Douglas & McIntyre

Gary Geddes Interviews

Gary  Geddes

Gary Geddes

August 2011

What caused you to embark on this journey at the age of 68? Was this book something you had planned for a long time?

What set my sights on Africa? Curiosity and shame, for starters. The so-called ‘dark continent’ has attracted explorers, exploiters and colonizers, but also a host of writers over the last century or two. Even Picasso felt its power, drawing on African images and designs. That vast space on the map, blank for so long, then arbitrarily divided into colonies.

But curiosity was not enough. My moral imagination had to be engaged and there was no shortage of opportunities for this to happen. I studied the works of Joseph Conrad, who described the Belgian Congo as “the vilest scramble for loot that has ever disfigured the history of human consciousness.” And, of course, slavery, drought, famine, brutal wars, rape, genocide and all the accompanying photographs, articles and television coverage. The proverbial straw that set my course to Africa was what is now known as the Somalia Affair, soldiers in the Canadian Airborne Regiment beating to death a Somali teenager named Shidane Abukar Arone.

This brutal, senseless killing injected the suffering of Africa into my bone marrow. So, too, did the lame response of my fellow Canadians, many of whom wanted to believe this was a case of a few bad apples, rather than a systemic problem, a racism that runs deep in our culture and has taken its toll of Canada’s First Nations, people of colour from Asia and Africa, and Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

Feeling shame as a man, and as a Canadian, I decided I needed to go to Africa to see what I could learn first-hand.

Can you explain what you mean by “a racism that runs deep in our culture”? Canada is often considered – by itself and others – to be a multicultural and very tolerant. Do you think this view is misinformed?

Until recently, Canada has a reputation for being a peacekeeper and a ‘nation of choice’ for immigrants. We hang on the coat-tails of Lester Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize. And we tend to think of ourselves smugly as more civilized and righteous than our neighbours to the south. But the truth is that we exterminated the Beothuk peoples in Newfoundland and, through ill-advised government policy, morally devastated First Nations people across Canada. We had a head-tax on Chinese immigrants, except as indentured labourers, and refused them the vote until after World War II; we incarcerated Japanese Canadians during the war; we turned back a shipload of Sikhs early in the 20th-century and then a shipload of Jews, most of whom died during the Holocaust; and we have continued to treat Canadians of colour as inferiors. We need to acknowledge and address these negative elements in our culture before we try to change anyone else.

How did your understanding of justice, and opinion on how it should be both judged and distributed, change during your journey?

Justice in the West has long been associated with the Old Testament tradition of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. There is still a strong sense that punishment for crimes is essential as a deterrent and to safeguard civil society. My journey, which began at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, would involve asking many questions about how justice is being administered in various countries, and by specific tribal or ethnic groups in those countries. What could the incarceration of a violent warlord in a remote European suburb possibly mean to a woman raped and infected with HIV in a village in Congo or a boy abducted and force to kill his family in northern Uganda?

One of the most telling moments for me took place in Gulu, a city ravaged by the Lord’s Resistance Army: followers and involuntary recruits of psychopath Joseph Kony. I was interviewing a woman named Nancy whose ears, nose and lips had been cut off by a gang of Kony’s guerrillas. As Nancy told me her story, I could feel the rage building up in me, a tsunami of anger choking me, making me think: “Kony, a bullet is too good for you.” However, when I asked Nancy what she thought should be done to these people, she said, without hesitation: “They should be restored to the community, they were mostly abducted boys.”

Restoration rather than revenge: Nancy was light years ahead of me in terms of her moral development, as were so many Africans I met. She, the victim of violence, counselled forgiveness, while I, the observer, asked for punishment.

What preconceptions about individuals and communities in the countries you visited were challenged while you were there? What common misconceptions about the continent do you hope are challenged in your readers?

I’m no expert, just a concerned observer, but I encountered so many examples of kindness, grace, intelligence and progressive thinking that contradicted the impression many Westerners have of the Africa as site of corruption and violence, with chaos looming over everything. I hope that, by addressing my own ignorance and modest discoveries, others might be encouraged to do the same.

It’s a vast question, but why do you think there are so many tragedies unfolding in light of this kindness and progression?

The temptation is to blame colonialism, which is definitely the beginning of Africa’s problems and the source of some of its worst habits and practices. The splitting of ethnically coherent regions into arbitrary political units did not help; neither did the ruthless attacks of human dignity and the ongoing scramble for loot that sees Canadian mining companies at the forefront of exploitation. Greed and corrupt governance are the principal problems, some of it the legacy of colonialism, the rest locally fuelled.

There are no quick fixes for Africa, but understanding the complexities faced by African nations is definitely the first step. The World Bank, IMF and the Chicago School of economics have much to answer for, encouraging Third World countries to borrow lavishly, money that will reach only the ruling elite, then forcing structural adjustments on these defaulting countries that include the privatization of education, health care and other social services.

On your journey you met individuals, families and communities who have experienced atrocious and heart-wrenching violence. Can you describe the experience of speaking with these people and learning their stories?

In Rwanda, I interviewed a young woman who was a victim of Hutu violence and Tutsi injustice. I asked her about justice and how she dealt with the anger that had been eating away at her. While she talked about coping with violence and injustice, and the need to move beyond anger, I noticed her right hand drift unconsciously across her body and come to rest on a scar from a knife wound inflicted more than twelve years earlier by one of the men who raped her. Justice is difficult to administer and forgiveness even more difficult to achieve, but the memory of pain, which takes root in the flesh and bones, will not be erased. It can be a phantom companion for life, no matter how hard we try to make it go away.

So, I learned to listen to the words and observe the body language of those who shared their stories with me, who trusted me to bear witness on their behalf. I am only too aware of my own limitations as a witness, my blind spots and preconceptions and simple misunderstanding of what was being expressed.

Is there a particular political message you hope people take from the book?

My time in Africa was brief; my insights were based on impressions more than on science or scholarship. And yet I did observe that the forces of civil society are strong and growing stronger in Africa and that Rwandans, Ugandans, Congolese, Ethiopians and Somalilanders are increasingly ready to exchange the corrupt paternalism of leaders for responsible stewardship, in whatever political form that might take. Television, cell phones and the internet have tuned Africans in to the contradictions between the crass materialism of the West and some of its enduring values, including the potential to remove unwelcome and incompetent leaders by something as simple and non-violent as a vote.

In short, I learned that Africans are ready to instruct us about restorative justice, to provide valuable lessons on care, community and solidarity, and to forgive us for the travesties of the past. In exchange, they demand genuine respect, for individuals, cultures and languages; that we regulate our extractive industries abroad, making them accountable for environmental and human rights violations; and that we remove those subsidies that jeopardize their changes of entering into the worldwide fair exchange of commodities.

We’re now seeing some African countries living by these values, and removing incompetent or corrupt leaders. Given your time spent on the continent, can you tell us your views on this? Do you think this quest for democracy will lead to a more peaceful continent? What obstacles and bad habits from the past, which you previously mentioned, also need to be overcome for democracy to succeed?

Africans were not in need of Christianity or democracy before Europeans arrived on the scene, and the wars fought and travesties wrought in the name of Christianity and democracy in the last five hundred years ought to make us all reconsider the values of both. However, there is a difference between essence and practice. We need to clean up our own houses, to get back to the essence. Africans understand the notion of loving your neighbour as much as you love yourself; and they can easily relate to the notion that all individuals in a society should be treated equally, given full access to food, shelter and employment. How can we expect Africans to rid themselves of corrupt politicians when our own nations and leaders conspire to milk the system and privatize education, health care and water management? Who has wreaked more havoc in the last decade, Robert Mugabe or George Bush and his cronies? Together, listening to and learning from each other, we might yet come closer to the ideals of a just society and an ethic of fairness and love.

How did you arrange the numerous meetings with child soldiers, refugees, and other interviewees? Can you describe the process of finding and meeting these people, and your experience with ‘fixers’? How challenging was this process?

Before I left for Africa, I spent a lot of time making contacts with NGOs and individuals who had been to the continent, building up a list of contacts who would help me on the ground, partially out of fear for my owns safety and partially to avoid wasting time when I arrived in these countries. I hired a fixer named Célestin in DR Congo; he helped me negotiate my way into some important interviews and helped me in difficult situations.

Only in Somaliland was I obliged to hire armed guards. For these guards, with AK-47s across their laps, it was a paid holiday, a trip across the desert to the Gulf of Aden, where we all stripped down to our underwear and went for a swim, the rifle barrels crossed on top of the heap of clothing.

I’ve also learned to count on serendipity. Going abroad with an open mind and heart is often enough inspire the trust that opens doors.

Do you think Drink the Bitter Root would be of interest to those interested in travel writing? Or are the political and often-jarring stories primarily for those wishing to increase their understanding of struggles in another part of the world?

I don’t think of Drink the Bitter Root as a conventional travel story. It certainly does not resemble what P.K. Page described as “lonely tourists with their empty eyes longing to be filled with monuments.” However, it does seem to me to be to be a quintessential travel narrative in many ways: it begins with curiosity, with questions needing to be answered. It does not describe a pleasure cruise or a hop from one expensive hotel to another, with guides and all the protective shields of modern tourism, but it’s in the classic mode of learning what you can in advance and setting out with an open mind and a degree of flexibility, a trust in the essential goodness of human beings, and a deep breath of anticipation and excitement. So, yes, if you want adventure and challenge, a chance to travel into strange and dangerous territory, this book is a good place to start.

Many of the stories you have told are heart-wrenching and distressing. Did you still enjoy your time on the continent? Are there any lighter moments you have shared with the reader, or would like to share with us?

There were many moments of joy and humour for me, both in Africa and in the writing of the book. If you don’t take yourself too seriously, then even the most harrowing of experiences are going to provide lighter moments. One of the most delightful for me was my encounter with a ten-year-old Somali boy living on the streets as a refugee in Addis Ababa. This kid had seen a lot of violence but was surprisingly well versed in tidbits of contemporary history and politics. He knew about the Second World War and the recent election of Barack Obama. When I asked him what he wanted to be, he looked at me earnestly and announced that his ambition was to become the King of Sweden. He was not so good on geography. He knew he would have to travel to get an education and said that even Canada would do as a destination as long as he could get there by walking.

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