Read an Excerpt
Cloud shadows carpeted the African countryside as a privately owned matatu rattled along the dusty lorry route toward the capital.
Four passengers had been on board as it rolled out of Kyotera just past daybreak. Now, as the bus neared Kampala, every seat was taken,
with nine men standing, gripping the overhead straps. Several transistor radios played incongruously—gospel, raga, soca—their signals becoming clearer as the city loomed. The passengers were villagers and farmers, many of them carrying goods to sell at the open-air markets of the city: Nile perch and tilapia, tomatoes and maize, basketware,
gourds, kikoy cloth.
In a worn wicker seat at the rear of the bus, a wizened banana farmer clutched a bark-cloth package and gazed through the sweating bodies at a spout of rain in the distant terraced hillside. The man wore a vacant expression, although occasionally he stole glances at the other passengers: at the young bearded man who nipped from a flask; at the toothless woman seated in front of him, who kept falling asleep against the window; at the burly, bare-chested man—the only one facing backwards—who held a panting dog in his arms; at the tall, handsome woman with the lovely profile on the aisle. The man was careful not to make eye contact with them, though, or to give any of the passengers reason to notice him. He had been paid to make a delivery in Kampala, and the only thing on his mind this morning was the cold bottle of pombe—fermented banana beer—and the plate of mkate mayai that he would enjoy once he returned home.
He did not think about what he was delivering, or why it might be important to someone. That was not part of his job.
The farmer closed his eyes as they came to another makeshift village,
where women were washing clothes in a creek beside the road.
When he looked out again, he saw cane and cassava fields and then a gathering of people by a banana grove, dressed up as if for church.
Two of the men, he saw, before averting his eyes, were leaning on shovels. It was the fourth funeral they had passed since leaving
The road took them past a roadhouse, where sunken-cheeked women watched blankly from under a cloth awning, and into a sprawling neighborhood of ramshackle apartments and merchant stands, where the air was smoky from roasting meats. As downtown came into view, the farmer remembered traveling here as a boy, in the years before the dictators—the shouting merchants, the bleating horns, the pungent scent of spices from the food stands, the buses and boda-bodas, the chaotic excitement of so many people sharing space peacefully.
The man got off the bus near Bombo Road and walked into the open-air market, as he had been instructed, keeping his eyes on the cracked pavement. He breathed the beef and lamb smoke, the spiced vegetables, looking at no one until he found a booth far in the back,
belonging to a fish merchant named Robinson. A nod, pre-arranged.
The man spoke the sentence he had been instructed to repeat:
“A fresh delivery for Mr. Robinson.” He was handed an envelope containing five hundred thousand Ugandan shillings—about two hundred dollars. No one else saw the exchange. Sweating in the midafternoon heat, the farmer walked back toward Bombo Road and the matatu that would take him home.
Monday, September 14, Kampala, Uganda
Charles Mallory waited in a third-story room of the old colonial-
style hotel on Kampala Road, studying the foot traffic below,
watching for men traveling alone or for anything that didn’t fit.
He liked the haphazardness of this neighborhood—a hodgepodge of apartment houses, food markets, pavement stalls—and the cover it lent him. For the past eight months, Charles Mallory had been working on a single project—a puzzle that had become a labyrinth of unexpected turns, finally leading him here, to this busy street in downtown Kampala. A project his father had handed to him just days before his death.
From a paper cup he drank the last of the sweet tea he had bought from a merchant down the street, listening to the chuk-chuk-chuk of the ceiling fan in his room, alert for any unexpected sound or movement.
Then he checked his watch: 12:46. Paul Bahdru was late.
Mallory had invested seven days in arranging this meeting, communicating with Paul through encrypted messages and other, less conventional, means. They had devised a system that was virtually impenetrable—or so it had seemed: a series of short, cryptic communiqués,
based on patterns and information that only the two of them could know. It was Paul’s idea that the exchange take place here, at a café in the bustling neighborhood where he had once lived. The meeting would be brief: Bahdru would arrive first, purchase a coffee and take a seat. When Charles Mallory determined that Paul was not under surveillance, he would go downstairs and enter the café. Paul would pass him his message and an envelope; they would separate. It would be over in less than three minutes.
Charles Mallory’s work as a private intelligence contractor often required him to deal with government power brokers and morally ambiguous businessmen who spoke their own duplicitous languages.
But Paul Bahdru was not like that—he was reliable and honorable,
and one of the bravest men Charles knew. Over the past several weeks,
Bahdru had learned details of a “high-stakes war,” as he called it, that wasn’t yet visible. Some of the information he had already passed to
Charles Mallory; today, he would give him the most important. A
specific date. Locations. Along with photos and documentation.
Mallory and Bahdru had first met in Nairobi in 1998, when
Charles Mallory was stationed in Kenya under State Department cover. Bahdru was a journalist then, a reporter for the Daily Nation,
Kenya’s largest newspaper. Through a single source, he had learned the sketchy details of a plot against American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Mallory had met with him early one morning in a coffee shop on Radio Road, and afterward relayed what he was told to
Washington—details too vague to be acted upon, although the plot,
of course, had been carried out.
Bahdru eventually left Nairobi, and journalism, but he continued to write. His essays angered several high-level African politicians and quasi-intellectuals, who considered him a dissident and dismissed his writings as Western-tainted propaganda—perpetuating the cliché
of Africa as a continent sinking in corruption and ethnic strife.
Not long after Paul resettled in the West African nation of Buttata,
his wife was brutally raped and murdered during a supposed home robbery—a crime never “solved”—and Paul himself was detained in solitary confinement for seven days for writings deemed “treasonous”
by the government. But Bahdru’s travails had made him more determined than embittered; what he discovered had to be known; and,
finally, it would be.
Charles Mallory studied the sightlines between the café and the windows of the adjacent buildings, attentive to anything unusual,
recounting the tenuous threads that had led him here, coming together and, it seemed, now unraveling. Remembering details,
phrases. “The ill wind that will come through . . . Witness to something that hasn’t happened yet . . . the October project.”
He had checked in at the hotel fifty-three minutes earlier,
using the name on his passport and identification card—Frederick
Collins—not the one on his driver’s license.
Clearly, the meeting had been compromised. For whatever reason,
Paul Bahdru was not going to show. The “why” would have to be determined later. Now, he had to find safe passage out.
He zipped up his bag and took a last look at the people walking along the wet, smoky pavement, seeing around the edges of things now. This was Charles Mallory’s first visit to Kampala in many years.
He had been pleased, after arriving from Nairobi on a Kenya Airways flight that morning, to find the city on its feet again, with functioning utilities, clean water, crowded restaurants. Although in many ways—some obvious, others not—it was still a city rebounding from the civil war that followed the 1979 overthrow of Idi Amin. As with many African countries, Uganda was a patchwork of tribes and customs,
its boundaries drawn by nineteenth-century British colonists who had come here to mine the region’s wealth. It was a sad tale that he had seen replicated in different ways in a number of Africa’s fifty-three countries, many of which had become breeding grounds for corruption and dictatorship.
Charles Mallory heard a sound: A sudden rain exploded on the tin awning above the window. He froze. Moments later, another sound.
He took a deliberate breath and reached for the telephone.
“Mr. Collins.” He listened to the other man breathing. “Hello, sir.
A package has arrived for you at the front desk. Just delivered,” the man said, speaking with a lilting Ugandan accent.
Mallory felt his pulse quicken slightly. A package. Who could know he was here?
“Yes. I’ll be right down.”
He went out, down the creaky wooden steps and along the flagstone path to the office. It was raining heavily now, thudding on the tin roofs and apartment awnings; scents of wet brick and dirt and tree bark mixed with car exhaust and the smells of meat roasting in the sidewalk stalls. Merchants huddled under plastic wraps and trash bags. It was just an hour past midday but dark like evening.
The clerk in the office was the same one who had checked him in. A thin-faced man with small, curious eyes and a slight twist to his upper lip, which gave the impression that he was smiling when he wasn’t. The man reached under the counter and set a bark-cloth package on top of the desk. A small, florist-sized envelope was taped to it, with his name, “Frederick Collins.”
“Who brought this?”
The clerk watched him steadily, his brow furrowing. “I don’t know.”
Mallory turned. Through the wet, greasy side window he saw the café down the street, where he and Paul were to have met. Above it,
laundry blowing on a line, battered now by the rain.
“What did he look like?”
The clerk lifted his shoulders, as if he didn’t understand. Charles
Mallory fished fifty thousand Ugandan shillings from his pocket.
“Not a man,” he said. “A woman. Car stopped outside. A woman delivered it and walked out.” He looked to the window and, for a moment, may have grinned.
The desk clerk gazed back at him, as if a question hadn’t been asked.
Mallory took the package and walked quickly across the terrace,
ducked against the rain, and took the stairs two and three at a time back to the room. He closed the door and twisted the deadbolt. 1:04.
Okay. He looked back at the street, at the windows of the other buildings, searching for a set of eyes that might be watching him,
a curtain pulled back. Nothing. Then he sat on the bed and sliced open the envelope, careful not to leave fingerprints. The envelope contained a single business card, with a name on it, in block letters:
Paul Bahdru. “With Regrets” was scrawled in smeared black ink below it.
Using a dry washrag, Charles Mallory placed the card and tape back in the envelope and tucked it inside a plastic wrapper in his bag.
He sat on the edge of the bed under the chuk-chuk-chuk of the fan and began to pick apart the tightly wound bark cloth. It was rectangular,
narrower than manuscript pages or a photo book. He stopped for a moment to listen to the rain, to make sure it was only that—
rain, beating the tin roof. Down below, tires skidded. Horns sounded.
What had gone wrong? Had someone followed? Or perhaps Paul
Bahdru was watching now, from another window, wanting to make sure no one saw them together. Questions to be answered later.
Suddenly, Mallory jerked upright.
He clawed faster at the edges of the bark cloth, pulling the
Styrofoam stuffing from the box.
“No! God dammit!”
The contents of the package stared back at him. It was Paul
Bahdru—his head. The open eyes looked right at him through a thin,
soiled plastic—the corners of his mouth upturned slightly, as if smiling at some final ambiguity.
Wednesday, September 16
Twenty-six hundred and seventy-three miles away, in the
Republic of Sundiata, Dr. Sandra Oku gazed numbly through her dusty windshield at the late afternoon light in the baobab trees, the fields of bell peppers and potatoes and cassava, and the devastation that had come to her village overnight.
Dr. Oku was the only health-care worker in the tiny village of
Kaarta, in the Kuseyo Valley. Designated a “district medical officer,”
she provided antiretroviral drugs to the farmers and villagers when they became available and tried to help anyone else who walked through her door—mothers and children, mostly, suffering from chronic diarrhea or skin infections or malnutrition. Many she couldn’t help, and sent to the hospital in Tihka.
She was a long-limbed, graceful woman, with large, perceptive eyes and thick hair she braided and clasped back every morning. Until that day, she had been living her life in Kaarta with a dream—the sort of dream that most of the villagers could not afford. After the rainy season,
she had planned to travel nearly a thousand miles to visit a man she had not seen in months—seven months next week, to be precise.
A man she had met in medical school, and with whom she expected eventually to share her life. But there was no room in her thoughts anymore for dreams; real life had suddenly closed in.
Dr. Oku’s most important work wasn’t distributing medicines;
it was teaching preventive methods so the villagers wouldn’t need them. Some afternoons, she closed the clinic and drove her old pick-up into town to counsel the laborers and subsistence farm workers,
and to distribute condoms to the nomadic women who worked the roadhouse along the lorry route. The women turned their backs when they saw her approaching, because they did not want to be educated, or even noticed. They wanted something else, something she couldn’t give them. Nearly 20 percent of the villagers were HIV positive,
Sandra Oku estimated, and many of them gathered at the truck stop whenever the faith healers showed up to hawk their healing potions. Over the past year, conditions had worsened in Kaarta.
Water was scarce, and some residents had taken to fetching it from streams contaminated with untreated excrement. Since the revolution last year—when the Sundiata military chief had taken over the government of Maurice Kasuva—the central government’s health ministry had made it more difficult for the rural pharmacies and health clinics to get medicines.
Hers was a tiny clinic with just four beds. Twelve-volt automobile batteries powered the electrical equipment; the lights were run by kerosene. Scalpel blades, syringes and needles were more often sterilized and reused than replaced. She had to make do with what she had and send the serious cases on to Tihka.
Dr. Oku awoke just before sunrise each morning, walked out back,
kneeled in the dirt and prayed for the people of her village. Some of them had come to depend on her, although they tried not to bother her after the clinic closed at sundown, because the clinic building was also where Sandra Oku lived. Some mornings, several of them would be sitting in the grass out front, waiting for her to unlatch the screen door.
This day, though, had been different. Something strange had arrived in Kaarta overnight. Something she had never seen before in her thirty-seven years. It began, for her, before dawn, when she had been awakened by an urgent knocking on the clinic’s back door.
“Please, please, will you come see?” A woman’s voice, speaking breathlessly, in Swahili. “Dr. Sandra! Can you come help? Please. I
can’t wake him.”
Sandra Oku pulled on a sleeveless night dress and unlatched the door, pointing her flashlight at the ground. The eyes of Mrs. Makere,
a farmer’s wife who lived across the dirt fields to the southeast, met hers with pleading urgency. Dew still glistened on the ground and in the baobab trees in the moonlight.
“What is it?”
“He won’t wake up. Nothing will wake him.”
“Okay. Let’s go see.”
Dr. Oku grabbed her bag and walked barefoot into the cool morning to her pick-up truck. It turned over after a reluctant whir-whir-whir sound. They rode together in silence, nearly a kilometer across the open plain to a cluster of mud homes where the Makeres and other farm workers lived—the route Nancy Makere must have just walked.
Like the others, theirs was a small, square-ish, mud-brick house,
reinforced with sticks and cardboard and plastic bags. A pink light hung in the sky above the rusted tin roof as they arrived. The breeze smelled of wood smoke.
Joseph Makere, a large, gray-bearded man known to work ten or eleven hours a day harvesting soybeans this time of year, was asleep on a mattress in a corner room, as his wife had said. An open window faced the lorry route and the small produce stand Nancy Makere ran.
“There,” she said.
The two women watched him, inhaling and exhaling beneath a white sheet, as if struggling for air, his eyes closed. It was an eerie sound, one Sandra Oku had heard once years before—the sound of a man about to drown in his own lung fluids.
Dr. Oku pulled a surgical mask over her face. She knelt and touched his chest, and then felt his pulse, noticed a small, dried trickle of blood extending from each nostril. Hearing a cough, she turned; one of the Makeres’ four children was standing beside Nancy now, her face glistening with a thin film of sweat.
“Where are the others?”
Nancy Makere’s eyes pointed. “In there,” she said.
Dr. Oku followed her into the other bedroom. She set down her bag. The three boys were sleeping, unclothed, on a thin mattress, two on their backs, the other on his right side, breathing with the same deep raspy sound as their father.
She knelt beside them and gently shook the shoulders of one, and another. She opened the lids of the oldest boy and saw that his eyes were bright with fever.
“Have they been ill?” Dr. Oku asked, taking the boy’s pulse. “What sort of symptoms have they had?”
“None. Last night, when they went to sleep, they were fine. We’ve been trying to wake them for—” She looked at the battery clock on a shelf by her bed. “More than fifty minutes.”
“Okay. Help me carry them to the truck. I’ll need to bring them into the clinic. They’re contagious and are going to need to be quarantined.”
“Quarantined,” she repeated, a frightened look flickering in her eyes. Nancy Makere stood still, watching Dr. Oku. “And then what?”
“Then we’ll see. I don’t know yet. We’ll give them oxygen and antibiotics and see what we can do. Help me now, please.”
The two women bundled Joseph Makere in the sheet and dragged him to the back of the truck. One at a time, then, they carried the boys, laying them on the threadbare mattress that Dr. Oku kept in the truck-bed for transporting patients. As they rode silently across the field back to the clinic, the first crescent of sun appeared above the familiar distant mountains, silhouetting random trees on the plain.
At the clinic, Sandra Oku lay the four patients on cots and began to administer oxygen to them one at a time, monitoring their vital signs. It quickly became clear that there was nothing she could do to wake them. At 7:22, Joseph Makere stopped breathing. The youngest boy died twenty-three minutes later.
About an hour before the third boy stopped breathing, a station wagon arrived from the south village fields with seven passengers,
four men and three women. Normally they would be in the maize and cassava fields by now. But Sally Kantanga, who owned the farm,
could not wake them this morning.
“Not any of them. What’s the matter with them?” she asked. Dr.
Oku saw that she was sweating profusely, even though the morning air was still cool.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m going to call Tihka Hospital on the radio.”
By ten o’clock, forty-three people had died at the clinic and in the still-moist grasses outside. Many others were lined up or lying in the dirt, waiting to see her. Sandra Oku had run out of blankets and sheets to cover the victims, and eleven of the bodies lay uncovered.
Sixteen others, including Nancy Makere, her daughter, and Sally
Kantanga, were sleeping deeply in what she had called the Recovery
Room. No one was going to recover this morning.