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.