Thursday, October 16, 2014


It’s a scorching, dry Saturday morning in California. Another rainless summer has turned the hills above San Leandro yellowish-gray. My taxi turns off a serpentine drive into an empty parking lot.

Embedded in the hillside, the Alameda Juvenile Justice Center is a vast, rectangular three-story construction, built with beige cinder blocks that blend in well with its surroundings. There’s no one in sight.

After instructing my taxi driver to return in 90 minutes, I activate the intercom next to the weekend entrance. “Who is it?” asks a female voice.

“Greg Cummings. I’m the author giving a talk to Unit 4 today.”


“Greg Cummings. Amy Cheney arranged my visit…”

“Hang on a minute hun.”

While I wait for clearance into the prison, Mountain Mike’s escape story comes to mind.

When Mountain Mike escaped a minimum-security federal correctional facility called William Head on Vancouver Island, he fashioned a raft from a coffin used in the prison’s amateur theatre production of Dracula, then paddled out across the Juan de Fuca Straits towards the Canadian mainland.

The coffin disintegrated and Mike sank to the bottom of the cold straights. “I was sure I was a goner,” he recalled, “but a divine light beaconed me upward again. And then I found the strength to resurface and swim ashore.” He had a couple of weeks of freedom before the Mounties caught up with him.

I heard about Mountain Mike from one of his fellow inmates. It was October 1983, and I had just watched a performance of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by William Head on Stage (WHoS), an inmate-run prison theatre company – the only one in Canada that invites the public into the prison to see their shows. I was struck by the force of the cast’s performances, playing to a packed house, unbound by their incarceration. I had never seen such savage intensity in the eyes of actors.


Amy Cheney and I connected by chance, in July 2013, while I was googling mentions of my novel. In a piece titled ‘On the Shelf with Amy Cheney’ that was posted on the Children’s Book Review blog, Cheney is asked which books are most frequently checked out of her library. “Right now it’s War Brothers by Sharon McKay—anything about child soldiers my kids can relate to. Gorillaland by Greg Cummings is also doing well. Everyone has read Coe Booth, Simone Elkeles, Alexander Gordon Smith and Ishmael Beah. Action, relevance and overall great stuff.”

Her love of literature, and a tearaway nature led her to a career in the California correctional system, turning young minds on to books. “One of my students who never read before said when she heard me talk about books it sounded like candy, and she wanted some.”

Yesterday, pushing a cartload of my novels through the corridors of the Juvenile Hall, zig-zagging between cell units and the library, she seemed protected by a forcefield of persuasive intent, like a Jedi knight.

I was supposed to arrive in time to give three talks on Friday, but a mega-storm over Texas delayed my appearance by twelve hours, so I was only able to give one. Hence a second visit has been arranged. It being a Saturday, I’m now flying solo.

Every door has a buzzer and an overhead camera. I press the button. After a moment the door unlocks and I’m able to turn the handle. I pass through several empty rooms and corridors, repeating the process again and again. The final door slides open on its own. A guard in a darkened control room peers through the reinforced glass at the contents of my rucksack, takes my Canadian passport via a drawer in the wall, and then asks me to sign the register. I’m in.

Notwithstanding the two nights I spent locked up in British holding cells – for separate offenses – and the previous afternoon, this is my first time entering a correctional facility since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In the belly of the facility six windowless units house dozens of young offenders whose ages range from nine to seventeen. Most are serving long sentences. They’re all locked up when I enter Unit 4, a sky-lit two-story common room surrounded on two levels by cells. I introduce myself to a woman in uniform seated behind a raised console. She smiles, shakes my hand. She is expecting me and directs me to an adjacent classroom.

With a mix of anxiety and enthusiasm, I scan the colorful displays pinned to the classroom walls. The vibe is encouraging without being too condescending. Then, one by one, a coterie of teenage boys saunters in, comprising a range of heights, builds, ethnicities, and attitudes. Each one introduces himself, shakes my hand, then finds a seat. It’s like an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter.

“I’m here to talk about gorillas,” I holler, hoping the resonance of my voice will calm the room. “The band or the ape?” asks a round-faced Latino kid. He is a picture of candidness. On the faces of the others I see genuine interest, though many appear ambivalent, and a couple have only come to socialize. “The ape,” I smile.

During a gorilla slide show, I tell them how a silverback gets his name, the politics of gorilla groups, and their similarity to humans – that we share 97 per cent of our genetic makeup with gorillas. A wiry black kid at the back of the classroom raises his hand. “Is it true that you can get a blood transfusion from a gorilla and survive?”

“Good question,” I reply, surprised by his grasp of the subject. “Yes, you could potentially survive one transfusion from a great ape, providing the blood type matched.”

I do my impression of a charging silverback. Starting from a squat position, I utter a series of hoot sounds, rapidly slapping my chest in quick succession, and with a loud bark I leap forward, to uproarious laughter from the kids. “And what do you do if a silverback charges?” I ask, catching my breath.

“Bounce! Bail ass out of there…”

“No. If you run you are sure to die. You must stand perfectly still and act submissively, avoiding all eye contact with the charging silverback.” Incredulous laughter.

I read a chapter of Gorillaland, the story of Dieudonné, a child soldier who, after years in the service of the rebel warlord General Cosmo Zomba wa Zomba, is forced to witness the execution of his parents. In the aftermath of an earthquake he takes flight with the general’s diamonds, his heart set on freedom, and runs all the way to Uganda, only to have it all tragically end in the jaws of two hungry lions. 

“Aw what? No way! The kid gets eaten by lions? What happened to the diamonds?” 

But my hour is up. As they leave the classroom some of the kids give me a ‘bro hug’ and thank me warmly. I am touched.

Life is about choices and prospects. Young people make mistakes and face tough challenges as they try to revive their prospects in life. It’s the same for every one, whether or not you are imprisoned for your mistakes.

The difference with inmates is that they are given few choices after incarceration. Punishment is king. This absence of volition is an obstacle to inspiring them. On the other hand, they are a captive audience. Turn these young minds on and I know they will read my novels, and maybe one day write their own.


Come Spring 1984, five months after I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I was working for Stage II, a theatre group established for, and by, ex-offenders, after their release from William Head. We were staging One For The Road, Harold Pinter’s bleak one-act play set in a prison in a fictitious totalitarian country, which had premiered in London and New York in the two months previous. Ours was the world’s first amateur production, and the company was excited about blazing such a trail in stagecraft.

Stage II faced unique challenges, like keeping the actors in one place. A month before opening night one of our principles went AWOL, hitting the road for greater freedom, and in total violation of his parole. No one in the company harbored any ill will towards the guy. He did what he had to do. We found someone to replace him and hoped the new guy would last. He stole the show.

Working in the theatre with ex-offenders I watched men struggle to temper their emotional intensity through artistic expression. Often the roles were reversed: the tenderhearted newspaper salesman on stage was once an armed robber. Having the freedom to express oneself is not the same as freedom itself.

In the eyes of the young men that came to hear me talk at the Alameda Juvenile Justice Center I saw souls that were drowning. I think I understand. I hope my talk and reading, a career milestone, provided some resuscitation, however briefly.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gorillaland - Chapter Three

When the earthquake struck, Dieudonné Batinde was already half way up the road to Goma. The first chance he got, he ran, and he had not stopped running since. Even when the road shook violently beneath him, and the lake overflowed, he did not stop running. He had Godspeed. He knew it was God’s will that he make it to freedom that day. He would keep on running until his feet, bound and bloodied, had carried him there. 
He hated the general with all his heart and soul. Five years he had been in his army. Those five years were the worst that any a boy could ever endure. He was made to do things no dog of war would ever do. How many people had he been forced to kill? How many had he killed willingly? How many had he raped, mutilated, tortured? He knew exactly how many as well as the exact nature of every one of his crimes. They remained clear in his mind, just as vivid as the moment they happened. No amount of ganja, pussy or Kahuzi whisky could ever erase those memories. 
They called them the Lost Boys, because that’s what they were, lost: lost from their childhoods, their siblings, their parents, schools, societies, lost in the jungle. Dieudonné had been lost for some time. He found his way again, through the Lord. He learned to take comfort in his nightmares. In a strange kind of way, they reaffirmed his faith in God. For he knew there was no way a just God would fix in his mind such horrifying memories, if he had not already forgiven him and, indeed, had a much better life planned for him elsewhere. 
Dieudonné had no idea how much the diamonds were worth but he knew they’d fetch a good price in a neighbouring country. He considered taking them to Rwanda, which was just across the lake. Both his mother and father were Rwandese. God rest their tortured souls. Taking into account his war crimes and the many battles he’d fought against their army, he did not believe he would get a fair hearing in that country. 
As the bird flies, Uganda was about two hundred and thirty kilometres north of his present location. He’d heard that they knew how to mend child soldiers up there. He would have to keep running at twenty kilometres an hour to reach the border before dawn. There was no doubt in his mind that he could make it. 
His prayers had been answered that very morning when he was chosen from all the other boys to accompany General Zomba on a trip to Bukavu. He should have killed him while he walked along the mountain road with him and a satchel full of deadly weapons. Foolishly, the general had made no effort to hide the fact that he was carrying his precious diamonds. Dieudonné knew how important those stones were to him, and how it would destroy all his plans if he were to lose them. He knew he must steal them. 
Miraculously, the opportunity presented itself just outside Bukavu when UN soldiers stopped them. It was while the general was busy looking in Dieudonné’s satchel for his weapons that he daringly reached back and, with the agility of a seasoned pickpocket, carefully removed the diamonds. He expected to be caught that very moment, but the general was too concerned about being unmasked by the United Nations to notice. An hour later, after the general had sped away on his speedboat, Dieudonné wrapped the diamonds in the cellophane he’d saved from his cake, and swallowed them. Then he began to run. He was a good runner, as fast as an impala. God had given him the gift of savage speed.
With the wind behind him, he kept up his pace. He stuck to the road that followed the western lakeshore north. The lake of fire. One day God would throw the general and Duke into that lake, and they would burn for all eternity.
He reached Goma just before midnight. He knew the general probably had a search party already out looking for him, so he skulked through the centre of town, trying not to attract the attention of the Goma police. At least they were easy to spot in their bright yellow helmets, even at night on dimly lit streets. 
Once on the outskirts of town he started sprinting again. The road north from Goma would take him the final hundred and thirty kilometres to Uganda – west of the Virunga volcanoes, through Rutshuru, and Rwindi, and finally to the border. It was also the most dangerous road in Africa, and he knew it. Many had lost their lives on that road. He risked being shot by snipers, ambushed by thieves, knocked down by sleeping truck drivers, or even mauled by a wild animal. In any event, nothing could stop his headlong dash. 
He had not eaten anything since the half-cake the general had bought him in Bukavu, but he was nonetheless full of energy. Mount Nyrangongo’s red glow guided his way up the road, even through the gathering clouds. Respect to the mountain god, stirring your pot of molten rocks. The road had recently been graded, which made it easier to run on. It began to rain, then it began to rain harder, then harder still, but he was undeterred. It is God’s will that I make it to freedom this day. With every stride he grew increasingly filled with divine purpose, as though he was splashing through puddles of it in his Sunday best. The more the heavens opened up the more righteous he became. 
When he reached the deserted village of Kibumba, he found cause to reflect on his short, unhappy life. Though there was no longer any trace of it, Kibumba had once been a vast refugee camp. It was in that camp, back in 1996, when this country was still called Zaire, that his mother fell pregnant with him. His parents were Hutu refugees, who had fled from the invading Tutsi army in Rwanda. By the time she was due to give birth, the Tutsis had invaded again. Kibumba, along with all the other refugee camps, was raised to the ground. They were forced to move westward through the dense Congo jungle to Tingi-Tingi. It was in that unlucky place that Dieudonné was born.

Dieudonné had been running for twelve hours nonstop. He was beginning to see visions, but that was to be expected on such a rapturous marathon. He saw one that stirred him to his very soul. Floating blissfully heavenward like sleeping angels were all of his victims, all the people he had killed, all the innocents of Kivu, rising up from the jungle floor where they had been slain.
By now the clouds had scattered, and against the starry sky he could clearly make out the outline of the Virunga range of volcanoes. Mount Sabinyo, old man’s teeth, laughing like a mad witch doctor. The lair of the gorillas. He liked gorillas, more than chimpanzees. In all the monster fables he’d heard growing up, children captured by gorillas always fared better than those captured by chimpanzees. On occasion he’d even found cause to eat them, despite a tribal taboo, and gorilla definitely tasted better than chimpanzee. 
He was getting nearer to the Ugandan border now. How would the Ugandan authorities greet him? No doubt they would understand why he had to slip across their frontier unannounced. He was a refugee, a runaway child soldier. They would embrace him and then they would help mend him. A new abundant life was waiting for him just across that border. With the diamonds he would start a mission for former pikis like himself. Yes, that was his calling. He would use the general’s diamonds to do God’s work. 
It was in the final hour of darkness that Dieudonné at last reached Uganda. He recognised it by where the road descends into a flatter landscape, and the vegetation changes from forest to savannah, which also marked the start of lion country, though he worried no more about lions than he did about gorillas. He didn’t believe God would allow him to be eaten by lions after such a dash to freedom. By this time he was so filled with the Holy Spirit that he was utterly invincible. He continued to stride across the prickly savannah.
First light was appearing on the horizon. How appropriate that the sun should start to rise at that moment. Dieudonné’s visions were everywhere: burning bushes, talking serpents, laughing genies, dancing rods and staffs. But he was undaunted by Satan, and began to sing. 

The commotion did not go unnoticed by a pair of male lions who had been roaming the grassy plains for days, searching for food. The rains had driven all the antelope away and there was very little to sustain them in this valley. They were growing hungrier and hungrier with each passing hour. Soon it would be daybreak, when they would stand a better chance of at least catching a hare or a lizard. Now it would seem their search was over. They stood for a moment, panting through hungry jaws, twitching their keen circular ears for some clue in the darkness. Then they began to creep through the tall grass. Once they were close enough to see their prey they stopped. He did not look like much, but a lean meal was better than no meal, and he was coming towards them. They crouched down and waited.

Dieudonné stopped in his tracks. He thought he heard something. It was the first time during his entire day-long journey that he stopped. Who’s there? Is that you, Lord? He waited and then, as expected, out of the darkness, walking towards him, and wearing sackcloth and a seraphim smile, came the Lord Jesus Christ. His hair was golden and flowing, and he was surrounded by heavenly light. As the Lord opened his mouth to speak to him, he saw that the Lord had very sharp teeth. Why is that? The next thing he felt was a searing bolt of pain flash through his stomach. By the time Dieudonné realised what was happening to him it was too late: the two gigantic lions were tearing apart his abdomen, with stabbing, searing, excruciating blows. 


Gorillaland by Greg Cummings, available on Amazon