El Cajon Boulevard refugees tell of persecution in Uganda, war in Liberia

Out of Africa

Walter Lam: In 1977, he fled his country for the first time. He left Uganda, he said, "because of the executions." Amin's regime had become particularly brutal to the Acholi. "My tribe was what got me into trouble."
  • Walter Lam: In 1977, he fled his country for the first time. He left Uganda, he said, "because of the executions." Amin's regime had become particularly brutal to the Acholi. "My tribe was what got me into trouble."
  • Image by Chris Woo

In the office where I met David Omen Acana II, paramount chief of the 800,000-member Acholi tribe in northern Uganda, a large color photograph of two hippos hung on the wall behind him. The animals, neck-deep in water, teeth glistening, seemed to be grinning at each other. I told Chief Acana that I thought the hippos looked "cute."

The chief, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, dressed in a tailored navy blue suit and a gray and light blue tie, laughed. His two bodyguards, huge men with shaved heads and grapefruit-size biceps, laughed too.

"Cute?" said Chief Acana. "Cute? They could cut a man like you in half with just one bite. It would take just one second and you'd be gone."

I explained that the closest I'd come to the animals was at the Hippo Beach exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. I said Hippo Beach allowed a visitor to watch the hippos swim underwater, where they looked "graceful." This made the chief and his bodyguards laugh harder.

"Yes, yes," said the chief. "Quite graceful."

A few days later I read that the hippo is considered the most dangerous animal in Africa, responsible for thousands of deaths each year. It occurred to me that an African and an American looking at a nature photograph might not see it in the same way.

I was introduced to Chief Acana by Walter Lam, a 52-year-old Ugandan immigrant who in 1989 founded the Alliance for African Assistance, a once local but now international organization dedicated to aiding African immigrants in the United States and abroad and also refugees "internally displaced" in Africa. Lam is a tall, very dark-skinned man who at first seems formal and a bit shy. Lam doesn't immediately disclose much about his life in Africa or the way Uganda in particular caused tragedy in his life. When he does touch on those subjects, his formality and shyness reveal themselves as caution.Lam is proud of the Alliance's offices, which occupy a white two-story building on El Cajon Boulevard not far from San Diego State University. On the Saturday afternoon Lam introduced me to Chief Acana, he led the chief and his entourage on a tour through the building. As they moved from room to room, from first floor to second, I could hear their laughter rumble down the hallways. In the room where the chief and I spoke, Lam carefully set out a variety of chilled soft drinks and bottled water on the conference table.

Chief Acana told me that he was 33 years old when he became paramount chief of the Acholi. He said chieftainship is handed down from father to son.

"You can become chief at any age, even if you're a baby. Once you are chief, and if you are old and ill, you can appoint someone to act in your place. But that person won't become chief until the chief dies.

"The tribal government is an institution which is a local government by itself which is recognized by the state. We, the Acholi, have 50 chiefs. We get together and meet twice each year. But there are other meetings that are called as needed. My duty as paramount chief is primarily the mobilization of the community -- for development, for harmony. A lot of what we do is settle disputes, all sorts of disputes, such as land disputes. I handle disputes about once a month. The other chiefs and elders would handle disputes on an almost daily basis."

Chief Acana explained that people could choose to have their disputes settled in civil court.

"But people choose depending on their belief. If they believe that the civil court will help them better, they will go there. If they think the tribal court will help them better, they go there."

About his personal history, Chief Acana told me that he was raised in a compound shared by many members of his extended family. Although he couldn't remember an exact number, he said that "easily more than 50 people" lived there and that more than half were children. Chief Acana's own father had two wives and with them produced 15 children.

"So you always had someone to play with," I said.

"Yes," said the chief. "Plenty of children to play with and get in trouble with."

This comment made the chief's bodyguards and Walter Lam laugh. Compound life, with its dozens of children, was a famous setting for mischief.

I asked Chief Acana why he was visiting the United States, and he said that in addition to meeting Acholi who had immigrated here, he was trying to draw the American public's attention to "what was happening in northern Uganda." I said I wasn't aware of what was happening in northern Uganda. Chief Acana handed me a simple brochure printed on white paper. The brochure, in part, read:

"Northern Uganda has been terrorized by a rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and its own government for over nineteen years. The LRA has killed, raped, mutilated, and abducted its own people in an incomprehensible attempt to overthrow the government. The government, for its part, has done little to protect the people and has even been guilty of its own abuses. Almost two million people have been displaced, thousands killed, and over 30,000 children abducted and used as sex slaves, porters, and soldiers. Children are often indoctrinated by being forced to kill their friends and family or killed themselves. In order to escape the terrible fate that awaits those abducted, 40,000 children have taken to walking dozens of miles each night to sleep in the relative safety of city centers like Gulu. Every day they walk to their beds made of stone, and every morning they walk home to go to school and do their chores. These 'night commuters' live in a constant state of fear due to the inhumane tactics of military and paramilitary forces of both the LRA and the Ugandan government."

Uganda's misery was ongoing. Africa's misery was ongoing. Walter Lam and his Alliance for African Assistance were reminded of this misery every day. The Alliance helps African refugees settle in San Diego by finding them apartments, teaching them English and computer skills, guiding them through bureaucracy, offering them counseling when American life overwhelms and bewilders them. The Alliance has two 15-passenger vans and one 9-passenger minivan that shuttle these new immigrants to jobs at the Viejas Casino in Alpine, Barona Casino in Lakeside, and Sony Electronics in Rancho Bernardo. The Alliance offers translation services in 28 languages.

Walter Lam and the Alliance for African Assistance seemed to have anticipated any service an African immigrant might need. The organization's creation and maintenance obviously required significant intellectual and emotional stamina and an ability to manage and work with many different kinds of people. The Alliance required the sort of considerable talent and ambition that a person like Lam might have used to start his own business or rise high in the corporate world. But Lam had chosen not to forget Africa. I wondered why.

Lam and I met on a steamy weekday afternoon. Despite the heat, Lam was wearing a suit and tie and looked refreshed and cool. His office is large but not fancy. He's decorated it with a few African masks and statues. The office, like Lam's clothes and appearance, suggests calm and order. Lam himself is not so much a reserved person as he is a very careful listener. I told him that I was interested in learning who he was.

"I was born in 1954 in northern Uganda, in a town called Gulu. I would say it's the capital of northern Uganda. I would say there are maybe about half a million people in the Gulu district, which is like a county. It's beautiful there. In Uganda we know two seasons. That's the rainy and the dry seasons. The rainy season starts in March and goes all the way to September."

I asked Lam about his family.

"This is an interesting thing, and I always rarely talk about it. You see, I come from where all my grandparents, going back to my great-great-great-grandparents, were chiefs. But my father was not a chief. My grandfather chose my father's older brother to be chief.

"We belong to the Acholi tribe. Our language is Acholi. Our traditional way of making money was trading in crops and trading in animals. People need animals all the time. Cattle. Goats. Cattle and goats and all that kind of thing. The major crops in our area were sesame, for sesame oil; beans; sweet potatoes; corn, the kind of corn for eating; and manioc."

I asked Lam what the Acholi were well known for.

"In Uganda, people would know that dancing was something that was very important to our people, traditional dancing. It's ceremonial. We do the dances during holidays but more so when you have guests coming, like on Independence Day. That one, you prepare for it. And it's my tribe that has been taken around Uganda to perform traditional dancing. And we have even gone overseas to perform our dances. We are famous for that.

"You start learning the dances when you are young. I started learning when I was four years old. There aren't formal lessons. You just see others dancing and you join them. There are dances that are purely meant for women. There are all kinds of dances -- one that is the war dance, and there's another kind where the young girls and boys meet. It's like a courting dance. And there are other dances that are just for fun.

"It was very nice. I remember when I was so young, on the final day of school they would invite parents to come and all that. We would prepare and do the traditional dancing in front of them."

I knew that it was common for tribes to have a totem, a sort of spiritual symbol, usually an animal, that represented certain values or traits. Did the Acholi have a totem?

"That would be the elephant. And I guess it was chosen because the elephant is known as a very strong animal and also for being very, very intelligent.

"I would also say that in Uganda people know that you don't mess around with Acholi people, because the Acholi stand up for themselves. People have really tried to crush this tribe and make them lose morale and everything. We're very, very reliable, but you don't want to get an Acholi upset. You don't have to really wonder what an Acholi is thinking because he will tell you."

I wanted to learn more about Lam's family. He told me he was the fourth child of eight children: three boys, five girls.

"I was raised in a compound of about 50 people; probably three-quarters of them were children. Generally the male, the father, has the final say over everything and beyond. It's always the father, and he's generally the breadwinner. He goes out to work, and the wives are generally taking care of children. So that's the way it is."

Did Lam's father have only one wife and eight children?

"My father had 4 wives and 32 children."

On such a large scale, how was family life organized?

"We usually all came together only for meals. The wives know how to set it up. The girls sit by themselves over here. The boys over there. The little ones over there. The mothers and father over there. It all works out.

"Everyone is treated equally. You naturally pay more attention to your biological mother and to your immediate brothers and sisters. But you think of all the children as your brothers and sisters, even your cousins. You're all raised together, and everyone helps raising the children. This sometimes causes conflicts for Africans who want to immigrate to the United States because when they apply to bring their brothers and sisters with them, they think of all those people -- their cousins, the children from their father's other wives -- as brothers and sisters.

"What is difficult for Americans to understand is that in such a situation, all the adults help raise the children. And the traditions are a little different. With uncles, for example. Uncles are far more important in Africa than they are here. For example, my uncles -- my father's brothers -- I would call them my dad. All of them. They're all my father. And you know, the interesting thing about it culturally is that we respect the uncles more than our real fathers. One reason is that your father can forgive over a lot of issues, but your uncle, well, you don't mess around with your uncle. He can never forgive you for certain things. So you pay a little more attention and respect to your uncles than to your dad. You can mess around with your daddy and he will forgive you. But with uncles, it's different."

I said that it seemed to me that in a society where husbands had several wives and where the definitions of "brother," "sister," "mother," and "father" were elastic, a single family could extend quite far into a tribe. The tribe was almost another dimension of a person's family.

"That's very true," said Lam. "That connection is there because of the blood relationships. Of course people feel strongly about first-and-foremost family. But next to that is the tribe."

Since these families were so large, was there any concern about people marrying someone who might be too close a relation?

"The tribal elders keep track of all that, and generally before a marriage there's a sort of background check, sort of like how they do it here for jobs. They want to know who someone's father is. They want to know where he is. They check all the way back to the grandparents. And I think on a number of occasions the elders have had to say, 'No, you cannot marry. You're too close.' "

Did Lam, coming from a family of chiefs, think of his upbringing as privileged? Again, he paused.

"It's a part that I rarely want to talk about."

Perhaps Lam didn't want to boast. I couldn't tell. He did say that his family was educated and was Roman Catholic. He said that he'd attended a Roman Catholic missionary school that was run by an Italian religious order. He estimated that about 65 percent of the Acholi were Christian, 5 percent Muslim, and the rest practiced traditional African animism. Lam said that of the Christians, about 75 percent were Roman Catholic.

I asked if African Christians ever felt that Christianity was something that had been imposed on them from the outside. In their minds, was Christianity in any way related to colonialism?

"That perception I would say never came to my mind and especially not in the minds of the elderly people, people in the generation before mine. But with education, certain issues came up. Then the conflict that I saw very, very clearly between Christianity and our traditional culture was that a man is allowed to marry more than one woman.

"The other thing that I also recognized was that the Christian community that first came to Africa started grabbing land. That's an issue that caused some friction. And people used to joke, saying, 'They gave us the Bible just to keep us reading the Bible while they were grabbing our land.' But this perception is not one that's a big challenge to true believers."

Was it a big challenge for Lam?

"Not to me. It's not a problem because I know Christ. He's my personal savior."

I did a little math in my head. Lam was 8 years old when Uganda won its independence in 1962. He would have passed much of his childhood in an optimistic period of postcolonial African nationalism. He would have entered adolescence just as Uganda began its descent into turmoil. And Lam was 17 years old when Idi Amin overthrew the government and started torturing and killing many thousands of Ugandans.

I asked if Lam had any clear memories of Uganda's Independence Day.

"Oh, it was a big deal. I remember it was the 9th of October when Uganda got independent, and every year we used to go and parade downtown, marching and all that celebration. It was an all-day celebration. Yeah, I still remember that."

Sometime later, when I looked over the transcript of my conversations with Lam, I noticed that it was when we started to discuss politics that Lam spoke in fewer long paragraphs. My questions, too, became more brief. My questions jumped back and forth, from one year to another. I was trying to establish a chronology. I was also trying, blindly, to approach something that Lam did not want to talk about.

I filled these particular pages of transcript with lines and arrows directing me back and forth in the text, creating a kind of map or flow chart. I'd underlined one part of our conversation in yellow ink:

Q. When you fled Uganda in 1986, had you been politically active?

A. Yes, I was. This is a sensitive issue, here. I just want to be up front with you about it. Right now the Alliance has opened an office in Uganda, and we are working there...

Q. And so you want to be careful about what you say?

A. Yes.

Lam told me that he became interested in politics when he was 12 years old. This would have been in 1966, when a series of scandals undermined the legitimacy of the Ugandan parliament. It was also at this time when the Ugandan constitution was suspended and when Colonel Idi Amin began to play a more central role in Uganda's affairs. Lam said that he started to think in a serious way about politics when he was 16 years old. This would have been when Uganda's government began to deteriorate rapidly.

Had religion informed Lam's social conscience?

"I think it had more to do with what we were going through at the time. I definitely think it had something to do with the values my parents taught me. But I wouldn't say they were the only reason. I was seeing people being killed here and there, and I definitely recognized that it was wrong. I think we were not given any freedom to practice politics. We'd had demanding dictators all along. Uganda wasn't really a country that was liberated."

I asked Lam what sort of teenager he was.

"Reading was a major thing for me. I read a lot of books. Nonfiction. Mostly African authors. Some were in the country. Some had been jailed. Others were in exile. They were writing about the state of African politics and the sorts of governments we were having.

"When I was in high school, there was a lot of killing going on in the life of Uganda. Our past bishop was killed, and several ministers were killed. The government claimed they were involved in car accidents, but they were just shot, killed, and then their bodies were dumped in a car."

Idi Amin came to power in 1971. In 1977, Lam fled his country for the first time. He left Uganda, he said, "because of the executions." Amin's regime had become particularly brutal to the Acholi. "My tribe was what got me into trouble. [The Amin regime] was basically hunting down any male they thought might be opposed to the government. They didn't care if you were educated or uneducated. Education had nothing to do with it." Did the fact that Lam's uncle was an Acholi chief make Lam more of a target? "That might have contributed to it. Yes, yes, yes."

Lam, along with more than 1000 other Ugandan refugees, made his way to Nairobi, Kenya. In Uganda, he'd wanted to study medicine. But in Nairobi he needed simply to survive. "Unfortunately, life in Kenya became so difficult that I had to take any opportunity that came up that could help me get out of Nairobi and go to a place where I could have free food and accommodations." Lam was offered a scholarship to study agricultural engineering at Kenya's Egerton University. Lam told me that back in Gulu, his uncles had taught him a great deal about agriculture. This knowledge helped him excel in his studies at Egerton. "I did growing of sweet potatoes, cassava, and corn. I was very good at it."

Lam studied at Egerton for three years. In 1980, the year after Idi Amin was overthrown, Lam returned to Uganda, where he worked for the government's agricultural production department. But Lam's stay in his country was brief. In 1986, another regime change, one that brought Uganda's current government into power, forced Lam again into exile, back to Kenya. And it was from Kenya that Lam came to San Diego.

Lam smiled when I asked him to consider his African experience in broader terms. What had it taught him, I wondered. He said that it was while he was in Nairobi, a cosmopolitan city where a person could meet Africans from many different countries, religions, tribes, and backgrounds, that he started to think of Africa in a larger way. Africa was so diverse, he said, and so many African nations had such horrible problems, that few Africans could think beyond their immediate concerns to understand that they were part of something larger.

"I began to understand that Africa had every kind of skin color and religion. I began to think of Africa as a whole. And that's part of what inspired me to start the Alliance for African Assistance.

"Having these sorts of convictions encouraged me to start the Alliance. But I also think what I'm telling you is that when I came to San Diego, I had a hard time finding my way. The interesting thing is that I had a difficult time resettling here, even though I could speak English. The question that came to my mind was, 'How about all these Africans that are coming here or will come here because of the craziness that is going on in the continent of Africa? How will they fit into a system where there is no support?' At that time, there was no single organization that was working on behalf of African immigrants. There was none. And that was what led to the formation of Alliance for African Assistance. And we started, you know, in a very, very small and humble way. At that time we were receiving people from Uganda, a lot from Ethiopia, and, a little later, from Somalia, Sudan, Mozambique, and Eritrea."

Having had so much experience with so many different kinds of African immigrants, did Lam notice any common difficulty they shared in adjusting to life in America?

"A typical example is the disciplining of kids at home. Here, nobody's spanking. The challenging thing for [African] parents coming here is that everything that they're used to as ways of disciplining their kids is not acceptable here. They wind up being completely helpless. They don't know what to do. And that is one of the ways where we come in, helping them find new ways of dealing with their children."

I asked Lam if American life posed difficulty for other kinds of African tradition.

"Mental health issues? Yes, yes. Right. We have people coming to the Alliance, talking to psychologists, saying that they've lost their grandmother or some other relation, and they don't know what to do. They feel bad because they can't perform a certain kind of ritual. For many Africans, death isn't an accident. It has to be caused by some sort of reason. Even if someone dies in an airplane crash, the relatives will go back and back, trying to figure out what happened. Did someone not smile at this person in a friendly way when the person left the house? These people have to feel that there was some control over what happened, that there was a reason for what happened.

"They believe that there are certain rituals they must do. But they're far away from the land where these traditional rituals were performed. So they feel bad. In many such cases where there was a death, a person would offer an animal sacrifice. But you can't do that here in America. And so one of our psychologists suggested that people sacrifice their time instead. 'Okay, you can't offer an animal sacrifice, but you can donate your time as a volunteer and help other people. That sort of sacrifice is as good as an animal sacrifice.' And this has been a successful way for people to make the transition from one kind of tradition to another."

This sounded like a profound change in a person's spiritual life. Had Lam experienced something similar? He told me that since coming to San Diego, he'd left Roman Catholicism. He said that he'd become a member of La Jolla Presbyterian Church.

"I think at that time this business of being saved, of accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior, of being born again, was not something that was understood within the Roman Catholic Church. I don't know how it is now. Maybe it's changed. In the Presbyterian Church there was the freedom also to study the Word of God, the Bible studies in small groups. All that kind of thing. The opportunity for spiritual growth. Those are the things that attracted me."

Lam told me that his religious experience had influenced the way he thought about the Alliance for African Assistance.

"I think it has helped me a lot. For one thing, because originally, I used to think I was in control. Seriously, yes. And right now with my religious experience, I know I am doing God's work. He is in control. I am just an instrument being used by Him. For some of the challenges that I am confident that I cannot address myself, I know God does not give me what I cannot handle. I pray about it and lay it at the cross of Jesus Christ."

Lam's willingness to talk about such an intimate part of his life made me feel that I could return to matters we hadn't been able to discuss. I told Lam that I'd read about the decades of violence in Uganda. I asked about his family. I asked if the violence had touched his family.

"I've lost several people," he said.

Lam thought for a while before he continued.

"The most recent person I lost was my son. That was the closest they got to me. My wife and I had two children. My son was killed in 1999. He hadn't yet joined us here. We were in the process of bringing him here."

Was he killed for political reasons?

"It wasn't clear," said Lam.

I checked my tape recorder to make sure it was still running. On my notepad, I wrote the words, "Son's death. It wasn't clear."

"My son," Lam said, "my son was 23 years old."

When I asked Walter Lam to introduce me to someone typical of the immigrants whom the Alliance aided, Lam suggested that I speak with John Pitman, who came to San Diego in August 2004.

Pitman, his wife, and their 11-year-old son, Tamba, live in an apartment complex in El Cajon. The complex's small patches of lawn are tidy. The buildings look recently painted. Pitman, 45 years old, is a trim man whose hands and head seem large in relation to his body, making his gestures and expressions appear emphatic. It was Tamba, more cautious and composed than most American-born boys his age, who answered the door. While his father and I spoke, Tamba sat very still on a black-leather love seat and, with the volume turned down low, watched The Godfather. He didn't seem to be listening to us. But whenever his father needed an English word, Tamba, without looking away from The Godfather, would offer it.

John Pitman sat at the dining room table, where a prepaid phone card with an image of a cheetah and the words "African Dreams" printed across it and a half-dozen California lottery tickets lay scattered near his wallet. A bookcase to the table's left held a set of the World Book encyclopedia, a hefty textbook on surgical nursing, and another entitled An Introduction to Animal Behavior.

Pitman told me that he came from a village of about 25 families, or 250 people, that by car, over Liberia's difficult roads, was a 17-hour drive from the capital, Monrovia. I'd read that Liberia was settled in the early 19th Century by several thousand African-Americans, former slaves and free-born blacks. I asked Pitman if his name meant that his ancestors were American.

"Most of the Americans settled in Monrovia," Pitman said. "But they needed land to grow their rubber trees and their sugarcane, so they established relationships with tribes out in the counties, in the rural areas outside Monrovia. These Americans didn't have tribes, so we called them congo. That was just the name that tribal people gave them. It meant someone without a tribe, an American.

"About my family name. There were missionary schools in Liberia. Methodist. Lutheran. Roman Catholic. The Roman Catholic schools gave the best education. And often when someone went to a missionary school, they took a European name. So, in Liberia, if you meet someone with a European name, you don't automatically know if his ancestors were American or if he went to a missionary school. I went to a Roman Catholic missionary school."

Pitman told me that Lofa County, where he was born and raised, was the "most [agriculturally] productive area in all of Liberia. Rice. Coffee. Cocoa. Sugarcane. And my tribe, the Kissi, are known for being especially good farmers. We're also known for being very loyal people. We also like strangers. The Kissi originally came from Kenya. We settled in Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. About 95 percent of us are Christian. We have very few Muslims."

He said that more than 20 people lived in the compound where he grew up. Among them were his father, his father's three wives, and three of his father's brothers. Pitman said that in his immediate family, the family produced by his father and biological mother, he had four brothers and one sister. I asked if the Kissi language had a specific term for a person's biological mother.

"No, no," Pitman laughed. "You just call out, 'Ma! Ma!' and one of them will say, 'Who? Me?' and so on until your mother answers. You say, 'Yes, I mean you!' You know, the way it works is often like this. The first wife is sitting at home, and she says to her husband, 'I don't want to be here alone and take care of everything by myself all the time. Go out and find yourself another girl.' And so the husband has another wife or other wives. And the first wife, you see, gets to organize things and make the rules. She has help, and she gets to be the supervisor."

But Pitman also said that he found the practice of polygamy to be "destructive" and "wasteful."

"It is wasteful for the man because you have to spend so much time attending to the wives and their problems and what they need. You go to spend time with one wife, and you must talk with her and listen to her, and of course you must be one way with her, one person with her that's different from the person you are with the others. And so you spend all this time listening and talking, being one person and then another, and in the end it's exhausting. You are weak. You are tired. There's nothing left of you. And in the West it's completely impossible. Even if you wanted several wives, even if it were legal, how could you afford it?

"And the practice of dowry and the traditional wedding ceremony is wasteful. It can take all your money. And for the ceremony, you might have to use all the rice that you would normally use in one year." Pitman's distance from traditional African ways started, he said, when he was very young. He said he didn't know why it started. He said he didn't think it had anything to do with his attending a missionary school. "It was just my own feeling that I had within myself.

"It's like being raised with anything. If you grew up in a Christian family, and at home and at school you had to read the Bible, you might start to look at the Bible in a certain way and become critical of it."

Pitman wasn't ever interested, for example, in learning his tribe's traditional dances.

"I was more interested in fishing! I loved to fish. From the time I was a little boy. Even now, if I could go back to my village, the very first thing I would do would be to go fishing."

Pitman's indifference to tradition was particularly difficult for his father, who, Pitman said, was a zoe, an "herbalist," someone who knew everything about the bush, about all the plants and animals, and about the rituals and magic practiced in the bush.

Pitman also described traditional African herbalism as "destructive." I asked what he meant.

"If you go to a doctor or hospital and they give you medicine, it's all measured out very precisely and very carefully. You know what it is that you're getting. But an African herbalist goes out into the bush and grabs a handful of leaves. He may know what it is, but you don't. And you have no idea if it will be effective."

I asked what Pitman thought about African magic, something that, I'd read, was deeply connected to the bush and also to the African night, which was a world apart from the African day.

"You mean 'witches'? I never saw the value in what they do or what they say they do. If you can do something invisible at night, what good is it to you during the day? What profit are you having from it? To me this all seemed useless. I didn't see that it caused any improvement in people's lives."

His father's knowledge of the bush and of the reverences and magic practiced in the bush went so far back, Pitman said, that there wasn't a name for them as a whole. I suggested the words "animism" and "paganism." Pitman understood those words and said that, yes, they were ones a Westerner might use, but they didn't satisfy him. They weren't accurate. He was talking about something more than a body of ancient tradition that could be identified with a single name. From what Pitman seemed to say, he was talking about a way of feeling, a way of seeing the world. And as far as Pitman's father was concerned, this way was in opposition to Western religion.

"My father did not like Christianity. When I was young I went to church for a short while, but I finally dropped it because my father didn't like it."

But Western religion and youthful indifference to tradition weren't the only disruptive forces in Lofa County. When I asked Pitman to describe what the land looked like where he grew up, he said, "I would have to describe two different things. When I was young, when I walked out of our compound and looked around, it was very beautiful. We were surrounded by fields. Beyond was tall grass. We didn't have many wild animals. We had monkeys, deer, chimpanzees.

"But war erupted 15 years ago, and the houses all went down. Some were burned. The fields disappeared. I don't know what it looks like now. I don't even want to imagine what it looks like now."

Pitman was talking about Liberia's seven-year civil war that began in 1989. The level of chaos and violence generated by the conflict was such that Liberia's neighbors -- Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Sierra Leone -- also spiraled downward. The number of ethnic groups and of military and paramilitary organizations involved in the fighting was so great, their respective allegiances and antagonisms so complex, that it's impossible for an outsider to keep track of who, what, when, where, and why.

A few facts, however, aren't difficult to understand. For the Liberian civil war alone, estimates of civilians slaughtered or displaced vary somewhat. The most often quoted figures are 200,000 dead, 800,000 "internally displaced," and 700,000 forced to flee as refugees to neighboring countries. Lofa County, where Pitman was born and raised, is near where Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea meet. In other words, Lofa County was particularly hard-hit by Liberia's troubles and by those of its neighbors. In 1993, Pitman and his family fled to Guinea.

Even before the civil war, Liberia had for several decades been unstable. But despite the coups and countercoups and the gunplay in the Liberian presidential mansion, Pitman had, in a society rapidly unraveling, managed to go to college and become a teacher of sixth-grade math. "I loved my job very much. I loved to teach." He even managed to become cochairman at the district level of the National Union of Liberian Teachers. He also served as a government appointee on the Special Election Commission.

"During the civil war, there were people who weren't happy with the work I had done with the commission. That is why I became a political refugee. We had to go to Guinea. We were in several camps. They had between 6000 and 11,000 people in them. Sometimes people had walked for as long as 25 days to get to the camps. They walked with nothing, no food or water, through the forest, through the jungle. Life in these camps was horrible. Rats and mosquitoes. Everywhere, rats, mosquitoes, and flies. Disease was everywhere. Many people all the time had dysentery. In one camp, in a single day, 30 people died of meningitis. In one camp, there was even an outbreak of Lassa fever."

Lassa fever. It was one of those "worst-case scenario" viral illnesses I'd heard doctor friends discuss, something they learned about in their infectious-disease classes in medical school. Lassa is carried by rats. Humans become infected through contact with rat droppings or urine or via contact with someone sick with Lassa.

I asked Pitman about malaria. He laughed. It went without saying that malaria was endemic in the refugee camps. Malaria was so common that he hadn't even thought to mention it.

"I can't count the number of times I've had malaria. And if they treated you for it, it didn't matter. You would take the medicine and feel better, and then you'd go home and at night another mosquito would bite you. You'd get sick all over again."

During the 11 years Pitman spent in refugee camps, he worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross -- "I traced families, missing children" -- and for Save the Children USA -- "I worked on getting children proper documentation, identification. I worked on children's rights, child protection." It was also during this time that Pitman filed as a political refugee with the International Organization for Migration, a nongovernmental organization that since the early 1950s has helped many thousands of people -- political refugees, others displaced by war or natural disaster -- find homes in countries open to receiving immigrants.

"My application went from Guinea to Ghana, and then from Ghana to New York," explained Pitman. "And I believe it was from the IOM office in New York that the Alliance for African Assistance accepted me. But once you apply with the IOM, they can send you anywhere. I know people who went to Norway. Some went to Australia. Some went to Austria. We were very lucky that we got to come to a warm part of the world. I think a place like Norway would be difficult for an African.

"The Alliance for African Assistance was wonderful to us. They took us as their own children. They were waiting for us when we arrived at the airport in San Diego."

Pitman said that the most difficult aspect of his new life in San Diego has been "trying to get into school." He first found work as a housekeeper at the downtown convention center but has since moved on to working as a housekeeper at Barona Casino, which he enjoys.

"One of the big differences between life in Africa and life in the United States is that in Africa there's a specific time for work and a specific time for pleasure. In America, there's no specific time for pleasure, for spending time with friends. You work and work. I miss my friends and the fun we had together. Now my friends are scattered all over Africa, all over the world. The only way I spend time with them now is to call them on the phone.

"As for my work, what I'd really like to do is go back to school so I can get a job working with refugees."

Pitman suddenly glanced at his watch. He said, "Oh, my. I'm going to be late. Do you think you could give me a ride into San Diego so I can go to my church? I don't know how to drive yet. One of the things I must learn this year is how to drive."

It was late on a Saturday afternoon. I wondered why Pitman was in such a hurry to get to church.

"Are you Roman Catholic?" I asked. I remembered that for Roman Catholics, attending Saturday-evening Mass fulfilled their obligation of attending Mass on Sunday.

Pitman walked to the bookcase and pulled out a large manila envelope containing several documents from the Catholic Diocese of San Diego stating that Pitman had been officially received into the Church on March 26, 2005.

"I'd always liked the Roman Catholic Church," Pitman said. "My wife converted when we were in a refugee camp in Guinea. She'd been a Lutheran before. And now what I want to do is preach the Word of God. I want to tell people the Word of God."

Before we left his El Cajon apartment, Pitman carefully dressed himself in slacks, blazer, and dress shirt, rejecting one shirt because, he judged, its cuffs were "too big." While we drove into San Diego, Pitman talked about his desire to find some kind of job working with refugees.

"What I want most of all is to help people," he said. "But if I'm going to help people, I must learn to drive. It's a little frightening. When I look at how people drive in San Diego, many of them drive like crazy people."

As we pulled up in front of Blessed Sacrament Church on El Cajon Boulevard, the sun was setting and the church's stained-glass windows glowed.

"That's my church," Pitman said as he got out of the car.

He told me I was welcome to come to his home whenever I wanted. He said that if I had more questions about his life in Africa that I should call him. He stood for a moment, looking up at Blessed Sacrament's stained-glass windows.

"Look at it," he said. "Isn't it beautiful? That is my church."

He closed the car door and walked toward the church. He turned around and came back to the car, opening the passenger-side door. He reached for my right hand and held it between his palms.

"If there is anything you'd like to know about Africa, please call me or come to my home. You will always be a guest in my home."

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