“Love can go anywhere; it can travel easily where no vehicle could ever go. Even a Land Rover.” -MK, Ghanaian driver
When I moved to South Africa, falling in love was not on the agenda. Johannesburg can’t be characterized as a romantic city anyway, not unless you consider huddling with someone in the dark while gunshots pierce the 5am darkness outside to be a dream date. Nonetheless, some forces, no matter how irrational they seem or how hard you fight them, cannot be ignored.
This year when I returned to the United States for my annual pilgrimage to the land of airport strip searches, fast-food burritos, and skydiving adventures, I invited someone I love to come along for the ride. After three years of living with my brain stretched across the Atlantic between two continents like a safety net in case either side disappointed me, it was difficult, beautiful, and terrifying to remove the ocean from between the people who represent my most important places of refuge.
Eric knows me as an anomalous American skydiver who loves Africa, teaching self-defense, studying kung fu, talking about politics, and interviewing arms dealers in remote corners of the continent. After living with me for a year, he is also in possession of important personal intelligence, like the fact that I panic when we run out of hot sauce and will rearrange my entire schedule to see old episodes of Law and Order on one of our four local TV stations. He has been my best friend during the most transformative episode of my life, but until December he had never met my parents, seen the school photos from my “awkward years,” or walked around the city where I grew up.
My parents, on the other hand, watched me grow into an overachieving Harvard graduate, get my first real job, do my first tandem skydive for fun, and then decide to abandon normalcy in search of some amorphous life purpose on the bottom of the African continent. Instead of “getting it all out of my system”, I slowly grew into a stubbornly dedicated skydiver who chooses to jump from functional aircraft at the Johannesburg Skydiving Club and earn a living as a consultant who travels to war zones. At some point during that metamorphosis, I stopped expecting them to understand my life, and they stopped planning the annual site visits that I had taken for granted in all of my other (American) homes. We settled for a relationship based on my trips to the States, during which I could try my best to simply be the loving daughter they had always known. This way, messy topics like my love life, my penchant for extreme sports, and my professional fascination with Somali gun trafficking only surfaced during moments of serious tension.
Because Eric was with me this time around, we unwittingly imported elements of my “new” life to the snow-dusted New England doorstep (if you can’t bring the parents to South Africa, bring South Africa to the parents). This, in addition to the sheer stress of presenting a significant other at home for the first time in years, created a tumultuous effect for everyone. Eric’s and my background patter of skydiving statistics and gun manufacturing techniques was just strange rattling around the peaceful, un-alarmed walls of the quiet suburban house. We both study Jow Ga Kung Fu with a Chinese Sifu who lives in our apartment building, and when the ceremonial weapons we had ordered arrived we put them under the Christmas tree. My parents struggled to understand the significance of a 6-foot spear and double daggers to the girl who had once held a full funeral for a dead bird in the backyard. They also questioned how I came to pursue a career in the realm of violence on another continent, a discussion that started three years ago but seemed somehow more pressing with Eric as a witness to my lifestyle.
Of course, I had eloquent explanations of the ways in which my work is grounded in humanitarian principles and empathy for people living on the borders of economic and basic human security in Africa. I tried to come across in a way that would elicit approval, but I kept slipping up with casual references to township slang and portable GPS systems. It became clear that somewhere along the line, my immediate reality had become disconnected from my family’s frame of reference. Meanwhile, Eric perused my high school yearbook, took in my 8th grade photographs complete with braces and Marge Simpson-like hair, and pondered the dawning realization that the people responsible for my birth have more power over my emotional state than all the gods ever conceived in modern religion.
I completely underestimated how profound it would be to get forced into a wholeness of perspective when I had cultivated, essentially, several different identities tailored to different contexts for the last three years. After basking in the outward bravery of living in a new country and surviving its pitfalls, I have learned the hard way that sorting through the inner dilemmas of an international life and a long-distance family conflict takes more work and courage than just uprooting in one place and starting again in another. I took New Year's vows to stop compartmentalizing the world and to carve out my own unity of thought regardless of whether everyone I love approves of all my choices (which, I am also learning, they never will).
A new email and phone dialogue has sprung up with my parents as a result, and it is full of the everyday stories that keep us communicating (their gossip about the regulars at the local diner, my disbelief at the price of charcoal grills in South Africa). Beneath this is a growing sense of connection that seems unbreakable even by heated arguments over how they feel about my career direction or geographic choice of home. As Valentine’s Day approaches, I am toying with the idea that Eric might still love me after discovering that my family is capable of moments once thought to be the sole domain of Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller. He might even stick around no matter how honest or how American I am.
There has been something indefinably appealing about being an “International Woman of Mystery,” the clichéd epithet I have jokingly used from time to time. When it comes to International People of Mystery, however, I can now announce with confidence that the traditional rendition of the role is highly overrated. Take the challenge, and ask yourself: would you rather confront a villain in a clear-cut good versus evil, sink or swim scenario, or argue with a family member about your maturity and decision-making ability? How many of James Bond’s love interests ever got to meet his parents or interview his college roommates? Such encounters wouldn’t necessarily make for good box-office returns, but they would be far gutsier than the usual anonymous make-out sessions in remote ice palaces. Hunkering down with Eric in Boston’s cold winter—at my parents’ house—was not quite as romantic as gunfire and sirens, but it taught me a lot about love.
Today I went to visit Pam Mfaxa in the Kliptown squatter camp. Pam is the director of the Pastoral Community Centre and Preschool in one of Soweto’s poorest slums. She has been a good friend for over two years, and I now sit on the Board of the Pastoral Centre. It was going to be a quick visit, to say hello and pick up some budgets. It is late summer here, and it was a hot day. We sat outside her front door on old chairs placed in the dirt, peeling onions and talking. Five minutes into our small talk, a woman in a black-and-white plaid skirt arrived, looking concerned and talking to Pam in Zulu. They could have been talking about a minor annoyance, like having five rand stolen or having to chase the boys away from playing football in a crowded area.
Pam got up, quickly handing off the bowl of vegetables to her daughter. I followed her towards the gate. A missing child’s body had been found by the train tracks nearby and she said we needed to go and find out what was going on. We were among the first to arrive at a short footpath through long grass from the tracks to the shacks below. Pam and another, older woman spoke briefly, and then they told me to go and look to see if it was a body in the grass. I walked a few steps towards a clump of high weeds, and saw a small hand. I took another step and made out the shape of a small body lying there, a blue piece of clothing, a plastic bag on the face. I retreated. It was a crime scene, and the body was evidence. I have never seen such a young victim, abandoned like a sack of garbage on the edge of an overcrowded slum. I kept thinking evidence: it’s evidence.
A woman I interviewed in a Kenyan slum two years ago complained that they couldn’t build peace when dead dogs kept turning up in the trash heaps outside their doors. Here was not a dog, but a ten-year-old boy who had been brutally and unceremoniously snuffed out sometime between leaving his home on Saturday night and the warmth of Sunday sunrise over the worn-out shebeens in Kliptown. It was now midday, about 1pm, and there were no police in sight. Word was spreading, and people starting drifting up the paths to the tracks to look at the spectacle as though it was a museum exhibit or a piece of art at a gallery. I stood blocking the path to the body, hands on hips, and decided that my contribution would be the last little bit of dignity I could bestow upon the victim: a little bit of privacy and the preservation of evidence so the killer could be found.
A few police officers came and went. They seemed frightened and skittish. I questioned one of them about why they weren’t standing guard, and he told me he was in the community to respond to other complaints. He showed me his clipboard, with handwritten notes about a drunken assault and a theft, as though it was a hall pass so he could walk away from the murder. Did they have police tape to seal off the area? No. Had they called for backup? Yes, but they didn’t know when anyone would be there. It was Sunday. More than an hour passed before an investigating officer arrived on the scene with another clipboard, this one holding plastic ziplock evidence bags the size of an average ham sandwich and a pair of blue rubber gloves. There was no camera. The body had now been outside for hours, and a pungent aroma hinted at some kind of decay in the noon sun.
We started encouraging the crowds to move away and let the police do their job, although I felt hypocritical using this as an excuse to disperse people when I felt it so obvious that no one was doing the job necessary to properly investigate anything. Noise from the shacks grew louder, and we heard that people had chased a suspect—the boy’s father—down to the river, and beaten him with intent to kill. Apparently the police had gone to break up that riot first, since the body in the grass was already dead and they wanted to save the man’s life.
As the train tracks started to clear, the police escorted a woman who identified herself as the dead boy’s aunt up to the crime scene so she could see the body and confirm whether it was her nephew. I watched with horror as she took in the hand, the blue cloth, the plastic bag. Silence. Flies buzzing. Then a wailing sound like the end of the world, and she collapsed.
Once enough police were there to secure the area, Pam and I walked back down one of the other paths. There was a person-sized hole in the fence that was supposed to keep squatter camp residents from spilling over their allotted plot of earth. That fence, made from concrete and razor wire, only lasted a month before it was torn apart to open access again to the commercial shopping area. We made our way slowly back to her small home, and got down to the business of budgeting and planning the year for the community’s children who had survived the weekend.
IMPACT Africa, the organization I started in June 2003 with the help of the Boston Impact chapter, is growing and thriving. We have been teaching self-defense classes to a diverse group of South Africans, including a class for teenage boys last week at the Teboho Trust.
I spent October and November in West Africa, starting in Ghana, proceeding to a long trip in Sierra Leone, and then spending a final week in Monrovia, where the city curfew and recent rioting meant no travel up-country to the provinces. It was my first time to the Western part of the continent, and even after the pervasive rumors painting a picture of drug smugglers, small-time hustlers, mercenaries, and diamond merchants, I was not disappointed by the colorful reality.
In Freetown, I stayed in a house inside the Nigerian UN military compound next door to the British High Commission. I was very kindly hosted by two South African guys and their entourage of Sierra Leonean caretakers, child minders, and offspring. They were both helicopter pilots who came to Freetown in the late 1990’s to fight as mercenaries in the civil war, and were well-known and respected as part of the force that had eventually pushed the RUF rebels back from Freetown during a brutal offensive in 1999. Staying with “the pilots” meant that my general safety was guaranteed. It also led to some interesting afternoon walks on the beach and chats on the verandah, where conversation turned to the next possible coup, one of the men’s recent trips to Iraq to fulfill a contract, and why the Defense Department was refusing to pay to fix the helicopters now that the war was over.
Sierra Leone is one of the most beautiful places on earth. The beaches in and around Freetown are spectacular, with long white stretches of sand and gentle waves. Most of the beach houses that were destroyed or abandoned during the 11-year civil war have not been rebuilt or renovated, so certain areas give off the impression that you may have just stumbled onto the ruins of a treasure island with Spanish architecture and the possibility of trunks of gold bullion buried beneath the sand. Inland, the diamond mining areas are swarming with poor alluvial miners sweating all day as they sift through the earth using crude sieves. The rainforest has been decimated by logging and human habitation, but there are still places where the mud is so red and the trees so thick, you could be in a prehistoric time warp. Some of the birds of prey that circle overhead are almost as big as pterodactyls.
I spent my first week outside of Freetown on a joint mission with the UN and Sierra Leone Police, conducting cordon-and-search operations to look for weapons on the Guinean border. As part of the United Nations’ Arms for Development Programme, communities voluntarily surrendered guns left over after the formal disarmament process. If we could certify the area arms free, then the community would get a grant to put towards a development project of their choice. It is a great idea for a program, but the villagers’ biggest complaint was that wild animals were overrunning their crops since they had handed in their (often ancient) shotguns. The weapons storage container looked like an antique collectors’ paradise. Nonetheless, the police were very professional as they knocked on doors, explained that the war is over and therefore they wanted to make sure no unsafe guns were inside the house, and looked under mattresses and in thatched roofs to see what they could find. No illegal weapons were found, although we were all fairly sure that there are still caches in the bush.
My next stop was diamond mining country. International mining companies are beginning to re-invest in Sierra Leone. South Africans are ubiquitous in this business, especially those who stayed on during the civil war to guard mercenary mining interests and are now running security for new or re-configured companies. Despite the long disarmament process and its many successes, mining security has its own set of rules. Communities are feeling increasingly threatened as what are essentially small armed militias patrol around kimberlite blasting and rutile areas in various parts of the country.
At one company, the management attempts to obey the law, which does not allow for any private gun ownership, by using patrols of the Sierra Leone Police around the mine. These police units, who are “contracted” to the mine, are led by unarmed managers (foreign South African, Israeli, or Namibian ex-mercenaries). This creates a conflict of interest since the police are supposed to be working for the good of the community, but instead have been co-opted to be loyal to the mining interest. The government in Freetown comes down squarely in the camp of the companies, but of course it is a huge shareholder, as are many high-ranking officials including the president himself. It will be interesting to watch whether the corporate-community conflict will grow more or less volatile as the UN Mission to Sierra Leone draws down and pulls out.
Weapons are still routinely bought, sold, and transported across the Sierra Leone-Liberian border, and both countries’ border with Guinea. My visit to Monrovia revealed a completely different atmosphere to the one in Freetown. A curfew had been imposed since riots in the city a week before I arrived. Liberia, which finished its disarmament process in November, is still awash in weapons, and the first election since the war will be held this year in October if further violence does not postpone it. The capital city is full of UN tanks strategically stationed on street corners, and insecurity is palpable among the wreckage of once-grand building facades. The strangest thing for me was the distinct feeling of being in a mirror-image America. The electrical outlets run the same voltage, all of the products in the shops are American, and even the flag mimics the stars and stripes except instead of fifty stars, there is only one big one. I could buy Chips Ahoy cookies and Pillsbury cake mix in the middle of what is still, for all intents and purposes, a war zone. Of course, Liberia’s political problems date back to its formation as an American colony for freed slaves, who themselves reconstructed the plantations of the Deep South with themselves as rulers over the local Africans.
Liberia has a lot farther to go towards peace, but there is new hope in the region now that Charles Taylor, the brutal dictator who ruled Liberia with an iron fist and funded the war in Sierra Leone, has been resettled in Nigeria. West Africa is interesting and relevant not only to Africa enthusiasts, but to anyone concerned about global terrorism. Al Qaeda networks are known to have operated with the Sierra Leonean rebels to mine diamonds during the civil war, and the United States and Israel have long had a presence in Liberia. Every time I sat down at the hotel bar in Monrovia, I got mistaken for an intelligence operative. There were Kosovar Albanians, Israelis, South Africans, and American business interests all prowling around my hotel, everyone eyeing everyone else with suspicion. By the end of November, I was ready to get back to the more straightforward crime of Johannesburg.