Book Review: The Emperor and the Elephants

Upscale Shack readers will recall my 2014 review of Dr. Richard Carroll’s first book 2000 Miles around the Tree of Life, which recorded the author’s experiences hiking the Appalachian Trail from start to finish in the mid 1970’s. In his latest book, The Emperor and the Elephants (ISBN: 1935925709), Carroll recalls his Peace Corps service in the Central African Empire (today known as the Central African Republic, or CAR), in the late 1970’s, and his subsequent years working as a conservationist in Central Africa .

Richard Carroll has been a mentor during my career; and our chosen career and life paths, though separated in time by a couple of decades, have been strikingly parallel. Like Carroll, service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa launched my career in conservation, which took me to WWF, where our parallel paths converged. We worked together for more than 10 years, and did our best to inject a dose of pragmatic reality into the often-insular bubble of a DC-based conservation NGO.

Peace Corps is a fraternity, and former volunteers are united by experience, regardless of where we served. We share the scars from our common battles, whether from bouts with malaria or parasitic infections. We have similar tales of terrifying bus trips or encounters with robbers or pick-pockets. But invariably, the core unifying experience is that each of us has at some point been deeply touched, even shaken to the core, by a realization of the things that unite all human beings. In immersing ourselves fully into a foreign culture, we have learned that there is only one human race; that although we may come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors, our differences are trivially insignificant compared to our similarities. The epiphany may come while eating a humble stew of “marathon chicken” in a farmer’s dimly lit mud hut in Western Kenya or in witnessing the birth of a friend’s newborn baby in a grass hut in Central Africa. It comes to each Volunteer in a unique way at a unique moment, but we emerge from it a better and more empathetic human being, wiser and more humble for the experience.

Carroll served as a fisheries extensionist in CAE/CAR. His technical sector was fish-farming, helping rural people set up small-scale aquaculture projects. Carroll rode a Peace Corps-issued motorbike in the 1970’s. By the time I served in the mid-90’s, so many Volunteers had been hospitalized from motorcycle accidents that Peace Corps switched to pedal power, issuing us mountain bikes and forbidding motorcycle riding under threat of immediate ET (Early Termination. Peace Corps, like other government agencies, is rife with acronyms, and Volunteers have an extensive vocabulary of PC-specific acronyms). We traded reduced efficiency of our areas of coverage for bulging calf muscles and improved cardio-vascular health, with the added bonus of a reduction in traumatic brain injuries. Carroll relates a tale of his harrowing motorcycle accident and injuries that helps explain the rationale behind this switch.

Richard Carroll bore witness to an incredible era in African history, the rise and fall of the Central African Empire under Emperor Bokassa. While relatively short-lived compared with other African dynasties, such as Mobutu’s long reign in neighboring Zaire, the Bokassa regime made up for its relative brevity with more than its fair share of atrocities, including accusations of cannibalism by the Emperor and the massacre of around 100 primary school children whose only crime had been protesting the requirement to purchase and wear uniforms bearing the Emperor’s image. But while The Emperor and the Elephants takes place during this era, the story it tells is entirely Carroll’s, not the Emperor’s. It is a tale of the author’s experiences, not an historical accounting of the atrocities of an eccentric dictator.

Volunteer service, immersion in African cultures, deep friendship and relationships with Africans, and years of working on the continent have forged a unique cadre of people that I describe as Africanists. I would advise running quickly in the opposite direction from someone who describes himself as an “expert” on Africa. But an Africanist is something different, someone humble enough to realize that no one can ever be an expert on an ancient and vast continent of over a billion people speaking thousands of different languages.

An Africanist is the opposite of the romantic and paternalistic Karen Blixen of Out of Africa (“I had farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills”), or the naïve and disturbingly patronizing Kuki Gallman in I Dreamed of Africa. The Africanist views the continent with a lens that is less moralistic, less judgmental, but more human. More empathy, less sympathy. Africanists are the type of people who would rather sip home-brewed sorghum beer or palm wine while sitting in the shade of a mango tree talking in the local language with farmers than drink Pimm’s with khaki-clad expats and foreign correspondents at the country club in the capital city.

Those types make the Africanist extremely uncomfortable. They are the type who coined an expression that irritates the Africanist to no end, the dreadful TIA (This is Africa). Plane delayed? TIA. Development money stolen by a kleptomaniacal dictator to build a new mansion? TIA. Disease outbreak? TIA. Emperor kills 100 protesting school children? Oh well, TIA.

TIA is a lazy way of stereotyping and painting the entirety of the diverse African continent with one broad brush. TIA falsely reduces Africa to a lowest common denominator of hopeless dysfunction and misery. It makes excuses. Hopelessly pessimistic, it anticipates the worst possible outcome and then dismisses it as the status quo. It dooms Africa to an eternally hopeless morass of ineptitude and corruption, never demanding better or raising expectations. Ever shallow, the TIA-proponent will shrug off any bad news with a dismissive, “Oh well, TIA. Shall we go to the Bull and Bush or the Thorn Tree for our sundowner tonight, darling?

The Emperor and the Elephants is not a story of TIA. Carroll doesn’t fetishize or patronize Africans, he doesn’t romanticize his time on the continent. He never yields to the temptation to portray himself as the Great White Savior. His tale is not one of watching giraffes stalk majestically across a savannah under a perfectly glowing red sunset while sipping gin and tonic sundowners in safari tents. His tale is reality. It is an honest memoir of someone who lived, worked and experienced life in a very interesting part of the world at a very interesting time among the people with whom he would form life-long friendships based upon mutual respect and admiration. The Africans of this book are real people, who live real lives, suffer real problems, and experience real joys. Just like all of us. Carroll lived, worked, sweated, bled and laughed alongside them as a peer.

It’s not easy to write an honest memoir and yet remain humble, but Carroll has done so. With humility he relates the history of the creation of the Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas Complex, one of the true gems of African nature. This is a place where forest elephants and lowland gorillas forage together in the same forest clearings, a place where the indigenous Bayaka people of the forest have kept their culture intact while exercising their rights and responsibilities of natural resource stewardship. Though he never takes direct credit or claims responsibility, Carroll played a catalytic role in protecting an area that has since been designated as a World Heritage Site. What better legacy could anyone hope to leave?

But Carroll didn’t stop once the protected areas had been created. He went on to devote the remainder of his professional career to ensuring the long term viability of these areas and in working to prevent the destruction of huge tracts of Central Africa’s rainforest. He played a prominent role in shepherding the Yaoundé Declaration into reality, a declaration that created a broad multi-national partnership that ensured the political will to keep the Congo Basin’s wild places wild and intact.

The pendulum of conservation swings often, and NGO’s spend months developing new strategies that are bigger, bolder, shinier and ever more impractical. But people who have been molded by experiences such as Carroll’s are not easily swayed by the shifting winds of trendy and flashy new ideas. Those who are grounded in reality keep their eyes on the horizon and don’t get distracted by the passing scenery. Dr. Carroll never lost sight of the horizon throughout his long career in conservation, and the results of his steadfast approach will continue to be enjoyed for generations.

Dr. Richard Carroll is, and rightly should be, proud of his career and the life he has led. He dedicated The Emperor and the Elephants to his children, so that they might better understand what he has done with his life. Carroll never deviated from his plan to heed Thoreau’s advice to live deliberately and “suck out all the marrow of life.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I give it my highest recommendation. I encourage everyone to buy a copy and enjoy it as much as I have.

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