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The Africa of our deepest dread

In the Land of Magic Soldiers A Story of White and Black in West Africa Daniel Bergner Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 216 pp., $22

October 19, 2003|Gloria Emerson | Gloria Emerson is the author, most recently, of "Loving Graham Greene: A Novel."

"Lord, give me a heart that breaks," wrote the young American missionary in a book of prayers issued by his Calvinist church in Grand Rapids, Mich. The Lord responded by sending him to Sierra Leone, in West Africa, which for a few years in the last decade was considered by many people to be the worst place on Earth. In the United Nations ranking based on such factors as education and public health, Sierra Leone came in last.

Daniel Bergner, a deeply accomplished young writer, went to this wrecked, lost little country to write about the effects of the long civil war whose thugs in the Revolutionary United Front, often fed on drugs, made history by hacking off hands, arms, features or legs to terrify, not kill, the population. Children were not exempt.

Bergner has undertaken a huge, ghastly task, and his book is a remarkable achievement, so beautifully written, and written with such intelligence, that you will not pull away from it. To take us with him through his months in Sierra Leone, he concentrates on the lives of a few people: the white missionary and his family, an African whose hands were chopped off while he screamed and pleaded, a child in the RUF who mutilated people and ate human flesh, a white mercenary with helicopter and Gatling gun who nevertheless had hugely generous impulses, and a Westernized medical student (subsidized by the mercenary) who searched for a cure for AIDS and much else so that the multitudes could come to his country and be healed. A great novelist would be hard pressed to invent such a cast of characters.

Bergner describes what is magical and what is malign in Africa as well as anyone ever has, sometimes with the skill of a poet and sometimes in icy detail. Here is what faced Paul and Mary Kortenhoven and their threechildren in Foria, a remote and isolated village that could not have been imagined by their devout sponsors in Michigan. At night they could hear Africa:

"And while the termites feasted on the house, cobras and puff adders, mambas and Gabon vipers -- species whose bite, if it didn't kill, could leave a leg, especially a child's leg, quickly black with gangrene and treatable by nothing except amputation -- slept by the bathroom drain and slid across the paths.... They had come to a land of plagues."

But they stayed on and on, meaning to bring basic health care and safe water as well as Christianity, because Paul, the tall, bearded father, believed that the gospel meant action as well as words.

The Kortenhovens survived the war by fleeing; it was often the Africans who were trapped. The case of a 41-year-old man named Lamin Jusu Jarka is astonishing not because he survived his mutilation but because he transcended it. We are by now accustomed to the endless calamities in Africa, but what is new is this "miraculous determination," as Bergner writes -- this fierce will to overcome.

Lamin and his family were living in a suburb of Freetown, the capital, when the knock on the door came. An armed man in the usual jeans and T-shirt, caked white saliva around his mouth, wanted to take off with his 14-year-old daughter. Lamin helped her escape and then raced off himself, until his luck ran out. He was forced down on the roots of a huge mango tree while a man with an ax went to work on both hands.

Lamin's wife helped him to a local clinic, where there were real bandages. He told Bergner that he had felt a mysterious presence pushing him forward as he staggered along. Bergner writes:

"And no, he had not wished to die. For days and days he did not care, but he did not ask for it or pray for it or seek it out. And then the uncaring was over. Mostly. He was a man who had to be fed by his wife, who could not use the bathroom without someone beside him. Yet he decided there were things he had still to accomplish."

Lamin was one of a group of double amputees brought to New York by an American philanthropist, who paid for their tickets, their medical rehabilitation and their training in the use of prosthetic devices -- a skill that Lamin mastered. In the city, I took him to a Communion service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where he seemed familiar with the ritual. Hearing him recite the Lord's prayer so perfectly -- the words rusty and faltering in my own throat -- made me wonder who had once shown attention to a bright and curious boy.

It was the British who saved Sierra Leone, a former colony, from control by the RUF. In May 2000, 800 commandos landed; warships anchored off the coast. The plan was to transform the government military into an efficient, loyal force. There were fine plans. But a British major who arrived with hope confessed to Bergner: "There's no way to train these people in six months or three years or five. Maybe in three hundred."

Bergner's dark suspicions that Sierra Leone could not really be rescued are justified. But some of his darker thoughts, oddly enough, are about himself. He writes: "For at some deep level I cannot know, to a degree I cannot measure -- a degree I can only hope was slight -- I was drawn to Sierra Leone precisely because its terror and self-destruction offered me a kind of primal self-affirmation, a seductive proof, no matter how insidiously false, of the superiority of my own race." He wonders whether a black journalist would have seen the country differently. I find these ruminations strangely adolescent but am happy to report that they do not detract from a wonderful book. *

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