Friday, July 28, 2017

The Emperor and the Elephants

Folowing is a review of The Emperor and the Elephants - A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Story of Life during the late 1970s in the Central African Empire,  Peace Corps Writers, Oakland, CA. 2016.

This memoir of Peace Corps service by Richard W. Carroll, who went on to become a noted conservationist and activist leader of the World Wildlife Fund, recounts his early years in the Central African Empire.  Initially Carroll was a “fish guy” charged with inculcating the virtues of fish farming to rural residents.  This was an active and successful program in the CAE as long as some outside agency - the Peace Corps, the French or the UN - kept funding the production and distribution of fry, i.e. baby fish. Sadly, once the donors left, without new fish coming in at the bottom, the system collapsed. 

But during Carroll’s tenure, it all worked fine.  After a stint as a fish guy, Carroll sought and received a transfer to the nation’s nascent game park Manda-Gounda St. Floris in the far north east. The park was relatively undeveloped and un- assessed. Carroll’s task was to catalog what was there in terms of animals and plants, of which he found a profusion.  His experiences in this wild place are what propelled him onwards to a career as a wildlife professional.

In the book Carroll tells about people, places, animals and birds. He muses about life and its meanings.  His African adventure took place during the bizarre times when the Central African Republic’s tinpot dictator Jean Bedel Bokassa crowned himself emperor. Carroll provides an accurate description of the national scene and observations of what that meant, or did not, to the rural folks he dealt with on a daily basis.  Essentially, it was all dramatic theater that had few repercussions on rural life. The fact that national resources were stolen and squandered by the emperor and his ilk was just how life was. However, the larceny included not just tax money and foreign aid, but also within a three or four year window the slaughter of tens of thousands of elephants for their ivory.  (Hence the catchy title of this book.) Even today, years after Bokassa’s demise, poaching continues apace. 

After his Peace Corps days, Carroll returned to the renamed Central African Republic to do research on lowland gorillas and help found the Dzanga Sanga reserve near Bayanga in the south western forest.  Although Carroll alludes to this time and again in the book, he never really elaborates on what was involved in that much longer experience. I wanted more. 

Finally, included in the memoir are excerpts from several latter day speeches decrying poaching of elephants and rhinos, the bush meat trade, the timber industry, and mining. In the CAR all the rhinos are gone, as are most of the northern elephants. Only the forest elephants remain and they are threatened by poaching and human encroachment. 

In sum the book is sort of a hodgepodge of themes all of which have some linkages one to another. 

Disclaimer:  I too lived and worked in the CAR for a number of years (1974-76 and 1992-1995) from a perch at the U.S. embassy. Carroll and I may have crossed paths for a month or so in 1976. A former PCV myself in Kenya, I was a keen supporter of Peace Corps programs and volunteers and, despite its odd politics, the CAR was a great Peace Corps country. Volunteers had productive and happy tours. I visited both St Floris and Dzanga Sanga on numerous occasions, and found them wild and wonderful. I am saddened by the communal violence that has afflicted the CAR during the past few years and the toll it has taken on the people and their communities, but also the negative impact the violence has had on those special wild places. St. Floris is empty and Bayanga under siege. Carroll’s plea resonates.   

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Liberia's Iron Lady

Following is my review of  Madame President - The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper, Simon and Schuster, NY, 2017.

This is an authorized biography that is really glowing in its depiction of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected woman president. Ellen or Ma as she is called by many of her constituents rose to power via the votes of women. By 2005 Liberian women had had enough of war, of rape, of terror, of destroyed families, of lives lost and of livelihoods devastated. So when the time came they were rallied and did rally around to assure that a woman would lead Liberia out of perdition.  Ellen, who is still president, began that process, which continues today. 

A woman did not fit the mold for political leadership in Africa. So how Ellen rose to such heights is the grist of the book. She was not from the traditional ruling class of descendants of freed slaves from America that founded Liberia in the 19th century and who shamelessly ruled as an aristocratic class for 150 years. However, Ellen resembled them on account of a German grandfather. Light complexions counted for much in 20th century Liberia. Ellen’s father was an up-country African, son of a chief of the Gola tribe.  Ellen grew up privileged. She went to the right schools where she proved her academic mettle. She wed young, had four sons, but her marriage to Doc Sirleaf did not last; not the least because of physical abuse.  Ellen managed an American education and became an accomplished economist. For thirty years she was only sporadically in Liberia while otherwise gainfully employed in international finance by the World Bank, the United Nations or several private banks. 

Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf lamented Liberia’s slide into chaos and terror under Master Sergeant Samuel Doe who took power in 1980.  She initially supported Charles Taylor when he invaded in 1989 and thus began a new round of violence. Doe was killed in 1990, but civil war dragged on for years. Ellen quickly realized her error in endorsing Taylor as his true colors emerged. He was a violent, vengeful leader whose militia, including child soldiers, wreaked havoc on the citizenry. Thenceforth she opposed him and battled him politically at every turn, even running against him for the presidency in 1997. Taylor was ousted in 2003 and fair elections were held in 2005.  As the book recounts, politics in Liberia - as in most of Africa - was essentially a man’s game, so how Ellen and her supporters prevailed is a good story. But prevail she did; then as president used her knowledge, experience and contacts in the international system to get Liberia’s debt rescinded and to gain support for Liberia’s economic recovery. Most importantly, she ushered in a new era of peace. Her accomplishments led to a second term in 2011. 

Alas, just as matters were looking better, Ebola struck in 2014 and again Liberia went into crisis.  However, yet again Madame President’s steady hand and solid leadership helped surmount the problem. 

Author Cooper’s prose is precise and readable.  Although favorable towards Madame President for the most part, the author also frankly addressed shortcomings and lapses in judgment.  That criticism along with regular insertions of dialogue in Liberian English provided a good dose of reality and local color to the saga. 

I served in the U.S. embassy in 2002 while Taylor was in power and later led a team of observers for the 2005 voter registration drive, so am familiar with places, issues and some personalities mentioned in the book.  However, even persons with no inside knowledge of Liberia will find this biography fascinating and enlightening. It is indeed the story of a strong and determined woman. It is well worth reading.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Endangered Rhinos!

My review of The Last Rhinos: My Battle to Save One of the World’s Greatest Creations by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence, Thomas Dunne Books, 2012.

I got this book thinking that it was a conservation oriented memoir about saving the white rhinos from poaching in Northern Congo’s Garamba National Park.  It was, in fact, a conservation oriented memoir but more about South Africa than the Congo. About the Congo it was an indictment of third world bureaucracy and political infighting; surprisingly the book was also a first person account of Anthony’s interaction with the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Bottom line up front: the battle to save the rhinos failed, but the effort was noble and notable. 

The basic plot was that Anthony, a South African conservationist, who lived on and owned his own private game reserve became seized with the idea that the dozen or so northern white rhinos that lived in Garamba Park, the last of their species alive in the wild, could be tranquilized and transported to safety outside of the Congo, probably to Kenya.  There they could live and breed until safe for them to be returned to their native range.  Problems to be overcome in the effort were:  the necessary permissions from the government of the Congo, the extreme isolation of Garamba and the fact that in 2005 the park was infested with elements of the Lord’s RĂ©sistance Army, the notorious mystic-led guerilla force that had fled west from Uganda to wreak havoc among villages in the most out-of-the-way corner of the continent. 

Anthony easily organized a team of experts and logistics that could handle the finding, tranquilizing and, transport of the rhinos. This would involve helicopters, heavy aircraft, veterinarians, vehicles and the logistics necessary to keep the operation in the field for the time required. Besides calling on friends and conservation organizations for funding, key to these arrangements would be the participation of the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Congo (MONUC).  A more thorny problem proved to be permissions from the government of the Congo.  Intially, it looked easy as senior officials readily endorsed the plan, but when it came down to the two organizations that actually had responsibility for the park, impasse after impasse was encountered.  Apparently both turf and internal politics caused hurdles that could not be resolved.  In despair, because the rainy season would soon come to an end and poachers would be able to move freely, Anthony decided to try to contact the Lord’s Resistance Army to seek its support for safeguarding the rhinos. 

Anthony learned that peace negotiations were underway between the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Juba, South Sudan.  Although leery of the LRA on account of its horrendous record of human rights abuses including rape, murder, and forcible recruitment of child soldiers, he decided to take the chance. Ultimately he contacted the LRA and because he was an animal man, i.e. specifically interested in rhinos, and not someone with a political agenda, he won their confidence and their agreement to interdict poaching of rhinos, an animal that the Acholi people considered sacred. Anthony finalized the agreement during a visit to LRA camps in Garamba. Yet, the LRA wanted more, they wanted Anthony to help make their case to the world.  The case was that grievances against Museveni’s government were legitimate, that his abuses of the Acholi people had to stop, and that justice should come through traditional mechanisms of palaver rather than the International Criminal Court.  In turn Anthony advised that attacks against Ugandan internally displaced persons camps must halt and also the recruitment of children.  Anthony reported that in addition to protecting rhinos General  Vincent Otti and the “high altar” command agreed to those terms.  Despite being planned, Anthony did not meet with LRA chief Joseph Kony during his bush sojourn. 

Embolden by this success, operation rhino was closer to go, but it never happened. Congo permissions never came through, Otti was executed on Kony’s orders days after Anthony left, the agreement voided, the rainy season ended and rhinos were poached. 

What a saga! Interspersed with it all were anecdotes about wildlife, including southern white rhinos, on Anthony’s home preserve. Sadly, Lawrence Anthony died before the publication of this book. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Ngugi's Third Installment

Birth of a Dream Weaver - A   Writer’s Awakening,  by Ngugi wa Thiong’o,  The New Press, NY, 2016.

In this third installment of his memoirs Ngugi reminisces about Makerere University in Kampala where he matriculated in 1959.  His five years there encompassed the transition throughout East Africa from colony to independence.  Ngugi writes eloquently about the politics of the era, especially the contrasts between settler-free Uganda and settler-run Kenya. The constraints of race and oppression were nowhere near as obtrusive in the former, so the Kenyan students at Makerere felt truly liberated for the first time in their lives. 

The University too was much different from Ngugi’s Alliance secondary school, which demanded conformity and discipline. At Makerere he could seek “truth” as he took a university oath to do.  Ngugi became such a seeker and a questioner of the status quo and the colonial mind set.  Certainly the university opened students’ eyes to a much wider world.  Ngugi found fellow travelers there and he mentions most of them by name.  Indeed Makerere was the intellectual center of the region where many future leaders received their education and made lifelong contacts with one another. The memoir describes Makerere, what life was like - competition between houses, music and dancing, formal dress, distinctions between gown and town, the harmony and intermixing between tribes and races, and the influences - both positive and negative - of various faculty members. 

At Makerere Ngugi began to find his literary voice. Drawing on his life’s experiences, he wrote plays and short pieces for university presentation and publications, culminating in a three act drama, The Black Hermit, that was staged at Kampala’s prestigious National Theater.  In the memoir Ngugi relates how characters and plots came to him, first as fleeting ideas that then jelled into concrete reality as he wrote and rewrote away. During this period Ngugi composed his first two novels, but neither was published prior to his graduation.  

 During summers Ngugi held several part-time jobs because he sorely needed income to support his family. His summer stint at the Nation newspaper in Nairobi morphed into a full time position, but just as his second novel Weep Not Child was published, he resigned in order to further his education in England.

Readers interested in East Africa during this period will find this memoir instructive as to what young intellectuals were up to, what they thought and how they were beginning to take over the reins of power.  Writers will enjoy Ngugi’s various comments about the literary craft.  Given that this book is the third in a series, undoubtedly, there will be more.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Toll of Ebola

I was interviewed recently about Ebola and my time in Sierra Leone in 2014 during the crisis.  In mulling things over I thought there might be a story there. So here it is.

Pay the Price

I watched his two brown fingers thump against my arm.  “Aha,” he muttered under his breath, then I saw the needle poised slowly before it plunged into the vein.  Has it come to this?  I thought morosely as I slipped away into somnolence while my blood dripped into the bag. Shortly, I awoke with a start to find Mamadou grinning down at me. “Okay, Jimmie,” he grimaced, “all done.”

“You rest until dark, then go. Arrangements are in place. You’ll be safe.”

I nodded assent. I was indeed ready to go.  Two and a half years in Sierra Leone was more than enough. I had dawdled and procrastinated, found myself bound by slippery ties to a place that I didn’t really like and to a culture that I could not fathom.  Yet that is partly why I stayed to try to make some sense of it all.

I spent nearly two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer English teacher at St. Joseph’s Secondary School in Bo.  Initially, I enjoyed it immensely. The wonder and exoticness of it all overwhelmed me. There I was in a small trading town in the heart of Africa charged with the responsibility of inculcating the virtues of the English language to several hundred eager young minds.  It was certainly a task.  At first I could not understand their upcountry palaver. In turn they found my American English distinctly different from the British inflected pronunciations Sierra Leoneans judged proper. We worked through this, however, and focused a bit on grammar, but mostly on the memorization of poetry and Shakespeare and whatever else was prescribed in the national curriculum.  I found that a teacher’s authority was conscribed. Innovation was frowned on.  Classes became repetitive.  It soon became a job.  But still the students were fun. Their ideas and questions about American cowboys, about snow, about Obama, all provided grist for conversation. They, in turn, readily talked about their villages, the roles of women, age ceremonies and witchdoctors. Witchdoctors intrigued me. As time permitted I sought out a few traditional healers and asked them to explain their craft.  Few spoke even rudimentary English. While they were willing to treat me or sell me various potions for this or that, virtually all were reluctant to reveal any secrets of their very mysterious operations.
I guess in the absence of other diversions, I became fixated on learning more about the witchdoctor business. So when my Peace Corps assignment ended I cashed in my plane ticket home and tapped my re-adjustment allowance and stayed on in Sierra Leone.  I moved east to the town of Kanema, over towards the Liberian border.  There I found a room in a house allocated to Raymond Chretien on the medecins sans frontiers compound.  Raymond was fiftyish, a medic of some sort with the Foreign Legion, who had signed up with MSF apparently to atone for a life of sin.  In any case he was a quiet man utterly devoted to his new calling.  Although house mates, we led solitary lives.

I contacted several of the notable healers in the area.  I explained I was interested in the psychological aspects of their work, that is did healing happen because patients thought it would?  No one was able to separate out this aspect of their calling, for them it was a holistic undertaking.  Of course folks felt better, they told me, because the cures worked.

Perhaps I got to know a man named Mamadou best. He had more English that the others and practiced at the crossroads of Kalihoun, about twenty clicks from Kanema.  He would let me sit and observe his consultations, his preparations of remedies and his incantations as he administered them.  He and other practitioners claimed real knowledge. My judgment was that it worked. Some of the herbs obviously had real medicinal value, but importantly, the people believed.

I fell into a routine: visiting, watching, talking with patients afterwards, writing up some notes.  Back home in Kanema I became friendly with Isobel, at first it was just a sexual transaction - she was very good at that - but I became fond of her and she sort of halfway moved in with me.

Then it began.  Raymond came home exhausted and agitated. He reported the clinic was being overwhelmed with sick and dying patients.  All had contracted a hemorrhagic fever called Ebola.  They ran high fevers, had aches and pains, vomited and quickly died.  The disease spread rapidly, already several of the nurses contracted it.  Apparently, the contagion passed through bodily fluids. After a week a nationwide emergency was declared. Roadblocks were established. Kanema was quarantined. No one in, no one out. People were admonished not to touch the sick or wash the dead. Public funerals were prohibited. These strictures caused chaos and panic in the region.  Who was infected? Who was not? What could you eat or drink? Who could you touch?  Paranoia became widespread. Everyone was suspected of infection.  I too panicked.  This was not my country, not my people, not my disease. Time for me to leave.

I formulated half a plan to get up to Kalihoun near the border with Guinea and then onwards to Bamako, Mali and out of Africa.  Just as I was beginning to pack, Isobel arrived.  She pecked me on the cheek, said that she was feverish and asked for some aspirin. I gave her some.  She collapsed on the bed.  I felt her forehead, indeed she was hot.  Too hot for a headache!  I panicked anew.  If she had Ebola she would be dead in days, me too if I stayed.  I kissed her sweaty forehead, said I had an appointment in Kalihoun and would be back tomorrow. I left.

Local transport, i.e. a beat up old pickup truck, was still going north. I paid my fare and jumped on the load.  Mamadou greeted me cordially when I entered his compound. “Jimmie, you are welcome. What brings you to my humble abode while all this fracas is going on?”  I explained that the quarantine and the curfews had forced me northwards. It was time for me to leave Sierra Leone. I could not get to Freetown. Monrovia too seemed like a bad idea. I needed to keep moving north. Could he help?  Mamadou pulled on his raspy beard and agreed to think the matter over.  Later over a cup of sweet tea, he opined that he could help, but that it would come at a price.   “Certainly,” I agreed, “I am ready to pay.”

“No, not money,” he said.  “Blood.”

“Blood,” I asked?  “Yes,” he replied, “your blood.”

He elaborated, “You see Jimmie, white man’s blood is an effective medicine against this Ebola.  We have learned this because the white men, the doctors from Liberia who contracted the scourge, did not die from it. They lived. Their blood was powerful. Their blood was able to fight the fever back.”  Mamadou paused. Then continued, “That’s what I need, your blood. I need it for me and I need it for my patients. Blood is the price for my help.”

I mused this over.  Asked what help he could give, Mamadou said his brother was a trucker who travelled back and forth to Bamako.  Currently he was in Guekedou, Guinea. If I got to him he could deliver me to Bamako.  Mamadou added that his brother would expect money.  And for getting to Guekedou,  Mamadou said a nephew regularly made the trip by back paths on a motorcycle.  Again for a fee his nephew could take me there.  I only pondered a short while.  “Agreed,” I sealed the deal.

In the morning, Mamadou sat me down and prepared to draw blood.  “Don’t worry,” he said, “I have done this before. My equipment is boiled clean. There will be no infection.”  I gritted my teeth, told him that I hated needles. “Then, don’t look,” he wisely advised.  Sadly, I did look, but it was over quickly.

That afternoon his nephew arrived as promised.  We skirted out of Kalihoun down forest paths, splashing though shallow streams and swarms of butterflies. We crossed several larger streams in pirogue canoes. The paddlers knew the drill. Theirs was a standing arrangement.  One time the motorcycle went in one boat and we in another.  It was all very efficient.  Apparently we crossed into Liberia first and then on into Guinea. I was mesmerized by the droning motor, the weak light probing ahead and the shear need to stay awake enough to hang on. We snuck into Guekedou just as first light was breasting the eastern sky.  I paid and tipped the nephew nicely as he turned me over to Mamadou’s brother.  Soon our truck headed north.  I was well hidden under the load in order to pass the border station into Mali.  Brother explained that the border was technically closed, however, “local considerations” took care of that.  Afternoon found me in Bamako.

Air France judged my Dad’s credit card was valid so sold me a ticket to New York.  Despite a bit of a hassle at the airport because I did not have Malian stamps in my passport, I left that night for Paris.

I am writing this summary of the past few days as I fly towards New York.  I don’t see it as a justification for my action, which was probably morally despicable. Rather this is an explanation, perhaps written with some premonition.

CDC CASE FILE 0044 of October 1, 2014.   The journal replicated above was found at the Econolodge near Kennedy airport amongst the belongings of James R. Greer of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Mr. Greer called 911 on September10, 2014 to report that he was sick, probably with Ebola.  Appropriate medical teams evacuated him to Jamaica Hospital, Queens where he lapsed into a coma and died on September 13.  Greer’s room was sanitized and tracing conducted for all his contacts. All of the passengers seated near him and the crew in the rear cabin of the Air France flight were isolated, similarly with the staff of the hotel. As of October 1, the taxi driver who drove Greer to the hotel has not been identified, however, given the passage of time it is improbable that he was infected.  French authorities traced possible contacts at Charles De Gaulle airport and with Air France staff in Bamako. Malian officials also tracked contacts in their nation.  Happily, no confirmed cases of Ebola have yet been identified arising from links to James R. Greer. Finally, interestingly, Mamadou Deng, the well known traditional healer from Kalihoun, Sierra Leone is reported to be a survivor of Ebola.