Many children follow in or near the footsteps of a parent, but very few follow in those of both. Rye Barcott is the son of two university professors, one an anthropologist, the other a sociologist. The former, his mother, once worked as a nurse in a Peruvian village. The latter, his father, is also a Marine veteran who served in Vietnam. Barcott's middle name is Mead, as in Margaret.
In other words, Rye Barcott was virtually born to the unusually bifurcated life he chose. His book, It Happened on the Way to War, recounts that life, already accomplished but still young. Barcott—the founder of the nongovernmental organization Carolina for Kibera, which serves one of the world's largest slums, in Nairobi, Kenya; and a Marine who has served in Bosnia, the Horn of Africa and Iraq—turns just 32 this year.
For most of his book, which functions as both a memoir and a piece of marketing for Carolina for Kibera (a get-involved plea concludes the Acknowledgments), Barcott sees his dual life in Manichaean terms: dark and light. "The dark corner of my psyche"—the one that wants to kill, basically, although Barcott resists that direct language—shares space with the part of him that sees a "warm and glorious" light, that of God, he writes, during a near-death experience as a young boy, when he fell through the ice on a frozen pond.
Yet for a long time Barcott doesn't think of these inner forces as necessarily contradictory, largely because he is much more a doer than a thinker. (When he tries to reconcile his war and peace sides, he sometimes lands on oversimplifications, banalities or sentimental clichés). He plunges into his work and tries to untangle the complexities later—and that's probably a good thing. His headlong, messianic impulsiveness is what allowed him to make Carolina for Kibera (CFK) succeed. The project hatched and developed quickly, feverishly, and from an essentially random spark: Barcott visited Nairobi once as a junior high-schooler while on vacation with his parents and was stunned by the squalor he saw. Soon after, with the memory of Africa lingering, he became obsessed with the genocide in Rwanda.
Barcott enrolled on an ROTC scholarship at UNC-Chapel Hill, where his mother had done graduate work with professor James Peacock years before. Barcott studied with Peacock, too (later, Peacock would help Barcott raise seed money for CFK through his connections at the university), but CFK inverts the think-globally-act-locally convention Peacock reinforces in his book Grounded Globalism: How the U.S. South Embraces the World (2007). Barcott got a grant to go to Rwanda with the rather vague intent to "make a contribution with real research." When those plans fell through, however, Barcott wound up in Kibera on the suggestion of another professor, Jennifer Coffman.
After a day in Kibera, Barcott writes of a second mystical experience not unlike the frozen-pond illumination, and here is where the reader sees Barcott's dark warmonger and light peacekeeper merge: "I was exhausted, disgusted, and overwhelmed," he writes of his experience in Kibera, "and it was exhilarating. This was exactly what I wanted—to be pushed to my limits, to go somewhere and do something risky, important, and complicated. At last I was where I needed to be." Later, he ups that ante: "I wanted to die doing something intense and memorable, a blaze of glory in a righteous battle." What unites the warrior and the peacekeeper is primal ego, pure and simple.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. Barcott's peculiar rush-seeking, self-gratifying humanitarianism reminded me of the talk given last year at Duke by another intense, globe-trotting American humanitarian-writer, Dave Eggers (see "Eggers sunnyside up at Duke"). Eggers exhorted his predominantly undergraduate audience to do service for others not out of Good Samaritan selflessness but because you're "electrified by the sense that you were put to use." You, the helper, get a rush of sensation—another inversion, like Barcott's credo to think locally, act globally. Barcott "realize[s] an essential selfishness in what I had long viewed as sacrificial"—that is, his work as a Marine and in Kibera. Yet it's that very selfishness—a strong but embattled ego, torn between the mother-nurse and father-killer—that spurred him on to his heroic work in Kibera and Fallujah, and will take him where he chooses to go next.
Rye Barcott launches his book, to be published March 29, with numerous Triangle events March 28 and 29, including appearances at McIntyre's Fine Books at Fearrington Village and Bull's Head Bookshop on the UNC campus. For a complete schedule, see his website.