When we are young we are often told that things will improve. “Change will be made by those who care to fight; who dare to fight” the story goes. “If only more people were involved; for longer; with greater resources, with more power. Then things will most assuredly improve.” And we put our heads down as we heed the lesson and struggle forward. One crisis; one war; one genocide at a time. Our work requires preparation – what good career does not? We study languages; we learn the skills they tell us we will need. Writing, economics, finance. Nutrition, food storage, water and sanitation. The strengthening of institutions. Giving voices to the voiceless; affording power to the powerless. We form committees, organize symposiums, observe elections, table resolutions. We dream and we fight – and we fail.
When I was young, maybe 16 years old, I became obsessed with the Rwandan genocide. Streams, rivers of people crossing into the Congo to die in squalid camps. Cholera, starvation, hepatitis – rape and rage under the staid supervision of Nyiragongo, that wise old volcano who had seen it all before. I could not wait to be involved. It would be my moment – if not then, when? Terrified I would lose my chance; we are on the verge, I thought, soon the world will solve the problems of war and poverty and death, and without me…? “Steady” my father told me. “This is not your time; this one is not your fight. Yours will come and there will be many, rest assured – but you must take the time to be ready for them.” Hard advice to the itchy soles of the in-conform. Four more years of study? Six? How will I endure – while others fight the battles, take the glory that should be mine?
Turns out I should not have worried – not for the time, nor even for the place. For only five years later I was also in the Congo – the Rwandans had returned home, but war had come to the Kivus. War that has not ever really ended. There I fought: food distributions; non-food; feeding centers; construction of schools. Yes, I did my part, and then moved on – Chad, Pakistan, Uganda, Mali, Nigeria – new wars; more tenuous, abridged peace. And onward. Venezuela and state collapse; the most dramatic thing ever because the place from where Venezuela started would not have advertised the arriving ordeal. Dictatorship laying the groundwork for new conflict, the struggles of the future which my son will watch as he too perhaps chomps at the bit (though I hope to God not, for it is futile and for him, at least, I hope for something different – some peace).
Now I am at the other end – or the middle, depending on how many people buy my books. What have I learned?
I learned what my dad already knew. “The wars, you will always have with you”. I have become sick of them, and their affiliated camps; a facile response, I know, because you know who is really sick of the camps? Those who live in them. I have become traumatized by the wars; a facile response, I know, because you know who is traumatized by the wars? The refugees, the raped, those who have lost everything. So what have I learned? I’ve learned that each of us fight for a season because we must, those of us who see human misery and for to whom it’s horror resonates; and then we leave when we are through, because we can; and we write it down, because if I don’t how will you – who have never walked the muddy paths in the camps that I have walked, in the wars where I have lived – know the lessons which I have learned?
I recently finished my 4th novel – 4th conflict, fourth war – fourth set of lessons to be forgotten by those steadfastly committed to learning about evil for themselves, to the detriment of them and theirs (though of course they don’t know that yet). The novel is about the camps in Uganda, preyed upon by the Lord’s Resistance Army. But it could be any war in Africa. As I sit here writing this I am listening to a panel discussion on how to end another war in Africa; highlighting work I have done; showcasing my failures and to what degree, and how often, humanity is immune to learning.
What’s my point? Nothing much, on a sunny afternoon in an African war. Read my books, my lasting argument I suppose; let my lessons be your lessons. Lest things go awry, as they most often do, and I be summoned to your country too.