The world’s biggest drama is not found in Europe or the Middle East or North America—the world’s biggest challenges and dramas are found in Africa…. The way it is now in Africa cannot continue because at the moment we are getting more new crises faster than we are solving old crises.
—Jan Egeland, United Nations emergency relief coordinator, May 10, 2005
Philip Caputo’s recent novel Acts of Faith, now published in paperback, is an ambitious tale of adventure, commerce, and love pursued in a setting of unrelenting violence. The action alternates between northern Kenya and the mountainous Nuba region in southern Sudan, where, in the late 1990s, Sudan’s long-running civil war has been raging. The suffering generated by this war is, to be cold about it, something that outsiders can exploit, and the main characters in the novel have come from far away to do so, each in his or her own way. There are four main characters, three Americans (two men, one woman) and a Kenyan, Fitzhugh Martin, a self-described “Man of All Races” (born in the Seychelles, he has French, Chinese, Irish, African, Arab, and Indian blood). All four are involved in supplying aid of one kind or another.
The four characters are connected with one another through Knight Air Services, a private airline that flies humanitarian aid into rebel-held areas in southern Sudan, with or without the permission of the Khartoum government. The supporting characters are a mixed lot of evangelists, crooked Sudanese officials, maverick Catholic priests, guerrillas of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and members of the government-sponsored Islamic militias. Throughout the novel, the moral question of aggressive humanitarianism—its perils and temptations—is explored with genuine drama.
This is natural territory for Philip Caputo, the distinguished and widely traveled journalist, author of a classic memoir of the Vietnam War (A Rumor of War) and of four previous novels, the best known of which is Horn of Africa, which concerns a rebellion in an imagined province in Ethiopia. Acts of Faith is a topical work, in which the baffling and conflicted status of the aid industry in Africa is sharply portrayed.
Acts of Faith begins in the late Nineties, when the Sudanese civil war—Islamic north against largely Christian and animist and black south—has taken a brutal turn. The central government in Khartoum, in addition to employing its regular ground and air forces against the insurgency in the south, has created and equipped Arab militias, mujahideen cavalry units of nomadic Baggara tribesmen, offering them the franchise to pillage, massacre, rape, and enslave the people in the south, largely in the interest of ethnic cleansing. The Baggara are a southern tribe with a previous history of rough but workable coexistence with their non-Muslim neighbors—but no longer. There is oil in the south, and control of this resource is fiercely contested by both sides in the civil war. Areas held by the southern rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, are closed to Western relief activity by a blockade, and from time to time the entire southern region is placed under embargo.
In this situation an array of aid providers, based at an airfield at Lokichokio just across the border in northern Kenya, must improvise. Involved are various NGOs, some national aid agencies, and the UN. For everyone, the trick is to keep aid flowing into the beleaguered areas by overt and legal means if possible and by not-so-legal means if necessary. Serving the aid providers is a motley group of for-profit flying outfits, one of which is Knight Air Services, a company founded by Douglas Braithwaite, a young American former US Air Force pilot who is (so we understand) a veteran of the first Gulf War.
The novel serves as an account of what might be called, for want of a better phrase, Americanness at work. That is to say, we witness in the main characters different sets of American motivations and assumptions. Crusading piety, technical skill and hubris, sympathy for the underdog, soldierly bravery and loyalty, competitiveness, the drive to get rich—the main characters have all these qualities in varying degrees. And in Caputo’s setting, they combine to yield dark consequences. The Sudanese characters are also people with mixed motives. Ibrahim Idris, a Baggara warlord, is a violent man who engages in the slave trade, but we are made to see that he also has problems of his own—an inadequate heir, an atmosphere of incessant competition for primacy against his tribal rivals, and, in addition, a woman who has escaped from his harem with their son and whom he is determined to track down.
The Western characters are, with one exception, young. Quinette Hardin is twenty-four, an evangelical Christian from Iowa who has been working for the WorldWide Christian Union, a group engaged in a campaign to ransom southern Sudanese slaves from their Arab militia captors. Douglas Braithwaite is in his early thirties. Fitzhugh Martin, a one-time soccer star, is thirty-four and has recently lost his job as a UN field worker following charges of insubordination—virtuous insubordination but insubordination nonetheless; he has exposed embarrassingly wasteful practices condoned by the UN bureaucracy. Fitzhugh is otherwise a passive man. He admires Douglas Braithwaite for his decisiveness and bravado, and soon finds himself working at Knight Air. He has deeply humanitarian instincts and is a participant and an observer in the rise and fall of the airline. He is a serious person, given to self-examination, and it is through his eyes that we see the fate of Africa:
Hope in a twenty-five-kilo bag of sorghum. Hope. The human capacity for it astonished him. Hope and the will to go on, even when going on seemed pointless. If these people could have seen their futures as clearly as they did their present circumstances, they probably would have laid down on the spot and allowed themselves to starve to death…. Relief work… reaffirmed the human bond. It was the marshaling of resources to organize compassion into effective action…. It was what he’d come to do, and if he had to trim a few moral corners, then he would trim them.
Fitzhugh and Braithwaite have been brought together by a socially conscious member of Nairobi’s white elite, the Kenya-born Lady Diana Briggs (her title was bestowed in recognition of her philanthropic activities in Africa). She is an unattached and attractive woman in her early fifties. In fact, all the main characters are good-looking or sexy. Braithwaite is described as resembling a model in an L.L. Bean catalog.
Lady Diana’s purpose is to arrange for covert humanitarian flights into the Nuba Mountains of southern Sudan, through a small, privately funded Canadian relief organization, International People’s Aid, to which she contributes heavily. She hires Braithwaite’s airline to fly aid to the Nuba and proposes that Fitzhugh join the effort. Fitzhugh falls under Lady Diana’s spell, against the odds of class, race, and age differences (she is fifteen years his senior), and under Braithwaite’s spell as well. Fitzhugh “falls in love”—these are his words—with both of them, with Diana in the usual way and with Braithwaite for his self-confidence and charm. With Wesley Dare signed on as a pilot, Knight Air Services is born, and commences flying supplies into Nuba.
In short order, and by bribing the appropriate officials, Braithwaite expands his business well beyond his original client, International People’s Aid. He makes forays into the Nuba Mountains to bring supplies to a remote mission hospital and to identify potential sites for drop zones and airstrips to be employed in future deliveries of humanitarian aid goods.
As the war intensifies in the south, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army opens a second front in the Nuba Mountains. Quinette Hardin arrives there intent on redeeming slaves. The Arab militias take many slaves, and independent Arab middlemen, the slave brokers, try constantly to raise their profit margins. But Ibrahim Idris normally takes a cut of their profits, which he uses to buy provisions for his militia. Usually the slaves are bought one by one from owners who acquired them under a traditional system of debt peonage. They are then sold to the conscientious Christian group, which sets them free. Idris proposes an improvement whereby he would directly seize anybody unlucky enough to fall into his hands and sell them on the spot, wholesale, to the slave brokers. He is rebuffed by the lead slave broker. “With what money would I buy them from you on the spot? To pay you, I need first to be paid by the foreigners. They come here only a few times a year.” The SPLA quickly develops its own profitable variant of the slave business, recruiting slave impersonators for sale to Americans intent on redeeming them, and then taking a cut of the purchase price.
With the increasing presence of the SPLA, which has established a headquarters and garrison in a Nuba village called New Tourom, the Islamic militias sponsored by the Sudan government step up their raids in the Nuba Mountains. To promote business for his airline, and to show how great the need for aid is, Braithwaite organizes a junket for NGO representatives he will fly in from Kenya to New Tourom. He intends to demonstrate the good use being made of whatever aid has reached the village so far. For Quinette, who is part of the group, the trip is momentous, for she meets the SPLA commander, Colonel Michael Goraende, and is violently attracted to him.
Goraende asks Braithwaite to fly arms to the rebels, along with his regular cargo of relief supplies. He will be paid off the books by the SPLA, Goraende assures him. Braithwaite agrees, and sets up a shell company. He becomes a gunrunner, along with a reluctant Fitzhugh, and a not-unwilling Wesley Dare, who needs a big score that will enable him to leave Africa and return to America. Quinette, in love with Goraende and identifying deeply with the Nubans, with Africa, and with the SPLA, leaves her job with WorldWide Christian Aid.
As a young man Douglas Braithwaite became traumatically disillusioned with his father, an Arizona real estate tycoon, when he discovered that the capital for his father’s business had come from drug money. After the business collapsed, his father was murdered and the family disgraced. It is this shadow that helps to explain Braithwaite’s competitiveness, his determination to make the airline profitable at all costs. He crowds out his competitors and schemes for the licenses of his main rival to be revoked. He justifies his behavior by saying: “We’re doing what we have to do so we can keep doing what we came here to do.”
In this novel, American character is destiny; Braithwaite is being disgraced and impoverished. The fates of Quinette, Wesley, and Braithwaite range from the paradoxical to the sad to the grimly sad: Quinette becomes merely one of Goraende’s several wives; Dare dies in action. Fitzhugh, the Man of All Races, separates himself at last from Braithwaite and gets another chance at honorable work, as the managing director of a different air charter company. The characters who get exactly what they want are the African men of violence: Goraende becomes a respected politician in post–civil war Sudan, and Idris advances in the tribal hierarchy and recaptures his wife. As for the rural Sudanese poor, they continue to suffer as they always have.
Acts of Faith is a cautionary tale whose true subjects are the meaning of vocation, the nature of Americanness, and how prototypically American concepts of vocation fare under the extreme tests presented by Caputo’s narrative.
Quinette Hardin combines a wavering Christian piety with a yearning for moral stardom and a mystical impulse to unite herself with the insulted and injured of Nuba. In time, she discovers that even the most wholehearted effort at radical cultural assimilation encounters bitter limits.
Douglas Braithwaite is moved by the plight of the downtrodden, but he is moved even more by the opportunity they offer for his self-realization. Fitzhugh sees him as a crypto-racist:
You know, for all your fine sentiments…I believe that deep down in your white boy’s heart you think Michael Goraende is a dumb African nigger who cannot wage his war without you.
But Braithwaite’s ultimate disintegration has less to do with racism than it does with ambition and greed. Ultimately, Braithwaite conspires to commit murder for profit.
These Americans have come to Africa to struggle against social evils, to involve themselves with the victims they’ve come to assist. They must all answer the question of how far they should go when conventional aid-giving is no longer enough, when the victimized become violent in their own defense. The three Americans in Acts of Faith go very far indeed, and they incur heavy costs for their efforts—disgrace, disillusion, and frustration. Throughout Acts of Faith, the law of unintended consequences operates with savage effect. The evangelizing efforts of Quinette and her Christian colleagues alienate many among the formerly close Muslim allies of the SPLA; the more traditionalist Muslims take exception to changes in the status of women stimulated by Quinette’s preaching. The antagonism leads ultimately to a mutiny and much needless death among the rebels.
Acts of Faith is a vividly cinematic novel. The action passages—the military engagements, the crash landings, the wilderness treks—are stirring and credible. The prose is generally plain and solid, and it can rise to eloquence:
It was a bleak November morning and she was dressing for school when a movement outside caught her eye. She looked past the barn and silo toward the cornfield sloping down to the trees lining the Little Cedar River. A flight of starlings, bunched into a dense, dark ball, then drawn out into a whirling funnel, then squeezed to a ball again, rose and dipped above the khaki stubble, their perfectly synchronized movements making them look like a smoky kite that changed shape instant by instant.
Caputo’s descriptions of the African landscape are particularly strong:
Making for the jebels, the column proceeded through an incinerated landscape, the bones of livestock whitening fields that looked in the moonlight as if they’d been covered by a blizzard of ash. A team of minesweepers went out ahead, swinging their detectors back and forth. The silence was eerie, interrupted only by the crunch of burned sorghum stalks underfoot.
Among the characters, only Fitzhugh is portrayed as having a perspective on what is happening generally to Africa, one not cramped by the various parochialisms—religious and other—that affect the views of the other members of the cast.
Fitzhugh’s thoughts on Africa, which serve as a prelude to the narrative, are echoed in a postlude. His view of Africa is shared at a deep level by all the players. Fitzhugh responds to an American reporter who has come to Africa to write on air relief services after the story of the Americans has ended:
…Apropos of nothing, he made his remark about the synonymousness of God and the Devil in Africa…. Does he mean [the reporter asked] that the God of Abraham and the Prince of Darkness have joined forces to reign united over the continent?
He doesn’t answer directly but tells her, in the metaphorical language he favors, that the word of Africa’s Supreme Being is to be found not in the writings of prophets but in its great rivers. The slow, brown, resistless currents of the Congo, the white wrath of Nile cataracts—those are His scriptures. The Congo and the Nile create and destroy and create anew out of what they destroy, declaring the rule of God in Devil and Devil in God, a majestic duality who offers neither judgment nor mercy, neither reward for virtue nor penalty for sin. He nourishes the robber’s fields while flooding the honest man’s, bears the bloody-minded safely to their destinations while sinking the vessels of the guiltless, for He doesn’t demand good behavior from humankind, only recognition of His dyadic sovereignty, and submission to it….
This is a declaration of hopelessness, in which Africa is deemed intractable. One cannot identify reliably “good” forces to count on. Africans don’t assume a stable distinction between good and evil.
One can feel the attraction of this conclusion, which, Fitzhugh acknowledges, is adapted from the writings of a Dane, Isak Dinesen. He goes on to say that it is not a view that should result in aid-givers walking away from Africa. No, they should continue, reflexively, ignoring the odds against them, as he does, as Lady Diana does.
Among aid workers, this is not an unrepresentative worldview, or view of the continent. It doesn’t reduce the proposition to “Africa is its own fault,” but it comes close. And it also offers a little protection from the bitter knowledge that there is a relationship between the sponsorship of wicked oppressors—Charles Taylor, Bokassa, Mobutu Sese Seko, the list is endless—by the great powers past and present, and the persistence of the very miseries that Western aid organizations are designed to assuage. It’s asking too much to expect a writer to penetrate very deeply into the first concern of the great powers—deniability. But the results of the sins of the official West are insufficiently acknowledged in Acts of Faith, as they are in Fitzhugh’s and Dinesen’s theory of Africa.
Which is to say that the aftereffects of imperial subjugation in Africa are both everywhere and nowhere; they are hidden in plain sight. A general theory of Africa, true to Africa’s deep history as well as truthful about the shortcomings of its leadership classes, is still in the making.
Acts of Faith closes with a coda that extends the story: an armistice has been arrived at. In the real world, in January of 2005, a precarious peace agreement was signed that brought closure to the war between north and south in the Sudan. But the agreement left unaddressed another war, one just as vicious and destructive, in the western region of Darfur, a war that has proceeded violently since 2003, causing at least as much suffering as the war described in Philip Caputo’s novel. Any increased attention to conditions in Sudan that Acts of Faith may stimulate will not be least among this novel’s virtues.