There’s a list of books I mean to write, and this one is somehow on it, even though I couldn’t bear to write it, let alone research it. It would be about how in one year three of the world’s worst tyrants – literal madmen – lost their jobs.

  • In Equatorial Guinea, Macías Nguema was executed. He had done the same to perhaps a quarter of his population.
  • In the Central African Republic, Jean-Bédel Bokassa – who, after crowning himself emperor, beat to death schoolchildren – was removed by the French. He got to die of old age.
  • Idi Amin was chased out by a Tanzanian invasion. He got to die of old age too.

I read War in Uganda: the Legacy of Idi Amin, about how Tanzania finally got fed up with the neighbor from hell. It’s by two journalists, Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey, who embedded with the Tanzanian military.

It’s a grim book, and part of what makes it so awful is that after the invasion – which was ruinous for Tanzania – things only got worse in Uganda. “The consensus is that [Milton Obote’s] reign from the end of 1980 until the middle of 1985 was more brutal, and resulting in higher number of deaths, than the whole of Amin’s” (History of Modern Uganda, Richard J. Reid).  Anyone who endorses invading other countries for their benefit should at least acquaint themself with what happened in Uganda.

There was, believe it or not, a funny bit in the book. (It’s not, you know, hilarious, but I’m trying to end on an up note.)

Continue reading “1979”

What Happened?


Factually, if you had told any of us who worked with President Clinton as he prepared for his first summit with Boris Yeltsin in 1993 where the Russian economy, Russia’s government, and Russian relations with the United States were going to be in 2017, we would have been appalled.

Larry Summers


I had my students write about the most fun thing they did over the summer. One, from South Korea, wrote about playing video games, and mentioned the slowness of the Internet here. This struck me because the night before I’d watched a PBS documentary on the Battle of Chosin. Imagine the bewilderment of those Marines if you’d told them that in a couple of generations South Korea would have a superior technological infrastructure to America’s.


Kigali City Tower (credit: Adam Cohn)


Twenty-one years ago I was in Rwanda. Had you told me that today there’d be a national fiber optic network and universal health care, I’d have told you to lay off the waragi.




Pretty Little Liars


When deep night fell, the fishermen paddled out and we watched the horizon slowly fill with little orange lights, kerosene lamps swinging from the bows of their boats. It soon looked like a whole city out there, or like a constellation of stars that had fallen lightly on the surface of the water. It was a pretty lie the fishermen were telling the fish. The fish liked to feed on nights with a full moon; the light of the lanterns drew them from the depths.

That’s Jeffrey Gettleman’s description of night fishing on Lake Kivu from his memoir, Love, Africa. I like it.*

The above marvel is also described in this literary masterpiece:

During my third month on the job, on a cloudless, moonless evening with delicate astral illumination, I discovered night fishing. I left the residence to walk down to the office, and saw that the lake was speckled with faintly glowing dots. Abdoulaye explained that the army had lifted the curfew and permitted fishermen once again to go out at night. The lights were from their canoes. I can’t remember if he said they were from actual fires built in the vessels, or from lanterns, but the resulting effect was dramatic: the blackness of the lake was an inverted sky filled with stars. Viewed from the hillside, it was as if the heavens lay above and below.

Smitten with this discovery, I spent the next few evenings seeking the best vantage for the spectacle. I found an excellent location not far from our house, on the dirt road that zigzagged down the hill to the main road by the lake. In order to get the optimal view, I tried sitting on the hood, and then on the roof, but the slope of the hill made for a precarious perch. Finally I settled on the driver’s seat. Now and then I would try to pick up a shortwave broadcast, but mostly I’d just sit in silence, sip my beer, and contemplate the parallel galaxies.

It really is the most beautiful sight. Apparently now you can go out with the fishermen as a tourist, although it sounds far preferable to regard from a hill.


*The description, that is. The book, yes and no. In obedience to this site’s strict No Book Reviews policy, I’ll only say that Love, Africa oddly reminds me of A Bit of a Blur by Alex James.

(Photo credit: MONUSCO / Myriam Asmani)

Triumphal Return

With the Patriots back in the Super Bowl, my thoughts naturally turn to Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who ruled Togo for thirty-eight years.*

On the very day of Super Bowl XLII, you see, when the Patriots played some other team, I purchased this book.**

It’s a heck of a tale.

A young farm boy impresses all, not least his teachers…

Learns how to win hearts and minds in Vietnam…

Takes power reluctantly…

Dodges death repeatedly…

Gets reelected bigly…

And the rest is history.

My favorite part? When he pities the fool who tried to assassinate him. And invites him back every year for a drink.




    * I wish I were making some clever Tom Brady allusion, but all I know about football is you don’t wear skates.

** I’d located it online, and took the subway over to get it. As the bookseller rang up the sale, he said: “Well, every book has its buyer.” He may have intended this in a genial “I’ll be darned!” sense, but I suspect he employed it instead as terse valediction to hasten the obvious lunatic from the premises.


Phantom Power


Valentine Strasser seized power in Sierra Leone when he was twenty-five years old. At that age I ruled nowhere, perhaps because I was busy listening to Super Furry Animals’ Radiator. Its track “Placid Casual” discusses the coup:

Freetown rocked in Sierra Leone / When Valentine Strasser danced his way to the throne / Gunpowder smoke took a heavy toll / But they weren’t placid casual and so they lost control.

This might not be the most perceptive analysis of Strasser’s reign, but it’s probably the best in modern Welsh psychedelic rock.


Continue reading “Phantom Power”

Soft Landing

“I live on an air force base. I know what I’m talking about. If a plane manages to avoid radar detection up to its landing, it could land and come to a quiet halt at the end of a runway without anybody noticing.” -Major Ido Embar, Israeli Air Force


When I first started living near railroad tracks, passing trains would awaken me. Now they almost never do. Still, I can’t imagine how anyone could not notice a large plane landing nearby.

I just finished Operation Thunderbolt by Saul David, a heck of a tale about the Israeli rescue of hostages in Uganda. Major Embar’s above declaration is but one of many memorable details.

Others include:

 – One of the hijacked passengers had once decided to kill Klaus Barbie, and had a “gun hidden under a poncho when Barbie stopped three yards in front of him.”

– Henry Kissinger’s phone call to Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz upon hearing that Israel was prepared to negotiate for the hostages’ release:

Dinitz: [Idi Amin] would have slaughtered them: men, women, and children.

Kissinger: I wonder if that would not have been better. Then you could react.

Continue reading “Soft Landing”

L’Esprit de l’Escalier

If you asked a 22-year-old American about gun control in this country, she would probably tell you that it’s a lot more complicated than taking some workshops on social entrepreneurship and starting a non-profit. She might tell her counterpart from Kampala about the intractable nature of our legislative branch, the long history of gun culture in this country and its passionate defenders, the complexity of mental illness and its treatment. She would perhaps mention the added complication of agitating for change as an outsider.

But if you ask that same 22-year-old American about some of the most pressing problems in a place like Uganda — rural hunger or girl’s secondary education or homophobia — she might see them as solvable. Maybe even easily solvable.

That’s from “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems,” an essay by Courtney Martin. While reading it I was reminded of Aiding Violence by Peter Uvin, about the development industry’s contribution to the genocide in (Uganda’s neighbor) Rwanda.

I read it many years ago, and what’s always stuck with me is, of all things, a footnote:

Although it is politically correct to affirm that underdevelopment also exists at home, I know of few organizations or persons that take this seriously in practice. The reason is simple: at home, we realize how difficult it is to overcome apathy, fear, racism, poverty, distrust, alienation, violence, bureaucratic inertia, and so forth. We know about the historical legacies of problems, the way they are deeply ingrained in relations of power, in ideologies, and in social systems. In far-away places, about which we know little, we can pretend that these problems do not exist and that we can promote development through some simple actions. Ignorance is truly what allows us to act.

Shortly after I returned from Rwanda, I was temping at a financial services firm. One of the partners – who struck me as quite intelligent – told me, entirely seriously, that the genocide could have been prevented if Rwanda had had the equivalent of the Second Amendment. He even lamented that the US had not air-dropped Kalashnikovs.

What I wish I’d said is something to the effect of the genocide having occurred not for lack of well regulated militias.

Instead, I think I replied: “Huh!”


Game On


The recent drop in temperature recalled to mind a reality TV show I once invented: Cold Enough for Ya?!


Premise: The host, who should be suitably disagreeable, drives around in a luxury automobile on a frigid winter day. Upon spotting someone waiting at a bus stop, trudging down an icy sidewalk, or performing manual labor, he pulls up alongside, rolls down the window, and shouts… well, you guessed it, didn’t you! Then he peels out, cackling all the way. Ideally, each episode would end with the luxury automobile being chased out of town by an angry mob. (Obviously the show’s summer season would be titled Hot Enough for Ya?! and maintain a similar spirit.)

Funny stuff, right? And that’s the one that ended up on the cutting room floor! The other one, you ask? Well, it’s in a short story I recently finished. You’ll have to read it there, whenever it comes out. (Unless you’re a network executive, in which case give me a call.)


Now then. Here’s something that wasn’t funny at all. It happened a couple years ago. I’d spent the morning writing that very same short story (the gestational period of my stories averages about a term in the senate; a novel would take me centuries), and came home to find the latest issue of the New Yorker in the mail.

“By gum,” said I, “There’s an article on Guinea!” (For my story is set in Guinea, you see.)

Upon reading the following passage, I threw the magazine across the room. (For, you see, much of that very morning had been spent writing dialogue in which one character addresses another as “Father Christmas.”)

Each time that Cilins flew from France to Guinea, he brought gifts—MP3 players, cell phones, perfumes—which he disbursed among his contacts. They came to think of him as “Father Christmas,” he told Fox. 

I’ll pause while you roll down your window and shout “Coincidence enough for ya?!” But that’s all the head start you’re getting.

The Master and Le Guide


“‘I’m going to be strict, but fair.’ That’s what all teachers say at the beginning of the year,” a friend once complained to me. Well, this year I’m going to do better than that.

Recently I was out with the wife for Date Night – this is what it’s come to etc – and she was looking at the cocktail list. (I stay away from those things, as I am skeptical of drinks with more than two ingredients.) The list featured the “Freddie Quell,” which she remarked was an odd name for a drink. “Wait,” I said, “I know that name…”

Thus began my recollection of The Master. (If you want to imagine a date with me, just ask a guy to semi-coherently explain a film you haven’t seen while he sips a two ingredient drink.)

Anyway, I decided to watch it again, and quite liked it again, particularly because it provides me half my new Day One Speech:

I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man…


The remainder of my speech comes, naturally, from Mobutu Sese Seko’s address marking the 16th anniversary of the Popular Movement of the Revolution, delivered in Kinshasa on May 19, 1983:

Here is my motto: “Always Serve.” This motto is inscribed on the top of my staff.

(Author’s note: I am grateful to my friend Steve for his recent gift of the volume below, without which, honestly, my recollection of the address would be iffy.)



Independence Days


I’m reading Congo: the Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck. I learned of it from this intriguing New York Times review, which opens with Maréchal Mobutu’s “both Pythonesque and distressing” foray into space exploration:

(The above uncharitably reminds me of the joke about the proposed subtitle for the film about Wernher von Braun, I Aim at the Stars: “But Sometimes I Hit London.”)

I was quite taken with Van Reybrouck’s insight about Congo’s struggles at independence:

As in theater, tragedy in history here was not a matter of the reasonable versus the unreasonable, of good versus bad, but of people whose lives crossed and who – each and every one of them – considered themselves good and reasonable… History is a gruesome meal prepared from the best of ingredients.

Jason Stearns reviews that gruesome meal in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: the Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. It is very readable, but relentlessly saddening, with passages I couldn’t finish. It is also highly informative, and I don’t say that casually. I watched the rebels take Bukavu in 1996 and didn’t really know what the hell was going on. Could have used this book then.

But don’t worry, gentle reader, we shall end on a high note! If you haven’t heard – or seen – this authentic Congolese ballad from the 1970s, well, get ready to rumble: