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Book review: 'You Will See Fire' by Christopher Goffard

L.A. Times reporter Christopher Goffard skillfully examines the adventurous life and mysterious death of American priest John Kaiser, who made turbulent Kenya his home.

December 04, 2011|By Richard Rayner, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Catholic priest John Kaiser is seen in the 1960s in Kenya, where his body was found in a ditch in 2000.
Catholic priest John Kaiser is seen in the 1960s in Kenya, where his body… (Kaiser Family )

You Will See Fire

A Search for Justice in Kenya

Christopher Goffard

W.W. Norton: 317 pp., $27.95

The body of John Kaiser, an American Catholic priest, was found in a ditch outside the Kenyan market town of Naivasha on Aug. 24, 2000. A gunshot had blown off the back of Kaiser's head. He was 67, and for years he'd been a thorn in the side of Kenya's violent and corrupt ruling regime. A supposedly thorough FBI investigation concluded that Kaiser, with a history of manic depression, had killed himself. Many others, both inside Kenya and out, believed he'd been murdered.

Christopher Goffard is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the author of a novel, "Snitch Jacket." The title of his new nonfiction book, "You Will See Fire," is taken from one of the many threats that Kaiser received, a warning whose seriousness Kaiser never doubted. Goffard skillfully assembles the details of his life and death, counterpointing these narrative strands with the story of Charles Mbuthi Gathenji, a Kenyan attorney determined to discover the truth about the case. Out of the synthesis emerges a fable of post-colonial Africa that moves like a thriller while achieving the tragic dimension associated with Graham Greene's bitter explorations of good crushed by evil in the world's far-flung places.

"He arrived in December 1964, stepping off a freighter into the harsh equatorial sunlight at Kenya's eastern port of Mombasa, into a country that had just reeled exuberantly through its first year of independence from the British," Goffard writes. Kaiser had grown up on a farm in backwoods Minnesota. He'd learned to hunt and had spent three years in the Army, serving as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, before he decided to become a priest and enrolled in Jesuit missionary school. Kaiser wanted adventure and headed to Africa, where the work exhilarated him. He undertook herculean building projects as well as baptisms and sick calls. He traversed the countryside on his Honda motorcycle.

"He took confession in the shade of eucalyptus trees and threw up churches across the countryside, quick, crude structures of red earth and river-bottom sand," Goffard notes.

A crack shot, Kaiser hunted for meat that he distributed to his parishioners. "He earned a nickname, 'Kifiaru wa Maskini': Rhino for the Poor."

Goffard thumbnails those early, almost innocent years and springs forward to the time when the furious purity of Kaiser's energy ran smack into the hard wall of post-colonial politics. This process began in earnest in 1978 when Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, the soon-to-be dictator who carried a silver inlaid ivory mace and liked to wear rosebuds in the lapels of his Savile Row suits. Moi contrived to hold onto power for more than 30 years, by stages transforming Kenya into a West-favoring police state, a country where, as Goffard writes, "paranoia became entrenched as a national policy."

The British pith helmets were indeed gone but replaced now by "a vast network of chiefs and subchiefs that provided Moi with intelligence and control all the way to the village level." Bribery and corruption became endemic, likewise torture, conveniently timed car crashes that wiped out opponents, and bungled robberies in which everybody, including the apparent criminal and the apparent victim, conveniently lost their lives. Moi kept a million dead Kenyans on the electoral rolls, ensuring that democracy tilted his way.

Kaiser witnessed land grabs, murder, rape, the horrors of a refugee camp. He'd known, even on his arrival in Africa, that he might well be risking his life for his faith. Maybe he'd even welcomed the idea. Defying his superiors in the church, Kaiser took the fight so effectively to the Moi regime that he became a threat. People pressed him to leave, but the headstrong Kaiser plowed on. It was only a matter of time, really, before the inevitable happened, and he, like so many others who had dared to oppose the sinister and all-powerful Moi, was found dead by a dusty road.

Goffard doesn't idealize Kaiser. Rather, he shows us Kaiser's idiosyncrasies, his moods, his "hard-charging, elbows-out" determination to go his own way, even if he knew deep down the likely destination would be a terrible lonely death. In this telling, Kaiser comes off as charismatic and indeed heroic, but a little mad too.

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