“A Peace of Africa, Reflections on Life In The Great Lakes Region”

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

In the US, the career track for “development work” is pretty well laid out: it starts with a degree from a “quality” college. Season that with a bit of “on the ground” foreign experience (the Peace Corps will do). From there, snag a slot at a NGO (nongovernmental organization), hang on and climb the ladder, through tours overseas alternating with stints in the US, especially in or near Washington DC or New York City. Rinse and repeat until retirement.

The pay is good (on the higher rungs, very good), and with advancement the prospects even better: executive status, control over a big-budget, slick PR, professional fundraising. And lots of travel to great hotels in exotic locations. This cozy world was spoofed by one of its own in a 1976 piece of doggerel called “The Development Set.” A few lines:

Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet
I’m off to join the Development Set . . . .

The Development Set is bright and noble
Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
Although we move with the better classes
Our thoughts are always with the masses.

In Sheraton Hotels in scattered nations
We damn multi-national corporations;
Injustice seems easy to protest
In such seething hotbeds of social rest . . . .

    From this angle, David Zarembka started out right: he went to Harvard, took time off to teach refugees in Tanzania, and returned to Africa after graduation with the Peace Corps. There followed a move to Pittsburgh and a graduate degree in international development. So far, so good.

    But then something, or maybe many things) happened which pulled him in another direction. For one, he early on decided to have nothing to do with war, and registered as a conscientious objector to the military draft. Then, at Harvard, he wandered into Cambridge Friends Meeting, and took to Quakerism at once. “From that first meeting,” he writes, “I have never looked elsewhere as I had found my spiritual home.” (xvii)

    But if religion was settled, not much else was.  He began a PhD program, but didn’t finish; through the 1970s and 1980s, Zarembka was involved in a number of  local projects around Pittsburgh and some other cities. There was a marriage to a Kenyan woman, two kids, a divorce, and ultimately a move to the Washington DC suburbs.

    Zarembka doesn’t say much about these years; but as a fellow member of the 1960s generation, your reviewer can make out a pattern: the Establishment path didn’t work out, or perhaps didn’t seem right; maybe it was something about all the wars, and so much money and waste, even in so-called charity? But with his interests, if Zarembka was not to join “The Development Set,” what then?  If one wasn’t wealthy (and he wasn’t), was it still possible to pay the bills, support one’s kids, and yet maintain any of the burning idealism of the intense earlier years? (For a great many onetime 1960s dropouts and rebels who lacked a trust fund, this was a hard question to face; been there, done that.)

    Zarembka’s answer was a definite yes; definite, but not immediate. In fact, the ultimate answer did not take shape for more than twenty years. An interim solution was to pick up a hammer: “In 1986, when I was out of work, I started helping some friends repair houses. . . .

Zarembka -Book Cover

I would stand up in Quaker meeting after worship and say, ‘Who needs to have their house fixed?’ From then on, I would have enough work to fill my availability. I had learned to live frugally, and . . . more important for me was that it gave me a lot of flexibility to pursue peace and justice issues.” (162)

    One such issue was peacemaking in the war-torn “Great Lakes” region of East Africa, including Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya. And in the late 1990s, concern, experience and talent finally came together: Zarembka helped launch the “Africa Great Lakes Initiative,” (AGLI) and became its Coordinator. About this time he met his second wife, Gladys Kamonya from western Kenya, at Bethesda Meeting in Maryland. After their marriage in 1999 this peace concern moved to center stage. By 2005, the couple had gathered their resources and built a house in Lukamanda in western Kenya. He has lived and pursued his ministry of peace work there ever since.

    AGLI has grown into a major Quaker peace project, which has worked to overcome the legacy of war and genocide in several countries. It has also brought many U.S. Friends, particularly younger ones, across the ocean to join in its projects at the ground level. Much of A Peace of Africa is devoted to describing the work. AGLI uses techniques drawn from the Alternatives to Violence Program and adapted to the African context in workshops that focus on “Healing and Restoring Our communities.” While its workshops have been successful across several countries, AGLI still has plenty to do: the bloody legacy of colonialism and war there is far from being overcome.

    But rather than summarize that programmatic history, I want to take note of AGLI as an example of Quaker “social entrepreneurship.” It is a unique project which was built from the bottom up, on a shoestring budget, and catalyzed by the unique skills, knowledge and dedication that David Zarembka had accumulated over nearly half a century of work, travel and reflection.     Such “social inventions” are not uncommon in the record of Friends witness, but the phenomenon receives less attention than it should. Indeed, some now-venerable bodies have a similar pedigree: for instance, the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), which is today a pillar of whatever Quaker “Establishment” there may be, is nonetheless the lengthened, institutionalized shadow of one dogged, determined Quaker, E. Raymond Wilson. Wilson literally built FCNL from nothing, beginning in 1943, into the very first full-time church lobby in Washington.

    The Alternatives to Violence Project, invented by Quakers but not specifically identified in denominational terms, is another example, with a lower public profile but a much broader geographical reach than FCNL.

    A third, in a very different and specific setting, is Quaker House of Fayetteville, the peace project next door to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. While something of a committee creation, Quaker House is in its 45th year of active witness in the very maw of one of the key outposts of the war machine; it has survived firebombing and isolation, yet seems to be thriving, on a relatively tiny budget.

    The decentralized character of Quaker polity is an encouragement to such creative ventures; the lack of big pots of philanthropic grant money is a useful spur. Whereas Mother Teresa’s biographer describes how she waited in anxious uncertainty year after year for her mission projects to be cleared by tiers of bishops, archbishops and then the Vatican (Kolodiejchuk), Zarembka (like Raymond Wilson) could join with interested Friends and get going, to sink or swim without needing clearance from any Quaker “Rome.” AGLI, like FCNL,  AVP and Quaker House, has proven to be a strong, resilient “swimmer.”

    The range of experience he brought to this mission, and the intensity of the work itself, combine to give Zarembka a unique and often trenchant perspective on several matters seemingly incidental to AGLI’s main work, yet in my view of much potential value to Quaker readers of all stripes. For me, these insights are as important value to american readers as the book’s main topic of describing his peace work in Africa. We’ve already pointed out one, how AGLI’s growth embodies a persisting Quaker strain of invention and entrepreneurship in witness. Other aspects could be more controversial.

    For instance, take “racism” and “tribalism.” Going back and forth between the US and Arica, and working in war-torn countries such as Rwanda, has left Zarembka with very mixed feelings on this fraught subject. For one thing, he underlines the fictive, shifting, ambiguous character of racial designations:

“We live in a murky world of make-believe identities,” he writes, “which are important only because they are used to control who has power and have such negative, even deadly effects on people’s lives.”(72)

    (One such shifting identity is economic: in the U.S., Zarembka’s house and its comforts would be considered modest, barely middle class; in Kenya he and Gladys are “rich.”)

    Another, famous example of such “murkiness,” he argues, resides in the White House: “During the 2008 election, Barack Obama was seen in the United states as “black” and much has been made of the fact that he is the first African-American US president. He was labeled ‘black’ and his racial identity has little to do with his upbringing because he was brought up completely by the ‘white’ side of his family. [But] if he had grown up in Kenya, he would have been labeled ‘white.’ This is because the [Swahili] word mazungu, which is used even in English, to denote ‘a white person,’ in fact means ‘stranger.’ Someone who is racially mixed is therefore unusual and acquires the label ‘mazungu.’” (70)
Zarembka’s daughter Joy has published a book, The Pigment of Your Imagination: Mixed Race In a Global Society, in which she recounts how, though labeled “black” in the US, she was considered “white” in Kenya. (Zarembka)

    More broadly, much of Africa’s bloodiest recent history has involved manipulation of these slippery categories, not only “race,” but also “tribe” and “ethnicity.” Zarembka points out how the Hutu and Tutsi “tribes” in Rwanda, whose rivalry erupted in genocide in 1994, were entirely artificial and arbitrary entities, invented and imposed by European colonial overlords, particularly the Belgians. Turning to South Africa, he notes sadly how little the triumph of the African National Congress in South Africa has done for the mass of black African population there:

Those elite guerrilla fighters in South Africa now control the South African government themselves. These elite feel that they “sacrificed” during the freedom struggle. Now they feel that they are due just rewards, The result has been a focus on enriching this small segment of the black population as they enter the wealthy, privileged society of formerly white-only South Africa. Those at the bottom have been mostly ignored except for the rhetoric occurring during elections. (145)

A similar pattern has followed many other coups and insurgencies against colonial or other oppressive regimes. Zarembka observes:

The excuse that one must resort to armed conflict because of tribal injustices is just a smokescreen. . . . .The real reason is power. Rebels who loot, destroy and kill in their own homeland gain power in the government and then go about looting the whole country.

His conclusion is emphatic: “Any appeal to tribe, ethnicity, race or other construct should be looked upon with suspicion and in no case can this be a justification for destroying, looting, and killing in one’s country. . . .The answer to this problem is not supporting the group with the latest grievances, but to develop mores and institutions that promote equitable sharing of a country’s resources and strong protection of minority rights. This is how multi-ethnic countries survive and prosper.” (145, 147)

    It is easy enough for US Quaker readers to nod agreement with Zarembka’s sharp comments in their African context. But what if the same stringent analysis were applied to the numerous “anti-racist,” “affirmative action” and “diversity” initiatives underway among us? How would they fare? Is it even permitted to ask the question?

    As might be expected from his idea that racial/tribal appeals are usually pretexts for power and money lust, Zarembka is also eloquent on the issue of corruption in the societies he works in, particularly his adopted homeland. “Kenya is noted for being one of the more corrupt countries in the world,” he notes. But he also rightly points out that this shoe also fits on the other foot: major companies and banks in rich nations, definitely including North America, abet and profit from this pervasive corruption; further, the US, particularly in our recent wars, has tolerated corruption on a scale all but unimaginable in previous human history. (282)

    But for him, its pervasiveness is no excuse. He stoutly rejects the common assumption “that because corruption is so common, it must be tolerated.”(282) Still, few of his likely readers will have much influence on multinational corporations who pass out multi-million dollar bribes to their African clients. Unfortunately, the attitudes and behaviors modeled at the elite level with millions of dollars at stake filter down to projects and groups that we smaller fry do interact directly with (and donate to), NGOs and even Quaker charitable and development programs.

    In Kenya, corruption, thievery, bribes and embezzlement have many slang names: chai (tea), soda, kitu kidogo (a little something). By whatever name, Zarembka’s judgement on it is equally plain:

In the years I have lived in Africa . . . I have opposed this whenever I have seen it. On at least two occasions, people who I was accusing of embezzlement threatened to kill me. I have received numerous nasty emails. I  have been called names – bully, CIA agent, “big brother” are some of them. Yet those Africans who oppose those embezzling funds have always been supportive of my stance and this has led to a strong following. (293)

    Unfortunately, widespread embezzlement and theft of funds have been endemic for many years in too many of the US-supported Quaker mission projects in Africa, and many US Quaker sponsors have chronically winked at, covered up, made excuses for, or otherwise enabled this corruption. One mission executive there told this reviewer that much of this Friend’s work time was spent, not on the program, but on ensuring that the program’s limited budget was not looted. A handful of American Friends have raised cain about this, in yearly meetings and elsewhere, and the Quaker agencies have made some response; but the problem, and habits of denial  continue. Zarembka’s counsel to US Quaker donors is detailed and straightforward. His bottom line:

“When theft, misuse, wastage, or unacceptable accounting is encountered, the donor must pursue these problems with the same diligence they would use for a similar case in their home country. Corruption cannot be excused under any rationale. . . . In short, fiscal responsibility should be a top priority for anyone sending funds to programs in Africa.” (295)

Charitable corruption is not confined to Quakers or their small-scale projects. Many internationally-known NGOs there have much dirt (and blood) on their corporate hands also, and they come in for a fierce scolding by Zarembka, who devotes a whole chapter to the subject. As AGLI developed outside the world of “The Development Set,” he feels no need to protect their image.

    Indeed, Zarembka waxes more caustic than poetic in his observations about the large NGOs and their programs in African countries around him: “While . . . (NGOs) often have stellar reputations in the US and Europe, many of them are not well-regarded in Africa. Many Africans have concluded that the billions of dollars donated for their benefit are, instead, eaten up by the NGOs themselves through overhead and greed.” (259)

    He is not alone in this dim estimate. In 2010 New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch penned a searing account of ways in which NGOs had enabled warlords and terrorists in numerous conflict areas in Africa in pursuit of their corporate interests, as documented by a brave Dutch reporter. (Gourevitch)

    Zarembka has seen his share of these abuses. Two examples: first, in the capitals of Burundi and Rwanda, he photographed huge new mansions that were built specifically to be rented to foreign NGOs for thousands of US dollars per month, “clearly out of the range of any African except the elite,” Zarembka fumes.

    More common, and equally insidious, is the widespread NGO practice of paying “sitting allowances”: “Many international NGOs pay ‘sitting allowances’ for people to attend meetings, seminars, workshops and other activities promoted by the NGOs. This might surprise you – people are paid to be involved in learning activities for their own benefit. Sometimes this pay is significant. . . . No wonder people want to attend and give glowing reports of how good the workshops were that day.” He notes that one of the Swahili terms for for these payments is “chai,” which as we have seen, informally means a “bribe.”

    Zarembka will have none of it. “It is AGLI’s policy not to pay any ‘sitting allowances,’” he insists. “Because of this, we are at total odds with the prevailing custom of of other NGOs . . . .”  (272) He notes that for some of his workshops, a few of the participants refuse to come, or leave when they learn they will not be paid. This does not trouble him. “[AGLI’s] workshops are voluntary and that is critical to their success,” he insists. “If people were paid, it would be an inducement that renders them no longer ‘voluntary.’ Do these other NGOs who pay sitting allowances think their activities are so unproductive that no one will come unless they are paid?”

    Besides which, “If sitting allowances were given, we could not trust the positive evaluations we receive and the motivations for requests for more workshops.” Moreover, when payments are part of the deal, local recruiters often fill up workshops with family and cronies, and then demand kickbacks from participants. Zarembka admits that “our refusal to pay sitting allowances gives us a lot of problems. NGOs have spoiled the environment and we are trying to change that environment.”(273) And he’s not giving up.

    There is much more to his indictment of NGO misbehavior, not least that too many come and go with the winds of the latest media-hyped disasters, often leaving local communities in the lurch, projects uncompleted, previous catastrophes only barely relieved. I’ve seen some of the same failings in US NGO projects, and consider Zarembka’s complaints well worth exploring further. And finally, as this review was written, these years of labor for David Zarembka and his Kenyan colleagues were moving toward a historic test: Kenya has scheduled a national election for March 2013.

    The last national vote, in December, 2007, was marked by widespread violence, which left more than a thousand dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, and produced an extended post-election power struggle. Just a few months earlier, in March 2007, Zarembka had moved permanently into the Kenya home he and his wife had built in Lukamundu. He admits that, “In retrospect, I marvel at how oblivious I was to the impending political violence . . . .” (197) But he and other Kenyan Friends got busy working to limit the violence, and more recently, to help prevent a repeat this year.

I, like most other people, am left with the fear that at the next election . . . there will be renewed violence, perhaps even worse than in early 2008,” he writes. “On the one hand, this fear is a great motivator to do peacemaking work, but on the other, it is an unsettling feeling of potential doom. The optimistic and pessimistic parts of me – and I think of most people in Kenya – vie with each other about that future. (231)

  By the time this review gets into print, the election will be nigh and we’ll know more about whether and how his and  AGLI’s efforts have “paid off” in a more peaceful vote. Already, by mid-February, there had been widespread, if sporadic violent incidents, and tensions were running high. But “win or lose,” the AGLI’s peace work will continue, and he with it as long as he can. Zarembka’s is a distinguished example of inventive and focused Quaker peace witness across national and cultural lines. We need more like it, and more stories like A Peace of Africa.

Works Cited

Coggins, Ross, “The Development Set,” is online in many places, including: http://shores-system.mysite.com/development_set.html

Coggins, Ross: obituary: http://www.kalasfuneralhomes.com/sitemaker/sites/George2/obit.cgi?user=424623Coggins%20

Gourevitch, Philip. “Alms Dealers: Can you provide humanitarian aid without facilitating conflicts?” The New Yorker, Oct. 10, 2010. Online:

Kolodiejchuk, Brian, M.C., Editor. Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light — The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta.”  Image Doubleday,  2007.

Zarembka, Joy M. The Pigment of Your Imagination: Mixed Race in a Global Society. Madera Press, 2007.


*Peace of Africa, Reflections on Life In The Great Lakes Region. David Zarembka. Madera Press, 350 pages.

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