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Behind the Scenes -- February 1996

An Interview with Bill Berkeley

Could you fill us in on what you've done since you wrote "The Warlords of Natal" for The Atlantic in March, 1994?

I had an Alicia Patterson fellowship all last year. I spent a year reporting on ethnic conflict in Africa. I spent a year in east and southern Africa. I made a number of trips to Rwanda, during and after the genocide there. I reported from Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa. I am writing a book about ethnic conflict in Africa.

How did you develop your interest in Africa?

Twelve years ago I got interested primarily in South Africa, for obvious reasons: big story, big drama, big racial melodrama. From a logistical point of view, I had trouble getting into South Africa. I ended up in black Africa instead and got hooked, got addicted. You know what they say about Sudan: once you've drunk from the waters of the White Nile, you're infected for life. I found that what was going on in Africa was extremely compelling and fascinating. Also, as a journalist I've tended to be at my best and most comfortable off the beaten track. I like being in border towns. Black Africa is sort of like powder skiing in that regard: you're the only one there, it's all virgin territory. These are huge issues--issues of war and peace, good and evil. There are great historical dramas unfolding with all different eras of history taking place simultaneously. Biblical famines, feudal politics, cold war intrigue, communism, capitalism, Stalinism, Islam--all going on at once. I've also had a particular interest in history and Africa is the part of the world where history is unfolding. I like telling people about stuff they don't know anything about.

Have you had close calls in Africa?

From time to time. I wouldn't want to exaggerate them though. Nothing that's happened to me compares to what happens to Africans all the time. But there have been some problematical episodes. I've been arrested a couple of times. I've received death threats. Ironically and unfairly, white people have protections in Africa that Africans themselves don't have--mainly because even the most thuggish official or police officer can make the elementary calculation that if something happens to a foreigner he might be held accountable for it, whereas if something happens to a fellow African no one will ever hear about it. But, yes, my wife and I were arrested in Zaire a couple of years ago when I was working on a piece for The Atlantic. I was arrested in Liberia once.

How do you get out of those situations?

In both cases the key was getting a message to the American embassy. Once it becomes a diplomatic issue they can make that calculation that I've just described for you. Again it's something that a white American can benefit from where Africans don't. There was a moment in Zaire when we were incommunicado and things started looking bad. It was not clear how things were going to work out. I was scared; my wife was scared too. But most of the time if you do your homework and are with the right people, and you always move around with guides and escorts, then there's a way of doing this that will keep you out of trouble.

What do you think about the Masai people in Kenya?

The Masai are being exploited by well-meaning foreigners and by tourists who are fascinated by their exotic attire and lifestyle. They are being exploited by their political leaders in Kenya, including this guy William ole Ntimama, who is their leader and spokesman but who is milking their resources for his own personal benefit. That's the kind of thing that goes on in an imperfect political system, where there is very little accountability. He's both exploiting them financially and using them as cannon fodder. If there were a more enlightened political culture in Kenya, which is what a great many Kenyans are working, struggling, and dying for, then the Masai would benefit too. But for the moment they're getting the short end of the stick. If you go on one of these tours of the Masai lands looking at wildlife, it's a very powerful experience to check all this out. But white people from abroad come and treat the Masai like zoo animals. To most foreigners they're another form of wildlife.

What do you hope readers will get from your article?

Two things. One, a greater appreciation that ethnic conflict flows from the top down, that it's not this spontaneous, primitive impulse among Africans, but rather a consequence of political calculation by tyrannical leaders. Secondly, that not all African countries are the same. Some have strengths that others don't have. I hope that some of the things that have prevented Kenya from sliding down into the abyss will help to illuminate for readers why other countries have slipped down into the abyss. I hope to give readers a sense that Africa is complicated like everywhere else. There are reasons why these things happen or don't happen. I hope also to convey a sense, which I think is often lacking in American press coverage of Africa, that there are articulate African voices out there. Too often they are quoted just as victims or as objects. White people and diplomats and aid workers are quoted explaining what's going on. I tried to include as many intelligent African voices as I could. There are a lot of very intelligent, very wise, astute, and well-informed Kenyans. I also hope to explain that the U.S. has a role in Kenya. It was, until not long ago, a positive constructive role.

What caused the great shift in U.S. involvement in Kenya?

Mainly the change in ambassadors. There was a guy named Smith Hempstone, who was, ironically, a right-wing Republican buddy of George Bush but who nevertheless was an inspired diplomat in Kenya. He's been replaced by a woman who has not been an inspired diplomat in my judgment. I think sometimes we make apologies for Africans and hold Africa to a lower standard, which is patronizing and counterproductive. I think we fail to make the distinction between good Africans and bad Africans. We tend to think that the reasons for Africa's problems are cultural or exotic, and they're not in my opinion. They're the same reasons that have created conflict in all parts of the world. The solutions, in my judgment, are the same as they are in all parts of the world: democracy, human rights, free press, free association, rule of law. I think we should be throwing our lot in with those institutions instead of being understanding of the cultural sensibilities of gangsters and despots. I think that is what the ambassador hasn't realized. Ethnic conflict flows from the top down. It's a by-product of tyranny. I think most Americans still think that when they see Africans killing each other there's some exotic explanation for it, that there's some primitive, inherent savagery that is impelling people to kill each other. One would think that the tribe of Bach, Beethoven, and Goethe had long since proven that we're all capable of doing bad things to each other.

Interview by Marty Hergert

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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