Friday, March 21, 2014

Diplomatic flashbacks

Nostalgia is bugging me. You know, that warm and fuzzy feeling that swindles a smile out of you as you reminisce on what has been, or what you’ve been through. Most of it nice, but some not so; some are funny, weird, even laughable, while others plain annoying. Nevertheless, they come back to you when you least expect them, the way a sudden and unexplained craving for nicotine hits an ex-smoker. You smell something, or see something or someone that looks like someone, and bang, a memory hits you.

Nostalgia is a bummer. It might make you feel nice, but then you catch yourself and wonder why. It questions your decisions, as it brings with it doubts you must confront. Maybe I shouldn’t have done this or that, you think, as this feels all good now, as I remember.

But nostalgia is good too. It feels good simply because it is in the past. You cannot go back there except in the safety of your memory. It feels good as, in your warm and fuzzy mind, you feel liberated from that episode, from that bane of familiarity that seemed to weigh you down. And you feel great because, unlike a fanatic, you have redoubled your efforts but haven’t forgotten the aim.

Lest you become impatient and blurt out a get-on-with-it, I am speaking about my Tour of Duty as a Foreign Service officer, or, if I want to sound a little fancy, a diplomat. Having finished it a couple of months ago, I can now relax and look back, sometimes with a warm smile, sometimes with laughter, sometimes with an annoyed grunt.

I arrived in Pretoria that late September summer’s day in 2009, as fresh faced and shy as you wouldn’t conceive a diplomat to be, and that very night I was introduced to the life. I mean a life that I wasn’t used to (damn it, with my free time closed up reading or writing incoherent ramblings, or playing that antisocial game called chess in some downtown club, I can’t say I had a life in Nairobi). A farewell party. Loud music. Rapturous laughter. Loud conversations and overly excited and inebriated individuals. Too much energy for an introverted soul. “Ala!? What have I got myself into?” I panicked. We were taken through an induction course before the posting, but it doesn’t quite prepare you.

As time went by, I grew into it. I actually began enjoying those ubiquitous receptions, meeting all kinds of fascinating people from different backgrounds. The Japanese and the Chinese are the most hardworking diplomats of them all. Very friendly and genuine, but lamentably hamstrung by language, they really go out of their way to smile genuine smiles. Diplomacy, in my limited experience, is a world full of plastic smiles. Where a western diplomat will smile opaquely, a Japanese will smile his widest smile to the point of screwing his face, and actually bow his head in utmost respect.

“Kenya! Ha ha ha haa!” it was always a rapid, four “ha ha ha haa’s”, projected skywards at an angle before being stopped abruptly at the fourth, elongated “haa”. “Kenya! Lofely country, fery lofely,” they would say in a high-pitched, insistent voice. A few sentences later and the conversation, genuine as it may be, would screech to a halt, at which point we would both realize we’re holding drinks in our hands, which we would proceed to raise to our lips as we look sideways over our shoulders.

Conversations with western diplomats fared much better, but that invariable glint in their eyes shining over a glass raised to the lips always forced guardedness in me. Those will quote you in their reports to their capitals, something that I also did sometimes; it’s part of the job. Well, I can’t blame them; they were under greater pressure to deliver compared to me, which is a shame as I discovered that in our Service one could very easily be a freeloader. Sometimes they would cut to the chase, especially when the Ocampo-powered ICC gained currency with the Kenyan cases, and plead, “Come on Juma, help me out here.” And I must admit, because an evil vindictive residue remained in me from my days as a campus Marxist, it felt good. This vindictive streak, quite unlike me, was reinforced when once an American diplomat handed me her business card with a matter of fact declaration, “Here’s my business card, in case you need us.” She didn’t wait for mine.

One could paint the hierarchy of world order just from a single diplomatic reception. African receptions were attended by a sprinkling of western diplomats; many, many African diplomats attended western receptions. A senior official from the South African foreign office would be dispatched as the Guest of Honour in an African reception; while a full Minister, sometimes two or more (they would be tripping over each other) would be dispatched to officiate a National Day reception of a western country (China and Japan would fall in this category, hehe). Whether it is was a result of subtle, superior diplomatic skills that ensured their Ambassadors’ personal touch at the highest levels, or other considerations, I don’t know, but it did seem oddly amusing, in the land of African Renaissance of Thabo Mbeki, no less.

Then there were our African brothers. Boy, oh boy. Funny characters. Great thing with them was, I could find them in Sunnyside, Pretoria’s inner city, over weekends enjoying the exuberant nightlife. There would be nothing diplomatic about us then. We would just be fellow African brothers hanging out. Which was just great.

But they were funny. I remember one, Deputy Head of Mission no less, older middle aged, almost retiring (his promotion to full Ambassador depended on political factors, and he seemed to have given up), keeping himself busy in pursuit of a gifted (ahem) young lady at the French Bastille Day reception, which by the way was sort of the biggest, most colorful reception you could get invited to (but I don’t say).

It was in the Council of African Ambassadors that you found the highest concentration of former Ministers and senior government officials. Every other African Ambassador I knew seemed to have held a very senior position in his/her country prior to being posted to Pretoria. And that came with a lot of pride. I was fortunate, or unfortunate depending on how you look at it, to have become Rapporteur of the Council, which is just a grand name for taking minutes of its meetings. It was an impossible task, recording the back and forth, conclusion of a discussion only for it to be raised much later on resulting in a reversal of a decision already taken, resulting in fresh objections and more backs and forth, eish. A typical meeting lasted a minimum of three hours, two hours on a lucky day. It was an insufferable job.

African Ambassadors also had the longest tenures, and thus ended up being Dean of the entire diplomatic corps in Pretoria. It was almost as if their governments had forgotten they were still there. The Dean for a long time was a former Libyan Ambassador who was a good friend of mine, as he liked my minutes from the Council of African Ambassadors (where he was Dean too, and therefore Chairman). The overthrow of Brother Leader Muammar Gaddafi led to one thing and another, and despite his best efforts (read: jumping ship), he found himself out of a job. But he was smooth, a fine diplomat, and a very popular charmer. The current Dean is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Again, I found some guiltily sadistic albeit useless relish that an American or British diplomat could never hope to be Dean.

The Arabs seemed to go on about their duties with luxurious detachment, from an oil-inspired sense of comfort. I envied them. The South Americans scurried about with dutiful but assertive diligence; they also possessed impressive diplomatic professionalism. I admired them. The Asians, except the Chinese and the Japanese, you would be forgiven to think they weren’t there. And our hosts, the South Africans? Well, they were great, especially our colleagues with whom we interacted on a daily basis. However, when it came to hosting big conferences and events to which world leaders would swoop, they acquired a certain diligence peppered with an effective arrogance that made things move.

Talking of big conferences, those are the Foreign Service officers’ biggest nightmares. When your President comes to town, you will huff, puff, sweat, threaten, pull your hair, and cajole in equal measure, just to get everything in order. I never knew I had the resourcefulness in me to pull off some of the things I did. You never know until you have to do it. You have no choice, the President is coming, and it has to be done, one way or another. The mundane is no longer mundane. I was told recently one African Ambassador nearly came to tears, as he couldn’t find suitable (the word is key) accommodation for his President who was coming to attend the Memorial Service of the late Nelson Mandela. Teamwork was key. And when everything went smooth, it was a great feeling of service to the Government and the People, pledge-style hehe.

At this point I will share a little sad secret. At a recent visit of H.E. the President, I had to wait for accreditation tags at the Union Buildings in Pretoria for the Presidential delegation (mundane is no longer mundane) throughout the night, for a morning event. The South African protocol officer allocated to Kenya had been harassed all day long, poor girl she almost cried over the phone at one point. So we waited together till the wee hours, after which she realized her transport colleagues had disappeared, presumably to sleep. She had to get to Johannesburg (about 30 minutes away by road), where the President was staying, so it would be easier to get to him so that everything should go smoothly in the morning. I had to drop her off though the cold and rainy night.

By the time I was making my way back to Pretoria, it was half past four in the morning, still drizzling. I drove slowly, feeling superhuman for working all day and night. I was thinking about my warm covers, how nice it would be to tuck in and get warm…. when I nodded. You know, when you dozed off in class back in the days and you only realized you were dozing when you felt your head heavy, and you nodded as you raised it up again, as if in agreement with the rambling teacher. Only that I didn’t have my pen stuck on a page on my book, ready to doodle; nay, I was behind the wheel, and a few inches to the left of a snail-paced long haul truck, staring at squares of steel. All I can say is, thank God, and God bless reflex action.

So there you have it. Public and/or Foreign Service, just like everything else under the planet, isn’t kind sometimes. The less palatable airport duties (sigh) come to mind especially. I don’t know about other stations, but Pretoria has a certain peeving peculiarity. Ministers and other senior government officials like to use that Kenya Airways flight that departs Nairobi at 20h35, but that only means they arrive in Johannesburg at around 23h50. They like to stay in Sandton, which is 20 minutes from the airport. So when you have been tasked with receiving and facilitating them at the airport, you travel 20 minutes from Pretoria to the airport, 20 minutes from the airport to Sandton, then 20 minutes from Sandton back to your house in Pretoria (we liked to call the whole trip a triangle); by then it is 02h00. You need to be at your desk by 08h30, or if the Minister or whoever it is says so, be at his/her hotel by 08h00. Make a point to be nice to him/her. Repeat sequence almost once every week, for four years.

That’s why a call from the boss on a weekend was a dreaded thing. Don’t get me wrong – we had the best Balozis to work with, career diplomats who know their job, and very friendly and easy to get along with. It was bliss. But a call from him on Saturday morning can hardly be a courtesy call just to check up on you and family, hell no. It was most likely a call to airport duty. And you will kiss your weekend plans goodbye. Many times I was tempted to lie that I was in some obscure village in KwaZulu-Natal, but service is service.

Some of the dignitaries made it worthwhile. Most memorable was facilitating the late Hon. John Michuki, God bless his soul. He cared to ask how I was doing, if I’m ok, how was my family, and so on. Genuine concern. And he remembered my name (trust me, that’s touching). But once he ascertained all is well with me, the grilling started. What is the GDP of South Africa? What are its main exports? Where exactly are our troops now in Somalia, have they reached Kismayu? Eish, he worked me up into a sweat. He would shoot questions while tapping his walking stick on the carpet, his face a mask of relish. Somehow our discussion ended with the ICC, and I can tell you, I never met anyone who valued sovereignty as much as Hon. Michuki did.

Nostalgia indeed is a bummer. You remember good things, and you wish you could go back and experience them again, but you can’t. And then it’s a good thing, you remember bad things and you say, thank God I’m done with all that, I can only remember them with an annoyed grunt in the safety of my memory. I don’t know if nostalgia is a bummer or a good thing when it makes me write too much.

Shout out to my colleagues, it was great, it was amazing. We pulled off some of the most impossible things together, and built lifetime friendships. A word too to my Diaspora friends, we too built lifetime friendships. I cherish that, more than anything else.

Picture Credit:

Sunday, March 2, 2014

East of Eden

I don’t know why he smiled at me through the window of the Java coffee shop along De Villebois Mareuil Drive in Moreleta Park, a smile as fleeting as it was deliberate, but he did. The smile that played on his thin and dry lips was kind and speculative, a sort of declaration that he had been watching me for a while. But the intensity in his eyes washed away the goodwill I may have picked up from his smile and gave his face a conflicted look, one that I deduced as sinister.

It wasn’t just his face that bore an incongruity. His entire frame was an incongruity, a pronounced contradiction. He was middle-aged, perhaps forty, maybe forty-five, I thought, but he looked much older. A blue, crumpled shirt that carried a fading Polo emblem hung on him in a way that suggested it once fit him. His blue jeans were crumpled too – either he was in haste to leave his house in the morning, or he didn’t care much for ironed attire. The latter seemed more likely as his black, semi-casual and shiny shoes told of meticulous care. As my eyes retraced their journey to his face, I caught a waft of smoke from a diminishing cigarette stub, and his left hand trembled as if from my gaze.

I looked back at him, half sneering and half quizzical. He looked back on, unfazed. I waved him over. As he stubbed out his cigarette and walked over with wide, self-assured strides that were nonetheless punctuated by a slight limp and a hint of a whiskey belly, I berated myself yet again for my impulsive behavior. I got up and stretched out my hand, which got punished by a strong handshake.

“Hi, my name is Bradford, you can call me Brad,” he grinned, and I immediately wished he hadn’t as I tried to suppress a laugh. His teeth were cigarette-stained.

“Pleased to meet you, Brad, I’m David,” I grinned back, but more at his funny teeth.

“Great!” he bellowed in slight Afrikaans accent. He looked around as he sat down as if I had been waiting for him. His eyes were keen, a note of furtiveness overshadowing them, and I surmised he was checking if he could see someone he knew in the coffee shop. A waitress scurried over, who, over and above Brad’s irresistible exuberance, quickly figured out that he needed a double blended Scotch, neat. “In a damn coffee shop?” I exclaimed to myself.

He turned to my nonplussed face and asked if I needed a double too. My coffee was still half full but hey, no harm having a double or two, I said.

“Great!” he really liked the word. “So, I see you been reading East of Eden. God, I hated that book.”

I glanced at the dog-eared book I had placed aside. I bought it at a second-hand books store at the Centurion mall. Well, it was cheap alright, but what allured me was the sub-text underneath the title: “The book that created Cathy – the most evil woman in fiction.” As a young hot head in Nairobi back in my days, I picked up a melancholic fascination in women, fuelled by Mashifta’s cheeky “Pesa, pombe, siasa na wanawake” urban hit. So I wanted to find out just how evil this Cathy is.

“Oh yes, thoroughly enjoyed it. Deep book…Timshel…really profound book, very epic,” I gushed. I was referring to the Hebrew word whose translation is “thou mayest”, taken from a verse in the Bible’s Genesis – “thou mayest rule over sin”. “Thou mayest” implies free choice as opposed to other translations such as “thou shalt” and “do thou”.

“Bloody Timshel,” Brad muttered in a guttural voice. He was already lighting a cigarette and proceeded to take a long drag on it. “Bloody free will!” he exclaimed this time. The waitress looked back to see if she had walked off too quickly.

“Well,” I ventured. “I’m afraid I think there’s some truth in that. We all have it in us to change our ways, to redeem ourselves if we so wish. I believe the book is fundamentally about redemption – no matter how far gone we might be…”

“Look,” he exhaled a gush of cigarette smoke. “What choice do we have in this damned world? Where is redemption if we are prisoners of circumstances, environments, and even genetic make-up? What if one doesn’t have the strength of will to make the choice between good and evil? Look at Cathy. Was she born evil? Can we say her parents and school caused her resentment? Didn’t she kill her parents while still a young girl?” He paused to catch his breath.

Taken by surprise by his vehemence, I stared at him, trying to digest his obviously strong convictions. I had long given up on debates on religion – circuitous, chicken-and-egg and often pointless – and I certainly was not in a disposition to start one now. Before I could formulate a diversionary response, he grabbed the book and scanned the pages.

“Listen, David, this is what Steinbeck himself describes Cathy,” he was determined to read out the passage.

I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you may see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places… And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

He paused again to gulp down his double the waitress had just brought, and immediately ordered another. He screwed his face as the whiskey took effect, and resumed his reading.

…As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience. A man who loses his arms in an accident has a great struggle to adjust himself to the lack, but one born without arms suffers only from people who find him strange. Having never had arms, he cannot miss them… It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all her life. Some balance wheel was misweighted, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth…

Brad smacked his lips in satisfaction, his face a mask of contentment similar to that of the old absent-minded man at my local complex selling biltong to keep himself busy in retirement.

“So, as you can see, David, Steinbeck undercuts his own theory. He acknowledges that Cathy most likely was born evil, and therefore good doesn’t make sense to her. In other words, she doesn't have a choice,” he said, lighting up another cigarette, his huge, hairy arms rising up to a confluence, one with a lighter and the other with the cigarette. A Rolex watch gleamed on his left arm.

I was compelled to say something now. “Yes, I get your point. One can even point to the brothers – Adam and Charles. Adam is the good son; Charles becomes the bad son, driven by resentment at what he perceives to be their father’s favoritism towards Adam.” I paused to regard him, and he nodded in agreement. His eyes now carried a strange light; they shone brighter at my words as if what I had said was just what he needed to hear. Not getting the hint fast enough, I went on.

“But Steinbeck also makes the point that those who choose not to change their evil ways or lack the capacity to see good usually suffer some bad thing or another. Think about Charles, for instance, doesn’t he live a lonely life at his farm? Doesn’t Cathy become sick and miserable? Doesn’t the law catch up with her, so that she eventually decides to take her own life?”

I glanced at Brad and was startled by the expression on his face. His thin and dry lips were white and even drier, and had contorted into an ugly, rueful smile. His eyes shone again with an intensity that discomfited me, and his face was once again conflicted.

“Are you OK?” I found myself asking without thinking.

“Oh yes! Sorry man, I just drifted a little bit,” he muttered, appearing uncomfortable. He had slumped deep in his chair, as if in resignation. We proceeded to analyze the book further, discussing how the contest between good and evil progressed in it, from the rivalry between Adam and his brother Charles; how Adam fell in love with Cathy who was nonetheless attracted to Charles who was as “evil” as her and who impregnated her; how Cathy abandoned her twins Cal and Aaron who were Charles’ but who Adams thought were his own; and how the rivalry seemed to be reignited in the twins. We agreed that even though reference to the Biblical Cain and Abel story diminishes Steinbeck’s story’s originality somewhat, he presents an epic and artistically appealing account of good versus evil.

“Tell you what, I might hate the book, but it is a modern classic,” he said in slurred speech as he contemplated finishing the seventh double before him. I agreed with a slight grunt, and we both observed a moment of silence in reverence to John Steinbeck’s genius. It was a great discussion, I thought as I motioned to the waitress to bring us the bill. It isn’t everyday that you encounter such a fulfilling discussion with a stranger about a great book. At his rate, I said to myself, I must be reading more books at public cafes and restaurants….

“I killed a man, David.”

“Say what?”

“I love her,” he declared, ready for a defensive confrontation. My hand reached out for my glass, an action that was as involuntary as it was a cover for the shock from that declaration. Not only a cover, but also I genuinely needed a punishing but steadying gulp of that Scotch. As the glass reached my lips, I realized to my dismay that it was empty. I cursed, and reached for his packet of cigarettes.

“I kicked him in the head, over and over again,” he said, and raised his right leg to observe his shiny shoe. Satisfied that it had no bloodstain, he raised his eyes again at me, and their intensity burned my eyes again. I lowered my eyes to his lips, as I couldn’t look away. “I did it out of love, David!” came his anguished whisper. The note of desperation as he spoke forced me back to his eyes, burning deep blue as they were. They implored for understanding from me.

I nodded. That was all I could do. He seemed gratified. I dragged deep on the cigarette, and felt dizzy. I was confused. I thought of Cathy in the book, and thought of the woman Brad loved, the one he could do anything for, but couldn’t have. Perhaps Brad was as “good” as Adam, but now, ensnared by an evil Cathy, was just as evil, but caught in an inner turmoil. I reached out to hold his hand, but he was already hoisting his incongruous frame up.

“See you around, David,” he mumbled. He steadied himself, looked again at his shoes, and walked off, slow and deliberate, never looking back. His limp was greatly pronounced now. My eyes followed him as he got into his E-class Mercedes and drove off.

I reached for East of Eden, flipped about some pages, and found Lee’s words to Samuel Hamilton:

“Maybe everyone is too rich. I have noticed that there is no dissatisfaction like that of the rich. Feed a man, clothe him, put him in a good house, and he will die of despair.”

Picture credit: Goodreads