Cheerleader in Africa

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The confluence of three seemingly disparate events last week has my mind returning to the time I spent living and working in Africa more than twenty years ago.  My book group in Hong Kong chose Aayan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel as our first book of the season.  Ali was born the same year as I, but at Digfer Hospital in Mogadishu, the very same hospital our medical team set up shop when we arrived to help in Somalia twenty-two years later.  Our book discussion took place one evening as the stand off at the Westgate mall, just miles from my former home in Nairobi remained unresolved.  Learning that the attack was likely planned by radicalized Somalis, precisely those Ali had described in her memoir, was disheartening.  Finally, reading Kathy Eldon’s new memoir, In the Heart of Life, makes it all seem like it was yesterday.  It makes me want to share this part of the story myself…

Twenty-two years ago, a recent college graduate, I was hired to join the first American medical relief team to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis in Somalia.  Siad Barre had fled the country and clans were aligning around two main rivals, Ali Mahdi and General Aideed, vying for power in a chaotic and dangerous war.  By November our team was doing the best they could under severe conditions at Digfer Hospital in Mogadishu.  Despite our best efforts and those of a few intrepid journalists, no one was paying attention to Somalia.  By the spring of the following year, more international relief agencies had arrived and the situation had worsened as signs of famine were appearing along with the war casualties.  Jane Perlez, a New York Times reporter based in Nairobi was finally successful in placing a story, and the world began to take notice.  Seasoned Africa journalists and youthful stringers flocked to Somalia demanding international security to enable food distribution into the countryside.  Eventually, President Bush authorized U.S. intervention and some of our staff were among those Somalis waiting on the beach on December 9, 1992 when the Marines made their night landing.  The next few months were a honeymoon period as caravans of CARE’s food were escorted out to the worst hit areas like Baidoa and Belet Weyne and signs of the worst of the famine abated.  We all felt good.  Yes, there were turf battles between relief agencies, Somalis and the military, but the daily coordination meetings in Mogadishu were cordial and Operation Restore Hope was working.  I left Africa and moved to Los Angeles for a new role with the same organization, naively emboldened by a job well done.

Most people blame the turning point in public opinion of Somalia on the fateful day, October 3, known as Blackhawk Down when Somalis shot down a US helicopter and dragged a Marine through the streets.   To me, the turning point was nearly three months earlier on July 12 when an angry mob of Somalis, rightly furious at the UN for attacking a meeting of Somali elders erroneously thought to be a safe house for Aideed, turned on a group of journalists, stoning four of them to death.   My friend, twenty-two year old Dan Eldon was among those killed.  I kept working to try to help in Somalia, but the honeymoon was over.

Dan and I had bonded over dinner at the IMC compound in Baidoa one night as he teased stories of my hidden life as a high school cheerleader out of me.  He was playful, passionate and beguiling.  Both in our early twenties, the youngest expats in Somalia by at least five years, I always thought of Dan and me as the little brother & sister to the older, more experienced relief crowd.  I thought that kept us out of trouble.  One day back in Nairobi, Dan took me to lunch at the Muthaiga Club where I tasted my very first oysters.  We giggled at how the pink décor matched the ruddy cheeks of the older British expatriate crowd. After lunch Dan darted out for an appointment at Nairobi hospital where he had arranged to x-ray the posterior of a Kenyan woman who could move her hips in a way he’d never seen before.  He wanted to know if she was physiologically different from other people.   Dan was curious about everything, afraid of nothing and genuinely interested in everyone’s story.

Years later, still living in Los Angeles, I attended a book signing by author, former Reuters reporter and dear friend of Dan’s, Aidan Hartley.  As he spoke about his book, Zanzibar Chest, he gave credit to international journalists for having roused public attention to Somalia.  Then he proceeded to talk about how the international community had royally screwed it all up.  He remains among the most critical of international intervention in Somalia today and one of the few who is still paying attention.  Later that night over drinks with some friends I asked Aidan, given how it all turned out, would he still have done the same thing?  He didn’t say so directly, but I suspect not.

That’s the fundamental question we all face.  Knowing that humanitarian intervention is imperfect, that unintended consequences of well-intended efforts can often make things worse, and that donating to a relief organization feels like renting instead of buying your home, whereby the immediate benefit is clear, but over the long term you feel like you’re throwing money away.  Still, what’s the alternative?  It is easy for journalists to criticize interventions without offering a solution and for those of us who see the system as flawed to armchair quarterback and keep our money in the bank.  I applaud the imperfect interventions by those still drawn to do something, even as I yearn for a different model altogether.

This week Dan’s mother, Kathy Eldon, published her own memoir, In the Heart of Life, as a way to share her journey from grief to creative activism in Dan’s memory.  The launch of her story of hopefulness and resilience poignantly coincides with the horrific attack at the Westgate shopping center last week, only miles from Dan’s childhood home in Nairobi.  While Kathy has spent the intervening twenty years since Dan’s tragic death methodically rebuilding her life in a vision of engagement and hope for the future, Somalia sinks deeper into a twenty-five year spiral of turmoil and despair, continued violence and destruction.  It makes me wonder if Kathy’s Creative Visions Foundation approach, one that works to engage youth just like those Ali describes in her memoir and the nightly news describes at the Westgate mall, might just be Dan’s greatest life’s work?

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