Tuesday, December 2, 2014

War and Afterwads in Sudan - an extraordinary life

A review of The Red Pelican - Life on Africa’s Last Frontier by Jon Arensen, Old Africa Books, Naivasha, Kenya, 2013.

 This book is a biography with elaborations and dialogue like it might have been.  It tells the tale of Dick Lyth, an Englishman imbued with missionary zeal who, in 1939, set out to minister to Africans in southern Sudan.  Before he could barely get started, World War II began and he offered his services to the crown.   He was commissioned into the Sudan Defense Forces and given the task of securing the south eastern border from aggression from Italian troops based in Ethiopia.  This was not as easy task nor was it easily done because initially Lyth had no troops to command.  However, he recruited among southern tribesmen and soon patched together and trained a small force.   Next was the problem of getting to the border, which was hundreds of miles away across roadless barren desert and waterless plains.  They marched.  Indeed throughout this saga the feats of human endurance that are recounted are amazing.

Climbing to the Boma Plateau on the Ethiopian border, Lyth made friends with the Murle inhabitants and enlisted several in the war effort.  Outgunned by the better equipped Italian led forces, Lyth - completely on his own - devised a hit-and-run guerilla campaign that kept the enemy at bay and in retreat for months until a larger Allied Force could push into Ethiopia and remove the menace.  Lyth subsequently transferred into the colonial administrative service and served as district commissioner for this remote area for the next ten years.  Indeed eastern southern Sudan was then and perhaps still is among the most remote and neglected parts of Africa.  The D.C.’s principal job was to keep the peace and to regulate disputes among the tribes.  Lyth was excellent at this. He understood, listened and was Solomonic in judgment.  As evidence of respect he was given the name Red Pelican by Murle elders. Lyth married his English sweetheart and they raised three children in the isolated administrative towns where they lived.  After an astonishing career, following the independence of Sudan in 1956 Lyth resigned from the colonial service, took Holy Orders and later became the Anglican bishop of Kigezi, Uganda.

This biography is replete with stories of bravery, endurance, cultural tolerance, big game hunting, and governing issues.   It was a time of imperialism, when British rule was uncontested.   The book paints an accurate picture of what life was like, both for the Europeans and the Africans, during this epoch and place. 

The writing was a little turgid at times, but the story line held my interest.  The map in the book was inadequate for the task of locating the action.  Finally, I discovered one geographic error, when the author described Lyth’s initial posting in 1939 to south western Sudan “along the borders of Uganda, Congo and the Central African Republic.”  In those days the CAR was known as Oubangui-Chari.

Those in search of obscure, but real stories about Africa in days gone by will find this a fascinating read.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ebola - Back from the Hot Zone

 A retired ambassador I was in charge of the U.S. embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone for several weeks in August and September.  Following is some background on the rapidly changing situation there. I have been home now for more than twenty-one days and did return before the Ebola hysteria mushroomed in the U.S. 

Last August in Sierra Leone the infection rate for Ebola was doubling every week. Hundreds were already dead and a thousand more sick with the deadly disease.  The country was in shock, the populace scared and apprehensive, the government confused and the international community ill prepared to deal with the scourge.  American authorities were slow in understanding how quickly the malady was spreading and what its impact would be.  A crisis of this sort was not something we diplomats trained for, but the first order of business was to put our house -  our embassy -  in order and to re-focus on an appropriate response.   Accordingly, Peace Corps Volunteers were sent home and embassy families were re-located to the U.S.  We advised citizens not to travel to the region and, if they were already there to leave if convenient.  However, most of the approximately four thousand Americans in Sierra Leone are dual nationals and many of them are minors. The embassy declared an “emergency,” a formality that permitted USAID to respond with disaster assistance funding.   At the chancery we began a series of educational discussions designed to insure that all employees, both American and Sierra Leonean, knew what Ebola was, how it was transmitted and how to avoid contamination.  We stressed “don’t touch sick people, don’t touch the dead.”  We also trained a team to wear protective gear and put into place visitor screenings and contingency plans should a contact or an infected person enter the premises.  We deemed that our consular operation where dozens of folks applied for visas daily to be our most vulnerable point, but judged it necessary to continue operations.  Even as we took these precautions at the chancery itself, embassy personnel engaged intensely with Sierra Leonean authorities from the President on down and the donor community with regard to strategies, policies and mechanisms designed to curb the outbreak.   Unfortunately, nobody really knew the dimensions of the problem or how to deal with it on the scale required.  Clearly human resources, i.e. health care workers, the necessary equipment  - protective gear, gloves, body bags, laboratory supplies, disinfectants, etc. - and sufficient beds in properly managed isolation and treatment centers were in short supply. 

By mid-August all were acutely aware that the situation was spiraling out of control.  The numbers of sick and dead from the hard hit eastern regions were growing astronomically and cases were beginning to popup in the densely populated capital.  The international press publicized the situation. African neighbors ostracized the three core countries. Most international flights were cancelled.  The government adopted stringent measures.  Chlorine hand washing stations were required at all buildings.   Public meetings, gatherings and sporting events were banned. Schools closed indefinitely. Travel to and from the interior was constrained.  All illnesses were to be reported to authorities, likewise all deaths.  Traditional funerals and funeral rites were banned. The dead were to be collected and buried by trained teams wearing protective gear. A nation-wide campaign was undertaken to educate the populace about the disease.  In September there was a nationwide stand down so that Ebola education teams could visit every household.  Meanwhile, the government and the World Health Organization (WHO) in conjunction with international partners invigorated the response mechanism with new leadership.  Visits by UN Ebola czar David Nabarro and CDC Director Tom Frieden underscored both the urgency of the crisis and the commitment of the international community to be supportive.   By September that support was beginning to flow in a steady manner. 

Fortunately, CDC was ahead of the curve and by early August already had a number of epidemiologists and other experts, between 20 and 30, on site. They were instrumental in helping to establish the first isolation and treatment centers. Working with the national Emergency Operation Center they helped to define policies and priorities.   They were hands on in establishing laboratories, reporting mechanisms and statistical compilations.  A CDC team worked closely with airport authorities to ensure that screening for travelers met the highest standards. A four person Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) from USAID soon arrived and began the process of ordering and coordinating the delivery of quantities of necessary supplies.  We were also successful in getting five ambulances transferred to the Sierra Leonean army from the Department of State controlled regional peacekeeping stockpile.  We also made arrangements for specialized training for Sierra Leonean military personnel engaged in providing security in and around the isolation and treatment centers in the quarantined zone.    Subsequently all of these undertakings have expanded.  Now, even the U.S. military is deploying personnel and resources to aid in the response.  American efforts have been complimented by other donors, foremost the UN family led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank. Additionally, the U.K. Ireland, China, the EU and others have all played a part.  A number of health professionals from elsewhere in Africa have also volunteered to serve.  Yet the anti-Ebola effort remains mostly a Sierra Leonean affair.  At least ninety percent of the crucial health care providers are locals and health care personnel have borne the brunt of the casualties.  Virtually all of the contact tracers, ambulance personnel and burial teams are local. More people are being recruited and trained for all of these tasks.  The number of treatment beds is expanding. The population is acutely aware of the reality of Ebola.  Hysteria and rumor that characterized earlier times have subsided to be replaced by stoicism while waiting for an uncertain future.   So far, although we may be gaining a little, it is still not enough. New infections continue to outpace the response. 

The cost to Sierra Leonean society is high.  People no longer touch in greeting.  No handshake is a ever present reminder of the crisis. How to reconcile the need to care for sick family with the stricture of not to touch?  How to conform to the directive of don’t wash or bury the dead, when traditional culture requires that?   With no schools families are hard pressed to monitor their children.  Imagine the disruption this generates.  Fear of Ebola has meant the collapse of the non-Ebola health care system.  Hospitals and clinics have closed because staff have no preparation or equipment to deal with feverish walk-ins.  So malaria, measles, flu are untreated not to mention heart attacks, injuries, and maternity cases.  Food is in short supply in the cities as transportation links to rural areas degrade.  Similarly, regional transportation throughout West Africa is stalled, exports affected and the economy spirals downward.  Lack of international personnel, business travelers and visitors has hit the hospitality industry hard.  Hotels and restaurants are empty.  Banks have limited hours. All of this, but especially the specter of the unknown - will I get infected? Will my family? Will I have a job? How safe am I? -  result in great apprehension.  Personal relationships are suffering and discrimination against families with known cases, survivors and even health care workers is evident. People feel victimized by God, by the devil, by fate, by government, by politicians, by the international community, and by neighbors.  So a sense of helplessness grows.  So far this has not yet resulted in social chaos, but it might.  One has to hope that the Sierra Leonean strength of character, tempered as it has been by a terrible civil war, will prevail.   However, at the end - when it comes, when Ebola is conquered - a massive undertaking will be required to heal the national psyche as well as to rebuild the economy.  

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.      

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Congo Revealed - Some Glory, Lots of Pain

This is a review of Congo - the Epic History of a People by David van Reybrouck, Harper Collins, NY, 2014.

This book provides a fascinating look into the Congo’s turbulent history.  Rather than an academic recitation of facts and faces, the author strove to piece together the fabric of the Congo’s past by linking together anecdotes and memories of people who were actually there.  Imagine how enormous was the task to find and interview such persons - people who essentially constituted the oral repository of the last hundred years.  Yet van Reybrouck found them, even a man who had encountered Henry Morton Stanley in the waning years of the 19th century.   Other interlocutors remembered building the railroads, being the first person in school, fighting WWII in Ethiopia,  laboring in the mines, organizing unions, being persecuted, or elevated, by colonial authorities and the nascent political awakenings of  the post war era.  Independence era memories of men in close proximity to Kasavubu, Lumumba and Mobutu provided insight into their motivations and foibles.  Similarly, additional interviews moved the story forward in time through the Mobutu years to the coming of the Kabilas. The vibrancy of personal recollections gives this book a special aura. Moreover the aura is Congolese because the folks interviewed were/are Congolese. The author reported their perceptions of their history even as he wove those memories into the more sterile historical record.   The sum then becomes more than the parts and the result is a definitive epic - just as the subtitle indicates. 

Although political history is fully recounted, the social aspects of past times were elucidating. What did Congolese people think about Europeans?  and vice versa?  Van Reybrouck makes no apologies for Belgian’s colonial rule, but he does dissect the colonial era carefully; usefully adding recollections from Belgians - including his own father - which show a more human side to the stark version of authoritarianism that is standard historical fare. 

The treatise elaborates on the roles that popular music, sports, i.e. soccer, and religion - Catholics, Protestants, Kimbanguists, Pentecostals and other syncretic sects played in the evolution of society, and of politics.   Similarly, the book covers the rise of tribalism, the phenomenon that plagues the Congo today, but which grew from a number of factors including slavery, urbanism, modern politics and poverty. 

Clearly any history of the Congo has to study political non-functionality and corruption.  These themes pervade the book. Corruption began with Leopold’s Free State, continued with Belgian monopolies, was adapted by Congolese politicians who seized assets for their own use, was refined in Mobutu’s system of control via payoffs, and culminated in the more recent scramble for minerals by warlords and neighboring authorities from Rwanda and Uganda.   Dysfunctional politics too track the same trajectory wherein the need to control, and survive, outweighed any responsibilities to the community or society at large.  The Congo did not fall into an economic and political abyss overnight. Its leaders, with at minimum the acquiescence of the people, took it there.   Van Reybrouck’s book is a history, so does not propose solutions, but it does give readers an appreciation for the complexities of the current situation and of the hurdles that the nation faces as it tries to move forward.

The sections about the fall of Mobutu, the Rwandan/Ugandan invasion, the coming of Laurent Kabila, succession by his son Joseph and conflict in Kivus provide background on recent events.  By and large van Reybrouck gets the facts right, and he does produce some interesting anecdotes, but he does err in adopting assertions by fellow countrymen Reyntjens and Braeckman both regarding the number of Rwandan refugees that died in the conflagration (he uses the inflated number of 300,000 that was bandied about at the time, but that has been subsequently  scrutinized closely) and the role of the U.S. government during that conflict (allegations that U.S. troops and equipment were involved are simply false).   Knowing that van Reybrouck got his facts wrong on those issues, raises the question of credibility throughout the book.  What else is misreported?   

The book closes with a rather strange chapter that discusses the presence of Congolese traders in China, their puzzlement with that society and their efforts to buy goods wholesale for shipment home.  Although it is good to know that entrepreneurs are out there, I suppose the relevance of the ending is that whatever the disaster of the homeland, some of the Congolese people remain vibrant and forward looking.   

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Adventure Fiction set in Kenya

Following is a review of Assegai  by Wilbur Smith, St. Martins Press, NY, 2009.


Smith has his formula for adventure action books down pat. This one is no exception.   Set in Kenya before World War One, the author weaves his story around actual historical figures such as Lord Delamare, President Roosevelt and Colonel Lettow von Vorbeck.  However, the tale’s main characters are fictional and often outrageously so. They are too handsome, too honorable, too cruel, too evil, too knowledgeable, too brave, or too beautiful. Even so their entrance and exit from the plot provides the pace of the story.

The basic plot revolves around a stock Smith character this time Leon Courtney, a young man who comes into his own as a hero, hunter and spy.   He kills many animals - always minutely described - beds a series of women, relies on his African guides for bush and cultural savvy and despite flirting with disastrous failure time and again, ultimately succeeds in all endeavors.  As noted, it is a well told tale.

Assegai is fiction so the author can create geography, which he does.  He also throws in a bit of Swahili, which helps shore up the Kenyan setting , but the title is strange.  Assegai is a Zulu word from southern Africa that is the name for a stabbing spear used there.   Although the Masai people of Kenya also use a similar weapon, the Swahili name for that spear is mkuki or fumo, neither of which, I guess, are as recognizable to modern readers as assegai.  I first picked up the book thinking it was about southern Africa.  

Wilbur Smith’s novels always require a certain suspension of belief by the reader, but his African settings are valid and his tales move along.  Assegai is a great beach or airplane book.   

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Kenyan History and Mystery

 A review of The Ghosts of Happy Valley - Searching for the Lost World of Africa’s Infamous Aristocrats,  by Juliet Barnes, Aurum Press, London, 2013.


This is a difficult book to categorize. It is part history, part speculation, part gossip, part travelogue and part a glimpse into contemporary rural Kenya.   However, all of the parts do come together in a satisfactory fashion.   The author undertook to visit the colonial era houses of Kenya’s infamous Happy Valley set, both to see what has happened to the buildings, but also to see if an inquiry into places and memories of the times would shed light on the 1941 unsolved murder of Joss Hay, the Earl of Erroll.

Author Barnes was spurred on in her quest by Solomon Gitau, a conservationist from the area without whom entre into the decaying houses and to the lives - and the memories - of the people who live there today simply would not have been possible.  Barnes complimented her research through numerous contacts with European settlers and their descendants who shared reminiscences of the long ago times.

Barnes’ book focused on three epochs.  First the 1920s and 30s, the heyday of the drunken parties, orgies, partner swapping and such carrying on that gave Europeans in Kenya a scandalous reputation.  Idina Hay, her house at Slains, and Alice de Janze, hers at Wanjohi, were prominent femme fatales of those times.  This decadent group gave Kenyan settlers notoriety, but as people aged, died, divorced and remarried, their shenanigans faded away, especially after the murder of Hay and the intrusion of war.

The second epoch Barnes reveals in the book is that of post war Kenya , the era of prosperous farming - and non-scandalous social life - when the great estates of thousands of acres were carved up into still large farms for demobilized British soldiers. This era morphed into the Mau Mau years when the region under the Aberdare Forests was under siege by Kikuyu nationalists/terrorists.   

The third time frame is the current one where Kikuyu small holdings blanket the landscape.  Some of the old houses remain. They were  hard to find. Most were decayed, including Clouds, Idina’s second home. Some have become schools or clinics, but only one, Kipipiri, former residence of Sir John Ramsden, retained a semblance of its former grandeur.   However, the value of the contemporary epoch was the glimpse into the everyday lives of the current residents.  Life is hard scrabble; there is little work aside from subsistence farming or charcoal making.  The pristine environment of yore is only a memory.  Families are large, schools are poor and prospects limited.  Yet Ms. Barnes and her many visitors over the years were hospitably received.  Solomon helped locate elders who for the most part fondly recalled the denizens of Happy Valley.  Indeed those who remembered specific individuals were children or youngsters themselves in the 20s and 30s. The elders recalled with more clarity the Mau Mau years and their participation or not in events of those times.  

The author returns throughout to the problem of who killed Joss Hay.  His murder in Karen, on the outskirts of Nairobi, has been the subject of many books and lots of theories.  One set of theories revolves around motives of jealousy or revenge in which at least a half dozen suspects could be guilty. The second theory is that he was assassinated by British agents on account of his Fascist views and danger to the war effort in east Africa.   Barnes assembles lots of information, but makes no conclusion.

 As a Peace Corps volunteer in the late sixties I lived in several old European homesteads while building water systems in western Kenya for the million acre settlement scheme.  Happy valley, the Wanjohi valley, the Ol Kalou salient and the Kinangop, areas that Barnes visited, were all part of settlement.  Certainly some of my Peace Corps colleagues probably stayed in houses she visited before they were turned over to Kenyan owners.  All this is to say that I wondered, but never knew, who built those edifices we inhabited and what their lives were like.  This book helps fill those gaps.

I found the portrait of contemporary Kenya edifying. Obviously, settlement as envisaged for the million acre scheme in the early sixties failed.  The idea was that African farmers endowed with fairly good sized plots of 40 acres or so would constitute a yeomanry - a rural middle class.  In the Aberdares area they would grow pyrethrum, wheat or potatoes and keep dairy cattle or sheep. They would become relatively prosperous.   Perhaps that was true for the first generation, but  even then many plot holders were absentee “big men”  who settled poor relations on their farms.  And after the loans were paid off either the legal entailments ceased or they were just ignored.  In any case today the settlement areas are no different from the rest of rural Kenya.  Plots have been subdivided time and again. They are barely viable for subsistence agriculture. The area is overcrowded, the land degrading, the forest disappearing and the long term prospects are, sadly, only more of the same. 

My editorializing aside, I did enjoy this book.  It is a bit disconnected at times as it jumps back and forth depending upon who is being interviewed or reported upon, but  the theme of houses and history against the backdrop of current times remains vibrant.