It's daring, in some ways, that Christopher Goffard starts his book in Kenya. "You Will See Fire: A Search for Justice in Kenya" tells the story of John Kaiser, a Minnesotan and former Marine who spent most of his life in rural Kenya as a priest. Most writers wouldn't resist so many bridges of familiarity, but Goffard dares us to think differently.
"Shoulder-to-shoulder on the porches lounged gaunt, long-limbed Masai men, sinewy, sandaled, with shaven scalps, the ropy skin of their stretched and punctured earlobes bright with beads," Goffard writes.
"An American, rich by definition, who insisted on a life of hard physical labor in the sun. ... Only witch doctors live alone, people said."
It's funny, and savvy, to invert our expectations: The Masai may contort their ears to hold big beads, but this book takes place on their turf, where the single and celibate mzungu, or white man, is the strange one.
It's precisely from his foreignness that Kaiser derives a -- wholly secular -- power. He fails in his attempts, over decades, to persuade the church to speak out against abuses in the regime of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi -- foiled in large part by divisions among African and foreign church leaders over the power and purpose of criticism raised by a mzungu.
Kaiser sees a chance to pursue justice himself when Moi sets up a (sham) commission to investigate mass evictions in rural Kenya.
Kaiser had watched the evictions happen; he collected testimonies and documents from the swindled peasants, which he presents to the commission. He builds a chain of culpability leading to Moi himself -- a move so daring it's stricken from the formal record of the commission and prohibited from inclusion in the local press.
Still, the testimony turns him into a hero, which further emboldens him, even as he fears for his life. "They'll say it was suicide," he tells a friend visiting shortly before his death. "Don't believe it."
Kaiser's eventual shooting death in 2000, is investigated by a joint Kenya-FBI team, which rules it a suicide. But Charles Mbuthi Gathenji, a Kenyan human rights lawyer whose father was also killed by the regime, refuses to let the case drop. He persists, and seven years after Kaiser's death, a Kenyan judge overturns the FBI findings, calling it murder.
Yet questions remain, including about Kaiser's lifelong mental health.
In places, the book drags a bit -- the lengthy historical background could be pared without risking the integrity of the story -- but when Goffard's working in pure story, he soars. The book is best when it hews to the mystery of John Kaiser and his death, itself a prism for the story of what really happened under the brutal dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi.
Jina Moore is a writer who splits her time between New York and East Africa.