A journey to the dark heart of nameless unspeakable evil (book review)

This is one of the strangest books I have come across so far reading and reviewing expat-written accounts on work and live in development in the broadest sense.

Unfortunately, by
strange' I dont mean strangely entertaining, I mean not good.
“contractors” usually means builders out here in Britain. I genuinely thought Blackwater was a firm of painter-decorators. That’s rotten. You go out there to rebuild some schools and someone does that (being dragged to the streets of Fallujah) to you. Maybe they painted over the light switches. Remind me never to get Blackwater to decorate my house (p.37). 
As difficult and almost physical pain-inducing as typing this quote already is, it is necessary to get at least a vague idea of the world of words of celebrity-turned-Sunday-Times-journalist Jane Bussmann.

In a forthcoming blog post I mention that I don’t usually review bad books, but reading A journey to the dark heart of nameless unspeakable evil-Charities, Hollywood, Joseph Kony and Other Abominations was such a strange experience that writing a review is part of my therapeutic cleansing ritual.

In 2005 (that is ten years ago) Jane Bussmann, a celebrity journalist and comedy writer managed to get a foreign correspondent gig with the British Sunday Times to research a story about Uganda’s Lords Resistance Army, child abductions and civil war in and around Gulu.
It felt like an eternity to actually come up with a straightforward synopsis of this 69 chapter, 300+ page book that defies logic, good taste, quirky humor or addressing any of the terms mentioned in the title.
It takes archeological research skills to dig up themes or topics and one of them is Bussmann’s ‘relationship’/crush on John Prendergast who she wants to portray for said article.

“He (Ugandan President Museveni) stood you up,” I said, but he couldn’t hear me. John, this man who had the end of a war in his briefcase, went batshit with animal rage. “If we were back in the White House I could finish the FUCKING war in thirty minutes,” he said. “Go into Museveni’s office with the World Bank, tell him the money is OVER until you sort it out.” He looked around him. I wondered if he was going to punch someone. “Now this war will last for another twenty years.” I stared. This is the sexiest thing I have ever seen in my life. Stop it, Jane! This man was going to end a war tonight, now he can’t…Well, then he’s free later. Stop it! (p.265)
The worst part is actually imagining that John Prendergast may really be like this…
But it
s close to impossible to decipher from Bussmann’s writing what is ‘real’, what is exaggerated for the point of making a snarky comment and what is simply added to create a narrative crutch to carry the manuscript over the finishing line.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter that much. Her story is embedded in her 2005 experience and has no room for a historical perspective-which is surprising given that the whole Invisible Children/Kony 2012 aspect could have easily been exploited for cheap shots at Jason Russell and his organization-let alone more serious critique around
Hollywood’ and the American charity industry.

The basic framework (‘LRA is a crazy bunch’, they abduct and terrorize children and villages in Uganda, they commit horrible atrocities to civilians etc.) is really nothing new for anybody with even a cursory knowledge of world news in the past years.
I guess Bussmann would have had a chance to really tell a different story, or add humor, irony and sarcasm to ‘unspeakable’ situations, but the book moves to often into ‘white person encounters harsh African reality’ generalizations that fail to tell her audience anything interesting about the reality in Gulu…if I actually knew who her envisioned audience is…
The British version of her book is entitled ‘The Worst date Ever’ and I guess it refers to her meeting with Charles Otema who has a troubled history of ‘finding’ Joseph Kony and fighting the LRA

So naturally I said, “You’re in amazing shape, Colonel. What’s your secret?” He stared at me, not quite sure he’d heard right. And then, I swear to God, his whole face changed.
“Exercise! Every day I run for one hour! It is the only way to keep fit!” he said.
I stared at him, not quite sure I’d heard right. Not only did the magic celebrity question work, but a heavily armed Ugandan military officer was the only person who had even given me an honest answer.
“I bet you get up really early,” I said.
“Five o’clock!” he exclaimed, looking rattled. “How did you know?”
“Look. We all know what the Ugandan People’s Defense Force is most famous for”, I ventured, “ but how does it make you feel when you’re not appreciated for your inner talents?”
The colonel thought about the question and said, “Well, this morning we killed a rebel. You want to see?” (p.289).
Maybe this is a really clever deconstruction of news journalism, celebrity interviews and exposing tough military leaders, but if that’s the case it’s almost impossible to differentiate from ridiculous nonsense-despite the fact that Bussmann cites from an article of a ‘real foreign correspondent’ a few pages later (pp.298-300).

“Who knew war in Uganda could be hilarious as well as moving?” the book cover is quoting Pulitzer price winning New York Times columnist Nicholas “Nick” Kristof; if this quote was really in connection with Bussmann’s book, I can publicly state that Nick and I don’t share the same sense of ‘hilarity
’-but we also wouldn’t agree on other, more important aspects of the development writing industry as well...

There are plenty more endorsements around ‘black humor’, ‘laugh-until-you cry’ and someone from The Mirror attesting that ‘this book will change your life’. But as a conservative academic, humorless German citizen and merciless aid writing critic I am much less enthusiastic about Bussmann’s book and wonder whether ‘Hollywood’ really knows and cares so little about world affairs and development-and whether John Prendergast is a much nicer man in person…

The book ends where it started-in the Hollywood bubble and Bussmann pitching an idea to studios amidst polite declines:

“I love the story, but this way of doing it wouldn’t really…It’s not what we’re about here. The Constant Gardener, which did great box office internationally, that is an ideal model for us”
one executive is quoted (p.319).

I couldn’t agree more and for international development sanity I hope that there won
t be a movie anytime soon…

Bussmann, Jane: A journey to the dark heart of nameless unspeakable evil. Charities, Hollywood, Joseph Kony. ISBN 978-0-9888798-4-3, 352 pages, USD 25.95, Nortia Press, Santa Ana, CA, 2014.

No animals were harmed during the writing of this review


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