Saturday, September 8, 2012

Serpentine Diplomacy

Serpentine Diplomacy
By Robert Gribbin
Following is a piece that I wrote which was published in the September 2012 edition of the Foreign Service Journal.  I spent most of my diplomatic career in Africa, including two tours in the Central African Republic - first as a junior officer (1874-76) and later as ambassador (1992-95). I wrote an adventure novel set in the CAR entitled State of Decay - An Oubangui Chronicle. It is available from on line bookstores and the publisher

In 1993 while I was ambassador in the Central African Republic, the citizens participated in the nation’s first (and so far only) free and fair election.   Four of the fifteen candidates, including the incumbent, Andre Kolingba, led the pack.  
 The French and German ambassadors, the EU delegate, the UN resident representative and I formed a donor committee that coordinated our collective financial input and strove to preach the virtues of democracy.  The United States brought only a little money to the table, but our influence as a bulwark of democracy was impressive nonetheless.
 The campaign grew hot with slings and arrows from all camps. Much of the politicking broke out along tribal lines, and rallies, broadsides and sound trucks sought to win over voters.
 At one time or another each candidate sat on my couch and asked for America’s blessing.  I applauded their patriotism, willingness to engage and reiterated the U.S. commitment to an open process, but promised nothing concrete.  Nonetheless, when each spoke to the press upon exiting the embassy, he implied a warm endorsement.
The campaign was a festive experience, not in the least because the citizenry finally awoke to the fact that they had a say. Only late in the process did the president’s inner circle realize that he was not very popular and would probably lose.  So they began to plot disruptions.
As was my habit in this season,  I took breakfast on the terrace of the residence one day during the last phase of electioneering.  The morning was fresh, bright and clear, but held the promise of another hot and humid day. 

Looking up into the large sweet smelling frangi pangi tree that overhung part of the terrace, I spied a big, long black snake intertwined among the blossoms.  I grabbed my croissant and coffee and quickly retreated behind the sliding glass door into the house. 

When I summoned the house staff, they chattered excitedly and went to inform the gardeners.  I had to go to the chancery so left the issue in their hands. 

I arrived home for lunch to find that the staff, including the day guards, had laid out on the terrace for my inspection an eight foot long black mamba – one of Africa’s most aggressive and deadliest snakes.  I heard recitations of the battle with the beast and the bravado of the victors.

I congratulated them profusely for their bravery and prowess in keeping us safe.  Indeed, no one could have rested easy unless the snake was dealt with in this fashion.    

By late afternoon a story was circulating widely in the city to the effect that President Kolingba, angry with the U.S. ambassador’s advocacy of free elections and seeing his own impending exit, had used his black magic to send a mamba to kill the ambassador.  The snake had snuck into the garden that morning and had laid in wait to strike.
 However, the ambassador’s magic proved to be stronger. He had sensed the evil presence and had defeated the snake. Thus, as a consequence, the elections would go forward as planned and President Kolingba would lose.
One week later, that’s exactly what happened.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Civilized World – a novel in stories by Susi Wyss,  Henry Holt and Company, New York,  2011

I am pleased to review this fine novel by Susi Wyss, certainly in part because she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Central African Republic. Returned volunteers like Ms. Wyss have gone on to make significant contributions to economic development and world peace through their professional lives, but some, again like Ms. Wyss, also do so by writing so that a much wider audience can better understand Africa and our common humanity.

As the sub-title indicates this book is built on a series of stand-alone stories, but tales that eventually coalesce into a whole.   It is an interesting construct for a novel, but one – at least in this case – that works quite satisfactorily.   Characters are introduced and wind their way through their first narrative only to resurface in another fashion in a later story.  The reader’s anticipation is piqued by each story, curious to see how the web will fit together.

Although there is a plot of redemption and forgiveness that comes to fruition in the last installment, the thrust of the novel is to dissect relationships.  Furthermore, the relationships scrutinized are in Africa and thus impacted by the continent.  Africa provides the cultural grist that the author uses effectively to draw her characters - both African and American – and to chronicle their interactions: Africans with Africans, Americans with Americans, and then across the cultural divide.   Wyss’ characters are real, particularly Adjoa, a Ghanian entrepreneur, and Janice, an American health expert long resident in Africa.  Through Adjoa’s eyes and thoughts, much of the African landscape of family and familial obligations is elucidated as she struggles with a secret she decided to safeguard.  Adjoa’s perspective, and life, is different from Janice’s, but Janice is at home in Africa and is much less of a jaundiced expatriate than some other characters.  Wyss’s sensitivity to the nuances of culture – the significance of a look, a gesture or phrasing is impressive.  All of the well developed characters are women and sometimes their chit chat overwhelmed this male reader, but I always returned to discover how the threads would mesh.  Indeed one of the strengths of the novel is the author’s depth of understanding of individual frailties and how Africa affects outsiders differently.   Some hyperbole pokes gentle fun at expatriate foibles. 

The stories are impeccably set in five different countries – Ivory Coast, Ghana, Central African Republic, Malawi and Ethiopia.  There is also a piece about America. Clearly the author knew the places which are accurately described. Also, her use of vernacular languages was precise.

For those who want an accurate close up look at Africa, this novel is a warm and entertaining excursion into the continent.