Book by Caputo Philip
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Man of All Races
In his early twenties, after two undistinguished and troubled years at university, Fitzhugh Martin had achieved a modest celebrity as center forward for the Harambe Stars, which are to Kenyan soccer as the New York Yankees are to baseball. A sportswriter had nicknamed him “The Ambler,” because he never seemed to run very fast, his leisurely movements caused not by slow feet but by a quick tactical eye that allowed him to read the field in a glance and be where he needed to be with economy of motion.
He traveled with the club throughout Africa, to Europe, and once to the United States. He saw something of the world, and what he saw—namely the shocking contrast between the West and his continent—convinced him to do something more with himself than chase a checkered ball up and down a field. He’d heard a kind of missionary call, quit soccer, and became a United Nations relief worker, first in Somalia and then in Sudan.
That was the story he told, but it wasn’t entirely true: a serious knee injury that required two operations was as responsible for his leaving the sport as a Pauline epiphany. Or maybe the injury was the mother of the epiphany; sitting on the bench with his taped knee, he knew his career was as good as over and wondered what to do with the rest of his life. Of course, if he hadn’t had a social conscience to begin with, he would not have made the choice he did, and that conscience was formed by his ancestry. He had come to Kenya from the Seychelles Islands when he was eight years old, the eldest of three children born to a French, Irish, and Indian father and a mother who was black, Arab, and Chinese. The emigration took Fitzhugh from a place where tribalism was unknown and race counted for little to a land where tribe and race counted for everything. His family wasn’t poor—his father managed a coastal resort near Mombasa—but he came to identify with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, because he grew up on the margins of Kenyan society, a boy without a tribal allegiance or a claim to any one race, for all the races of the earth were in him. He was the eternal outsider who was never allowed to forget that he was an alien, even at the height of his athletic fame. His skin was brown, yet the white Kenyans, children and grandchildren of colonial settlers, were more accepted than he, a tribe unto themselves.
After he worked for a year in Somalia, the UN promoted him to field monitor and assigned him to its operations in Sudan. Now a corporal in the army of international beneficence, he wandered in southern Sudan for weeks at a time, stalking the beast of hunger and devising strategies to hold the numbers of its victims to some acceptable minimum. That vast unhappy region captured him body and soul; it became the stage where Fitzhugh Martin played the role he believed destiny had assigned him. “The goddamned, bleeding, fucked-up Sudan,” he would say. “I don’t know what it is about that place. It sucks you in. You see some eighteen-year-old who’s been fighting since he was fourteen and can tell you war stories that will give you nightmares, but drop a piece of ice in his hands and he’s amazed. Never seen or felt ice before, never seen water turned to stone, and you get sucked in.” He meant to do all in his power to save the southern Sudanese from the curses of the apocalypse and a few the author of Revelation hadn’t thought of, like the tribalism that caused the southerners to inflict miseries on themselves. That was where his cosmopolitan blood became an advantage. He moved with ease among Dinka, Nuer, Didinga, Tuposa, Boya; the tribes trusted the tribeless man who had no ethnic axes to grind.
He loved being in the bush and hated returning to the UN base at Loki. It had the look of a military installation, ringed by coils of barbed wire. The field managers and flight coordinators and logistics officers—to his eyes a mob of ambitious bureaucrats or risk-lovers seeking respectable adventure—drove around like conquerors in white Land Rovers sprouting tall radio antennae; they lived and worked in tidy blue and white bungalows, drank their gins and cold beers at bars that looked like beach resort tiki bars, and ate imported meats washed down with imported wines. When Loki’s heat, dust, and isolation got to be too much, they went to Europe on R&R, or to rented villas in the cool highland suburbs of Nairobi, where they were waited on, driven, and guarded by servants whose grandparents probably had waited on, driven, and guarded the British sahibs and memsahibs of bygone days. They were the new colonials, and Fitzhugh grew to loathe them as much as he loathed the old-time imperialists who had pillaged Africa in the name of the white man’s burden and the mission civilisatrice.
When he wasn’t in Sudan, he who had grown up on the edge of things dwelled on the edge of the compound, in a mud-walled hut with a makuti roof and two windows lacking glass and screens; it wasn’t much better than the squalid twig-and-branch tukuls of the Turkana settlement that sprawled outside the wire, along the old Nairobi-Juba road. Inside were a hard bed under a mosquito net, a chair, and a desk knocked together out of scrap lumber. Fitzhugh’s only concession to modern comfort was electricity, supplied by a generator; his only bow to interior decoration, the posters of his heroes, Bob Marley, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela. Asceticism did not come naturally to him. Self-denial is easy for people with attenuated desires and appetites; Fitzhugh’s were in proportion to his size. He could down a sixteen-ounce Tusker in two or three swallows and inhaled meals the way he did cigarettes. He loved women, and when he came out of the bush, he would sweep through the compound, scooping up Irish girls and American girls and Canadian girls. (He stayed away from the local females, fearing AIDS or the swifter retribution of a Turkana father’s rifle or spear.) Inevitably, he would feel guilty about indulging himself and go on a binge of monkish abstinence.
He met Douglas Braithwaite exactly two months and eighteen days after the UN fired him, an encounter whose date he would come to recall with as much bitterness as precision. Years later he tried to persuade himself that he and the American had come together for reasons he couldn’t fathom but hoped to discover, hidden somewhere in the machinery of destiny or in the designs of an inscrutable providence. Who among us, when an apparently chance meeting or some other random occurrence changes us profoundly, can swallow the idea that it was purely accidental?
Over and over Fitzhugh would trace the succession of seeming coincidences that caused the path of his life to converge with Douglas’s. He never would have laid eyes on the man if he hadn’t lost his job; he would not have lost it if . . . well, you get the idea. If he could map how it happened, he would find out why.
Eventually Fitzhugh’s mental wanderings led him back to the day he was born, but he was no closer to uncovering the secret design. So he was forced to abandon his quest for the why and settle for the how, a narrative whose beginning he fixed on the day a bonfire burned in the desert.
The High Commissioners of World Largesse, as he called his employers, occasionally overestimated the amount of food they would need to avert mass starvation in Sudan. Blind screw-ups were sometimes to blame; sometimes field monitors deliberately exaggerated the severity of conditions, figuring it was better to err on that side than on the other; and sometimes nature did not cooperate, failing to produce an expected catastrophe. Surpluses would then pile up in the great brown tents pitched alongside the Loki airstrip, tins of cooking oil and concentrated milk, sacks of flour, sorghum, and high-protein cereal stacked on pallets. Once in a while the stuff sat around beyond the expiration dates stamped on the containers. It then was burned. That was standard procedure, and it was followed rigorously, even if the oil had not gone rancid or the flour mealy or the grain rotten.
Mindful that cremating tons of food would make for bad press, the High Commissioners had the dirty work done under cover of darkness at a remote dump site, far out in the sere, scrub-covered plateaus beyond Loki. Truck convoys would leave the UN base before dawn with armed escorts, their loads covered by plastic tarps; for the Turkana, men as lean as the leaf-bladed spears they carried, knew scarcity in the best of times and were consequently skilled and enthusiastic bandits.
And it was the Turkana who blew the whistle. One morning a band of them looking for stray livestock in the Songot mountains, near the Ugandan border, spotted a convoy moving across the plain below and smoke and flames rising from a pit in the distance. The herdsmen went to have a look. That year had been a particularly hard one for the Turkana—sparse rains, the bones of goats and cows chalking the stricken land, shamans crying out to Akuj Apei to let the heavens open. The bush telegraph flashed the news of what the herdsmen had seen from settlement to settlement: The wazungu were burning food! More than all the Turkana put together had ever seen, much less eaten.
The word soon reached Malachy Delaney, a friend of Fitzhugh’s who had been a missionary among the Turkana for so long that they considered him a brother whose skin happened to be white. Apoloreng, they called him, Father of the Red Ox, because his hair had been red when he first came to them. He spoke their dialects as well as they and was always welcome at their rituals and ceremonies. In fact, he was sometimes asked to preside, and anyone who saw him, clapping his hands to tribal songs, leading chants of call and response, had to wonder who had converted whom. Malachy had been reprimanded by the archbishop in Nairobi and once by the Vatican itself for his unorthodox methods.
A frequent topic, when Malachy and Fitzhugh got together over whiskey in one of the expat bars, was Fitzhugh’s employer. Although Malachy was a man of the Left, he once told Fitzhugh that he admired the American senator Jesse Helms, probably the only man on earth who despised the United Nations as much as he. It had encamped in the heart of Turkana land to lavish aid on the Sudanese while doing nothing for his parishioners. Hadn’t helped them dig so much as a single well.
When he learned that the UN was destroying food that could have filled Turkana bellies, he lived up to his nickname. His hair was gray now, but his broad, blocky face, scholarly and pugnacious at the same time, was scarlet when he appeared at Fitzhugh’s tukul to vent his outrage. Destroying it! And it looks like they’ve been making a practice of it, did you know that? Fitzhugh answered that he’d heard as much, but of course he’d never seen it and couldn’t prove it. Proof, if it’s proof you’re needing, here it is, Malachy fumed, producing a charred can of powdered milk from his daypack. The herdsmen had scavenged it from the ashes, he added, and sat down under the eave, on one of the crates that served as Fitzhugh’s veranda furniture.
“More in there if you care to see it. It won’t surprise me if some of the lads ambush a convoy one of these days and take the bloody stuff for themselves, and if they kill somebody in the process, I’ll by God give them absolution in advance.” Malachy looked out across the asphalt meadow of the landing field, toward the huts beyond the barbed-wire fence, their domed roofs leakproofed with green, white, and blue sheets of plastic. “Ah, Fitz, I just might nick a rifle and lead them to it myself.” Malachy had a martial streak; Fitzhugh thought that a part of him regretted joining the priesthood instead of the IRA.
After he’d cooled off, he came up with a sounder plan. He had friends on the staff of the Nation, Nairobi’s most influential paper, and at the Kenya Television Network. If he got advance word about where and when the next burn was going to be, he would see to it that reporters and cameramen were there to record it. A few of his Turkana lads could show them where to hide—it would be a kind of bloodless ambush. The whole sorry scene would be captured on film, and then the UN scoundrels would be shamed into stopping their unconscionable practice. Accurate intelligence would, of course, be critical to success.
Fitzhugh gave him his full attention. He’d returned the week before from the Sudanese province of Bahr el Ghazal, where he’d been sent to conduct a “needs assessment” after Khartoum mounted an offensive against the SPLA. The rebel army didn’t suffer much, but the people did. Villages leveled by Antonov bombers, fields set afire, livestock slaughtered. They were mostly Dinka tribesmen out there, a very tall people with little flesh and fat to spare. Thousands filled the dusty roads: dead men, dead women, and dead children who did not realize they were dead and so struggled on through the heat, past the prostrate forms of those who had acknowledged their doom; struggled on seeking the brief clemency of an acacia’s shade, the small mercy of a cup of water, a handful of sorghum. Each one of those dark, lofty figures looked as insubstantial as a pillar of smoke. My goodness, he thought, listening to Malachy, a tenth of the surplus that had been put to the match could have saved them all.
To abbreviate, his espionage was successful. So was Malachy’s media ambush. The story made the front page and led the nightly news on KTN. Images of sacks, tins, boxes—forty tons of food!—consigned to the flames. The Father of the Red Ox went on the air to condemn the UN in the most florid terms, and to plead for the surpluses to be distributed among his beloved Turkana if they could not be used in Sudan. The foreign press was quick to pick up on the story. Detachments of journalists assaulted Loki. UN officials, feverishly trying to control the damage, issued denials and half-truths. Things were quite exciting for a while, but predictably the scandal died down, the journalists left, and nothing was done. The only actions the High Commissioners took were to bar Malachy from the UN compound and to launch a quiet internal investigation to find out who had tipped him off.
Fitzhugh’s friendship with Malachy was common knowledge. He soon found himself undergoing a cordial but persistent interrogation in the security office. He told a few lies, thought better of it, and confessed, showing no contrition whatever. His supervisor, a Canadian woman, told him he was through. Naturally he did not merely nod and leave. He made a speech, detailing the UN’s sins. She heard him out and, when he was done, told him that he possessed an “insufferably Hebraic soul,” a reference not to his religious affiliation but to his judgmentalism. He expected too much of people and human institutions, she said. Not everyone could be a saint; nor was relief work a religion.
Fitzhugh had been in the bush for so long that he’d forgotten the pleasant emotions the sea aroused in him. He had gotten used to living away from it but never stopped missing it. When he saw it again, from the balcony of his family’s flat on the coast, he felt as if he’d bee...
“Devastating. . . . Acts of Faith will be to the era of the Iraq war what Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American became to the Vietnam era. . . . Powerful.” — The New York Times
“ Acts of Faith should be required reading. . . . Caputo’s best novel yet.” — The New York Times Book Review
"Philip Caputo's Sudan is a place drawn so real, dust and despair fall from the pages. . . . So beautiful, so awful, so authentic, so wonderful, so hopeless, it grieves the heart." — The Miami Herald
“Destined to be a generation-defining book.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“A miracle. . . . You can hardly conceive of a more affecting reading experience.” — Houston Chronicle
"Caputo, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter turned novelist, writes with astonishing authority, launching several complex plot lines and an enormous, vibrant cast of characters -- aid workers, soldiers, militants, mercenaries, missionaries and corrupt officials. The plot threads join in a propulsive, satisfying finish, inevitably inching demon and deity ever closer together." —Michael Ollove, The Baltimore Sun
“Philip Caputo, from Vietnam onwards, has understood the hardest truths of the modern world better than almost anybody. Acts of Faith is a stunningly unflinching novel. On the surface it is set in Africa, but in fact its true landscape is the ravaged soul of the twenty-first century. Philip Caputo is one of the few absolutely essential writers at work today.” —Robert Olen Butler
“In Acts of Faith Philip Caputo has fashioned a gripping cast of characters and placed them in a spellbinding story. You can’t get any better than that.” —Winston Groom
“Caputo’s ambitious adventure novel, set against a backdrop of the Sudanese wars, makes for a dense, riveting update on Graham Greene’s The Quiet American . . . Caputo presents a sharply observed, sweeping portrait, capturing the incestuous world of the aid groups, Sudan’s multiethnic mix, and the decayed milieu of Kenyan society.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“ Acts of Faith offers an image of Africa deserving comparison with Conrad, Hemingway, Peter Matthiessen, and Jan de Hartog’s forgotten near-masterpiece The Spiral Road.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Philip Caputo is a splendid, muscular story teller who possesses the crucial power to make endearing ordinary men from diverse fragilities and stubborness.” —Gloria Emerson, Los Angeles Times
“For the past twenty years, Caputo has written parables of hubris upbraided, populated by outsiders whose defects lead them into trouble as unerringly as does fate.” —David Haward Bain, New York Times Book Review
“Caputo lets no one and nothing off the hook.” —Richard Bausch, Washington Post Book World
“Caputo takes on most of the hot-button issues of our time–racism, random violence, disempowerment, the decay of social fabric, even the nature of evil itself–and more than lives to tell the tale.” —Roget L. Simon, Los Angeles Times
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