Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Javier Marias conducts a survey of the republic of the literati:

"It's difficult to be moderate about the charm of these brief portraits of Rimbaud, Turgenev, Rilke, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Robert Louis Stevenson, Isak Dinesen, Djuna Barnes and a dozen other literary eminences. "The one thing that leaps out when you read about these authors," writes the acclaimed Spanish novelist Javier Marías, "is that they were all fairly disastrous individuals; and although they were probably no more so than anyone else whose life we know about, their example is hardly likely to lure one along the path of letters."


Henry James, he reminds us, took against Flaubert and Rossetti because they received him in their work smocks:

"On the other hand, [James's] enthusiasm for Maupassant knew no bounds, again thanks to a single visit: the French short-story writer had received him for lunch in the society of a lady who was not only naked, but wearing a mask. This struck James as the height of refinement, especially when Maupassant informed him that she was no mere courtesan, prostitute, servant, or actress, but a femme du monde , which James was perfectly happy to believe."

Once Arthur Conan Doyle, who was known to get into fistfights when young and who identified with knights of old, was traveling by train through South Africa:

"One of his grown-up sons commented on the ugliness of a woman who happened to walk down the corridor. He had barely had time to finish this sentence when he received a slap and saw, very close to his, the flushed face of his old father, who said very mildly: 'Just remember that no woman is ugly.' "


Kipling's "The Man Who Would be King" was the favorite story of both Faulkner and Proust. "The death of Yukio Mishima was so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life." Joseph Conrad's "natural state was one of disquiet bordering on anxiety." Violet Hunt, at age 13, offered herself to John Ruskin, later refused a marriage proposal from Oscar Wilde, seduced the homosexual Somerset Maugham, was seduced by H.G. Wells and lived for some years as the putative wife of Ford Madox Ford. Marías reminds us that William Faulkner, who once worked for the University of Mississippi post office, hated to be interrupted in his reading by "any son-of-a-bitch who had two cents to buy a stamp." He goes on:

"Perhaps that is where the seeds were first sown of Faulkner's evident aversion to and scorn for letters. When he died, piles of letters, packages and manuscripts sent by admirers were found, none of which he had opened. In fact, the only letters he did open were those from publishers, and then only very cautiously: he would make a tiny slit in the envelope and then shake it to see if a cheque appeared. If it didn't, then the letter would simply join all those other things that can wait forever."

In his preface, Marías notes that he generally writes with "affection and humour," though he confesses that he feels very little of the former for James Joyce, Thomas Mann and Yukio Mishima. The chapter on the self-important Mann is a comic masterpiece:

"Any writer who leaves behind him sealed envelopes not to be opened until long after his death is clearly convinced of his own immense importance, as tends to be confirmed when, after all that patient waiting, the wretched, disappointing envelopes are finally opened. In the case of Mann and his diaries, what strikes one most is that he obviously felt that absolutely everything that happened to him was worthy of being recorded. . . . [The diaries] give the impression that Mann was thinking ahead to a studious future which would exclaim after each entry: 'Good heavens, so that was the day when the Great Man wrote such and such a page of The Holy Sinner and then, the following night, read some verses by Heine, that is so revealing!' "

Most of these pages, adds Marías, chronicle the state of Mann's stomach and bowels or include plaintive entries like: "Sexual disturbance and disturbance in my activities when faced by the impossibility of refusing to write an obituary for Eduard Keyserling." Other entries make clear the married Mann's attraction to muscular youths, such as "a healthy young fellow with golden hair" or a young gardener, "beardless, with brown arms and open shirt," who gave the writer "quite a turn."

According to Marías -- and it's hard to argue with him -- Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano , seems "to have been the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature." An alcoholic, he was known to drink shaving lotion and his own urine. Shortly after their marriage, his first wife started going off with other men, once climbing onto a bus in Mexico "to spend a jolly week with some engineers." He tried to strangle his second wife. Twice. And he had lots of trouble with animals, once punching a horse in the ear so that it fell to its knees:

"Even sadder was what happened to a poor little rabbit that he was absentmindedly stroking on his lap while talking one night to the pet's owner and the owner's mother: the rabbit suddenly went stiff; Lowry had broken its neck with his small, clumsy hands. For two days, he wandered the streets of London carrying the corpse, not knowing what to do with it and consumed by self-loathing."

Isak Dinesen, we're reminded, married Bror Blixen, who promptly infected her with syphilis, though she took a long time before divorcing him. Here the urbane author of All Souls and Your Face Tomorrow injects one of those observations about life that seem so insightfully European: Dinesen's "husband was the twin brother of the man she had loved from girlhood, and bonds formed through a third party are perhaps the most difficult to break." He continues:

"Having syphilis obliged her, early on, to renounce sex, and seeing that there was no help to be had from God and bearing in mind how terrible it was for a young woman to be denied 'the right to love,' Isak Dinesen promised her soul to the Devil, and he promised her, in return, that everything she experienced thenceforth would become a story. That, at least, is what she told a non-lover."

Though he envies the cheerful humanity of Laurence Sterne, the character that Marías most obviously adores is the caustic, illusionless Madame du Deffand, best known today as one of the world's great letter writers, her correspondents including Voltaire and, above all, Horace Walpole. "In both youth and maturity," writes Marías, she "had known no weak passions, only overwhelming ones." He tantalizes with accounts of her early life:

"During her youth, having already been married and almost immediately separated ('Feeling no love at all for one's husband is a fairly widespread misfortune'), she had taken part in a number of orgies, to which she had doubtless been introduced by her first lover, the regent Philippe d'Orléans."

Madame du Deffand's wit is still celebrated in France. When a priest marveled at the miracle of St. Denis, who had managed to walk after his beheading all the way from Montmartre to the church that now bears his name, she answered: "The distance does not matter, it is only the first step that is difficult." She once forthrightly announced, "I find everyone loathsome." She could also be optimistic and trusting, in her fashion: "One is surrounded by weapons and by enemies, and the people we call our friends are merely the ones we know would not themselves murder us, but would merely let the murderers have their way."


Marías closes it with a longish piece about his collection of portrait postcards of writers, meditating on what the various images mean to him: The young Gide, he concludes, looks like "a professional duellist"; T.S. Eliot like "a man who has spent decades combing his hair in exactly the same way." But let me finish with Marías's reflections on a photograph of Rilke:

"Rilke does not have the face one would suppose him to have, so delicate and unbearable was he in his habits and needs as a great poet. . . . His face is frankly dangerous, with those dark circles under deep-set eyes, and the sparse, drooping moustache which gives him a strangely Mongolian appearance; those cold, oblique eyes make him look almost cruel, and only his hands -- clasped as they should be, unlike Conrad's indecisive hands -- and the quality of his clothes -- an excellent tie and excellent cloth -- give him some semblance of repose or somewhat mitigate that cruelty. The truth is that he could be a visionary doctor in his laboratory, awaiting the results of some monstrous and forbidden experiment."

One glance at Rilke's picture and you'll see that Marías's description is exactly right." (Michael Dirda, review of "Written Lives," by Javier Marias, Washington Post, Feb. 6, 2006).

Monday, February 20, 2006

Organic Intellectual

Antonio Gramsci provided us with the best explanation of how and why capitalism's brutal reign endures, and how to struggle against it. Now I am inclined to think that his personal life holds greater lessons on love, commitment, and hope:

"When I see the actions and hear the words of men who have been in prison for five, eight or 10 years, when I observe the spiritual deformations they have undergone, it gives me a cold shiver and I begin to doubt my own power to watch over myself." So wrote Antonio Gramsci to his Russian wife Julka, two years into the prison sentence that ended with his death in 1937. Gramsci's subsequent fame rests on his prison notebooks - political essays on fascism and capitalism written while in Mussolini's jails. But his letters, of which there were more than 500, tell the story behind that work. And they are a remarkable account of imprisonment.

Arrested on November 8, 1926, aged 35, Gramsci was a Sardinian-born journalist and agitator who had fought his way to the leadership of the Italian communist party. He was famous for his campaigning articles and had worked closely with Mussolini in the days when Il Duce was still a socialist and editor of the worker's paper L'Avanti. Perhaps because of this, from the moment Mussolini seized power in 1922, Gramsci knew his position was precarious. Aged 35, he was arrested on November 8, 1926 despite parliamentary immunity and sent to the prison island of Ustica, where he expected to spend five years.

His letters from Ustica are combative, optimistic and full of fascination at the strange new world into which he had been flung. He recounts seeing a pig arrested and treated as a felon and being instructed in the rivalries of the Sicilian and Calabrian mafias. He told his mother: "I felt I was living in a fantastic novel." To Julka, he wrote: "We two are still young enough to look forward to seeing our children grow up together."

But at his trial in May 1928 Gramsci was given a 20-year sentence for trying to undermine the Italian state. With most of his family still in Sardinia and Julka back in Russia with their two sons, Gramsci realised that letters were now his only means of keeping a grip on what he called "the threads of life". As he told Julka: "Every detail which I succeed in collecting of you and the children helps me to fit together a larger scale picture of what you are all doing." He asked her to "write nothing but trivialities" and berated her if she failed to keep him up to date with such things as the current height and weight of his two sons. Even in his anger, his pain at being deprived of the banal routines of family life is evident.

In an effort to reciprocate, Gramsci made the best of what prison life and the censors permitted. When he started writing to his eldest son Delio in 1929, he invited the boy to compose "a long, long letter" and in return, promised to tell him about "a rose I planted and a lizard I want to train".

Gramsci's refusal to let imprisonment prevent him from being a husband and father is especially poignant given the nature of his relationships. Delio, his elder son, was only two-and-a-half when he was arrested, while his younger son, Giuliano, had not even been born. And while Julka, whom he met in 1922 at an international congress in Moscow, was highly intelligent and a gifted violinist, she was delicate and too neurotic and self-obsessed to be of any real support to him.

This did not stop Gramsci doting on her, as the passionate declarations of love throughout the letters testify, though he did make the occasional complaint. "How little she writes," he protested to Tania, her sister, in 1927, "and how good she is at justifying herself." In 1931, Julka experienced a kind of breakdown. When Gramsci wrote: "I believe I am responsible, at least in part, for these problems of yours," he meant through the strain caused by his imprisonment. But whatever Julka's troubles, there is unintentional humour in hearing a man, facing the prospect of no release before his health gives out, apologising for the inconvenience he has caused. And as he deteriorated, Julka's failure to understand his predicament began to break his heart. "I am so isolated that your letters are like bread for the starving," he wrote in 1936, "so why do you measure the ration out so cannily?"

That January, Julka had raised the possibility of travelling to Italy to see him. This prompted one of the most poetic and moving passages in the letters as he related his recent transfer to a prison hospital: "What a terrible feeling I had, after six years of looking at nothing but the same roofs, the same walls, the same grim faces, when I saw from the train that all the time, the vast world had continued to exist, with its meadows, its woods, its ordinary people, its gangs of little boys, certain trees and certain gardens. After so many years of a life swaddled in darkness and shabby miseries, after all this, it would do me good to be able to speak to you as one friend to another. If I say this, you mustn't feel that some awful responsibility is weighing on you; all I'm thinking of is ordinary conversation, the kind one normally has between friends."

It took Julka six months to write to say that she would not be coming. When Gramsci responded, it was to say, "I no longer know what to write to you."

His efforts towards Delio and Giuliano were no less passionate, and no less frustrating. In May 1928, in the midst of his trial, he wrote: "I have just remembered that Delio will be four on 10 August and he is already big enough to receive a present that means something. Signora Pina has promised to send me the Meccano catalogue." Throughout his sentence, Gramsci remained fascinated with his children's progress, and obsessed with ensuring their intellects and imaginations were being stimulated and developed. He set them reading lists, swapped information about whales and elephants, wrote them bedtime stories and told them tales of his own childhood. "One autumn evening, it was already dark, but the countryside lay bathed in moonlight. I went with another boy into an orchard full of fruit trees," he wrote to Delio in 1932. "We hid in a bush, facing the wind. All of a sudden, the hedgehogs came out of their holes. There were five of them, two big ones and three little ones. They made their way in single file towards the apple trees, rambled about in the grass for a while and then got down to work."

When he started writing to his sons, he always signed off with a request for them to give their mother "a great big hug". And each time he wrote to Julka, he begged for extra photographs of them, boasting proudly in 1928 that the inmates had made an exhibition of their children in the prison yard, and "Delio was much admired". But as they grew older, the complaints he directed at Julka were also directed at them - why didn't they write more often? Couldn't they see how much the letters meant to him? Was the problem that they were lazy and lacked imagination, or did they no longer care?

To be fair to the boys, neither had any direct memories of their father and their strongest impression of him came from a poster on display in a Moscow park as a tribute to the enemies of fascism. It was only through this poster that the boys learned that he was in prison. Gramsci was appalled, especially as he had also been lied to, as a child, about his own father's disappearance.

But when it suited him, Gramsci also lied. His sister-in-law only learned that he had been viciously beaten - by other political prisoners, for questioning Stalin's execution of Zinoviev - from his guards. And he never let his mother know the extent of his physical decline. His family also chose not to tell him when she died in 1934, and for his last three years he addressed letters to her, believing she had made a full recovery from her final illness.

But however much Gramsci depended on correspondence, he was permitted only writing materials of the lowest quality and for limited hours. For the rest of his time, he had to find outlets for his prodigious intelligence. "Don't think for a moment that I am not continuing to study or that I am dejected," he insisted in 1931.

The idea of a more significant piece of work was first mentioned in a letter from early 1927. His initial ideas inclu-ded an essay on Pirandello and a history of Italian intellectuals. It is not clear whether Gramsci saw his notebooks as the fulfilment of those intentions, but it is certain he might never have persevered with anything had it not been for the efforts of Julka's sister Tania Schudt. While Julka remained in Russia, Tania moved to Italy, ostensibly to study, but actually to support a man whose struggle she considered with religious admiration. From the moment he was incarcerated, Tania took charge of Gramsci's affairs, ordering his books and organising his magazine subscriptions. She moved around the country to be near whichever prison he was in. She campaigned for an improvement to his conditions and formed committees to lobby for his release. She also saw it as her duty to convince Gramsci that he was a great man, the continuation of whose work mattered to humanity.

Tania's ardour gave her a wildly romanticised vision of Gramsci's position and this maddened him: "According to you I am a second Gandhi," he wrote in 1930. "I can only tell you that I am eminently practical [and] that my practicality consists of this - knowing that if a man beats his head against the wall, it's his head that breaks and not the wall."

Her enthusiasm was also a source of trouble as much as assistance. After a visit in 1928, he wrote: "I am not allowed to have anything of my own. No suit of clothes, no overcoat, nothing, not even a Vaseline tin." Every time Tania misjudged what the prison authorities considered a permissible gift or letter, Gramsci lost privileges, most painfully, the right to open and read his own mail.

If Tania was the unsung hero in the emergence of the notebooks, she was also his only advocate in the battle between the prison regime and his fragile health. Even in his youth, Gramsci had confronted tougher problems of this kind than most people do in old age. A servant girl dropped him when he was 18 months old, and he developed severe curvature of the spine. He never grew taller than five feet. His hunched and dwarfish appearance provoked horrific bullying at school and further health problems. And in 1902, even the comfort of relative prosperity was removed when his father - a local official - was imprisoned for supposed mismanagement of municipal finances, but actually for backing the wrong candidate in a local election.

At 11, Gramsci was sent to work at a local office, carrying huge ledgers that weighed more than he did. Describing the experience to Tania in a letter from 1932, he wrote: "Rarely have I known any but the more brutal sides of life, but I've always managed to get through for better or worse." Yet, by 1926, the regime to deal with the back pain, neuralgia and stomach disorders that pursued him was said to include up to 50 self-administered injections a day.

It is not surprising that once in jail, his physical deterioration was immediate. Within two years he had lost all his teeth. Recurrent flu, TB, arteriosclerosis and Pott's disease [of the spine] followed. Typically, he did not get depressed. "It's true that I can't dance on one leg," he wrote to his mother in 1931, "but sometimes I'm amazed at myself in my own powers of resistance."

Despite his fortitude, in late 1933, his health collapsed. On the advice of doctors - but only after much lobbying from Tania - he was moved to a prison clinic. As he was being transferred, his cell-mate, who had nursed him through many crises, stowed away his notebooks at the bottom of a trunk while Gramsci kept the guards distracted.

Over the next two years, Gramsci convalesced and his correspondence dwindled, but he continued to work as much as his health permitted and this is the time when most of his thoughts were gathered. He rallied briefly in late 1936, but was ill again by the beginning of the next year. In April 1937 he suffered the massive cerebral haemorrhage that killed him. His notes were smuggled out of hospital and as little as a month later, his comrade and fellow communist leader Carlo Togliatti was mooting publication. But it took 10 years for an edition to appear, perhaps due to the war and the unpopularity provoked by his criticisms of Stalin. By the late 50s, however, he was being acclaimed as a unique thinker to be considered alongside Marx and Lenin.

If that is true, then it is perhaps because it was not the production of a complete philosophy or the hastening of revolution that obsessed Gramsci, but the injustices of ordinary life, and the way they might be redressed. The answers for him lay as much in culture, humanity and compassion as they did in political theory. And while prison did not form that conviction, it tested it beyond what anyone should tolerate.

There can be no better evidence that his spirit triumphed than the last letter he sent Delio: "Darling Delio, I am feeling a little tired and can't write much. But please write to me all the same and tell me everything at school that interests you. I think you must like history, as I liked it when I was your age, because it deals with living people, and everything that concerns people, as many people as possible, all people in the world, in so far as they unite together in society and work and struggle and make a bid for a better life. All that can't fail to please you more than anything else, isn't that right?" (Christian Spurrier, "No bar to love," The Guardian, Feb. 11, 2006).

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Whiteness

Evangelical America takes its racist, irrational, and ignorant self-help crusade to Africa:

"In 2002 Bruce Wilkinson, a Georgia preacher whose self-help prayer book had made him a rich man, heard God's call, moved to Africa and announced his intention to save one million children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.

In October, Mr. Wilkinson resigned in a huff from the African charity he founded. He abandoned his plan to house 10,000 children in a facility that was to be an orphanage, bed-and-breakfast, game reserve, bible college, industrial park and Disneyesque tourist destination in the tiny kingdom of Swaziland.

What happened in between is a story of grand hopes and inexperience, divine inspiration and human foibles. Mr. Wilkinson won churchloads of followers in Swaziland, but left them bereft and confused. He gained access to top Swazi officials, but alienated them with his demands. And his departure left critics convinced he was just another in a long parade of outsiders who have come to Africa making big promises and quit the continent when local people didn't bend to their will.

The setback stunned Mr. Wilkinson, who had grown accustomed to operating on a larger-than-life scale, promising that God would enable him to achieve the impossible. "We're going to see the largest humanitarian religious movement in the history of the world from the U.S. to Africa to help in this crisis," Mr. Wilkinson predicted in June, when he believed his orphan village was about to sprout from the African bush.

Just a few months later, he found himself groping with his failure to make that happen. "I'll put it down as one of the disappointments of my career," he says.

Mr. Wilkinson's life has been all about miracles: He routinely asks God to perform them, and God, he says, routinely does. A solidly built 58-year-old, with silver hair and rimless glasses, Mr. Wilkinson led his nondenominational ministries to explosive growth over three decades, sponsoring thousands of Christian seminars and training battalions of Bible teachers.

But his life took a sharp turn after he wrote "The Prayer of Jabez," a 93-page, $10 tract published in 2000. It is based on a passage in the Bible's book of Chronicles, in which an honorable man named Jabez asked for God's favor. "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, and that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain," Jabez prayed. In the story, God granted his wish.

The lesson, Mr. Wilkinson says, is that God wants believers to ask for blessings. Those who ask -- by reciting Jabez's 33-word prayer -- unleash miracles. Those who don't ask, don't receive.

Squabbling couples should ask for happy marriages, he writes. Business executives should ask for more customers. Stuck in traffic once, Mr. Wilkinson says he asked God to delay his flight so he wouldn't miss a speaking engagement. He made his plane.

Mr. Wilkinson has recited the prayer regularly since he was a seminary student 35 years ago, and credits it for the fact that world-wide he has sold some 22 million copies of his books, including such variants as "The Prayer of Jabez for Teens" and "The Prayer of Jabez Leather Edition."

Moving to Africa

Riding his global celebrity, in 2002 Mr. Wilkinson took a three-week preaching tour of Africa, where he felt the tug of the continent's 20 million orphans, most left parentless by AIDS. As he told soon afterward: "God ripped open our chest, took out our heart, dug a hole in Africa, put it in, covered it with soil and said, 'Now, follow your heart and move down to Africa.' "

Within months, Mr. Wilkinson, his wife and their teenage daughter -- the youngest of three children -- moved from suburban Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa. He launched Dream for Africa, a Christian organization aimed at solving the problems of AIDS, poverty, hunger, orphans and spiritual emptiness.

"We asked the question, 'What does God want done with the orphans?' " he said in a June interview with this newspaper. "We don't set a goal based on resources, but on the need."

So he announced that Dream for Africa's goal would be to dramatically improve the lot of one million orphans.

The first step was intended to defeat hunger. Mr. Wilkinson consulted the Book of Genesis, noting that in Eden fruit grew on trees and grain sprang from the soil. "That's God's answer," he remembers thinking.

He recruited American volunteers, in public appearances and on the Web, who paid their own way to Africa to plant hundreds of thousands of vegetable gardens in people's yards. It was, he said, a simple idea professional aid groups had overlooked. "Because I don't come out of this arena of humanitarian aid, I have a fresh pair of eyes," he said in the June interview.

Mr. Wilkinson then turned his attention to preventing HIV transmission. He enlisted American bible-college students and young African volunteers to travel to every one of Swaziland's 172 high schools and hold weeklong film, musical and dramatic programs promoting sexual abstinence. These teams "are the answer to HIV/AIDS," say the group's recruiting materials.

Mr. Wilkinson felt a special kinship for South Africa's poor neighbor, Swaziland. Years earlier, while they still lived in Georgia, the Wilkinsons had sponsored the training of Bible teachers in the mountainous, nominally Christian country of 1.1 million people, more than two-thirds of whom live on less than $1 a day.

In 2002, a group of Swazi pastors arranged for Mr. Wilkinson to have an audience with the country's king, Mswati III. "How can I help you?" he asked the king, according to people who were there. King Mswati listed the country's woes: poverty, AIDS, orphans and joblessness.

The 36-year-old king is a controversial figure, whose 13 wives periodically draw international attention. Criticism of his polygamy stems in part from the fact that Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world, a situation aggravated by promiscuous sexual practices. Researchers estimate 42% of Swazis ages 15 to 49 carry the AIDS virus.

In response to the epidemic, four years ago the king banned sexual relations among Swazis under 18. This year, he lifted the ban and selected a new fiancée -- a 17-year-old student -- at a traditional ceremony, in which thousands of Swazi women danced topless for him. Despite his unease with King Mswati's marital arrangements, Mr. Wilkinson felt he made inroads with the king over a series of visits.

Perhaps Mr. Wilkinson's most successful venture in Swaziland was a conference in June -- funded by a $108,000 grant his group received from the U.S. government -- aimed at engaging churches in the fight against HIV. He sent buses all across the country, to pick up ministers and deliver them to a fancy hotel near Mbabane, the capital city. Dream for Africa arranged for free medical care and eyeglasses for those who showed up.

The result was that some 400 pastors got together and talked about AIDS. In answer to Mr. Wilkinson's admonitions, several ministers stepped forward to repent their own sexual transgressions. The pastors sent Mr. Wilkinson off to a standing ovation, and the U.S. ambassador considered the event a breakthrough in harnessing the church's influence to fight AIDS.

The triumph reinforced Mr. Wilkinson's sense that his destiny lay with Swaziland. Soon afterward, he signed a yearlong lease on a house in Swaziland's Valley of Heaven, where jacaranda trees drop carpets of purple petals around their trunks. With Dream for Africa's guidance, he decided, the country would become the model for the rest of Africa. "We believe we're called to it," he said in June.

It was a moment of peak optimism. There remained just one final piece, Mr. Wilkinson thought, to complete God's plans for Swaziland: a massive tourist-orphan-industrial complex.

Swazi health officials estimate there are 70,000 orphans in the country, the vast majority left so by AIDS. The number is expected to grow to 120,000 in five years. Traditionally, orphans are cared for by relatives or others appointed by village chiefs. But AIDS has gutted entire families, and the 2002 drought left many so strapped for food that some grew reluctant to take in extra children. As a result, tens of thousands of Swazi children now live in households they themselves head.

In Mr. Wilkinson's view, he was called to step in because village chiefs and traditional aid organizations had fallen down on the job. He bypassed small solutions and came up with one on a grand scale, which he called the "African Dream Village." It would provide homes for 10,000 orphans, who would live 20 to a house, with a volunteer Swazi couple in charge and elderly widows as grandmother figures.

Each home would have a bed-and-breakfast suite where tourists would pay $500 a week to stay, combining charity with an African vacation. Fifty such homes would form a mini-village of 1,000 orphans, built around a theme -- such as Wild West rodeos or Swazi village life -- to entertain guests. There would also be a new luxury hotel and an 18-hole golf course. Orphans would be trained as rodeo stars and safari guides at nearby game reserves.

The idea, Mr. Wilkinson said, was to "try to bring experiences to the kids they could only get at Walt Disney or a dude ranch."

The village would have schools, churches, medical centers and a "Mega Farm" to feed everyone. Mr. Wilkinson also planned a bible college, a cannery, a chicken farm, a bicycle factory and a truck-reconditioning plant, with water supplied by a new dam. "They'll be self-sufficient from the day they move in," Mr. Wilkinson said in June.

A $190 Million Price Tag

Dream for Africa put the price tag for the project at $190 million. His group projected the Dream Village would generate $12 million a year in revenue, and would create jobs for five doctors, nine firemen, 12 masons, one entomologist, two wildlife specialists and 68 pastors, among many others.

To enlist support among Swazi power brokers, Mr. Wilkinson turned to Nan Jarvis, a devout Christian who had long run a local flower shop. She says she had prayed for business success and soon found herself supplying arrangements for the king's birthday, and for cabinet ministers and their wives.

A Prayer of Jabez fan, Ms. Jarvis, 52, put her connections to use to help further Mr. Wilkinson's plan. Her devotion to him deepened last year, when, she says, she died and went to heaven. Jesus emerged from a cloud, she says, and told her, "Your time has not yet come. You must go back...Take care of my lambs." It was, she felt, a sign to press ahead with the orphan village.

Ms. Jarvis and Mr. Wilkinson roamed the Swazi countryside until they found the right property: 32,500 acres near two of the country's best game reserves, home to white rhino, crested eagle, warthog, gnu, lion and other species.

Late last year, Mr. Wilkinson asked Ms. Jarvis to tell the king what he had in mind and what he wanted: a 99-year lease on the land and control of both game parks.

In the following months, Mr. Wilkinson pitched his plan to government officials and, he says, secured verbal commitments. In February, the king invited him to tour the small airport near the proposed orphan village. Mr. Wilkinson said an upgrade was imperative because he required an airport big enough to land Boeing 777 jets filled with Western volunteers and tourists.

It wasn't until Feb. 23, however, that Dream for Africa gave the government anything in writing -- a 34-page proposal.

Mr. Wilkinson gave the government five days to approve the plan. "They knew all about this for a long time," he says, explaining the short deadline. Mr. Wilkinson and his aides sent letters to government officials, threatening to take his orphan village to Zambia or South Africa if the Swazis didn't sign up.

In a letter to the prime minister, a project consultant with Mr. Wilkinson's group wrote, "Given the fact that Swaziland has been placed on the heart of DFA by God through devoted prayer, we believe the country has reached a major juncture in its quest to take ownership of its problems and to embrace God's divine will for Swaziland."

The government let the deadline pass. Mr. Wilkinson didn't make good on his threat to go elsewhere.

In April, Ms. Jarvis secured an audience with the king at the palace, where peacocks wander the grounds. As a sign of respect, nobody may rise higher than the king; Swazis approach him on hand and knee. Ms. Jarvis sat at the king's feet in a reception room, spread a map on the floor and pointed out where the hotel, the golf course and the orphans would be located.

"Your majesty, are you happy with this?" Ms. Jarvis recalls asking the king.

She recalls him raising his hand above her head and saying, "You have my blessing." It was, as far as she was concerned, the green light.

Roy Fanourakis, the king's chief of staff, who attended the meeting, says he doesn't remember King Mswati using those exact words. Mr. Fanourakis says that Ms. Jarvis didn't understand that the Swazi king is too polite to give a guest a definitive, "No." The king's response, he says, was a signal Mr. Wilkinson was welcome to help the orphans, but should consult with the government on how.

Mr. Fanourakis had misgivings about the Dream Village concept, shared by many in the cabinet. "You get to an age of 18 years, then what does Bruce do with those kids?" he says.

One problem, he felt, was that if the orphans were removed from their villages, the chiefs would give away the children's land -- their only security. Furthermore, Mr. Wilkinson was asking for big tracts, some of it already committed to other people, Mr. Fanourakis says. The Hlale game park, for instance, was managed by a Swazi environmental group that had run it for decades.

In May, Mr. Wilkinson tried to win the Bush administration to his side. In a convoy of SUVs, he took U.S. Ambassador Lewis Lucke to the proposed site of the Dream Village. Mr. Lucke had served in Haiti, Jordan and Iraq, much of the time with the U.S. Agency for International Development. He admired Mr. Wilkinson's enthusiasm and altruism, but was wary of groups with little overseas history claiming to know the answers for Africa.

A few days later, Mr. Lucke showed up at Mr. Wilkinson's door and told him he considered it unwise to move orphans away from their villages. "It's laudable that you're trying to do something about Swazi orphans," Mr. Lucke told Mr. Wilkinson, according to both men. "But do it in a way that doesn't conflict with Swazi culture."

Mr. Wilkinson felt the situation was so urgent that the time for cautious measures had passed. Mr. Lucke wasn't persuaded, and he didn't think the Swazi government would be either. "You'll never get the land," he warned.

The ambassador's words seemed prophetic a couple of weeks later, when a Dream for Africa draft plan found its way into Swazi newspapers, turning public opinion sharply against Mr. Wilkinson. Under the headline "British Colony or Dr Bruce Colony?" one op-ed writer in the Swazi News wrote, "Why can't he simply tell us that he wants to be given the whole country so that he can gloat to his friends overseas that he owns a modern day colony in Africa called Swaziland?"

Touching a Nerve

In a country where land ownership provokes deep emotions, Mr. Wilkinson's request for a prime tract touched a nerve. Colonizers offered previous royals mirrors and other trinkets in exchange for land. In the 1970s, a British evangelist won the support of King Mswati's father, promised do-good projects that turned out to be hoaxes and ran off with the money people had donated.

"Are We Really a Nation of Fools?" asked an op-ed in the Times of Swaziland, after the Dream for Africa plan surfaced.

The outrage spread to organizations that Mr. Wilkinson had accused of failing the orphans. "The history of these kinds of grand-scale 'social engineering' experiments is not very promising," Alan Brody, an American who headed the local Unicef office, told the Times of Swaziland. "So I have deep misgivings about Swaziland making itself the guinea pig for this kind of experimentation."

Unicef's strategy is to fund neighborhood stations, where orphans receive two meals a day, six days a week.

The criticism stung Mr. Wilkinson. He considered the attacks evidence that the aid establishment was too self-interested. "From my point of view, they aren't concerned enough about the kids who are living without anybody," he said days after Mr. Brody's remarks.

Swazis even became suspicious of Mr. Wilkinson's other, more popular endeavors. In one town, an American volunteer wore latex gloves while planting a Dream for Africa garden, and rumors spread that the group was intentionally planting seedlings infected with HIV. As many as 100 families ripped up their gardens. The agriculture minister issued a statement debunking the rumor, but it persisted for months.

The government and Dream for Africa continued negotiating in private. "Swaziland takes a massive amount of effort to do the simplest things," Mr. Wilkinson wrote in an email to this newspaper in July.

As Mr. Wilkinson's frustration mounted, Ms. Jarvis tried to arrange a decisive meeting between him and King Mswati during the monarch's visit to New York in September. Mr. Wilkinson, then spending a few months in the U.S., juggled his schedule and flew to New York.

The king's chief of staff, Mr. Fanourakis, agreed to set up the audience, but only at a time that would have required Mr. Wilkinson to wait in New York a few extra days.

The perceived snub was, Mr. Wilkinson says, his snapping point. He left New York without seeing the king and soon afterward let his inner circle know that he was done with Swaziland, done with Africa and done with Dream for Africa.

In October, Dream for Africa issued a press release in the U.S. under the headline: "Dream for Africa Expands its Leadership." It announced Mr. Wilkinson's resignation, and his replacement by a Toronto marketing executive. Dream for Africa would continue "its meteoric rise in popularity" through the gardens and abstinence training, the release said. It didn't mention Mr. Wilkinson's decision to abandon the orphan-village project.

"With the successful launch of Dream for Africa, my family and I feel our work in Africa is complete," the press release quoted Mr. Wilkinson as saying. In an internal email, he told his staff that, to his great regret, God had directed him to leave Africa.

A Dream for Africa spokeswoman estimates the group raised about $500,000 this year, most of it for the gardens and the abstinence programs. Mr. Wilkinson says he put his own money into Dream for Africa projects, but he declines to say how much.

Word of Mr. Wilkinson's decision slowly reached Swaziland, where it dismayed his followers. "I don't know how to handle this," said Rev. Zakes Nxumalo. "People won't understand; to them Bruce is everything," he added. "How can he leave everything in the middle of the road?" asked 22-year-old Gcina Mdluli, who has taken a vow of sexual abstinence and now volunteers full-time in Mr. Wilkinson's school anti-AIDS programs.

Mr. Wilkinson says that he blames neither God nor man. He says he weeps when he thinks of his disappointed acolytes, and is trying to come to grips with a miracle that didn't materialize despite his unceasing recitation of the Jabez prayer.

"I asked hard enough," he added, his gaze drifting upward. "All we can do is ask God what to do, ask him to help us in the doing of it, and work as hard and wisely as we can. Somewhere in this it's got to be all right to attempt a vision that didn't work and not to make it an overwhelming failure." (Michael M. Phillips, "Mr. Wilkinson Hits Wall Trying To Push 'Orphan Village'; Rodeo Stars, Safari Guides Feeling Snubbed by the King," The Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2005; Page A1).

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

"Political Power Grows Out of the Barrel of a Gun" (With Apologies to Chairman Mao)

Courtesy of, some quotable quotes from officials in China:

(1) "Children, please stay still and let the leaders leave first!" (At the fire disaster of Kelamayi, Xinjiang, a city educational committee worker used a megaphone to address the frightened elementary school students) (Additional note: there were 323 deaths, of which 288 were elementary school students; more than 20 officials were evacuated safely but many were later sentenced to jail terms for dereliction of duty. The other deaths included school teachers who tried to use their bodies to shield their students).

(2) "Wasn't it just a few children who died? What is the big deal?" (After the Shalan flash flood, an official told the distraught victims) (Additional note: More than 100 students perished)

(3) "Let us know after he is dead!" (Before Hengyang resident Zhang Hengsheng was frozen to death on the roadside, a civil affairs bureau official told the peasant who came to ask for assistance).

(4) "Do not give this stuff. I have seen a lot of that already!" (A Dingzhou government official told the villagers who were kneeling in front of him to beg for help)

(5) "China is very safe. There is no SARS. You are welcome to tour!" (A Department of Health official told the outside world when SARS was around)

(6) "The surgery is good for them. We considered that this was a matter of public interest, and so we did the operation." (In Jiangsu province, Nantong city, two 14-year-old mentally handicapped girls at the Child Welfare Insitute was sent to the hospital for uterus excision. This was what the doctor said afterwards).

(7) "Whether there was injustice should really depend on the final outcome. This case began with a mistake and then it was rectified. Doesn't this show that the administration of justice was fair?" (The She Zhenglin case in which the man was jailed 11 years for a crime that he did not commit. A court deputy director gave that answer to the media)

(8) "I thought that I was a public servant. Therefore, my food, clothing and expenses should be paid by the public." (That was what former Guangdong province Shanwei deputy mayor Ma Hongmei said after being arrested for corruption)

(9) "If your heart is still there, then your dreams are there. But you have to start all over again!" (Words from a CCTV advertising song to encourage laid-off workers)

(10) "You should go and find whoever told you to work. The government does not owe you any money!" (An official in the Heilongjiang province Jixi city government said that to the migrant workers who were petitioning to get their wages paid)

[posted on ESWN].