Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Some Unexpected Pit

Kibera School for Girls, Nairobi. Photo by Nicholas Kristof/New York Times.

And the award for single most infelicitous sentence in any David Brooks column in history goes to...
His drunken stepfather beat him constantly; when he was 5 the beating was so relentless, all the feces escaped from his body.
I always thought "getting the shit beat out of one" was just an expression.

Today's column, "The Things They Carry", is not about people carrying things, as in Tim O'Brien's great book about American soldiers in the Vietnam War, but about one person who has succeeded in not being burdened by his horrible memories, so that it might be more appropriate to call it "The Non-Things He Doesn't Carry", but that is a minor quibble.

The subject is the Kenyan community organizer Kennedy Odede, who has just published a book in collaboration with his wife Jessica Posner under the title Find me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum which is praised by Chelsea Clinton, Lonnie and Muhammed Ali, Gloria Steinem, and Wanjira Maathai, the son of Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai. He also openly acknowledges having been born in Kenya, so I'm confident he's not running for president over here.

Odede and Posner have accomplished some extraordinary stuff in the Nairobi slum of Kibera, where they run an acclaimed program, Shining Hope for Communities (Shofco), and a school for girls, but of course what interests Brooks is his "joy-filled" character and "mischievous laugh", and their contrast with the grim tales in the book:
when I read about Kennedy’s childhood, it was like descending into some unexpected pit.
It's a really appalling story, but Brooks's prose is so fatigued and repetitive that it ends up making you laugh, like Samuel Beckett but not on purpose.

Death is everywhere:
When Kennedy was 3 his cherished grandmother died after she was bitten by a rabid dog.
When he was 8, his best friend died, maybe of malaria....
Kennedy found another friend; the friend hanged himself at age 17....
During ethnic violence, four of his best friends were essentially castrated and left to bleed to death.
I don't want to know what "essentially castrated" means, or the "each week" in the report of sexual violence:
Kennedy briefly got to attend a church school, but the priest would lock him in a room and molest him each week. Two of his sisters were raped and impregnated.
Attempted crime does not pay:
Driven by hunger, Kennedy once tried to steal a mango from the market. The crowd beat him savagely...
Driven by hunger, his best friend tried to steal a purse and was beaten to death by a mob.
Another friend tried to rob a store with a toy pistol and was killed by the police.
Oddly, Brooks does not seem to know how the book ends:
Reading all this I kept wondering: How did this delightful man emerge from this horrific childhood?
Rather than finishing, he contacts Odede (whom he knows personally through his son, who did an internship or something with Shofco) by email, which enables him to stop writing altogether; the rest of the column (about half) is excepts from Odede's response.

But Brooks's curiosity is not the same as mine. I want to know how he made it to school, how he and Posner met, as always where the money came from that lifted him out of the abyss. Brooks wants to know about the spiritual aspects of his Road to Character: that he read books instead of taking drugs (good idea!), met a lot of nice people in addition to the murderers and rapists, and remembered that his mother loved him. Cool!

If you want to know anything about the actual story, which involves specific books (about Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), a commitment to social justice, and a great teenage idea for community organizing (start with a soccer club!), don't bother with this one; there's a terrific column by Nicholas Kristof from four years ago that covers it pretty well. Perhaps the reason for Odede's joy and ability to rise above trauma has something to do, as with George Eliot, Dorothy Day, and Bayard Rustin, and the rest of the cast of The Road to Character, with his belief in the things David Brooks has been opposing for his entire career.

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