makes no extrapolation to that effect, but I will. First I would argue that the overall climate conducive to tribal violence in Kenya was similar, i.e. a perception of wrongs (in Kenya mostly having to do with land and other favoritisms) on the part of certain tribes with regard to others, plus the fear that such wrongs would only increase. A key difference was that the Kenyan national authorities were essentially seen as those in the wrong (the Kikuyu), thus the state did not advocate “ethnic cleansing.” Nonetheless, Kenyans, I believe, harbored a stronger sense of ethnic fear than did Rwandans and I suspect that was a motivation for participation in violence. However, the phenomenon of group dynamics was probably very much the same. Once enlisted in a mob, individual morals dropped aside and churches were burned, houses torched, people beaten and families chased from their homes and farms.

Overall, the scary conclusion from this study is that we, and our societies, live a lot closer to edge than we might suppose. We do not operate much from atavistic hatreds, but instead in response to current political events. It behooves us therefore to choose leaders that eschew tribal, ethnic, racial or religious differentiation in favor of inclusiveness. We must do so in order that our multifaceted societies can prosper.

Friday, October 30, 2009

An Expensive Education

Book review of a novel by Nick McDonell, Atlantic Monthly Press, NY, 2009.

The action in this novel unrolls in East Africa and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is kind of an odd amalgam, but the story moves on in a satisfactory fashion and keeps the reader engaged.

Misperception, trust and betrayal are the core issues investigated. The tale begins with an armed attack on a Somali village that the protagonist, a newly minted CIA officer, seems to have unwontedly instigated. Following is a series of intrigues as he and others try to unravel the mystery of the motives for the massacre and who did it. Other characters include a Harvard academic, a brilliant Somali student - who happens to have had relatives in the village – his society coed girl friend, a jaundiced CIA chief and a panoply of various hangers-on. Although some characters have substance to them, most are fairly shallow as befits the speedy pace of the story. I thought the hero was a bit too perfect. His basic flaw was naiveté.

On the one hand the novel is a spy thriller, but on another it is a satirical portrayal of Harvard – its politics, student life, clubs and old boy networks. As such the book appeals to Harvard insiders, but these aspects of it leave the rest of us a bit perplexed. The East African scenario appealed to me and by and large I found descriptions accurate. Author McDonell noted in a forward that he distorted tribes and geography, which he indeed did; shrinking distances and using wrong names for people of this or that tribe. I doubt, however, that many readers will catch these discrepancies. In one instance, however, he relates an incident in Nairobi and later refers to it as having occurred in Khartoum. Maybe he was just trying to see if we were alert?

Don’t read this book for political insight into the complex politics of terrorism, Somalia or Kenya. Nor should you believe that it accurately reflects how the CIA operates. Yet with those disclaimers, it remains a good yarn.

Wildflower - An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa

Book review of a biography by Mark Seal,Random House, NY, 2009.

The sub-title pretty well says it all; another vibrant, activist, female conservationist murdered by parties unknown - presumably because she thwarted their economic/political interests. Film maker and conservationist Joan Root’s story is a sad one from beginning to end and the maudlin aspects of it are drawn out by author Seal. Her life story has soap operatic aspects which Seal milked for all they’re worth.

Without doubt Ms. Root’s untimely demise – she was murdered in her bedroom by contract killers in early 2006 – provides the premise and the denouement for the biography that Seal assembled. Recounted in detail, Seal described Joan as a gentle shy soul who searched for meaning and mission in life. Initially she found both in marriage to Alan Root. An indispensable partner she collaborated with him in the production of a long list of wildlife films that patiently and conscientiously detailed animals and events. Films included studies of lions, hippos, termites, gorillas, hornbills in a baobab tree, a balloon over Kilimanjaro and a dry season. The list goes on, but Joan was the producer, the organizer and the muse that kindled Alan’s filmmaking genius. The two won worldwide renown.

Despite their professional collaboration, after some years, Alan’s wandering eye led him to another woman. Abandonment – which was never total as the two continued to work together for a time and communicated for years afterwards - sent Joan into a downward spiral. She only rallied when she found a new mission: saving Lake Naivasha from the scourge of fish and animal poaching and pollution from Kenya’s burgeoning flower industry. Joan’s 88 acre estate on the lake was threatened by interlopers and fish poachers in the 1990s and 2000s as the population of the area exploded on account of the rapid expansion of the flower industry. Although the hot houses and intensely cultivated fields flushed chemical runoff into the lake, it was really the quintupled human population that pressured the lake. Excrement from pit latrines found its way into the water table, but non-employed young men (women were preferred by the flower growers for their more delicate fingers) found outlets in seining illegally for the smallest fish, poaching wild animals that traditionally visited the lake and in crime. The European estates that ringed the lake were trespassed upon and targeted.

Joan’s efforts to halt these threats to “her” lake (and property) drew her into a whirlpool of conspiracy and quasi-legal violence designed to reduce illegal activities. Clearly (in retrospect) Joan was in over her head. Instead of managing the process she became swept up in it. Ultimately as it all rotted around her, she became its victim. Should that have happened? Of course not, author Seal and Joan’s friends all offer testimony to that effect. The nobleness of her cause notwithstanding, left unanswered and unaddressed is whether mzungus like Joan should try to save Kenya from itself?

The book is an entertaining read, even though the outcome is known before the first chapter. No one has anything bad to say about Joan, but her letters and diaries reveal a bit more of her inner thoughts. I found lots of repetition about her character, but little insight into how she really functioned. She obviously did not handle men very well. Alan first and then vigilante chief David Chege walked all over her.

Author Mark Seal is a journalist and the book is, in fact, an expansion of an article written for Vanity Fair. It reads like that. It is laudatory, uncritical and designed to elicit maximum sympathy. Despite accolades to a fact checker in the acknowledgements, the reputable checker missed the evolution of Tanganyika. The book says that it is now divided into Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi…tsk, tsk.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower

A review of a book by Michela Wrong. Published by Harper, NY 2009.

If you only read one book about Kenya this year; this should be it. Author Michela Wrong has written the definitive exposé on how Kenya’s political elite have skewed their country’s political, economic and social system via tribalism and corruption so that it operates to their benefit, but to the detriment of the nation and the wanaichi. To flesh out this tale of greed, Wrong uses the saga of John Githongo, a respected journalist and NGO operative, who – because of his respectable credentials - was recruited into becoming Kenya’s anti-corruption czar following the election of Mwai Kibaki in 2002. Imbued with a zealous sense of purpose Githongo strove to cleanse the Augean stable mess left by the previous Moi and even Kenyatta administrations. He found, however, that no matter how noble the rhetoric, embedded practices were impervious to reform. Instead of correcting matters, the new cadre close to President Kibaki – including, as Githongo reluctantly concluded, the president himself– persisted in clever organized looting of the state. The justification for this was tribal, after years of exile while Moi reigned, it was again time for the Kikuyus “to eat.”

Even while following the story of one man’s enthusiasm and disillusionment, the author carefully dissects the Kenya polity. She notes, “The various forms of graft cannot be separated from the people’s vision of existence as a merciless contest, in which only ethnic preference offers hope of survival.” This leads to a comprehensive discussion of tribalism in particular how it is not an atavistic force arising from centuries of tribal struggle, but rather a manifestation of modernization. Colonialism, education, Christianity, urbanization, the cash economy – in fact all the elements of recent times brought Kenya’s various tribes into face-to-face competition. Whoever controlled power and the apparatus of the state were able to reward their “community” at the expense of everyone else. Thus common identity - rather than merit - became (and still is) the means of personal advancement. Up to a point, of course, looking after kith and kin is not pernicious, but Kenyans have never drawn a good line. Helping your cousins is one thing, but expanding beyond that to blatant theft coupled with denigration and stereotyping of others on account of their tribe has led to inimical politics, which have resulted in repeated rounds of tribal violence – with perhaps more to come.

Ms. Wrong made the point that urbanization in many ways de-tribalized Kenyans. Ethnic customs, language, etc. all succumbed to the polyglot mix of the cities, broader education and the impact of western culture. Kids, for example, did not speak tribal mother tongues or English or Swahili, but created “Sheng” for common communication. Identities were being forged more as “poor” or “affluent” rather than Luo or Kikuyu. Unfortunately, those evolutions were swept away in the political violence of 2007 where tribe became the sole criterion. In the aftermath of that violence, it is doubtful if Kenyans can regain the social cohesion that they previously enjoyed.

Some of the worst manifestations of tribalism and unbridled presidential power have been the scandals of Goldberg (under Moi) and Anglo Leasing (under Kibaki), in which hundreds of millions of dollars were blithely stolen from government coffers by those charged to manage resources properly for the people, i.e. the office of the president, the chief of the civil service, members of government and the judiciary. It was this latter scandal that Githongo uncovered. Most distressing for him was the fact that people he knew and trusted; lied, schemed and connived to cover up their shenanigans. When finally confronted with facts (Githongo secretly recorded conversations and ran a network of informers), they plead that it was all for the benefit of the Kikuyu “community,” in effect, it was their turn to eat. Indeed, something was very rotten in Kenya. Githongo fled for fear of his life.

The international donor community did not escape Wrong’s righteousness. The World Bank was singled out for marked failure to link new lending to reform, thus convincing Kenyans leaders that there were no real consequences for even spectacular corruption. Wrong found one hero in British High Commissioner (ambassador) Edward Clay who argued forcefully in public, and against the policy of his own government, that donors ought to hold Kenya accountable for proper management of all its resources.

Ultimately, Githongo’s story just sort of wound down, with no clear cut victory for the good guys. But the impact of the book did not stop there. Although part of the book has been serialized in the Nation, it is not available for purchase in Kenya. Booksellers apparently fear the wrath of the named. Even so, It’s Our Turn to Eat is a hot commodity. Copies are being imported privately, even apparently by USAID. Githongo’s recordings are available on the web where many Kenyans are listening. Ms. Wrong recently told a Washington audience that she had not sensationalized events, but reported even handedly. While she agreed that Githongo might better have told his own story, he was not ready when she was. He cooperated fully. Finally, as is mentioned in the book, Githongo’s daring set an example for other watchdogs and has certainly raised the bar for public scrutiny of elected officials. Evidently, thieves are more careful now, but the underlying structure of Kenyan politics which bred the system of tribal patronage and corruption has not changed. The struggle for seekers of change, fairness, truth and accountability has not ended.

Reviewed by Robert Gribbin, July 2009

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why Africa Matters

This is a talk I gave at the Foreign Service Institute on June 29, 2009.

Africa is far away, little known and little connected to America or to the world, so why does it matter? Why should we be concerned with it, study it, learn its languages or be assigned there? These are good questions that merit thoughtful response.

This morning I will lay out some realities that under grid American concerns for Africa and why it behooves us to pay attention to Africa.

First, some background.


I can see from this group that some here have African ancestry, just as others have European or Asian. America today really is an ethnic melting pot. We are multi-ethnic, multi-hued, multi-lingual and multi-cultural. An increasing number of Americans are recent immigrants, including many from Africa. Our reality is that we are a nation formed by the peoples of the world. We have roots everywhere. This is one of our strong claims to global leadership and the responsibilities that engenders.


Often we Americans incorporate culture from other societies and when we don’t perhaps we need to learn from others’ cultural values. African culture is endowed with many positive values. I would put a sense of family at the top of the list. African families look after each other. There are lots of reciprocal obligations. Wage earners house, feed, educate and find jobs for relatives. Children are prized, in part because they represent the social security system for their parents. Africans respect their elders, include them in expanded households and care for them in old age.

President Obama learned about his Kenyan family when in his twenties. As you remember he was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents, but when he went to Kenya for the first time, he discovered he was a member of a large expanded family – grandparents, half- siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins galore. Certainly, they expect a lot from him now that he is truly a “big man.”

Africans can teach us about a slower pace of life – those of you who were Peace Corps Volunteers certainly understand this value. Africans take many minutes just to greet one and another before getting around to the business at hand. There is little rush. When things happen, they do.

Africans know how to live within their means. Perhaps this is a function of poverty – when you do not have much – you get by. But it also represents recognition that materialism is not the wherewithal of society.

Africans are connected to the land and to the cycles of the seasons. An overwhelming percentage of folks are farmers and those who aren’t are only one generation from the farm. This connectedness to nature gives Africans insight into many contemporary environmental issues.

Africans are fanatic about education. They recognize it as a way forward. Families make great sacrifices to send their children to school. And the kids reciprocate and devote themselves to their studies.

Although a certain sense of fatalism permeates African society, the counterpart to that is optimism. Africans are almost always convinced – even against potent evidence to the contrary – that things will get better. I find this an endearing quality.

Even though we think we understand cultural differences, let me tell a story that demonstrates the voids. In the Central African Republic I spoke with an American missionary from the Summer Linguistic Institute, an organization that translates the Bible into native languages around the world. I asked him how the project regarding the BaAka pygmies was going. He said not so well. The linguists often started in a new language with Bible stories such as Joseph and the coat of many colors. But they found that story did not resonate with the BaAka who had no concept of coveting nor of clothes. Similarly with David and Goliath – the BaAka were non-violent so did not relate to conflict either.

I was a peace corps volunteer in Kenya in 1969 when Americans landed on the moon. This achievement was viewed with skepticism by the young Luo tribesmen with whom I worked. Although they readily accepted that Americans could build a space ship – after all they built jet airplanes – proof of being on the moon was missing. I discovered that the needed proof revolved around the nature of and meeting with God. According to Luo religious beliefs God lived on the moon and if the astronauts had not met him – and there were no reports to that effect - then, had the trip really occurred?


With the exception of slavery America’s connections to Africa were fairly minimal before the mid-20th century. We do need to acknowledge that slavery as practiced for about four hundred years, both by the west and the east, with Africans as the victims was a terrible scourge that disrupted and destroyed societies throughout the continent. On the heels of slavery came colonialism, a practice that warped social, economic and political development. Thankfully, the U.S. was not a colonial power.

America secured the coast of what is now Liberia in 1820 where freed slaves and free blacks were settled from the United States. Although not a colony as such, the U.S. kept a watchful paternal eye on Liberia from that point forward. In 1836 a U.S. consulate was opened in Zanzibar. Although Europe, especially Great Britain, was much captivated by sagas of exploration in the mid-nineteenth century, it was the New York Post newspaper that employed adventurer Henry Morton Stanley to rescue Dr. David Livingston. He did so in 1871, thus enhancing Livingston’s erstwhile sainthood and earning Stanley himself everlasting fame.

Abyssinia came to America’s attention in the 1930s when that traditionally independent kingdom was brutally annexed by Mussolini. Young Emperor Halie Selassie’s appeals to the League of Nations sparked interest in Africa; interest in self-determination that foreshadowed the independence struggles that were to come a generation later. Yet at this time for most Americans Africa equated to Tarzan, King Solomon’s Mines, The African Queen and other popular literature that portrayed Africans in subservient or racist terms.

During World War Two, Africa became a crucial supplier of raw materials for the allied effort such as rubber for tires, pyrethrum for insecticide, sisal for ropes and even uranium for the first atomic bombs.

The wave of independence that began in Ghana and Guinea in the late 1950s and swept most of the continent by the mid-sixties caused a new look at the Africa. In the midst of the debacle in the Congo in 1961, President Kennedy recognized that African nationalism was not necessarily anti-Americanism or pro-communism. We established diplomatic relations with virtually every nation upon the achievement of independence and, with USAID, the Peace Corps and other policies sought to build new relationships. Yet the Cold War intruded into Africa as U.S. policy was shaped by fears of Soviet or Chinese influence. Africa’s response to the world contest was to opt out. The Organization of African Unity was created in 1963 for mutual support among African states with one objective being precisely to forge a neutral path between the east and the west.

With this background in mind, let’s fast forward and ask - Where is Africa Today?

Most of Africa is doing quite okay. Nations are vaguely democratic, politically stable, socially at peace and making satisfactory economic progress. A number of wars have ended in recent years and there is reason for cautious optimism that other conflicts might be subsiding.


Africa has always been an exporter – of people and of commodities – slaves, ivory, coffee, coco, peanuts, palm oil, pineapples, mangoes, sisal, mangrove poles and more recently fresh cut flowers for European markets. Africa also sends minerals to world markets– copper, gold, diamonds, uranium, bauxite, iron ore and more recently coltan used in your cell phones. Oil has become the motor of economies in Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Gabon, Republic of the Congo and Sudan. Lesser amounts are found elsewhere. Africa now accounts for about 20 percent of U.S. imports and the figure continues to rise.

Oil is both a blessing and a curse. Obviously it provides sorely needed revenues, but sadly much oil derived income has been stolen or squandered. Rather than the breadbasket of the past, Nigeria today, for example, is a net importer of food. Additionally, Nigeria is awash with money and has become one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. The leadership of Chad has diverted oil revenues into armaments. In neighboring Sudan, oil monies fueled massacres in Darfur. Issues of control of Sudan’s oil fields risks reigniting the southern war as well. Equatorial Guinea, long ruled by a family of bizarre autocrats, remains one of the continent’s egregious abusers of human rights.

Elsewhere , even though the modern sectors of economies show diversity – more manufacturing, textile production, expanded tourism and even high tech call centers -bad economic policies, small markets, inadequate transportation assets and poor industrial infrastructure plus lots of debt conspire to retard progress. Population growth often outpaces economic growth. Thus, even statistically, it is very tough to get ahead.

The vast majority of Africans comprise some of the bottom billion – those citizens of the world mired in poverty who largely practice subsistence agriculture or increasingly make-do in the vast shanty towns of the third world’s teeming cities. For them the prospects are not very promising. The challenge is to find ways to promote development at the grassroots.

Africa’s economies matter because the U.S. is connected directly to them via trade and aid. A rising tide floats all ships. More prosperity there rebounds to everyone’s benefit.


Africa is a continent of man made disasters. Political conflict, bandits, piracy, war and civil war coupled with natural catastrophe especially drought, but now also AIDS, periodically wreak havoc on people across the continent. While the impact of slavery and colonial forced labor has receded, modern versions of man made horrors emerged in Liberia, Rwanda, Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Such suffering touches the conscience of America. Images of refugees, starving children, AIDS victims and frightened survivors tug at our heartstrings. To our credit we respond generously. Over two billion dollars a year flows through both public and private channels to those in need.

Unfortunately, although needs and locations change, humanitarian resources will be required in Africa for the foreseeable future. I know America will continue to respond generously.

Multilateral Politics

Even though colonialism is finished and the Cold War is over, some of their legacies persist in the international arena. African states hold 53 of the United Nations 194 seats. This gives Africa good leverage in international councils. Even though most African states are pro-western on an individual basis, collectively they adhere to shop worn non-aligned, anti-west formulas largely developed a generation ago by Cuba, India, Egypt, Indonesia and Yugoslavia. U.S. efforts to crack this outdated “unity” will be part of your diplomatic assignment.

African states sometimes are and have the potential to be solid partners in helping to advance America’s global agenda, be it nuclear non-proliferation, human rights, democracy or free trade.


Security issues loom high on lists of concerns in Africa. Obviously security is prerequisite for domestic harmony, economic growth and political evolution, all of which are in our interest. Yet the threats to peace are many. Most threats are home grown as is the case in Nigeria, Zimbabwe or Sudan relating to who is going to control the political/economic pie. While the U.S. does not want to dictate outcomes per se, we do seek an end to internal conflict and cross border violence. To this end we cajole, negotiate and strive to convince all concerned to sort out difficulties in a peaceful fashion. In addition to moral suasion, our latest big stick is AFRICOM, the utility of which is diminished in this regard because we state upfront that the U.S. is never going to war in Africa.

International peacekeeping has been a growth industry in Africa. By informal count there are now UN Peace Keeping Operations in Sudan, Congo, Chad, Central African Republic, Eritrea and Ethiopia. There are remnants of operations in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Burundi. An African Union operation is also underway in Somalia. Obviously, it is in our interest to support international peacekeeping efforts and to involve as many Africans nations as possible in keeping the peace in Africa.

Perpetrators of international terrorism have struck repeatedly in Africa killing Americans in Khartoum, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. They have attacked locals and foreigners elsewhere and plotted virtually everywhere. Reining in terrorism is an intelligence rather than a military function and one to which increasing resources are being devoted by both the United States and African governments.

Piracy and hostage taking for profit plague the Somali coast and the Niger delta. Oil bunkering, that is large scale theft, also troubles oil production in the Gulf of Guinea.

Columbian and Nigerian drug cartels appear to have taken control of the nation of Guinea Bissau. This exemplifies the risk that poorly governed corrupt or un-governed states pose to the rest of the world.


Africa boasts some of the planet’s most pristine regions, for example the vast forests of the Congo basin, huge fresh water lakes and mighty rivers, snow clad peaks and game filled plains. Yet most of the continent is dry – the Sahara and Kalahari deserts take up about a third of the land area. Water is the key – often missing commodity – across much of the continent. Climate change that brings more drought and with it expanded local conflict for arable land will further devastate already fragile regions.

Should Africa be allowed to rape her lands for profit? Or worse, let foreigners do it?

The issues at stake are how to strike the balance, to preserve that which needs preserving and to exploit in a responsible fashion that which can be productively used.

U.S. priorities

Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson identified four American priorities in Africa during his recent confirmation hearing. They are: democracy; conflict mitigation; economic growth and combating global threats.

Let’s look at them in turn.

Africa does have an improving democratic track record. 12 of 48 Sub-Saharan nations are listed by Freedom House as fully free and 23 as partially free. But there is a lot of work to be done, especially in instituting a rule of law and fostering more institutional independence from powerful national executives. Who controls power and how it is exercised and who can take power legitimately or otherwise, are elements in assessing the status of democracy in any given nation.

The U.S. has been on the front lines of promoting democracy. We’ve supported civil society, helped finance and monitor elections and encouraged a sense of accountability. When I was ambassador in the Central African Republic in 1992, we were deeply involved in facilitating free and fair elections. However, about a week before the voting while I was eating breakfast on the veranda, I spotted a big snake in the frangipangi tree nearby. I retreated inside and notified my staff. At lunch the gardeners proudly presented the 8 foot long carcass of a black mamba. By late afternoon word was circulating around town that President Kolingba was irritated with the coming elections and U.S. advocacy of them; consequently he used his magic to send a snake to kill the U.S. ambassador, but the ambassador’s magic was stronger. He defeated Kolingba, so the elections would go ahead and Kolingba would lose.

In those elections Kolingba, the incumbent president, came in fourth, then tried to manipulate the results after the fact. However, the system in place proved resilient and his attempt to thwart the popular will was rebuffed. Later in the same nation, Parliament having been trained in responsibilities by a National Endowment for Democracy team, summoned the Prime Minister for a reckoning. Rather than comply, he resigned. Members of Parliament repeatedly thanked me for teaching them how to operate their own system.

We should not under estimate the impact in Africa of President Obama’s election. Clearly, being a son of Africa, he was the popular favorite, but beyond that his victory was seen as evidence that change, real change is possible via the ballot box. I was in Chad last November where there was great rejoicing, especially amongst students – plus and goat and gazelle delivered to the embassy as gifts to the new president. Yet the dictatorial government there was reluctant to let the students march in celebration lest their enthusiasm for Obama’s victory morph into demands for local change.

Later the Obama lesson was taken to heart by voters in Ghana who themselves voted out an incumbent party. Additionally, emboldened by Obama’s example, Kenyans are adamant that the debacle of their flawed 2007 election won’t be repeated.

This is the way democracy policy is supposed to work.

Nigeria’s election of 2007 was another matter. The vote was a fraud from the beginning. Thousands of precincts that reported tallies never opened. Elsewhere the national result was rigged. Yet some local races were legitimate, but only in Nigeria could candidate run on the theme that he was less corrupt than his opponent. At the national level outgoing president Obasanjo’s anointed successor Yar’Adua prevailed. His taking of the office might have avoided a military coup d’etat or widespread communal violence, but he was certainly not freely and fairly elected. But the U.S. – fearing negative consequences for oil production and retrenchment from Nigeria’s positive regional role – opted to mildly criticize the election and to quietly accept the result. Similarly, we have let broader interests predominate in flawed democratic processes in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Conflict mitigation. Conflict is the big bugaboo in Africa. Although focusing on it is worthwhile and noble, solving the problems of Somalia, Sudan and Congo is not unilaterally possible and anything but easy. Last week’s conference on Sudan is a case in point. It provided a valuable reaffirmation that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is the solution to the Southern war, but gave little direction in dealing anew with Darfur. Rather, there has been a public washing of American laundry on whether or not genocide continues to be practiced.

I note with consternation that reports of U.S. shipments of munitions to pro-government forces in Somalia do not seem to accord with a posture of dialogue as the policy of choice in dealing with conflict.

Furthermore, I posit that AFRICOM is no help in these situations and should not be. Conflicts are political African issues that must be hammered out by Africans, certainly with support, encouragement, even mediation by outsiders, but without military intervention, especially from the United States.

Economic Growth. Renewed American focus on economic growth is welcome. Even though some of our numbers look good, the reality is that we ought to do much more and in a much more effective fashion. Sadly, we have viable assistance programs in less than half of the African nations. USAID needs reinvigoration and new direction. The myriad of U.S.G. activities need to be better coordinated. Impediments to agricultural trade need rethinking.

Global scourges – AIDS and malaria, climate change, food insecurity, narcotics, maritime insecurity and terrorism are all on the U.S. agenda. Several of these issues respond to money, where we have been very forthcoming, others require political, economic and security commitments that are not yet in sight.

In summary, Africa does matter to the United States. We have obligations, responsibilities and opportunities. Some are obviously directly in our self interest, others more altruistic in nature. However, we are all on this planet together and as it gets smaller and more densely populated, the dominoes fall faster and the butterfly effect registers sooner. What happens in Africa does impact on our well being in America. We need to be cognizant of that and to be proactive in assuring the best possible outcomes.

That is where you come in. As U.S. diplomats on the front lines in Africa or focusing on African issues in Washington you will have the task to formulate how the rubber meets the road, how we implement and sustain our policies and objectives. In short, how we make Africa matter to us and us to Africa.

Good luck.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Meinertzhagen Mystery – The Life and Legend of a Colossal Fraud

Review of an expose by Brian Garfield, Potomac Books, Washington, DC 2007.

In this exhaustively researched tome, author Garfield provides evidence that Richard Meinertzhagen, Kenyan colonial official, hunter, East African WWI intelligence chief, soldier, Zionist, spy, ornithologist, diarist and well connected British gentlemen, was a fraud. Indeed faced with the documentation and discussion, readers will probably conclude that Meinertzhagen (MINE-ert-ZAHG’n) faked many escapades for which he became famous. However, he did so successfully; he was even Ian Flemming’s model for agent 007, James Bond. The reality is that Meinertzhagen was a scoundrel, a man who ensured that he wrote his own press and who freely borrowed the accomplishments of others. Even so, he was also an engaging and entertaining companion (he often provided shock value in either words or purported deeds). He counted many distinguished and high placed personalities who were fellow members of Britain’s ruling aristocracy as friends and acquaintances.

Let’s look back at the record. Meinertzhagen’s embellishments began in Kenya. As a colonial official and a military officer, he claimed responsibilities – being in charge of this or that fort, for example, that never existed - or heroic accomplishments that were anything but heroic. His early reputation as a fearless warrior arose from a 1905 massacre of Nandi leaders, including the Laibon. Meinertzhagen recounted that in the midst of a round of peace talks, the Kenyans treacherously attached their interlocutors, especially Meinertzhagen. In turn the colonial officers responded and killed 23 of the Nandis. This account was supported by other Europeans present. However, careful investigation by Garfield indicated that Meinertzhagen’s story covered up the brutal massacre of the Nandi delegation by maxim guns as they arrived at the appointed site - even before they sat down to talk.

As East African theater intelligence chief during World War I, Meinertzhagen constantly took credit for operations not his own. He earned some legitimate credit for forcefully criticizing the inept British generalship, especially at Tanga, but there again he claimed to have exchanged pistol fire personally with German General von Lettow-Vorbeck – an event that never happened. Later on an undercover operation, he claimed to have murdered a German officer and eaten the dead man’s still warm dinner. Time and again in his diaries – that were substantially re-written by himself in later years – Meinertzhagen makes himself look good. (Meinertzhagen’s Kenya Diary: 1902-1906 was republished in 1983.) Author Garfield shows that there is never corroborating evidence in any official documents or others’ accounts of the same time periods.

Meinertzhagen’s greatest (fictitious) accomplishment occurred later in the war. When attached in a relatively junior position to General Allenby’s force in Palestine, Meinertzhagen took sole credit for the daring drop of a haversack filled with false documents for the Turks to find. The documents were intended to (and probably did ) mislead the enemy as to the true intentions of the British forces. While some sort of ruse like this apparently did occur, it was planned and executed by others – not Meinertzhagen; yet he claimed and received credit for the exploit for years.

Although other events were more sensational – including the death of his wife under mysterious circumstances and a missed opportunity to assassinate Hitler – Meinertzhagen, who was an accomplished ornithologist, went to great lengths to steal bird specimens from museums and to falsify accounts of their range in his own scholarly articles. The upshot is that he individually undermined much of the legitimate ornithology of the early 20th century.

Why did he do all this? Of course, no one knows. Apparently he was driven to polish his image so as to gain fame and respect. Nonetheless, Meinertzhagen gradually fell out of favor. Winston Churchill disowned him early on, but the cocoon of privilege protected Meinertzhagen through out his life and he was never really called to answer for the extent of his fabrications and frauds. At the end he was just deemed to be an odd eccentric.

The unraveling of the fictions took years. In sorting through them, author Garfield proved to be as tenacious in debunking them as Meinertzhagen had been in creating them. Consequently, the book is an interesting study showing that while history ought to be based on corroborated empirical data, it often isn’t.

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

Review of a novel by Nicholas Drayson; Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2008

Although it sounds like a guide book, in reality this work is a novel. It is a delightfully chatty comedy of manners replete with keen insight into Nairobians of various hues. The chief protagonist is shy, retiring Mr. Malik who engages in a contest of bird watching with boisterous, obnoxious Mr. Harry Khan for the right to ask a certain lady, Rose Mbikwa, to the annual hunt ball. As the story unfolds all is not quite as it initially seemed, the characters become more complex and overlays of plot, some with sinister implications, intrude.

Those who know Kenya will find the setting accurately described. Most institutions and places are called by their correct names, but those that aren’t are easily identified from their pseudo names. With the exception of attributing the naming of Lake Victoria to Dr. Livingstone rather than John Hanning Speke, author Nicholas Drayson’s historical asides ring true, but some are obviously invented such as the reasons why Maasai wear red. The ornithological information, of which there is a lot regarding bird species and their whereabouts also appears authentic to this amateur birdwatcher, but with doubts that one could find a flamingo on Lake Victoria. Even so it was great fun to recognize names and descriptions as the chase ensued.

Even though the birds provided a mechanism to move the plot forward, it was really the commentary – pithy observations about the times or the characters that made the story interesting. Drayson certainly had a knack for encapsulating personalities and pinning down mannerisms and dialogue in a fashion that kept the reader entertained.

There are no weighty issues in this novel, but it is entertaining (and fairly short). It will certainly appeal to those who know Kenya and especially those who have tried to sort out some of its birds.

P.S. On several occasions the novel mentions favorably a training program for guides run by the Nairobi Museum. Indeed that program has produced a number of very competent (and pleasant) local guides. On a recent trip to Kenya, Steven at Ziwani Camp and Julius at Siana Springs, aptly led us to new birds, including the rare Magpie Shrike found only in Kenya near Siana.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Book review - Africa's World War

A book review by Amb. Robert Gribbin

Africa’s World War – Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe

By Gérard Prunier, Oxford University Press, NY, 2009

African scholar Prunier’s latest, Africa’s World War, purports to be the definitive study of the conflict arising from the Rwandan genocide that ultimately spread into the Congo twice as open warfare. That conflict still continues today in the Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By and large Prunier got the narrative correct. The war began in 1996 with covert operations by the Rwandan Patriotic Army designed to dismantle the refugee camps and squash the threat of genocidaire insurgency. Then, fighting expanded under the aegis of the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération (AFDL) and its odd leader Laurent Kabila with participation by forces from Uganda, Burundi and Angola that culminated in the overthrow of Mobutu in 1997. New president Kabila then turned on his masters thus igniting a second round of nationwide strife that flowered into a contest pitting Kigali and Kampala, and their rebel proxies, against Kinshasa supported by Zimbabwe, Angola and Sudan. Respective control of territory split the nation for years while internal machinations amongst all the players led to divisions and sub-divisions according to various motives and interests. The 1999 Lusaka Peace Agreement paved the way for a return to normalcy – withdrawal of foreign forces, containment of militia, UN peacekeeping operations, internal Congolese dialogue and ultimately elections. All of which, in some fashion or other, occurred during the last ten years. But Congo today still suffers the effects of warfare. Skirmishing with Hutu genocidaire elements continues as does confrontation with various Mai Mai groups. Hundreds of thousands of persons remain displaced while perhaps millions have died, largely not from bullets, but from the collapse of social and economic infrastructure, i.e. medical services, farming, markets, transportation, schools, etc.

Prunier’s detailed recitation of events provides some insight into political personalities and the motives that he imputes to them. His grasp of the situation, however, is muted by the reality that many of his facts are simply wrong. In one section of the book Prunier ruminates about how African leaders successfully hoodwinked western governments and how easy that was given the indifference of such governments to the crisis. Yet he himself seems to accept every comment or observation by Africans (usually cited as confidential sources) as fundamental truth, whereas he discounts on the commentary either on the record or off from westerners as tainted spin.

My major squabble with Prunier’s “facts” has to do with his portrayal of American activities and motives. I was the U.S. ambassador in Kigali from 1996-1999 and can speak authoritatively (and I have in my book In the Aftermath of Genocide: The U.S. Role in Rwanda). Simply put, Prunier spins out, and thus perpetuates, a series of lies and misrepresentations. He seems drawn to the idea that the United States mounted a large covert military operation (using black misfits recruited by the CIA) to support Rwandan fighting in Congo in 1998 and 1999. Of course, Prunier apparently believes that I was complicit in, if not the author, of such black ops. Even so, he managed to misspell my name in the several citations in his book and footnotes.

Prunier cites as proof: the presence of black English speaking soldiers in Kivu, their base at a former Peace Corps site near Bukavu, two bodies of dead soldiers handed over to American officials in Uganda, and airdrops by USAF C-130s to re-supply rebel AFDL forces in Congo. All of this is pure fabrication. None of it occurred. Prunier also asserts that the small $3 million U.S. de-mining program in Rwanda was simply cover for supplying the RPA with military wherewithal for the war effort, and that dozens of U.S. Air Force flights carried in the goods. Again, fiction! Although a few military flights did land in Rwanda during my three year tenure, their cargoes were high level visitors, humanitarian goods and surplus items – a C5A for example brought lots of recycled computers, office equipment and medical supplies for civilian entities. As for the de-miners, they did what they were supposed to, i.e. de-mine. Similarly, Prunier joined other conclusion-jumpers in assuming that the small joint training exercises (less than a dozen US troops) conducted with Rwandan forces were aimed at preparing for or sustaining conflict in the Congo. To the contrary, that was not the objective and furthermore as soon as the Congo imbroglio began, to demonstrate our dismay we cancelled such activities as well as planning for a quite large package of non-lethal military communication and transportation items.

Among other assertions of American complicity in the Congo war was a statement that my deputy the late Peter Whaley met with Laurent Kabila “thirty or forty times.” Peter was indeed our initial channel for communicating with Kabila, with whom he met only about a dozen times. The purpose of such communication was to restrain the rebel war effort, not to advise on political or strategic tactics as Prunier implies. Prunier’s exaggeration, however, underlies his thesis that the United States, feeling guilty on account of inaction to halt the genocide, afterwards sided blindly with Rwanda both in that government’s internal transgressions, but especially in its invasion of Congo and the ouster of Mobutu, whom, Prunier says, we had finally gotten tired of. (I concede elements of truth regarding sympathy for the new regime in Kigali, as well as the belief that change was needed in the Congo, but orientation should not be confused with actions. We provided no substantive support for Rwanda, AFDL rebels or others engaged in conflict in the Congo. We constantly sought a halt to the fighting and indeed sought accountability for human rights abuses that occurred during the violence. ) In attributing and analyzing nefarious U.S. motives, Prunier offers little evidence other than “confidential sources” to buttress his opinion. On the one hand, he seems to fall unfortunately into the French academic camp that simply assumes that the U.S. is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-managing of events in Africa (for example, he states that Rwanda adhered to the Lusaka withdrawal agreement only because the new Bush administration cold-shouldered President Kagame); while on the other hand, Prunier attributes U.S. policy and missteps to indifference to the fate of the continent. He wants it both ways when it suits his argument.

In light of the grave transgressions of fact with regard to the United States, and those are the issues that I know the accurate side of, I cannot help but wonder how badly skewed Prunier’s other information is. He relates lots of juicy details of meetings, encounters, massacres, troop movements, etc. but are they accurate? One must doubt. In conclusion, this book could and should be an important contribution to the history of the Congo crisis in all its complexities. There is some good stuff in it and an excellent bibliography, but its fatal flaws require that “truth” always be annotated with an asterisk.


A short story

The connection was scratchy, but the voice was clear, “I’ve been watching you, you know.”

“Yes,” I replied with more bravado than I felt. “I know. Should I be afraid?”

He chuckled, “No, don’t fear us. I needed to find out if I could trust you.”

“Trust me?” I queried. “You were on the verge of being arrested. Why does scaring me help you trust me.”

He laughed again. “I watch out for them even more than I watched you. Your movements, your contacts indicate that you are not one of them, or part of their apparatus. Even if you did not know it, they are not watching you, or listening. So now, we can safely meet.” He paused. “I am a democrat and a freedom fighter.”

This guy was careful I thought, much more than most dissidents I encountered in this dusty African capital on the southern fringe of the Sahara where I plied my trade as political officer at the U.S. embassy. The James Bond aspects of his approach were odd, but opposition figures did have much to be suspicious about. The reach of the president’s secret police was astonishing; and their tactics brutal. Critics of His Excellency disappeared into the jails, or more frequently these days before even getting to jail, with disturbing frequency.

“Okay,” I agreed, “but it will have to be my way.”

Two days later in the late afternoon I sat waiting at a small table on the terrace at the Golf Club. Because of the heat and the fact that the course was mostly windblown sand and dirt, the club did not attract many players. A few hard core drinkers, however, were well into their beers. A tall very black African approached. “It’s me,” he said, “Call me Jean Claude.”

I suggested a walk, so we strolled out the first fairway, found a bench and talked as the sun turned fiery red and sank into the Chari River. Jean Claude told me he represented southerners, the black Africans of the nation, who had been its educated class, its first administrators and provided the first president. In later years, all the progress and leadership provided by the south was swept away by desert warriors and their brutal rule. Now was the time Jean Claude asserted to reclaim their birth right. He acknowledged some southern participation in government. “Stooges,” he called them. But they too, he alleged could be brought into his movement. He sketched out a vision of political power based on mobilizing the southern majority to act as a coherent whole, break the stranglehold of the capital and assert regional autonomy. Once done, the south could strengthen its own institutions and evolve into its own independent state. He saw the process as one paralleling the evolution of southern Sudan, but without the need for a nasty war.

I heard him out and asked about the oil. His solution to that was revenue sharing. “All the president wants is money; money to buy arms and feather the nests of his cohorts. We will use the money to better the lives of our people.” Jean Claude closed with the pitch that I knew was coming. He wanted Americans to know of the struggle. He wanted our support – moral, if not material. Mostly he wanted assurances that we would restrain the government from using U.S. trained anti-terrorism forces or equipment against southern patriots. I said I took note of his ambitions and promised I would not betray his confidence, but that I could not promise either support or that the embassy could dictate how to employ the anti-terrorism troops. We agreed to stay in touch.

Jean Claude slipped out the gate of the golf club. I ordered and nursed a beer while thinking it over.

“Patron,” the club manager interrupted my thoughts, “please, don’t bring that man here again. It could go bad for me.”

“Why?” I responded.

“He’s a political ghost. He is the first president’s grandson.”

In following months the political temperature went up. Broadsides appeared vilifying the regime, editorials in the quasi-free press got tougher, new web sites appeared, especially one called action sud that blatantly called for southern autonomy. There was talk of tribal oathing, creating action cells, lots of agitation in southern towns. Southern politicians in the capital too began to adopt a more militant stance. Throughout I kept in regular contact with “Jean Claude;” mostly by phone, but and we met occasionally. He stayed out of the limelight, but seemed to be the motor of the movement. I heard that the security police were after him. I did note that anti-terrorism troops were deployed to two southern towns.

National legislative elections were approaching. They offered the opportunity for some success for southern power. I told Jean Claude of Stalin’s observation that it does not matter who votes, what matters is who counts the votes. He nodded grimly, but assured me that party poll watchers and international observers would be vigilant.

Lo and behold! The elections were okay. Southern power parties swept their home region and held a near majority in Parliament. Jean Claude’s first phase succeeded.

I tried to call to congratulate him, but could not get him on the line. After several days of futile efforts, finally, he called back. “I’m done,” he rasped wispily. “Finished.”

“No,” I rejoined, “Every thing is going well. Your plans are working. You cannot quit now.”

“No, my fate is death.” He coughed. “I have SIDA and the infection has spread. Victory is now up to others.”

A week later he died.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Too Close to the Sun

A book review of

Too Close to the Sun – The life and times of Denys Finch Hatton

By Sara Wheeler, Random House, London 2007.

Several books have been written about the tempestuous relationship between Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, especially Baroness Blixen’s own account in her marvelous memoir Out of Africa. In her version Tania (Karen) provides her perspective and romanticizes the relationship of two differing souls who connect in great passion. Author Wheeler is much less ethereal and more practical in arriving at a more realistic appraisal of the relationship. Her assessment tracks a careful evaluation of Denys’ life from childhood, through school and university and then into the wider world beyond.

Finch Hatton was indeed endowed with a unique personality. He was affable, gregarious and intelligent – but not a scholar. He was well connected, rich, and extremely good company. Yet his defining characteristic, and perhaps his fatal flaw, was that everybody liked him. He never seemed to have alienated anyone; cuckolded husbands included. Because life – women, money, opportunities – came so easy to him, Denys did not really find purpose in life until his forties. And by then – unbeknownst to him – he was almost done.

Finch Hatton stumbled upon Kenya early in life and despite several efforts to change venue, it stuck. He invested in land and other businesses before finding his métier as a white hunter and conservationist. Certainly, twice serving as guide to the Prince of Wales, Denys was a celebrity in his own right. It was a spotlight he was often subjected to. By and large he handled it well. Relationships came and went, but with Tania, Denys struck something new – a deeper melding of souls, one that transcended into a spiritual plane. Yet the tragedy of such love was that it could not last.

Several aspects of this intriguing tale stuck me as especially meritorious. First, the author periodically pulled back from the story of Finch Hatton to reset the world stage. Indeed that stage changed dramatically prior to World War I as Britain experienced a social revolution that marked the demise of the landed aristocracy. World War I itself sealed the transformation of Finch Hatton’s world. Although he participated fully in the war effort; first in East Africa and then in Mesopotamia, Denys (obviously) survived, but virtually every male friend of his youth died in the conflict. What a staggering loss.

The book was well researched and is beautifully written. Although I pride myself on vocabulary, author Wheeler repeatedly came up with words: “prolepic,” “ashlar,” “cyclamen,” “lubricious” and more that I had to look up either for definition or for proper usage. I enjoyed that additional challenge.

Too Close to the Sun is a marvelous read. For aficionados of colonial Kenya, books don’t get any better than this.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obama's Country

Commentary by Bob Gribbin

Kenya is abuzz with Obama. Remember that Kenya declared a national holiday upon receiving news of his election. Obama’s picture is painted on matatus, tee shirts, coffee mugs, and printed on kangas worn by market women. Dozens of newborn babies are now named Obama. Maasai beadwork features his image as well as the stars and stripes from the “O” of campaign posters. Matatus bear the names “Obama Express,” “Fastest Obama.” Senator beers are ordered by asking for an “Obama.” Obama’s books are jumping off the shelves. Indeed on flights in and out, I saw a dozen Kenyans avidly reading his tomes. The airwaves resound to Obama songs. Even Obama numbers have been incorporated into the dance performances by Maasai morans at tourist lodges.

Kenyans see Barrack Obama as one of their own. Many claim him as a “Kenyan” on account of his father’s nationality. Others see him as an “American” with clear Kenyan antecedents. But all agree that he makes them proud; proud to be Kenyan and proud to see in him the realization of dreams; certainly his aspirations, but also theirs. “If Obama can rise to be president of the U.S., then I too can prosper.”

During a recent visit to Kenya, I engaged wanainchi in discussions of then-president elect Obama. Most were delighted to share their views. First, they were uniformly ecstatic for him; that he had made it. A black American elected president – and a Kenyan no less! How the world has changed and how perceptions of the U.S. as a country where racial tensions held back blacks had to be re-thought? It also reaffirmed faith in democracy. Change could come if the people want it.

Secondly, what did this mean for them? By his example Obama proved that dreams could come true – by hard work and application. This inspired everyone to hope that their lives could improve and that their children could aspire to greatness.

Thirdly, what did this mean for Kenya? Most interlocutors assumed that because of his Kenyan roots, ties with America would obviously improve. Already, they had. A wealth of good feelings prevails. Additional hopes ranged from much greater economic aid to a flood of American tourists anxious to see Obama’s rural ancestral home. Kenyans noted that President Kibaki has already promised to improve infrastructure in Nyanza to include better roads, new hotels and upgrading Kisumu airport to international status. One wise observer said that even if no American largess materialized, those sorts of improvements – especially an airport that would allow western Kenya to access world flower, fish and produce markets - would be valuable. Others asked frankly if I thought American tourists would flock to Nyanza. I answered diplomatically that Kenya was wise to market the Obama connection, but that the game parks would remain the tourist draw, with perhaps Nyanza as a side trip. In that regard it was essential that game park infrastructure, especially roads, were restored to a higher standard. (Note: game park roads in, and to and from the Mara are poor).

Several thoughtful discussants verged into the impact of the U.S. election on Kenyan politics. These Kenyans were chagrinned that the U.S. had a Luo president before Kenyan did, but went on to observe that a hard fought election followed by an honest accurate count was a powerful demonstration of democracy at work; especially of the incumbent old guard gracefully giving way to change. This lesson was not lost on Kenyans and would certainly be taken into account during the next election. One man told me that Obama’s election was popular because there were no local consequences. One did not have to look over one’s shoulder when offering political commentary about Obama, Bush or McCain. American politics offered a safe way to obliquely comment on Kenyan developments.

Finally, Kenyans struck a theme that with Obama’s election America’s image in the world would change. They expressed the hope that the U.S. would shed its role as a unilateral actor and instead seek greater cooperation and coordination with the nations of the planet.

In conclusion, Kenyans rejoice in Obama’s elections seeing in it the fruition of many hopes and the conviction that a better world awaits.


Even as Obamamania unrolls apace, Kenya in 2009 is ragged. Traffic is absolutely terrible in Nairobi and Mombasa so much so that many stores and businesses have abandoned the city centers. Everyone it seems has bought a car. Yet crowds mob the sidewalks. Work is underway to bring the last section of the Mombasa highway up to a respectable standard, but even then it will remain a two lane road complete with speed bumps in all the little settlements that have sprung up along the route. Hundreds of slow moving trucks vie for space with cars driving 80 mph or better. On account of traffic it takes 6 or 7 hours to drive the 300 miles. Other roads (Voi-Taveta, Narok-Mara, Nakuru-Mau Summit) have deteriorated into catastrophic rock beds.

Unemployment is high. Both Kenya’s internal political violence of 2008 and the world wide recession are taking a toll on the economy. Tourism has been especially hard hit. Thousands of employees have been laid off because foreign visitors just are not coming. We saw few overseas visitors at the coast where in high season it ought to have been jammed. Similarly for game lodges; they were only about a third full and many of those present were residents taking advantage of cheap rates. Nonetheless the policy both by government and the tourist industry to sock it to outsiders remained in full force. Overseas visitors pay $40 per day just to be in a game park. Lodge rates go at $250-$350 per person whereas residents get the same package for only $100.

To top it all off, last season’s short rains did not materialize thus continuing the longer term drought. Pastures are down to stubble and crops are withering in the fields.

Yet, lest I be too critical, Kenya’s strength resides in her people. They are warm, outgoing, hospitable, articulate and full of life. In spite of their difficulties, Kenyans retain an optimistic outlook. They assume that matters will improve, that the rains will come, that politics will untangle, that jobs will be found and that life will be okay.