What really went on in Africa. Anna tells all

Anna is a much better journalist than I. She can take notes in the back of a bouncing Land Cruiser on a dirt road in Kenya and Tanzania. She asks good questions. She can hear out of both ears, and she writes faster than I. And does so very well. She sends out stories about her and Ian’s travels in a newsletter, which should be a blog or a book.

I’m on her email list, and when I saw this, I asked permission to use it here as my way of tell madcapschemes.com readers what really went on during our two-week trip to East Africa.

Hope you enjoy it.

John B.

 

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Uncomfortable, grateful or perplexed about U.S. secret war?

Turse

Is knowing that the U.S. military is fighting a war in Africa, unknown to most Americans, enough to make you uncomfortable, grateful or perplexed?

Kathy fell into the latter camp after hearing Nick Turse speak at the University of Washington graduate school on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Turse is an investigative journalist who has written or contributed to seven books. He is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com, a contributing writer at The Intercept and the co-founder of Dispatch Books. He has a Ph.D in Sociomedical Sciences from Columbia University.

He told the filled Kane Hall auditorium about the 36 operations directed by AFRICOM, which runs the U.S. military in that part of the world. More operations there than anywhere else in the world, he said. More troops in the Mideast, but more operations going on in Africa.

He told us much more, but Kathy came away from the talk unsatisfied. What’s it all mean? How am I supposed to take the information he gave us? A good thing for America, keeping Russia, China and fundamental Islamic terrorists from taking over there? Or the beginning of another endless war with little in it for the United States except for loss of treasure and lives?

In the editing world, we used to call that putting the bow on the story, wrapping it up with facts and what they might lead to. Or, another editor might say, give the readers the facts and let them decide what they think it means.

Here are some of the facts Turse gave us: Mostly AFRICOM will say they are there for humanitarian reasons and are training troops for some nations. However, the battle that brought Americans’ attention to Africa was a counterinsurgency operation in Niger in October 2017. Four U.S. soldiers were killed when Islamic militants attacked their convoy. The Islamic State (ISIS) leader who instigated the Niger attack, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, is still at large despite a $5 million reward.

Turse said that there are many more military missions than humanitarian ones. Several are against the Boko Haram, a terrorist group that wants to establish an Islamic state that will practice Sharia law. Some support French troops in Africa. One is a Naval surveillance operation to support drone strikes.

Another reason for African missions is to set up other places to launch drones, including an air base in Niger. So far in 2019, Turse reported, there have been 55 drone strikes in Somalia alone, mostly against al-Shabaab, a jihadist group aligned with al Qaeda and possibly Boko Haram. AFRICOM’s claims of few civilian deaths “fly in the face” of human-rights organizations, local reports and foreign journalists, says Turse.

Most of these operations are carried out by U.S. Special Forces, Navy SEALs and other commandos. And that, says Turse, should be no surprise, according to retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who served as commander of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) from April 2015 to June 2017. Bolduc, who is running for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, says the U.S. military has operations in more than 30 African countries.

Turse says the number of active militant Islamic terrorist groups has doubled in Africa since 2010 and violent events across the continent have gone from just under 300 a decade ago to more than 2,000 now. But the U.S. operations and the reaction to them might not be the cause — or the only cause — of the increase in violence. In countries where more than half the population is under 30, the big question is: Will there be jobs for these young people, especially men? If no jobs, more instability, more attraction to radical groups. Turse cites “back channel” communications between AFRICOM and Congress mentioning climate change, which could lead to “resource wars” over water, food and other materials.

During the time left for audience questions, one man brought up another reason for the increase in violence and terrorist groups in Africa: ISIS and other terrorists are being driven out of the Mideast and heading to Africa. Turse cited one example of that with the “Libyan debacle.” It looked like an easy win for the U.S., but after Muammar Gaddafi was killed, his arms and supporters spread out across Africa.

Is this anything the United States wants to stick around for, or should Trump “bring our troops home,” as he likes to say?

The troops going home are “only those who have homes in western Iraq,” says Turse. Actually many of those troops Trump sent home from Syria will stay in Syria. The U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, announced Oct. 25, 2019, that troops — and mechanized equipment — would stay to secure the oil in Syria. And other troops were being assigned to Saudi Arabia at the same time Trump was announcing the withdrawal of troops from Syria.

The Pentagon may be “slow rolling” Trump on reducing forces overseas, as if they don’t want to do that. Maybe they don’t like abandoning allies like the Kurds. Or maybe they wanted to wait around long enough to complete their plans to assassinate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader in Syria, which happened over the weekend. Or maybe they realize that if Trump stops the United States’ “endless wars,” their jobs will end.

So there are the facts, says this editor, who will let you decide.

 

 

 

 

Down they fell: Ireland, Wales and now what?

Ireland looked like a contender in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but they fell to Japan and then New Zealand.

I thought Wales could become a winner that had never taken home the Webb Ellis trophy before, but they lost to South Africa, 19-16, this morning. The Springboks head for the finals next Saturday, while Wales plays for bronze against New Zealand, who were stopped by England in their attempt to win the RWC for a third time in a row.

Both England and South Africa have captured the RWC championship before, but I’m probably going to root for England, who played an excellent game against New Zealand and did so poorly in the 2015 RWC when they became the first host nation that never advanced beyond pool play. Winning the World Cup might help English fans get over that lingering malady.

Wales and South Africa kicked and kicked, the kind of game a former teammate calls “Ping-Pong.” Back and forth when running seemed a good option. Even the scoring was mostly from penalty kicks with the game tied 9-9 on penalties until the 44th minute when the Springboks scored a try and conversion. Wales answered with seven points 10 minutes later, and the 16-16 tie held up until the last five minutes of the game when South Africa kicked another penalty for the 19-16 win.

So I’ll be singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which the English fans sing in the stands, which does seem an odd choice. but so did “Bread of Heaven.”

 

England in the finals; rooting for a matchup with Wales

“England started well and never gave us a chance to get into the game,” said New Zealand’s captain Keiran Read in a good summary of their 19-7 loss to the English side.

Manu Tuilagi scored 1:37 minutes into the match and George Ford added four penalty kicks. England had two tries called back because of infractions, one for obstruction and one for a call rarely seen: a ball slipped forward in a maul.

England’s defense kept the New Zealand running game bottled up, and we saw more missed passes and penalties from the Kiwis than we have seen in the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Their only try came on a poorly thrown or lack of communication on where to ball was supposed to end up in an England lineout. It ended in the hands of a New Zealand player who went untouched five yards for the score.

It’s the first RWC game the All Blacks have lost since 2007, and they will not three-peat.

Tonight’s game — make that 2 a.m. tomorrow in Seattle — could bring a non-RWC winner into the finals if Wales can get by South Africa. Then beat England in the finals, and the Welsh will win their first RWC championship. A tall order, but we’re still singing “Bread of Heaven.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Wish he had a chance to say more

Water 1Let’s start with the complaints and then get to the good stuff. Kathy and I arrived early — or so we thought — to get into Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates speak on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019. But we spent the hour between 7 and 8 p.m. in a line that wound around the outside of the hall, waiting to go through security.

I can’t blame Coates for asking for the extra security. In “Between the World and Me,” a book Coates wrote as a letter to his son, he said: “And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”Between world

There are American who don’t like to hear that. They are the ones who, as Coates says, have succumbed to the “apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names.”

Death threats against journalists are not uncommon, especially for columnists, especially for those of color who write about the “great evil done in all of our names.”

But I wish Benaroya Hall and Seattle Arts and Lectures would have planned better for getting us in out of the rain. There are five interior entries into Benaroya Hall, and the security points were set up there, wanding each member of the audience as they entered and checking through what they had emptied from their pockets and handbags. The staffers could have moved checkpoints to the row of exterior doors across the front of the building. It would have pushed the crowd out into the weather, but we were there anyway.

Coates 2The event was supposed to start at 7:30; we weren’t led to separate seats until 8 o’clock (only singles remained). Things finally got started at 8:15 but were halted 15 minutes later to take the buzz out of the microphones. By 9:20, it was over.

They are also trying out a new technology to display on your cell phone captions on what is being said. Great idea for someone like me with hearing problems. But I could not get it to work.

Charles Johnson, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and author of 24 books, including “Middle Passage,” a National Book Award winner in 1990, interviewed Coates. Too much Johnson; not enough Coates.

And now for the good. Our ticket included a copy of Coates’ new book, “The Water Dancer,” and I can’t wait to start reading it. It’s Coates’ fourth book and his first venture into fiction, about Hiram, born into slavery, fathered by the plantation owner who sells the mother when Hiram is still a child. He can’t remember his mother, but he is endowed with magical powers. That’s how it starts, and Coates said: “At the end, there is still slavery.”

He spent 10 years writing it and doing research, reading slave narratives, going to Civil War battlefields and plantations. He said his book agent got him interested in writing fiction, but Coates had other reasons.

“After the Bible, the second biggest seller of fiction is ‘Gone with the Wind,'” he said. Why is there such a romantic view of Civil War participants? Why is Robert E. Lee always gallant and heroic in his struggle to maintain slavery?

So there is a need for “inversion,” some way of creating another kind of hero. That could be putting a black man on a horse and giving him a gun, which sounded a lot like the movie “Django Unchained.” Taking the white man’s image and painting it black.

It sounds to me like Coates wanted to make the slave the hero, in a more quiet way than Jamie Foxx blazing away with a six-shooter. When I read the book, I’ll be interested in seeing if he did that.

Coates also touched on teaching writing: “Think of the writer as the forest ranger. People come to be guided through the national park. They don’t want the ranger to get lost.”

On Trump: “I wrote a column when he was elected, and anything I said now would be redundant.”

And about reconstructing the understanding of race in America: “Listen as much as I can and talk as little as I can.”

Wish he had been given a chance to say more last night.

P.S. Got this as an email today: “We’re so grateful you could join us for an evening with Ta-Nehisi Coates. We are dedicated to producing the best events possible, and we know that last night both the long security lines and delayed start were enormously frustrating. We are currently working with the venue to ensure these issues do not happen again.

“If you would like a refund, please email the SAL Box Office at boxoffice@lectures.org, or give us a call at 206-621-2230 x10, and we will be happy to refund your order.

“We are so sorry for the frustrations you experienced. I want you to know that we learn from each and every event and mistake, and I promise you that we will strive to make future events better.”

No need for a refund, but I hope they get things straight by our next event.

 

This week, I will be a Welshman singing “Bread of Heaven”

The suspects have stepped forward to the lineup, and they are the usual suspects: England will play New Zealand, and Wales will take on South Africa in the semifinals of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Probably the best bet for beating New Zealand comes from England, who did away with Australia, 40-16, as Saturday started here in Seattle. Owen Farrell scored 20 of those points: kicking four conversions and three penalties. Jonny May had two tries, and the ref and the two teams’ front rows could never get together on how to keep set scrums from collapsing.

I struggled to get the iPad working at 3 a.m. to watch New Zealand against Ireland. By the time I got NBC Sports Gold running, the All Blacks were up 17-0. The Kiwis were mechanical, perfect and almost boring in how predictable they were in beating Ireland, 46-14. New Zealand may be headed for a three-repeat, winning the RWC in 2015 and 2011.

Of the four teams headed to the semis, Wales is the only one that has never won a World Cup. So I will be Welsh this week, hoping against all hopes that Wales can beat South Africa and then either NZ or England in the finals on Nov. 2. That’s betting on a doubtful outcome, like my handicapping for horse racing. But maybe . . .

Wales beat France, 20-19, after the Frenchmen showed how to link up backs and forwards in a fast running game. The turning point came when six-foot-eight Sébastien Vahaamahina got a red card for foul play. And foul it was. First he had Wales’ Aaron Wainwright in a headlock in the maul, dropped that and then elbowed Wainwright in the face. That will teach him for scoring Wales’ only try up to that point. Then it took Wales most of the second half to come up with another score against a team playing a man short. Wales goes on with a 20-19 win over France.

In their game against South Africa, Japan never got their thrilling running game going that they displayed so well against Scotland in the final game of pool play. They scored a penalty kick and held South Africa to 5-3 in the first half. And that was that, losing 26-3.

So if you hear me singing, it will be the song the “Bread of Heaven,” the song the Welsh fans sing in the stands as they are headed to victory and their first Rugby World Cup championship.

 

 

 

Kenya and Tanzania in a 38-photo slideshow

Still sorting through my photos from the recent trip to Kenya and Tanzania and realizing it will take forever to put them in some sort of arrangement that will be perfect. So I decided I would not let perfect be the enemy of good.

Here are some of what I think are some of my best in a slideshow. Hope you enjoy them.

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Then I realized I had left out the cheetah. Didn’t want to cheetah you.

Cheetah

This blog has gone to the birds — African ones

This may be the first of several posts like this while I sort through photographs we took on our recent trip to Kenya and Tanzania. There are still elephants, lions, antelopes and many more animals to go in the 600 pictures I have saved out of more than 1,000 — not counting videos. As Laura said on the trip, “I just can’t stop taking pictures.”

And we’re not done with birds yet. I am still waiting for my bird identifier (that would be Kathy, who is now fully in the birder ranks) to finish other photos we have not traced down in our “Birds of East Africa” book. We probably will have some that we will need help on. Stand by.

Yellow-necked spurfowl
Yellow-necked spurfowl
Yellow billed stork
Yellow billed stork
Woolly-necked stork
Woolly-necked stork
Verreaux's eagle-owl
Verreaux’s eagle-owl
Spur-winged lapwing
Spur-winged lapwing
Secretary bird
Secretary bird
Lilac-breasted roller
Lilac-breasted roller
Helmeted guineafowl
Helmeted guineafowl
Hamerkop
Hamerkop
Great wite pelican
Great white pelican
Gray-headed kingfisher
Gray-headed kingfisher
Egyptian goose
Egyptian goose
Crowned lapwing
Crowned lapwing
Common squacco heron
Common squacco heron
Common fiscal
Common fiscal
African spoonbill
African spoonbill
African Jacana
African Jacana

Take me back to Theroux’s plain of snakes

Theroux book 2I’d read half of Paul Theroux’s new book, “On the Plain of Snakes,” when I went to hear the author speak Wednesday night, Oct. 16, 2019, at Seattle’s Town Hall. That was probably a mistake.

The night before, I had heard Tim Egan speak on his new book, “A Pilgrimage to Eternity.” Since it was published on that very day, I had obviously not read it.

So Egan’s speech was an introduction to the book. Theroux’s talk was probably an effective intro to his book, but for me, I wanted an expansion on what he had written and I had read.

What was behind President Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper in 1994 that changed the U.S.-Mexico border from a simple line that Mexicans crossed every day to work, shop and visit to a place of “fences, patrol cars, security technology and massive deportations”?

Why was President Obama’s Fast and Furious program to sell high-caliber guns across the border so that they could be traced when cartel members committed crimes with them, such a failure?

Tell me more about Trump’s insults to Mexicans, the effects of NAFTA on Mexico’s poor and why Mexico’s government is so corrupt that Mexicans have little time to complain about the corruption in Trump’s administration.

More about the violence in Mexico and how the police and drug cartels are often the same.

Theroux 1But he did expand on some things he had written in the book, like his reaction to what he calls “the fence.” In the book, he wrote:

“An ugly steel fence you might associate with a prison perimeter, twenty-five feet high, like nothing I had seen in any other country. A Texas congressman had called it ‘an inefficient fourteenth-century solution to a twenty-first century problem,’ which was accurate because, like a medieval wall, it was merely a symbol of exclusion rather than anything practical, and easily climbed over or tunneled under. In an age of aerial surveillance and high-security technology, it was a blacksmith’s barrier of antiquated ironmongery: old rusty ramparts running for miles, a visible example of national paranoia.”

Theroux has written more than 50 books, many of them from his travels around the world. He says the southern border is the oddest one in the world, like a Christo environmental art project. He describes walking through the door in the fence at the end of a Nogales street as an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole experience. “Open the door, and suddenly you are in Mexico.”

Despite this oddness, the border is a back-and-forth flow, with most of it nowadays going north. Mexicans still come across, although now they have to stand in long lines with their legal documents to get to their jobs, etc.

One surprise for Theroux was the large number of what U.S. officials call “Special Interest Aliens,” people caught trying to cross the border from India, China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and from African nations, mostly from Nigeria. In some Southwest U.S. detention facilities, fewer than half are from Mexico.

So why do they leave, Theroux asked. They are at home surrounded with their culture, family, religion and places they know. But they pay a coyote thousands of dollars to take them to the border and maybe across it. They have everything except that “they ain’t got no dinero.” Annual income for people living in the southern Mexico states of Chiapas or Oaxaca is similar to those in rural Kenya or Bangladesh: $3,400. People living in Eritrea fought for years to win independence and freedom from Ethiopia and are now the top group trying to get into Europe. After fighting like that, why would you leave?

“On the Plain of Snakes” tells the stories of some of these people. It’s not a travel book that will “tell you where the best tacos are in Merida,” but a book that will “see things as they are,” Theroux’s stock in trade.

The other reason I like this book is because it covers a place and a way of travel that I did with my friend Jeff in 1974 and 1975, traveling in the back of trucks that stopped for hitch hikers, in second-class buses and crowded train cars. Not sure if we saw things as they are, but we had a lot of fun traveling through Saltillo, Torreon, Durango, Mazatlan and Tepic, with a few “near death experiences” that Theroux calls the essence of travel books. And Theroux is 78-years-old; it’s not too late to do it again.

Jeff

John

 

Tim Egan seeks faith to avoid the big burn

Tim Egan's bookWriting a book about religion seems a radical departure for Tim Egan, whose previous eight books have covered history, mostly in the American West. But judging from the talk he gave Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, at Seattle’s Town Hall, his new book will be as good as “The Worst Hard Times,” for which Tim won the National Book Award.

Loved that book, but others say “The Big Burn” is even better. It’s beside my bed on a looming stack of books to read.

Tim and I crossed paths for a while when he was an intern at The Seattle Times. I also met up with him while teaching at the University of Montana. I was assigned to escort a visiting journalist from South Africa to a panel discussion. The topic was politics in the West – or something like that — and I only remember one thing about the panel: Tim knew more and expressed it flawlessly. Mostly I remember hoping the others would shut up so Tim could speak.

Tim EganHe did not disappoint on Tuesday night when he talked about “A Pilgrimage to Eternity,”  which records  his physical and spiritual trek along the Via Francigena, from Canterbury in England to the Vatican in Rome. He described himself as a lapsed Catholic, like about half of USA Catholics. He’d gotten to the point in his life where he was “too damned complacent,” but was then set in motion by two things: Trump dystopia (“Has anyone had a good night’s sleep since the election?”) and the death of his mother, who led him to a life of writing. She was a devout Catholic, but on her deathbed said she didn’t know what to expect, where she was going. I have my doubts, she told Tim.

If she had doubts, then where does that leave the rest of us with our “malnutrition of the soul,” as he put it. It was time, he said, for a “stiff shot of no-bullshit spirituality.”

Plus, he really likes the new pope. Pope Francis ministers to the poor, respects science and is named after St. Francis of Assisi, one of Tim’s favorites: “You have to admire someone who talked to wolves.”

Egan says he considers himself more of a time traveler than an historian, but it looks like there is lots of history in the book. Tracing Christianity from the 2,000 adherents 30 years after Jesus Christ’s death to the 2.3 billion today, the largest faith in the world. He stops along the way to tell the stories of Saint Thomas Becket, Saint Joan of Arc, Martin Luther and a couple of names hardly connected to spirituality: Napoleon Bonaparte and Oscar Wilde.

He pointed out discrepancies between what’s in the New Testament and how Christianity is sometimes practiced today, and talked about a miracle that might have happened to him.

The end of the evening came with questions from the audience, including the final one from Roger, a great journalist from The Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times: So after all this, did you (Tim) return to the church?

Tim, now a “lapsed but listening Catholic,” answered: “Some resolutions, but I’m not going to tell you what they are.”

Time to read the book.