Women I love: Samantha Power

With apologies to Esquire magazine, I’m going to occasionally blog about women I love, other than my wife.Samanthapower
And no, you’re not going to find Halle Berry, Mandy Moore and Eva Longoria on my list. Those women get enough love as it is. Besides, the women I truly love are women like Samantha Power, women who exhibit qualities such as courage, intelligence and tenacity, women who pose for pictures in front of books.

I was smitten with Power the first time I came across her byline. It was late 2003 and she had written an article for The Atlantic called "How to kill a country," an article that, despite its title, had nothing to do with Iraq.

How could the breadbasket of Africa have deteriorated so quickly into
the continent’s basket case? The answer is Robert Mugabe, now
seventy-nine, who by his actions has compiled something of a "how-to"
manual for national destruction. … The Zimbabwe
case offers some important insights. It illustrates the prime
importance of accountability as an antidote to idiocy and excess. It
highlights the lasting effects of decolonization—limited Western
influence on the continent and a reluctance by African leaders to
criticize their own. And it offers a warning about how much damage one
man can do, very quickly. [Link]

It took courage for Power to travel to Zimbabawe and report on Mugabe’s blunders, as illustrated by this passage:

Mugabe handles the unprecedented food shortages the totalitarian way:
he hides them, guarding the size of GMB (Grain Marketing Board) stocks as carefully as he would
military secrets. Longtime foreign correspondents have been expelled
from the country, and local journalists dare not approach the GMB, for
fear of arrest. Driving by one warehouse in Mvurwi, I observed a
typically listless group of GMB workers in blue overalls lounging in
the sunshine, smoking cigarettes, and stacking and restacking wooden
pallets that would ordinarily be used to store the harvest. Nothing too
explosive there. Yet when the GMB overseers saw they were being
watched, they dispatched a posse of young men to pursue my vehicle in a
harrowing (and, owing to their reluctance to waste scarce fuel,
unsuccessful) car chase. [Link]

Bill Clinton might have wanted to chase her too, because a couple of years earlier, she wrote "Bystanders to Genocide," a virtual indictment of the Clinton Administration.

In reality the United States did much more than fail to send troops. It
led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were
already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent
authorization of UN reinforcements. It refused to use its technology to
jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination
and perpetuation of the genocide. And even as, on average, 8,000
Rwandans were being butchered each day, U.S. officials shunned the term
"genocide," for fear of being obliged to act. The United States in fact
did virtually nothing "to try to limit what occurred." Indeed, staying
out of Rwanda was an explicit U.S. policy objective. [Link]

Power, who won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide and is now a professor at Harvard and columnist for Time, has reported from Sudan, Kosovo, Burundi, East Timor and other countries, showing the type of courage and determination that have been her trademark, even as a newly minted college graduate. While other 22-year-olds were trying to figure out how to cover their bar tabs, she was trying to figure out how to cover a war.

I called the UN headquarters in the former Yugoslavia and learned that to
get accredited I needed a letter from a major western news outlet. Who did
I know? Nobody. But the offices of US News and World Report were in the
building where I worked. I marched downstairs and studied the name plates
on the doors. When I came to the door marked "Chief of correspondents," I
poked my head inside, mumbling something about wanting to cover the wars in
the former Yugoslavia. The skeptic seated at his desk asked a few
questions. What is your current job? "Uh. I’m an intern." I said. Your
reporting experience? "I covered the Yale women’s volleyball team for a
season." Your language skills? "Bad Spanish." Your war experience? "The
usual," I said. "I lived through a divorce as a child." Did I have a flak
jacket? No, but, living in Washington, I had in fact just learned what a
flak was: a press spokesman. I didn’t understand why I would need a press
spokesman’s jacket to cover the war in Bosnia.

He was unimpressed. He said the magazine already had a correspondent in
Europe who covered the Balkans. Undaunted, as I left, I asked him if he
would take my collect phone calls if I telephoned from Bosnia with an idea.
He shrugged and nodded. The meeting had been a disaster, but I left his
office, pumped my fist in delight, and began packing for my two week
vacation. Because I was determined, all I could hear then was what I wanted
to hear: he would take my phone calls.[Link]

Oh come on, Samantha. Which sane man wouldn’t take your phone calls?

If you enjoyed this piece, you'll love Melvin's novel Bala Takes the Plunge, available in North America through Amazon.com and McNallyRobinson.com You can also find it at major bookstores in India and Sri Lanka or online at FlipKart, IndiaPlaza, FriendsofBooks or other sites. A number of readers have written reviews of the novel. An excerpt of the novel can be read here.


  1. Love the tenacity, the resilience. And she did it on her own. I know people like that that still never got the recognition they deserve for the work they have done. I hope Nigeria can one day appreciate the little people for their contribution to a better country (when it gets better).

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