Sunday, December 5, 2010

Waiting for the Mango Rains

Following is my review of Waiting for the Mango Rains, by Jon C. White, publisher unknown, available from

First a disclaimer, I knew Jon when he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Central African Republic in the 1970s and I was a junior officer at the U.S. embassy. Obviously, he drew from his experiences in promoting fish culture in writing this novel. Although like all good novels it is set realistically in, in this case, the turbulent history of the CAR during the epoch when megalomaniac president Jean Bedel Bokassa was elevating himself to become emperor, the plot and characters in the novel are, of course, fictional.

The author sets the scene when his protagonist Nick D’Amato accepts a position to go to the Central African Republic to take up responsibilities for USAID as a fisheries extension agent. Nick confronts Africa in all its wooliness. He is scammed at the airport upon arrival and briefly jailed. He is welcomed by a jaundiced American diplomatic community who are caught up in their sybaritic life style. (Even though this portrait adds to the story, as an aside, I cannot help but wondering if Jon really saw us in such a negative light.) While waiting in the capital and organizing his kit, Nick gets glimmers that all is not what it appears to be – with his assignment and within the nation more broadly. Anxious to maintain his power, in addition to the secret police, Bokassa has resorted to intimidation and control of the populace via the dark powers of juju men and mystical marabous. Of course, Nick will encounter such witchcraft.

But first, Nick does move to M’baiki, about 60 miles south of Bangui in the edge of the great Congo basin forest. There he begins the job he was assigned, the rehabilitation of a fish station. Ponds need to be re-built, stocked and extension work begun. (The reader will learn much about the technical aspects of such operations.) Nick gradually becomes involved with the local community – his foreman, a cook, the nearby French priest, market mamas – and along the way he meets a beautiful local lady and falls in love. As he becomes more enmeshed in the community, he becomes estranged and ignored by the few French residents and U.S. embassy personnel. (In short, Nick went “local”.) The plot continues to twist throughout with sinister machinations of the sorcerers. Nick and his family are targeted and risk becoming victimized as the political temperature of the nation heats up. The story builds up nice tension, before an acceptable denouement.

Author Jon White has done a commendable job in realistically describing what life is like in a small African town. He portrays encounters with Central Africans sympathetically, in accurate fashion and from both sides – their puzzlement and misperception of outsiders as well as Nick’s lack of understanding of the forces that motivate them and their lives. Over, time, of course, Nick gains greater insight along with the recognition that he is what he is and can never become what he is not. This is a lesson that most Peace Corps Volunteers learn and appreciate.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Appeasing the Spirits - Across the Cultural Divide in Kenya

Following is a piece I wrote for the Foreign Service Journal, October 2010. I was the U.S. Consul in Mombasa at the time of the event described.

At the consulate in Mombasa, Kenya in the early 1980s part of our regular maintenance on housing involved pumping out the septic tanks. Paul Mwana, my general services expert, arranged to have the city team composed of Digo tribesmen, the only ones who did this work, do the job. Most houses had large tanks for sewage storage that were accessed through a slab in the parking area. The task went well until the team arrived at the house occupied by the Lt. Commander supervising naval construction and his family. Upon recognizing the house, the septic men adamantly refused to proceed. Paul reported back with some dismay, but both of us knew the cause of their refusal.

The house in question was just across the street from mine. It was a pleasant villa on spacious beautifully planted grounds. Yet, a year or so earlier when I was looking for houses to rent in a tight market, it was readily available. It turned out on account of a tragedy.

The house had been owned and occupied by an older Asian couple. Apparently, two killers arrived at the house early one evening. They found only the cook at home, so slashed him with machetes murdering him. They waited and when Madame returned from her bridge game, they killed her. They waited even longer until the man of the house returned towards midnight and they killed him. The killers stuffed at least the first two bodies into the septic tank.

Since the perpetrators of the crimes were obviously not there just to rob the premises (they had ample opportunity to search and sack the house after the first death) it was assumed that the murders were a contract hit. Furthermore, police supposed that motive arose because the old man was allegedly involved in various commercial transactions, some of which were shady deals related to gem stones. (At the time rubies and tsavorite were mined and marketed illegally.) Perhaps some deal went awry or a large sum of money was thought to be available.

One of the killers was later apprehended and confessed to the crime. However, he never implicated whoever might have ordered it done. The case remains unresolved.

The specter of the triple murder kept the house empty before the Navy family arrived and was, of course, the reason for the refusal to pump out the septic tank. Once I learned of the murders and before I signed a lease, I contacted the Navy couple to apprise them of the house’s history. They said to go ahead and rent it. I did and they were quite happy there.

Paul proposed a solution to the septic pumping quandary. He suggested that we employ a Digo traditional medicine man to perform a purification ceremony that would placate the spirits of the dead. He assured me that once properly accomplished; the workers would undertake the task of pumping the tank. I concurred, so he found the right “practitioner” and negotiated a fee for his service, plus a goat and a chicken for sacrifice.

It was an odd ceremony. With the workers in attendance before the open septic tank in the sunlit parking area flanked by blooming red, white and purple hibiscus and bougainvillea, the “doctor” chanted, invoked his authority and called on the spirits to depart. He sacrificed the goat and chicken (later eaten) and sprinkled blood. Once the proper deeds were done, the site purified and the spirits appeased, the tank was subsequently cleaned.

I decided that we could not detail the services performed, or the goat, on the invoice for reimbursement as that would certainly raise eyebrows in the embassy’s financial office, so we called the transaction “special cleansing services.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

History and Hogwash in the Congo

A review of The Great African War – Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996-2006 by Filip Reyntjens, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

It is hard to get a handle on this book. It provides a decent chronology of events – of the wars and the politics in the greater Congo region - during the years it covers. Most all of that information was drawn from the public record. The book is replete with footnotes citing this or that news story, UN papers, NGO treatises or subsequent academic studies. Ergo, the overall thrust of the work is - as noted above - a decent history. However, the interpretation of events, especially the impetus behind them and the motivations of the actors involved, be they governments, political parties or individuals is where the analysis begins to come apart.

Author Belgian academic Filip Reyntjens is well qualified to write this history. He lived in and worked on Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian issues for years. Yet his anti-Rwandan bias jumps out. Throughout he portrays the then-and-current Rwanda Patriotic Movement government as a gang of wily calculating evil persons led by the devil incarnate Paul Kagame. Reyntjens’ exuberance in condemning the regime in Kigali tracks the view espoused in other European academic circles. It has a racist tinge to it along the lines that Africans should not be competent enough to make their own decisions and mistakes. Secondly, an underlying revelation comes in a footnote late in the book wherein Reyntjens admits that from 1995 onwards, he was denied permission to enter Rwanda. I suppose that his lack of impartiality in relating what transpired is his way of getting back.

An even more grievous bias (at least from my point of view) is Reyntjens’ strong anti-American conviction. He accuses the U.S. of masterminding the first part of the 1997-98 war, of providing advice, guidance, intelligence, men and materiel to the RPA/ADFL effort. Simply stated that is hogwash. Reyntjens’ buttressing footnotes cite third and fourth hand sources suggesting that America was behind the anti-Mobutu effort. (Perhaps on account of wishful thinking on the part of sources and Reyntjens collectively. They all seem to love conspiracy theories. ) Even though this assertion is made early on in the chronology of war, there is no follow on proof, or even further allegation. Apparently just as vaporously as the American interest was in directing the conflict, it disappeared; never to have been involved in subsequent issues of refugee massacres, repatriations, maneuvering or king making with regard to internal Congolese politics. Nonetheless, Reyntjens sticks to his thesis blaming America (by supporting Kabila)for “durably destabilizing the entire region.” While I might be open to the proposition that the U.S. by reacting or not to individual events as they unfolded sent signals that played a part in the various outcomes – outcomes that were, of course, unknown before they occurred - but I categorically reject the notion that some carefully calculated long term policy conspiracy was afoot. Interestingly, Reyntjens even quotes two distinguished former Assistant Secretaries of State for African Affairs (Messrs. Cohen and Crocker) to the effect that the U.S. would not be capable of such shenanigans, but he goes ahead anyway and asserts it as fact.

I am further personally offended as Reyntjens’ used out of context quotations from my memoir (In the Aftermath of Genocide: the U.S. Role in Rwanda) to support his thesis, even going to the extent of calling me a “liar” regarding America’s role. How would he know better what the U.S. knew or did? Reyntjens also scoffs at statements made by Assistant Secretary Oakley, USAID administrator Brian Attwood, his deputy Dick McCall and Ambassador for War Crimes David Sheffer. Typical of these sorts of allegations that the U.S. blatantly covered-up misdeeds was one when I attributed the murder of Spanish MSF personnel in Ruhengeri in 1997 to Hutu insurgents. A finding that I have seen no evidence to refute. Reyntjens stated that years later an RPA turncoat (back to Hutu power) said that the RPA did the crime. Also, that version was accepted by a Spanish court in 2008 (a court notorious for seeking to indict RPA personnel for war crimes.) Why not state that a difference of view existed rather than excoriate one conviction?

My animosity aside, let’s get back to the book. Reyntjens imputes a lot of motives to various actors, but does not seem to have any real insight into their internal calculus, especially with regard to the RPM, but also with respect to Kabila himself. Reyntjens repeatedly cited then Vice-President Paul Kagame’s July 1997 interview with the Washington Post as most revealing of motives and intentions (which it was), but other inside scoop is simply missing. Instead the reader is overwhelmed with a narrative buttressed by documents produced by those with an axe to grind - Hutu exiles, human rights groups (such as Amnesty International that among its valid reporting were a series of diatribes actually written by Hutu power advocates) and would- be policy wonks. Reyntjens put his spin on such documents to make his case. For example in one instance, he seized on unattributed sources citing off hand remarks by a Rwandan official to the effect that it had “solved the Zaire problem” as evidence of a policy of hegemony in the region. While there is ample evidence that Rwanda did want to dominate the sub-region in order to protect - and later to enrich – itself, Reyntjens’ use of unqualified footnotes gives the impression that more valid documentation on events actually exists than is the case. In another gratuitous case, he footnoted the “possible” existence of a US plot to assassinate Kablia. What is the agenda here?

I found the most interesting part of the book to be the chapters on Congolese internal politics and conflict in Kivu in the years leading up to the transitional government. This is one of the first detailed accounts of such events, so stands – so far - as a valid chronology.

Again my reservations notwithstanding, this tome has relevance to the history of the Great Lakes region and the long series of conflicts that have troubled it. I would caution readers to note the biases flagged, not to accept Reyntjens as the final word, but to balance their education on this turmoil by seeking out other accounts. Let’s not fall into the trap of history that Napoleon feared when he said that history is a set of lies agreed upon.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Looking for Lovedu

A book review by me of Looking for Lovedu – Days and Nights in Africa by Ann Jones, Alfred A. Knoff, New York, 2001.

The strange title of this travel book is explained early. Lovedu is a small kingdom in what is now South Africa ruled presently and historically by a queen endowed with diplomatic prowess and rainmaking powers. An overland journey from the U.K. to South Africa to seek out this queen is the (somewhat contrived) motivation for the book. The saga traces the route of author Ann Jones and her traveling companions, first young Brit Kelvin Muggleton and later Caro and Celia, who bash across Africa.

The first part of the trip was accomplished by Muggleton and Jones alone across the Sahara, the Sahel, along the west coast and then traversing the Congo basin to Kenya. Anecdotes of being on the road are, of course, the grist of the story with a special focus on the theme of women’s roles and their lack of political or economic power in the societies that the intrepid travelers briefly brushed in their headlong rush southward. The rush too became part of a gender conflict as the story pitted the reflective author who sought to slowly absorb the continent against headstrong Muggleton who, consumed with vehicle tasks, just wanted to get there. This drama played out predictably as the two repeatedly clashed. However, because of their joint commitment to the safari, they had to find ways to stay together, and to move ahead, especially when confronted with enormous mud holes in (then) Zaire.

This partnership lasted only as long as Nairobi. There, after a respite Jones enlisted an Aussie, Caro, and a Kenyan, Celia, to continue with her. Although the gender issue disappeared, philosophical differences of how to travel remained. Nonetheless, the ladies managed to voyage south, ultimately to meet with the mysterious queen. By then author Jones had sorted out her complex feelings about Africa and gender roles on the continent, but she found some solace in achieving her goal.

All things considered this is a pretty standard travelogue. Anecdotes of encounters are sandwiched in among pithy historical sketches of the countries visited. The travelers had many encounters with grasping officials, poor roads, sand in the Sahara and mud in Zaire. Yet they enjoyed warm hospitality in countless villages and missions along the way. Jones blamed western exploitation of Africa – slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and the bad habits Africa’s contemporary elite learned from former masters – for the woeful state of the continent. But throughout she also applauded the virtues of African society – patience, palaver, decorum and social coherence.

Note from reviewer: I read travel-in-Africa books because I too have driven the continent from Cape to Tangiers. The poor roads I experienced in the Congo in 1970 have obviously gotten a bit worse, but the other aspects of travel – brief but sometimes memorable encounters with people – remain the same. On a long journey like this, the trip becomes the thing and experiences mount up. It is, as Jones found out, vital to have convivial companions. Travelers have a marvelous window on Africa, but not the in-depth immersion in culture that time in a specific place allows. Put the two together, and you’ll be wiser for it.

Friday, August 27, 2010


This is a book review of Footsteps, written by Kirsten Johnson, published by Plain View Press, Austin, TX 2009.

RPCV Johnson drew extensively on her early 1980s tour as a Harambee school teacher in the Meru area in writing this novel. A novel it is indeed, but the story revolves around and is clearly designed to illuminate very real issues for African women – girls education, circumcision, early marriage, too many children too fast, loveless marriages, the clash of tradition and modernism, work or stay in the boma, AIDS, wife inheritance, and the list goes on. In fact, it is remarkable that most of these issues are dealt with in the book.

The protagonists are two sisters, Kanini and Gatiria, raised in a traditional homestead on the dry plains east of Mount Kenya. The family has very little interaction with the outside world, but that world progressively creeps in often destroying the harmony (real or imagined) that eons of tradition have established. The first hurdle is that of female circumcision that Kanini reluctantly undergoes. The process, the ceremony, the value and the result are described as the girls ponder the issue and share their views. In this, as in almost everything that follows, Kanini is tradition bound whereas Gatiria is the modern girl/woman who defies her parents and her community on almost every score.

Readers follow the two through subsequent trials and tribulations with their family, husbands, colleagues, community and the wider world beyond. The setting is impeccably drawn, descriptions apt and conversations generally vivid and credible. Johnson indeed captures the mundane reality of hardscrabble life, grinding poverty and the tenacity of rural inhabitants. Her portraits of people and places – a doddering grandmother, co-wives, an autocratic father, their family compounds, ramshackle primary schools, bustling market towns, stupefying matatu rides – are excellent. She delves into the Tharaka/Meru culture and provides solid background for understanding the issues as seen by her Kenyan characters. She credits wisdom when due, but does not disguise ignorance – the conviction, for example, that AIDS was brought to Kenya by American sailors – because, in fact that belief retarded local action in the face of the calamity. Although there is certainly an underlying conviction (even a crusade) on the author’s part that traditions that hold women down ought to be modified, yet she tries to be evenhanded in at least understanding why such practices exist. Without doubt, she pays homage to the value of friendship, especially between women, because ultimately that is the coping mechanism that makes life bearable.

For those who know Kenya and the struggles that Kenyans, especially women, encounter on a regular basis, this book will remind you of the difficulties they face. For those who want to learn more about why Africa sometimes seems mired in the past and only slowly moving forward, this book elucidates some of the reasons.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Airlift to America

Following is my review of Airlift to America – How Barack Obama, Sr., John F. Kennedy, Tom Mboya, and 800 East African Students Changed Their World and Ours by Tom Shachtman, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2009.

There is a lot of history in this book that chronicles the times and story of an irregular, spontaneous, ad hoc, but still carefully organized process that steered hundreds of Kenyans and other East Africans to the United States for college studies. Those students, who included – as the title carefully notes – Barack Obama, Sr. constituted a wave of Africans that swept into a variety of U.S. campuses in the early civil rights era in the U.S. and the pre-independence years of their home nations. These men and women made their marks, both in the U.S. where although befuddled by racist attitudes, they became exemplary scholars and - on predominately white campuses - opened doors for black Americans. Upon returning to Africa, their impact was even greater as they truly became the leaders of their nascent states –politicians, educators, economists, bankers, businessmen and activists of many varieties.

The process was championed by Tom Mboya, a visionary who correctly reckoned that Kenya sorely needed many, many more numerous educated cadres to compliment the few elites who received overseas scholarships from the colonial government. Rather than opt for Soviet entreaties, he chose America. In the late fifties and early sixties, hundreds of Kenyans were applying directly to and being accepted by American colleges and universities, mostly second or third tier institutions including historically black colleges and small Protestant liberal arts schools. Tuition was generally waived and on-campus jobs promised, yet the hurdle of raising a thousand dollars for air fare was daunting. Mboya’s dream was to provide the transportation; hence the airlift. To this end he enlisted American activists including Bill Scheinman, Frank Montero, Cora Weiss and others supported by concerned celebrities Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson and Sydney Portier. With strong support from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and eventually Senator John F. Kennedy, the idea began to bloom.

The organization they created was the African American Students Foundation (AASF) which pulled together some previous individual efforts (Robinson’s for example) into a more coherent whole whereby Mboya and colleagues in Nairobi would select students for the charter flights which AASF would fund. AASF also took on counseling responsibilities for the students once in the U.S. Helping them adjust, providing small sums of spending money, organizing summer jobs, assisting in transfers, etc. AASF also undertook to contact thousands more schools successfully to urge sponsorship of additional African students.

Transportation money was a hurdle for students, but it was also an obstacle for AASF. The big foundations and the Department of State shunned the organization judging it to be too much of a shoestring operation and without “adequate” criteria for student selection. Nonetheless, AASF persevered, politicked and raised what they could for airlifts beginning in 1959. In 1960 in the months before the American political conventions, Tom Mboya met with candidate Senator Kennedy. Mboya convinced him to use over $100,000 of Kennedy family foundation monies to fund the airlift. When word of this leaked out, sensing its political value, Vice President Nixon pressured the recalcitrant State Department also to offer funding, but too late. AASF judged the Kennedy money to be real and State’s offer entangled with strings. After the election airlift funding did shift to the government. However, some of the philosophy of AASF’s student self-motivation principles, its wider diversity and focus on student support services were also incorporated into the State Department program run by mainline foundations and contractors.

If this summary is all this book was about then enough said, but it is much more. It is a well researched primer on the evolution of American political thinking about Africa , about the role of Africa in the 1960 election, about how the airlift angle rebounded much to Kennedy’s credit in energizing black voters, of how this issue led to meetings and dialogue between Kennedy and King and subsequently to educating Kennedy, theretofore not focused, to recognition that progress on civil rights was key to America’s future.

On the Kenyan side, there is reflection on Mboya’s career and his prospects, on how he fit in, or did not, into the emerging Kenyan political scene.

Throughout the book is sprinkled with anecdotes from hundreds of the airlifted students – who they were, where they studied, what they remembered and what they subsequently became or did. Indeed it is a very impressive list that in addition to Obama, includes Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, Kenyan Vice President George Saitoti and dozens of others. There is also an interesting analysis of the impact that African students had on the rather insular communities where they landed. Even as they learned, they taught Americans about the outside world.

I found several small errors of fact. The most surprising in a book of this nature was the statement that Jomo Kenyatta was “educated in the USSR as well as in America.” Although it is technically accurate to say that he studied in the USSR, he was only there for less than a year (1932-1933). Kenyatta attended university and received his degrees in the U.K., where he lived from the early 1930s until after WWII. There is no record of him coming to America until he was President.

This book is recommended reading for Kenyan aficionados.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Rebels' Hour

Following is my review of The Rebels’ Hour by Lieve Joris, Grove Press, NY, 2008.

This novel about the Congo traces the life of a fictional main character, Assani Zikiya, a Munyamulenge, i.e. a Congolese Tutsi, during the very recent turbulent times in the Congo. The device of telling real history via a composite character, rather than an accurate biography of the man on whom Assani is based, permitted the author to humanize the story as well as to provide broader background on the various conflicts and, most importantly, to comment wryly on real events, problems and people. In sum, through this novel a reader can learn contemporary history and gain insight into the brutality and reality of war and politics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Without a father, disowned by uncles, Assani grew up a self-reliant loner herding his cows on the high pastures of South Kivu, an area to which his Rwandan Tutsi ancestors had moved a hundred years earlier. A bright lad, he got some schooling, even moving on to university studies in Butare, Rwanda just after the genocide. There the call came. He was needed to return to Congo, to protect the Banyamulenge people, to combat genocidaires and to join the effort to oust Mobutu. Assani became a soldier. Ascetic by nature, he found his m├ętier. He was a good leader, a strict disciplinarian, and ever conscious of the bigger picture. Through his eyes and exploits readers see and better understand the overlapping circles of violence, hatred, politics, tribalism and ambitions that under grid the catastrophe of the modern Congo.

Because of his competence Assani moved upwards in rank and responsibility. After victory, he joined Mzee Kabila in Kinshasa, but fled when the new president turned against the Tutsi. Assani joined the second rebellion and fought for the rebels in the east. After the peace, he returned to Kinshasa and again was caught up in the roiling uncertainty of politics and corruption. Assani became a hard man, but he retained a conscience. He pondered the morality of the times and was especially repulsed by tribalism, of which he was also a victim. As his story progresses Assani repeatedly has to choose – go along or get out – knowing that either choice could be fatal.

As mentioned above this book in novel form is history with a perspective. I suspect that the author herself is represented by at least one, and probably two, of the women characters to whom Assani confides during the course of his journeys.

Apparently the author Lieve Joris, a Belgian journalist, went to the Congo to be a journalist, but decided that this form of reporting better suited the story she wanted to tell. The result is a powerful book, one of the best on the Congo.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

James Martin - Opening Africa

This is my review of James Martin – Opening Africa: from finding Obama’s tribe to founding Nairobi, written by Philo and M.J. Pullicino, MPI Publishing, Great Britain, 2008.

This is kind of an odd but nonetheless interesting little book. The original manuscript was written some years ago by Philo Pullicino, a Maltese national, who served during the pre-independence and early independence years in the British colonial service in Zanzibar and Uganda. Pullicino went on to a distinguished career as an international civil servant and Maltese diplomat. He wrote this reflection about a fellow Maltese after his retirement. Philo’s manuscript was revised and edited by his son M.J. after his father’s death. Obviously, the references to Obama – including that in the title – were added in order to enhance the attractiveness of the work.

The story related is an intriguing one. It traces the life of James Martin, a Maltese seaman, who landed in Zanzibar in the 1870s. Although illiterate, Martin mastered languages easily and possessed an even-natured temperament. Although not being “pure” European and thus sort of a second class subject, he began to make his mark in East Africa as a caravan organizer. He began trekking with James Thompson in the 1880s and with him opened a new overland route through Maasai, Kikuyu and Kalenjin lands (present day Kenya) to Lake Victoria. It was on this first safari that Thompson and Martin (dubbed Martini by his Swahili porters) encountered Luo tribesmen (Obama’s tribe) near Lake Victoria. Subsequently over the next twenty years, Martin was to organize and lead perhaps a hundred trading and supply safaris to Uganda from the coast. Indeed, he was probably the most experienced man ever in that regard.

Naturally, Martin was employed by the railroad to prepare construction depots as the enterprise moved up country. Reportedly it was Martin who selected the site and built the first camp that became Nairobi. Later Martin signed on with the Imperial British East Africa Company and the colonial service. He was the District Officer at Eldama Ravine for some years; then was posted to Entebbe. After the Great War, in which he served, he found East Africa changed with little place for an illiterate Maltese, no matter how competent. Thus he retired to Portugal, his wife’s home and disappeared from the pages of history.

Author Pullicino, who also served in Entebbe years later, was intrigued by the snippets of tales about his fellow countryman. His investigations resulted in this book. Pullicino, however, was not a critic. He had nothing bad to say about Martin. He found all of his attributes – even tempered, able to deal harmoniously with avaricious tribal chiefs and racist superiors – to be admirable. In fact, Pullicino had little bad to say about anything. He always put an understanding and positive spin on people, circumstances and events. Given the reality of times, that gets to be a bit tedious. Also, Pullicino’s memory of geography is suspect as he moves some tribes (Kikuyu in southern Sudan?), flamingoes (Lake Naivasha?) and towns (Mumias at the base of Mt. Elgon?) around, but I forgive him those lapses. More irritating was the obvious Obama hook that son M.J. added after the fact. Most readers will recognize that for what it is, but if that helped sales, okay.

This book is an easy read and it does educate readers about James Martin, an overlooked, but important figure in the opening of Kenya and Uganda to the wider world.

Dreams in a Time of War

This is my review of Dreams in a Time of War – A Childhood Memoir by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Pantheon Books, NY, 2010

This memoir by Kenya’s most famous author is exactly what it purports to be: a recounting of childhood in Limuru, just outside of Nairobi. Indeed the times – World War II followed by the Mau Mau emergency – were a time of war in Ngugi’s Kikuyu home. The uncertainty of far off, and not so far off, events impacted upon rural society. Matching that were the changes wrought by modernization – the railroad, education, colonialism, religious controversy, wage employment and burgeoning political awareness.

These were the times Ngugi recalls, and who better to do it than him. Kenya’s changes and history as seen through the eyes of a child and adolescent are redolent with innocence and, like all childhoods, a reminiscence for things past. Ngugi tells about this family, his mother Wanjiku, the third wife of his father Thiong’o wa Nducu, his other mothers, the three other wives, his immediate brothers and sisters, plus scads of step siblings, then grandparents, cousins and other relations. All in this constellation had influence on him. He portrays a rich family life, albeit with an erratic patriarchal father.

Folks around Limuru were mostly farmers, although wage laborers worked at the Bata shoe factory and many picked tea on neighboring European plantations. Ngugi’s half brother went off to war. Italian POWs built the escarpment road. The government seized more African land to settle British soldiers. Later, another brother fled to the forest to join Mau Mau. Atrocities, especially colonial over-reactions, mass executions and interrogations terrorized the inhabitants. The inner Kikuyu rift, which divided pro-missionary, pro-government individuals from Kikuyu nationalists, became a life and death equation during the emergency and wreaked havoc on stable society. Throughout, young Ngugi was finding his way, particularly by dedicating himself to school. Determined to be the very best, he modestly tells of his successes. Readers see him grow from a child with a child’s perspective to become more aware of the greater world around him.

I did not know what to expect from this book, but what I found was an excellent history of the times as seen from a very narrow perspective. There is a small bit of a plot line as troubles come and go, but that is an extra bonus to the chronicle. I learned much about traditional Kikuyu life and how rural people lived. Of course, being Ngugi’s work, it is well written and contains thoughtful reflections, pithy observations and good quotations. Speaking of the dichotomy between fact and fiction, despair and hope, Ngugi notes, “Perhaps it is myth as much as fact that keeps dreams alive even in times of war.”

Obviously everyone’s childhood shapes them. Ngugi’s did him. He grew up to be independent, thoughtful and observant, incidentally with material for several good books.

Readers with some knowledge of Kenya will readily relate to events and the society described, but others too will find this an intriguing entry into another time and place. Reading is recommended.

Baking Cakes in Kigali

Book review by me of Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin, Delacorte Press, NY, 2009.

This is a feel-good novel. Politically correct, it won’t offend anyone. Virtues of understanding, tolerance and compassion permeate the story, but still there is a plot inhabited by vivid characters.

The tale is set in contemporary Rwanda. With that as a backdrop part of unfolding the story has to do with post-genocide times – how people remember or not, how they interact or not, and how they get on with their lives, or not. Naturally Rwanda drew outsiders – volunteers, financial experts, professors, development gurus and others – who help to flesh out the community that Parkin creates. At the center of the novel is Angel Tungaraza, a Tanzanian whose husband is a visiting professor at the technical institute. Angel bakes and extravagantly decorates cakes to earn extra money. Thus, in addition to looking after her five orphaned grandchildren, cakes give Angel the opportunity to meet and get to know other characters in the story. She is an extraordinarily generous soul with a gift for drawing people out over a cup of tea. Along the way almost every topic comes under scrutiny: genocide – who are survivors and how do they cope; the roles – helpful , cynical or otherwise of foreigners; cultural differences – white vs. black or Asian, Rwandans vs. other Africans; traditional values contrasted to modern ways; AIDS - face it or hide it; female circumcision, street children, love, women’s rights, marriage…and the list goes on.

It is a gossipy book. There is lots of dialogue, but author Parkin has a good ear for how people really speak, especially Africans who, for example, use the word “late” in place of dead or died. There is a smattering of correct usage of Kinyarwanda, a bit of French and more Swahili. Kigali is authentically portrayed and Rwanda’s leaders vaguely referred to, but the plot focuses on the more mundane, but no less important aspects of life. Cakes are baked for mile-stones: birthdays, christenings, homecomings, engagements, reunions and weddings.

Author Parkin does a remarkable job of cutting to the quick and portraying the issues with perspective, humor and insight. She pokes gentle fun at human foibles. Readers will learn much about contemporary Africans – how they see themselves and how they see us. Ultimately Angel and all her friends come to a better understanding of themselves, each other and the world they inhabit.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Teeth May Smile But The Heart Does Not Forget - Murder and Memory in Uganda

Following is my review of the subject book written by Andrew Rice; published by Henry Holt & Co. New York, 2009.

This complex story uses the death of a prominent Ugandan chief at the hands of Idi Amin’s henchmen in 1972 as a mechanism to explore current Ugandan history along with the larger issue of justice. What is justice and who can obtain it or not and how? Further, why has Uganda seemingly chosen to avoid careful reckoning for atrocities that occurred over the past forty years? The answers are deeply embedded in Ugandan society, in the violence that successively swept across the nation and in the politics of power, then and now.

Journalist Andrew Rice spent several years in Uganda tracking down such issues and interviewing dozens of people at length, including victims, perpetrators, politicians, judges, lawyers, peasants and observers. The result is this extraordinary book that truly delves into the soul of Uganda and reveals passions of tribalism, religion, and politics. Rice holds up a mirror in which Ugandans can see themselves clearly (and certainly uncomfortably), but it is one that allows outsiders too to contemplate issues of guilt, complicity and accountability. It is a wrenching read.

The book investigates the death of Eliphaz Laki, a Munyanokle from Mbarara region who became a chief, i.e. mid-level government official, in the post-independence era. As was/is true of virtually all Ugandans, Laki’s success arose from his own virtues, but was also tied to family, friendship and tribal affiliations. Like many of his brethren Laki became involved in politics. An Anglican he was a supporter of Obote’s UPC, however, as a government official he retained his post following Amin’s 1971 coup d’etat. Things got complicated because Laki became surreptitiously involved with a young firebrand named Yoweri Museveni (today’s president). After Museveni’s aborted attack against the Simba Barracks at Mbarara in 1972, Laki was apparently ratted out. His name went on a list. He was seized from his office taken secretly to a remote ranch and shot. His body disappeared. His fate – a mysterious but certain death – was unfortunately common during the purges and atrocities of Amin’s suzerainty.

Thirty years later, Laki’s son, Duncan, intensified his quest to find his father’s body and to bring his killers to justice. Through a stroke of luck, Duncan was able to identify the actual killers, but that was not enough, he also sought wider truth; from them, but also from their superiors. The trail led to Major Yusuf Gowon, then deputy commander of the Simba Barracks, who later as a general became Amin’s Chief of Staff. But Amin’s northerners knew little about the western region where the complexities – ethnic, religious, party, personal - of Banyankole machinations defied outside comprehension. Who betrayed Laki to Amin’s regime and why?

Author Rice did a very successful job of rummaging through the history and the memories of Uganda’s last forty years. He ably recounted the reality including the climate of terror and suspicion as well as other events that marked Amin’s misrule, but he also understood the paradigm of impunity and spoils for the victors. As an outsider Rice was not automatically prejudiced to one perspective over another and he did present alternative views. Although there ultimately was a murder trial and truth was revealed, the law took its stubborn course against the backdrop of contemporary politics. Results were inconclusive both about the murder itself and also on the wider issue of justice. What is it and who is entitled to it? What does Uganda do next?

The title “The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does not Forget” is a Kinyankole proverb whose meaning is obvious, but which assumes a greater significance when viewed against the layered strata of truth, untruth, reconciliation, hatred and justice in today’s Uganda.

On a personal note, I found this book as interesting as any I have read lately. Certainly those who know something about Uganda will find it fascinating as well. However, even readers without such background will get caught up in the superbly written, well paced story and will emerge with a better understanding of Uganda and of broader issues of morality and justice in today’s confusing world.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Poverty and Promise

This is a book review of Poverty and Promise: One Volunteer’s Experience of Kenya, written by Cindi Brown, published by Just One Voice, Surprise, AZ, 2008.

This is a heartfelt memoir of Cindi’s eight months as a volunteer assigned to the Tropical Institute of Community Health and Development (TICH) in Kisumu, Kenya. Kenya truly was an eye opener for Ms. Brown. In mid-life she left a comfortable regime at home and signed on with Volunteers in Service Overseas (I was not aware that the organization took non-U.K. citizens) for a two year stint in Kenya. She was assigned as a communications, public relations specialist to TICH, an indigenous organization that is achieving great success in bringing better health to communities in western Kenya through grassroots education and organization of health workers. Throughout the book, Ms. Brown mostly lauded, rarely criticized the institute and its personnel. Yet she found plenty of issues to write about, especially cultural differences such as how meetings were organized and conducted (beginning with prayer), a narrow focus on tasks, burdensome bureaucracy, and even in a relatively well functioning school, lack of daily urgency.

However, it was chiefly outside the institute that Ms. Brown found Africa. Kisumu was a bustling, teeming city where a mzungu lady walking around drew attention – some friendly and curious, other intimidating and threatening. Glue sniffing street children, bodacious booda booda (bicycle taxi) drivers, and those believing that she could/would solve their problems constantly called to her, sought attention, money or advice. Early on Cindi met and befriended Walter, less of a conman than most, whose heart was in the right place, i.e. trying to alleviate the plight of abandoned children. With him, Tonny and staffers from TICH, Cindi went into to slums and the rural areas to see and experience first hand the terrible poverty – no water or sanitation, plenty of disease, inadequate shelter, lack of clothing, no schooling, etc. – that was the plight of the poor. She attended funerals of those who died of AIDS and witnessed the horror that malady has visited upon Kenyans.

In a rather odd inclusion in the book, Ms. Brown detailed health ravages of a half dozen stricken individuals she visited in the Provincial (Russian) Hospital. They were all in various stages of dying from mostly preventable diseases or wounds that if properly treated early on would have posed few problems. I suppose the purpose of this section was to convince the reader that much of the issue of poverty related to the inability of a developing society to provide basic services to its citizens.

In contrast to the darker side of poverty, Ms. Brown found promise in the optimism of the people, their steadfastness and their faith. She viewed the work of TICH as enabling communities through grass roots training to conquer their own problems as well as its secondary mission of training community activists at the university level and above.

Juxtaposed amidst the daily grind of Kisumu, Ms. Brown added travelogue vignettes: one of a trip to Goma, Congo (which she found to be terribly corrupt and dangerous) for a graduation ceremony for a group of students from TICH; another chapter told of a coastal sojourn as a budget traveler in Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu and Zanzibar.

On a personal side Ms. Brown wore her feelings on her sleeve. She wrote candidly about what she saw and felt. She felt exposed and vulnerable as an outsider in Kisumu, but found some solace with new friends and especially with her Sikh landlady, a woman who also felt alone in the sea of Luo humanity. Finally, a mugging brought all these insecurities to fruition convincing Cindi to leave. Later by writing the book and dedicating the proceeds to TICH, she assuaged the guilt incurred by not completing her two year stint.

Volunteers who experienced many similar cultural encounters and those who know Kisumu will find that this book resonates strongly, but others too who understand poverty and are looking for ways to conquer it will find the book interesting.

Poverty and Promise reads a bit like the diaries and letters it was drawn from, but that was expected. Spellings of some Swahili and Luo words (askari and erokamano) are wrong, but Arizona editors were probably not conversant in those languages.

I Remember a Gift

Following is an expanded version of this vingette, an earlier copy of which was posted on this site a couple of years ago. This version was published in the January 2010 edition of the Foreign Service Journal.

I remember a gift. In 1986 as deputy director in the Office of East African Affairs. I was making a tour of U.S. embassies in the parish. 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. That conflict had been compounded by drought and famine. 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.

A dusty, hot half-day’s drive from the capital, 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. We wove in and out little lanes between the stick huts. 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. It had little more than a blackboard, but children sat in rapt attention as their teacher lectured, then they recited back. Outside the small clinic the day’s clients – pregnant women, wailing babies and those worn with the ills of the region - waited patiently. Inside, several refugee nurses dispensed what care they could. They proudly proclaimed that childhood immunizations were up to date. Flies buzzed incessantly.

Elders bemoaned their plight: their suffering from war and famine, their flight from their homes, especially their loss of goats and camels. They noted youths were bored in the nothingness of the camp and all were stymied by the inability to look ahead. They were compelled to live day-by-day. Of course, they asked for America’s help, especially in rectifying conditions in Ethiopia so that they might be able to go home.

However, the camp committee was most anxious that I see their newly acquired well, water pump – provided by a grant from the U.S. government - 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 on the slope of the valley in a region where not a single blade of vegetation was 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.