Make your choice, accept your fate, relax
By James McKinley Posted Apr 1 2002
Early on in my African tour, I received a life lesson from a cabbie in Kampala, Uganda. The driver, an affable round-faced fellow with a deep laugh, drove like a speed-demon, weaving in and out of traffic on rutted city roads, nearly killing a polio-twisted beggar and very nearly getting us crushed by a truck.
“Slow down,” I said, and he turned around, still driving a mile a minute, and laughed at my pallid, stricken look. His laugh came from deep in his chest. “What do you think?” he said. “That you can control how you die?”
Later on a senior aide at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi explained his theory: The Judeo-Christian concept of man having been put in dominion over the earth made no sense in many African traditions. Man was just another creature on the plain.
The fatalism of the eastern Africans I met and knew, and the courage it engendered in circumstances most Americans would find terrifying, never stopped amazing me. For me, learning to live within this mindset is perhaps the hardest part of the job. Every day you find yourself taking risks you would never take stateside.
The hardest part about reporting in eastern Africa is to get to the story. The fragile system of roads left behind by colonial powers has disintegrated in many places, and the tribal politics have ensured that even peaceful countries have rebellions going on in some corner.
While I was there, Mobutu, Zaire’s longtime dictator, fell to a rebel group. The Rwandan Hutu refugees and killers who had fled during 1994’s genocide returned en masse or fled deeper into the vast forest of Congo, where Tutsi soldiers hunted them down. Somalia became an anarchic mess of warring clans almost impossible to navigate. The 40-year conflict in Sudan worsened and famine threatened. Burundi sank deeper into civil war. Kenya held its first multiparty elections, accompanied, as always, by tribal violence. And agents linked to Osama bin Laden destroyed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Through those years, I flew hundreds of times, often on tiny chartered planes with other journalists or piggybacking on aid flights. I never knew going out how I would return. On the ground, I spent hundreds of dollars hiring whatever old car and driver could be found to take us over roads that sometimes were no more than a wide footpath.
Every day one faces choices about which road to take, which pilot to trust, which driver to use. I remember in Rwanda weighing the ambush that had taken place a week before on one road against the advice of a diplomat that another had become perilous. Landmines were a worry in many places. Don’t step off the tarmac.
I learned that violence and death are like the weather. They come and go like storms, and journalists are always rushing toward the storm, trying to arrive just after it has passed, trying not to get caught in it. After a while, you learn to roll the dice the way the cabbies relax. Make your choice, accept your fate, relax.
But it was often hard to tell when a storm would blow up. In Sudan, on a routine story about hunger, a firefight between Dinka gunmen and some bandits broke out over food. We ended up running for a U.N. aircraft, which landed, dragged us inside and took off without stopping.
In Zaire, during the beginning of the rebellion, two factions began shooting at each other after the city of Goma fell, a day that promised an end to violence. I was with a Swedish television crew and an Los Angeles Times reporter interviewing some citizens. We ended up carrying the cameraman a half-mile to the Rwandan border. He nearly bled to death from the bullet wound in his leg.
Journalists in Africa work together, even if they are competitors, because the logistical problems are more than any one person can handle, and you never know when you might need a hand. It is like a buddy system in scuba diving. I recall putting three of my colleagues on an aid flights out of Kisangani, Zaire, after they came down with malaria. We bribed the Russian pilots to take them.
Staying healthy is another obstacle. I came down with malaria once, and I had two attacks of bilharzia, a blood fluke one gets from swimming in the wrong water. My mental state also took a hit. I began to distrust everyone in authority, from pilots to police. Like many journalists, I drank too much sometimes to take the edge off the tension.
In the end, mobs became my bęte noire. After witnessing the execution of four Hutu leaders in Rwanda who had been responsible for the genocide, the mostly Tutsi mob turned on journalists, threatening us with death, tearing up our notes and pelting us with stones as we left. Bloodlust gone wild.
I felt the same out-of-control craziness in the 12-year-old Congolese rebel who held a grenade with the pin undone under my nose at a border crossing, just for kicks, or perhaps not. Even in Nairobi, when the first multi-party elections rolled around, riots would break out in the street and just getting through without being stoned became difficult.
Even so, for all the risks, the disease, the difficult choices, the lousy food and bug-ridden lodgings, I have never done anything half as important or personally inspiring as trying to cover Africa, where the modern world lives cheek-to-jowl with a preindustrial world, and the western-style governments are only a thin latticework over the deeper African traditions and tribal realities.
I have never seen anything more beautiful than the sunrise over the Serengetti Plains or the Rwenzori Mountains. I have never met people more lovely and oppressed by the daily strain of living than the East African folks I encountered. I never felt so close to the earth as I did watching refugees burying dead babies, because of the avarice and racist folly of their leaders.
The tour changed me forever. It convinced me of the fragility and importance of our own flawed, but strong system of government. It taught me life does not come with a guarantee of three score and ten years.
I learned violence comes around to every place someday. Just ask the folks who lost friends on September 11 to the same gang that destroyed the Nairobi embassy. As Conrad pointed out in Heart of Darkness, the Thames was once like the Congo River. When all is said and done, the Africans are us.
And I still don’t trust authorities.