The Land of Plenty

$100 million: amount of the Bush administration's "anti-terror initiative" for the Saharan nations of Mauritania, Mali, Chad, and Niger. (Source: The Washington Times, 2004/02/16)

$10 million: amount of one contract given by the US State Department to Los-Angeles based company Pacific Architects and Engineers for military-related work in West Africa (Source: State Department Press Briefing, 2003/07/25)

$1: amount per day that 47 percent of Africans live on (down only one point from 48 percent ten years ago). (Source: United Nations Millennium Project)


Fast Food Nation: the Land of Plenty Transitions Kliptown, Revisited Hired Guns

Fast Food Nation: the Land of Plenty

I arrived in the US the week before Thanksgiving for the American Anthropology Association annual meeting and conference in Chicago. I'm learning that going home is a lot like the weather: trying to predict exactly what it will feel like is mostly an exercise in futility. At the end of 2002, I wasn't nearly as culture shocked as I had anticipated, but I had ongoing nightmares about driving on the wrong side of the road. At the end of 2003, I prepared myself for a roller-coaster ride that, of course, never happened.

I spent much of last year traveling to remote parts of Africa: places that teeter on the edges of economic, social, political, and geographical boundaries, or are already freefalling off the precipice of "development". In the process of doing research on the impact of illegal arms trafficking, I came across a United States military presence in places like Wajir, Kenya, where it seemed anything but benevolent. There was an American military and diplomatic delegation a few days' travel behind me on a similar itinerary for two weeks in Northeastern Kenya. Advance scouts were dispatched to demand that religious leaders dedicate Friday mosque services to pro-American rhetoric ahead of the visitors' arrival. Having met some of the scouts, my impression was that their requests showed little respect for the enormous stature of some of the Imams even in isolated communities; the attitude was one of presumption that American interests would be unquestioningly complied with.

At the end of the fieldwork, I organized to hitch a ride on a cargo plane from the shared border point between Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, back to Nairobi. This involved finding a man named Garun in the town of Mandera and hoping that my translator was on the right side of the current clan situation. For about US$100, he agreed to allow us places on his miraa flight (miraa, also known as qat, is a mildly narcotic leaf that produces a long lasting "upper" when chewed). Miraa is legal, but the men who deal in large quantities of it also have strong ties to the arms trade. What better way to protect an AK in flight than to wrap it in leaves? At the dirt runway, there was a Kenyan policeman who asked for my passport. Surrounded by curious onlookers, I tried to stall, producing everything from my international driver's license to my open water divers' card. The Nairobi airport is trying for a security status that would allow Kenya Air to fly directly to the US, however, so the pressure was on for a passport. Taking it out and handing it over to what was basically now a crowd of Somalis was the most frightening moment of 2003.

I turned up at the 5-star Stanley Hotel several hours of flying and a taxi ride later, exhausted. Five minutes after walking into my hotel room, I got a call from my parents. My first cousin, who is slightly younger than me and has two Lebanese parents instead of just one, was turned away at the Boston airport after a flight from Beirut via Paris. He was held in detention for hours, questioned, and told that "people like you go back to where they came from." The fact that he holds a Canadian passport and has been living in the United States working for an established government contractor since he graduated from college seemed beside the point. He was refused a flight to Canada and forced onto a plane to Paris, where the police, horrified by the situation, immediately released him from custody. My US passport felt like a liability in many different ways.

Crossing borders on a regular basis makes them seem arbitrary. It is easy to draw lines from the comfort of "home". After two years of living in a country that is not mine but sometimes feels like home, and traveling through a continent where national boundaries were carved up by foreigners not so long ago, borders cease to hold the same kind of de facto permanence. Returning to America, I expected to feel alienated. I anticipated disappointment because I wanted validation of my changing perspective on global politics. Instead, I had only one inescapable thought as I walked through the Chicago airport. That one thought, projecting itself over everything I saw, was that everyone looked enormously fat.

After walking for miles with pastoralist herders in East Africa, my perspective has just changed. Seeing children in the airport clutching large tubs of Coca-Cola with both hands fascinated me. But, more importantly, it was the appearance of general wealth and prosperity: the fact that those extra layers of padding look symbolic of a lifestyle that is many generations removed from day-to-day subsistence. My observation had a neutral, almost academic quality; I felt as though I had landed in the polar opposite of the Chalbi desert. Unsurprisingly, neither the desert nor the Chicago airport felt like where I belong.


After two months in the US, I no longer felt like an anthropologist observing herds of Americans at work and play. I felt home again. It was a strange transition, and I'm not sure exactly when it happened. After the conference in Chicago, I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas, and all of the time in between, with my parents in Boston. My father had successfully undergone quadruple bypass surgery, and being with him was the biggest priority of my visit. We were both working from home in between the holidays, which meant we could have lunch together and go for a daily afternoon "cardio-walk". It has been a long time since I've been close enough to my family to do more than just cursory catch-up time. Those weeks in Boston, which were characterized by historically unprecedented snowstorms and freezing cold, were precious nonetheless.

My father and I would put on matching fur hats (we're talking Soviet-style fur here, the kind that keeps you warm but is out of place anywhere but the Siberian plains and perhaps the occasional Paris runway) and trek around the town where I grew up, occasionally stopping to mail holiday cards at the post office or take a break to warm up in the public library. We got a lot of strange looks, and occasional compliments on the hats. I hate the cold, and my blood has thinned since leaving the Northeastern seaboard, but the quality conversations were enough to keep me from complaining too much.

On Christmas day, I flew to Phoenix, Arizona, for ten days of skydiving with hundreds of other holiday-goers at Skydive Arizona, followed by a week in California visiting old friends. Being with my peers, and having time to laugh and talk about the bigger picture, made me realize how there is a kind of loneliness about living in another country. I have a lot of friends in South Africa, but none of them have been around long enough to know what I wanted when I first moved here, or the way some of my ideals were both born and crushed during my four years at Harvard (where I graduated in 1999).

My feelings of connection with people and places in the States made it harder to leave than it has ever been. I flew out from Boston, where I was flagged at check-in as a security risk. There were protracted arguments about my luggage (I was carrying on my skydiving equipment) followed by an hour-long wait in a security line where my parents accompanied me until I reached the "ticket-holders only" point. By then, emotionally, I had prepared to leave. Unfortunately, being a security risk at Logan airport added another few hours to my departure time.

I was taken out of the line and put in a "special line", directly behind a Muslim woman carrying a stroller for her small child. She was taken into a separate room, and after a few minutes of waiting, I was, too. I won't go into detail about the search, except to say that my new Puma sneakers were thoroughly checked for signs of explosives, as were my pants and most of my other clothing, and I was questioned extensively about whether I "wanted to die". So much for feeling at home with my US passport. By the time I was released, I barely had time to make a few goodbye calls before getting on the plane and barely getting to my seat--because I was searched again after going through the gate.

I spent a day in London with friends, and then took another evening flight to Johannesburg. My first night back, I was awoken by the sound of automatic gunfire around 2 or 3 in the morning. When this was followed by the sound of sirens, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Kliptown Revisited

Every time I drive to Kliptown, I am shocked. I know exactly what it looks like, what it smells like, how it feels to walk there after dark. I know the life stories of many who live there, which ones are dying of AIDS, and where most of the women shop for maize meal to make pap (playdough-textured corn meal). But no matter whether it has been a month, two months, or two days, driving from my flat in Killarney to this part of the township makes me question reality. It takes half an hour from my hot bath to smells of sewage and nonchalant discussion of the latest bunch of babies to die of tuberculosis.

Pam, who has let me adopt her as a surrogate mother, runs a school for about 120 children, from babies to 6 or 7 years old. The children's families live in the shacks bordering the train tracks that divide the slums from the place where a memorial is being built to commemorate the Freedom Charter signing in 1955. She has been taking care of the community's children for over 13 years, for virtually no pay, because most of the children's parents are either dead, single with multiple mouths to feed, or part of the 43 percent unemployment rate. The department of Social Welfare donates R6 (just under a dollar) per child per day for food, and that is the only funding these children benefit from. The meals they get at Pam's crèche are often the only food they'll eat during the day.

And yet, Pam manages to employ seven other people from the community, including a cook, a handyman, and five teachers. They bargain for lower-than-market prices on the basic ingredients for the children's set menu (which comes from the government's "food pyramid"), and themselves live on about R800 per month, or $120. Pam is raising two children herself, but since they are older now she uses her "free time" to run the only AIDS support group in Kliptown. One of my goals this year is to raise money to send her on a fundraising and basic management course so that she can gain more tools to sustain her projects.

I had a dream the night before my visit to Pam. In the dream, I returned to Kliptown after my months away and found that it had been developed into a quaint small town. There were finely graded dirt roads, roundabouts, a bed-and-breakfast, and tourists from San Francisco relaxing on the terrace of a restaurant as a small electric train took their children for a tour of the "Freedom Charter" park. Walking around, I marveled at the changes, but could not find my friends. The elections here are set for mid-April, and I wonder if any of the politicians vying for votes have dreams like mine.

Hired Guns

The American State and military presence in Africa doesn't get much coverage in mainstream media, but that doesn't mean there isn't one. In November 2002, the State Department issued a press release about something called the Pan Sahel Initiative. The PSI is, according to this brief, "a program designed to protect borders, track movement of people, combat terrorism, and enhance regional cooperation and stability." Led by the State Department, it is targeted at gearing up Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania to help with the American war on terrorism.

In November of 2003, the project seemed to be getting underway. With millions of dollars in "security training and equipment" designated to be funded by the State Department but carried out by the Pentagon, this is not a small operation. One would expect, then, that the United States military would be carrying out the training.

However, in Chad and Niger, there will be no U.S. troops. Instead, a Los-Angeles based company innocuously called Pacific Architects and Engineers will be responsible for running the entire training operations and transfers of "equipment". A private American company will be responsible for training and equipping military units in two West African countries. Upon further research, it turns out the PAE does very little Pacific Architecture or Engineering work. Rather, it has a presence in war-torn countries from Sudan to Afghanistan to East Timor, and it was first on the ground before the United States intervened in Liberia.

Here is an excerpt from a State Department Briefing, July 25, 2003, with State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher, referring to the US intervention in Liberia.

MR. BOUCHER: In terms of the United States support for the operation, though, generally I can tell you that we have made an initial contribution of $10 million to a contractor known as Pacific Architects and Engineers, and they will, on our behalf, support the deployment of the West Africans. It will include a full range of logistic support, to include transportation, equipment and communications. We provided similar funding for work that this firm did in Sierra Leone and Cote D'Ivoire as well, so it's some contractor that we have known and has worked with the West Africans before.

QUESTION: What is the logic of using contractors to do this, rather than military personnel?

MR. BOUCHER: Well, I think, actually, our military uses contractors like this sometimes, too. We've done this in other places and other times. If it's a matter of organizing a supply chain and warehousing space and renting forklifts, one can do that with a contractor.

QUESTION: But why would you prefer to do it with contractors in this case?

MR. BOUCHER: It's more direct and it doesn't require the same overhead and it doesn't use U.S. troops for roles that others can perform.

QUESTION: The name, again, is Pacific Architects and Engineers?

MR. BOUCHER: Pacific Architects and Engineers.

QUESTION: Presumably, they're not doing any architecture in this little business.

Contractors are often used in military operations for things like organizing supply chains and renting forklifts. One such example is Halliburton in Iraq. Especially interesting, though, is that PAE will now be responsible not for supply chains, feeding troops, or finding warehousing space, but training two sovereign countries' militaries in the use of special weapons, anti-terrorism tactics, and border security.

Never a dull moment--