The Rumpus Interview with Christopher Goffard
Wherever he went, the man of God carried his shotgun…
Christopher Goffard’s You Will See Fire is a tense and harrowing look at the life and mysterious death – of a brave, at times, recklessly so – American priest living and working in Kenya. It’s also one of the finest non-fiction books set in Africa in recent years.
In direct, matter-of-fact prose, Goffard builds a vivid picture of a complicated man who dared challenge the vast corruption and violence that characterized the 24 year kleptocractic rule of Daniel Arap Moi, Kenya’s now ex-tyrant.
The country with its fierce light and impenetrable dark, its jumbo maize rows and seasons of starvation, was immense, large enough to contain his clashing selves: the priest and the paratrooper, the healer and the hunter, the collar and the gun, the man of obedience who chafed at authority.
Among many other courageous moves, Father Kaiser helped bring public attention to the fact that one of Moi’s top cronies, a man who may thought might even succeed him, was likely guilty of routinely raping school girls.
When Kaiser’s body was found by the side of the road, a bullet in the back of his head, most Kenyans assumed, with good reason, that the priest was murdered. Then the American FBI entered the picture with a suicide theory.
Ultimately, whether murder or suicide, the book is less a who-done-it than an honest, searing, and necessary look at an individual who – truly – spoke truth to power.
Christopher Goffard writes for the Los Angeles Times. He’s also the author of a novel, Snitch Jacket. This interview was conducted over numerous emails.
The Rumpus: What drew you to Father John Kaiser’s story? How did you first come upon it?
Christopher Goffard: I saw a squib buried in the newspaper in August 2007, three sentences long, 61 words. The headline was “Priest’s Death Ruled Homicide,” and it gave the barest outlines of the John Kaiser case. I’d never heard his name before. The story mentioned that the FBI had earlier concluded that he’d shot himself, which immediately aroused my interest, because Roman Catholic priests are not supposed to commit suicide, on penalty of eternal punishment – suicide isn’t just a sin but THE sin – and I got curious about what might have led investigators to this conclusion and how politics might have shaded it. Then I became fascinated with Kaiser, this former paratrooper who carried his shotgun across the savanna and waded rivers to get to sick calls, and the great paradoxes of his personality.
Rumpus: One of the many things I appreciated about this book is that the narrative has a real insider’s knowledge of Kenya without feeling the need to go out of its way to establish the writer’s African credentials. What made you decide to keep yourself out of it?
Goffard: Well, I’ve made my living as a journalist for major daily newspapers, where you’re trained to subordinate your personality as much as possible in service of the story. In a narrative of this length your fingerprints will be all over it anyway, in tone, in word choice, in sentence structure, in subject matter. I think there’s always a sense of insecurity when you’re writing about a place not your own, an anxiety about getting it right – or there ought to be – so people understandably feel the need to trot out their bona fides. But in this case throwing in the authorial “I” would have been a pointless distraction. My obsessions animate the book, but it’s not about me.
Rumpus: You never knew Father John Kaiser personally, but you capture the complexity of his character the page. What kind of man of man was he? What sort of priest?
Goffard: When I went to Lolgorien, the little village where he lived in his final years, people spoke of him with great love. He lived on nothing and neglected his diet and his health, sometimes to the extreme, but would trek miles through the bush to administer the sacraments or to give game meat to people who were starving. He was always hauling people to the doctor, though he hated being a patient himself. With other priests, he was argumentative, stubborn in a way they found exasperating – especially on the issue of justice – and I think some of them dreaded his company. One diplomat told me Kaiser “blew hot and cold” — he’d be warm and friendly one day, brusque or confrontational the next.
Rumpus: Why was Kaiser such a thorn in the side of the Kenyan authorities throughout his many years in Kenya?
Goffard: For most of his time there, he was kind of below the radar. For decades he didn’t go public with the horrors he’d witnessed, though he castigated himself later for this. He tried to work within the system, tried to send his pleas up through the church hierarchy, and his bishop didn’t want to hear that Moi’s government was culpable for the carnage and corruption. When he finally spoke out, he became very dangerous. He’d been gathering evidence methodically for years, he was articulate, and – this made him really unusual – he couldn’t be scared off.
Rumpus: What drove Kaiser to take such personal risk?
Goffard: He had a strong sense of justice, and he took seriously the ethos of radical love and empathy. I remember Christopher Hitchens saying that decency precedes faith, not the other way around. But in Kaiser’s case, it’s just impossible to make sense of the really heroic efforts he undertook if you divorce them from his religious views. Of course, it’s complicated: Some priests who knew him suggested he took these risks because he had a death wish, or a longing for martyrdom.
Rumpus: Before his death, you write that the US Embassy considered Kaiser “an eccentric”. Was he? How was he different than other foreign priests in Kenya? Other Americans In Kenya?
Goffard: He flouted the social proprieties. He lived out on the savanna for years and ate whatever he shot. He wore the same dusty clothes day after day, crumpled them up in a corner, then uncrumpled them and wore them some more. He was more hands-on than a lot of foreign missionaries. He was always building things, always immersed in the villagers’ lives. He’d sleep in a Masai hut if he was out late. He considered himself African.
Rumpus: Although maybe not a dictator with a household name, longtime Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi, is up there with some of the most corrupt and ruthless African leaders, men like Mugabe and Mobutu. And yet it seems this American priest got under his skin. Why?
Goffard: Moi relied heavily on Western money – Western tourism dollars, American military aid – and this required him to maintain at least the flimsy semblance of participatory democracy and free speech and the rule of law. So there was a lot of grotesque play-acting under Moi. There were elections and newspapers and courts, but they were often Potemkin facades. Moi launched a public tribunal supposedly meant to uncover the truth about the ethnic clashes, but – farcically – it was forbidden to mention him as a culprit. Most people were afraid to say what they knew anyway. There were lines they knew not to cross. So here comes this obstreperous American priest who refuses to play along, who is well-known to the embassy of the superpower that Moi relies on, who can’t be intimidated and can’t be made to vanish without an ensuing stink. And he names Moi and his ministers.
Rumpus: The US and Kenya have close ties, stemming back many years, a relationship made even closer by the cooperation of the two countries during the investigation of the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. How did Kaiser’s death complicate this relationship?
Goffard: The U.S. ambassador, Johnnie Carson, worried it would hurt relations if it emerged that someone in the Kenyan government had a role in Kaiser’s death. Carson brought in the FBI to obviate any suggestion of a cover-up. I don’t think he was successful. The FBI’s conclusion of suicide left U.S.-Kenyan relations in fine shape.
Rumpus: You are pretty fair to the FBI agents who conducted the investigation – much more fair, for instance, than the Kenyan Magistrate who conducted her own investigation later. And yet you also point out the serious flaws and the fact that the involvement of the Kenyan police may have compromised them from the beginning. In your view, did the FBI act in good faith in concluding in their final report that Kaiser had killed himself?
Goffard: The Kenyan magistrate seemed personally offended that the agents didn’t show up in her courtroom to defend their report. I don’t think she got an explanation for this, and she seemed to assume the worst – that they had something to hide. Now, the FBI can be very frustrating to deal with. It’s a tight-lipped institution, and a lot of stuff is classified, and if you want an answer to a question there are layers and layers of people to go through. I spent months – it’s kind of a blur now, but I remember it being a maddeningly long time — trying to get someone at the FBI to talk to me about the case. I was going through official channels and getting no response. At that point some people would angrily conclude, “They’re obviously hiding something.” But finally through other channels I got one of the agents who’d worked on the case, and he apologized for the delay and told me, “Look, bureaucracy is our middle name.” Two of the key agents, Graney and Corbett, ultimately gave me hours of their time, answering questions in great detail. My final impression was they had done what they could within the very sharp limits they faced. I mean, they were dependant on Moi’s good will even to stay in the country. Let’s say, as a hypothetical, that someone high in the Kenyan government had murdered Kaiser. Was the FBI really ever in a position to find this out?
Rumpus: John Kaiser’s story and the story of Charles Mbuthi Gathenji, a lawyer who took the lead on investigating this case, collide in a way that I found so compelling. And in many ways the book is as much about Gathenji as it is about Kaiser. Both are men with complex characters. You are also a novelist…I’m wondering about how you went about constructing these guys on the page. What was different about recreating Kaiser as opposed to Gathenji?
Goffard: Kaiser had been dead seven years before I’d even heard of him, but he wrote letters prolifically, which provided a strong sense of his personality and of the texture of his life. Gathenji’s alive, and I could ask him anything I wanted, and I spent hours interviewing him in Kenya (and in California, once, when he came here). It’s structured as a novel, in the sense that I cover a great sweep of Kenyan history through the subjective prisms of the people who lived it, which I think is more palatable to readers than chapter after chapter of potted history. It’s kind of a converging-track narrative in the fashion of In Cold Blood, shuttling between these two characters who you know are going to meet at some point, and I tried to create the intimacy of a novel, putting you inside people’s heads. Of course, every sentence has to be defensible factually, which is why there are 40 pages of footnotes – a lot of the faith readers used to extend to journalists has shriveled and so you work harder to show your math.
Rumpus: The book is also very much about the way certain individuals challenge institutional power, Kaiser did it his way, Gathenji, his way. In some ways for me, Gathenji is even more brave because, in some respects at least, Kasier was protected as a white American. Could you discuss what motivated Gathenji to take the risks he does?
Goffard: When Gathenji was 20, his father was murdered – dragged from his home and beaten and slashed by fellow Kikuyus for refusing the swear an oath of tribal loyalty. Gathenji believed elements of then-President Jomo Kenyatta’s regime were involved, and that his dad’s fellow churchmen had sold him out. So he developed an abiding distrust of institutional power, governmental and ecclesiastical, and he saw the law, despite all the ways it might be corrupted, as a counterbalancing force – maybe the only avenue available in Kenya at the time. Kaiser’s own distrust of institutions was profound; he was always clashing with his own church.
Rumpus: Can you talk about Gathenji – and others like him – in the context of the future of Kenya?
Goffard: It’s a different country than it was under Moi. Gathenji’s position is that for all Kenya’s current troubles, there’s much greater room for debate and dissent. Part of what Gathenji represents in the book is the honorable practice of law, the law as a weapon against dictatorship, even in a country where the courts were as gutted and compromised as they were under Moi. Repairing their credibility is crucial in preventing further catastrophes – I’m thinking of the bloody vigilantism attending the last election – and I hope people like Gathenji will play a role in the process.
Rumpus: Of the books you site in the Selected Reading section, among them is Ngugi’s glorious, often hilarious, and often too true novel – Wizard of the Crow. How did this book influence your own story of Kenya?
Goffard: So much of Moi’s reign teetered on the absurd and Kafkaesque. He once dispatched his agents across the countryside to arrest the fictional hero of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel Matigari. And Ngugi himself says, “The world of a dictator has an element of pure fantasy. He will kill, jail, and drive hundreds into exile and imagine that he is actually loved for it.” And this insight animates his masterpiece, Wizard of the Crow, which features a demented megalomaniac for a dictator and blends reality and fantasy constantly. Though it’s not about Moi per se it provides a much clearer window into his soul than, say, his official biography would, and the atmosphere it conjures seems much truer to daily life in such a world than the Kenyan newspapers would give you. It’s one of the great dictatorship novels, and as you say, extremely funny. (Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, which explores the stupidity of power, is the other funny dictatorship novel that comes to mind.) Kaiser’s death, and the investigations surrounding it, had a through-the-looking-glass quality: leads were blind alleys, witnesses vanished, the most basic facts were slippery. And you can’t appreciate how hard it was for the FBI or anyone else to make sense of the case unless you have a sense of this fog-and-shifting-sand landscape.
Rumpus: I asked a Kenyan friend today what he thought of the case. He knew immediately what I was talking about, and said that the bullet was fired from a range inconsistent with suicide. He said most Kenyans think Kaiser was murdered. Has that been your experience, that most Kenyans think this?
Goffard: Yes. In fact, I’m trying to think of any Kenyan I’ve met who buys into the suicide theory, and it’s tough. The murder scenario fits much more neatly with their experience of the Moi years, with the climate of dread and late-night disappearances and staged accidents they remember. But I don’t think most have read the report by Vincent DiMaio, the gunshot expert – he literally wrote the book on gunshot wounds – who said the shot that killed Kaiser was consistent with suicide, that the barrel could have been angled against his head but left no burns because it was a long shotgun barrel.
Rumpus: My thought is that you seem, at times, to lean toward the suicide theory without embracing it, given all the very good reasons any number of people had for killing him. What’s your take? Forgive my asking.
Goffard: One of my favorite books is The Executioner’s Song, where Mailer manages to inhabit all these different characters and perspectives, and I tried to do something like that here. I tried to present the most forceful possible case, consistent with the evidence, for each of the different views, and to suggest where these views come from – how they seem to be experience-dependant. Most people who read the book conclude that I’m advancing the argument it was murder, though, so your remark is interesting.
Rumpus: For you, what was the importance of John Kaiser’s life?
Goffard: Wangari Maathai, the Green Belt founder who won the Nobel Peace Prize, put it succinctly: Kaiser was “the people’s voice in an era when ordinary people did not have a voice.” After his death, he became a strong symbol for the pro-democracy movement. He was a reminder that even in a police state, some people cannot be cowed. Along with a lot of other brave people, he helped nudge Kenya out of the endless Moi epoch.