KAMPALA

The first time I traveled to Kampala, capital of Uganda, I was convinced I’d experience Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and meet Kurtz, the ivory trader, and Charles Marlowe the intrepid narrator of this iconic tale of suspense and intrigue up the Congo River into the outer reaches of deepest, darkest 1890 Africa.

Kampala-from-Old-Mosque2Not hardly.

With a table-spoonful of dashed expectations, I landed at Entebbe International Airport, on the shores of Lake Victoria, only to find a modern airport with landing gates crowded with the colorful logos of British Airways, Air Qatar, Jordan Aviation, Kenya Air, Air Emirates et al.

The terminal building sparkled as yet another indicator of Uganda’s economic development to go along with her flawless internet service and stunning monuments.

All this to camouflage the reality of her indigenous depression.

Uganda, like so many countries in the developing world, presents a facade to the developed world. She hides the reality of poverty, suppression of human rights, and economic equality. Her government is a faux democracy that enables the political leadership of an elite administration more interested in economic development than in human development, they leave that to foreign aid allocations from the developed world.

The United States has invested millions in the social and economic infrastructure of this impoverished country. Once you leave the commercial bubble of her English speaking capital of Kampala, you find the indigenous tribes making up the majority of her 43 million people who speak  Bantu and thirty different languages.

The political elite in Kampala operates as a separate country, they negotiate with western powers who want to establish a presence here for the sole purpose of polishing their foreign aid resume’s and knowingly contribute exorbitantly high percentages of their budget to the “use fees” demanded by the Kampala government which line the pockets of the President and his elite enablers.   This is the description of corruption, the cancer infecting the leadership of the developing world.

What’s left of the foreign aid budgets trickles down to the masses in the form of charity, not economic development. The US Peace Corps is well-meaning,  established by President John Kennedy in the early 1960’s it provided an opportunity for idealistic young Americans to lend their talent and education to a cause greater than themselves. Unfortunately, the percentage of American aid allocated to the Peace Corps is pittance while the bureaucracy of the USAID program sucks up the lion’s share of the US commitment to the poverty, health, and education of the developing, aka the third, world.

While working as a minor player on a USAID project in Uganda, I had the opportunity to interact with our Peace Corps, I was overwhelmed by the commitment of these young people, men, and women from elite US colleges and universities many with sophisticated family backgrounds living and experiencing the poverty of third world existence.  Some would say they’re “do-gooders”, suggesting US funding is better served by local government; I would say they’re heroes in the global war against poverty and oppression.

A MAN ALONE

PRELUDE

A strange title for a man surrounded by people. And yet, loneliness isn’t about people, It’s about a state of mind. It’s about memories filling your consciousness like a stalking horse concealing reality. Loneliness is not a place, it’s a controlled feeling. We can feel isolated in a crowd, ignored by peers, pitied by family and friends or selfless, depending upon our state of mind.

I just had a birthday, a time for reflection and ignoring the passage of time with thoughts of ambition and new beginnings. The resistance I feel is palpable, like an immovable object against an unstoppable life force. 

I begin this essay with trepidation, fearful and alone. I’m not sure what will happen as my thoughts become words, tumbling out in a cacophony of emotions, struggling to express feelings about my life, an enigma, a mysterious riddle searching for answers.

Intamacy with the public is a gamble, will it be accepted as inspiration or rejected as the incoherent ramblings of a man alone with too much time on his hands.

This story is creative non-fiction, if told in third person narrative it would read like an adventure novel.

Why now, why in the twilight of my life would I be thinking of writing a story that may disappoint those I love and titillate faux friends who scavenge after gossip like crows to shiny objects.

I haven’t been infected with COVID-19 but the preventive medicine being prescribed can be worse than the cure. Self-quarantine, no friends or family, isolating yourself in a bubble without human contact. Sounds easy right? Close the door, pull a book from the shelf and let the world go by.

I’ve done that, I’m on my sixth novel and countless essays and short stories not to mention narrating a daily podcast on social media and two new audiobooks.

After five months of isolation I had a primal scream. It was one o’clock in the morning after grinding through another chapter of a book that was boring me to tears.

It was then I decided to write my own book, one that proves the old meme, “life is stranger than fiction”. Writing is personal, it engages memories, emotions, fears and loves. When you read you’re out of the story looking in, entertained, educated, or envious, when you write you are the story  

It was late, the night was hot and sultry, I was on the patio, the sound was not human, it was more like a wounded animal caught in a trap.

,

Why every light in the neighborhood didn’t go on with a squad car in the driveway flashing red and blue I’ll never know.

The scream was a mental cleanse allowing me to regain equilibrium after five months of isolation.

Julie stood in the open doorway with a terrified look on her face. All she could say through the tears is: “do you want me to call 911?”. I waved her off with a smile and a gentle suggestion that she go back to bed, “I’m fine my love, just having a low budget therapy session”.

After that scream, I decided to let the chips fall where they may and write this essay. A work of non-fiction, a first-person narrative written by a man alone.

Chapter 1

The Search

It’s 1957, I’m a freshman at the University of Notre Dame and feeling sorry for myself. My father, a Norte Dame Alumni, along with uncles and brothers in law are devoted Irish fans. My application to Georgetown was rejected by my Father, not their admissions committee. As far as he was concerned ND was the only school in America worth considering. His attitude was simple, go to ND I pay, go to Georgetown you’re on your own.

Georgetown is the oldest Jesuit University in the country and the natural extension to St. Ignatius Prep, where I studied with the Jesuits. They educate the man, they teach you how to think with moral certainty, with conviction that there are absolutes in life that won’t tolerate compromise. They teach a college preparatory course of math, history, science, language and theology driven by a moral compass. This is a classic liberal education, it’s not a political label, it’s the enabler leading you to decisions in life based upon what’s right not what’s expedient

Matriculating at Notre Dame was a disappointment. The Holy Cross Brothers are fine educators but not in the same league as the Jesuits. My motivation was lacking. I was convinced that ignoring the Jesuits for college was dumbing down my prep school experience. St. Ignatius Prep brained washed me, not a bad thing when the washers are Jesuits.

(stay tuned, TBC)

THE MERRY GO ROUND

Remember when you were a kid and the carnival came to town for a hot summer weekend? You couldn’t wait to go, you begged your parents until the big day arrived, cotton candy, the shooting gallery for a teddy bear and, most exciting of all, the merry go round.

You wanted to ride a horse without your Dad holding you, he wanted you to ride in one of these weird carriages that looked like a fancy restaurant booth with stuffed benches, weird but safer than the horse.

Life is, or should be, like the horse that goes up and down and moves around at the same time. Slow at first, but gradually faster as the carney steps on the throttle

Our emotions are like that, they move up and down in a continuous circle that accelerates in youth, peaks out in middle age and slows down with maturity.

I haven’t figured out the mystery of life, why we’re here, why we’re born into given circumstances why we live, love and hate as we do? All I know is that this merry go round of life is all that we have, the ups and downs, the fast and slow are either preordained by a divine presence or a cosmic act of nature.

I believe the former and marvel at the latter.

Deo volente!

EYE OF THE NEEDLE

The Eye of a Needle

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Mark 10:25

There are certain chapters and verses in the bible that we remember, not sure why, maybe a word a phrase or a thought that resonates within us like a tuning fork vibrating for attention.

Money, and things it buys, including social position, power and, in the early church, indulgences is a recipe for self-immolation. As the Camel gets fatter the eye of the needle gets smaller.

I don’t know why I’m musing about this, truth be known I know lots of rich people, most of whom will never fit through the eye of that needle but some who will. Some of my rich friends are kind, generous and charitable. Their riches have not gone to their head and their relationship with God is probably a good one, at least in terms of their riches.

So why is Mark so universal in his condemnation of the rich?

I guess it’s because riches attract possessions, possessions attract comparisons and comparisons mean I’m better, smarter and richer than you. Hardly a recipe for moving through the eye of that divine camel.  

So, let’s rewind this and look at riches another way. Let’s step away from the notion that money is the root of all evil to money being the consequence of God’s munificence and a rich man’s opportunity to be his enabler.

Think of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that is being funded with billion-dollar donations from the Gates, Warren Buffett and others who magnify the word of God and ignore the temptations of man.

Today with so much emphasis on the infamous “one percenter” the super wealthy individuals basking in the shadow of Donald Trump’s largess at the expense of the other 99% we applaud the Gates, Buffets and others who demand more taxes for the wealthy.

This is not wealth redistribution; this is common sense. Warren Buffett who is worth $81 billion once famously compared his tax rate of 16% to his secretary paying a substantially higher rate.

Consider these individuals who make up a class of their own, the 1/10th percenter, grossing more than a $ billion per year.

This is not to say these men didn’t earn their place on the list, they are visionaries and brilliant financial strategists. That said, the question remains, if wealth is how we keep score in the game of life, I think we need new rules and better referees.

  1. Bezos-$205 billion
  2. Gates-116 billion
  3. Zuckerberg-111 billion
  4. Musk-95 billion
  5. Buffett-81 billion

DANNA’S DAD

My dad, a lifelong Republican, was a B-17 pilot and POW in WWII. He was shot down over Berlin on his 12th mission. He was captured by the Nazis and was held as POW in Stalag Luft One. He didn’t know if he would survive and he didn’t know from day to day if the war would end. During the 9 months of his captivity, he lost 70 pounds. He was covered in lice and his feet were frozen. But one day, he awakened at dawn and stood up to listen. He could not believe his ears. He was hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” our national anthem, being sung by prisoners, an act punishable by death. At first it was 100 voices, then a 1,000 voices and, soon 8,000 POWs were singing the American national anthem. That is how my dad knew WWII was over and that the Germans had abandoned post. He with other POWs were rescued and he came home to marry my mom and raise a family of six children, including me. He risked his life to protect American lives and to fight for the freedom of a country he loved.

As a junior high aged girl, I was asked to write an essay on how Thomas Jefferson was able to write the Declaration of Independence. Knowing how much my dad valued peace and freedom, I asked him what he thought. My dad sat down and began describing what he believed inspired Thomas Jefferson’s passion and compelling vision to write this influential and inspiring document. I can vividly remember writing down my dad’s words and ideas that day. He described qualities of courage, integrity, compassion, and most of all, the vision of creating a nation with liberty and justice for all, a country of democracy and respect for all people.

My dad served in WWII because he loved America. He fought for all Americans. He did not fight for just Republicans. He fought to preserve our freedom and to protect us from tyranny from foreign governments. He staked his life on it.

Today our country is in a crisis—a hot, divisive mess. If my dad were still alive, I wonder what he would say and think about the lack of compassion, unity, and patriotism. Like many of my Republican friends, I believe he probably would no longer recognize the party to which he ascribed all his life. Nor would he recognize the chaotic and horrific state of our country—the nation he was so proud of. All this week, while watching the Democratic National Convention, I have been moved to tears with hope that the soul of our country can be restored. For this to be done, we need a leader with a soul

NICK MUSING

KABUL

 

That August morning was like any other in Kabul, quiet and sultry with nothing but my overworked air-conditioner complaining through the thick, dark stillness.

The morning call to prayer interrupted my thoughts at precisely 4:53am, this varied by a few minutes daily but was unfailingly reliable.

The rooming house lacked definable architecture, it was plain and undistinguished, like most things in this tired, war-torn city of 4.6 million souls

My room was on the third floor, no elevator, three sets of stairs justified by the only room in the house with a private bath, I would have climbed five sets for that.

Each room had a galley kitchen; sink, refrigerator, hot plate, and microwave not fancy but serviceable. There was a sitting area with a couch, dining table, desk, and chair. The bedroom was not describable, plain, small, single bed, table, and dresser with a threadbare Afghan rug that slipped on the stained linoleum floor. There was a closet, but the door was missing.

The window views were chaotic, the drabness of a dirty street punctuated by scurrying black burqas dodging the indiscriminate trucks and bikes carrying mountains of stuff known only to the consignee and consignor.

The street scene was like the view inside of a monochromatic kaleidoscope that had been twisted one too many times.

I accepted this assignment in spite of my family intervention, Sarah and the kids were dead-set against it and begged me to turn down the recruiter. I listened to them and nodded when I was supposed too but the base pay plus a hazardous duty bonus was catnip to an old capitalist like myself.

My name is John Carlisle, people call me Jack. This was to be my last hurrah, my final act in a 50-year career of managing and consulting. I had spent the last 24 of those years doing economic development work in the emerging markets of a dangerous world in Central and SE Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.

I’d become immune to the dangers once I arrived in-country and found myself working and socializing with the locals who were unfailingly kind and appreciative.

That is until now, Afghanistan is not your typical developing world hot-spot.

This beleaguered country has endured terrorism, war, occupation, and reoccupation for over 2000 years by global players intent upon taming her wild culture and religious zealotry.

It hasn’t worked, time after time invaders have been repelled and left with their tails between their legs in an embarrassing retreat.

The US is only the latest to test their resolve, the Taliban and Al-Qaida have dominated the geography outside of the capital city of Kabul and government troops with US support have tried but failed to gain a foothold.

I’m here to convince local farmers that cotton production can compete with opium, the ubiquitous cash crop demanded by the Bad Guys, as the ex-pats liked to call the terrorists. Both crops thrive in this dry hot climate, albeit opium is easier and cheaper to grow with a ready market. A dangerous assignment, you bet your ass, but it’s about the bonus and the $1 million life insurance policy I demanded for Sarah and the kids.

Our first day on the job was devoted to orientation conducted by UN and US security personnel.

Don’t look locals in the eye, never make a pass or even show curiosity about local women, you’d break the honor code and lose your head, figuratively and literally. Remain in the designated green zone, that protected perimeter around the US Embassy and ex-pat housing.  While “the zone” provides all the services you need and safe entertainment, curiosity killed the mouse and for energetic young ex-pats life beyond the zone becomes irresistible.

 

Working with farmers was considered the most dangerous assignment in Afg, requiring travel outside of the zone into isolated communities and dealing with men who owed their livelihood, if not their lives to the bad guys. Like trying to convince Starbucks to delete coffee from their menu and replace it with Gatorade.