Monday, August 11, 2008
Sunday, August 10, 2008
Elaine Chao, the Peace Corps Director,
paid us a visit at the training site
in the fall of ‘91. Petite, well-coiffed,
dressed in a smart business suit, she spoke
of her emigration from Taiwan
to the United States as an 8-year-old.
Her international heritage,
she said, gave her broad insight
into the Peace Corps experience.
But her delivery seemed off-key somehow.
At noon, under an overcast sky filled
with harmattan dust, the villagers
staged a parade for her. Hausa riders
dressed in their finest gowns strutted
by on their horses. Griots lifted
their praise above the polyrhythmic pulse
of the talking drums. The village chief
presented a ram to Ms. Chao as a gift
(which she couldn’t, of course, take with her).
She handled herself graciously enough
as she thanked the village chief
and spoke with my fellow trainees.
But she also gave us the impression
that she was flying on autopilot
with her sights set on a far horizon.
When George W. Bush appointed Ms. Chao
as Secretary of Labor,
I wasn’t surprised.
Even now I can’t help but think of her visit
as a harbinger of that ill wind.
We were halfway to Maradi by sundown. Jack Nelson, Assistant Director for Peace Corps Niger, was at the wheel and I was in shotgun. Out the window were millet fields, barren now in the dry season, with scattered acacia trees in silhouette against the fading light. We’d been on National Highway 1 for five hours, driving east from the Nigerien capital Niamey.
I hadn’t foreseen any of this. Just ten hours previous I’d received the fax with the reassignment. I immediately placed a call to the Paris Bureau of The Global News & Business Daily, the L.A. based paper for which I worked. There’d been no mistake. I was being reassigned to investigate a Peace Corps volunteer’s suicide. My tentative plan had been to go north to Agadez to cover Mamadou Ousamane’s campaign for the Nigerien presidency. That can wait, the bureau chief said. How long? I asked. The elections were barely two weeks away. You’ll have enough time for everything, the chief explained. You bastard, I was thinking. Have you ever used public transportation to get to a story? But I didn’t protest further. Instead I took a taxi to the Niamey Peace Corps office where I found Jack Nelson at his desk. Nelson said that he would be driving out to the deceased volunteer’s village ASAP and I could come along if I wanted. He showed me the letter that he’d written to Howard and Diane Goldstein, the parents, expressing his regrets over the loss of their son Adam. The name seemed vaguely familiar but I dismissed it off-hand. Two hours later Nelson and I were on the road. I’d been talking about my stint at The Chicago Sun-Times when he mentioned that the deceased had worked there too. Did you know him? he asked. I swallowed hard against the shock of recognition and told him no. Yet, in the brief Sahelian twilight, I was still trying to recall the face of the deceased, a one-time intern at the Sun who had just been starting the Peace Corps application process around the time he started interning at the Sun-Times. His name: Adam Goldstein.
Jack Nelson was turning the Toyota Land Cruiser’s radio dial. This was an attempt to find the Beninois medium-wave radio station supposedly broadcasting at the moment. He was having no luck, so he turned the radio off.
“Man, I do not regret the year I spent in Chicago,” he said. He shook his head gently, his hands firmly on the wheel. Nelson was in his mid-thirties, black, and well-built. He was wearing a coastal style complet: his pants and V-neck dashiki had been cut from the same orange fabric. “Jazz, Blues, Funk, Classical,” he said. “You name a type of music. They’ve got it. Ever been to the jazz festival?”
“Many times. I’ve even got a tape of last summer’s festival my fiancée sent me. She knows how much I miss it.”
My fiancée Ellen Kovic worked in the marketing department at the Chicago Tribune. Ellen and I were to be married in August. I had proposed to her eight months previously. I had been abroad, on assignment, for most of the interim. My feelings for her, in that time, had begun to change. That is, I no longer knew for sure whether I could go through with the marriage.
“What do you think of Senegalese music?” Nelson asked.
I paused. I wanted to talk about Chicago. “I don’t know much about it,” I said.
“I ask because Youssou N’Dour’s coming to Niamey next week.”
“So I heard. But I won’t have time to see him. With this story and the elections I’ll be working non-stop for the next month.”
“Man, those guys work you.”
“Yeah, they do.”
“Any African Americans on your beat?”
Again, I paused.
Nelson had something of a reputation. He was a returned Benin Peace Corps volunteer with a Ph.D. in Political Science form Indiana University. He’d written two articles, published in SAIS Review and The African American Quarterly,in which he promoted closer political and monetary union for the nation states in sub-Saharan Africa. He hadn’t published anything recently, however. His current position with Peace Corps precluded any form of political advocacy. I learned this from a USAID official, a friend of mine, who used the term Afrocentrist to describe Nelson. In expatriate lingo the word was a pejorative, used less to describe political persuasions than to define habitual avoidance of certain functions like embassy cocktail parties.
“There aren’t any African-Americans in our bureau,” I said. “Right now we have only two correspondents for the entire continent. Africa is way outside our focus area.”
“There should be more brothers on your beat,” Nelson said matter-of-factly.
I saw dashboard lights reflected in Nelson’s eyes before he prudently returned his gaze to the two-lane highway before us.
“I ask questions because I don’t like to assume anything,” I said.
“Is this on the record?”
“No. I’m just interested in your take on things.”
“Ah bon,” Nelson said sarcastically. “Okay. Here it is. Ideally your reporters in Africa would be African Americans. The European-American perspective doesn’t do the continent justice.”
“That’s like saying only a Jew can report from Jerusalem.”
“Isn’t that the case already?”
“What do you mean?”
“Seems like every editorial I read in the International Herald is written by another Jew defending Israel.”
“I don’t think the pro-Israel viewpoint is over-represented in the Herald.”
“What we have here is a difference of opinion.”
“The world is big,” I said.
Nelson laughed again. I was tired of talking and I think he was too. So I let the headlights draw my eyes to the roadway. Above were the stars on a moonless night but I kept my eyes focused on the asphalt.
Without further thought or effort I recalled the face of Adam Goldstein. I recalled his olive cast, his black curly hair, prominent nose and thick eyebrows. I pictured him scribbling down notes in a Sun staff meeting. Raising his hand and asking a question in his small whining voice. A Loyola undergrad at the time, Goldstein was at The Chicago Sun-Times when I was paying my dues as a reporter at the metro desk.
The metro desk editor didn’t like his reporters to pull their punches. I never disappointed him. I was the one who asked mothers the questions after their daughters’ bodies popped up bloated in the Chicago River. I didn’t like this kind of reporting—you have to be mentally ill to enjoy it—but I must admit I had the knack. Goldstein didn’t. He was known to be both quiet and sensitive. His ultimate goal was to work as a newspaper illustrator or cartoonist, yet somehow he got in on the news end of things. I recall that he took things too personally. Also, he didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic. But who could blame him? He’d probably grown tired of the ambulance chasing like most of us do, but earlier.
Nelson braked to a stop at a military roadblock outside the city of Madoua. There was a chain across the asphalt and a tin shack off to the side. A young gendarme sat on a bench in front, a Kalashnokov in his lap. He stood up, approached my window, and, as I rolled it down, my hands began to shake. Nelson greeted to gendarme and I managed a simple, “Bonsoir, ça va?” He wanted to see my passport so I pulled it out. My hands were still shaking but he didn’t seem to notice. Nelson did.
“You all right?” he asked. “Are you taking your anti-malarial?”
The gendarme lowered the chain across the road and we accelerated past.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
He parked the Land Cruiser. Along the Madoua roadside strip were thatch shacks bathed in the dim light of kerosene lanterns. In front of each shack sat vendors with wares spread out on plastic sheets before them. There were piles of kola-nuts, cigarette cartons, bungee cords, tire-patches, tire-tubes, and what seemed like an infinite assortment of engine parts.
We crossed over to the other side of the road where several butchers stood over their wood-fire grills. Nelson walked up to a grill and asked for 500 C.F.A francs worth of mutton. The butcher, an old man with a white beard and a twisted smile, took a huge mutton flank off the grill and cut the meat into segments with a long curved knife. Not once, as he worked, did he take his eyes off me. In the brief, flashing headlights of a passing truck his eye sockets took on the appearance of mirrors in which I could see my own reflection. I turned away and blinked forcefully as if something had gone wrong with my vision. When I looked again a second later his appearance had returned to normal. He sprinkled the meat with ground ginger and red pepper and wrapped it in brown paper. The smell made my mouth water and I was very hungry so I got the same.
We brought our grilled mutton into the van and Nelson started the engine.
“You sure you’re all right now?” he asked as he accelerated onto the highway.
“Just a little spooked is all,” I said. “About four months ago I ran a roadblock in Angola in a pickup. If I’d been caught I would’ve been killed. I kind of had a flashback.”
“You correspondents are crazy,” Nelson said. He nodded his head, chuckled. I thought he might say something else, but instead he began to eat, his left hand steady on the wheel. I began eating as well.
I was still thinking of Angola. Four months previous, I’d been reporting on the devastation that the UNITA rebels had wrought on the Angolan economy. I’d been driving a Toyota pickup on a winding clay road through rebel–held territory at night with an injured Christian Children’s Fund worker in shotgun when we accidentally crashed through a roadblock. I hadn’t seen the chain across the road, but I certainly heard it when it snapped, cracked the windshield, and took out the headlights. Once we were through I thought it best to keep on going. We reached the Red Cross hospital the next morning. A doctor who worked there told me that the roadblock was controlled by a splinter faction of UNITA known for their hatred of expatriates and their love of Toyota pickups. If they’d stopped us we would’ve been tortured and killed—in addition to our truck being confiscated.
The question on my mind was whether my job was worth the risks I was taking. I didn’t know whether or not I had the ability to overcome those risks. My goal was to become the Hong Kong bureau chief of The Global News & Business Daily by August 1997, the month before the Chinese were scheduled to retake the city. The entire world economy was moving toward the Pacific Rim. I wanted to be writing op-ed pieces about the shakers and movers of the world. There wasn’t much else that I considered to be worth writing about. Call it the trickle-down theory of news reporting. Everything I’d done in the past three years had been directed towards this goal: from the night school Chinese to the dues-paying African assignments. If my job presented such a great risk, though, what was the point? I wasn’t going to get to Hong Kong by rotting in an unmarked grave.
I decided not to think about it any more. I finished my mutton, washed it down with water from my canteen, and let my mind focus on the highway ahead of us. I had learned in the process of writing a recent article that the national highway had been paid for by hard currency dividends from uranium mining operations in northern Niger. This highway ended one thousand kilometers to the east, near the Chadian border. What I wanted to know was how it ends: does the asphalt whimper out into a sandy camel path or is it blocked off at the end by a pile of bricks? This was the question on my mind as I drifted off to sleep.