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 …