Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Monsters Indeed

Following is a review of a new and useful book about the Congo.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters – The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa

by Jason K. Stearns, Public Affairs, NY, 2011

This intriguing book lives up to its odd title. Stearns writes a journalistic history of recent events in the Congo via the mechanism of personal interviews with people who played a role in, or observed, the events that transpired. Given that many such people wanted (or needed) to cover their tracks, the honesty of the revelations is astonishing.

Stearns’ thesis is that to effect any change in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one must first understand the dynamics of the morass.The narrative is not necessarily chronological, but rather follows individuals and their impact. He starts with the spill-over of the Rwandan genocide into the Congo with the influx of Hutu refugees fleeing the takeover by the Rwandan Patriotic Army. This leads into an excellent discussion of the historical presence of Kinyarwanda speaking peoples (both Hutu and Tutsi) in Congo – the 19th century Banyamulenge migrants, the early 20th century importation of agricultural laborers, concomitant spontaneous movements of farmers and pastoralists out of crowded Rwanda and finally the presence of an educated Tutsi elite claiming refuge in Kivu cities.

Having set the stage for ethnic violence both between Hutu and Tutsi, but just as importantly between Rwandans writ large and Congolese ethnic groups, Stearns proceeds to lay out the animosities and machinations that under gird conflict that has encompassed the eastern region for years. Clearly, however, it was the new Tutsi government in Kigali’s effort to eliminate the genocidaire threat and to force the return of a million refugees that inflamed Kivu and sent the DRC into the vortex of war. Stearns studies the war, the massacres, the abuses, and the changing objectives through the eyes of participants – rebel commanders, Zairian/Congolese politicians, ADFL leaders, Rwandan string pullers, as well as victims.

The book then tracks in detail Laurent Kabila’s presidency and his turn away from his Rwandan and Ugandan sponsors, and then the second war. Kabila’s undoing was certainly due in part to his own idiosyncrasies –that are well described by some from his inner circle- but also due to his inheritance from Mobutu of a completely chaotic state and political system. Stearns notes, “This has left a bitter Congolese paradox: a state that is everywhere and oppressive but that is defunct and dysfunctional.”

Indeed Stearns’ insight into the corruption and the inner non-workings of both the Mobutu and Kabila regimes helps explain the mess. Also useful are chapters on the quest – by almost everyone – to profit from the DRC’s mineral resources.

The book moves on then to study more recent contenders, current president Joseph Kabila who succeeded his father and those who contested against him: Jean Pierre Bemba, who has roots in the Mobutu regime and the newer set of RDC rebel leaders in Kivu. Again the reader is provided with solid commentary about how these men operated.

I thought the passages that revealed the character, history and assassination of Laurent Kabila to be especially interesting. Although certainly a troglodyte, it is his legacy that the Congo now wrestles with as efforts continue to restore stability to Kivu. Despite a thorough investigation into the problems, the bottom line question of “Can the Congo emerge from morass?” remains unanswered. The nation has no unselfish visionary leadership. Thus, ethnic animosity and violence continues to plague the east, resources are exploited for personal gain and conniving politicians strive to demean each other in an eternal quest for power.

This is an excellent study of contemporary Congo. Additionally, it is an easy read. Truly, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. The Congo has been stuck doing that for decades.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo - 50 year of amazing Peace Corps stories

Following is my review of One Hand Does Not Catch A Buffalo – 50 years of amazing Peace Corps stories, edited by Aaron Barlow, Travelers’ Tales, Solas House, Inc., Palo Alto

Just in time for the Peace Corps fiftieth anniversary, a superb collection of anecdotes, reminisces, recollections and heartfelt stories of the Peace Corps experience in Africa. Sixty former volunteers (disclaimer - myself included) contributed essays about their memories of Africa to this book. We write about how we got there: waiting on the letter, odd training in preparation, struggling with language; our motivations: escape from home, exploring the bigger world, draft dodging, saving the world, adventure; what we did: teaching, engineering, agricultural extension, health work, community development, very little; the memorable people we met: chiefs and elders, strong village women, inquisitive friendly children, colleagues and friends made. The book details lots of our confusing and enlightening cross cultural encounters beginning with the fact of being a stranger in a strange land bereft of the anchors of American civilization, yet ever willing to try, test and learn about our new surroundings. Perhaps understandably there are several anecdotes focused on gastronomical distress, even more detailing the travails of local transportation and a couple dealing with snakes, lions and elephants.

Undeniably PCVs encountered a different and, for most - at least in retrospect, a magical place where time was often suspended, even as those societies were marching inevitably forward into the modern world. We were part of that process. We saw contrasts and understood changes, yet the resilience of the cultures we were immersed in and their embedded values, made change wrenching. The poverty of Africa overwhelmed us, but the optimistic spirit of its people and our shared humanity heartened us. They shared their hope for a better future and we could only trust that their expectations would bear fruit.

Despite the opportunity, this collection is not a self pat on the back about jobs well done. In fact, there is very little in it about the work accomplished. It is not about the “how,” but about “who.” Furthermore it is not about our impact on them, but of theirs on us. We all came away changed.

I never could figure out where the intriguing title of the book came from, but this is the first of several volumes in this anniversary year organized on a geographical basis, i.e. volumes on Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe will follow.
Anyone who served in Africa as a PCV will immediately embrace these essays. Although each one is unique, collectively they represent our experience. Buy it, settle down and relive your past!

Also let me call attention to www.americandiplomacy.org . Look in the index for essays on “how the peace corps experience changed me.” Several dozen folks (again me included) write on this topic. I would be willing to flag other such sites, so if you know of one, please let me know.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Impact of the Peace Corps on me

Following is a piece I wrote for Americandiplomacy.org on the impact of the Peace Corps upon the occasion of the Peace Corps' 50th anniversary. I was a volunteer in Kenya from 1968-70.

I grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, then matriculated at the University of the South, a small liberal arts college, in Sewanee, Tennessee. Life in the south was comfortable, but in those years the region was struggling with racial issues. I yearned to see a bigger world beyond, meet a different set of people, find out more about myself and my role in life. One summer I signed on to a church work camp in Tanzania. That experience convinced me to apply to the Peace Corps. Although I truly wanted to go, I also thought that an African experience would be preferable to a Vietnam sojourn. So when my colleagues went into the military or home to run the family business, I flew to Bismarck, North Dakota for Swahili training. Immediately my world changed - not only with immersion in an exotic language, but also surrounded by fellow trainees from diverse backgrounds. We shared idealism and a disdain for conventionalism, but were apprehensive about what the next years in Kenya would bring. Two months later, with more than a smattering of Swahili under our belts and growing confidence in our technical expertise, off we went.

I had passed through Nairobi two years earlier so it did not surprise me, but the beauty of Kenya did have an impact – sweeping vistas, huge lakes, hulking mountains, verdant rangeland and millions of small farms. The people too, as I would soon come to know, provided that new window on the world. It was true that the world of rural Kenya was indeed smaller than that of mine at home. But contrasts were striking. How people approached family, work, education, time, responsibilities and religion differed. And as I began to understand their values, I also understood mine better too. We volunteers have hundreds of cross-cultural stories about communications that went awry or that struck a solid note of shared humanity. For example, one of my counterparts came to me in tears of grief to report his mother had died and that he had to return home (with a loan- read gift). I sympathized and complied. Two months later: more grief and “my mother has died” (and the need for another loan). I asked about his previously dead mother. He assured me that mother was my “father’s other wife, this was the mother who bore me.” So in sadness, I learned about Luo family relationships.

My assignment was to build a rural water system that would provide clean piped water to 1500 small farms. We built a dam, a head works and laid a hundred miles of pipe to communal watering points. Nothing was as exhilarating as to hear the water rushing into the tanks. I am proud to say that the system functions well today – forty years later. It’s impact on health and education of girls (who previously had to fetch water, but after piped water could go to school) was immense. It was the type of grassroots development that works.

My two years in Kenya changed me. I matured, I became more tolerant, more understanding that differences provided opportunities. I developed management and leadership skills and became committed to economic and social change in Africa. Also, I met a Peace Corps teacher that I later married. At the end of my service, however, I still had the travel bug – so three colleagues and I bought an old Land Rover and drove to England. Ultimately, I went to graduate school in international affairs, joined the Foreign Service and spent the next forty years working in Africa or on African issues in Washington. I credit my Peace Corps time as the inspiration for my vocation.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tracing Obama's Roots

Folloing is my reivew of The Obamas – An Untold Story of an African Family by Peter Firstbrook, Crown Publishers, NY, 2010.

Despite the obvious intent to capitalize on President Obama’s fame, this is an extraordinary book that weaves together three strands of history: the saga of the Luo tribe’s culture and history detailing their centuries old movement from origins along the Nile River into present day western Kenya, the history of contemporary Kenya from the mid-19th century to date, and the family lore and recollections of Obama’s relatives and forbearers. Combined these themes tell a captivating story – a story that sheds light on Kenya and Luo relationships, both within the Luo community and vis-a-vis the European or Kikuyu power structure, as well as on Obama’s family.

The Luo chronicle is intriguing and traced back 800 years to origins along the Nile in today’s southern Sudan. From there the ancestors of the group that would evolve into today’s Luo tribe moved southward, establishing settlements near Pakwach in Uganda just north of Lake Albert. Both pushed by those behind and pulled by open territory ahead, over generations the Luo moved eastward across Uganda finally arriving in Kenya about 1550. A leader named Ramogi Ajwang settled a hill top named Got Ramogi near Lake Victoria in western Kenya. Several clans of Luos, including Obama’s line, date their arrival in Kenya from this epoch. Obama’s 10th great grandfather Owiny was among them. Subsequent generations include Onyango Mobam, a man born with a curved back, from whom the name Obama is thought to have originated.

Interwoven with the genealogy and oral history of the past are descriptions of Luo traditions and culture. Luo deemed themselves to be warriors of repute and competent hunters. But in addition to hunting and fishing they also kept cattle and farmed. Luo were polygamous, so keeping track of one’s place in the family could be confusing. Where one lived in a compound was based on gender and seniority. Men lived alone and wives in order separately in progressively smaller houses. Daily tasks were apportioned among boys and girls, adolescents and adults in time honored fashion. Six front teeth of men were knocked out as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Marriage protocols were strict and funerals a source of solace and celebration. Social life revolved around interactions with family and friends.

About this time in the book, the author begins interspersing Kenyan history as seen from the Luo and African perspective. Explorers trudged through the region first. They were followed in the late 19th century by a series of terrible calamities – drought and pestilence, both human and animal, destroyed the economy and killed tens of thousands of people. White men showed up again, this time to stay. First they came building the railroad to Kisumu. Government administrators and tax collectors followed. Missionaries also spread out through Nyanza, preaching the gospel and starting schools. The modern world began to interfere with the traditional one. Accommodations had to be made and the melded current culture began to emerge. Christianity, for example, took root. In the early 20th century Luo men were conscripted into the carrier corps to support the World War I effort in East Africa. They came home changed men, but found few new opportunities. That cycle repeated itself in World War II, but this time winds of change were blowing stronger. Mau Mau, which did not impact much on Luoland, erupted and the evolution towards independence, which did involve Luos, energized an emerging African political class. Subsequently, their divisions – essentially the tribal gulf between Kikuyu and Luo – would constitute the framework for the trials and tribulations of Obama, Sr.

The strand of Obama’s ancestors picks up with more detail with his 3rd great grandfather Opiyo who left the theretofore family homestead at K’ogelo in Alego for Kendu Bay on the south side of Winam Gulf. There a son born in 1864 was named Obama. In time Obama’s son Hussein Onyango (the President’s grandfather ) was born in 1895. He was a rebel, a proud man of strong and strict character. He defied his family and adopted European ways, education and clothing, but he also defied European culture by rejecting Christianity and converting to Islam. He was outspoken, so ran afoul of traditional elders. He led an eventful life, participated in two world wars, became a cook for Europeans and therefore part of the moneyed African class. He was a stickler for cleanliness and orderliness. Ultimately, apparently unfairly accused of anti-government plotting during the Mau Mau emergency he was imprisoned and broken by torture. He had at least five wives. His son Barack Obama, Sr. was born to his third wife Habiba Akuma in 1936. However, she and he quarreled and separated, so Onyango’s fifth wife Sarah (still alive) raised Barack Sr. and his sisters.

Obama Sr. too was a rebel. He was arrogant and intellectual. He disdained most around him as inferior. His big mouth and later penchant for booze would be his undoing time after time. A brilliant student he managed to wrangle a scholarship to America, to the University of Hawaii. Although already married back in Kenya, in Hawaii Obama courted and married Stanley Ann Dunham. Their child Barack, Jr. was born on August 4, 1961. Barack Sr., however, was admitted to Harvard for graduate school and left this family behind. Even though he may have visited them once or twice from Boston, the only real record of his return to Hawaii was in 1971 when Barack Jr. was ten years old. By that time Ann had divorced him.

Barack Sr. returned to Kenya (with a second American wife Ruth Nidesand) and found a job with the Central Bank. As one of the new elite, he was well plugged in to burgeoning politics and the developing patronage system. He seemed to have it made. He linked up with fellow Luo Tom Mboya and other young intellectuals. Sadly, in 1969 Barack encountered his friend Mboya on the street just moments before the latter was shot. Subsequently, without his patron, Obama’s loose talk and criticism of superiors, especially when drunk, resulted in his dismissal from the bank. He held other positions, but the end was usually another termination. Yet, his friends found Obama to be charming, loyal and engaging, even as they recognized his dark side. A notoriously poor driver, coming home from a bar in 1982 Obama veered off the road and hit a tree. He was declared dead at the scene. There was no autopsy and many continue to believe that he was a victim of Kikuyu machinations as were Luo leaders Mboya and Argwings-Kodhek before him (and Ouko afterwards).

Except for dozens of references to him, Barack Obama Jr. does not play much of a role in this book. His three visits to Kenya (the first in 1985 and two subsequently as senator) are described, as is his almost god like stature in the eyes of Kenyans, Luos especially. Author Firstbrook notes that almost every child born in Luoland in January 2009 was named Barack or Michelle – a fact that will cause no little confusion when those kids reach primary school.

In summary, I found this book to be an excellent read. It puts a lot of history and lore into perspective. For those who know Kenya, especially Nyanza Province (I served there as a PCV in the late 60s) it is doubly fascinating as it helps explain or reinforce knowledge of what was going on around us.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

God Sleeps in Rwanda

Folloing is my review of God Sleeps in Rwanda , a memoir by Joseph Sebarenzi

Joseph Sebarenzi’s memoir of growing up in Rwanda, fleeing to Zaire for schooling, going back to Rwanda , but fleeing again as the situation heated up, and finally returning again after the genocide and entering politics is an engrossing tale of one man’s life. As a Tutsi he and his family felt threatened and were periodically by Hutu hardliners. Although bright, Joseph ran afoul of schooling quotas that prevented Tutsi children from higher schooling. Thus he was sent to distant relatives across the border on Idjwi Island in Zaire. There too he was not only a minority, but a foreigner to boot. He perseverd and got his education, got married, settled in Kigali, but fled again after the RPA invasion in 1990 when resident Tutsi were harassed and intimidated by the government for supposed allegiance to the invaders.

Sebarenzi was not in Rwanda during the genocide. Nonetheless, he recounts the horror of it, knowing full well that dozens of his family and friends were being killed. He returned afterward to find his worst fears realized. Employed by USAID Sebarenzi recounts meeting the mayor of his commune, the man who had led the genocide in his home area, in a prison. Despite knowing this individual was complicit in his family’s deaths, they acknowledged each other and Joseph gave him some money, “for food”. Thus begin themes of understanding, grappling with forgiveness and reconciliation.

Encouraged by fellow Tutsi survivors, Joseph agreed to enter Parliament under the Liberal Party aegis. There through an initially unfathomably series of events – most having to do with machinations by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Movement government intent to put a na├»ve, compliant MP from an ineffectual party in the speaker’s chair , he emerged as speaker of the house. The book chronicles Sebarenzi’s growth in the job: his conviction that Parliament ought to be a co-equal partner in government with the executive and his efforts to assert Parliamentary authority. Sebarenzi recounts efforts to communicate with President Bizimungu and Vice-President Paul Kagame and airs frustration with the ensuing futility. Ultimately he found himself hemmed in by Kagame and those around him who dealt surreptitiously with opposition such as that which Sebarenzi posed. Fearing for his life, Sebarenzi fled again through Uganda to the U.S.

Speaker Sebarenzi‘s last chapter deals with forgiveness and reconciliation; the need for acknowledgement, apology, restorative justice, empathy, reparation and forgiveness in dealing with the past, but also for openness, accountability and democracy for dealing with the present and for laying the new foundation for a society that would ensure that history does not repeat itself.
Sebarenzi’s story of growing up Tutsi in Rwanda, his experiences and losses during the genocide, is one of many, but no less interesting because of that. His memoir is unique on account of his subsequent service as speaker and the obstacles he encountered there. It is a cautionary tale, genocide is over, and the new disposition is firm on ensuring that it not reoccur, but the authoritarianism, division and exclusion the current government pursues risks, in fact, a return to volatility and unrest that will simmer for years to come.

Kudos for Dikembe Mutombo

Following is a speech I gave at the January 25, 2011 awards banquet of Athletes for a Better World. That organization honored Dikembe Mutombo with the Wooden Cup for his humanitarian work, especially the hospital he built, in his home country of the Congo.

Good Evening, Bon Soir, Hamjambo, Mbote

I have just greeted you in four of Africa’s thousands of languages. The Africa that Dikembe Mutombo represents is diverse. There are thousands of languages, thousands of vibrant cultures, thousands of different traditions scattered across the vast continent. The variety of differences and the contrasts are astounding. Some nomadic pastoralists herd cattle, camels and goats as they have done for centuries, many millions of Africans subsist on the production of their small farms, but others grow cash crops like coffee, tea or cocoa and sell it to the world’s market. Many more millions now live in cities where they eek a living from road side stands or the lucky ones have wage employment in the modern sector. Roughly speaking about half of Africans are Muslim and the other half Christian. Yet where ever Africans are, or however they worship, Africans retain profound links to their families and communities.

Values, such as those that undergird Athletes for A Better World, are indeed universal. Thus, Americans and Africans have many values in common, but how we emphasize them may differ.

Africans place a special value on family. In America we think of our families as Mom and Dad and the kids. We have grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins some of whom perhaps we rarely see. So our universe of relatives – especially those we interact with frequently – is fairly small. In contrast African families are huge. Mom and Dad usually have about seven or eight children and there may be another eight or more step- brothers and sisters. Children are celebrated. In the Central African Republic, for example, on the national day when awards are handed out to politicians, diplomats and generals, one of the most celebrated distinctions is that of “mama decoree” given to mothers who have successfully raised at least eight children to adulthood.

Usually an African family lives in a village and since large families have been present for generations in the same place, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of nearby kin. Family members look out for each other. No one lacks for advice, or shelter or food or help when needed with crops or cattle. These days when more and more children go to primary school, families rally to provide school fees, especially for those who go on to high school and beyond.

Africans respect their elders, folks who have gained experience by living out their lives. Their status is high and their wisdom applauded.

Being in a family entails obligations. Just as American kids have – or should have – some regular chores, Africans kids do too. Boys look after the cows or goats, girls fetch water and mind younger siblings. There are many other tasks. Living in a family where everyone has to contribute enstills a strong sense of responsibility to others. And as a child’s horizons expand to the larger community around him, this sense of responsibility also expands.

It is a two way street. The family and community expects a continued sense of involvement and support from those individuals it has nurtured and who have gone on to bigger things. They become role models not just for family, but for their community and in Mutombo’s case for an entire nation, if not a continent, of youths. In turn individuals who have registered success in life, also feel the obligation to give back. This completes the circle of strong family and community values.

We see clearly that Dikembe Mutombo has given back and that he plans to continue to do so.

Most governments in Africa, including that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have not provided sufficient or adequate medical services to their peoples. Continent wide – infant mortality is high, life expectancy is low. Prenatal care is non-existent and mothers and infants suffer accordingly. Poor sanitation, contaminated water, and malnutrition compound all maladies. Children succumb to diseases like measles, malaria and dysentery. Tuberculosis, pneumonia and now AIDS afflict older folks. In many areas it is not that the population is underserved by modern medical establishments, it is simply that they are not served at all. Thus, wherever a church mission, an individual or a private foundation steps forward to fill the void, the impact on the community is miraculous. All of a sudden there is care, medicine, and expertise.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the political class, that is the men and today a few women, who have risen to power and status are often referred to as “big men.” It’s a phenomen not unique to the Congo, after their election to Parliament my Kenyan and Ugandan friends would pat their big bellies and proudly state, “I am eating.”

Although the term “big men” has some derogatory meaning embedded in it – just as our term for political “fat cats” does, it does reflect the reality that these individuals do have the opportunity to improve life in their communities. Of course, many have done that.

Mutombo at 7 feet 2 inches is obviously a big man physically, but he has a big heart too. And he arrives on the scene as a big man without derogatory inferences. His giving is from the heart, his giving is in accordance with the values of family and community that are intrinsic to him.

It is entirely proper that a values oriented organization like Athletes for a Better World honor Dikembe MuTOMbo’s contribution and engagement in seeking to make a better world.

Thank you.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Clouds Beneath the Sun - a book review

This is my review of The Clouds Beneath the Sun, by Mackenzie Ford, Doubleday, NY, 2009.

This novel is set in Kenya in 1961. Although fiction, the author clearly draws upon the famous Leaky family for inspiration. The fictional Deacons are all noted paleontologists . Philandering patriarch Jock is recently dead, but wife Eleanor carries on afterward and runs the dig in the Kihara Gorge (read Olduvai) with an iron fist. One son, Jack flies his own plane and is involved in the politics of the emerging nation. Another son, Christopher, as well as other characters filter in and out of the story.

The plot circles around a beautiful newly minted PhD, Natalie Nelson, who, carrying quite a bit of her own emotional baggage, joins the excavation. She witnesses events surrounding the murder of a colleague and is subsequently drawn into a twisting drama as she decides whether or not to testify. Because the alleged murder is Maasai, in whose territory the Kihara Gorge lies, in testifying she might put the whole excavation site and its valuable finds at great risk. The story is compounded by a love interest and fraught with jealousies – both personal and professional.

I found a great number of nits to pick in this otherwise fairly well paced novel. First the author sets the book in 1961, well before independence, but then goes on to mention on several occasions contact with the American or Dutch embassies or the British High Commission. Flatly put there were no such diplomatic establishments prior to independence.

Secondly animals; the author cites listening to the chimpanzees in the middle of the Serengeti (none live there), the snorts of “water” buffalo (Africa’s buffaloes are cape buffalo), lions mating in groups (doubtful, I have only seen them in pairs), and a preposterous scene wherein Europeans try to save wildebeests who are crossing the Mara river in the thousands by lassoing them and hauling them back to shore (unbelievable).

Thirdly airports; the author asserts that Kilimanjaro is the closest airport (except it did not exist in 1961). He also uses Nairobi International (really known then as Embakasi) as the strip from which Jack flies. Private aircraft on internal flights would have come and gone from Wilson Airport. The author also alludes to a number of private jets parked at Nairobi International . It turned out later that he needed this fiction for the plot, but it is doubtful if there were really such aircraft around in 1961 – remember, it was just the beginning of the jet age for commercial aircraft.

I could go on, but will conclude by commenting on the beautiful photograph on the jacket of the book. It is one of a couple sitting in camp chairs with the majesty of Kilimanjaro behind them. Wonderful, except for the fact that unless it is printed backwards, the picture was taken from Tanzania. Kibo peak is on the left and Mwenzi on the right. You cannot get that perspective from the Kenyan side.

Enough already! Despite my fault finding (I enjoyed looking for them), the book was okay. I do not especially like romances and there was certainly a lot of breast heaving introspection in this one, but there was enough of a Kenyan setting, a murder mystery, trial shenanigans and links to politics to keep my attention. I did not like the ending.