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.  

Friday, January 6, 2017

Chad - The Reality of Africa

This is a review of Ambassador to a Small World - Letters from Chad by Christopher E. Goldthwait, Vellum, Washington, D.C. 2015. Note that I did two stints at the U.S. embassy in Ndjamena, so can readily attest to the validity of this memoir. 

In this memoir Ambassador Chris Goldthwait recounts his nearly four years (2000-2003) as the U.S. envoy to Chad.  Among other things it is an interesting recitation of travels to exotic locations, often over difficult roads, in one of the world’s most out-the-way nations.  However, wherever he went - and he apparently went almost everywhere one could go in Chad - Goldthwait encountered friendly hospitable folks who always offered refreshments and food. He went to the stark northern deserts, to nomadic enclosures near Lake Chad, to Zakouma Park, to the far eastern border (before the area became inundated with refugees from Darfur) to the impoverished, neglected (but better watered) south, and to the oil fields both before and during exploitation. Goldthwait describes the protocols of ambassadorial travel in Africa - official calls on prefects and chiefs, meetings with elders, meetings with communities, meetings with civic groups - all replete with endless rounds of speeches, explanations and requests for assistance.  Goldthwait notes that the objective of such travel was to learn about the hinterland, about the people and their problems. He accomplished that, but a key impact of his visiting was simply for an American ambassador to be present.  Presence alone demonstrated that the wider world recognized the struggle of life in rural Africa and validation of the hopes and aspirations of its inhabitants. 

Goldthwait also provides wonderful descriptions of the capital city of Ndjamena and its residents ranging from the most distinguished to those of lesser means.  Additionally, through Goldthwait’s eyes the reader gains solid insights into Chad’s turbulent history, its relations with France and with neighbors, its troubled internal politics, and its near constant state of conflict and rebellion.  Despite faltering, the ambassador saw some progress and more avenues for additional progress as Chad slowly sheds its provincialism and emerges more fully into the modern world. 

While the memoir describes the life of an ambassador - and Goldthwait made clear that he disliked some aspects of the job - it does pose and ponder a number of questions related to American policy toward Chad, whether democracy objectives are obtainable, whether international oversight of Chad’s oil revenues is workable, and whether western development assistance is the right approach to the pervasive problems of poverty.

The memoir is constructed by juxtaposing a series of letters that the Ambassador wrote to friends back home.  Although while taken together the letters provide a cohesive portrait, they appear in the book in a non-chronological order. A reader can get confused about what happened when. Also there is a bit of redundancy as various letters re-plow the same ground.  That being said, the book is a must read for any outsider on his way to Chad, but it is also relevant to those who want to understand Africa and/or the roles that United States ambassadors play there.