Dead Cow Road: Life on the Front Lines of an International Crisis
by Mark Wentling (Honduras 1967–69, Togo 1970–73; PC Staff: Togo, Gabon, Niger 1973–77)
$24.95 (paperback), $9.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Bob Criso (Nigeria 1966-67, Somalia 1967-68)
Dead Cow Road is an ambitious work of historical fiction told through the eyes of a Foreign Service worker assigned to Somalia during the political struggles and famine crisis in 1992. Mark Wentling combines real and fictional events with real and fictional characters to weave an engrossing and complex tale unfolding during a chaotic time in a desperate country. With over 45 years experience living and working in Africa with the Peace Corps, USAID, US Foreign Service, Care and World Vision, Wentling is well-equipped to be writing about it. He has the rare distinction of having lived or worked in all fifty-four African countries.
Ray Read is an American do-gooder, “an old-school Boy Scout” as someone calls him, who is abruptly reassigned to Somalia by the Foreign Service after his Angola assignment gets canceled following the Halloween massacre there. Few people would choose to go to Somalia, a desperately poor country with a tortured history of drought, famine, internecine fighting, and wars. Most people live on the edge of survival. At the time, the country is fractured by powerful warlords vying for power, territory, and money. Dutiful Read accepts the job.
Read’s journey starts in Addis Ababa where he attends a conference organized by the UN, US and Ethiopian government trying to broker a peace settlement with Somali warlords. After the agreement is signed, he flies to Nairobi where Somali operations are based due to the security issues in Mogadishu. Read moves on to Somalia where he is immediately immersed in a labyrinthine world of competing interests that include the US Government, UN, NGO’s, powerful warlords and various commercial players, all jockeying for often contrary goals. He artfully manages to handle it despite enormous pressures, enduring marginal living conditions and life-threatening risks.
Before long, it’s clear to Read that nearly all efforts to achieve peace and feed the hungry are ultimately futile, full of Catch 22’s and absurdities: the warlords feed US and UN rice to their goats rather than give it to the starving people around them, Somalis kidnap foreign bosses so their companies won’t leave the country and leave them unemployed, employers could be killed if they lay off Somali workers, the UN dumps expensive vehicles into the sea rather than have them stolen by the warlords, even orphanages are exploited for money and political gain. Read learns how NGOs and donors are all dependent on one warlord or another to rent houses and offices or to hire armed guards and local staff. Nothing could be done without paying something to a local warlord.
An interesting subplot has to do with Read’s unhappy marriage and his relief to be away from his impossible wife. He says little about her at first, other than obliquely referring to her as bossy, contrary, difficult and cantankerous. When he calls home after returning to the US, however, she says, “Ray, if that is you, we don’t want you here.” When he calls again, she tells her son, “If that is your useless father, tell him he is not wanted here.” When we learn that she has hit him in the head with an iron and a frying pan, she seems unbalanced and we understand part of the lure of the Foreign Service. It’s not surprising that he hooks up with a seductive Kenyan woman in Nairobi and imagines spending the rest of his life with her, an unrealistic fantasy but a brief respite from the stress. That fantasy ends when he sees her with a younger white guy in Nairobi.
President Clinton pulls the Americans out of Somalia when three helicopters are shot down and American soldiers bodies are dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Read learns his next assignment is Rwanda.
Mr. Wentling, through his character Ray Read, gives readers an outstanding analysis and an incisive understanding of the complex factors underlying humanitarian efforts and political solutions. He sees how aid programs are putting band-aids on hemorrhaging problems. He is an astute observer with a deep grasp of the Somali mind and culture: how clans, sub-clans and sub-lineage groups work, how conflicts between them underlie the wars, how Somalis will fight to the death for their clan, how Somalis respect power but distrust all foreigners, how warlords main objectives were power and profit for themselves and their clans. Most Americans come across as either naive or just resigned to doing their job and getting out of that hellhole. They are not helped by the US government’s insistence that only good new get reported.
Wentling’s many gifts as a historian, reporter, observer, and analyst are unfortunately not matched by his writing skills. He has an insider’s view of diplomacy and international politics but his story doesn’t come across as novelistic. Too many of his characters lack distinct personalities and speak in a stilted dialogue as if the words were coming out of a computer. (His finely-etched description of Jim, his roommate in Mogadishu, is a notable exception.) He clearly knows a lot but he wants to tell us too much which slows the book down and results in unnecessary tangents and tedious detail. It takes two hundred pages before Read even gets to Mogadishu. Before that, we learn a lot about Ethiopia and Kenya, interesting but it’s too much of a digression. Better editing and abridgment could have made for a more riveting story. Five hundred pages felt like a chore; less exposition and more intrigue would have helped. His fine description of the helicopters being shot down and American bodies being mutilated and dragged through the streets was gripping and cinematic, showing rather than telling. And IDP, PAO, PSYOPS, SRSG, RPG, EOT, WFP, SACB ……? Too many acronyms to remember. Foreign Service workers may have command of them but I found them onerous.
The title of the book comes from an attack on what was believed to be the house of a warlord. It wasn’t. Seventeen unarmed people were killed — teachers, poets, and intellectuals. An angry mob then killed the journalists covering the story. A dying cow bellowed for hours afterward and the road becomes known as Dead Cow Road. It’s a vivid scene and maybe an interesting metaphor for Somalia but I’m not sure it’s the best title for a book that is essentially about how cultural misunderstanding and politics interfere with humanitarian responses.
As a former Somalia PCV and someone who has followed developments there since, I found the book credible, educative and absorbing. Mr. Wentling gives us an illuminating understanding of why so many foreign relief efforts fail and he wraps it around a personal (I assume rooted in his own life) story. It’s a valuable contribution.
Bob Criso (Nigeria 1966-67, Somalia 1967-68) had a half-time private psychotherapy practice in Princeton, NJ and a half-time position at Princeton University Counseling and Psychological Services. Now retired, he is a writer, theater critic, photographer and inveterate traveler. (firstname.lastname@example.org)