Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bold Endeavour

Of all he creatures who had yet walked on Earth, 
the man-apes were the first to look 
steadfastly at the Moon.”
- Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
As a child of the rocket age, born shortly after the first manned flight, like many others in my generation I grew up thrilled by the promise of space. It wasn’t easy keeping track of the Apollo missions, sequestered as I was by my father’s work to Africa, though I didn’t fail to see Neil Armstrong’s first fuzzy steps on the Moon. Such was the remoteness of Nigeria, that by the time 2001: A Space Odyssey reached us it had already been trumped by samples of Moon rock. Better late than never. And I was not the only Star Child to fall under the spell of that seminal movie. Imagine my excitement, then, when in 1994 I received an invitation from Nasa to attend a Space Shuttle launch, with Arthur C. Clarke. 

18 August 1994, Launch Day: Dawn breaks over Cape Canaveral and the Space Shuttle Endeavour, floodlit and fuming in the distance, is ready for lift off. The rocket is poised to release a gigantic column of energy as it lifts off from from the Florida coast, hence our viewing site is located 5 kilometers from the launch pad. I am seated on a cold aluminum bleacher, one of a dozen stacked up along the lakeshore. An American flag hangs limp in the muggy Floridian morning, as leviathan cumulonimbus clouds painted by the first light of day hover menacingly on the horizon. 
  Two digital displays keep track of the countdown, and between them a large television monitor reveals a hub activity at the flight command centre in Houston, over a thousand kilometers away, while the PA system relays the running commentary from launch control at Kennedy Space Center. “We have a go for auto-sequence start; Endeavour’s on-board computers have primary control of all the vehicles critical functions.” The countdown begins. “T-minus 20...T-minus 15 seconds...12...11...10....” The fuse is lit, sending a billowing cloud of rocket exhaust from the base of the vehicle. It’s a moment like no other I’ve ever experienced. I can hardly believe I’m actually witnessing a Space Shuttle launch, and as a guest of the American space agency, NASA, no less. But I very nearly didn’t make it there at all.
It was less than a year earlier, shortly after taking up my position as director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in London, that I first learnt of an opportunity to include the gorillas in Nasa’s Mission to Planet Earth. No, they weren’t about to put apes back in orbit. Rather, the joint initiative with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) aimed to fly a series of missions on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, with a Spaceborne Imaging Radar on board, known as SIR-C, which would be directed at our planet to gather data that would further our understanding of the “total Earth system and the effects of natural and human-induced changes on the global environment.” 
The Virungas, the Mountain gorilla habitat that straddles the borders of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda, is famously shrouded in mist, and had therefore been tentatively selected as one of the environmental ‘hot spots’ at which Endeavour would aim the cloud-penetrating radar during its first mission. 
Did I say tentative? With only two months to go before the launch, we received a disappointing letter from Dr Ellen O’Leary at JPL. “Unfortunately, we are unable to acquire data over the Karisoke area in Rwanda, nor does it appear that the site will be covered by other data takes in the area.” No sooner had we started preparing for this unprecedented application of space technology, and the greatest PR coup the gorillas had ever known, than we were abruptly dropped from the mission, with no explanation. I asked myself, “Who do I know who could turn a decision around at Nasa?”

The first time I met the renown British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, was in Colombo, Sri Lanka, his adopted home. I was seventeen, and had used the pretext of grappling with an astronomical problem to look up his number (in the book), give him a call (which he answered), and go around to his house (that very same day). I remember being extremely nervous as I pressed the doorbell at 25 Barnes Place. How would I act in the presence my greatest living hero? Would I hear strains of Richard Strauss’s Also Spracht Zarathustra, the theme music to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and cower like a shy man-ape in the presence of the monolith? 
A small brown mortal, dressed in an oversized white cotton shirt and black trousers, one of Arthur’s many butlers, met me at the gate with a smile, and then led me through the compound to the large two-storey house. The array of satellite dishes in the yard was impressive for the day; Arthur probably had the best privately-owned communications system in the world in 1979. But then, he was the father of modern telecommunications. As far back as 1945, in a article he published in Wireless World, entitled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?,” he had discovered that if you put a satellite 35,900 kilometers up into space, on the plane of the equator, what is known as geostationary orbit, it will remain fixed over its earthly position. This simple observation led to the invention of the modern communications satellite.
“Welcome to my ego chamber,” said a tall, balding man, standing at the door to his office. His accent was broad Somerset, though many mistook it to be American. He was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and yellow floral sarong, and wore a pair of large tortoise-shell spectacles atop his smiling face, yet his yes twinkled with uncommon acuity. It was significant that he was standing on his own two feet at the time, because in a few short years Arthur Clarke would be struck down by post-polio syndrome, and confined to a wheelchair. 
His ‘ego chamber’ lived up to its name. Though best known for his sci-fi novels, Childhood’s EndRendezvous with Rama, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (with Stanley Kubrick) to name but a few, Arthur Clarke spent decades promoting real space travel, and the walls were lined with as many works of non-fiction as fiction. In his writing, Clarke sought to transcend Cold War politics, which had fueled the space race, by reminding us of the awesome potential of the rocket age. Accordingly, there were as many photographs of him posing with cosmonauts as there were with astronauts. 
On his desk, atop a grey box, was a small television screen, spewing lines of green text across a black background. Until then I had never seen a personal computer, and a decade would pass before I’d see another. “That’s Junior HAL,” he laughed. He’d nicknamed his PC after the infamous on-board computer that runs amok in 2001. HAL’s tag had been arrived at by simply taking the initials IBM and shifting the letters back one place in the alphabet. Now the joke was on Arthur, as Junior HAL was indeed an IBM computer. 
“So, what’s this astronomy problem you’re grappling with?” he asked, with a beaming smile. I felt like I was in the presence of a divine oracle, a seer of the far-flung event horizons, of future science and mind-blowing concepts, witnessing his remarkable magic in person, and was duly speechless. 

Fifteen years later, and nine thousand kilometers away, at my office in London, I had a good deal to say, as I tried to come to terms the news that the gorillas had been excluded from NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth. I knew if there was one person who could turn around a decision at NASA, it was Arthur C. Clarke. I put the call through to Sri Lanka, and once again he answered. He said he would be delighted to help, and quickly sent a fax off to his most senior contact at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in California, Deputy Manager of Astrophysics and Fundamental Physics Missions, Dr William McLaughlin: 
Help! Please contact Ellen O’Leary of SIR-C Mission...Re Correspondence concerning planned survey of Rwanda - it’s vital to the Dian Fossey Gorilla but now looks like being cancelled. I hope it can be re-instated - it would be wonderful publicity for JPL/Nasa!
He and I were about to embark had on a bold endeavour, apropos of the Space Shuttle in question, which had been named after the ship that took Captain James Cook on his first voyage of discovery, HMS Endeavour. Nonetheless, boldness was what was required to protect the critically endangered gorillas in those troubled times. 
Writing months later in Spaceflight magazine, Dr McLaughlin recalls, “I became aware of the need for imaging, with SIR-C/X-SAR, the habitats of the mountain gorillas upon receiving, prior to the April flight, calls from Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka and Greg Cummings (UK Director of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund) in England. They wanted to have sequences included in the mission plan to accomplish this goal. Indeed, the SIR-C/X-SAR team responded and included the images of Central Africa on a non-interference basis with the primary mission. (My role proved peripheral. I mention it only to indicate how, literally, I became aware of the developing drama.)
The drama paid off. We were reinstated on not just one, but two missions, albeit on a “non-interference basis.” The first was STS-59, launched at 7:05 am on April 9, 1994. Though we were thousands of miles away from the launch, each of us working with gorillas was adrenalized. It was the early days of the Internet, yet once in orbit we could monitor the mission via hourly reports sent directly from the Space Shuttle to a Nasa newsgroup. And then, as planned, 3 days into its flight, on its fifty-eighth orbit of Earth, flying belly-up with its payload door open, Endeavour aimed the radar-imaging equipment at the Virunga Volcanoes, and SIR-C acquired the first ‘data set’ of the gorilla habitat. 
Astronaut Rich Clifford, who as on board at the time, recalls the operation. “Radar imagery of the gorilla enclave in Rwanda during the STS-59 mission proved the value of the Spaceborne Imaging Radar in monitoring and evaluating earth’s resources. Visual observations of the enclave during the mission were usually obscured by clouds or darkness. The imaging radar could ‘see’ through the obscuration and thus valuable information was obtained.”
“Delighted Endeavour is doing its thing!” wrote Clarke.

By now something quite unforeseen was unfolding on the ground in Rwanda. On 6 April the president’s plane was shot down, setting off a campaign of wanton massacre. In those first few days, no one was sure what to think of the chaos. The only news coming out of the country was from expatriates fleeing the violence. Minutes passed like days, while colleagues remained trapped in the mayhem. Meanwhile Endeavour orbited overhead, unaffected by events on the ground. I was torn between euphoria and dread. It was an emotionally trying time. We all felt so helpless, and some of us were ashamed of the focus of our work.
Whatever the dramas in London, nothing compared to the human suffering being endured in Rwanda. It may have been incongruous to pursue such an arcane issue as gorilla conservation during such a harrowing time for the Rwandese people. But my argument was that, as trivial as they may seem in the midst of genocide, in the years to come the Mountain gorillas would be a boon to the efforts to rebuild that country. I was right. 
When Endeavour landed at Edward's Air force Base on 20 April, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi men, women and children had already been killed. Ostensibly, this meant Nasa possessed images of the Rwandan killing fields. At first they refused to give us anything, fearing they may be accused of espionage. But, after already moving heaven and earth to pull this off, we weren’t about to back down now. Once again, Clarke stepped in: “I’m sure if this information is released properly, it will bring the best possible publicity to Nasa/JPL!” And, once again, Nasa acquiesced.
We are happy to report that data were successfully acquired on two passes over the site, on Orbit 58 and Orbit 171. Images have been processes at JPL for the first data take and will be transmitted to the research team at Rutgers for analysis… We look forward to attempting to image the Karisoke site on our second flight in August.”

By the time Endeavour was ready to launch again four months later, the genocide was over, and the world had learned about the full horror of what had gone on in Rwanda in just 100 days. Nasa was thankful they no longer had to deal with the controversy. And by then the value of including the gorillas had already been proven, not least by the flurry of media attention they generated for the missions. 
In recognition, they invited Arthur C. Clarke and me to view the launch at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral that August. Clarke had co-anchored NBC’s televised coverage of the historic Apollo 11 Moon mission there 25 years earlier, but never witnessed a shuttle lift off. Hence the promise of having a space age prophet as a spectator at Endeavour’s launch was truly enticing for Nasa, who requested his participation in the post-launch press conference.
Clarke too was excited. “I’ve also faxed the Nasa administrator and my shuttle friends saying I hope to see them at the Cape for the 18 August launch!” Appropriately, my first encounter with him after fifteen years was in Kennedy Space Center’s Room 2001. It was around 4 am on the morning of the launch, and we were preparing to transfer by bus to the viewing site, a few kilometers away. Clarke was wearing a navy blue Space Shuttle cap, and matching t-shirt showing a picture of the Milky Way galaxy with an arrow pointing to our location in its outer spiral arm, and the words “YOU ARE HERE” written above it. Passes and tickets were shown to security before boarding the bus. To get anywhere near the launch complex at Cape Canaveral, we had all been subjected to thorough background checks. 
After a short drive we arrived at the site, where we were then shown to our bleachers which faced a wide body of water that separated us from the launch pad. Clarke sat in a section reserved for VIPs, while I found my place among the mortals. There, all lit up on the horizon, was a vehicle built for titans. It took my breath away. That balmy Thursday in August was shaping up to be the best day of my life!
Presently, the countdown is underway, and the Space Shuttle Endeavour is about to blast off. Astronaut Tom Jones, who was on the space ship, recalls the moment. 
At T-6 seconds, Endeavour’s three main engines rumbled into life. I was strapped into my center seat on the middeck, just to the right of classmate Jeff Wisoff, as we felt the orbiter rumble and shake under the thrust of a million pounds of liquid-fueled thrust. Out the hatch window I could see the gantry apparently sway — it was actually Endeavour ‘twanging’ under the thrust. I mentally counted: 5…4…3…2…1…waiting for the giant kick from the boosters’ ignition. Instead, the Master Alarm blared in our headsets as the three main engines fell silent. Instead of liftoff, we were left swaying atop the orbiter as the launch team announced an abort – an automatic shutdown due to some as-yet unknown problem.
All I hear over the PA is, “We have main engine cutt-off!” It would appear that fate has once again dealt us a cruel blow. I watch as the puff of smoke momentarily emitted by the boosters drifts slowly across the lake on an offshore breeze, and imagine contained therein is all our aspirations. Launch control soon verifies the engines had shut down at T-1 second, due to an overheating turbo-pump. “Its discharge temperature had violated redline limits;” recalls Jones, “Had we launched with that violation, we might have lost an engine right after liftoff, sending us into a very hairy Return to Launch Site abort.”
Every cloud has its silver lining. In one of his regular ‘egograms,’ Clarke explains what happened next. “After the abortive countdown, I attended a press conference run by JPL and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund at which the superb radar coverage of the Rwanda gorilla habitat, made on the previous Endeavour flight, was shown.“ The prophet of the space age was undaunted, and gave a masterful presentation, championing the fusion of his two great passions: space and wildlife. The result, once the shuttle finally did manage to take off a month later, was another radar image of the Virunga habitat, which contributed greatly to the conservation of the Mountain gorillas. 

The End of An Era
The 19th of March, 2008 was the day the space age ended for me, the day I lost my friend of thirty years. "With the passing of Arthur C. Clarke we in the space community have lost yet another legendary pioneer of early spaceflight," said Nasa Administrator Mike Griffin.
During his ninety years on this planet, whatever he was doing or writing, Clarke never failed to inspire people of the promise of space. “The inspirational value of the space program is probably of far greater importance to education than any input of dollars,” he said after the Moon Shot. “A whole generation is growing up which has been attracted to the hard disciplines of science and engineering by the romance of space.” 
Earlier this year, Endeavour too met its end. Space Transport System number 134, was the unsentimental name given to the orbiter’s last flight. Nasa decided to halt its shuttle programme because the vehicles were too costly to maintain, believing a more affordable approach to getting astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) could be achieved by contracting out their transport to private companies. 
After docking at the ISS to install a 7-tonne magnetic spectrometer, where the crew received a message from Pope Benedict XVI, telling them he admired their courage, Endeavour completed its final mission with a smooth landing at the Kennedy Space Center at 6:34 am on June 1, 2011. In its nineteen-year flight career, the orbiter had flown nearly 200 million kilometers and altogether spent almost ten months in space. Bold Endeavour!
Now grounded, along with the entire fleet of extraterrestrial lorries that for 3 decades had dutifully served Nasa’s space transport needs, and the space station empty, it would seem more than just the romance has gone out of space flight. Nasa argues they have simply entered another “human spaceflight gap,” as they did between the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions. Mike Wall, writing on, says, “The next 50 years should bring a sea change, with commercial companies taking over near-Earth operations and freeing NASA and other space agencies to send astronauts to asteroids and Mars.”

For me, the romance of space is encapsulated in that incredible time in my life, when I got to help determine the mission plans of two decisive Space Shuttle flights, and work with my hero, Arthur C. Clarke, to achieve it. That bold endevour, and indeed the abiding promise of space, is best summed up by Clarke himself, in the enduring parable he wrote about gorillas and the space age:

It has been said that the most valuable prize the Apollo astronauts brought home was the famous photograph of our beautiful blue world, like a fragile X-mas tree ornament hanging in the empty blackness of space. It taught us to respect and cherish our home planet, and to care for its natural heritage.
    “Orbiting satellites - the tools of the space age - now allow us to study the surface of our planet in detail which has never been possible from the ground. We can observe the growth of crops, deforestation, pollution and many other processes that are impacting the environment.
    “To give one dramatic example,radar carried on the Space Shuttle has produced the first detailed maps of the habitat of the mountain gorillas in Africa - a feat previously impossible, because, as Dian Fossey’s famous book title indicated, gorillas live in a mist which only radar waves can penetrate. The new maps allow rangers, equipped with hand held GPS (Global Positioning Systems), which also depend on satellites, to locate themselves accurately, and to protect the few hundred remaining gorillas form the poachers who haver mercilessly exterminated them.
 “I am particularly pleased to have been associated with the efforts of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund of the UK in this enterprise, which may seem ironic in view of Rwanda’s horrendous human tragedy. Yet, when men are behaving worse than beasts, perhaps there is some hope for our species, if some of its members are prepared, against almost impossible odds, to protect these harmless, gentle cousins of ours.
- Arthur C. Clarke, August 1994

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gorillaland: A Jungle Odyssey (excerpt #2)

By the time Derek caught up with his clients, a middle-aged father from Toronto and his two teenage sons, they had already gathered by the vehicle in their safari outfits, with their hats, camera bags, water bottles and backpacks. The shiny, black-on-black Land Rover Discovery III, affectionately known as “the Blackback”, was state of the art in off-road driving. It was Pedro’s baby, and he kept its all-black flow coat and leather interior in tiptop condition. “Art of the state,” he declared proudly. No one else in Uganda had one to drive. It was also the company’s last remaining asset, but there was no way Pedro was going to let Derek cash in on the only expensive thing they had left in the world.
The Blackback’s engine was already running, warming up for the game drive ahead, and Pedro was in the back packing the cooler with fruit, soda and locally bottled water (which the clients refused to drink), as well as frozen ice packs. Derek insisted Pedro refreeze the ice packs every night, “Because you never know when you’re going to get another chance. It’s all about survival, rafiki. With just a handful of frozen ice packs you can keep a cooler full of perishables fresh for days.” 
“Other safari operators have in-car fridges,” moaned Pedro.
“Which put a drain on your petrol supply,” replied Derek, “and are completely useless if the car breaks down. Totally inappropriate technology for the bush.”
Pedro was much more than just a driver for the safari company, he was Derek’s good friend, right-hand man, consigliere, partner in crime, bodyguard, and fixer. Together they struggled to keep the wheels turning on a private label safari business, taking high-end clients to the remote corners of East Africa to view rare wildlife. Pedro had a sixth sense about things, and Derek did well to heed his advice. Nevertheless, they rarely agreed and through their regular argument about supplies, survival and safari circuits, they continued to add to the base of bush knowledge they used to ultimately aid the design of the perfect safari. 
“Ready to spot tree-climbing lions?” asked Derek cheerily, as though he lived for these early departures. The clients nodded and grunted their replies. “Tu Wende,” he added. It was Swahili for “Let’s go”. Pedro accelerated the Blackback, kicking up a plume of gravel, and drove out of the lodge parking lot like he was engaging in a counter-terror manoeuvre. The effect served to make the clients feel very important indeed as they sped off into the park.
Dawn burst over the rim of the Rift Valley escarpment, quenching the dry savannah with a revitalising orange glow. The day was clearer and fresher for the short rains, and they could see for miles. Pedro took the western circuit, between the Ishasha River, which marks the border with Congo, and the shores of Lake Edward, crisscrossing the terrain with the agility of a hunting predator. One minute they were up on to a ridge with a commanding view of Lake Edward and the towering Ruwenzori Mountains in the distance, and the next down in a dip on the edge of a swamp, unable to see even beyond the brier. Notwithstanding the Blackback’s superior suspension, it was not at all a smooth ride.
On the plateau, in the scattered savannah forest, where the soil was dry and ashen, acacia trees dominated the landscape, about twenty metres apart, and cast long shadows on the parched grass. Many had been snapped and some smashed to pieces. 
“What caused that?” asked the younger boy.
“The handiwork of Ishasha’s lesser-known tree-climbing elephants,” quipped Derek.
“Over there, in the distance,” said the older boy, pointing to a large herd of elephant moving through a grove of acacia trees on a ridge, but they were unreachable on the Congo side of the border. The elephant population at Ishasha had grown considerably in recent years, due to an outbreak of peace and conservation in the region, and they knew no boundaries in their quest for new pastures. 
As the Blackback carried the eager game-viewers out of yet another ditch, they happened on a large cluster of antelope grazing a hump. There were kob, impala, waterbuck, oribi, hartebeest, and topi, with the latter keeping watch on the high ground. Pedro slowed to around ten kilometres an hour, while Derek scrutinised the periphery of the herd for the telltale signs of a predator: a pair of circular beige ears in the short grass, a twitch of a bush, or indeed the antelopes all looking in the one direction. Subtle changes in the gently undulating graben offered good cover. There were no signs of any lions, so they began to drive away.
Just then Pedro heard a kob’s alarm whistle and a family of warthogs burst out of the scrub on to the road. He jammed on the brakes and brought the Blackback to an immediate halt in a cloud of dust. “There,” he whispered, “in the short grass in the distance, next to that broken acacia tree: a pair of lions. It looks like they’re feasting on a kill.” The clients scrambled for their cameras and lenses, while Derek and Pedro surveyed the scene. Pedro cut the engine off, so all that could be heard was the whir of camera shutters and the low warble of a nearby ring-necked dove: wo-wooh wo-wo wo wo, wo-wooh wo-wo wo wo. The air was light and fresh like baby’s breath.
“Are they the lions we heard the other morning?” asked Derek, grabbing the binoculars on the dashboard.
“They must be,” whispered Pedro. 
“Definitely a couple of males,” said Derek, “no older than five years...Looks like they’ve got a fresh kill all right but I can’t quite make out the species of the unlucky fellow.”
“They must be from the Congo.”
“Congo, really? What makes you say that, rafiki?” 
“Well, we’re right by the border here. You know, these prides at Ishasha – they can sometimes cross back and forth to the other side. Congolese lions come here. Ugandan lions go there. They have no need for passports.”
“Why would Ugandan lions need to go to Congo,” asked Derek, steadying his hand to get a better view, “when there’s plenty of steak-elopes on the hoof right here in Uganda? I mean…” He stopped mid-sentence. “Hello…what have we here? Damn, these binoculars are useless at this distance. Can’t we get any closer?”
“Are you sure it’s the binos and not the booze, boss?” asked Pedro, starting the engine.
Banange! You know I haven’t had a drop in a month. Hand me the Bushnells from my field bag.”
“Exactly,” replied Pedro, handing him the Bushnells, “that’s why your hands are so shaky. I watched your latest safari film, mzee, and I got very seasick.”
“You just drive!” said Derek, “and get us a bit closer to the lions.”
“It is forbidden to drive off road in the park.”
“Yes, but when UWA’s not around, you drive off road.”
“Have you seen that ditch up there? We won’t reach beyond it.”
“That’s why we have the Blackback, rafiki. Engage the Terrain Response system! It’s what it’s there for.”
The Terrain Response system was the Blackback’s coolest feature, and Pedro had mastered it without ever once referring to the manual. It took away many of the difficulties of off-road driving. Not that he needed any help in this department but he enjoyed experimenting with different types of terrain. Illuminated on a dial on the dashboard were four settings: “Sand”, “Grass, Gravel & Snow”, “Mud & Ruts” and “Rock Crawl”. Once engaged, the on-board computer system selected the correct gearbox settings, adjusted the suspension height and the differential lock settings, and altered the throttle response of the engine. 
Pedro selected “Sand” and immediately the hydraulics began to whine, as the vehicle rose on its haunches. He listened to be sure the engine sounded as it should do before he put it into gear, and then he slowly moved closer. The lions were still about three hundred metres away, and had not yet even noticed them, but Pedro could not get the Blackback any closer because of a very steep ditch.
“OK, fine. That’s a bit better,” said Derek, adjusting the focus, “but it looks like there’s something not quite right about the carcass. It doesn’t look like any ordinary kill. Hang on a second…No...It can’t be.” 
“Wharrup, afendi?” asked Pedro, picking up the other pair of binoculars. He trained them on the kill and whispered, “Aya mama sita yango!” It was a meaningless expression that he had invented himself; an amalgam of Swahili and Spanish. But Derek knew it to be Pedro’s ultimate expression of astonishment.
“Is that what I think it is?” asked Derek. They were both glued to their binoculars.
He’s dead,” whispered Pedro, so as not to alarm the clients. Nevertheless, they had more powerful telephoto lenses and had already come to the same conclusion, that the lions were eating a person. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Come and play, everything's a-okay

Imagine you’re a soldier in the jungles of Central Africa, there by decree of your commander in chief to search out and destroy the notorious warlord Joseph Kony. You suddenly come under attack from an unseen combatant. After a brief firefight the shooting stops, and you move in. There, lying between the buttresses of a giant bouma tree, is your foe, wounded and staring back at you with a mixture of fear and loathing. He’s just a boy.
You can see from the severity his injuries, the ones you inflicted on him, that he will soon die. Did your commanders tell you that this boy was one of thousands forcibly abducted into Kony’s army, and has not been home since. Did they say he probably spends his nights reliving horrible memories, and does everything he can to numb his mind to the nightmares?
The fact is, battle briefings are conducted in a way that dehumanises the enemy. Rarely, in a campaign that concentrates on ‘aims,’ and ‘targets,’ will the words ‘person,’ ‘adult,’ or ‘child,’ be heard. “That way it is ingrained into the field agents that they are not fighting humans,” says Briton James Flynn, a writer of thrillers with experience in covert field operations, “they are achieving objectives and felling targets who are there to inhibit aims.”
Since 1987, the demon-possessed, messianic Joseph Kony and his army of mass murderers, the LRA, has been threatening civilian populations in the region, and abducted an estimated 10,000 boys and girls, who are forced into combat or sexual servitude. 
Last month President Obama sent 100 US troops in to the region to "remove Kony from the battlefield," at the request of the legislature. The Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 was the most widely cosponsored Africa-related bill in US history. But is the American public prepared for the outcome? US State Department admits the rebel group replenishes its ranks through child abductions, and has forcibly sought to keep those abducted from fleeing. 
“I used my gun to get a salary,” one former child soldier told me, while I was researching my novel, Gorillaland: A Jungle Odyssey (Cutting Edge Press, UK) in which an army of boy soldiers led by a crazed Congolese warlord terrorizes villagers in the Congo jungle. “It’s easy to convince a child, who thinks shooting people is a game, to join the rebels.” In his case, it was government soldiers who arrived at his home one day. “They wore US-provided government coats when they killed my mother and my father. It may have been the same ones who then came and said, ‘come with us, revenge your parents death,’ just wearing different coats.”
Child Soldiers International maintains that many child soldiers enlist voluntarily, though in war-torn regions, where there are few alternatives to taking up arms, they often do so as a means of survival or after witnessing the torture and execution of family members. “The problem is most critical in Africa, where children as young as nine have been involved in armed conflicts,” says their website. Across Africa demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) programs aimed specifically at child soldiers have already been set up, to assist former child soldiers to learn new skills and reintegrate back into their communities. However, these initiatives lack funds and adequate resources. 
One success story is that of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of over 20,000 Sudanese who were orphaned or displaced during the Second Sudanese Civil War. “They walked more than a thousand miles,” say the International Rescue Committee, “half of them dying before reaching a Kenyan refugee camp. With the help of the US government and UNHCR, nearly four thousand were eventually settled in the United States. 
My question is, how will Obama's army respond to an enemy half its age? How will  the average Jane or Joe from Anytown, USA react when they learn their "kills" are the same age as their own children, who are safe and secure in their homes watching Sesame Street? James Flynn maintains in the first instance most soldiers will probably not be phased by the age of their enemy. “That is where the training comes in to its sub-conscious own. My reaction would not be that is a child that has been killed, rather I would be asking is he operating alone?”  
Many war veterans will testify it’s only when objectives have been achieved, and the soldier is left alone with his or her conscience, that the truth of the battlefield is unveiled. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is caused by many factors, but ultimately, Flynn says, “it will always come down to not being able to process what has been seen, done and inflicted.” 
At least this is one thing both sides of the conflict will have in common. During the recent trial of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, testimony from psychologists cited a study of 1,100 child abductees in Uganda, which found PTSD among 40 per cent of those who stayed in captivity for more than one month. 
Another study said 27 per cent of the children who stayed with rebels for less than a month suffered PTSD. Experts who spoke to the Lost Boys of Sudan said they were the most badly war-traumatized children they had ever examined.
 Ishamael Beah was just 14 when he was recruited into the Sierra Leone Army, and remained a soldier for 3 years. He describes the horror of battle from a child's perspective:
 “When we got there we were in an ambush, the rebels were attacking where we were in a bush.  I did not shoot my gun at first, but when you looked around and saw your schoolmates, some younger than you, crying while they were dying with their blood spilling all over you, there was no option but to start pulling the trigger.  I lost my parents during the war, they told us to join the army to avenge our parents.
Invariably Kony’s “Invisible Children” will have had it drummed into their heads by their commanders that they face certain death if captured. As a warlord who has evaded capture for 25 years, at no point is Joseph Kony going to creep out of the jungle waving a white flag. He will fight to the finish, surrounded by his abductees. 
But, orphaned and robbed of youth, these are kids with so few options that rather than fight to the death, it’s more likely they will simply give up the moment the opportunity presents itself. The real challenge comes in trying to absorb them back into society. Former child soldiers face a hard life, as they try to disentangle the memories of childhood and massacre. 
Military recruitment of children is also harmful to their societies. Their lost years reduce the economic potential of those societies, and many former child soldiers grow up physically and psychologically scarred by their experience, and prone to violence, which perpetuates the cycle of violence. 
Regardless of their age, no one who survives Kony's battlefield/playground will return unscarred. 
Can you tell me how to get/ how to get to…

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"No, Sir; you cannot conceive with what acceleration I advance towards death."

Those are the words of Samuel Johnson bellowed from his deathbed at his physician Thomas Warren, when asked if he were feeling any better. Sadly, in those final daysthe leading figure of 18th Century literary London was not paid a visit by his celebrated biographer and drinking buddy James Boswell, as he was away in Scotland at the time. When Boswell heard the news of his friend's death, he remarked, "My feeling was just one large expanse of Stupor ... I could not believe it. My imagination was not convinced." This is the story of how I was there for my Dr Johnson.

It's 10:15 pm on November 8th, 2011, and I am on board an air ambulance en-route to Nairobi.  My best buddy is reposed and scarcely visible in the glow of monitors and cabin lights around him. He has suffered a massive heart attack and I'm praying to God he gets the care he so desperately needs. His condition is serious, yet he grips my hand with a strength that assures me he might just make it.

Our Cessna Citation took off a moment ago from Entebbe Airport and we are ascending rapidly into a strobing cloudbank over Lake Victoria, which looks like a row of plasma globes through the windows of the turboprop jet. Nonetheless, the ride is smooth. It shouldn't take us more than an hour to reach Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) where a waiting ambulance will transfer us to the Intensive Care Unit at Nairobi Hospital, and into the superlative care of Dr David Silverstein, one of East Africa's foremost cardiologists.

As though trying to free himself from a fishing net, my buddy is agitated and fidgety from the steady dose of adrenaline coursing through his veins, and struggles with the temporary pacemaker and a plethora of tubes and wires attached to his body. The two volunteer flying doctors at his side - one black one white - urge him to relax while they tend to his failing heart. Their expert cardiological skills are a wonder to observe, and a testament to the capabilities of the African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF), who operate the air ambulance service.


It was late morning in Kampala when I received the call from The Surgery notifying me of his grave condition. "It's not looking too good," the Dutch nurse informed me, "He did not want to call anyone, but I thought it was important he has a friend with him at this time..." Riding on a back of a speeding boda boda (a motorcycle taxi, which serves as a poor man's helicopter in this part of the world) on my way to the clinic, I searched the gathering storm clouds above the city's seven hills for the face of God, so I could petition Him directly to save my best friend's life. By the time I reached the clinic, my friend was conscious, but they informed me he had flat-lined more than twenty times that morning. He did not look good.

"What's your prognosis?" I asked Dr Richard Stockley, the clinic's leading physician.

"What he needs is a pacemaker," said Stockley, "He's suffered significant damage to the area known as the sinus node which generates the electrical waves making his heart beat. We're calling all around Kampala right now trying to find one, but it's doesn't look promising. His best chance is if we transfer him to Nairobi as soon as possible."

"What are we waiting for?" I retorted, "let's do that."

"Air ambulances don't come cheap," said Stockley, raising an eyebrow and stroking his prominent chin, "And these people are brutal: they will not leave the ground until they know full payment has been made."

"How much?" I asked with trepidation; my friend was not a man of means.

"Around $10,000."

I immediately began fundraising on my cell phone, and woke up a few friends around the world. Another kindred spirit on another continent agreed to front the costs, if no one else would. (How amazing is that?) Armed with her pledge, and a financial guarantee from the British Residence Association in Uganda that Stockley had secured, we green lighted the air ambulance, which then took off from Nairobi's Wilson Airport with a pacemaker on board. Thankfully, by the time the flying doctors arrived, my friend's employers had agreed to foot the bill, and his benefactress on the other side of the world could put away her cheque book.

It's now five hours later, and we're cruising at 10,000 metres, surrounded by sophisticated machinery, both medical and aeronautic. Together they produce a kind of ignore-changes, avant guard Bebop that segues reassuringly from monitor to monitor as we vault across the Rift Valley. My friend is finally sleeping. I can't bear the thought of loosing him. He is my anchor out here on the high seas of exile, my mentor, my hero, and a beautiful human being. We share a love of literature, and (though in my case only by ancestry) a Scot's ire with the world. I am Boswell to his Dr Johnson. 

During our countless Saturday afternoon sessions at the Bukoto Beer Garden, he consistently lamented his isolation in Africa. He had lived on the continent for a decade and a half, during which time none of his family had ever come to visit. I began to wonder if they were real. But any doubts about his support network were quickly dashed after word got out of his condition. During the course of that afternoon, I spoke to nearly all of his loved ones, as I sought to reassure them the doctors were doing everything in their powers to save him. His son booked himself on the next available flight to Nairobi so he too could be at his dad's bedside. I was finally going to meet one of his bairns.

My buddy awakes and smiles. "I love you," he tells me, with a twinkle in his eye. One of his favourite sayings is "There is no communication without love," so it may just be the parsimonious Scot talking, spendthrift in every way, including matters of the heart. Nonetheless, I feel grand to hear him say it.

A familiar pattern of flickering lights comes in to view on the ground below as the Citation jet begins its descent into the Kenyan capital. Soon we're on the ground and while the medical team carry him into the ambulance I race across the tarmac with our passports to the Arrivals hall. Having experienced a fast track service with few formalities at Entebbe, I'm expecting the same at Kenyan immigration. No dice. The oversized school boy displaying a droopy lower lip you could recline on, and the stripes of a senior officer, refuses to allow anything other than the protracted procedure of filling out lengthy visa applications and immigration forms, while my friend remains in critical condition in an ambulance outside. "How would you feel if it was your mother?" I ask, but all he does is shrug. After handing over the cash, I wait for his subordinate to slowly paste a page-sized visa sticker in each of our passports, and then fill out receipts. 

At long last, we reach the Emergency Room at Nairobi Hospital. The flying doctors race him into surgery while I deal with formalities at Admissions. I had spent a number of years in the UK where most medical treatment comes free of charge, consequently I am quite shocked by the emphasis on up front payment. It's 2 o'clock in the morning, but before they agree to admit him for such intensive care, they insist I raise his boss or anyone with a credit card and make a deposit. Eventually they agree to admit him without the deposit, but warn me they will be forced to move him to a 'local' hospital if payment is not made before noon the next day. Phew!


A week's now passed since that fateful night, and my buddy remains in the ICU in Nairobi Hospital, where he is slowly recovering. Each of the medical interventions has gone to plan, and all that remains is to fit him with a tiny pacemaker in his chest next week. His son arrived a few days after us, and he and I bonded straight away. When he wasn't at his father's bedside, we spent the hours lionizing the great man over Tusker beers. He appreciated the insight into his old man's mysterious life in Africa, claiming dad always insisted it was far too daunting a place to allow them to visit him. Nevertheless, the patient was delighted the pair of us had finally met, and seemed pleasantly resigned to the fact we were now connecting the dots in his life. 

I returned to Kampala in an overnight Akamba bus, a far cry from the comfort and speed of the medevac jet I'd flown out on. It did give me pause to reflect on what had been a dramatic week in Kenya. I decided it should not take something as drastic as a cardiac arrest to make one seriously think about one's own mortality. I know my friend will experience a sea change in his life; he's quit smoking for one, and probably won't be drinking anything stronger than tonic water during our regular sessions at the Bukoto Beer Garden when he returns. That is if he returns to Africa after convalescing in Europe. I truly hope he does, because Kampala is downright diminished without him. 

No doubt he will find inspiration in his experience. As an eloquent wordsmith whose prose has yet to see the light of day, and a gifted painter whose not painted for years, my friend is, I would say after this episode, God's gift to the world. Perhaps like Boswell and Johnson, we'll both become celebrated men of letters in the years ahead. Maybe one day you'll read one of his books and realise about whom I have written. This is my communication to him.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

African Space Programme

It’s not often I hear a news item about Uganda that really captivates my imagination, but the other day, while listening to BBC World Service, I heard a broadcast about some engineers at Makarere University, who were building their own operational Space Shuttle, under a jackfruit tree. Was this to be Uganda’s first foray into space?
For those who sneer at the notion, think it a pipe dream, or can never conceive of there ever being any correlation between the Space Age and the Dark Continent, think again. In 1998, Nigeria founded the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA), which plans to send a man to space by 2016, and to the moon by 2030. They’ve already taken the first step: three years ago Nigeria became the second African country, after South Africa, to launch its own satellite into orbit. 
South Africa has already put a man in space. Mark Shuttleworth gained worldwide fame in 2002 when he became the first African in outer-space, and the second of a series of self-financed space tourists to ride aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, paying US$ 20 million for the pleasure. Docked at the International Space Station (ISS), Shuttleworth spent eight days conducting AIDS experiments and research. 

Closer to home, six years ago NASA, the American space agency, recruited its first black flight director, Kwatsi Alibaruho (pictured right), an African-American of Ugandan descent whose parents have now repatriated. Only a few dozen people have ever directed human space-flight missions, and Alibaruho has more than dozen Space Transportation System (STS) numbers to his name. “My responsibility is to lead the team of people in mission control to develop, plan and execute space missions for a Space Shuttle and for the International Space Station,” said Alibaruho. 
He says he caught the 'science bug' very early from watching science fiction programs, and then went on to learn about real science. After graduating from the MIT in 1994, he went directly to NASA. “As I was growing up, going through school and the early phases of my career, I very much did feel like an outsider,” he said in an interview on America’s National Public Radio, “There certainly are a very small number of African-Americans in these highly technical fields, at least that we hear about and that we see.”
This year marked a major milestone in Alibaruho’s career. As a temporary assignment he had undertaken came to an end, NASA suddenly directed the addition of one more Space Shuttle flight to the programme manifest, STS-135, to be flown by the orbiter Atlantis as the last shuttle flight in US history. The space agency had originally planned for STS-134, flown by Endeavour in May, to be it’s final mission, but an issue over payloads forced them to alter their schedules. The senior management of Mission Operations selected Kwatsi Alibaruho as the lead Space Shuttle Flight Director for this historic mission. 
Nyanyozi is the Runyankole word for stargazer, and the nickname I was given for always having my head in the stars. As a child, growing up in Africa, I was blessed with big skies and unmatched visibility, almost every night. Orion, Scorpius, Taurus, were all my playmates. But before long I had moved back to colder climes, and after too many nights spent under cloudy northern skies I soon lost interest. It’s only recently, with power cuts occurring nightly in Kampala, and taking note of the region of fascinating equatorial constellations that arcs across Uganda nightly, possibly the richest in deep space objects anywhere in the celestial sphere, that I began to rekindle my passion for astronomy. 
There’s nothing quite like spending a tranquil evening looking through a telescope at nebulae, planets, and the surface of the Moon. But astronomy’s a lonely hobby, so I Googled to see if there were any other Nyanyozis out there. I was amazed by the veritable meteor shower of websites that turned up. It seems astronomical societies are all the rage in Africa these days. 
In the past few years, individuals and organisations across the continent have started to become organised in this field. Although, as Professor Okeke coordinator of the Astronomical Society of West Africa points out, “The distribution of telescopes world-wide indicates a very high density in the most advanced countries, in sharp contrast to the situation on the African continent. South Africa is the only country in Africa with functional frontline telescopes.”
Indeed, the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), is the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. South Africa also has a 26-metre radio telescope at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Observatory near Johannesburg. Both are used to conduct fundamental research in astronomy and astrophysics. Next year Nigeria’s 25 meter radio telescope will be operational. 
Closer to home there’s certainly potential for growth. Two years ago, after a conference in Nairobi, the East African Astronomical Society was formed, though it’s not clear what has been achieved since then. Simon Anguma, who teaches astrophysics at Makarere says there are no astronomical facilities in Uganda, and bemoans the “rare occasions the print media bring articles on common astronomical phenomena such as eclipses.” However, he welcomes the government’s recent intervention. “The Uganda National Council for High Education has introduced some elements of astronomy as a physics course for all universities offering physics in Uganda.”
It’s also worthwhile for any budding Nyanyozi out there to know grants of up to 1000 euros to develop astronomy, from the "Developing Astronomy Globally" a cornerstone initiative sponsored by UNESCO and the International Astronomical Union, have been awarded to Uganda, Ethiopia, Gabon, Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria. Manna from heaven, one could say. There are also countless websites with free star charts to download, and many valuable resources available to the aspiring stargazer online. Even the most promising Nyanyozi has to start somewhere. 

The inspirational value of the space program is probably of far greater importance to education than any input of dollars... A whole generation is growing up which has been attracted to the hard disciplines of science and engineering by the romance of space.” 
With those words, renown science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke summed up the true promise of space. Now, it would seem, that promise has been broken. The lead contenders in the space race have all but dropped out of the event. With the shuttles grounded, the International Space Station empty, and no plans for manned space flight anytime soon, what future is there for the space race?
Everyone knows the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. In my mind, Aesop’s fable clearly illustrates the present opportunity for Africa to join the space race. There will be trials and tribulations. Three years ago Troposphere 5, a Congolese two-stage, solid-propellant rocket, carrying a rat named Kavira on board, was launched from a spot near Kinshasa, at a cost of just $50,000. The launch ended in failure. The rocket took off but deviated from its course and was lost. Nevertheless, Jean-Patrice Keka Ohemba Okese, a graduate of the Institut Supérieur des Techniques Appliquées in Kinshasa, is currently working on Troposphere 6, and dreaming the impossible dream. 
So far, it may seem like Uganda’s space ambitions remain under the jackfruit tree. The engineers building Uganda’s first Space Shuttle, Makarere’s African Space Research Programme, claim on their website to be bringing the future closer. They may be right.
In researching this article, I came across a blog by J. N. Nielsen, an American autodidact living in Oregon, who had read the same BBC story as I had heard on the World Service. After reading what engineering student Chris Nsamba, founder of the African Space Research Programme, said about his plans to simulate zero gravity -  “I’ve got a jet engine on order so I’m planning to build a tunnel, put the engine at one end and when I throw a guy in he’ll float in a similar way to how he would in space” - Nielsen was inspired. 
This strikes me as exactly the right attitude,” he wrote, “It has been the custom both in Russia and the US to train their cosmonauts and astronauts extensively, for months or years, before they get a chance to fly. While these procedures can certainly be defended on the grounds of safety, the culture of safety has gone so far as to make the programs risk-averse and therefore there has been a not-so-subtle lowering of sights and tempering of ambition…It is only when astronauts are viewed as truck drivers, and not as heroes, that there will be a space program on the order of magnitude that is necessary to the survival of our species.”
It would appear Africa’s space aspirations are not just a pipe dream. I believe in my lifetime we could easily see an African on the moon, landed there by an African space programme. It just takes one Nyanzozi with a passion for the stars, and the willingness to tackle the hard disciplines of science and engineering, to reach up from the continent and grasp the heavens. One such African, writing on an American weblog devoted to the future of design, sums it up with an epigrammatic prophecy:
Am telling you people, we are going to change the way the world thinks about Africa. we shall go to space and we shall do so many space projects that even NASA has not dreamed of. We are going to unlock the long time kept secrets of space and Astronomy at large…we are coming like a swarm of bees…we are ‘the river that flows up stream’ , we are going to turn what they term as Fiction into reality…WHATEVER MAN CAN IMAGINE, WE CAN DO!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Gorillaland: A Jungle Odyssey (excerpt #1)

In the best tradition of Wilbur Smith and Clive Cussler, Cummings sets his adventure in the strife-ridden Congolese jungle. Blood diamonds, kidnap, inter-tribal warfare and natural disasters form the background for a cast of adventurers, NGO campaigners, warlords, boy-soldiers, UN Peacekeepers and one of the most wicked villainesses readers will ever encounter. Gorillaland with its story based on fact is set to be a global bestseller.    Published by Cutting Edge Press
An excerpt:
As the Swift Boat arced around a bend, the river appeared tranquil and barren. Cosmo knew otherwise and almost instinctively observed every symbol and sign that had been scratched in the trees, or arranged with stones on the riverbanks, left there by those who had preceded him along the deadly Lomami. Some warned of rebels and mercenaries, others of evil spirits, and places to be avoided at all costs. Cosmo did not fear the supernatural, though he respected it. The power of muti was strong and he sought to make use of its forces for his own practical purposes. He rarely consulted witch doctors, believing he already possessed all their talents and more and, though he had marshalled the power of muti often, black magic was just another arrow in Cosmo’s quiver. He had learned how best to administer fear as a means to an end and didn’t let the muti haunt him like it did so many other warriors lurking in the shadows of the Left Bank.
        Nudging down against the tree-line, the sun was yet stoking the afternoon heat, while the air hung still and sticky on the river. Cosmo slowed the engines right down, as his Swift Boat approached Opala, gradually and silently drifting up to the village dock: a few sticks in the mud on the riverbank, strewn with tattered fishing nets. Except for a single, piercing, monotonous cicada song, there was no sign of life. The village appeared to have been abandoned in haste, with utensils, tools and root vegetables still out on empty stalls. Cosmo was on his guard, knowing he was probably being watched by unseen eyes in the forest. People in this part of the jungle were known to leave their valuables lying around by the riverside, unattended, to lure people ashore, while they lurked in the dark. When a visitor laid a hand on any of it, they were caught, flayed alive, and added to the local food chain.
        Cosmo had seen things at the back of Opala’s upright mud and thatch huts to make his steely blood curdle: ghastly instruments of muti that should have been buried long ago. Hidden in wooden boxes in that unholy ground behind the lattice bamboo fencing, amid the grim fetishes, and rotting peculiarities, dwelled the horror many had written about but few ever saw. It was back there, locked away, if anyone dared look: a mirror for the dark recesses of the soul. 
        An old palm tree bent over the river provided a mooring for the boat, and Cosmo advanced cautiously through the village, trying not to disturb anything. He had his Glock in one hand and, held high in the other, a live grenade with its arm taped down, to let whoever was watching know he meant business. As he approached the shadows behind the village, away from the riverbank, the air became rife with the smell of death and decay, and he began to see evidence of their grotesque carnivorous appetites. Bleached white human skulls ornamented the streets, while a multitude of thighbones and ribs lay piled in a rubbish pit behind the cluster of huts. Scraps of palm nuts, bananas, sugar cane and cassava at least testified to a varied diet. Then from somewhere nearby he heard the sound of a log drum, tapped in slow succession: tuc dun, tuc dun, tuc dun. Cosmo understood it to mean ‘welcome’, so he worked the pin back into his grenade and holstered his pistol, then continued into the forest, guided by the sound of the two-tone drum.