Friday, November 29, 2013

Five Hours GMT: World Events That Helped Shape Pirates

It was shortly after 11 pm on 11 July 2010, and thousands of Ugandan football fans had crowded into Kampala’s bars to watch the last ten minutes of the World Cup finals on TV.  Not being a footy fan, I had purposely stayed away from the melee, and was at home watching Discovery

I did not hear the first attack. The Ethiopian restaurant in Kabalagala was out of audible range, but the large outdoor screen at Kyadondo Rugby Club, where the second attack took place was less than three kilometres from my apartment. I heard a dull thud immediately followed by a terrible scraping noise, the sound of countless steel ball-bearings ripping through plastic chairs, flesh and bone. Moments later, another explosion. 

The death toll from the suicide attacks totalled 74 people, and 70 more were injured. I later learned that a friend had been badly injured in the rugby club attack. She has since made a remarkable recovery.  

Notwithstanding the real human tragedies involved, the news, while getting closer to home, was proving a source of inspiration as I attempted to write compelling adventure stories set within real life events. And a miasmal alphabet soup of headlines about human wickedness had been floating around my subconscious since childhood.

Listening to BBC World Service each week day morning over breakfast - two fried eggs, two beef sausages, and a mug of strong, black Nile coffee - is a tradition I’d be loathed to give up. The Beeb, like the African dawn chorus, is deeply embedded in my memory. 

When I lived in Dar-es-salaam in the early 1970s, every school morning began with the chimes of Big Ben phasing in and out as my father tuned his Grundig Yacht Boy to the World Service. The scholarly voice of an Oxbridge announcer, bouncing off the ionosphere to reach me snug in my bed blended nicely with the pulse of the Indian Ocean outside my window.  

But the awakening was frequently rude, alarming headlines that wormed their way into my young mind. Living two time zones ahead of London, we were often the first in the Anglophone world to hear the news. “Palestinian terrorists, the so-called Black September group, have killed all the Israeli athletes they were holding hostage at the Munich Olympic games…” 

Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal) began writing his debut novel Black Sunday after watching television coverage of the hostage crisis in Munich.  A disgruntled Vietnam veteran, who pilots blimps over NFL games, conspires with a Black September terrorist to launch a suicide attack in the United States. With a bomb made of plastique and a quarter of a million steel darts, he aims to detonate the explosive during the half time celebrations at the Super Bowl in New Orleans. It was the first modern adventure story I read as teenager.

BBC news headline: The Somali Islamist group al-Shabab has said it was behind twin blasts which hit the Ugandan capital Kampala on Sunday, killing 74 people.” 

I was half-way through writing the manuscript for my first novel, a thriller set in the Congo, and not yet thinking about a second. But the attack in Kampala brought the conflict in Somalia to my doorstep. 

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni called the terrorists “backward and cowardly” and vowed to deal with the authors of this crime. “It will have to be peace enforcement to bring peace to Somalia.”

My girlfriend Sandra and I ventured into Kabalagala to witness the aftermath of the horror inflicted by jihadist. And as we sat down for lunch across the street from the Ethiopian restaurant where the first attack occurred, our waiter told of coming to work and finding a human limb in the gutter.  

Another deadly menace dominating the headlines at the time, also emanating from the Horn of Africa, was Somali pirates. They had attacked hundreds of ships passing through the Gulf of Aden, hijacked dozens, collected hundreds of millions in ransom money, and it seemed nothing was being done to stop “the pirate kings of Puntland,” as one alJazeera headline described them. 

When pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama taking Captain Phillips hostage, a former CIA agent asked, “Where is the CIA? Where is the humint effort in Somalia? Where is the covert action capability of the CIA that should be on the ground in Somalia, collecting, pressuring, attacking, and destroying pirate infrastructure?”

But there are two sides to the story. While fishing in Kenya in October 2010 I learned tuna stocks had recently bounced back, because the threat of piracy had effectively deterred all foreign trawlers from coming anywhere near the western shores of the Indian Ocean. 

It occurred to me that although unscrupulous and lawless, compared to the jihadists the pirates were in many ways the good guys. Yet the international community was using the same blunt instrument to deal with them both: Reaper drones. I wanted to write a story that showed how these two groups were diametrically opposed, and decided on a plot that pitted pirate against jihadist.

Research confirmed that since the 1980s European and Asian trawlers had been illegally fishing in Somali waters, drastically depleting tuna stocks, and off the shore of Puntland at the tip of the Horn of Africa the Italian mafia had dumped tonnes of toxic waste

Grave injustices had been committed against Somalia, in particular against the good people of Puntland. Yet, despite decades of illegal plundering of Somali coastal waters, the international maritime community only started paying attention after fishermen took up piracy. 

There was one notable exception. In 2000, with the help of British company Hart Security Maritime Services, the Puntland coast guard was established. Some twelve-hundred fisherman were trained in maritime security tactics: how to track illegal fishing trawlers, approach vessels undetected, board without ladders. But shortly after they began patrolling their waters, the Puntland government tore up Hart’s contract in favour of a Dubai-based operation, which eventually ran the service into the ground. 

Soon there were hundreds of highly-trained coast guardsmen out of work, loitering in coves along the coast of the Horn of Africa, watching their fish stocks continue to plummet, and waters get polluted, for which no one was being held accountable. No wonder they turned to piracy. (And no wonder Hart Security today provides much of the maritime security for ships passing through the Gulf of Aden.) 

Meanwhile, a much darker story was unfolding on the Horn of Africa. Without significant rainfall in four years, Somalia was quickly becoming gripped by famine. Al-shabaab-held territories were worst hit, as the Islamists refused to accept foreign aid and the United States refused to provide it. 

In August 2010, the United Nations estimated twenty-nine thousand children under the age of five had died in southern Somalia and 3.7 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance across the country. 

 “The scale of the crisis is unprecedented in many ways,” said Rashid Abdi, an analyst for the International Crisis Group. “The closest example you have is the 1984 famine in Ethiopia.”

I had spent five months in Ethiopia during the latter half 1985, and witnessed first-hand the effects of famine. While working as a press officer for Catholic Relief Services, I visited one refugee camp in the Afar region where I met a woman whose task it was to weigh babies to determine if they were too far gone for supplemental feeding. I remember thinking at the time that there could be no more distressing a job in the entire world. 

In 2011, as hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled the famine in Lower Shabelle, Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya swelled beyond capacity. I decided Kakuma, which meant “nowhere” in Swahili, would be the setting for my early chapters. Unable to visit in person, I researched everything I could about the camp online, accounts by refugees who’d been trapped there for over a decade, day-in-the-life videos made with funding from well-meaning aid agencies, and countless articles in the Kakuma News Reflector, “a refugee free press.” 

I made two road trips that greatly influenced my story line. The first was to the Kenyan capital for the Easter long-weekend. Sandra and I checked into the Fairview on Nairobi Hill, owned by my friend Charles Szlapak, and spent hours lounging under giant jacaranda trees on the hotel’s luxuriantly shady grounds, sipping Tusker beer while carefully observing how Mossad agents from the Israeli embassy across the road maintained security. I subsequently used it as the backdrop for a pivotal scene in Pirates in which I try to demonstrate the ruthlessness of al-Shabaab.

Next stop Kidepo Valley in northern Uganda, an otherworldly place that has to be seen to be believed. We arrived just in time to witness July’s lunar eclipse at N’ga Moru lodge on the edge of the national park, a superb spot run by Lyn Jordaan and Patrick Devy.  By 10 pm the event had begun. Sitting by the fire, Lyn, Patrick, our driver Sam, Sandra, and I watched the heavens transform as the Moon, like a Hobnob dipped in coffee, turned umber then faded to black. It was the darkest night in a hundred years, but I’d never seen so many stars.

While stargazing, it occurred to me - as it does in Pirates to Derek Strangely - that Kakuma refugee camp is located just across the border barely a hundred kilometres away. I asked Patrick if it was possible to walk the distance. “Not without getting shot by a Turkana,” he laughed. 

“Nothing Strangely couldn’t handle,” I thought. But I was wrong. My safari guide would be incapable of making such a journey without a good deal of cajoling and a cash incentive. Enter Johnny Oceans, a name I’d first heard mentioned while tuna fishing off the coast of Kenya the year before.

Derek and Johnny were seated beside an excellent fire at the base of a small granite kopje overlooking Kidepo Valley National Park, in northeastern Uganda. They’d flown up on a private single-engine that Johnny Oceans had chartered, which landed them in Kidepo Airfield, where they were met by park staff who chauffeured them to a camping site at the foot of a kopje. 

“I’ve been to some spectacular places in my lifetime,” sighed Johnny, “but this is the shit!” Derek just nodded. Words could not express the way he felt about this particular East African wilderness. The sun was setting and the fiery light of dusk had transformed the valley into a son et lumière, recalling the time millions of years ago when it was a cataclysmic inferno, venting the planet’s burning mantle through a cluster of volcanoes.

“Except in the far reaches of the imagination,” said Derek, “no one would ever believe this place existed. It’s as if those volcanoes got up and danced around until they all keeled over with exhaustion. And this is how they were found: burnt out and contorted on the Mesozoic dance floor.” He poured himself a double shot of Wild Turkey into a cut-glass tumbler filled with ice, and then said, “Right, Johnny Oceans. You owe me an epic, and it better be a good one.” - Pirates by Greg Cummings

With Johnny Oceans I had a strong, enigmatic hero, seemingly capable of standing up to the threat of radical Islamism in Puntland and cattle raiders in northern Kenya. But Pirates needed a heroine to speak out against the nihilism in Somalia. 

Khadija Abdul Rahman was a challenging character to write. Named after an impressive matriarch I’d met, the mother of Sandra’s best friend Fatuma, I knew she had to be inspirational. Social networks provided ample evidence of single-minded Somali women who were fed up with the state of affairs in their country. And I found inspiration in the outspoken Dutch-Somali activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. More importantly I was surrounded by strong women, and across the Arab world they were also making themselves known

In Pirates Khadija walks a fine line between her religion and culture as she tries to quash the brutal, clannish behaviour of her country men. She is forced to act after jihadists attempt to recruit her teenage son Nadif in his madrasa. 

To understand how her boy could be attracted to radical Islam, I researched the Salafs perspective on everything, including fishing. This led to a chapter in which Nadif and his pirate uncle Maxamid fish together off the tip of the Horn of Africa. 

It was hard to get my hands on suitable books. But I managed to reread Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, studying his legendary pelagic battle in fine detail. 

The Somali Pirate, a autobiographical tale by Noor Fayrus of the Darod clan, was a surprise discovery. It is a delicate, heartbreaking story, told from the heart by a thoughtful writer, a fisherman who had personally experienced the grief and revenge. 

When it came to shaping Omar and al-Rubaysh, Pirates’s conspiring antagonists, by far my most useful reference was The African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa by Gregory Alonso Pirio, which I found in a Nairobi bookstore. Much of the background information I needed for these unseemly characters was in that book: Bin Laden's power brokering in Khartoum, the events leading up to Black Hawk Down, and how the Islamic Courts, the only authority that had managed to restore any semblance of law and order in Somalia, was forced to relinquish power under pressure from the US and Ethiopia. Its demise resulted in the formation of al-Shabaab.

By the end of September 2011, as Kenya prepared to invade Somalia, I had written the first two chapters, and a seven thousand word synopsis that I scarcely altered while writing the manuscript. On the strength of this, Cutting Edge Press offered me a publishing contract for Pirates

But there were still two further news stories to come that would prove most pivotal to the plot: in February “Al-Shabab 'join ranks' with al-Qaeda” and in April “Somalia's al-Shabab Islamists move north into Puntland”. Still, these stories did not necessitate any changes to my novel, as I had already seen them coming.

We will part the sea as Musa did with his mighty staff, for the glory of Allah, reestablish the bond between our great continents in the name of global jihad.” - Pirates by Greg Cummings.

Available as an ebook on Amazon:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Forgedaboudit!: How I Came To Write Pirates

It’s ten o’clock at night. Unseen in the viridescent shadows, half a dozen Masai askaris and two Rottweilers are patrolling the grounds of Bobby Cellini’s Malindi home. The two-storey rococo mansion is lit up by coloured spotlights that cast ferny shadows across its rustic ochre walls. Palm fronds nudge up against the terra-cotta roof tiles, rustling in a warm Swahili breeze that blows up from the coast.

Seated at a long glass dining table in a outdoor gazebo by his swimming pool, the seventy year-old American patriarch is holding court with his daughter Daniela Cellini, her artist friend Alexandra, nephew Jody Baker, and me. We’ve just eaten an exquisite meal of Wahoo steaks brushed with rosemary branches dipped in olive oil and tied together with a clove of garlic in between. Now comes dessert. “Greg, when was the last time you had Key lime pie?” asks Bobby, as a slice is placed in front of me.

“Way too long,” I sigh pushing my fork through its firm meringue mantle, soft creamy centre and crispy biscuit crust. After tasting a morsel I gasp. “Damn, that’s the best Key lime pie I’ve ever tasted.”

Bobby smiles at me, nods, then shuts his eyes. I want to ask him about incorporating my gorilla safaris into junkets for his casino clients but the opportunity has passed. Jody, who suggested I pitch the idea, senses my disappointment, leans in closer and says, “Forgedaboudit.”

I first met Jody Baker in the highlands of Rwanda one chilly September morning in 2009. He and his wife Renata, who was seven-and-a-half months pregnant and about to trek mountain gorillas, were standing outside the headquarters of Volcanoes national park, observing the chaos created by half a dozen inflexible park rangers trying to organise four dozen foreigners. 

Among the high-paying mzungus eager to start trekking, three stood out: a middle-aged man and his two teenage boys. Outfitted to the teeth in elaborate and expensive khaki safari gear - two hiking poles each, knee-high black gators, and mosquito-net hats - my clients were impossible to miss.

As Jody recalls, “They wore pith helmets equipped with solar panels to power their attached forehead fans. I made eye contact with their mzungu guide, another sideline observer. He had a look I recognised: one who is well Africanized, knows the ropes, and can afford to pull some strings. He had already made his moves, like me he was just waiting for the confusion to die down.”


I have only ever met a handful of kindred spirits in my life. Each time we instantly hit it off, shared a mutual acceptance of each other that transcended all other aspects our lives, except maybe a common appreciation of cannabis. That’s how it was with Jody and me. Within minutes of our meeting we were lamenting the dearth of a decent smoke in East Africa, and both somehow knew we’d end up being life-long friends.

Three days later I ran into him again in a hotel lobby near Kigali airport. He and his very expectant wife were about to fly to home to Miami to prepare for their baby’s birth. My clients had just departed, and I was planning to drive back to Kampala the next day. After exchanging emails, we promised we'd stay in touch.

In the year that followed each of our lives got seriously revised. Jody became a father for the first time. “My little boy is awesome,” he said in a Facebook chat with me, “the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. Childbirth is nasty but amazing!”

I met Sandra Richardson, the love of my life. “An amazing woman,” I told Jody, “We’re putting all we got into this relationship.”

Sandra moved into my apartment in Kampala and, after reading the manuscript I’d been working on for three years, pointed out several worthwhile ways it could be polished up. Her suggestions vastly improved the story arc and made the characters much more believable. I realised I’d met my muse, and over the next few months, with her help, struggled to complete my debut novel, Gorillaland. At the end of August 2010, on the strength of the first ten chapters, Martin Hay of Cutting Edge Press called me from London with the offer of a publishing deal. "Bo yakka!"

In the euphoria that followed, I wrote to Jody. “When are you back in East Africa? When can we get this groove on? Sandra and I need a break from Uganga! The Swahili Coast has all that spicy, salty, seductive, smiling, fruit-fried, frangipani, sweet mimosa, underwater turquoise style going on...”

“Great timing, younger brother!” he wrote back. “I sold a property and am supposed to be in Malindi in October. I am making arrangements now. I'll probably stay there a week or so. You're very welcome!”

We’re sailing 17 miles off the Kenyan Coast aboard Albatross, Jody’s 33 foot Black Fin Express, fishing over a canyon in the Malindi-Watamu bank with a spread of nine lines trailing from her stern. The sun is pegging and all around us fish are jumping: wahoo, swordfish, tuna.

Suddenly a line screams off its reel. “You’ve got a strike!” snaps Jody, handing me the rod. I struggle to take control, grappling with the method and muscle required. All the while I’m being hurled instructions from above and behind: “Feed the line!” “Let the pole do the work!” “Don’t let your line touch the boat!” “You can’t take a break now!” Eventually I get the hang of it and am rocking and reeling like a pro, dragging a monster up from the deep.

It feels like I’ve been fighting for hours, though it can only have been 20 minutes, and I want to give up for the ache in my left arm, but I know I have to see this through to completion. Finally I spot him, shimmering below the ocean surface, a sizeable tuna fish, still fighting hard. I put all my strength into reeling it in those last five meters. When the fish is at last close enough, the boatman leans over the edge and hooks it with a gaffer.

Boo yakka!” I shout, staggering back from the gunwale in sheer delight, breathless, bone-tired, and dripping in sweat from the fight. The boatman hauls my yellowfin aboard and immediately bleeds it with a long knife.

With its vivid silver and black markings, a turquoise stripe down its side, and bright yellow fins and finlets, it’s a beautiful creature to behold - weighing at least 25 kilogrammes. And despite my role in its brutal demise, nothing can contain my excitement at seeing this yellowfin at my feet. “You can’t be a Tuna Murdra without getting blood on the decks, mon!” laughs Jody. 

“Who’s the daddy?” asks Jody, triumphantly reeling in another mighty yellowfin, our fifth of the day. He’s an experienced angler and it shows; it takes him less than 10 minutes to bring in his tunny.

“Incredible,” I laugh, shaking my head. “So many fish!”

“You can thank the Somali pirates for that,” he says over his shoulder. “Since they started attacking ships around the Horn of Africa, tuna stocks on the Kenyan coast have shot up.”

BOOM! I did not realise it at the time, but right then a lure was dropped for my second novel. Another year would pass before I finally got a strike, figured out a suitable plot, but that was the moment the story began to develop, emerge from the deep.

“It doesn’t really say anything,except flat bottomed boats at posh universities!” said my agent Maggie Phillips. She was reacting to my title, Puntland. “If you are writing about Somali pirates – always in the news, apparently unstoppable – then you need to flag this up in the title. Baddies like this are fascinating, people want to read about them, so give them a chance to realise what your book is about!”

World events were influencing my storyline: the Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden, the alliance of al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, and the crack down by the maritime community on Somali pirates. Adding to that, I had visited Kidepo Valley in northern Uganda and found the ideal setting for the opening chapters.

The strike came during one of Kampala’s regular power cuts. Sandra and I were sitting under a starflower tree, discussing the plot, what motivates Somali pirates, and batting around real current affairs, when she came up with a plot twist that I knew would grab every reader by the short and curlies. "Bo Yakka!"

With a worthy plot, in-depth storyline, and cast of intriguing characters, I wrote a detailed outline, chapter-by-chapter - the synopsis for Pirates, sent it off to Maggie and Martin, and thereafter secured my second publishing contract, with a deadline to complete the manuscript by April 2012.

Johnny Oceans, Pirates’s enigmatic hero, is a maverick Italian-American from South Florida with a background in dope smuggling. In 1998 while working on the Kenyan coast in the family’s gaming business he was abducted by pirates. Eventually he settled in Somalia, converted to Islam, changed his name to Mehmet Abdul Rachman, and married a beautiful Darod woman. But nothing is what it seems.

The novel’s indomitable heroine is a chain-smoking, skinny-jeans wearing, forty-something Somali woman who happens to be the hero’s wife. Inspired by the women of the Arab Spring, Khadija Abdul Rachman urges her fellow Somalians, through Twitter and Facebook, to put aside their clannish ways and stand up against the rising tide of Islamic jihad in Somalia.

Enter the reluctant protagonist, safari guide Derek Strangely who crosses over from my first novel Gorillaland. After a perilous journey into Puntland, he comes up against Khadija’s mercurial brother Maxamid, a Somali pirate who dislikes foreigners. Meanwhile, behind the scenes Ali al-Rubaysh, a veteran jihadist now commander in al-Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula, plots a terror attack on America more devastating than 9/11.

In a barren province of a troubled desert land deemed a failed state, Pirates pits pirate against jihadist. While the outside world believes the situation as hopeless, brave men and women strive to solve the Gordian knot that is the Horn of Africa.

“How goes Johnny O?” asked Jody. “You inspired? I'm headed to Kenya around the 20th for about a month, Diani - Malindi. Chillin'. Hugs.”

“Been writing like a whirling dervish,” I replied. “ Long hours, and I’m not paying much attention to anything else. When you heading down this way? My folks would love to do a trade - their place in Cabo in exchange for your place in Malindi.”

“I just spent $18,000 on the place in Malindi, paint, pool, everything - I'll get pictures soon. They are welcome to my house anytime. Trade or no trade ;) Fuhgetaboutid…”

Jody kept me on point, suggesting weapons and equipment Johnny Oceans might use. By way of our regular conversations, he also gave me the correct vernacular for my hero. I wrote the majority of the manuscript in San Jose del Cabo, Baja, Mexico. Working in a desert environment with waves constantly pounding the shore was a boon to the story (and considerably safer than visiting Somalia). And the support of my parents, in particular my mother, provided me with all the encouragement I needed to get the job done in time.

Meanwhile my muse was back in Uganda, trying to make ends meet on $100 a week. It’s only now, after living through comparably lean times that I understand how much she suffered to ensure there was a home waiting for me back in Africa. I love you Kigongo.

It’s December 2012, eight months past my deadline. I’m on a leaky ship, struggling to put the finishing touches on my manuscript before I sink. World events are getting ahead of me. Kenya has invaded Somalia, al-Shabaab is in retreat, Egypt is in turmoil, the Arab Spring has turned cold, and piracy has been effectively vanquished from the Horn of Africa.

Penniless, shackled to my writing desk in a remote, dusty neighbourhood of Kampala, I have nothing to distract me from the task at hand. I’m working day and night. And no matter how bare the cupboard, at least once a day Sandra puts a square meal in front of me.

Two final hurdles remain: a convincing climax and Johnny Oceans backstory. I’ve modelled him on a living person and wonder how best I can reconcile that in a work of fiction. I voice my concerns to Jody.

Greg Cummings: “I haven't yet figured on where Oceans is from. At the moment I'm using his actual back story, with a twist. But I think I will change that. Don't need them getting pissed with me…”

Jody Baker: “Not to worry, they'd call me ;)”

Greg Cummings: “If you say so…”

Jody Baker: “In Godfather II, when Hyman Roth (Meyer Lansky) is discussing the split up of Havana, he gives the casino to the ‘Levini brothers, Eddie and Dino’. Watch that part of the movie where he is talking to Michael Corleone on the rooftop of a Havana hotel…” 

Subsequently Jody sent a chapter to his uncle in Malindi.

Jody Baker: “I don't think Uncle Bobby is happy about what I forwarded him but you know what… all that shit is already on the internet and the rest is fiction.”

Greg Cummings: “Should I worry?”

Jody Baker: “No - it's a work of fiction, artistic license and all that... It's funny, a black comedy. Good publicity.”

The trouble with writing action adventure stories that are set in the present day is that the latitudes keep moving. At some point the author must decide what makes a gripping yarn and disregard the rest, but a well-told story that cuts closer to the facts is undoubtedly more riveting. Writing Pirates on three continents in as many years was almost as much a roller coaster ride as the story itself. I believe it’s an audacious tale. Inspired by the oceans, I hope it will appeal to as wide an audience.

See for yourself. Read the book. Enjoy the adventure! It's at least as good as Uncle Bobby's Key lime pie.


"I owe you a debt of gratitude, older brother."
"Nah, younger brah, you owe me nothing. But if this book's a bestseller I want a '58 Cadillac ragtop...Capisce?"