It Happened On The Way To War
In the summer of 2000, Rye Barcott, an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, traveled to Africa to study ethnic violence. A student preparing for a career in the Marine Corps, Barcott sought out the most dangerous locales. However, his first choice of venue, Rwanda, was denied and he was redirected to the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. There, his research was reshaped into action as he sought to elevate lives in a poverty-stricken community.
Barcott’s book, “It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace,” chronicles an eight-year period during which he served as a Marine officer and concurrently established and directed Carolina for Kibera (CFK), a humanitarian relief organization.
As a Marine intelligence officer, he deployed three times, once each to Bosnia, the Horn of Africa and Iraq, while still managing CFK.
Having been a junior officer leading troops three times in a combat zone, I could relate to wartime experiences, encountering third-world poverty and disorientation after leaving the military; at times the realism of the narrative made me cringe, cry and laugh.
Opportunity jumped Barcott during his initial trip to Kibera, a place he describes as so destitute that children defecated in the streets. Frustrated by what he perceived to be ineffective relief efforts, Barcott pursued a local approach and joined forces with a widowed nurse, Tabitha Atieno Festo, and a community organizer, Salim Mohamed, to engage the youth, promote public health and encourage local entrepreneurs. For advice and assistance, Barcott turned to the family, friends, academic mentors and alumni donors from his alma mater.
CFK’s success as a pioneer in participatory development catapulted Barcott into Harvard and other circles of influence, and triggered visits from national leaders, among them a freshman senator from Illinois with his eye on the White House.
While his civilian community of friends, family and academics seemed troubled by Barcott’s military activities, his Marine Corps leadership encouraged his charitable work. Some superiors saw his activities as congruent with understanding unconventional warfare. Others liked the idea of a Marine involved in an important peaceful pursuit, so Barcott took every inch of latitude given by his seniors to continue managing CFK, both in garrison and while deployed.
As an example, when Barcott was stationed in Djibouti, Festo became gravely ill, and Barcott felt the need to be by her side. He recently had been in an accident that cost his unit a land cruiser. He was not in a position to ask for favors, but he needn’t have worried. “What you are doing, Lieutenant, is God’s work,” said his colonel. “I think there’s something we can find for you in Nairobi for a few days.”
The book is not without flaws. The friendship of Barcott, Festo and Mohamed is central to the story, but in an effort to spread the credit for the things he and his small team achieved, Barcott overdoes the details and dialogue. So, at times, the narrative lags. That issue notwithstanding, readers will be deeply moved by a tale of a man caught in the breach of roles that many would see as contradictory: humanitarian and combatant.
Barcott comes across as a man profoundly troubled by the dark attractions and violent aspects of human nature. The pungent odor of sweat and human squalor permeate the pages of his book. He could have portrayed himself as without blemish, but instead he reveals his faults and flaws, sometimes quite literally falling on his face.
In one instance, Barcott becomes ill with dysentery. In his rush to find relief, he stumbles into the community toilet, soils himself and emerges covered in other people’s feces and his own vomit. A local girl, dying from AIDS, learns of his situation, and washes his filthy clothes. He thought he was there to serve the needs of others, and is stunned when someone responds in kind. In just a few pages, Barcott takes the reader through panic, bewildering gratitude and lacerating grief as he describes the girl’s death and burial in a mass grave.
“It Happened on the Way to War” takes readers to places so far removed from others that it seems they cannot be reconciled. Ultimately, they are, because the story is not about Africa or Iraq. It is an odyssey and one in which Barcott does not wish to be the hero. But it is his story, and it is nothing short of heroic.
Charity E. Winters
Editor’s note: Ms. Winters, a graduate of the New Mexico Military Institute and the U.S. Air Force Academy, served three tours in Iraq conducting security operations. She is a freelance writer and a graduate student at Tennessee State University in Nashville.