Sunday, October 11

ALDS Game 3-- This is Terrifying

It’s time for Jose Melendez’s KEYS TO THE ALDS.

1. Jose is terrified of tonight’s game. Not a little scared. Not badly frightened.


Jose has never been so terrified by a game in his entire life. Not in 1986, not in 2003, not even in 2004.

Tonight. Tonight is more terrifying.

It’s not that Jose is afraid of losing. Jose knows how to handle a loss… with great bitterness and by taking it out on the people around him.

It’s not that Jose is afraid that a loss means that winter has arrived. Jose lives in the south now; winter never arrives. Not real winter anyway.

It’s not that Jose is afraid that this is the last time he’ll see Jason Bay, Jason Varitek or anyone else named Jason in a Red Sox uniform. There are plenty of other Jasons out there, and all of them except Jason Marquis are better than what’s left of Tek.

No, the reason Jose is terrified is that to survive, the Red Sox are going to have to win three straight elimination games against the Angels, and you know what that means.


When the Red Sox complete the comeback, history suggests that some poor soul on the Angels is going to die by his own hand.

It’s awful.

Say whatever you want about the Yankees, but they know how to take a bone crushing, soul-destroying defeat, by being contemptible, whiny, but decidedly non-suicidal bitches. Good for them.

But the Angles? When the Angels lose three straight elimination games to the Sox, there’s always a chance that someone is going to take the name “Angels” a little too literally and is going to go for the quick path to the halo.

Jose just hopes that they have a good psychologist on staff.

2. Friday night started with such promise. As Jose drove to Raleigh to watch the game with members of the Triangle Red Sox Nation, he got regular updates on the Yankees collapse from Granny Melendez on the phone direct from Atlanta.

While Granny Melendez doesn’t have the finer points of baseball down and can’t always explain exactly what’s happening on the field, she can convey basic information such as the score and the inning in a pleasant and listenable way. In other words, she is a vastly superior broadcaster to Suzyn Waldman.

So as Jose drove, Granny Melendez informed him that the Twins had crept to a 2-1 lead and then a 3-1 lead. Jose even got her to say “Yankees Suck.” Admittedly, he tricked her.

“How about you give Jose a Yankees suck Granny Melendez?” Jose said.

“Yankees suck?” responded Granny Melendez, not sure that she had heard correctly.

“That’s the spirit, Yankees suck!” chimed in Jose.

“Oh, Granny Melendez, doesn’t like that phrase,” she replied in the third person as is Melendez family tradition. “She prefers Yankees stink.”

“Too late, Jose gets to quote you now.”

“Don’t do that.”

And yet here it is. Jose denied a request from his own grandmother. It’s not Jose’s fault, she should have said it was off the record.

3. No more jokes.
No more puns.
No more scoring zero runs.
When the anthem’s last note sounds
Red Sox need to bat around

No more KEYS to
No more games
No more Sox fans feeling shame
Since we’ve got the wild card
Clay Buchholz is throwing hard

No more losses
Errors too
No much giving up runs to
Angles batters, not at all
Because they can’t take a ball

No more squanders
No more LOBs
No more doing crappy jobs
Of taking bases, driving runs
When something wicked this way comes.

I’m Jose Melendez, and those are my KEYS TO THE ALDS.

Friday, October 9

ALDS Game 2--Incompetence Rewarded

It’s time for Jose Melendez’s KEYS TO THE ALDS.

1. By the time Darren Oliver—freaking Darren Oliver—recorded the last out the bar had changed.

The night had begun as a gathering of grizzled Red Sox fans chugging Yuenglings and chomping on chicken wings cursing C.B. Bucknor, John Lackey and Torii Hunter all the while. But as the night wore on the undergrads flowed in. Young women dressed to the nines, despite being at a bar with sticky floors and sticky palmed frat boys stumbled in in packs like hyenas, cackling incomprehensible. The men in white caps, polo shirts and sweaters joined quickly enough, looking for all the world like everything wrong with America. Entitlement, arrogance, stupid looking caps.

It was, in a way, a metaphor for what had transpired in far away Anaheim that evening. A night had begun with one expectation had ended as something different, something sadder. Just as night with friends became a night surrounded by youth in the full flower of ignorance, a night to celebrate the glory of baseball and the Red Sox in particular had become a night to begrudge, to carp and to complain.

But thankfully, that is not where the metaphor ends. Come two in the morning, the undergrads are gone, and the bar has returned to its lonely natural state with naught but a urine filled trash can as a reminder of what came before. It is the same way with the ALDS. Today is not yesterday, the aggravations of Game 1 are gone, relics of history leaving behind nothing but the urine filled trashcan of a 1-0 deficit. Yesterday was bad; today will be better… It has to be.

2. Among the sub-dramas in last night’s game were the two blown calls by first base umpire C.B. Bucknor.

Bucknor is on the officiating crew for this series, despite being named in a 2006 Sports Illustrated players survey as the worst umpire in the majors, and possibly the universe. At first it might seem counterintuitive to reward massive incompetence with a prestigious job, but Jose would argue that not only is it not unprecedented, it is practically standard practice in this country. Consider the following examples:

• Robert McNamara and Paul Wolfowitz screw up wars royally and get to run the World Bank.
• Grady Little after making one of the dumbest moves in history gets a job managing the Los Angeles Dodgers.
• After staring in Joey, Matt LeBlanc gets a new sitcom.
• Fugitive Roman Polanski wins an Oscar and gets a standing ovation.
• Approximately 10 billion CEO’s who ran their companies into the ground get golden parachutes.
• George W. Bush is reelected in 2004 after screwing up the Iraq war and seeming generally clueless.

Still for every one of these injustices there is a reason that it happened. McNamara and Wolfowitz were being rewarded for loyalty. Little was being rewarded for Frank McCourt being very, very stupid, and basically the front man for his wife. LeBlanc was being rewarded for having once been on a successful show carried by other people. Polanski was being rewarded for Hollywood being full of degenerates. CEOs were being rewarded for being smart enough to rig the game. Bush, of course, was rewarded for hating gays or possibly terrorists.

So the lesson is that people are rewarded for incompetence happens all the time but that there is always a reason for it. The question is what is the reason in the case of one C.B. Bucknor? Jose wonders if his initials, which are not even explained on wikipedia might hold the clue. Jose has come up with a few theories:

1. Cuckolding Bud: For years, Bucknor has been sexually servicing commissioner Bud Selig’s wife, which, unsurprisingly, is the sort of thing Bud digs.

2. Cortland Brotherhood: Bucknor attend SUNY Cortland, and as we all know Cortland’s secret societies run the world.

3. Crack Baby: A crack baby made the decisions on who would umpire playoff games. Literally, an infant born addicted to crack chose Bucknor to be a playoff umpire. This seems like the most sensible option.

4. Coke Bottles: He’s a perfectly good umpire when wearing his Coke bottle glasses, but he doesn’t wear them because they make him look like a nerd. This doesn’t really make any sense, but Jose is a traditionalist and he doesn’t really see how you can mock an umpire without suggesting that he is blind.

5. Crazy Bitches: Man, the people who choose umpires are some crazy bitches.

6. Corns and Bunions: A better umpire was unavailable due to foot problems.

See, there are lots of perfectly reasonable explanations for why the worst umpire in baseball would be rewarded for his poor job performance by umpiring a playoff game. But Jose is going with cuckolding Bud. The only question is whether the commissioner also turns a blind eye to the use of performance enhancing drugs in the bedroom.

3. The big news this morning was that Victor Martinez will indeed catch St. Josh a Beckett in tonight’s critical second game of the ALDS. There had been speculation that Sox manager Tito Eurona might go with the corpse of Jason Vartiek in deference to Beckett’s preference for having base runners steal at every opportunity and having balls sneak by the catcher in critical situations.

The question of course, is whether Beckett will be comfortable with Martinez behind the plate. On the face of it, “Are you comfortable?” is an absurd question to ask in this situation. Maybe it’s appropriate to ask when you’ve invited a friend to take a seat or if you’re a doctor performing a colonoscopy, but to ask a pitcher? It’s kind of weird. Nevertheless, the issue seems to be there, so Jose wants to offer a few things for Beckett to remember if he starts feeling uncomfortable.

• Victor means “one who wins.” Jason means guy who ran all of Greece looking for wool made out of gold—not that bright.
• Heidi Whatney ditched Tek, who left his wife for her, to be with Nick Green. You’ll never see Chris Woodward taking Victor Martinez’ girl.
• The C on Varitek’s jersey does not stand for comfortable. Try to remember that.
• Victor Martinez isn’t great at blocking balls or throwing people out, but he can hit. Jason Vartiek… well, he punched A-Rod in the face once. We all enjoyed that.

So relax Josh. Get comfortable, and remember, it’s not like you’ve never thrown to another catcher in the post season. You threw to Ivan Rodriguez in 2003, and as Jose recalls, that worked out pretty well.

I’m Jose Melendez, and those are my KEYS TO THE ALDS.

Thursday, October 8

ALDS GAME 1--No More Playing the Angles

It’s time for Jose Melendez’s KEYS to the ALDS.

1. Well, this feels kind of familiar doesn’t it?

Jose, who let’s be honest, is aging worse than the bastard child of Curt Euro and Jim Rice, doesn’t have the fastball anymore, so he figured he could rely on trickery to fight his way through the playoffs this year.

The trickery he had in mind was going back to the ALDS KEYS from 2004, 2007 and 2008 to see if there was anything he could just recycle from past ALDS KEYS about the Angels.

No, is the answer. No there is not.

Jose has nothing that he hasn’t regurgitated at least once already. Basically, it’s all about Angles and Normans, Harold and William the Conqueror, and frankly its tired, somnolent even. One can only reference wrestling legend Norman the Lunatic in the context of the Norman invasion of the British Isles so many times (note: once) before it stops being funny or even mildly ironic.

So that’s it. No more. Jose will no longer pretend that the name of the team that our beloved Red Sox are playing this week is the Angles rather than the Angels. Nor will he claim that we are playing the Gleans, the Slag En or any other anagram you can come up with.

No, Jose will actually accept that we are playing a team of creatures that are small enough to dance on the head of a pin and look remarkably like John Travolta circa 1996 or so.

This does raise some serious questions for the series, however. For instance, if a whole bunch of angels can dance on the head of a pin, doesn’t this mean that they will have very small strike zones? How will this affect Dice-K’s ability to throw strikes? Is Michael Napoli the archangel Michael? You know, the warrior guy? Jose is just saying that he doesn’t look so tough.

The challenges run deeper than that though. When Jose thought they were Angles, the key to victory was simple, conquer their island and intermarry with them. But now? Angels don’t live on an island, and as best Jose knows, they don’t marry, so what do we do?

The best Jose can come up with is… bear with Jose… driving a stake through their hearts. Jose is pretty sure he saw a TV show once, Buffy something, where there was a guy named Angel, who Jose figures must be an angel, you know because of his name, who got killed when a blonde chick shoved a stake through his heart.

Jose knows it doesn’t sound quite right, more vampire than angel, but even when this guy Angel got killed or vanquished, which seemed like it happened about a million times, he always seemed to come back a year or so later, just like the Los Anaheim Angels, so Jose thinks he’s on to something.

So Jose says we should go with the stakes, either that or pitching, timely hitting and not playing Tek.

2. In Siren of the Titans Kurt Vonnegut wrote of Angels

There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.

It is a fair point. As Jose contemplates the Los Anaheim Angels’ legacy of postseason defeat at the hands of the Red Sox, a string of futility that has seen them win only one of their last 12 postseason meetings, he begins to wonder if Vonnegut isn’t right. Perhaps the Angels’ struggles are a function of organization as much as anything else. Certainly this was the case with the Red Sox in the era that ended in 2004. No matter how gifted the team was it was never well organized. The owner, the rock upon which an organization rests, was always either a drunk, or a racist, or the widow of a drunk or a racist, or the accountant of the widow of a drunk or a racist. And this disorganization flowed downward into managers who were drunks or racists, or who managed like the widow of a drunk or a racist or occasionally were neither drunks nor racists, but did enjoy the burning high of the coca leaf milled powder fine. (Note: Sorry Butch.) The base coaches were probably mostly assholes too, but who can remember?

The results of the disorganization were predictable—failure after failure, loss after loss, heartbreak after heartbreak. But when ownership changed, then management changed (note: after 2003) and then outcomes changed. The Red Sox became the sorts of cold blooded assassins who could let an aging Pedro Martinez walk away or cast DLowe the Paranoid Android into the icy void. And three years later, they won it all again.

But the Angles? The Angles do not appear to be organized like the mafia. For instance, imagine the classic opening scene from The Godfather if Mike Scioscia replaced Vito Corelone.

BONASERA: I -- I went to the police, like a good American... And those two bastards
they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, "for justice, we must go to Don Scioscia."

MIKE SCIOSCIA (sitting behind his desk, petting a cat): Why did you go to the police? I wouldn’t have gone to the police. What you should have done was first gone to the pawnshop and gotten a pair of brass knuckles for your left hand. Then you should have traded them in for a pair of brass knuckles for your right hand. Then you should have traded those back for a different left-handed pair. Why didn't you come to me first, I could have told you how to do things much better than you did them.

BONASERA: What do you want of me? Tell me anything. But do what I beg you to do.

MIKE SCIOSCIA: What is that?

[Bonasera gets up to whisper his request into Don Scioscia’s ear]

That I cannot do. But I have a better way to do it. It doesn’t involve so much… force… but it involves a lot of running. Running this way, then the other way. Maybe some hit and running even.

BONASERA: I'll give you anything you ask.

MIKE SCIOSCIA: We've known each other many years, but this is the first time you came to me for counsel, for help, for assistance, for advice, for ideas…But let's be frank here: you never wanted my friendship. And uh, you were afraid to be in my debt. And that’s really too bad because I have a lot of really good ideas. I’m incredibly smart. Smarter than you. So smart that I won the 2002 World Series.

BONASERA: I didn't want to get into trouble.

MIKE SCIOSCIA: I understand. That’s why I like the hit and run. Keeps you out of double plays… or sometimes it gets you into double plays, which I like to call double trouble. But uh, now you come to me and you say -- "Don Scioscia give me justice." -- But you don't ask with respect. You don't offer friendship. You don't even think to call me Manager. Instead, you come into my house on the day of ALDS game 1, and you uh ask me to do murder, for money.

BONASERA: I ask you for justice.

MIKE SCIOSCIA: Technically, that is not justice; your daughter is still alive. Also do you really want David Justice, he only stole 53 bases in his entire career? That’s pathetic, stolen bases are so important.

BONASERA: Then they can suffer then, as she suffers. How much shall I pay you?

MIKE SCIOSCIA (stands, turning his back toward Bonasera): Bonasera... Bonasera... What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?

BONASERA: Be my friend -- (then, after bowing and the Don shrugs) -- Manager?

MIKE SCIOSCIA (after Bonasera kisses his hand): Good. Some day, and that day may never come, but it probably will. I'll call upon you to do a service for me. But uh,
until that day -- accept this justice as a gift on the day of the ALDS Game 1.

BONASERA (as he leaves the room): Grazie, Manager.

(then, to Tom Hagen, after Bonasera leaves the room)

Ah, give this to ah, Clemenza. I want reliable people. But then if he doesn’t get it done give it to Tessio, but if Tessio doesn’t look so good, go out and visit him, and then if he still doesn’t look so good visit him again and then take him off the and give it to Luca Brasi. And make sure they bring a baseball bat, but I don’t want them to swing the bat… too risky. Instead have them play it safe and just sort of tap these guys with bat, softly. Maybe our guy will get arrested, but it will be a productive arrest. I just want to make sure that we run a mafia the right way. Like the old time mafia. You know, maybe I’ll go and supervise, offer some pointers. Could David Eckstein do the job?

You can begin to see the contours of the problem now can’t you? This sort of organizational structure is too top down and too micromanaged to successfully rough up anybody, much less run rackets.

The flip side, of course, is that if Don Corleone or any other really top flight Mafiosi had been managing the angels for the last five years, the Angels would have absolutely beaten the Red Sox after Manny Ramirez freaked out when he found the carburetor from his prized Cadillac in his bed.

3. In his column yesterday in the Orange County Register, Bill Plunkett asked a provocative question: “Are the Red Sox inside the Angels’ heads?” At first it seems stupid, idiotic really. How could an entire baseball team fit inside a man’s head? But then you realize that it’s a metaphor and you always take things way too literally after 12 beers.

Which leaves the question, well it leaves the question the next morning anyway: Are the Red Sox figuratively inside the Angels heads?

And the answer is yes. Yes they are. After perusing the DSM-IV, Jose has concluded that the Angels collectively are suffering from hydrophobia. Wait, never mind, that’s rabies. The Angels don’t have rabies, that’s the Yankees, well Joba anyway, drooling idiot.

What the Angels have is aquaphobia, a fear of water—dirty water in particular.

I’m Jose Melendez, and those are my KEYS TO THE ALDS.

Wednesday, September 2

Just Like Roosevelt

It’s time for Jose Melendez’s KEYS TO THE GAME.

1. Jonathan Papelbon picked up a six out save last night.

Think about that. Jonathan Papelbon picked up a six out save last night. Dick Radatz got six out saves, but Jonathan Papelbon? Not so much. If it didn’t stretch the limits of his endurance, it was only a 28-pitch outing, it at least pushed the limits of tradition. In fact, the precedents for such a brazen rejection of traditional boundaries are limited. Jose has done a little research and come up with the following comparables:
• 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt seeks, and wins an unprecedented third term as President.
• 1996 Jasmin St. Claire, rather than stopping at having sex with a virginal 250 men in a day, goes all the way to 300.
• 2001 Takeru Kobayashi does not stop after breaking the world hot dog eating record of 25 in 12 minutes, but continues to eat until he has doubled the 12-minute record.

What all of these feats have in common is that they required competitors to push themselves a little harder than normal, to take some risks in order to master the task at hand. Jose has no doubt then when Ms. St. Claire pursued the sex record, many of you were screaming “Get her out of there Tito, let Daniel Bard finish this one off” but sometimes that’s not how it works. Sometimes a champion just has to… extend… him or herself to do what needs to be done, and last night Jonathan Papelbon did just that.

The exception, of course, is the 2003 ALCS, when Grady Little asked Pedro to do more than was possible, infuriating sox fans and online sports bettors alike. That was like asking FDR to run for a fifth term post mortem, insisting that Jasmin St. Clair go for 500 or insisting that Kobayashi should replicate his feat with foot long dogs.

There’s good crazy (note: the kind that leads to slashing prices) and bad crazy (the kind that leads to slashing wrists) and it’s not always clear until after the fact what kind of crazy one is looking at.

2. Jose is much angrier in America then he is in Africa. Jose won’t say that he is happier at home, per se, just less angry. In Uganda, if there is electricity in the wires, water in the pipes and no parasites in the intestines, it’s going to be a good day. But almost as soon as Jose got off the plane in Boston a few weeks ago, his ability to take solace in the flow of electrons dissipated. Here, you see, we have baseball. And baseball, it turns out, makes Jose an angry man.

Leigh Montville, as Jose recalls, once wrote that every day he looked at the front page of the paper to makes sure we weren’t at war and then went to the sports. Jose has a similar philosophy. Every day, Jose looks at the front page, discovers that we are at war, twice, gets angry, and then goes to the sports section, where if the Red Sox have lost, he gets really angry. If they’ve won, his mood is moderated, maybe he’s even happy, but if they’re lost… look out. Angry, angry, angry.

Sometimes Jose will even get angry about being angry, but that’s a negative feedback loop, bad things leading to bad things, which lead to more bad things. It’s kind of like a Nick Green at bat.

This is where Jose should preach about how in living in a poor country made him see things differently and not only appreciate the little things, but reject foolish passions like sports and celebrity. But here’s the thing: It didn’t. If anything it made him appreciate the need for escapism, the need to, from time to time, substitute the emotions of others for one’s own. Do you think that the villagers in Uganda are any less in need of escapism then we are? In Uganda, people pay what little money they have to sit on hard wooden benches in a sticky, airless room and watch a soccer match. Do you think even Red Sox fans would do that for a ballgame? Well, yes, they do it at Fenway 81 times a year, but do you think they’d do it to watch the game on TV? Well, not the pink hats anyway.

The point is that people, all people, want escapism. We want to live vicariously at least some of the time. All of the accoutrement of the modern sports fan, the fantasy sports the online betting, they are but catalysts, enzymes of the mind designed to accelerated and intensify the vicarious thrill. But to live vicariously is to live dangerously, to cede control of a tiny portion of one’s personal sovereignty to something over which one has no control. Jose may not have much control over the electricity in Uganda, but at least Jose can juice up while the power is on; Jose can prepare for darker days ahead. But as a Red Sox fan, Jose has no choice but to live with the consequences of the actions of others. And this powerlessness, is infuriating; it is intoxicating.

It is what makes Jose love being a Red Sox fan, and it is what makes him angry. But it is a good kind of anger, a pleasantly impotent rage, a substitute for staring at the madness of this world, at Darfur, Burma or Afghanistan and going daft from the righteous anger raised by man’s inhumanity to man. It does not deaden Jose’s concern, but it does deaden his pain, and enables him to think rationally about the needs and the horrors of the world. Jose gets angry at the Red Sox so he can think clearly about the war, so that anger, an irrational emotion, spends its time directed towards an irrational game while the logical focuses on all the trouble in the world.

3. Congratulations to Jon Lester, who last night set the Red Sox record for strikeouts by a lefty in a single season. While setting any record for a baseball franchise that has existed for more than 100 years is impressive, this one is special. Setting a left handed pitching record on a team that has had, among its stars, a pitcher actually named “Lefty” is extraordinary. Really, they don’t call someone “Lefty” because he’s only okay with his left hand.

Think about it this way. Jacoby Ellsbury setting the Red Sox single season steal record was impressive, but it would have been so much more impressive if Tommy Harper had been nicknamed “Two Legs” Harper. (Note: As Jose recalls, Ellis Burks’ nickname should have been “Three Legs” Burks.) Or what if David Ortiz had taken the single season home run record from a man named “Gigantic Freaking Biceps” Foxx. Hell imagine if Julio Yugo had set an errors record by beating out Edgar “Girlie Arm” Renteria. Yes, Jose knows that the previous record did not belong to Lefty Grove, but the argument still holds. If you set a record at anything and beat out a guy who is named for the critical body part in the record setting act, you’ve done something pretty special.

I’m Jose Melendez, and those are my KEYS TO THE GAME.

Saturday, August 22

Of Skulls and Human Weakness

In Rwanda, they count lives in skulls. Each chalky gray orb is a person, a Yorick to some Hamlet who, alas, knew him.

They count lives in femurs too, at a rate of one to two. Each pair is a man, woman or child who used to kick a football, walk to school or run from danger

Each pelvis is a life as well, a person who danced, made love or bore children. The bones, the scaffolding that supports tired flesh, are all that remain of 800,000 people. The hearts that pumped blood, that kept the steady rhythm of life, are gone. The brains that mastered algebra or planned the harvest are gone. All that remains are the piles of bones—in memorials, in mass graves, in farmers’ fields. Like the fossils of dinosaurs, they are reminders of life driven from this good Earth, scientific proof that something ghastly transpired.

The power of the memorials to the victims of the Rwanda genocide is that, save for the genocide museum in Kigali, they are not museums or monuments—they are crime scenes. When I visited Auschwitz on a sunny July day, it was possible, to mistake the death camp for the military barracks it once was. Even the crematoria, if one did not know what they had once been used for, could have seemed innocent. Only the careful collection of eyeglasses and hair and the films of starving Jewish victims crammed into the barracks showed the grim reality of the place.

This is not the case in Rwanda. The sites of massacres look like there were massacres there. In Nyamata, a tidy town 35km from Kigali, there is a church where genocidaires murdered 10,000 people. One knows this not because of archival footage, photographs, documentation or even survivor testimony, but because the victims are there. Their skulls, their bones are neatly sorted and laid on musty shelves in the catacombs beneath the church. In the sanctuary, tattered, blood splattered clothes carpet the floor, proof that these are not the bones of people who died, but of people who were murdered, regular people who had sought sanctuary in a church.

Above it all stands a statute of the Virgin Mary, right where she was when she witnessed the massacre. Her mouth cannot scream, her eyes cannot cry but surely, if she is the mother of God, her heart must be bleeding,

A few kilometers back toward Kigali, the village of Ntarama, another crime scene, tells the same story. The Hutu genocidaires threw a grenade into the local church before coming in with the machetes and slaughtering 5,000 souls. In an annex to the church, the wall is still stained with the blood of a baby thrown against by a genocidaire who treated him like a sickly chick to be culled.

I had had enough. As I drove through the countryside, everywhere white banners with purple writing noted a genocide memorial, but I did not want to visit them. Neither macabre curiosity nor my sense of obligation to the victims could compel me. I did not need to visit the school where not only the skulls, but the bodies of victims remain, mummified by lime, as the ultimate evidence of the crime.

If one travels through Rwanda today without knowledge of its grim history and oblivious to the signs marking genocide memorials, it would be shocking to learn that the country had been the site of one of history’s greatest crimes. Of the 15 African countries I have visited a list that includes continental powerhouses South Africa and Egypt, Rwanda is by far the most orderly. Rwanda’s main roads are neatly paved and traffic laws are widely observed. Even in the provinces, motorcycle taxis will only take one passenger and both driver and passenger always wear helmets, as is required by law. Even stranger, the Toyota minibus taxis, ubiquitous throughout sub-Saharan Africa adhere strictly to the law that they may not carry more than 18 passengers. Elsewhere in Africa, if such laws exist, they police enforce them only to the extent that they are useful in gathering bribes. In Uganda, for example, squeezing 25 people into a minibus is common.

Rwanda’s obsession with order extends beyond traffic to environmentalism. In a highly publicized move, Rwanda banned plastic bags, a major source of litter in Africa, going so far as to inspect visitors at the border for the polyurethane contraband.

Paul Kagame’s Republic even has mandatory community service. On the last Saturday of every month, all business in the country screeches to a halt from eight to 11 in the morning for Umuganda. Even public transportation stops as the Rwandans pour into the streets to clean up their communities.

The combined result of these and other state policies is a country that is safe, clean and remarkably orderly, in the heart of a continent where disorder, if not chaos, is the norm. So how did orderly Rwanda, of all places in Africa, become a place where lives are counted in skulls? I do not know what Rwanda was like before the genocide, but President Paul Kagame’s success in imposing law on his country in a continent where law is as often as not, nothing more than a tool for extortion, makes me wonder if there is something in the Rwandan culture, that imbues its people with a profound respect for authority. Perhaps this respect for authority can serve the good, as people obey the law, but also the bad, as the same people unquestioningly obey the mad orders of a genocidal state?

As a counterfactual, I considered the example of Uganda. Uganda had its own near genocides, Idi Amin took 300,000 lives and Milton Obote another 100,000, but in both cases, the character of the killings was fundamentally different from the Rwandan genocide. In Uganda, the massacres were exercises of military power—ascendant ethnic groups used military might to exterminate their enemies. Civilians were not a major element of the death squads. In Rwanda, by contrast, much of Hutu society was mobilized in the killings. It was as much a civilian genocide as a military operation.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Rwanda and Germany, two countries where deference to authority is, or at least was, built into the national character are the settings for two genocides?

I asked Ignatius, my Muganda friend and traveling companion, if he could imagine a genocide on that model happening in Uganda.

“I do not think so,” he said. “Even if people hated the other tribes enough, which is possible, I do not think the Ugandan civilian population could be organized enough to do something like this. Maybe some people would participate, but most, would not. Even, I think, some who would want to kill would not have the organization to do what they planned. They would not manage to show up.”

In a way, it is a sick joke. The lateness, the disdain for authority, and the culture of bending rules that sometimes makes Uganda an infuriating place to live, may also provide a sort of protection against the worst possible outcome. A government that cannot make the trains run on time, may also struggle to make the death squads run on time. But in Rwanda, a country whose organization evokes the West, they have duplicated the greatest sins of Western civilization. Not only can they pave roads like us, they can kill like us.

But this is just a theory, the desperate attempts of one observer to explain what he cannot possibly understand. I want to understand the genocide, to grasp its intellectual foundations because then I can explain it away; I can explain how a unique set of historical and social circumstances turned average people into killers and their country into a slaughterhouse. But I’m not sure that is possible. A people may be more or less violent, a country more or less chaotic, but those are contributing factors, not the fundamental explanation of the Rwandan genocide or any of the great historical crimes. The underlying explanation, I suspect is that the human animal, despite the moral sense that compels him to do good, is fundamentally weak. The Rwandans, the Germans, all of us, are engaged in a constant struggle against our demons, both personal and historical, against the forces that would turn farmers into killers, and other farmers into piles of bones. What happens in a place like Rwanda or Germany is that the structure we have established to fight our weakness, the rule of law and the rule of conscience are inverted as the state and moral institutions like the church go from being the opponents of human weakness to its exploiters.

It is not a coincidence, that there is no genocide where there is anarchy. Surely there is murder in anarchic societies, perhaps murder on an unimaginable scale, as in Congo, but genocide takes organization, and genocide demands the application of power. Human weakness alone is enough to unleash the horrors of war and murder, but a genocide cannot run on weakness alone, it is the weakness of the individual amplified by the strength of numbers.

The genocide, all genocides are not a violation of a human nature, an exception to the laws of man and God, they are a manipulation of those laws, an always lurking byproduct of civilization.

In Rwanda, as in Germany and Turkey before it, the weakness became powerful, murder became the law, and so they count lives in skulls, and deaths in hundreds of thousands, and still can we really say “Never again” and mean it?

Monday, August 17

Why Goma is Crazy: From Diseased the Right Ventricle of the Heart of Darkness

Goma is crazy. The fact that a Congolese man showed me his penis, however, is not what makes Goma crazy.

In most other cities, a Congolese guy shouting what presumably translates as “Hey white man, look at this,” while yanking down his pants on a busy market street at two in the afternoon would be the yardstick by which all madness was measured. Schizophrenics would look on and say, “Well, I have issues, but I’m not as crazy as him.” In Goma, however, it barely prompted a glance from onlookers of all ages.

I was annoyed and maybe a little horrified, bellowing a guttural “NOOOOOO!!!” to show my disapproval. Ignatius, my Ugandan fellow traveler was more philosophical, stoically remarking “He must be proud of how bushy it is.”

The flasher does not define Goma’s lunacy because the Congolese town, bordered by Lake Kivu and Gisenyi, Rwanda, is a harmonic convergence of crazy and awful. It starts with the combination of lava, gorillas and guerillas and pretty much spirals from there. If Conrad was right that Congo is the heart of darkness, then Goma is its diseased right ventricle a chamber of the heart simultaneously battling heartworm, a murmur and at least three blockages.

The crazy began at the border as Rwanda’s well ordered, if secretly seething society, gave way to Congo’s poorly ordered and openly seething one. As soon as we officially entered the country, a Congolese gentleman who may or may not work for the government expressed grave concern over Ignatius’ absent yellow fever immunization card. Thankfully it turns out that the mere act of giving money to a Congolese gentleman who may or may not work for the government provides immunity against yellow fever.

“Mzungu has card, ok. But Uganda has no card… problem,” the official explained in a mix of broken English and French.

“But surely sir there must be some fine we could pay,” I said using the international standard for “May I offer you a bribe?”

“Twenty, twenty,” the man responded.

“But sir, I do not have 20, I have only 10 dollars,” I countered.

“I was meaning 10, not twenty,” the official replied, and just like that Alexander Hamilton negotiated the Congo border far more effectively than he managed Aaron Burr.

While I was proud that, for the first time in my exhaustive travels I had managed to pay a bribe rather than having a local fixer handle it for me, I did not regard this as particularly crazy. It was annoying, but it was utterly predictable.

What was crazy, however, was the obsessive-compulsive meticulousness of the immigration official who managed the formal migration process before we had even needed to issue a bribe. The matronly woman in the calico dress who handled our visa issues did not ask for any money beyond the official visa fees. That was not her modus operandi. To her, the key to controlling the cross border raids into Rwanda, the smuggling of goods and perhaps even the war itself was to draw perfectly straight lines on the book of graph paper that served as the immigration register.

We had the poor fortune to be the first visitors to Congo on a new page of the register. This meant that the matron needed to go through the lengthy process of creating columns on the new page that exactly matched those on the old page. After checking the old page she would jot a little hash mark on the new page before flipping the book back for the next chart.

Flip. Ten squares for name on the old page.

Flip. Count ten squares on the new page. Make a mark.

Flip. Two squares for gender on the old page.

Flip. Count two squares on the new page. Make a mark.

Only when she had flipped the page some 14 times to cover seven columns, did she finally take a brand new, clear plastic ruler from its polyurethane packaging and draw crisp lines formally marking each column. This was all well and good until a line went a bit crooked, then out came the whiteout. If you have ever wondered how the whiteout industry stays in business in the computer age, the answer is to be found in the Congo. There is no error so tiny that it is not worth applying a dab of liquid paper. Yes, it seemed that the fragile Congolese peace was dependent almost entirely on the ability of this border official to draw perfect lines.

The second indicator of craziness is that the streets are made out of lava.

That’s right the streets are made out of freaking lava.

Okay, okay, it is not the red molten stuff of nightmares and Ben Affleck movies, but the streams of porous black are a sufficient reminder, frozen in time, of the destruction that came before and could just as easily come again. In 2002, Mount Nyiragongo erupted creating what the few tour books that amazingly still include Goma refer to as an “African” or “modern” Pompeii.

I disagree. I have been to Pompeii; I have seen the ghostly, ashen figures vaporized, their faces contorted by fear, forever crying out with their dying breath. In Goma, the fear is also present but not in Pompeii’s petrified form. In Goma, the fear is alive. It moves, evolves changes, but never goes away. The fear is the constant. Today it may be fear of an eruption, tomorrow fear of the guerillas lurking in the mountains and the day after the fear of starvation, but it is always fear.

The people of Pompeii had it easy. Even if for week they watched the mountain threaten destruction, their darkest instant, their time to contemplate imminent extinction lasted for one horrible moment, before the very stuff of the Earth claimed them. The people of Goma must contemplate extinction for all horrible moments.

But the lava at least creates as it destroys. As it leveled homes and business, the lava spit new land into Lake Kivu. The black lumps of igneous rock that represent disaster in the old town present opportunity on the lakeshore. They also represent a new kind of crazy—separation of rich from poor through the sifting of trauma. In the old town, the poor, the old Gomans, those not savvy enough or ruthless enough to grow rich from the war live in a labyrinth of tattered shacks. The more fortunate among them enjoy the meager security of a corrugated iron roof and walls held together with cement rather than hope.

On the new land, the construction is grandiose. Everywhere, the trash-strewn streams of hardened lava are framed by gaudy new mansions. Tidy green lawns right out of suburban America front columned monstrosities right out of Lagos’ ritziest neighborhoods. Grotesque decadence and grotesque deprivation cohabitate in a fashion that even the elites of Rio or Johannesburg would regard as depraved. The question unanswered is who owns these houses?

The question is unanswered because it is unasked. Approaching any gate at any house seems like an exercise in futility at best or suicide at worst. Not only are the houses wrapped in menacing walls trimmed with razor wire, they are guarded by men with guns. They are not even earthbound men with guns. Instead, they sit high in fortified turrets behind the compound walls, watching eagerly for a threat or an excuse. While I imagine that the houses are built by Congolese warlords, ex pats who wish to live like proconsuls or both, I will not risk my life to ask.

And then there are the clashing go/guerillas. High on the volcano live a handful of the earth’s few remaining mountain gorillas. On the same mountains, lurk troops of Congo’s far to numerous mountain guerillas.

The competing homonyms dance along the mountainside, circling the crater’s lava lake as if they are playing some grand and terrible game of ring around the rosy where inevitably, we will all turn to ashes and fall down. The gorillas serene and gentle beckon visitors for naught but the high price $425. The guerillas, silent and deadly, warn tourist away by threatening to exact a far higher price. And on and on it goes, as a lake of lava somehow become this least frightening thing on a volcano.

And so it goes in Goma. Violence begets violence; madness begets madness and penises beget amusing anecdotes. “Goma is crazy!” I can now declare with authority.

And I am right, Goma is crazy, but it no longer seems amusing. As I left Goma, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was arriving to address the ongoing conflict in the region and the fallout. Among the issues she addressed most forcefully was the epidemic of rape in the hills, villages and refugee camps surrounding Goma.

I knew about the war, about the slaughter that began with the Rwandan genocide and still continues, but this aspect, the use of rape as a weapon and the tens if not hundreds of thousands of victims in the Kivu region alone had, perhaps willfully, escaped my notice. I wanted to go to Goma to see what it was like, to see up close how a war zone smells, and perhaps to revel in my own bravery and adventurousness, to applaud myself for stabbing into the heart of darkness like Conrad and Stanley before him. But I am not Conrad or Stanley. I am not even a Ben Affleck. The terrible actor whom I mocked above toured Goma in 2008 to raise awareness of the rape epidemic there. When one has failed in a comparison to Ben Affleck, it is time for some introspection.

It is adventurous for me to have gone to Goma, I suppose, but it is also narcissistic and pathetic in a way. On any different day for a different person, for a Congolese person, my story ends differently. It still begins with a man exposing himself, but he is not this man I saw, or maybe he is? He is drunk or mad, perhaps turned feral by war, and after it begins with this man exposing himself it does not end with a trip across the border to Rwanda, a cold beer at a hotel and a lifetime memory of how crazy Goma is. It ends instead in a life ruined. It ends with the horror. It ends with the darkness.

Goma is crazy. But I should not delude myself about what crazy means. Goma is not eccentric or quirky, a Van Gogh severing his ear to prove his love. Goma is psychotic. Goma is pathological. It is Jack the Ripper stalking the streets of London for someone to dissect or Stalin imposing his paranoia on a nation. Goma is not just crazy, it is criminally insane, and even in this age of wonders, of Prozac and plutonium of antipsychotics and antipersonnel mines, of lithium and largesse, we have no idea how to cure that kind of insanity.

Saturday, August 8

Back on the Active Roster

It’s time for Jose Melendez’s KEYS TO THE GAME.

1. There is an old and prophetic saying in Uganda, in much of the Great Lakes region of Africa really, that is worth recalling in this, our darkest hour. Well, a dark hour anyway

“I will beat you.”

It is not a threat per se; it is a guarantee. It is an expression of certainty that the future is written.

What does a teacher say to a misbehaving student?

“I will beat you.”

What does a husband say to the man he has caught in bed with his wife?

“I will beat you.”

What does a humble social worker say to the family of a neighbor who has stolen from him as soon as he is absolutely certain that the thief, who might fight back, is nowhere in sight?

“I will beat you.” Well, not the family, the guy.

And what do the Red Sox say to the Yankees?

For eight games this season, it was “I will beat you,” but now for three games, who knows what they are saying?

“You can beat us now?”

“Please sirs, we can’t bear another thrashing?”

“I might beat you?”

“I will attempt to beat you?”

Whatever they are saying, it is not working.

Allow Jose to illustrate. Consider the story of a man who is sleeping with another man’s wife in the marital bed. The cuckolded husband returns unexpectedly to discover the indiscretion, and what does he do? Does he allow the fight to go on for hours without anyone scoring a blow? Does he concede defeat to a giant fat adulterer attempting to look skinny by wearing pinstripes? No, he declares simply, in cold and righteous anger, “I will beat you.” And then he does.

It is that simple. It is that brutal.

I will beat you.

I will beat you.

2. Among the difficulties of traveling to distant lands during the baseball season is getting the news of the day in the form of news of the month. For instance, Jose completely missed the Adam LaRoche era. Jose learned that the Red Sox had both acquired and dealt LaRoche at pretty much the same time. In a way, it’s like getting asked out on a first date and told there will not be a second at the simultaneously.

In the normal dating process, a couple (note: or more if you roll that way) starts by agreeing to go out on a date. Then each person gets nervous and maybe even a little giddy with anticipation. Each thinks about what to say, what to wear and where things might go. They have dinner or a drink perhaps take in a film and chat about whatever interests them. Then at the end of the evening, or perhaps even a few days after, they make independent decisions about whether the date was good enough to repeat. If both agree, then they proceed towards a future of some kind, but if even one rejects the premise of a second date, that’s all there is. You know, unless one of them is all stalkery.

But in the case of Adam LaRoche, for Jose it was like a date where a lady tells him even before the first sip of wine or bite of food, hell, as soon as the date is set, that it isn’t going to work. There’s no anticipation, no pleasant tingle, not even the chance for the exhilaration of success or the heartbreak of rejection. And what’s the fun of that? Oh that’s right, Jose didn’t have to watch Adam LaRoche take at bats for a team that is allegedly trying to contend. Very good.

3. Goma, Congo is a mad city. The streets are petrified rivers of lava, the houses are shanties of mud and tin and gorillas and guerillas dance cautiously on the side of a volcano. All of them, ape and man, terrorist and soldier, corrupt border guard and… other corrupt border guard live in fear that one day, one day soon, the conflicts and trials of life may be made irrelevant by a rain of molten rock.

Yet in this most hopeless of places, one man knows hope. Amidst the dust and debris, the chaos and the corruption, Jose saw a man brandishing a symbol of hope, a sign of all that is great and good. It was not a cross, begging the Lord for mercy, the Cross has done the Congolese little good. Nor was it the pale blue of the nations that are hardly united. Rather, it was a tattered blue T-shirt with the number 45 etched in fading red. Martinez, it read on the back. Martinez.

In this sad and struggling land, there was a reminder of something good, something decent in the world. Yes, there was a nice hospital and some good social programs, but damn it, this was a Pedro Martinez shirt, a symbol of all that was once good and can be again. And right then, just after he learned that $10 when given to a border guard can inoculate against yellow fever without an injection and just before a Congolese man decided to show Jose his penis, that shirt gave Jose just a little bit of hope for the Congo.

On the other hand, the Edgar Renteria Red Sox shirt Jose saw in Uganda signaled that the land of the crested crane is pretty much doomed.

I’m Jose Melendez, and those are my KEYS TO THE GAME.

Saturday, July 18

We Are So Happy

I am deeply suspicious of people who sing about being happy. They are, as a rule, either liars or scoundrels. It’s not that I doubt that there are people who are truly happy in this world, I’m often one of them, but I am skeptical that the people who are truly happy are singing about it, and I am certain that they are not singing well about it.

While most of these joyful minstrels are liars, some of them, the ones who actually are happy, are just jerks. If one is genuinely happy and feels the need to express it in lyrics over a snappy beat, how can he be anything but a jerk?

Things are great for you? That’s terrific. It really is, but have you looked around at the world lately? To a lot of people, maybe to most people, the world is a kind of rotten place. Sure there are flowers, but flowers cause sneezing; there is love but love leads to heartache. And those are just the things with an upside. There are a whole host of other clouds that have linings made of soot. Try finding the upside of hunger, war, poverty or Dave Matthews fans. Singing about how happy you are floating on your cloud of good fortune is to giving a swift kick in the kidneys to the rest of us who are mired in the mud of this fallen world. Please, be happy. It’s good to be happy. Just don’t put it to music and play it on a boom box on the subway.

Besides, the jerks’ music is lousy. Happy people don’t write good music. The good stuff comes from liars. Good music comes from negative emotions: pain, resentment or even just plain melancholy. The creative process is a way to deal with negativity and struggle and to, if not overcome them, at least manage them. To a creative soul happiness only comes, if it ever comes, after laying down a nasty 12 bar blues. So if you hear a catchy song about happiness, rest assured that the singer, no matter what he says, is at least miserable as you and probably more so.

This is a good theory on happy music. It is functional—it denigrates people who are happier than me as musical incompetents; it is logical—it explains why the evangelicals, who are so happy to have been born again, are so utterly incapable of producing decent rock; and it is coherent—I have yet to find any music that seriously challenges the findings. Happy music is either heartfelt, bad and preformed by an SOB, or good, insincere and performed by a secretly tortured soul.

Until yesterday, I had not found anything to undermine my theory, but as we all learned from Annie, orphans have a way of derailing the best-laid plans.

The orphans kept singing “We are so happy” over and over again. For my theory to hold, these orphans either needed to be either unhappy or dreadful singers and awful people. They were clearly good people and competent singers, which means that for my theory to hold, they had to be deeply unhappy. And here’s where we run in trouble. These kids were genuinely happy. I can smell phony a mile away. I’m like Holden Caufield without the pretension or stupid name, and I didn’t smell it on these kids.

By all rights they shouldn’t have been happy. The kids at Providence House, a rehab and vocational training facility in Nkokonjeru, Uganda run by the Little Sisters of St. Francis, had every right to be miserable. On paper, they should have been perfect candidates for a Sally Struthers commercial, little urchins with flies in their eyes. Yet there they were singing.

“We are so happy.”

The lucky ones were just orphans, healthy young people who’s parents had succumbed to the misfortunes that plague an impoverished people. Others would have been lucky to be orphans. Their parents had sold them for use in witchcraft and their bodies bore the scars of the occult. Still more suffered from heads swollen by hydrocephaly, legs shriveled by polio or minds hobbled by retardation.

“We are so happy.”

They meant it.

These kids had lost the birth lottery. Born in a poor country, with poor health care to poor families, they were destined for lives of misery and hardship. But somewhere along the line there was a second lottery, and their tickets came out winners. In the rough heart of a rough continent, somehow they had found a place for them, a good place.

It is a place where the priest says mass to the thump of African drums. It is a place where the sweet smell of baking bread and the sour stench of the piggery combine to form the piquant bouquet of schemes to keep just enough money rolling in. It is a place where children who have no one can have, at least, each other. It is a place, where, contrary to everything I have postulated, decent, happy people can sing decent, happy songs.

The nuns call it Providence House because the funding plan relies heavily on divine providence. While the sisters follow the biblical dictum that God helps those who help themselves by planting gardens and teaching trades, they have a quiet confidence that when the red ink turns a deeper crimson, God will provide.

And so he does.

I am not a religious man. I do not believe in divine intervention in mortal affairs, destiny, or that good will always triumph over evil. I believe in coincidence, chance and, sadly, entropy.

Providence House is testing my lack of faith.

My parents, currently the only people gainfully employed in my family, asked me to make a donation to some worthy cause in my little Ugandan town on their behalf. At the recommendation of the local Peace Corps contingent, I settled on Providence.

When I went to make the transaction, Sister Juliet a warm, bespectacled nun, could not, having met me only briefly before, remember my name.

“You are called… Richard,” she said, uncertainly.

I am not called Richard.

My father, one source of the donation, however, is. It was as though Sister Juliet had seen through the medium to the source. It wasn’t as dramatic as if she had accidentally called me Susan, my mother’s name, but it remained curiously coincidental. Almost like a sign…

The donation had occasioned the singing. The children, in celebration of the donation and the contributions of time and energy by my colleagues from Duke, put on a show for us where wave after wave of children sang about how happy they are, interrupted periodically by an older child praying for us and my family.

Because of my parents they get beans, soap and seeds, because of my colleagues, they get a few precious moments of attention and affection. They need so much, and get so little, but today, at least, it is enough. And for them enough is everything. For them, enough is something to be happy about, and yes, something to sing about.

And so they sang and sang beautifully, neither jerks nor liars, neither hopeless nor helpless. They sang and proved me wrong. They sang and showed perhaps the world is not such a rotten place, that joyful music can come from joyful hearts.

“We are so happy.”

“We are so happy.”

“We are so happy.”

And I’m so happy too. I’m just not ready to sing about it.

Friday, July 10

Purchase direct from a Ugandan Artist

Hello all,

I wanted to offer you an opportunity to help an artist friend of mine who lives here. He makes really nice stuff, and I will personally bring any order back with me to cut non-US shipping to $0. ALL PROCEEDS GO TO THE ARTIST.

You can see his work at facebook (if you are a member) at the link

If interested, tell me which piece you would like, and I will bring it back. We can arrange payment by check or paypal. Modest US shipping can be negotiated.

I'd say there are a number of gifts that are especially good for women, particularly the purses which are made from resonated paper beads.

Also, if you want a custom wood carving, that can be arranged for $60-$100 depending on the price of wood, plus shipping. I don't know if he can do Tek punching A-Rod in the face, but I am getting a lion eating a gorilla.

Some information:

Peter Sserugo is a second generation Ugandan artist, who specializes in craftwork made from natural fibers and local materials and mixed media paintings.

Peter’s work captures scenes from life in his rural village through art that combines traditional Ugandan techniques and media with sharp lines and defiant arcs that hint at the impact of modern life on tradition.

Peter lives in Nkokonjeru, Uganda, about three hours from Kampala with his friend Tony two cows, one calf, five goats, three kids, two sheep and two lambs. He is the youngest of ten children.

Thursday, July 9

Somewhere South of Reality

“One day people who work in international aid will be seen like the guards at Auschwitz,” the Kenyan sneered, his weathered white face grimacing in disgust. “Sure, they thought they were only taking people to the showers.” He was definitely high, probably drunk and possibly mad. And why wouldn’t he be? It was his bloody island, his private Eden.

Thirty-five kilometers south of Entebbe, 10 kilometers south of the equator and 10 million kilometers south of reality lay his smidge of an island, a little slice of Xanadu in the heart of Lake Victoria. Technically, it was part of an archipelago, a boisterous family of islands inhabited by shanty dwelling Ugandan fisherman. But every family has its… white sheep… and as close as the islands were, this island was impossibly isolated, cut off from its sisters by race, by circumstance and by reality.

To call it a resort, would be an act of violence against the term. It was a resort in the sense that one could rent rooms there, sit in the sun and slurp frosty beers. It was not a resort, however, in the sense that it looked like Cancun after the bomb. While no actual bomb had detonated, there had been an explosion. A kerosene tank had blow a few months back, leaving an aching stone skeleton where the bar had once been. The explosion was a disturbing if reasonable explanation for the sorry state of the bar. A kerosene leak was, however, a decidedly less coherent explanation for the pirate ship. While my cabin had a number of quirks, bat infestation with the resultants turds, painting supplies stored in the foyer and mosquito nets holier than the Vatican, all of these eccentricities fell well within the bounds of normal African weird. But the ship? That’s just strange.

Just outside of the cabin, a great wooden hull, 30 feet long and 12 feet high was moored, perhaps permanently, in field of shaggy grass, a gnarled tree holding it in dry dock. Even on a lake where a canoe with a mainsail fashioned from a garbage bag can pass for a yacht, the ship was not a seaworthy vessel. While the hull was painted black below the water line and brown above, both the top and bottom shared a skin of splintering boards, connected by shoddy ligatures of popping nails.

And yet it cast a shadow of grandeur. Elegant wooden railings haughtily enclosed the aft deck, and the lines of the hull, when not broken by bulging boards, betrayed a sleek and cocky style. Yet neither the ship’s past elegance, nor current decrepitude could explain its presence. It was far too large to serve as a ferry for an island that peaked at ten guests, and even if that were to be its purpose, the gap between ghost ship and something able to float was unbridgeably vast.

Elsewhere the ship would be a bewildering anomaly. Here, it was the norm. The dining area, called “the castle” was a pseudo-Mediterranean abode, with white plaster crumbling from the walls and a set of solar panels on the roof where the archers should be. The kitchen was a quartet of neoclassical arches holding up a roof but supporting no walls. And then there was the strangest sight of all. Then there was the Kenyan. Then there was Dom.

“There’s nothing about Malawi that couldn’t be fixed by white colonial government,” Dom declared, after I asked how he had enjoyed working there. It made sense that he would make that offensive statement. Born to British parents in Kenya in 1960 as the country lurched through the Mao Mao rebellion and towards independence in 1964, his comments, if not understandable, were at least explicable. As their contemporaries fled Kenya for the more certain white supremacy of Rhodesia or South Africa, Dom’s parents stayed put, taking Kenyan citizenship to accompany their UK passports.

“I’ll tell you what the problem is in Africa,” Dom opined in response to nothing. “People here are learning to be as greedy as Europeans. Before the Europeans came here, this place was the bloody Garden of Eden. Perfect weather, everything grows. You live in a place until there’s no game left, then you burn the village and move on. Oh, and don’t go down that mountain or the Masai will kill you. You live, you fuck, you drink, you die. It was perfect.”

This comment, this lecture, was less explicable. How a colonial, who had already heralded the restorative powers of white colonial government, could at the same time lash out at the very historical processes that brought his people to power was nearly incomprehensible.

The simplest explanation would be that Dom was mad. That just as the African sun had beaten his face until it was ruddy, it had pounded his mind until it was soft. That behind the dark glasses and mangy beard lay nothing but chaos. It is an appealing formula. Social alienation, plus excessive consumption of homebrewed banana spirit, plus dope, plus weird island with pirate ship, times 17 years equals absolutely bat shit crazy. Or should the bat shit go on the left side of the equation? But as elegant a solution as this equation offers, I think it is wrong

I think it is wrong because I have seen it before. Far from being some lone eccentric, Dom is one of legions. Throughout Africa, throughout the world, there remain, though there are fewer every year, colonial characters who are vocal and unapologetic in their belief that the past was better, yet have a disdain for their own race even more pronounced than their contempt for the locals. While it is simple enough to imagine that these fellows long for the day when the white man ruled Africa, the truth is, I suspect, more complicated; they long for a return to the even more distant past. If white rule was preferable to the nationalist disorder of today, then tribal rule is better still. For many of these lost souls, it is not only that they love their position of power and privilege in the old order, but that they truly love Africa… though perhaps not Africans… and genuinely lament the passing of an order that they never knew and could never possibly understand.

They are explorers at heart, wanting desperately to set off on the Congo with Stanley or to join Speke in his search for the source of the Nile. They are white men desperate to discover the secrets of Africa in an age when the secrets blare from televisions. And so they look inward. Unable to find the secrets of Africa, the improbable paradise lost in the breadth of the continent, they seek instead to find it in tiny corners of Africa, and in themselves.

I suspect that Dom imagines himself living a truly African life. He has his plot of land, he grows endless fruits and spices, feasts on fish, and draws power from the sun. Until the police confiscated his crop, he was even self-sufficient in pot. He spends his days, drinking, smoking, playing backgammon and entertaining his guests with anecdotes about the joys of life as an explosives expert in mines across the continent. To him, this is the African life, and to him it is paradise.

There is a case to be made that he is partly right. Not about minority rule, the evil of aid or even that pre-colonial Africa was Eden, but perhaps he is right about just how wonderful Africa is. For all of the misery there is on this continent, AIDS, starvation, war, poverty, there is extraordinary joy too. In so many cases, to be an African is to be surrounded by family, to enjoy deep faith, to truly appreciate good music and good friends. Of course, in many other cases to be an African means to be ill, to be exploited to be poor, but still it is not the poverty that defines the people. To be poor, even in this age of luxury, does not necessarily mean to be unhappy.

Not long after returning from Dom’s island, I asked a 22-year-old cell phone repairman what he would most like Americans to know about Uganda.

“It is very hard if you have no money,” he explained.

“So life here is very difficult?” I responded.

“No. Life is very easy if you have even a little money. Only if you have no money it is difficult.”

This young man with just a few shillings in his pocket had what no American, even the poor, would call an easy life, and yet to him, his life is easy.

But not as easy as Dom’s.

Tuesday, June 30

They Call It Uganda

They Call it Uganda

Just the name “Uganda” should tell the educated observer that this country has internal security problems. “Uganda” is the Kiswahili name for the Kingdom of Buganda, which contains less than 20 percent of the Republic of Uganda’s population. A native of Buganda is a muganda, a group of locals are baganda and their language is called Luganda,

Got that?

The Republic of Uganda is named for the homeland of one of its dozen or so ethnic groups translated into the language of one of the other ethnic groups. In any language, that is pronounced trouble.

If you’re unfamiliar with African geography or history, think about it in European terms. Yugoslavia was a country with a Serb plurality with large helpings of other ethnic groups: Slovenes, Croats, Bosniaks, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Albanians and Hungarians. As you may recall, despite some periods of real prosperity, the federation did not end terribly well. The Serbs felt that they should be the dominant group to the consternation of the other nations. Now imagine that in order to soothe Serb demands the great powers had, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, named the country Serbia. (It was actually called the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes). The other ethnic groups would have been furious. So suppose that in order to cushion the blow, Wilson, George and Clemenceau decided that the best option was to keep the name Serbia but to have the official name be in Albanian. Would these linguistic gymnastics have prevented the country’s disintegration in World War II and again in the 1990s?

And yet this seems to have been exactly the plan for Uganda. The British named their protectorate after Buganda, whose people make up a bare plurality at around 17 percent of the population, but translated the name to Kiswahili, the speakers of which, are not even a plurality in Uganda and are much better represented in Uganda’s giant neighbors Kenya and Tanzania. Of course, the whole exercise makes a great deal more sense when one considers that the British had no interest in promoting ethnic harmony. Divide and conquer is as British as black pudding.

Still, the British persisted in promoting the fantasy of Uganda as an organic whole. Winston Churchill called the Protectorate “The Pearl of Africa.” For the master of metaphor, a man coined the highly accurate term “Iron Curtain,” it was either a rare failure of imagination or a deliberate misrepresentation. A pearl is the smooth little moon of a jewel that emerges when a tiny irritant, perhaps a grain of sand, becomes lodged in an oyster’s flesh. If Anglophone Africa has a pearl, even in Churchill’s time it would not have been Uganda. A better choice would have been another former British protectorate, Botswana, where a scant population of three million, ethnic homogeneity and the lack of anything of particular value until diamonds were discovered after independence allowed it to emerge as one of the most progressive economies and functional societies on the continent. Uganda, by contrast, resembles what might happen if one crammed more than a dozen grains of sand into a single oyster. If it is a pearl, it is a misshapen one.

A better metaphor for Uganda might be the costume jewelry of Africa. Each element is beautiful and unique. Perhaps Busoga is a feather, Buganda a rhinestone and Acholiland a clasp of gleaming brass. But thrown together they clash garishly, a mismatched trinket on the wrist of a continent that is already mixing polka dots with plaids. Its continuous existence is, as much as anything, based upon the insistence of its leaders and the Westphalian system that it must exist.

It is at this point that I should concede that after six weeks, I know almost nothing first hand about Uganda. Buganda, I more or less understand. I live and work here; I have traveled and relaxed here. While my understanding is flawed, it is about as good as it can be such a short stay. Buganda, however, is not Uganda.

This may come as news to the Baganda, who, due to the sophistication of their ancient civilization, have long dominated neighboring tribes. At the core of Baganda civilization was the kabaka, the absolute monarch. For generations, Buganda enjoyed competent, though not always compassionate, governance because of the nation’s embrace of a strong monarch combined with its rejection of royal primogeniture. Whereas most dynasties pass the crown onto the monarch’s first-born son, the Baganda explicitly forbade the first-born son from becoming kabaka. Instead, a council of advisors chose the next kabaka from among all of the other sons. The kabaka’s polygamy gave advisors a large number of legitimate heirs from whom to choose, creating the likelihood of a truly talented prince taking the throne, instead of a mediocrity blessed only in birth order.

Buganda’s preeminence was not lost on British imperialists who identified the Baganda as a people to be used as the protectorate’s commercial and administrative class, though the Baganda would have a lesser role in the economy than Indians shipped in from their corner of the empire. However, in classic British fashion, the crown separated military power from economic power giving most opportunities in the armed forces to the Northerners who were largely shut out from commerce. The British used the relatively short stature of the Baganda to disqualify most of them from military service. In the long run, having shillings without guns proved disastrous for the Baganda.

Since independence, the Baganda have been stuck in the odd position of dominating commerce, culture and language without ever actually wielding political power. While Kabaka Mutesa II served as the ceremonial President of Uganda after independence, the real power lay with Prime Minister Milton Obote, a Protestant Lango. When the Kabaka and his largely Catholic people declared independence in 1966, Obote and his army chief of staff, a Muslim from the West Nile province named Idi Amin, shelled the Kabaka’s palace, ultimately driving Mutesa II into exile in London. The Kabaka died soon after, perhaps as the result of poisoning, ending any hopes of Baganda sovereignty, much less hegemony, and solidifying Obote’s position as the most hated man in Buganda.

When Amin overthrew Obote in 1971 he became, at least for a while, a hero to many Baganda by virtue of his outstanding quality of not being Obote. His key role in the attack on the kabaka’s palace was largely forgotten. However, he was a homicidal lunatic, who killed 300,000 people, and deported the Indian population of 70,000 before being deposed by the Tanzanian army in 1979 after an ill-advised land grab.

Still, Amin, internationally reviled as one of history’s great villains, is remembered more fondly in Buganda than in other areas of the south. Perhaps this is because Obote took another 100,000 lives, many of them Baganda, after returning to power in 1981 following a series of short-lived presidents.

One Muganda, who is too young to remember Amin, responded to a question about her opinion of the former dictator by pointing out “that guy, if you listen to his speeches, was so funny.”

It is a peculiar choice of words. While there is a certain terrifying comedy to Amin’s daft insistence that he was the rightful King of Scotland, his portrayal of Mussolini in two films, and his friendly advice to Richard Nixon that the best way to deal with Watergate would be to execute Dean, Woodward, Bernstein and friends, “funny” remains a painfully odd adjective. Somehow, it is difficult to image even a fellow Khmer Rouge describing Pol Pot’s wonderful sense of humor, or even the most ardent of Serb nationalists talking about Slobodan Milosevic’s gift for the pun.

Even when Obote’s second reign finally ended and order prevailed, the Baganda did not win power. Instead, the Banyakole tribe from southwestern Uganda ascended. After placing poorly in the rigged 1981 election that returned Obote to power, Yoweri Musseveni, a Banyakole, and his National Revolutionary Movement took to the bush. By the time General Tito Okello deposed Obote in 1985, the NRM already controlled much of the western part of the country, and in 1986, they took Kampala.

The Baganda, have undoubtedly done better under Musseveni than under Obote. The NRM government even restored the monarchy, albeit as a purely ceremonial institution, in 1993. And yet the trend continues. In the country that bears their name, albeit in a foreign tongue, the Baganda remain politically impotent.

However, the dissatisfaction of the Baganda is the least of Uganda’s problems today. Even with Musseveni’s Banyakole tribesmen dominating politics and advancing in commerce, the Baganda are, at a minimum, free to do business, grow crops, tend cattle, and promulgate their ancient culture. If Buganda faces an alienating identity crisis, other regions face more tangible crises as ethnic conflict bloodily persists.

The most pressing security concern comes from across the border in Congo where Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed “prophet of God,” continues to lead the largely Acholi “Lord’s Resistance Army,” in rebellion. The LRA, a force peopled heavily by child soldiers and renowned for mutilating dissident Acholi and anyone else they can, has no political agenda save for the vague manifesto that Kony should rule all of Uganda in accordance with the ten commandments. In many ways, Kony is a grandiose madman in the tradition of Amin. For example, he recently invited Ramoush Hardinaj, the former prime minister of Kosovo and an indicted, though acquitted, war criminal to come to Uganda to mediate between the LRA and Musseveni. Hardinaj has no Africa experience. When it comes to statecraft, Metternich, Kony is not.

In the East, the Karamajong remain among the most traditional of Uganda’s tribes, facing intense pressure to assimilate into the mainstream of Ugandan society, while at the same time continuing with traditions that are, at best, antisocial. The Karamajong believe that all of Uganda’s cattle belong to them. If someone else has a cow, the only possible explanation is that the individual or his ancestors stole a cow from the Karamajong at some point in history. The Karamajong believe this gives them the right and responsibility to take cattle from anyone whenever possible, including fellow Ugandans and nearby Kenyans. Even in some cities, Karamajong carry spears, an ominous warning to anyone whose ancestors might have stolen a cow. Cattle rustling is sadly not a strong basis for economic growth or democratic governance, thus the Karamajong have remained a nation apart within Uganda.

While the Buganda’s problems are not as pressing as the Acholi, the Karamajong or a handful of other tribes, the glittering gem on the costume jewelry that is Uganda remain a troubled people. The restoration of the monarchy and the omnipresent framed photos of the current kabaka hanging on walls throughout Buganda cannot hide Buganda’s identity crisis.

The Baganda, the monarchy’s restoration notwithstanding, appear to suffer from the same problem as many kingdoms and empires that have perished from the Earth. Just as the Austrians struggled mightily to figure out what their country was absent the Hapsburgs and the Serbs struggled to maintain preeminence when Tito’s partisans ended the Karadjordjevic and Obrenevic dynasties’ waltz with power, the Baganda seem to be struggling to determine their role in this hodgepodge of a country. Are they the rightful lords of Uganda or just another of its constituent pieces? Is their destiny their own, or is it tied forever to the future of people from the north with whom they share no language and no culture save that which the British crown imposed?

In light of all of these contradictions and conflicts, all of the division and diversion, it is unsurprising that I have seen fewer national flags in Uganda than in any other African country I have visited. The horizontal stripes of red, yellow and black fly above the government buildings in Kampala, appear in a few hip hop videos and that is about it. The crested crane, the national emblem, that perches in a white circle in the flag’s center does little to unite the country. How can a nation of more than 32 million be represented by a bird that appears in just a tiny sliver of its territory?

Perhaps a better symbol would be the marabou stork, the huge, hideous bird that subsists on the garbage of major cities. It is not that the stork is a scavenger that makes it a fitting totem, but rather that it is a survivor. Despite being a vast and gangly mishmash of seemingly incompatible parts, two huge wings, long pencil legs, a dull red scalp and a yellow needle of a beak, it survives. Somehow this bird that looks as though it was assembled from spare parts holds together, somehow it finds food, somehow its disparate parts, which have nothing in common save a body, manage to do what must be done to live for the next day.

It is inelegant but hearty. It is awkward, but resilient. It is not Buganda, but perhaps it is Uganda.

Thursday, June 25

Better than a Hole in the Ground

“Good morning,” says the old man. His hands, gnarled from a lifetime of dragging a hoe through hard soil, clutch a dusty plastic bag of clinking change.

“I am ready to put my money in the bank,” he says as he places fistfuls of dirt smeared 500 Uganda Shilling coins on the counter.

This is how a banking crisis ends, with an old man, his life savings and an empty hole in the ground.

For this old timer, the Ugandan banking system has at last become a better risk than a shallow pit in the brittle red earth.

You won’t see this scene repeated in Peoria, Salinas or New Bedford. It can’t happen, because there hasn’t been an American banking crisis—at least not the kind that makes a hole in the ground seem like a shrewd investment.

The U.S. “banking crisis,” for all the pain it’s caused, has played out like a night with three friends and ten bottles of cheap red wine. Banks got good and liquored up on mortgage backed securities, and after that eighth or ninth bottle of wine giving a $500,000 mortgage to someone with no job and no assets seemed like a lark, like giving your watch and house key to the homeless guy who you’re pretty sure is Bill Gates in disguise.

Of course, the next morning it doesn’t seem like the impromptu show of charity was the best idea. If it were Bill Gates, why would he want a $20 watch? Also, one of your buddies is in jail, one is dead and you’ve got tannins eating away at your frontal lobe and some purple stuff on your teeth that is probably wine but could be blood.

The fallout from the binge banking has been terrible. Americans lost their homes, saw their 401Ks become 201Ks and got dropped by employers who couldn’t borrow the money to make payroll. But you know what happened to the bank accounts of average people?


Even if everything else collapsed, people who had put their money in a good old savings or checking account got to keep their money even when their banks drove into the embankment. No one is digging in the back yard. God bless the New Deal.

There’s still a credit crisis in the U.S., which is economically debilitating, but there’s no real banking crisis. Having a credit crisis is like having a kidney stone. It is unbelievably painful, can take a long time to resolve and can make you want to piss yourself, but it’s not going to kill you unless you do something like taking treatment advice from Rush Limbaugh or Rosie O’Donnell instead of experts with long chains of initials after their names. Having a banking crisis, on the other hand, is like getting a railroad spike through the brain—even in the best-case scenario, you are going to be debilitated for a long time.

Let’s take a look at what an actual economic intracranial railroad spike looks like.

It starts with some guys coming to town, any town. Say… Nkokonjeru, Uganda. They probably wear nice suits and may even have a powerful patron, maybe a former mayor. These sharp looking fellows set up a nice building and put a name on it that sounds helpful and reassuring: “Microfinance Bank.” They hold a few events, they answer some questions, and presto! People start giving these guys money for safekeeping. After all, banking shouldn’t just be for the rich, right? And not many in the village can afford the international banks with their fees and minimum balances.

Microfinance Bank provides the community with valuable services, keeping money safe for a nominal fee and maybe even giving out loans to creditworthy customers. They smile when you come in, they keep careful records of every dime and then, one day, they leave.



There’s nothing but the missing cash to remind you that they were ever even there, that and the certainty that even if you could find them, their political connections make them untouchable, above the law.

This is just about the time, right when the $300 you’ve worked your entire life to save vanishes in a flash of naked greed, that digging a hole starts to seem like pretty savvy investing strategy. A hole may get robbed, but a hole will sure as hell never rob you itself.

This is what an actual banking crisis looks like. It looks like confusion. It looks like betrayal. It looks like a couple of guys in expensive suits laughing themselves silly.

And here’s the kicker. It’s not just that these grifters have hurt their marks; they’ve ransacked a community. People need a place to keep their money; people need access to credit and now that genial George Bailey has ripped off a mask to reveal a sneering Jesse James, who is going to be so brave as to put their money into a bank again? Whom can simple folks keeping shop or sharing crop possibly trust with their money ever again?

Each other.

It turns out we are our brother’s keeper—his bookkeeper.

The Nkokonjeru Savings and Credit Cooperative is four-years-old and three years past the crisis started by the “microfinance bank” across the street. The secret to its success, to its survival, is that it is an old fashioned credit union. The customer is the boss, literally. When a customer joins Nkokonjeru SACCO, as it’s called, he kicks in USh 20,000, about nine dollars. For that he gets a USh 10,000 ownership share, a passbook and a bank membership. And, as Karl Malden always told us in reference to a different financial institution, membership has its privileges. In this case the privileges are attending the annual meeting, voting for the board and running for leadership.

It’s still a struggle though. People remember that they were robbed for a long time. When one asks locals their opinions of banks in general, they’ll often respond matter-of-factly “They steal money.” But the sinister “they” does not include the SACCO. People are signing up with increasing regularity. In the last month, SACCO has signed up to a member a day.

A credit union can’t solve the economic problems of this little rural town. It can’t give the kinds of big loans people need to start businesses that have enough capital to hire people. It can’t pave the road to Kampala or eliminate the West’s domestic agricultural subsidies. But it can, at the very least, earn more trust than a hole in the ground, and when the banks are truly in crisis, being better than a hole should never be taken for granted.

Monday, June 15

Thursday, June 11

The People in the Neighborhood

The Christmas songs string together like lights on a tree. Jingle Bells… Here Comes Santa Claus… They come eight bars at a time, the refrain from one substituting as the verse for another.

The lyrics are missing, too complicated for the simple computer chip that chirps out the melodies to replicate. This is okay; I do not need them. I know the words and what they represent. They represent ice cream.

It is 82 degrees out, it is June, and the sounds of Christmas do not signify the coming of Christ or even of old Saint Nick. Instead of eight tiny reindeer pulling a right jolly old elf and a sled full of toys, there is only a thin Muganda (a person from Uganda’s Buganda region) peddling a bicycle with a worn cooler lashed to the back. The orange cooler is full of a thin pink slush that passes for ice cream in these parts. It is far from the strangest thing that Baganda lash to the back of two-wheel vehicles. For sheer shock value and calorie content, nothing can compare with the two live hogs I once saw strapped to the back of a motorcycle.

The ice cream man is a fixture in Nkokonjeru. He is one of the people in the neighborhood.

When I was a kid, Sesame Street had a bit called “People in the Neighborhood,” wherein a rainbow of Muppets sang about the various people one could find about town.

The fireman’s a person in the neighborhood,
In the neighborhood, in the neighborhood,
Well, the fireman’s a person in the neighborhood,
He’s a person that you meet,
When you’re walking down the street,
He’s a person that you meet— each— daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyy!!!!!!!

Somehow, it always seemed to be civil servants that you’d meet in the neighborhood. There was never a corporate lawyer or millionaire CEO, which seemed odd when you grew up in a wealthy bedroom community like me. One time, I vaguely recall they had on Martina Navratilova and sung about how the tennis star is a person in the neighborhood, but that didn’t resonate with me either; I was a Chris Everett fan.

If the song failed to describe the experience of walking down the street in Belmont, Massachusetts in the late 1970s, it captures the experience of strolling in Nkokonjeru in 2009 even more poorly. Thus far, I have yet to meet a fireman, a mailman or even a tennis star while walking down the street each day. If I were to retrofit the song for Nkokonjeru, the first 50 verses or so would be about how the shopkeeper is a person in the neighborhood. Walking through the heart of town, one moseys—it is the only way to walk in the equatorial heat—down the red-brown dirt of Main Street, between through two rows of concrete shops. The shops represent what Adam Smith would call a state of perfect competition. Each of the dozens of little shops carries identical goods at identical prices. Contrary to what econ 101 might lead you to believe, it is no basis for a healthy economy. An economy cannot grow when it consist almost entirely of people selling bottles of Coke and three foot lengths of fraying rope to each other. The theory is that under circumstances of perfect condition, with profits reduced to a “normal” rate, people will divert their investment to other avenues, to innovation. That is not how it works here. Instead a profusion of small shops leads to even more small shops. Call it a bodega, a canteen or a general store, but owning a shop seems to be the Ugandan Dream.

And why wouldn’t it be? Talk to any shop keep, and I talk to a lot of them, and it quickly becomes clear that he is doing okay. He is not the richest man in town, but he has a full belly, strong concrete walls and a sturdy iron roof. He is not complaining.

The other people in my neighborhood, the people who have skills and trades rather than shops and trade, do not do as well.

The carpenter is a person in my neighborhood. He’s a person that I meet, when he’s knocked out on his feet.

Before a stack of newly made bed frames and amidst the spicy bouquet of fresh cut wood, signs I would expect of a thriving business, he laments his poverty. In the past year, there have been 10 months where his family has been hungry at least one day. His savings have been reduced to 5,000 shillings per month, about two US dollars. At the same time he aspires to more. When I ask him, as part of a study on the local credit union, what he would like for a loan, he suggests that USh 1,000,000 would be the right sum. He could work his whole life and never pay it back. He will not get the loan. Too bad that he didn’t ask Bank of America for US$ 500,000 to buy a house in Florida in 2007. That loan he could have gotten

The teacher is a person in the neighborhood too. He is more educated than the shop keep, better dressed and more respected. He is also poorer. While Uganda, with its school uniforms and O-levels is more an imitation of British education than American, it has borrowed a few features from the States—poorly paid teachers lecture to classrooms filled to bursting. Whereas the shopkeepers speak confidently about their ability to save 100,000 a month, teachers struggle to save even 10,000. While shopkeepers nap between customers, teachers grade piles of exams written on wafer thin paper between classes.

The nun is a person in my neighborhood.

She is my landlord. I live in a convent. This was not something I ever saw coming. Of all the certainties in my life, the fact that I would never sleep behind convent walls seemed like one of the surest.


When I learned I was going to live in a convent, I asked my mother’s friend Joannie, a former nun in training, what happens when one lived in a convent? From the stories, I had heard, it mostly involves sneaking out to meet guys, which isn’t really my scene. Thankfully, that has not been among my activities thus far, though I have had to jump the gate a time or two.

To say I live in a convent is a bit misleading. I live at a convent, in a guesthouse, safely away from the judging eyes of the penguins. Still, there is no mistaking where I am. Most rooms are decorated with a suitably gruesome crucifix and a piece of construction paper with the recommendation to “Be Still and Know that I am God” or both. And then there is the Library, an old hardwood cabinet, filled with books with names like The Eucharist in the New Testament and copies as far back as 1981 of the periodical God’s Word Today.

It is not by normal living situation, but it is comfortable, dry, electrified and has not only a flush toilet, but half a toilet seat. It is a good setup.

The nuns, each of them a Little Sister of St. Francis of Assisi, are charming. I am glad they are in the neighborhood. They are not, as I intimated earlier, the penguins despised and feared by Catholic school students everywhere. They are kind and clever, and do not even wear black and white, instead sporting beige habits that hide the smudges of Ugandan dirt beautifully.

They are here, 111 years after Catholicism came to Nkokonjeru thanks to Sister Kevin, a tenacious Irish nun, who defied the local witchcraft, thereby winning converts, and fixed much of Nkokonjeru in the Catholic camp. To this day, there are dozens of girls and women in Nkokonjeru named Kevin. Don’t tell them it’s a boy’s name.

The policeman is a person in my neighborhood.

This one might actually fit on Sesame Street. Of course, I don’t see him each day. I have seen him exactly once. As I returned two empty bottles of President beer to one of the many shops on the main drag, a policeman whose great round belly barely fit into his khakis, emerged from the dusty police station to ask if I had any beers for him. I turned the bottles upside down.

“All done,” I said with a shrug.

He burst into laughter. It is possible that if I had offered him a full beer at nine in the morning he would have taken it. One of the police officers, a man with a bad habit of drinking heavily and sleeping with other men’s wives, had gotten himself killed while drunk. After a few too many in a nearby town, he had responded to a request to stay away from another man’s wife, a woman he had known in the past, with a stark drunken refusal. He was ambushed later that night while riding home on the back of a boda boda (motorcycle) and was gutted in a drive by knifing. He did not survive.

These are the people in the neighborhood. Livingstone had it right, Commerce, Christianity, Civilization, shop keeps and carpenters, nuns, and teachers and cops. It’s all right here in my neighborhood. What there isn’t, however, is the prosperity Livingstone imagined. The slave trade, the primary focus of the great missionary’s campaign is long gone, but is that all we can expect?

Nkokonjeru has the three Cs, but that is not enough. For the people of Nkokonjeru to not only survive but prosper they need different people in the neighborhood. The doctor has to be a person in the neighborhood. The factory owner has to be a person in the neighborhood. The lawyer has to be a person in the neighborhood. God help me, even the tennis star could be a person in the neighborhood. The shop keeps are decent people, and then nuns are holy and even the police are cheerful, but this town needs more.

It had more once. There was one shining star to come from Nkokonjeru, a singer named Paul Kafeero, who was perhaps the most famous musician to ever come out of Uganda. His music and videos still play relentlessly around town. The themes of his songs, all of his songs, are girls and his fear of death. He complains that Ugandan women have more lust for chicken and chips than for men, and then explains that this is why he likes white girls. Apparently, white girls don’t like chicken.

After a lifetime of singing about sex and death, he died of AIDS a few years ago. The resulting funeral crowds led to the first traffic jam in Nkokonjeru history. Perhaps, for once, the traffic cop was a person in the neighborhood, though somehow I doubt it. His grave, still lies not far from town. He is Elvis and Graceland, Morrison in Paris; he is the no longer a person in the neighborhood.

Still, I’ll take the dead pop star over a tennis star. I’d just really prefer to have a doctor in the neighborhood.