Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Politics and Chaos in the Congo

A review of The American Mission by Matthew Palmer, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, NY, 2014


This intriguing tale is set in Africa, specifically in the present day Congo. Descriptions of the teeming capital of Kinshasa and its mad house politics, full of  intrigue and violence, ring true. Similarly authentic are descriptions of a remote village tucked on the shore of one of the Congo’s massive rivers. Finally, the author captures the essence of how an American embassy operates.  He should be qualified for accuracy in that regard because Palmer is a serving U.S. diplomat.  Yet, however realistic the background, this novel is fiction.  The story is a rollicking suspenseful adventure replete with heroes, heroines and villains galore.

The basic plot is that a noble disgruntled young diplomat whose career is apparently in the doldrums is given a new chance at embassy Kinshasa. He eagerly seizes the opportunity, but soon finds that things are not what they seem, and not on the up and up.  He is sent out to perform tasks which he finds morally repugnant, particularly an ambassadorial backed effort to support an international company’s effort to exploit a mining concession that would destroy a peaceful village.  He strives to reverse the idea and finds himself drawn into a whirlwind of truths, half-truths and outright lies.  Erstwhile friends become enemies and vice versa.  Even as the plot swirls, our young diplomat finds his firm ethical ground and stays true to his ideals. 

I really enjoyed the novel because I liked the setting and all the foreign service references, most of which were spot on. While I don’t mind seeing diplomatic stereotypes caricatured, I would caution that there are no inner State Department cabals like the ones described. I offer a few other little nit-picks for what they are worth.  Palmer moves the geography, geology and ethnic presence of the Congo around to suit his needs.  That’s okay in a novel, but still disconcerting to find the Luba people hundreds of miles from home, the copper belt re-located to the rain forest, and Zongo (a real town) misplaced on the inside cover map. Additionally, in the opening chapter set in Darfur the Janjaweed did not raid Zagahwa camps but often attacked Fur IDP camps. A comment about how to get to the fictitious village was “fly to Goma and go downriver” is wrong.  Kisangani is the town on the Congo River that should have been referenced.  Goma is on a lake.  Finally, in talking about the Foreign Service our hero says he registered his will with the human resources office back home.  That is not done.

Foreign Service Officers will particularly enjoy this novel as will folks who know Africa and know how politics and business play out there. Even so, it is a novel with universal appeal. 

Sierra Leone troubles

A review of Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah,  NY 2014

This is a sad and truthful book. It is fiction, but in the context of the story the author speaks eloquently to the realities of African life in the aftermath of war and in face of a harsh modern world where traditional values succumb to the pressures of new times. In the wake of civil war the novel recounts the saga of how a family in Sierra Leone revitalizes itself in an effort to restore harmony and peace in their village.  Even as the older ways, based on strong interpersonal relationships, are being reconstituted, new disruptive ways intrude in the form of a mining company and the disruption it brings.  Eventually, the new ways win out.  The village is destroyed and its people co-opted by corruption. Dismayed by their fate, remnants of the family flee to the capital city, but there too face agonies of unemployment, scams and the collapse of social fabric.

The novel begins in a hopeful fashion wherein first elders and then families return to their abandoned village not only to pick up and bury the bones of the dead, but also to rebuild their lives and village society.  They succeed only gradually as villagers harbor fears and scars from the war.  Included among the returnees are a man and his two children whose hands were cut off by rebel militia.  Also appearing was the young man, who while being called “commander cutlass”, was the perpetrator of the amputations.  He is remorseful, but they cannot reconcile.

The story soon focuses on Bockerie and Benjamin and their families. They survived the war by fleeing, but return to their jobs as teachers.  The school has nothing but students – no equipment and no books – but the teachers love their work and labor on. Soon the principal regularly steals what little there is, including teacher salaries.  Just as the village is getting settled, a mining company opens operations nearby.  This causes havoc. The company is uncaring and unresponsive to village concerns. It pollutes their water. Its trucks run down their children. Its men harass and rape village women. Remonstrations have no effect as national officials are in the pockets of the company.  But the company does provide jobs, and finally Bockerie and Benjamin find no alternatives other than seeking employment there.  First the company undermines the soul of the village and eventually destroys it physically in its quest for ore. 

Ultimately Bockerie and his family travel to the city to seek new beginnings, but alas more trouble. As country bumpkins they are not prepared for slick city ways.  Despite setbacks, the family perseveres.

Author Bleah throws every kind of disaster into the paths of his protagonists.  All too often he makes expatriates, i.e. the mining company, or western influence the scapegoats for every pernicious event.  Clearly part of his message to the world via this novel is that external actors must be more understanding and caring about the societies they encounter.  Yet much of the author’s ire is saved for domestic corruption and leaders who sell out their people for the all mighty dollar.  But the novel is more than that too, it is a study of the aches and pains that people go through as the world around them changes.  They cannot go backwards, nor even find a stable present, but must go forward.  The challenge in doing that is not to lose one’s humanity and moral compass in the process.

I read this novel by a Sierra Leone author in August of 2014 while I was in Freetown during the height of the Ebola crisis.  Even though the Ebola plague is not part of the novel, I found the theme of confronting life’s woes to resonate strongly.  That is precisely what so many citizens are compelled to do in the face of the uncertainties of this terrible disease.