Okay, so I’ve been waiting all week to find some time to write part 2. Part of why I’ve been so eager is that I never tied all my thoughts together (although I took some private notes afterwards so I could follow up). The other part is that I didn’t mention some things last time that I would like to.

I left part 1 off on a huge tangent, where I quoted extensively from an article by David Foster Wallace. This was both because I needed to wrap up my writing that day, and also because I always find DFW to be an extremely entertaining writer. Anyway, after publishing that post, I realized that I talked a lot about the impact that some of the things Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Ends of the Earth had on me, but I didn’t quote them for the benefit of the reader.

This is partially because I got carried away in my stream-of-consciousness writing, but mostly because I hadn’t taken notes of where these quotes were, but I have become more disciplined in this regard over the past week. Anyway, let’s go ahead and kick off with some quotes from the first couple chapters of The Ends of the Earth before I get carried away with my stream-of-consciousness writing.

From Chapter 1, An Unsentimental Journey, page 23:

On the night of June 5/6, 1993, just three months before my journey to West Africa, when the Liberian war was supposed to have been long over, armed soldiers “systematically massacred and mutilated” six hundred refugees who were “mainly women, children, and elderly persons” at a camp not ar from Monrovia. [0] (note from Kaplan) These quotes are taken from the United Nations' report on the incident. See United Nations Secretariat listed in the bibliography.(from bibliography) United Nations Secretariat. Executive Summary. "The Carter Camp Massacre (near Harbel, Liberia)." Panel Members: S. Amos Wako, Robert Gersony, Mahmoud Kassem. New York, 1993 It was assumed that the soldiers were from one of the various rebel armies. However, as a United Nations report later showed, the crime was perpetrated by the regular army, the Armed Forces of Liberia, on which Western donors had placed their hopes for national reconciliation. The motive for the attack: “45 bags of rice and beans and other loot…carried by 100 or more survivors abducted by the attackers." [1] (note from Kaplan) Ibid.

(p.s. these are actually footnotes 36 and 37, not 0 and 1, in the book, but I’m trying to merge it with my site theme’s footnote system so I have an excuse to try it out)

The next quote immediately follows the previous, but it is distinct, in that it is not primarily in the voice of Kaplan, but Robert Johnson Semoka, a Liberian man who Kaplan met at his hotel, who previously lived with his wife and two children in California, but returned to Liberia in 1989, right as “Liberia ignited into civil war” according to Kaplan.

" ‘What tribe are you?’ " shouted Robert Johnson Semoka at me, mimicking the question that both government and rebel soldiers were always asking him and his fellow Liberians. " ‘Are you Vai? Gio? Mano? Krahn’ " he mimicked loudly.

" ‘I am Vai.’ ‘You lie!’ the soldier would say. ‘If you Vai, speak Vai to me!’ You see, that is how the soldiers would know if you were telling the truth. If you spoke Vai with an accent, they would push you into the jeep and drive you off to the beach and kill you. I saw the war. I saw a soldier point a bayonet at a pregnant woman and cut out her baby. I tell you, it’s a tribal war. There are no ideas, no politics, just tribe. Doe is Krahn, so the Gios and Manos support Taylor. Vehicles in the streets had signs saying ‘Death to Krahns’ or ‘Mandingos Should Be Exterminated.’ "

Rewinding a bit, to page 15:

I had arrived in Danane by bus from Abidjan. My last night in Abidjan before my bus left the next morning, I attended a dinner party at the home of a diplomat. The very luxury of the surroundings - imported wine, fine cutlery, ice cubes made from filtered water, armed guards at the gate - further emphasized the poverty I would encounter upon my departure. There were the stories that were told around the table: cautionary tales whose very telling, and the nervous silences that followed, constituted evidence of a tense divide - racial and economic - between us and them. One story was of an American embassy communications technician who, upon leaving a restaurant in the early evening in downtown Conakry, the Guinean capital, was bludgeoned over the head by robbers. Another was about the demand for bribes by Guinean soldiers at the checkpoints inside Guinea.

The next morning found me staring through my taxi window ad Ajame-Bramakote, the section of Abidjan near the bus station. Bramakote means “I have no choice [but to live here].” I observed the rotting market stalls of blackened bile-green: rusted metal poles festooned with black plastic sheeting held down by rocks and old tires. In front of a mosque whose walls seemed almost to be melting in the rain, I spotted several women with bare breasts feeding their infants, and another woman urinating, oblivious of the crowd. Inadequate housing and the tropical heat had, perhaps, helped defeat attempts at decorum. The immodesty might also have indicated how Islam had been weakened in the course of its arduous journey across the Sahara. The mortar with which Islam had strengthened Arab civilization had loosened by the time Islam reached West Africa. Cairo, one of the poorest and most overcrowded cities in world had, for example, an infinitesimal level of common crime - with no daytime locks on jewelry stores. Yet how much more violent would a city in the West be, faced with the same conditions as Ajame-Bramakote? It was my shock that had robbed this woman who was urinating of the privacy that others on the street gave her.

Young men scanning the street suddenly covered the windows of my taxi with their palms and fingers, blotting out my view from the backseat. They yanked open the door and demanded money for carrying my luggage a few feet to the bus, even though I had only a light rucksack. I was to find youths like these throughout urban West Africa: out of school, unemployed, loose molecules in an unstable social fluid that threatened to ignite. Their robust health and good looks made their predicament sadder.

Now some quotes from Chapter 2, Sierra Leone, which I have read since the previous post.

On pages 37 and 38, describing his arrival in Conakry, the capital of Guinea:

I landed in Conakry in the late afternoon under a leaden, end-of-rainy-season sky … (skipping stuff) … The forty-five-minute journey in heavy traffic from the airport to the city center was through a single, never-ending shantytown: a nightmarish, Dickensian vision that Dickens himself could probably never have imagined. The corrugated-metal shacks and scabrous walls were coated with black slime. I could think only of Burton’s remarks about “the mildewed cankered gangrened aspect” of West African settlements. Stores were built out of rusted shipping containers, junked cars, and shaky contraptions of wire mesh. The streets were a long puddle of floating garbage. Flies and other insects were everywhere. There were multitudes of children, many of them with swollen bellies. Pregnant women sat silently on wooden crates, watching their children play amid the mud and broken glass and other refuse … (skipping more stuff) …

A cute, miraculously healthy looking teenager smiled at me from a zinc shack. To thrive in this miasma, merely to survive, indicated a vitality that I would never be able to muster. I smiled back at what I knew to be my genetic superior.

Page 51 - Kaplan is riding with “Michelle” (pseudonym, to protect her identity), a European diplomat, in Freetown, Sierra Leone:

Soldiers, armed teenage boys actually, stared at Michelle’s car until their eyes worked their way down to the diplomatic license plates. One soldier then lifted the rusted bar that served as a gate over the laterite track, allowing us into a hilltop area where one of the junta leaders had a house. We went only as far as the house of a director-general of a ministry. But she was not in, and we headed back down the hill. This house impressed me. It was a magnificent old British structure, a gingerbread pile straight out of a fairy tale, but if you removed the romantic filter from your eyes, you saw the details: a rusted roof, rotting green latticework, gaps everywhere like a house in a shack town, and walls a skew as though damaged by an earthquake. It was a wreck. This was the home of a high government official, and in truth, because of its size and hilltop location overlooking the Atlantic, it was a palace by Freetown standards. Just looking at the house made me feel, once again, the unfathomable economic distance between Africa and many other parts of the world

Page 63, during a journey from Freetown to Bo - Kaplan hitches a ride on a Lebanese-owned African-driven truck carrying humanitarian supplies for a Catholic organization. This quote follows several unfortunate “adventures” where the riders in the truck are harassed by “soldiers” at checkpoints. Some of these soldiers even hitch a ride with them for a period (not exactly with consent). The soldiers leave them and hitch a ride on a different vehicle when the truck breaks down with a flat tire. Then, the riders in the truck (Kaplan, Simeon, and Abdul - Simeon and Abdul both African), as well as various members of the rural village they broke down in - spend two hours attempting to replace the tire.

That’s partly why the village had a deserted aspect. True, men were working in the fields a few miles away. But many others had fled to the Freetown shanties. I looked over at the garbage: plastic wrap, tin cans, cardboard milk containers, a discarded chicken skin, all mixed with feces - a blend of rural and industrialized waste. Only in the eyes of a hellbent romantic could this African village still be seen in majestic isolation. The sprawling urban magnets on the coast were changing the reality of villages like this one, whether it was the export of crime (the vandalization of rural health clinics, for instance) or the wearing of baseball caps and laceless sneakers or the milk containers and canned food. As I watched Simeon and Abdul hand out money to these rollicking youths, I had the sense of convergence, blending: city and town, war and crime, soldiers and convicts. Here, too, borders were crumbling, and they weren’t all geographical.

When we pulled away, it had begun to rain. The windshield wipers didn’t work. Simeon wrapped tin foil around a cigarette to fashion a makeshift fuse. The wipers started working. Simeon didn’t boast or bare his teeth in self-congratulation. He was all purposefulness. Force a challenge upon a human being and he will usually rise to the occasion. Though poverty in Sierra Leone was forcing all kinds of daily challenges upon people, in the larger sense, perhaps, the earth here had been too generously abundant to demand the exertions a culture required in order to develop the self-discipline that peoples of less favored climes had been forced over the eons to learn.

Now this abundance was drying up, and few seemed to be aware of it. All day long on the road, I was to see human beings lugging bundles of firewood on their backs, some of it to be used locally and much of it to be taken to Freetown. The bush grew fast, but not fast enough for the increasing numbers of people. Between 1980 and 1990 alone, 20 percent of West Africa’s forests had vanished. [2] (note from Kaplan) See World Resources Institute in the bibliography. (from bibliography) World Resources Institute. World Resources 1992-93: A Guide to the Global Environment. New York: Oxford University Presss, 1992.

Page 64, talking to a young boy Fuad after the truck arrives in Bo (after like 5 breakdowns and a similar number of checkpoints):

After the first hour of darkness came the gunfire. Not far beyond Bo was the barely charted territory of the wars. It was unclear what this gunfire was. Was it a robbery, a series of robberies, or just “soldiers” shooting into the air? Fuad shrugged. He didn’t know. Too keyed up to sleep, I sat outside the barracks talking with Fuad. He showed me one of his books, The Christian and Demon Spirits, by Jimmy Swaggart. “This book,” he explained, “teaches me how to keep the devil away from my heart. You must always be vigilant.” I didn’t laugh. In Sierra Leone, social dissolution was all around. The government, as either a moral force or an organizing factor of public life, simply did not exist. Fuad lived with his mother and seven brothers and sisters. His father had been “away a long time.” He had a “diploma” but no job prospects. Without money, he could probably not get into a college. Yet Fuad appeared gentle, calm. Rather than angry, he was determined, repeatedly asking me to write a recommendation letter for him, to help him with a scholarship to a college in Freetown. If Jimmy Swaggart was in some way responsible for this strength of character, who was I to judge?

Fuad was one of thousands of young African men trying to obtain a scholarship to a local college. Yet even those fortunate enough to gain admission had no job prospects awaiting them when they graduated. Sierra Leone was full of Fuads, destined to hope - and try - and be bitterly disappointed in the end.

Page 65 (the day following the conversation with Fuad), talking with the Catholic Relief representative in Bo - Jim Ashman. I quote this section in particular because I feel that it emphasizes the importance of a “life in common” with those who you are trying to help. This concept of “life in common” is something I’ve heard repeated by an individual in Atlanta who I greatly admire, and it requires a level of sacrifice that most people living with economic privilege are unwilling to make:

Ashman came out and formally introduced me to his wife and their kids, now running around the room. He had been a pharmaceutical engineer working for an American drug company who had found suburban life dull, joined the Peace Corps, and served in Sierra Leone. Unable to readjust to America, he worked for a variety of relief agencies until he landed a job with CRS in Bo. Ashman was the relief-worker equivalent of a “stringer”: a free-lance journalist working in some minor dateline, who, while less formal and professional-appearing than a staff correspondent - having, to a degree, “gone native” with the local population - also boasted knowledge and a feel for the local scene that few intelligence-service bureaucrats in a Western capital could muster. I remember a British stringer in Khartoum in 1985, Jill Lusk, who a few days before the April coup unreservedly announced that Nimeiri, the military ruler, would “very shortly be overthrown, because in my neighborhood, everybody is suddenly talking politics for the first time in years.” She was right while many of the local diplomats, with their official cars, pension plans, and secure salaries, turned out to be wrong. In London and Washington, the knowledge chain about the third world often began in far-flung outposts with people like Jim Ashman and Jill Lusk. Information was progressively diluted, less interesting, and off-the-mark as you ascended upward towards “civilization.”

And my last quote for the day - page 67, nearing the end of the chapter:

High birthrates for the past few decades in Sierra Leone mean increasingly large numbers of young people here will be seeking jobs well into the next century. Just keeping people here afloat will require the kind of help and investment that the world is not likely to provide in a market-driven, globally linked economy in which West African countries no longer compete only with each other, but also with developing states in the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.

It may be easy to say that a place like Sierra Leone does not matter, but if we don’t care at all about such places, why should, for instance, suburbanites in Tucson care about the inner city in Philadelphia? To be completely heartless about Africa, I mean to suggest, is to start down a path which imperils our own nationness.

So what’s your point??

Over the past week, I recorded the locations of these quotes in three different places, and I just spent several hours finding them, deciding what to include and what to exclude, and typing them out. And for what? I didn’t even get to conveying my own experience living in Senegal as a child, but I can probably get that out of the way right now:

  • While I did not witness things quite as tragic as what Kaplan conveys in these quotes, I did witness extreme poverty that I’ve never seen in America, even in the “sketchiest” places I’ve passed through.
  • I lived in a pretty nice school with a tall stone wall surrounding it, and a heavy metal gate (or door, I don’t quite remember) protecting it from the outside. It had a courtyard and we had pretty good food every day (breakfast was french bread spread with either butter or Nutella - every day).
  • The road outside the school was all sand - unpaved (sometimes we’d play soccer here, with cinderblocks as goal posts).
  • Across the road (spitting distance) from the school was a “house”, if you could call it that, without real windows or doors. People definitely lived there.
  • One time I went to the market with some people. The taxi we rode had a small hole in the floor, through which you could see the ground underneath passing. We needed to cross a large “highway” (read: sandy road) to reach the market. I distinctly remember thinking as a child, watching people run across this multi-lane bidirectional road, that it was very reminiscent of the game Frogger.
  • Any time me or other members of my (white) family walked outside, we would inevitably be trailed by many, many small children begging for money (or soap, or literally anything). Being white is a very obvious marker that you come from a relatively wealthy country (even if you’re poor in America, if you can travel to Dakar, you’ll be rich there). On one occasion, my mom gave a coin to one such orphan (presumably, they were mostly orphans). Within 10 minutes of our return to the gated school, a massive swarm of these children had gathered outside, hoping for a piece of the same generosity.
  • I and my siblings were treated comparatively well by authority figures (e.g. teachers) because we were white.
  • I and my siblings were treated comparatively well by authority figures (e.g. teachers) because we were American.
  • I whined about all this in my journal, with all the whininess of an entitled 10 year old from one of the wealthiest countries in the world who misses his Lego collection and blamed the poverty and living conditions on the people who lived there, rather than attempting to understand the historical root of these conditions.
  • I tried to get rid of this journal when I reflected on it as a teenager and felt embarrassed. My mom wouldn’t let me and I don’t know where exactly it is right now.

So what’s my point? Why am I so frustrated? Why did beginning this book The Ends of the Earth upset me so much (besides the fact that I had witnessed global poverty myself, and had the shameful memory of blaming it on the victims)? Because I live in a culture that is completely closed off from global poverty. Our entire global nationalist and capitalist system insulates the wealthy of the world from the poor. Accommodating the global poor would require removing that insulation. It would require imagining and desiring a “life in common” with those in global poverty. And it would require extreme sacrifice. At my cushy, white-collar job, there are conversations about protecting against “burnout”, and making sure to take paid time off and go on vacation to ensure sanity. As a manager, I even initiate these types of conversations with my reports!

When you’re wealthy, giving money as charity is easy. It really is. Even giving a substantial portion of your income is easy. It’s nothing to write home about, and it’s the bare minimum. In fact, it may even be less than the bare minimum. Charity doesn’t solve these problems. I don’t claim to know what would, but honestly the closest I can get is what this Admirable Atlantan (TM) has emphasized time and time again:

Life in common

Educating oneself and feeling sad and depressed is just the first step. Giving money in charity I would argue doesn’t even count as sacrifice, especially not if it is done with the intention of feeling good about oneself. Giving time is more of a sacrifice. Uprooting one’s life in the service of others is an amazing form of sacrifice, and I can only think of a small handful of individuals I know who have actually done this. And I certainly have not, although the more I learn, the more of an aspiration this becomes.

This is kind of a letter to myself, more than anything. I am completely inadequate in the way I’m living my life. I’m so worried of depressing others with my thoughts because I care too much what others think, and I worry about alienating myself like I have in the past when I was more vocal about these kinds of things.

And damn, I know that people who live in America suffer. And I know that affluent people suffer. Mental illness is a real thing, and I have seen it devastate people. But I still have a hard time focusing so much attention on it when there are whole villages that get executed for some bags of rice; when the beautiful hope of youth is dashed by the inability to pursue meaningful education or work, just because of where that youth originates; when the selfishness of the global elite and NIMBYism and fear closes borders to the global poor. You’re afraid of crime increasing if we open borders? How about being afraid that someone will cut your ears off because you’re from the wrong tribe? What makes your fear more important? [3] Not all of the generalizations I make can be applied to everyone. I get that. The U S of A is more "protected" than a lot of other wealthy countries. I also get that there is very real poverty in the good 'ol U S of A. Try to remember that this is more of a stream-of-consciousness ramble than an academic paper on global and domestic suffering. I apologize if I glossed over some things, but if you email me at mobyvb@gmail.com, I may be able to remedy that in a future post.

Like for real, DAMN.

Anyways, it’s time for Maghrib and time to stop writing. Time to do a quick spellcheck and whoosh this ‘ol jumble of thoughts onto the internet.

I don’t have any solutions. Just jumbles of thoughts, and a desire to be better.


  • [0] (note from Kaplan) These quotes are taken from the United Nations' report on the incident. See United Nations Secretariat listed in the bibliography.(from bibliography) United Nations Secretariat. Executive Summary. "The Carter Camp Massacre (near Harbel, Liberia)." Panel Members: S. Amos Wako, Robert Gersony, Mahmoud Kassem. New York, 1993
  • [1] (note from Kaplan) Ibid.
  • [2] (note from Kaplan) See World Resources Institute in the bibliography. (from bibliography) World Resources Institute. _World Resources 1992-93: A Guide to the Global Environment_. New York: Oxford University Presss, 1992.
  • [3] Not all of the generalizations I make can be applied to everyone. I get that. The U S of A is more "protected" than a lot of other wealthy countries. I also get that there is very real poverty in the good 'ol U S of A. Try to remember that this is more of a stream-of-consciousness ramble than an academic paper on global and domestic suffering. I apologize if I glossed over some things, but if you email me at mobyvb@gmail.com, I may be able to remedy that in a future post.