Monday, November 23, 2015

What makes Kenyans world champion runners?

This is a review of Running  with the Kenyans - Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth, by Adharanand Finn, Ballantine Books, London, 2013.
I was not sure what to expect in this book, but was pleasantly surprised. Finn, an English runner, journeys to Kenya to live and train with Kenyans for about six months.  His objective was first to gather material for a story along the lines of the subtitle - he worked for a sports magazine. But secondly he wanted to test himself as a runner to find out what he had left in his tank.  

Finn moved his family to Iten, a small town of five thousand people perched at 8,000 feet on the rim of the Great Rift Valley.  Iten has become the center of Kenya’s running culture.  A thousand or so folks congregate there in various training camps in order to focus exclusively on running.  It is a hard regime as the competition is fierce, yet global results prove that Kenyans, especially the Kalenjin people of the Iten region are in fact the fastest people on earth.  For the last forty years they have excelled in all distance running events, holding world and Olympic records. Kenyans regularly (and usually) win all the major big-city marathons.

During his sojourn Finn met dozens of champions.  He quizzed them and their coaches about what makes Kenyans fast. He befriended many and cobbled together a training group with the objective of competing in the Lewa (Kenya) marathon.   The book ties together these two themes - information about why Kenyans can run and a personal story of interactions with runners. 

 Acknowledging various scientific studies of the issues, the author gradually concludes that Kenyans runners are fast for a number of combined reasons.  They are rural people who live at altitude.  Genetically they are skinny and long legged. They work hard at farming, herding or as children running to school. They eat a high carbohydrate, low fat diet.  Thus, their bodies are prepared for running.  Then they train well, devoting all of their time to running, resting and eating. Psychologically they have strong internal discipline, can face hardship and persevere.  They harbor a fierce competitive streak.  Finally there is a pervasive culture of running.
Success has built upon success. Running is a way out of a subsistence quagmire to a modicum of success.  Monetary prizes permit buying more land, building a better house, starting a business and generally moving up the economic scale.
Finn investigates all these issues and in doing so really gets plugged into the running culture.  Conversations and interactions illuminate motivations and hopes as well as disappointments.  He finds, of course, gaps in understanding - him of them and them of him.  However, he paints genuinely humanizing portraits of his friends and colleagues as their friendships grow. 
In sum Running with the Kenyans is an insightful book about running and about Kenyans.  Readers with an interest in those topics will enjoy it. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Rwandan Genocide - an African Tragedy. Intrique in the CAR. Murder in Mombasa

After ten years I closed my web site and have transferred the text from it to here. Unfortunately, I can not figure out how to post photographs to the blog.  The following material highlights my three published books  - my Rwandan memoir, and two novels one set in the Central African Republic and another in Kenya. Read them all and enjoy.

Rwandan Genocide Revisited  -What happened afterwards?

(Washington, D.C.)— In his new book In the Aftermath of Genocide: The U.S. Role in Rwanda Ambassador Robert E. Gribbin recalls standing in an eerily quiet overgrown church court yard while a survivor described the methodical murder of thousands, whose desiccated moldering bodies were stacked like cord wood only feet away in Sunday school rooms. A crunch underfoot revealed a human jawbone that was quickly and reverently added to the macabre collection. Against this grim background, Gribbin throws new light on why the U.S. (and the West) failed to respond to Rwanda’s genocide. He goes on to tell how guilt for inaction generated an outpouring of assistance in years afterwards.

Stating that Rwanda’s saga did not end with the terrible genocide itself, Ambassador Gribbin said, "Imagine the hatred, pain and guilt that Rwandans felt and the enormous difficulties the people faced in putting their lives and their society back together. How to half impunity for genocide crimes? How to fairly reallocate land for returning refugees? How to structure and government so that it promoted peace rather than threaten reconciliation?" Sent to Rwanda ans U.S. ambassador just after the genocide, Gribbin said, " These were the substance of my tenure in Kigali. I believe I had a unique responsibility to write about them."
In this gripping story, Gribbin takes us into claustrophobic prisons where tens of thousands of accused patiently awaited trials on charges of genocide. Run by prisoners themselves, the mob of men cautiously welcomed the U.S. ambassador and quietly parted like a sea before him as he made the rounds. Outside the prison walls, an insurgency, still inspired by unrepentant genocidaires, operated clandestinely to murder Tutsi survivors and Hutu officials of the new government. Yet the new government’s heavy-handed response to such violence, risked renewing the cycle of conflict and despair.  Fears of renewed conflict, fueled by the looming destabilizing presence of over a million uprooted Hutu refugees just across the borders, diminished when over a million people, once the camps were broken up by Tutsi-backed rebels, trudged home to an uncertain future.

Drawing on inside information and conversations with policy makers, especially Rwandan military genius (then-Vice President) General Paul Kagame, the author describes how the U.S. responded to the unfolding crises in Rwanda and in the region. The ethnic conflict that began with the genocide, spilled over into neighboring Zaire/Congo, not once, but twice. First, in a dramatic chase of the remnants of the militia group responsible for genocide, that coincidently swelled into a grass roots ouster of long-time dictator Mobutu; and secondly, when Kabila, Mobutu’s successor, failed to honor his commitments regarding ethnic tolerance.

In the Aftermath of Genocide is essential reading for those seeking to understand the complexities,agony and violence of contemporary Africa. Furthermore, it is crucial for those who ask what can we Americans do about such problems?

Robert E. Gribbin lived and worked as a U.S. diplomat in Africa for thirty-five years. He served in Rwanda twice, once before and once after the genocide. He was U.S. ambassador from 1995 to 1999. Now retired, in addition to consulting, writing and teaching about Africa, he undertakes short-term diplomatic postings to the continent he knows so well.

In the Aftermath of Genocide: The U.S. Role in Rwanda, ISBN 0-595-34411-9, $23.95, is sponsored by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (seven former Secretaries of State sit on the board) as part of its “memoirs and occasional papers” series and was published in March 2005 by iUniverse, Lincoln, Nebraska. It is available from ADST, or on-line bookstores.


"Ambassador Gribbin applies the keen insight he developed over a long career in Africa to U.S. - Rwandan relations. He outlines clearly the failure of the U.S. and the rest of the world to stop the genocide, and places blame where it is deserved, yet manages to inject humor into this otherwise unremittingly grim story. " 
H. Roberts Melone, former U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda.

"Not a traditional diplomatic memoir or a diary but a frank account of a life and career, centered on service in a volatile Rwanda. Ambassador Gribbin doesn't mask his values, views, or mistakes. He lets the record tell you about his successes. One of the least egotistical career retrospectives I have read and a great contribution to African and diplomatic scholarship. A remarkable book by a distinguished diplomat, who invites the reader to comprehend the challenge ad agony of decision-making by the "man of the spot.'"  Robert G. Houdek, former U.S. Ambassador to Uganda and Eritrea.

"Ambassador Robert Gribbin's book is a very welcome contribution to literature on Rwanda's recovery after catastrophe. No previous publication has dealt with issues relating to Rwanda's efforts at rebuilding and its relations with the international community in general. The author's account of the period of his service in Rwanda leaves no doubt that he was and remains well versed with the critical issues that faced the new government of Rwanda following the genocide: peace and security, repatriation and resettlement of refugees, economic reconstruction, national unity and reconciliation, human rights, justice and the rule of law, democratization, and regional peace and stability."  Gerald Gahima, former Attorney General of Rwanda.


A Benchmark Work on Rwanda, February 10, 2006

Reviewer: Thomas P. Odom "Tom"

I take great pleasure in writing this review as Bob Gribbin was my Ambassador for the last 3 months of my own tour as the US Defense Attache in Rwanda from 1994-1996. Much tripe concerning US roles in Rwanda and the Congo War has been offered directly to the US Congress or in the press, various blogs, and even in some published works.

This book has many strengths. First it offers more than the title implies: Ambassador Gribbin's previous assignments in Rwanda and Uganda provide critical insights into the workings of the RPF and Museveni's Uganda. Second it is both concise and personal. I read the book cover to cover in 2 evenings. The Rwandan Genocide is still a very personal issue to me. Bob captures its horrors well and yet manages to offer very balanced interpretations of its causes and its effects. Finally, it is without doubt the authoritative account of the 1996-1998 events in Rwanda and Zaire (now the DRC). I am proud to have worked for Ambassador Gribbin and I am proud to have his book in my library.

Thomas P. Odom
Author, Journey into Darkness: Genocide in Rwanda, Texas A&M University Press, 2005

Indispensable source on post-conflict Rwanda, June 14, 2005

Reviewer: Larry Lesser (Washington, DC USA) - The world watched in horror as Rwanda descended into hellish barbarism. And after the violence ended, what then? That is Gribbin's subject, written from the perspective of the U.S. ambassador -- the embodiment of U.S. policy in the post-conflict period. His book is filled with exotic names and places, probably more than the non-expert can keep up with. (And the skimpy index is not much help.) Nevertheless, this pioneering book provides a depth of detail and an appreciation for the complexities of nation building under mind-bogglingly challenging conditions. It will be an indispensable resource for the student of the Rwandan tragedy or, more broadly, as a case study on the death -- and, we hope, rebirth -- of a modern nation-state.

A must-read for Africanists, April 22, 2005

Reviewer: Don Heflin -

An outstanding contribution to the literature on Rwanda. There have been several good books about the 1994 genocide, but Gribbin's book stands out as the best source on the post-genocide era. His observations on the 1996-7 war in Eastern Zaire, which drove Mobutu from power and put the Kabilas in the presidency in Kinshasa, are especially valuable. These times remain a controversial topic, and it's essential to get the viewpoint of an American diplomat in the field, which Gribbin ably provides. The book is well-written and an enjoyable read, even though it deals with serious subjects. No student of Rwanda, the Congo or genocide should be without it.

Questions and Answers

Q.  Is the Rwandan genocide over?

A.  Yes, the killings as such took place in April, May, June and  July 1994.  About one million people died. Residual ethnic violence, mostly in the form of an insurgency continued on for several years. Today Rwanda is at peace.  Even so, several thousand Hutu militiamen, calling themselves the FDLR (Force Democratique pour la liberation du Rwanda) remain at large in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Q.   Have those responsible for the genocide been tried?

A.  There are essentially three venues where justice is being delivered. First is the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. There about thirty-five of the most prominent planners of genocide are being slowly tried. In Rwanda itself trials continue in the regular courts for tens of thousands of persons implicated in heinous acts of genocide. Additionally, another hundred thousand or so persons are/will face Gacaca courts on their home hillsides. This method of delivering traditional justice has been modified to handle the less severe genocide related cases.  Combined the three methods of justice are effectively holding those accused accountable for their crimes.

Q.  How democratic is Rwanda today?

A.  Rwanda has successfully held multi-party presidential, parliamentary and local elections. Current President Paul Kagame, who was the military leader of the largely Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Army and former Vice President, was elected to a six year term in 2003 and re-elected in 2009.  Even though observers did not fault the electoral process, it is clear that power rests with the group that vanquished the genocide.  The challenge for Rwanda is to truly build a multi-ethnic, multi-party democratic society out of the tragedy of genocide.

Q.  Is reconciliation reality or a facade?

A.   Reconciliation after events as traumatic as genocide is indeed very difficult, both individually and for the society as a whole. The delivery of justice to those guilty of the crime is seen as a perquisite for healing on a national level. Even so, there are thousands of efforts, some organized, some not, aimed at finding ways and mechanisms for people to come to terms with their pasts, even as they move on with their lives.

Q.  How are U.S. Rwandan relations?

A.  Relations between our two nations are excellent. Through USAID and other programs the U.S. is actively engaged in helping Rwanda develop economically as well as in combating HIV/AIDS.

Q.  What is Rwanda's regional role?

A.   Rwanda keeps a careful eye on developments in the neighboring Congo. It has welcomed recent Congolese elections and has largely disengaged from cross border activities. Elsewhere in the region several thousand Rwandan forces are critical to the international effort to contain genocide and ethnic violence in Darfur, Sudan.


  Blood diamonds, poached ivory, smuggled arms, political intrigue, rebellion. 
  Ripped from today’s headlines! A fictional saga of modern Africa.

  Rip Roaring Adventure in Central Africa!

  Against the backdrop of contemporary Africa, political prisoner Jean
  Mbaito escapes from jail.  Following his conscience he sparks a
  revolution that attempts to sweep the corrupt blood-drenched tyrant
  from power.  Clandestine political forces and even black magic,
  cynically observed by jaundiced diplomatic personnel, rally to his
  cause. Mbaito joins with a disgruntled professional hunter and a
  beautiful English conservationist, who themselves are combating
  elephant poachers, in order to further his quest.  Full of intrigue,
  political violence, blood diamonds, witchcraft and poaching,
  the tale of Mbaito’s challenge reflects the mysteries of Africa
  and the passions of its people.

  State of Decay - An Oubangui Chronicle published by is available for $13.95 from or on line bookstores.  

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Murder in     Mombasa
                                                      a novel by Robert E. Gribbin     

Rather than a review as such, let’s do some q's and a’s about  Murder in Mombasa.

Synopsis: The tale is recounted by the American Consul when in the aftermath of a riotous shore visit, a U.S. Navy seaman is accused of murdering a Kenyan girl. But did he do it? His alibi says no, but Kenya must have someone to prosecute for the crime.  The girl is dead, but who was she last with? Police jump to conclusions and rush to convict. However, the U.S. consul and his team seek the truth. The pressure is on. The police, the public and government leaders clamor for conviction, so the case goes to trial. Not only is the man’s guilt or innocence at stake, but also U.S. - Kenyan relations. Meanwhile shadowy terrorist operatives and their possible links to the crime cloud clarity. Will justice prevail or will it be trumped by political expediency?

Ripped from the headlines, this fictional story is based  on a real incident.  The Mombasa, Kenya setting is impeccable as are descriptions of police, prison and judicial procedures.  Furthermore, handling of the problem by U.S. diplomats provides insight into the operations of the consular service.

Available only as an ebook from (in kindle and other formats) or your istore or Nook provider.

Why did you write the book?   I enjoy writing and find fiction a fascinating diversion from non-fiction.  It is easier to make up facts rather than look them up. However, this story is based on a real event.  I was the American Consul in Mombasa in the early 1980s at the time when a U.S. sailor was accused of murdering a Kenyan prostitute.   It caused  a big brouhaha in Kenya in part because several years earlier there had been another death of a prostitute wherein the U.S. sailor had been found guilty of manslaughter, but not sentenced to prison.  That verdict scandalized the populace.    So when another death occurred, the popular cry was for punishment.  My book is a fictionalized version of what ensued.  In order to spin the tale I invented personages and added plot.

What makes the story unique?   First, a narrator of events is the U.S. consul, so the reader sees the plot unfold from his perspective.  The book paints a realistic portrait of what American diplomats do overseas when citizens get in trouble.   Additionally, the murder troubled U.S. Kenyan relations more broadly so aspects of international diplomacy are included.  Secondly, the setting of the novel in Mombasa, Kenya is impeccable and the characters realistic, so those who know Kenya will find that the tale rings true.

So what sort of book is it?  It is a murder mystery that evolves into a courtroom drama all against a backdrop of diplomatic intrigue and maneuvering.  The question is did the sailor kill the girl or not? If not, who did? and why? And even if he did not, will he be convicted of the crime anyway?

Why did you self publish it?  The publishing world is a brutal one. Self publishing via lets me put the book out there quickly for readers to enjoy. Also it’s inexpensive at only $2.99. Murder in Mombasa is only available in ebook format, also from the istore or Nook.