From The American People

 

Like a tornado in his native Oklahoma, the detective and his men burst into the Salt Lake City offices of the Technical Advisor. Tonny Littlechild had for years worked for the aid management firm Jason Benning Inc., whose offices occupied the majestic Blackwell building that covers most of 286, Bethel Avenue. Owned by the church of the latter day saints, Blackwell building with its 43 floors is a towering attraction of the city’s skyline. In stark contrast to its outer beauty however, the building harboured a dark secret whose tentacles spread not just beyond the borders of the Beehive State but also the USA’s, into Asia and Africa.

“Officer 105, do you copy?” Detective Morris Dowd flanked by two burly, heavily armed uniformed police officers shouted in his walkie talkie.

“Location fully secured sir,” said the person on the other end of the line as a dozen other men swarmed into the massive, landscaped office. As the Police Officers combed the building, most of the employees appeared shell-shocked. Except one.

At age 55, Littlechild, had just been posted to the Salt Lake City office of one of the biggest management conglomerates of the U.S aid industry from the firm’s headquarters in Washington DC. His mission was to fix what the firm’s DC executives had termed ‘insubordination’ of some of the staff there. The move had attracted little attention from the DC press (only the insignificant Washington Insider had given the switch any coverage  at all), a surprising feat since Littlechild was, save perhaps for the President of the United States, the flashiest of the figures of Washington society.

Littlechild, standing akimbo in one of the office’s corners watched the Police’s raucous search with little emotion.

“Mr. Littlechild,” detective Dowd called out as the office boys reorganized the place.

“Yes sir,” answered he in a low, anxious voice.

“We are done, at least for now. I apologize for the brief disruption we just caused your staff,” said the detective with a tone that didn’t sound reconciliatory at all.

“You know you won’t be lucky next time, don’t you?” the detective went on, raising the five-foot -four Mr. Littlechild’s jaw with his big hands so he could have an up close face to face.

He then let go of him and marched out.

“Back to business everybody,” Mr. Littlechild barked to his staff, as if the previous 45 minutes had not happened. The shell-shocked employees simply disappeared behind their cubicles, one by one. Littlechild also went to his office, a two hundred square foot space separated from the general office area by shinny aluminium panes.

“Alex!” Littlechild called out from his office after a couple of minutes of solitude.

“Yes, sir,” his indefatigable Executive Assistant answered, rushing towards his office door.

“Call my travel agent and book me a flight to Kumbayaya by way of Nairobi, Kenya. The state department is announcing a new three hundred million dollar grant to the African country through The US Mission in Kumbayaya (USAMIK) initiative and JBI has, as usual, been contracted to manage the fund. HQ wants me to take charge of one of the projects.”

“Right away, Mr. Littlechild,” said Alex as she disappeared through the door.

Alexandra Cunningham, 24, was a daughter of a career foreign service officer from Salem, Massachusetts.  She was five foot nine, had blue eyes and thick, luxurious hair that had been the envy of her peers back at Cambridge High in Boston. One of them, Melissa Kingsley had even one time suggested that she occasionally cuts the hair to donate to young leukaemia victims. She was relieved of the nagging when both separated after high school, she to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Melissa to Stanford Law.

A week after the police raid, Alex hopped on a Jetblue flight from Salt Lake City to Boston to see her ailing dad. Patrick Cunningham had been forced into early retirement by a bathroom accident in Khartoum, Sudan, where he had worked for years as a military attaché to the US mission. He was into his thirteenth posting when the accident happened after serving in various positions in the Tanzania, Mali, Algeria, Uganda, and The Gambia missions, twice as an ambassador. At 62 however, Mr. Cunningham was still strong and the State Department occasionally still made use of him.

“Dad,” Alex softly began.

“Yes sweetie.”

“There is a situation at JBI Utah that is making me quite uncomfortable.”

Mr. Cunningham sheepishly smiled after hearing what it was. Being the thirty five year veteran of the state department that he was, Mr. Cunningham didn’t see anything unusual with the Police swoop.

“After all they found nothing,” he told Alex.

For Alex however, a worldly young woman whose Ivy League education, New England values and Roman Catholic faith compelled her she believed, to save the suffering world, something was terribly wrong. A firm dedicated to ensure that US tax payers’ money reached the most in need was supposed to be beyond reproach. What is going on?, she kept wondering. Why is the Police here? She asked herself perhaps a thousand times.

Tony Littlechild sat calmly in the departure lounge at the Salt Lake City International Airport with other passengers as he waited to board the Nairobi bound American Airlines Boeing 747 on which he had been booked first class. He was reading that morning’s Salt Lake Tribune when he received a call that immediately aborted his travel plans.

“Honey, you need to come back home right away.” The caller sounded utterly distressed.

“What’s the matter, little pumpkin?” inquired Littlechild, using the pet name the couple referred to each other with.

“The cops are all over the house,” Mrs. Littlechild said, adding dejectedly: “I think we are screwed.”

“Calm down Sweetie, and don’t show them that you are even surprised by their coming. I am on my way.”

“I told you that you wouldn’t be lucky again,” the detective Dowd declared, somewhat triumphantly. “Your wife says only you knows the safe code, so come on Mr. Littlechild, I would like to have a little look.”

The huge white box with the words “From the American people” emblazoned on its side could be seen tucked at the extreme corner of the giant safe. Up to this point, the contents of the box are still a mystery to the detective. He stares deep and hard into the safe as The Littlechilds watch stone faced from the side. The other police officers are patrolling the rest of the street and have cordoned off the Littlechilds residence in this reclusive, gated community in the Riverton suburb of Salt Lake City. The neighbourhood’s volunteer watchman has been disarmed to avoid any unnecessary altercations.

Back in the house, Detective Dowd is involved in a candid discussion with Littlechild, who by now appears less nervous than he had been when he had just arrived at the house.

“What on God’s earth are these things, Littlechild?” The detective asked, holding a white handkerchief over his nose to avoid the strong smell that came from the large box.

“They are rhinoceros horns, sir” a now subdued Littlechild answered the visibly startled detective.

“What the hell is the rhinoceros?”

“You have never heard of a rhino, detective?”

“Holy shit! You mean the African beast?”

“Yes, sir! It was a gift from one of the tribal chiefs after we had dug his people a borehole as part of one of the USAMIK projects.”

“A box full of rhino horns?”

“In Africa, it’s really no big deal, detective.”

“We get all kinds of weird gifts in Africa sir, during our development work there,” Mrs. Littlechild jumped into the conversation.

“Some stuff we can carry back home, others we can’t. The other day at a ribbon cutting ceremony in Western Kenya where a school built by American generosity was being handed over, a woman gave me a beautiful mat made from a shaved porcupine skin. It is in our bedroom,” carried on Mrs. Littlechild.

“Well, you did not buy a safe for that,” mused the detective

There was a brief silence.

“Anyway,” said the detective, cutting the silence. “I will take this box for more investigations. You may continue with your trip, Mr. Littlechild. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Littlechild and his wife both turned to face each other and a similar scowl engulfed their faces. The couple went downstairs leaving the detective alone with the box.

At the police station, detective Dowd would be shocked to his core after being briefed by a wild life specialist. Sergeant Anthony Wilbroad, a 25 year veteran of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources was familiar with the worldwide syndicate of rhino poaching. According to his estimates, he told detective Dowd, the one hundred horns confiscated from the Littlechild residence were worth about five million US dollars.

“They were probably harvested from not less than fifty white rhinos, a rare breed a few of which remain only in Africa,” he told the detective.

“Some of them must have been killed first but others are simply captured, and the horns sawed off – with no anaesthetic applied of course! From this case alone, dozens of rhino carcases are now rotting in the African wild. These horns here are a sad evidence of that,”

A thirty five-year veteran of the Salt Lake County police department, this case was the first of its kind Detective Dowd was handling.

“I know what to do,” the detective said to his colleagues. “Littlechild can run but cannot hide”

————————

Tony Littlechild at last succeeded catching a flight to Nairobi, Kenya, after paying $140 fine for missing the first one a week earlier. The American Airlines weekly flight to Africa spanned many capitals including Nairobi, Lagos, Addis Ababa, and Pretoria. Littlechild had planned to travel well ahead of Alfred Atwater Watson, the retired diplomat the Secretary of State had reappointed head of the USAMIK, who was scheduled to be in Kumbayaya in two weeks to announce the aid initiative.  Ambassador Watson was a mean but reasonable 72-year old from Vermont who had worked for the state department for 40 years. A Political Science graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he was a master of Africa’s political economy.

Located in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania to the North West of Madagascar, The Democratic Nation of Kumbayaya, popularly known to its citizens simply as the DNK, is roughly the size of The US state of Oregon and has been ruled by one president for 30 years. The president, Mzee Yokana Ssalongo seized power in 1983 after a ten year bloody guerrilla war. After taking over, President Ssalongo had embarked on a militant liberal economic policy, selling off most of the government’s parastatals. He had privatized everything including lakes and rivers. As a result he had become a darling of western governments and their finance titans, the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank. For his economically prudent policies, he could do no wrong in their eyes.

After a few years however, president Ssalongo started to get big headed, at least in the eyes of one western expatriate. Ambassador Watson, the cunning, no-nonsense head of the USAMIK who also acted as the dean of the Kumbayaya Donors’ Fraternity, the KDF, a loose association of the country’s mostly western donors, was furious that he had ignored his own promise to call for early elections, turned the country into a one party state where only his party, The Kumbayaya United Front (KUF) ran in elections and started to arrest his rivals. Ssalongo’s regime had become hostage to massive corruption perpetrated by former guerrillas who occupied powerful government positions. A billion dollars was being eaten annually according to one estimate by the USAMIK and the KDF. Most of this money belonged to donors or ‘development partners’ as they courteously called themselves, since they provided 70 percent of the Kumbayayan National Budget.

Kumbayaya had gotten so dependent on American aid that every item in everyone’s household bore the words “From the American People”, the famous motto that was USAMIK’s. T-shirts, used bags, cooking oil and jerry cans from USAMIK bore that proclamation. Most Kumbayans came to loath this but had little, if, anything to do about it.

When Mr. Littlechild arrived in the capital Kawaala, the country of thirty five million was in financial doldrums. Ambassador Watson had sent a clinical cable to Washington advising the State Department to stop giving money directly to the government, an act known in diplomatic speak as “budget support”, and to instead use the country’s Non Governmental Organizations to implement development initiatives in the country. The local USAMIK office which had been here for 60 years was going JBI’s expertise in the wake of the new developments. Littlechild had worked with civil societies for twenty years, half the time in Africa. Since the announcement of the new order, the number of NGOs in the Kumbayaya had soared; twenty thousand were now fully registered with the National NGO Regulatory Authority (NGORA) at the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Littlechild also found one disturbing sociopolitical issue in Kumbayaya. One particular region of that country was doing worse than the rest in terms of the United Nation’s human development indicators. The Opiyo province in the west had for 20 years suffered a civil war waged by a woman named Prophetess Justine Lakony whose army, The Holy Ghost Movement abducted children, cut off their ears and forced fed them to their parents for dinner. Prophetess Lakony had no known political motives but the devastation she wrought on the region was gut-wrenching. The insurgency had pushed the region’s development back to the Stone Age era and these people needed help.

Ambassador Watson knew Mr. Littlechild very well, having worked with him while they both served in Kumbayaya years before.

A week had been seared off Littlechild’s advance plans by the horns controversy, one he considered phony, and as a result he would have no time to meet all his old friends in the capital before starting work.

“Mr. Littlechild”, began Ambassador Watson in the first meeting with the JBI man which took place at the USAMIK office located in the heart of the capital.  “While I appreciate your earlier experience here, I thought that you would need a few basic tutorials to prepare you for the fundamentally changed country that you now have to work in.”

Mr. Littlechild nodded in agreement.

“First of all, this is not just a forested country but an island too,” continued Ambassador Watson staring at Littlechild whose occasional shrugs betrayed the attention he pretended to give the discussion.

“Of course I know that,” Littlechild said, wondering where the good ambassador was taking the conversation.

“Very well then,” said Ambassador Watson as he moved out to the office balcony overlooking the vast Indian Ocean, where Littlechild joined him.

“I hope you can swim because you may need those skills sooner than you think.”

For three hours Ambassador Watson briefed Littlechild on the latest economic and sociopolitical changes that had taken place in the DNK. None of these was entirely new to Littlechild of course, having served here only five years earlier. The meeting would have been considered a waste of time by Littlechild had Ambassador Watson not, towards the end, talked about one of the communities that the USAMIK project was going to target.

“Mr. Littlechild, the people in the Opiyo province ought to be our first priority since they were hit the hardest by the conflict.’’

“Of course, Mr. Ambassador.”

“Their agrarian way of life is so backward that despite being a fertile area with abundant annual rains, they still go as hungry as church mice. It’s a pathetic situation, you know. And then those poor little creatures whose horns you and I know where they otherwise ought to belong”

Littlechild laughed heartily.

“They hunt them for meat, can you imagine?!”

Littlechild, who was aware of the situation from his earlier stint in the country nodded, a wide grin illuminating his small, chiselled face.

“I am afraid though that there is going to be a little obstacle to our land consolidation plans for the area, which obviously is for the good of those poor farmers,” continued the Ambassador.

“And what’s that?’’ inquired Littlechild.

“Some self-righteous elites of the province are pressing the rhino question. That forest, home to most of the world’s remaining rhinos, surrounds the fifteen clans whose land we wanted to help consolidate  for greater yields.’’

“Huh,” Littlechild chuckled, his face turning away from the ambassador to stare into the ocean.

“And what do the tribal leaders themselves say about the situation?” Littlechild wanted to know.

“Most are on board, except those fellows whose advocacy organizations I hear are bankrolled by the Conservation Society of London and Animal Planet.

Littlechild laughed heartily on hearing that the TV Program is also involved.

———————-

The eastern wing of the USAMIK office was going to be occupied by JBI’s flashy advisor and his soon-to-arrive American staff whose jobs would also be to advise the organization on how to effectively use the 300 million dollars allocated to the Kumbayaya Livelihood Program. The KULIP was one of the many initiatives of the USAMIK.

The American were; Gene Westham, a development professional from Oregon who had worked in the JBI Washington office for 15 years, Alexander Cunningham from the Utah office and Melissa Kingsley a 25-year old lawyer and Alex’s high school pal who at the recommendation of Mr. Littlechild had joined the JBI Washington office a few weeks earlier.

The trio left the United States for Kumbabaya on 2 different flights. Gene and Mellissa boarded a Kumbayaya bound British Airways flight that had made a stopover at Washington’s Dulles International Airport. Alex took the same American Airlines flight from the SLCIA that Littlechild had taken two months before her.

“Soo, who do we have here?” Alex exclaimed on seeing her friend from high school.

“Girl what are you doing here?!”

“I joined JBI two weeks ago and I will be advising the USAMIK office on the legal aspects of the KULIP, as I await graduation. I had to jump on the chance as soon as the ink on my last semester paper had dried,” Mellissa explained.

Alex and Gene simply fist bumped as they had known each other from the many occasions she flew to the DC office to run errands for Littlechild.

Littlechild drove the trio from the airport to the posh Sheraton Kawaala hotel, the finest in Kumbayaya. Along the 12 miles trek, he sought to give them a little pep talk, not different from the one ambassador Watson had given him a month earlier.

“Guys you have no idea how relieved I am that you have finally come,” Littlechild told them.

“Now for some of you who thought Africa was a country, let me take the trouble of informing you that it is in fact a continent with 59 countries, all different socially but not much politically and economically. Kumbayaya, which is going to be your home for the next year couldn’t be more different however. This island, Gene, is about the size of your home state but do not expect to be living in Portland.”

Mellissa was laughing to what she thought was a great performance by Littlechild, but Alex was disgusted by the dismissively condescending attitude with which she thought Littlechild spoke of the DNK and its people.

“Don’t forget to deploy your mosquito net,’’ Littlechild said as the trio removed their bags from the black USAMIK SUV that had the words, FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE emblazoned over its body.

“And by the way, be ready by 7:30 as Kere will be picking you for the general staff meeting at eight o’clock at the USAMIK offices.”

“Who the hell is Kere?” Gene wondered as Littlechild sped off without answering.

The Kumbayaya Livelihood Program was the biggest fund the US government, under its USAMIK initiative, was going to run in the country. The three year project would support Agriculture, health and education. It would be managed by JBI on behalf of the USAMIK. The local office had hired three native Kumbayayan professionals; Micho Makanga a 54-year old, dark as soot six-foot-four programme manager who held management degrees from the Kumbayaya National University, the most renown in the country and the University of Southern California. He was from the Kecho tribe in the south of the country.

Filo Mapesa, the Project coordinator, held a master’s degree in development studies from the University of Hawaii. He was charged with the day to day implementation of the KULIP. Mapesa was a member of the Amapeela, a flourishing religious sect in the country whose followers believed the world would end in the year 2000. At 33 he remained unmarried, a very unusual thing for a Kumbayayan male of that age.

Celestine Kerekere was the logistics coordinator. Kerekere, 47, was a motormouth who spoke at the speed of a machinegun. Despite his irritating character, he was Littlechild’s favourite largely because he knew the countryside better than the rest and had been a hunter before lady luck got him in touch with a British conservationist who paid for his education.  He was also the KULIP project accountant, as well as the transport and fleet manager and driver of the project’s vehicles. Littlechild fondly called him Kere and everyone did the same. He was the only staff, apart from Ambassador Watson and Mr Littlechild that everyone called by his surname.

The first joint staff meeting took place the following day at 8 o’clock pronto. The USAMIK staff, led by Ambassador Watson and the JBI staff, led by Littlechild were seated by 7:55 in the air-conditioned USAMIK office overlooking the Indian Ocean. The piece of paper Kere circulated to the staff had about five agenda items that included speeches from Ambassador Watson and Mr. Littlechild and staff reactions to them.

“Let me take this opportunity to welcome you all to the USAMIK offices, particularly our new freshmen from America namely, Mellissa, Alex and Gene” said Ambassador Watson to raucous laughter at the use of the college term.

After a long monologue on the history of American aid in the country, Amb. Watson informed the group that US aid would now be channelled to the people through NGOs as a result of mismanagement by the government of President Ssalongo.

“We have many good NGOs working at the grass roots and as they have always excellently done, Kere, FILO and Micho will help us identify some for the KULIP Project. Thank you very much.”

When it was his turn to speak, Littlechild did something that, at least to the untrained ears of Gene, Mellisa and Alex, was strange. He asked Kere who he referred to as “My right hand man in Kumbayaya” to speak first, giving an overview of the KULIP.

The selection of Kere was unusual in several respects: one, he was junior to the other staffs not just in rank but also education. Secondly, Kere’s English was not easily understood as he mixed it with local slangs and words that had been infected by Kumbayan tribal dialects, resulting in what linguists in the country derisively called Kumblish.

“I’ve got this guys,” Littlechild loudly said as murmurs of protest got louder.

“Kere, please proceed.”

“The KULIP will begin in Opiyo County, which is about 9 hours from here by bus,” Kere began. “The county has about 32 villages and the people are predominantly farmers. The first task of the project is to convince them to stop the backward life and start growing real crops.”

Littlechild led the applause in which he was the only participant. The cold response to the speech was in part a result of the contempt with which Kere was regarded by his native colleagues, largely because he was considered of less stature academically but also literally – he was, at four-feet-four a very short man. Kere’s performance left the newly arrived Americans especially bemused.

Like the ambassador before him, Littlechild also welcomed the Americans to the country when his turn to speak came. “This, guys, is the place where your fancy college degrees won’t mean a thing,” he began, subtly chastising the Americans for the disrespect they had shown Kere during his speech.

“Unfortunately I have nothing to add to what Kere said,” Littlechild announced, to the surprise of everybody. He instead called for questions, effectively going to the next issue on the agenda.

First to go was Filo. “I want to  thank both Ambassador Watson  and Mr. Little child for what they have done for my fellow citizens and especially Mr. Littlechild who was lost for sometime but now he has decided to come back to Kumbayaya.” The American trio of Gene, Alex and Melissa were wondering where he was going.

“In fact let us clap for them!”

A scattered applause followed. Littlechild, coyly sucking on his plastic rhino model car key holder had a wide grin. Ambassador Watson could not stop nodding.

“My question is, can you assure us, Ambassador Watson that the good working relationship you had with us when you first served in Kumbayaya will continue?”

As Alex and Mellissa repeatedly whispered to each other at the awkwardness of the proceedings, Gene was calm, almost serene, as if he had been attending these meetings for years.

Finally, Alex asked about the sustainability of the project. “How are we going to ensure that the beneficiaries will trudge on their own after the project phases out?” she wanted to know.

Ambassador Watson himself offered to answer the question but Littlechild could not let him, for reasons of protocol, he said.

“In Africa we respect elders,” he said to the delight and clapping of the Kumbayayan staff.

“He is already assimilated,” Filo whispered to Micho, who totally agreed.

“He is a Kumbayayan; a real brother.”

Before Littlechild could finish his answer to Alex, Filo and Micho offered to add on.

“The KULIP is a 300 million dollar, project, Alex. That’s a lot of money! These people will definitely sustainably use it,” said Filo gesturing with his hands to project confidence. Many in the meeting including Ambassador Watson wildly applauded.

“The question was HOW”, Alex insisted.

“They will use the money to make long term, sustainable investments” Micho jumped in, to more applause.

“Gene, do you have a question too?”, Littlechild pointed to the DC man, tacitly silencing Alex.

“I wanted to add on Filo’s answer.”

“Go ahead son.”

“Perhaps Alex is not familiar with the Sustainability Index Model the JBI Washington office developed and has been using across Africa for the last few years.”

Gene went ahead to explain how the SIM works.

“Kumbayaya has performed well on that scale before and we have no reason to doubt that they will do well again with this new project”

The applause was even louder, with the first use of technical words of the morning.

“Shall we have a tea break, please?” asked Ambassador Watson.

Over tea which was served with fried sweet potatoes, a Kumbayaya delicacy, Gene and Alex were engrossed in a quiet conversation. The latter confided in the former that given the trajectory of the last ninety minutes, she feared to ask more questions.

“You can give it a shot again after the break, Alex,” Gene urged her. “But I think you are getting overly concerned about this whole thing. These guys have been in this business for years.’’

“Can I ask you something Gene?’’

“Listening.”

“What are we going to do about the rhinos?”

“What rhinos?”

“You mean you haven’t heard about the forest filled with rhinos which is in the Agricultural zone the KULIP intends to establish?”

“Well, not exactly. I guess I must have heard half the story but it appears they are probably a few baby rhinos which will easily be evacuated”.

“This does not concern you, at least morally?”

“Gaawd, Alex! These morals of yours! Look, we are here to give these people a livelihood. Your moral calibre doesn’t place animals above people, does it?”

When the party got back to the meeting, Ambassador Watson abruptly ended it, saying time was running out and that staff had better got on with the business of the rest of the day.

“We didn’t get hired to be in full day meetings, folks,” he said. He later informed the group that they were to travel to one of the beneficiary communities to meet local leaders and introduce the KULIP to them.

—————————

The next day, a team of eight, including Littlechild, the ambassador himself and the new American arrivals as well as the native staff, visited Opiyo County, an enclave in the ocean to the north east. Population 200,000, the area had been hit the hardest by Prophetess Lakony’s insurgency. Kadiope national park, a massive swath of forest remained the main source of livelihood for the community. The Opiyo people hunted warthogs and birds, as well as wild berries and had lived this way for thousands of years. About 70 percent of the world’s remaining rhinos called this forest home, including 50 percent of the rare white rhino.

“Wow!” cried Alex as the team flew over the forest, as she saw herds of giraffes, warthogs and buffalos charging towards their hideouts as a result of the roaring low flying chopper the team was flying in.

This is beautiful Mr. Littlechild, isn’t it?” she called out to an indifferent Technical Advisor, who, with his lifetime of adventures in Africa was obviously not seeing the scenery for the first time.

“Sure.”

Other team members were asleep, or Alex thought so, as most were not peeping out the chopper windows as repeatedly as she was.

The chopper landed in the middle of a local school playground, where a group of village elders, local chiefs and a few ordinary people had gathered. In all, they numbered forty.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the Opiyo community, please clap for the visitors who have managed to come to visit us with a message of development”, the village chief said as Micho interpreted.

Swinging his traditional sceptre from side to side twelve times, he asked for the team leader to step forward. Ambassador Watson without hesitation surged into prostration before the pintsize traditional leader. After a few minutes of rituals the chief announced that his gods had approved of the meeting. He then gently struck ambassador Watson’s back with the tail of his staff, signalling him to rise up.

The spectacle all but left Alex numb. To her surprise however, she seemed to be alone in her culture shock as the rest of her party simply grinned during the ceremony. Even Mellisa, who she thought was as new as herself on all things African didn’t look nearly as shocked.

“Have these people been here before? How come they look familiar with everything?” Alex’s mind was boggled with a thousand and one questions and doubts she had no answers for.

“You don’t seem surprised, Melissa,” Alex whispered.

“This is no big deal, Alex. This is Africa.”

She cut her some slack and gently chided herself a little for being too alarmed, for making much ado about nothing. But again she couldn’t stop asking herself: An American diplomat prostrating to an African village chief? Normal?

A village folksong troupe entertained the visitors for a few minutes before Kere was again given the task of explaining why the team was here.

“Papa,” Kere addressed the chief, after taking successive rounds of bows.

“These people come here to bring good news in form of friendship Papa,” he said, kneeling on one leg, his two palms clasped together.

Kere went ahead to explain the development wonders the KULIP was going to do to the community.

“Six billion Kumbayayan Shillings Papa! It is about 35 kilograms of money. More water, roads, schools and good crops papa.”

The chief was so impressed by the young man’s mastery of Opiyo history and proverbs that at the end of his performance, he was laughing heartily. Using the tail of his sceptre, he signalled to the young man to come closer, something the chief did only with those with whom he was extremely pleased.  He whispered something in his left ear that caused both to burst out laughing ecstatically.

As this was going on, five rhinos charged by with a huge dark-brown buffalo in the chase.

“Mummy,” Alex cried as she jumped into Ambassador Watson’s arms.

The whole gathering burst into laughter at her fear of the beasts, a reaction that further perplexed her.

“Why couldn’t they see that the animals were so close to us,” she complained to Filo later.

“They see them every day, live with them. Some keep baby rhinos in their own houses as pets!”

The meeting was over in about forty five minutes. One of the elders however asked the group for transport refund and facilitation for the people who had attended the meeting. Without hesitation Ambassador Watson winked to Kere who ran to the helicopter and, assisted by two of the herdsmen nearby, offloaded boxes of salt, soap, two sacks of sugar and three bags of rice which they presented to the chief and his people. Kere then handed the chief a bundle of brand-new, crispy Kumbayaya shilling notes.

“2 million, Papa,” Kere declared, a gesture that earned him another scepter tail pat from the chief.

The women began ululating, their voices competing with the chopper’s engine roar as it took off.

“Why didn’t we tell them that some of them will have to give up some of their ways of life,” a curious Alex asked the group huddled in the chopper’s back seat.

“Why didn’t we say that some of their forest land will have to go?”

“Those, um, um, details will come later, Alex,” answered a squirmy Mr. Littlechild.

“We know these people. As the chief said, they are happy with the project and that was the first thing we wanted to get from them – acceptance. Now the details will come later,” insisted Littlechild.

“We shall be making a brief stopover a few miles from here”, the pilot informed the passengers via the intercom.

“It’s at a small ranch belonging to Mr. Makanga where we shall have lunch before continuing to the capital,” Mr. Littlechild explained.

As the helicopter circled around the estate, Alex couldn’t help but marvel at the vastness of the property. The endless heifer paddocks, sprawling miles of maize land, and even a farm of young pine trees.

“You must be a rich man to own this,” Alex said to Micho.

“I received 3million dollars one of our projects to establish this farm so that the Opiyo people can learn from it. Call it a demonstration farm. It is an important strategy of the USAMIK which espouses the power of example in transforming local peoples’ lives.”

“The USAMIK gave you money for this?”

“Seed money,” corrected Micho.

“I was a successful farmer already and many farmer groups used to come to admire and learn from my farm. KULIP money simply helped me expand. This is an important facility for the community.”

“And doesn’t it bother you, Mr. Makanga that a conflict of interest may arise given that you are an employee as well as a beneficiary of the project?”

“You know you are a young girl Alex. Some of this work is complicated for you to understand especially when it comes to sustainable development issues.”

The chopper had now landed and the wings were circling to a halt.

Micho triumphantly took the team on a tour of his ranch in the heart of Opiyo County. About two thirds of the farm covered the national park, another issue that perplexed Alex.

“This small part of the forest was de-gazetted and allocated to me to turn it into a demonstration farm for purposes of development,” Micho pre-empted Alex’s looming question.

“You know ladies and gentlemen,” Micho continued as he showed the team around a large pigpen. “According to Participatory rural Appraisal theory by Robert chambers, development activists must make sure that rural people own the projects. I want to thank USAMIK and especially Ambassador Watson for putting this in practice. Me, a rural Opiyo man, I am now participating in the project as the owner,” he went on, amid loud squealing of piglets in the sty.

Mr. Makanga then took the group to one of the cattle paddocks. He kept calling some of the animals by name, and they would in turn respond by coming his way, something that seemed to impress and at the same time amuse his guests, especially Mr. Littlechild who couldn’t stop laughing.

At about three hundred meters away was another paddock whose occupants however did not appear to Alex to be cows, even though they were a bit far. On taking a closer look, Alex couldn’t believe that the animals that scared the hell out of her as they charged past the village meeting a few hours earlier were also here, on Mr. Makanga’s farm.

“This is what in animal husbandry we call zoological integration,” Mr. Makanga explained when Alex asked about the weirdness of the situation, of cows grazing with rhinos.

“You can see they live together without fighting. How I wish America was like this,” said Mr. Makanga, as the rest of the party burst out laughing at the joke on America’s sometimes messy race relations.

“But don’t you get in trouble with the wildlife authorities?” Alex pressed on.

“For what? For taking good care of their animals?”

Ambassador Watson and Mr. Littlechild were now wiping tears of laughter off their faces.

“What about that one with a missing horn? Alex asked, pointing to a white bull nearby. “What happened to him?”

“You mean in American there are no accidents where people, let alone animals get hurt?”

At this point, even Melissa was freely laughing along at Micho’s cheeky answers and it appeared that up to this moment at least, only Alex had not yet been contextualised.

As the party returned to the house to prepare for a flight back to the capital, Mr. Makanga had prepared a feast for them at his house. The home was serene and extremely orderly and clean.  Even the chickens behaved well as they ate the corn they had been given without picking at each other.

“This mansion is very luxurious even on American standards”, Alex whispered to Gene, who nodded in agreement.

As the team entered the house, two slender, tall young women, their servants’ uniforms neatly worn and with wide smiles on their faces welcomed the guests and quickly ushered them into the large dining room.

“Hey Babies”, Makanga said as they both hugged him at once, each pecking him on either of his rough cheeks.

“Welcome home daddy,” they greeted him back.

Something seemed to bother Gene as he kept fidgeting in his chair. The women were wearing tight, extremely short skirts that exposed their black, shiny thighs.

“Shit, they are hot!” he whispered to Kere, who was already sucking on a chicken wing.

“These are the finest of Opiyo’s maidens. They are supposed to be virgins but I am not sure.”

Alex’s doubts came back in full force, even as the rest went about eating their meal without a care in the world.

Are these her daughters? Why are they dressed in servant uniforms and why are they dressed this provocatively, deep in the Kumbayaya countryside? Where is their mother? Melissa brushed her off when she expressed her doubts to her.

“Get a life girl! Didn’t you study globalization in one of your courses? If we weren’t flying I am sure you would have seen Lady Gaga’s mural on some street somewhere!”

When the team was done with eating, Mr. Makanga raised a glass of Johnny Walker wine and proclaimed: “To the good health of everybody, especially my daughter Alex who seems to be getting a hard time assimilating,” he said to a rapturous laughter followed by clicks of glasses.

As they waited to board the helicopter whose roaring engine had attracted dozens of neighbourhood kids to the farm, one of the servants brought two sacks packed with irregularly shaped but unidentified contents and carried them to the helicopter. The sisal made sacks bore the USAMIK insignia and its ‘From The American People’ slogan. A marker pen scrawl of the initials ‘AMB’ appeared on one while the other bore the initials ‘MR CHILD’. Mr. Makanga carried two more Johnny Walker bottles of wine which the party was to drink aboard the helicopter. The village entertainment troupe put on one final act as the helicopter took off and disappeared into the skies above the forest on its way back to the capital.

“What is in those sacks Mr. Makanga?” Alex asked.

“These two guys can’t have enough of Opiyo’s sweet potatoes. Every time I come here I carry some for them. Now that we had better transport means, I made sure they got plenty so that they won’t disturb me again; not at least not in a long while.”

“So all those are potatoes?”

“Yes. They are a new breed created by one of USAMIK’s agricultural research projects. They are a product of a graft of an ordinary Sweet potato and the African Cassava. That’s why they are unusually big. When you finally assimilate; I mean when you get used to this country, I will get you some too”

The rest of the party burst out laughing and for the first time, Alex also laughed at what she thought was the first genuinely funny joke she had heard.

“I don’t think Alex will ever get used. She is too American more than how you guys were when they first came here,” Kere blurted out, looking ambassador Watson’s way,  the Johnnie Walker obviously working him up.

More laughs were heard before everyone became silent as the helicopter descended onto the capital to land. As the party carried their bags from the chopper, Mr. Littlechild instructed Alex to sleep over the issue of identifying NGOs that were going to receive the KULIP money.

The full page advert appeared in the Kumbayaya Times a week later. The USAMIK wanted NGOs to work with on a Livelihood project that it was going to implement in Opiyo County. The requirements were clearly outlined in the advert.

The NGO was supposed to be a fully instituted organization, with a board of directors, a constitution, and an established office with reports of previous work, a minimum of five staff members and registered with the Kumbayaya NGO authority. Previous winners of the USAMIK grants would stand a higher chance.

The following morning the applications began pouring in for the three million dollars grant a piece. Strange to Alex was the names of some of the organizations. Opiyo HIV Positive Women for Modern Agriculture (OHPWMA) was one. Association of Opiyo Fathers with HIV determined to Improve Agriculture (AOFVIA) was the other. The other one was Arise Native Strong Woman to Empower the Rest in Transformation, ANSWERIT. There was also the Opiyo Development Forum (ODF) that prided itself in being “a platform and collective voice for ordinary people” and the Coalition of Opio Transformation Advocates, COTA, whose aim was to “Lobby and advocate for policies that positively benefit the Opio people”. In all, six hundred NGOs applied for the grant.

After a week of torturous work vetting the applications, the committee settled on two organizations out of which to select the winner of the three million dollar grant, renewable upon successful implementation in the first year. To reach this not so easy decision, the organizations were going to be more tightly scrutinized. How realistic are their visions for the people of Opio? How functional are their organizational structures?

These questions made it necessary for Alex and Melissa to travel back to Opio to do what they called on-spot checks and physically inspect these organizations’ offices, talk to their beneficiaries and employees and review some of the organisations’ documents.

The duo set off for Opiyo the following week. They used a bus, after Alex insisted she wanted to see the countryside. Melissa had suggested they use the USAMIK helicopter which would take 2 hours instead of the nine the bus was going to take. On the journey, Alex read Kuki Gallmann’s I dreamed of Africa while Mellisa mostly slept waking up occasionally to buy roasted meat being sold on the roadside.

When the duo arrived in Opiyo trading centre, the small town that seats the headquarters of the county, they were received by one of the NGOs’ officials, a mischievous looking 22 year old who introduced himself as Frobisher Makanga.

“I guess the name Makanga is common in this country”, Alex said, after pointing out to Mellissa that even the bus driver had identified himself as a Makanga.

“Yeah, sure I guess so too.”

“African tribes are more homogenous than you think,” Mellissa added, chidingly.

“Oh, Yeah.” Alex shot back mockingly in her Massachusetts twang.

“Are you suggesting he has a connection with Micho?”

“NO! Of course not.”

ASWERIT, which the duo was to visit first, was in overdrive preparing for the visitors. The Organization’s executive secretary, Florence Kotido, had called on all the employees and board members to be present, put all the books of accounts and organizational articles in order and of course organized a dance troupe.

Melisa and Alex were picked from their local hotel at eight O’clock by the taxi driver with whom they had now developed an acquaintance. He drove them direct to the offices of ANSWERIT where they were by 8:15am. Unfortunately they found only the security guard of the premises, who told them that the offices open at 9 o’clock, which is the time the staff report for work.

“Melissa, there doesn’t seem to be much going on here I swear to God,” Alex said as she went around the lone, dilapidated building that served as the offices of the organization. The mission and the goal were pasted on a stone wall that separated the building’s south flank from the main road. On it were the words “This building was opened by The Hon. M. N. Makanga, MP for Opiyo Central.”

“Melisaa!” Alex called out on reading the words.

“Girl, this can’t be just a coincidence.”

“How do you know it’s Micho?”

“There is something about that guy that I don’t understand. He seems to have his tentacles spread everywhere. No wonder he knows every big shot in the country.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” Melissa asked.

“It’s called influence peddling, Melisa. Micho is such an influence peddling son of a…”

“Hey Ladies,” Mr. Makanga called out in his usual baritone voice.

“I decided to come over because I thought you would need someone to handle translation. I discussed it over with Mr. Littlechild and Ambassador Watson and they dispatched me right away.”

Alex looked at Mellissa who simply shrugged in apparent agreement with Micho.

When the meeting started at 11 o’clock, which is the time that ANSWERIT staff had arrived at their offices, a lot was going on in Alex’s mind. Where was she going to begin? What questions was she going to ask?

“Ladies and gentlemen, can I call you to attention,” the Executive Secretary began.

“First of all, I want to welcome the visitors who came here to see our ability to host an important grant from the American government that is geared towards helping the people of Opiyo. The two mzungu ladies you see here came all the way from America to see for themselves the great work that is done by ANSWERIT.” A loud applause followed.

“Of course I cannot forget to introduce our dear board member, Mr. Micho Makanga. You remember he even came here with the whole ambassador of America to Kumbayaya, The honorable Mr. Watson who cleared a grant of one million dollars to us two years ago. So, I will first of all ask Mr. Makanaga to come here to the microphone and welcome the visitors since we can say he is a visitor as well as the host.”

“Let me clarify something right away,” Micho began.  “I just hold a ceremonial role on the ANSWERIT board as advisor. I actually rarely even attend meetings. Secondly, I didn’t bring Ambassador Watson here, he asked me to come with him after hearing a lot of the good things you are doing to develop the people of Opiyo. Besides that, his Ambassadorial title is just an honour he retains having once served as ambassador. He is no longer the US ambassador to Kumbayaya but simplify the head of USAMIK. That honour belongs to The Right Honourable Collins Chickenwing, who I am sure some of you have heard about. So I hope that is clear. That I happen to come from this county is just a coincidence to all that is happening right now.”

“Now, I want to welcome Alex and Melissa who are from America and have been here for just a few months. As you can see, they are young girls who might even get suitors here in Opiyo.” Micho continued to raucous laughter and applause.

“On a more serious note, Alex, this is the ANSWERIT organization whose impressive application we were looking at the other time. I will now handover the microphone to you so that you can tell the leadership what you are looking for in a potential grantee.

Alex got the microphone and simply said that in the interest of time, she would meet the executive secretary while Melissa interviewed a few board members.  She then pulled Mrs. Kotido aside and asked her a number of questions as Mellissa interviewed board members one at a time.

“So, when was ANSWERIT started and what is the vision of the organization?

“Our vision, madam, is to make sure that people come out of poverty through agriculture because it happens to be the bedrock of our economy as it employs 70 percent of the population.”

“But madam, that’s a little different from the one you wrote down in the application!”

“Yes madam, because I have just summarized it.”

The interview process, physical inspections and document reading took about 4 hours and Alex, Melissa and Micho were picked from Opiyo in the official USAMIK helicopter.

“So what’s your sense of these people’s capabilities,” Alex asked Melissa, as they headed back to the capital.

“I think they know what they are doing.”

“Mellissa, I found them mediocre, and that is to be very diplomatic.”

“Is there anything or even anyone that is ever good enough for you Alex?”

While the duo was still in the conversation, they heard a familiar voice on the intercom. “I just wanted to come with Mike (the pilot) because, this being a weekend, I was bored to death in the capital” Littlechild said from the front cabin.

“So how did it go?” he asked the trio.

“Very well,” Micho said. “Of course we have to wait for Alex’s report but I think it was good, these are serious candidates for the grant”

“Alex?”

“As Micho just said, I will write my views in the report,” she answered.

“Melissa?”

“I thought they convinced us and as they are a very serious organization.”

“That’s what I was telling you,” Mr. Makanga jumped in. “These people know what they are doing. I wonder why Alex seems to see everything in a different light.”

“Do you remember the assimilation story,” Littlechild said before adding; “She expects NGOs here to be like Oxfam. When she is assimilated, she will become a realist and we shall be on the same page thereafter.”

Melissa and Micho laughed heartily. Alex simply looked out the window to the Kawaala skyline as the helicopter prepared to land.

—————————–

Melissa’s report was even handed but surprisingly very objective. Mentioning the obvious gaps, she never the less recommended that ANSWERIT be given the grant.

Alex was more scathing as she judged the different managerial components of the organization as “inadequate.”

An independent local government official she had quietly interviewed had revealed that ANSWERIT is run and managed singlehandedly by the chairperson. Many fights had erupted between members of the board in the past over who to give jobs to. A prominent donor one time had withdrawn her support due to these wrangles. These conflicts over ownership had caused one board member to sue the organisation.

Privy to this information, Alex wrote that “KULIP funds should therefore not be risked with an unreliable partner.”

ANWERIT’s rival finalist, The Coalition of Opio Transformation Advocates, COTA had an even higher pedigree mainly routed in its being founded by Patrick Cunningham, years earlier. Over the years, the retired diplomat had secured millions of dollars for the advocacy charity which had helped it become a household name in the country. Only one thing tainted its reputation, and that was the hitherto unknown scandal in which the directors of the organization were accused of involvement in a rhino poaching ring.

Alex wrote a glowing assessment report for COTA and recommended that it be given the grant over ANSWERIT. She told the meeting that COTA is the obvious choice.

Micho however objected, pointing to the equally wildly phrased, incoherent Mission, Vision and Goals of the organisation.

During the tea break, Littlechild pulled Micho aside and tried to suggest a way forward.

“We can strike a compromise,” Littlechild offered.

“We can offer each of the two organizations half the grant and say they will co-implement the activities. But that would mean you would surrender the little herd as a result. This is like sacrificing for your organization because as you can see, Alex has nixed it from the grant as a result of the structural inadequacies and I am afraid her report is darn right. Damn! I thought your folks would be smarter than that. You should have put your house in order months before,” Littlechild ranted in a rumbling dress down laced with profanities.

But Micho protested Littlechild’s offer.

“So you mean I wouldn’t be getting even the 20 percent off the horns now?”

“Not exactly. I will be taking care of you as I always do whenever a consignment safely arrives to the destination. But as you can see, we won’t have more rhinos under our control if ANSWERIT isn’t on the ground for us.”

The meeting resolved to divide the grant between the two organizations.

“Shall I say then, ladies and gentlemen, that we officially now have partners?” Ambassador Watson declared, as cheers filled the room.

“Let the work begin now, he said, and invited the rest to his residence for a celebratory banquet which he dubbed a “Kickoff dinner”.

“By this time next year, I expect to be seeing a change in the lives of the people of Opiyo. I hope from now onwards, everyone takes their respective jobs seriously.”

At the dinner, in which ten employees from COTA and ANSWERIT had also been invited, everyone was making merry. With a glass of wine in hand, Alex decided to lurch around the massive beachside house that was the Ambassador Watson’s residence. There were several pictures and portraits littered on walls all through the building and as she decided to take a closer look, she would be shocked to the core by what she found. In one, Ambassador Watson is shaking hands with President Ssalongo with Micho’s unmistakable face hovering over the duo in the background. In another, Littlechild, Micho and Kere are shown in a group photo with ANSWERIT employees. In the most shocking one of all, Mr. Patrick Cunningham, her father, is wearing a wide grin in a dark blue tuxedo with Kere, Ambassador Watson, Micho and Littlechild – at Micho’s rural residence, the same one where the team had made a stopover on their way from Opiyo. A herd of baby rhinos can be seen in the background.

The next day, the team set off for Opiyo again, on a “confidence building mission”. As on the first visit, the team had dinner at Micho’s house. After some food and wine, everyone was happy. This time Alex was also quite jolly. As they prepared to board the chopper back to the capital, the servant once again carried some duffels, three this time, with the same shadowy contents like he had loaded the last time.

The first one was bigger, and had the name Gene written on its side in blue marker ink. The second one, slightly smaller but imposing none the less, had Mellisa’s name written on it. The last one, also the smallest, had Alex’s name on it.

“We are now sure you guys are ready to eat African sweet potatoes too”, said Micho as he concurrently patted Gene and Mellisa’s shoulders.

“You took the longest to assimilate which surprised me given that you are Pat’s daughter” Micho told Alex. Ambassador Watson and Littlechild laughed even harder at the mention of their long retired colleague.

“Who is pat?”

“That’s your father, You don’t know him?”

“You know my dad?!”

“Your father and I go way back, Alex. I stayed at your house for two years while I studied for my masters. You were little then.”

“You were the guy who always came with a suitcase, which you never went back with?”

“That’s right. In African tradition when we bring a gift for our host, we never return with it”.

A minute long laughter broke out among the rest of the team.

When Alex arrived at the USAMIK office the next morning, she was shocked to find detective Dowd in the waiting area, a large box with the USAMIK insignia at the top at his side.

“What are you doing here detective?”

“I have come here as part of the investigation into the rhino horns case from Salt Lake City. But you don’t need to worry; I carried them because we need to take them to Vietnam for more forensic testing as we have limited capacity in the United States. Mr. Littlechild is going with me to offer any assistance I might need.”

Alex looked around to find Kere empting the five sacks of the potatoes, packing them neatly into a huge box with the USAMIK logo and slogan.

When Kere was done, the boxes, including the one the detective had brought were packed into the SUV that was taking the detective and Mr. Littlechild to the airport.

Before they left, the detective offered Alex a white envelope saying, “Your dad told me that you have had challenges coping with this environment.”

“My dad?!”

Alex had barely protested when the detective jumped into the SUV joining Littlechild in the backseat as Kere drove off to the airport.

When Alex opened the envelope, there was a check. Grinning like a Cheshire cat, she called her father in Boston right away.

“I love you dad,” she said and hung up.

Micho, Filo, Gene, Melissa and Ambassador Watson watched the scene from the balcony on the second floor.

“Gawwd, she was such a hard nut to crack!” lamented Ambassador Watson with a sigh of relief.

“You know the hardest to convert become the best disciples”, Micho said, reminding the ambassador of the story of St. Paul’s conversion. “Now watch how fast her appetite for my little Potatoes is going to grow. We have seen this movie before with Mellissa” Micho continued causing a bout of laughter on the mention of Melissa’s first encounter with the group. “She was a born-again Christian, remember?” Micho added, playfully pinching Melisa’s arm.

“Hey, let’s get back to work for the Kumbayayan people guys,” Amb. Watson interjected as all disappeared behind their cubicles.


bernardsabiti@gmail.com 

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