Monday, October 12, 2015

Hobnobbing with Dictators

A review of The Mind of the African Strongman Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures, by Herman J. Cohen, New Academia Publishers, Washington, D.C. 2015.

This is an interesting and chatty book. It is what it purports to be: a series of anecdotes recounting contacts and conversations with sixteen African leaders over a period of forty years.  Ambassador Cohen spent many of those years in Africa as a diplomat on the scene and more as the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs at the Department of State in Washington. Even in his post diplomatic career, Ambassador Cohen saw old contacts and made new ones. 

The author puts each of the strongmen in context. He provides background on the country in question and information on the individual chief of state.  The result is a penetrating look at the foibles, personal concerns and motivations of African leaders.  Their individual personalities come across vibrantly.  Few, Mandela and DeKlerk excepted, were altruistic.  Most  - Moi, Barre, Mugabe, Houphet - were crafty politicians who understood their home context exceedingly well, but who were often adrift in the international arena.   Others - Doe, Taylor, Kabila - were just thugs who managed to grab power, but were able to do little with it. Cohen’s unenviable task throughout was to convince and cajole these men to do something positive; many times just for their own people, but always also for the United States.  Cold war concerns frequently provided the point of departure for a conversation, but internal politics, democracy and human rights, economic development and conflict resolution figured on Cohen’s agendas.

Students of Africa will enjoy the candid insights and solid analyses that Ambassador Cohen delivers.  All in all, Cohen provides humanizing portraits of African leaders that advance understanding of the roles that these men played.  Concomitantly Cohen shows what diplomacy is all about: how and why American leaders engage and communicate with foreign leaders .

Lost In Africa

This is a review of Against the Current - How Albert Schweitzer Inspired a Young Man’s Journey by Clarinda Higgins with William G. Armstrong Jr., Oakham Press, Westport, Ct. 2015. 

This is a biographical tale of Mark Higgins, who in 1959 at the age of 19 went on a voyage of self discovery to Schweitzer’s clinic in Lambarene, Gabon.  The scion of a prominent New England family Mark felt he never measured up to the expectations of his demanding father and rarely had the support of his distant divorced mother.  He bounced through a couple of prep schools and during an emotional crisis tried to take his own life.  After a “hush, hush” stint in a mental institution, he struck out for Africa. 

In Lambarene he found the space and the support that enabled him to mature into his own person.  Starting essentially as a laborer, Mark became a reliable jack of many trades, working with lepers,  giving injections and conducting heart disease research.  After a year or so with Dr. Schweitzer’s eclectic team, Mark decided to move on, to cross Africa and voyage up to Israel to work on a kibbutz.  Unfortunately, the summer he decided to do this was 1960, the year of African independence, and the month he began his travel through the newly independent (ex-Belgian) Congo was July, immediately after independence on June 30.  This was a chaotic period for the Congo.  The Force Publique mutinied and ran amuck.  A hundred thousand Belgians were fleeing from every corner of that vast land.  Yet armed with a youthful sense of invincibility, good French language skills, and a genuine liking for African people, Mark was determined to persevere.  Traveling by river, rail and truck, he made it about two thirds of the way east, before being murdered by renegade rebels in the town of Kasongo on the Lualaba River.

So that is the story, but the book offers more.  The author Rindy Higgins, Mark’s younger cousin, knew little of Mark’s youthful troubles and only a smidgen of his Lambarene experiences and not much beyond the fact that he died in the Congo.  However, beginning with what she did know she fleshed out the tale through an enormous amount of research.  The family had some of Mark’s letters home, but Rindy found a treasure trove of correspondence in the Schweitzer institute in France - virtually everything that the man wrote, everything that was written to him, and all sorts of memoirs by his staff and supporters is preserved there.  Using these resources, the author was able to vividly reconstruct life at the African clinic.  Most importantly she was able to discover the identity of the man who reported to the American Consulate in Elizabethville, Congo, the fact of Mark’s murder. Additionally, she was able to reconstruct his travels throughout the Congo and juxtapose them day by day with international developments regarding the Congo.  

Although Mark was certainly a nice congenial young man with a brighter future ahead of him once he found himself and got back on track, his death elevated him to martyr status, especially as seen by his cousin. He is even touted as an inspiration for the Peace Corps; perhaps he was. Many young Americans have found themselves in service to others. 

I found only two factual errors, both in the same sentence describing the Ruwenzori Mountains as volcanic (they are not) and reaching to 22,000 feet (they top out at 16,721 feet).  I found the chapters on Lambarene to be couched in paternalistic terminology of that era, which was understandable as much of the material was drawn from contemporary accounts.  But the author persisted in using the term “natives” throughout the narrative, which is a bit passe.  

For those who want to learn about Albert Schweitzer’s operation in Gabon, this book is relevant. It also reveals solid details of what the Congo was like as it crashed into anarchy in July 1960.  Finally the story of Mark Higgins’ short life and his tragic end provide a cogent tale.

Dogs in Africa

A slightly shorter version of the following piece appeared in the September 2015 edition of the Foreign Service Journal.  I prefer this longer version.

We acquired Mogi in Bangui. He was a feisty little puppy, part Shepherd, who grew into a fifty pound dog.  Admiring his size our Yakoma neighbors advised that he was safe on our eastern side of the city, but had we lived south, “those M’baka” would put him in the pot.  

Late on a Friday, the chargé got a call from former foreign minister Joseph Potolot advising that he was being sent (by irascible and unpredictable President Jean Bedel Bokassa) on an urgent mission to Washington, leaving the next morning.   I checked the files and discovered that the minister’s visa had expired so I went along to the meeting, collected his passport and promised to deliver it, visa included, at the airport the following morning.  I went home grabbed a quick bite, tossed the passport on the coffee table and headed to the airport to meet a visitor on the evening flight. When I returned some hours later, Connie met me with bad news, “Mogi ate Mr. Potolot’s passport.”  She held up a well chewed soggy mess with teeth punctures through several pages. 

I envisaged my imminent departure from the country, if not from life itself.  Bokassa’s government was not to be messed with.  I called the chargé to explain the issue.  I said, “We have a problem.” He heard me out, paused and replied, “Bob, you have a problem.”  I hunkered down with a hair dryer, some cardboard shims, glue and an iron.  Before long I had a more presentable, if obviously mangled document.   In the morning I put a visa in it and took it to the airport, thinking the minister could either laugh or explode. The latter possibility had me worried, but he took it in stride. He did not want to have to explain to his boss why he was not traveling as ordered.   I assured him the visa was valid and I would notify U.S. authorities that he was on his way.  Subsequently, I sent a cable describing the situation, asking for courtesies at the port of entry and noting that the minister’s passport had been “slightly mutilated by the Vice Consul’s dog.”
Two weeks later Potolot sent over a brand new passport for a visa.   

Unfortunately that was not Mogi’s only brush with officialdom. Later he got through the fence into a neighboring compound and killed at least one rabbit that was being raised by the woman that lived there.  The lady in question was one of Bokassa’s mistresses and her security was provided by the army.  Two armed soldiers appeared at the door holding a dead rabbit and demanding restitution and retribution.  Thankfully an adequate payment resolved the matter.  We got Mogi out of country before further mishap.  

Years later in Kampala, when I came home for lunch the gardener carted over a big trash can for my inspection. I assumed he had killed a snake, but instead he had a scrawny, filthy little puppy. He explained that a mother dog with two pups snuck through the fence to drink out of the pool. One fell in, but when he investigated the commotion the others ran off.  We had a new dog.  She was terrified of the world so we held her constantly, when put down she disappeared in a flash. So that became her name.  She grew into a wonderful pet, happy, loving and friendly, who rarely barked.  

Too soon, before we could act, Flash became pregnant - by the Marines’ dog, a fact of which they heartily approved - and had eight puppies.  My son Mark named them all; most with Greek mythological names that he was studying in school. We kept Nike who most closely resembled his mom.  Mark gave Cerebus to a friend, who obviously was not paying attention in class, because he renamed his dog Reebok. 

Upon leaving Kampala in 1991 and uncertain of our next posting, we found a home for Flash and Nike with a Peace Corps staff family.  However, upon my return to neighboring Rwanda five years later I contacted the family and offered to take the dogs back, when/if they might need a new home. Subsequently we did a dog exchange at Mbale in southern Uganda.  I know that Flash recognized me. 

So Flash, Nike and Mash, another part ridgeback, joined us in Kigali.  I quickly learned to tell folks that these were Ugandan dogs, i.e. they had not been in Rwanda during the genocide when local dogs went feral and ate corpses.  Nonetheless we penned the dogs up during events at the residence. During one July Fourth reception as the crowd quieted down for my remarks, Nike, hearing his master’s voice over the loud speaker, joined in - howling until the end. 

Dogs were part of our lives, and despite the hiccups, usually a bonus in interactions with the communities around us. We were blessed for having them.