Theater of War

He traveled to some of the world’s most dangerous places to disarm militias, negotiate with gangs, and defy terrorists. But Bill Brookman was just a clown.

By Jessica Hatcher-Moore

The Atavist Magazine, No. 70

Jessica Hatcher-Moore is an award-winning journalist based in North Wales. Her work has appeared in The Guardian Long Read, Telegraph Magazine, Elle, The New Statesman, National Geographic, Time, and Newsweek. Prior to Wales, she lived in Nairobi. 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Daniel Moattar
Photographs: Phil Hatcher-Moore (Mogadishu); courtesy of Bill Brookman (other locations)

Published in August 2017. Design updated in 2021.

Mogadishu, Somalia, 2013

Sequined head scarves and dangling earrings shimmered as young people twisted and stomped to a hip-hop beat. The euphoric crowd’s dance floor was a decrepit basketball court ringed by painted concrete walls, their once bright tones muted by the relentless equatorial sun. One woman carried a large Somali flag—a sky blue background stamped with a single white star—that she waved in time to music emanating from the stage, or what passed for one: a corrugated metal canopy held up by wooden poles.

Rappers and singers performed sets, some in Somali, others in English. One musician taking his turn on the microphone gestured to a man controlling the venue’s hastily rigged sound system. Turn up the volume, was the mimed directive.

The sound guy demurred; he knew better. This was Mogadishu’s first public music show in 25 years, a milestone event that many people thought might never happen. The concert was already flirting with a blackout because of the Somali capital’s crumbling infrastructure, a consequence of civil war. Cranking the volume would risk overloading the system, which might grant the show’s enemies the cover of darkness.

Until a year and a half prior, Mogadishu had been largely controlled by the Islamist extremist group al-Shabaab, which made playing music punishable by flogging or even death. Al-Shabaab’s retreat had paved the way for the concert now taking place, an eclectic showcase of international and local artists who’d gathered to celebrate peace. But the extremists maintained a network of supporters who carried out suicide bombings and other targeted attacks. Concert organizers had received a barrage of death threats. For protection, they’d publicized the event like a flash mob, announcing the location only hours before the artists were scheduled to take the stage.

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One of these organizers stood out from the rest—the “old man,” as the fatigues-clad Somali security guards patrolling the venue called him. His name was Bill Brookman, and while reporting on the historic concert, I found myself following him closely because he was a curious, quixotic figure. He wasn’t an aid worker or a diplomat, and he certainly wasn’t a hip-hop artist. Brookman was a professional clown.

He was 57 and white, with a pink face drenched in sweat that plastered locks of curly gray hair to his forehead. Despite how the guards referred to him, he had a childlike demeanor, jocular and spontaneous. When he harangued one Somali guard for watching the concert and not the basketball court’s perimeter, he spoke English in a refined British accent, with the clipped diction and sonorous quality associated with boarding schools, fox hunting, and the Royal Ascot.

Brookman’s attire, however, was anything but proper. He wore black and white striped pants, bright red boots, an orange T-shirt with tasseled sleeves, and a green cravat embellished with silver charms. Black eyeliner had seeped into the creases beneath his eyes. In his hands were a plastic bottle of kerosene, a box of matches, and three Kevlar sticks, which he’d snuck through customs at Mogadishu’s airport—all the materials he would need to breathe fire.

In his hands were a plastic bottle of kerosene, a box of matches, and three Kevlar sticksall the materials he would need to breathe fire.

But where? He looked up at the concrete walls. They stood about ten feet high. If he climbed them, he’d be a sitting duck for a shooter. The show had been airing live on local television for two hours already; any half-decent jihadi, Brookman decided, would have identified the location and be on his way over, if not already lying in wait outside the venue. Brookman couldn’t very well breathe fire from the court, though. It wouldn’t have the same wondrous effect as if he were towering above the crowd. Drawing comfort from the weight of the flak jacket and helmet he wore over his kooky getup, Brookman prepared to climb.

“Bill!” a voice shouted from behind him. It was a local fixer who’d helped coordinate the concert. “No, Bill, you can’t go up in a helmet and jacket.”

“Why?” Brookman asked.

“It looks rude. It shows you don’t trust us.”

Reluctantly, Brookman took off the gear and handed it to the fixer. He took a draught of kerosene and held it in his mouth as he clambered atop the wall.

Mogadishu stretched out before him, its shattered buildings and curling coastline engulfed by the heavy night sky. Brookman lit his fire sticks, then filled his lungs to capacity and raised one of the torches toward the stars. The expulsion of kerosene and air that came from his mouth created a flaming tongue worthy of a dragon. For an instant all eyes were on Brookman, his exposed position illuminated by the fantastic burst of light.

Once upon a time, Brookman shared his talents—which along with breathing fire included pantomiming, accordion playing, juggling, and acrobatics—at local carnivals, weddings, and children’s birthday parties across England. What led him to Mogadishu more than three decades into his career was an idea so far-fetched that it just might be true: There are some things only clowns can do.

Clowning dates back to classical antiquity, when fools and similar characters were mainstays in theatrical comedies. The practice evolved through Italy’s commedia dell’arte, Shakespeare’s plays, the British harlequinade, and the modern circus. Humanitarian clowning, as Brookman’s business is known, puts the timeless, playful art to use in underserved or divided communities. The most famous practitioner is Patch Adams, who since 1971 has run the Gesundheit Institute, which sends volunteer performers to hospitals, schools, and slums around the world.

It would be easy to distill humanitarian clowns’ ethos down to a hackneyed idiom: Laughter is the best medicine. But their mission goes beyond that. They seek to build community bonds and convey civic messages. Often, to achieve those goals, they encourage audience participation.

If it sounds like bunk, there’s evidence that performance does work as a tool of social justice and conflict resolution. Allan Owens, a professor of drama education at the University of Chester, located near the border between England and Wales, told me that art and performance help people “make sense of things in difficult times and the passages that we go through.” Outside forces, including entertainment, also provide relief in tense environments. “Where relations get locked, it’s only by that third dynamic coming in that there can actually be some loosening,” Owens said.

In post-genocide Rwanda, theater became an important mode of commemorating the tragedy and aiding interethnic dialogue. One production staged by a public university presented different views on the genocide and invited audiences to intervene when they disagreed. Similar programs have been tested in fractured countries like Israel, El Salvador, and Bosnia.

Brookman once told me that “cultural baggage accrues around a lot of the art that is already” in a place, depending on who created it, who controls it, and who can access it. By contrast, clowning and its ancillary arts are neutral. “Circus skills are activities that are not tainted by anything—by class, creed, religion, politics, or history,” he said. “They’re completely fresh and open.”

Loughborough, England, 1978

“Do you, by any chance, play the one-man band?”

Brookman had recently graduated from university with a degree in fine arts, and he was interviewing at a theater company in Loughborough, a town in the British Midlands close to where he’d grown up—the son of a homemaker mother and engineer father. The company’s director had posed the question. In England, the tradition of the one-man band conforms roughly to Dick Van Dyke’s character Bert in Mary Poppins: an affable bloke weighed down by an array of brass instruments, a squeezebox, and a drum. Brookman could do many things, but playing the one-man band wasn’t among them.

“I do,” he answered anyway, trying to project confidence from beneath his thick mop of strawberry blond curls.

The director offered him the job. Brookman had two weeks to assemble a one-man band and learn to play it if he wanted to get away with the lie when he reported for work.

He approached an acquaintance, a loss adjuster for an insurance company who liked to make gadgets in his free time, and asked for help. The man spring-loaded a pair of hi-hat cymbals and rigged them to a colander that would serve as a hat. A string quoit worn around one arm attached to a bungee cord that, when pulled, caused the top cymbal to drop onto the lower one. A popular children’s television show at the time required participants to smash custard pies between cymbals, so Brookman made sure that his new headpiece was able to accommodate a pie, should the need to destroy one arise. The ensemble also had a cornet, an accordion, a banjo, a honker, and a wood-framed drum worn like a rucksack.

Once it was ready, Brookman set about learning to play the whole kit. “There’s a deflation of pomposity,” he recalled. “It honks, wheezes, buzzes.” He was good at it, though—so good that his homemade contraption took him well beyond the Loughborough theater company. It became his first ticket around the globe.

Brookman’s early career coincided with a wave of British entertainers who, fed up with the stuffy status quo of established galleries and theaters, turned to public spaces to stage their work. They embraced second-wave feminism, attended Ban the Bomb marches, and listened to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. They performed cabarets and scrawled intricate graffiti on city walls. Brookman’s one-man band may have seemed quaint in comparison, associated more with working-class, postindustrial Great Britain than the punk scene. But he found a niche among the new artistic renegades—and audiences loved it. In the 1980s, he played gigs across his home country and as far away as Thailand, Russia, and the United States.

In 1988, Brookman was invited to perform at a festival in Asia. His departure coincided with the first-ever Red Nose Day, a biennial celebration in the United Kingdom when people are encouraged to wear a plastic clown nose and raise money, often by taking part in daft stunts, for an anti-poverty charity called Comic Relief. Brookman decided to break the world record for the longest distance anyone had ever worn a red nose. (In fact, there was no official record for the feat.) A photograph appeared in the Loughborough Echo, Brookman’s local newspaper, announcing his plan. “Plucky Bill intends to travel all the way to the sub-continent with his Comic Relief red nose on,” one article said. He was quoted as saying, “I give my word as a gentleman that I will not take the nose off during the trip.”

The BBC picked up the story, and a news crew followed Brookman as he clanked and honked in his one-man band onto his plane, a bulbous nose adorning his face. Its edges cut painfully into his nostrils, but he wore it for the duration of his journey to Delhi, where he disembarked for a long layover. Rather than sightsee, he put on an impromptu music show for children at a school for the blind.

When Brookman returned to Loughborough, he found an envelope waiting at the home he shared with his wife, an opera singer with whom he’d started a small theater company, and his two young sons. It was addressed in old-fashioned cursive. Inside was a letter and a check made out in his name from a woman he didn’t know. She’d apparently seen news coverage of his Red Nose Day stunt.

“I’ve heard about what you do. I think it’s wonderful. Have ten pounds,” the letter said.

Brookman opened a bank account and deposited the check. With the meager sum, the charitable Bill Brookman Foundation was born, with the mission to use the arts for social good.

His marriage ended not long after. Brookman’s travels kept him away from home, and his wife suspected infidelity—a charge he denied. On the day they separated, he walked out of the house carrying only a French horn and a plastic bag with jars of pasta sauce inside. The sauce was his wife’s suggestion; Brookman was a terrible cook, and she didn’t want him to starve before he got settled on his own.

Forlorn, Brookman tried to keep working. But when a job playing the one-man band and eating fire at a festival in Germany fell through, he faltered. “I couldn’t take the life of a freelancer,” he recalled. It was too grueling, too uncertain. He stopped performing and trained to become a teacher.

Before taking a permanent job, however, he decided to join a clowning tour to Russia organized by Patch Adams. Many volunteers on Adams’s trips were amateur performers, good-natured types willing to don costumes and makeup for humanitarian causes, so Brookman’s professional skills stood out. One day the group visited a Moscow hospital ward populated by young Chernobyl victims. Dressed like the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist—top hat, red waistcoat and tails, black trousers, and heavy boots—Brookman entered playing discordant notes on an accordion. He pretended to be as surprised by the sounds as the children were, with exaggerated facial expressions and abrupt body movements. Some of the youngsters giggled.

Brookman playing the one-man band. 
Brookman playing the one-man band. 

He approached a shy girl wary of the scene before her. Brookman took a notepad and pencil out of his pocket and, with a flourish, drew a circle on one of the pages. Then he passed the pad and pencil to the girl. With three careful movements, she added two dots and an arc inside the circle—eyes and a smiling mouth. Her own face broke into a grin.

Wonder and surprise of the sort written across the girl’s visage were what Brookman loved about clowning. Predictability, by contrast, was anathema to him. The more he thought about teaching, the more he knew that he wouldn’t be happy doing the same thing year in and year out. He threw himself into performing once more.

Brookman rarely said no to an opportunity for his company, which made money, or his foundation, which put on shows for free. In the 1990s, he taught circus skills to schoolchildren in New York State and clowned in hospitals in France. At home he ran juggling and maypole-dancing clubs and worked as a jack-of-all-trades: actor, puppeteer, musician. In 2002, his foundation took circus performers to Gujarat, India, where a devastating earthquake had killed some 20,000 people the previous year. Brookman packed his accordion and the accoutrements necessary to raise a maypole, which locals in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, would dance around and adorn with luminously colored fabrics.

Brookman didn’t take up humanitarian clowning for purely altruistic reasons. There were more complicated ones, rooted in family history and shaded with equal parts insecurity and hubris. His main inspiration was his maternal grandfather, Alfred Lancelot Wykes, a man he never met. During World War I, Wykes, whose family called him Lance, joined the Royal Flying Corps and flew a Sopwith Camel, a single-seat biplane that proved the most potent fighter craft in the Allies’ arsenal. After the war, Wykes set up a small factory in Thurmaston, Leicestershire, a village just over 100 miles northwest of London, where he produced planes for private use. When World War II began, the British needed a new surveillance aircraft, and Wykes’s model fit the bill. By 1945, his company had produced more than 1,600 planes, known as Austers.

Wykes didn’t live to see the end of the war, however. In 1944, as part of a military show, he flew an aircraft over a Leicestershire park in an aerobatic display. He executed a perfect loop-the-loop, until the point where he was meant to pull up. His wife and son watched as his plane came down like a javelin and burst into flames. His 14-year-old daughter, Brookman’s mother, who was away at boarding school, learned of her father’s death in a newspaper the next day.

Brookman didn’t take up humanitarian clowning for purely altruistic reasons. There were more complicated ones, rooted in family history and shaded with equal parts insecurity and hubris.

Wykes became the stuff of legend. His portrait hung above the staircase in Brookman’s grandmother’s large Victorian house: a short, stocky man with graying hair and kind features, dressed in a three-piece suit and clutching a pipe in one hand. Brookman, who was born in 1955, would climb into the dusty attic to play with Wykes’s medals and uniforms and the propeller of a Sopwith Camel, its wood blades smooth to the touch. In the dining room, a model of the same plane hung inside an inglenook fireplace. His grandmother would take Brookman into her arms and encourage him to blow so that the propeller would turn. The ritual was akin to praying at an altar. “It was symbolic of Lancelot, this man of untouchable honor,” Brookman told me. “That infiltrated my psyche. He was an utter hero to me.”

As a young man, alongside his artistic talents, Brookman nurtured a deep interest in war—one might even say he romanticized it. He devoured military-history books and films in his free time. A line from Lawrence of Arabia stuck with him: He remembered Prince Faisal, based on the real-life king of Greater Syria and Iraq, saying, “Young men make wars.… Then old men make the peace.” The generations of British men immediately preceding Brookman’s had fought in two world wars. He expected to be recruited if a third broke out. But that never happened. His youth passed with no supreme ordeal in which a man, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, could test his mettle and mortality.

So Brookman went looking for one, courting life-and-death scenarios other people were desperate to escape. By the time he started hopping from one international hot zone to another—Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Haiti—he was middle-aged. Making peace, not war, was his mission, and entertainment his favored weapon. All the while, the question of whether he was living up to the legend of Alfred Lancelot Wykes burned in the back of his mind.

Skenderaj, Kosovo, 2003

In 1998 and 1999, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo fought a brutal war against Slobodan Milosevic’s government. Kosovo freed itself from Belgrade’s political grip, but it also emerged from the conflict in a shambles. Much of its population was displaced or mired in poverty, ethnic tensions still roiled, and the government was in disarray. In 2003, Brookman booked a flight to Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. He wanted to help, though he didn’t know exactly how.

It was a rash, perhaps egocentric move to show up sight unseen with no real post-conflict experience and expect to do some good. He risked everything from stepping on one of the land mines littering Kosovo to burdening already-taxed aid workers. Brookman, though, didn’t ignore impulses; if he had one, he acted on it, for better or for worse.

Brookman devised a loose idea of what he wanted to achieve, gleaned from a military history of World War II. In his recollection, the book described how the Soviet army marked the war’s end in Leningrad with a dramatic display of unused signal flares. The soldiers were celebrating victory but also honoring the unfathomable loss of some two million civilians and soldiers in the city. Brookman wanted to create something similar in Kosovo—a public spectacle that inspired collective awe and wonder. It has to be big, he thought, to make you look upward, to make you sigh.

He hoped that small-town connections would help him more than 1,200 miles away from home. The UN had a mission in Kosovo, and a man named Robert Charmbury who’d once worked in Nottinghamshire, not far from Loughborough, was the top representative for the international organization in Skenderaj, a poor municipality. Brookman had never spoken to Charmbury; if he sent a note in advance of his arrival—neither man could recall—it was only to say, I’m coming.

Skenderaj had served as a base for prominent members of the Kosovo Liberation Army and sustained enormous damage in the war. Afterward, a senior KLA commander, Sami Lushtaku, became mayor, a position he held even as he came under investigation for war crimes. (He was convicted and sentenced to prison, but later acquitted.) Skenderaj was gray and rainy when Brookman arrived, and he found Charmbury’s office in a shabby municipal building. A UN flag sat on the desk, which Charmbury would sometimes desert to play Ping-Pong with colleagues.

Brookman wanted to create a public spectacle that inspired collective awe and wonder. It has to be big, he thought, to make you look upward, to make you sigh.

Brookman got lucky; Charmbury didn’t find him rude or presumptuous. The UN official perched on his desk and listened to his guest’s idea: a multiethnic, weekend-long music and theater festival celebrating peace. Charmbury’s work brokering with local leaders to tackle grim privation was slowgoing and not always rewarding. Attempts at more lively initiatives hadn’t panned out. A two-day Mr. and Miss Skenderaj competition, for instance, had been canceled on the first night because of a power outage and on the second because of a bomb scare. “Bill offered a chance to do something special and memorable to cheer the local people,” Charmbury recently wrote in an email. Whether inspired, desperate, or some combination of the two, he agreed to the festival.

“I’m going to need a stage,” Brookman replied. Charmbury said the UN could help with that.

“There’s one other thing,” Brookman continued. “I would love to do something with aerialists.” Like in Leningrad, he wanted people gazing skyward. He’d researched the possibility of getting an aerial rig shipped over from Great Britain, but the cost and logistics weren’t looking good. “I don’t suppose you have any ideas?” Brookman asked. Charmbury said that he could probably sanction the use of a UN crane.

Brookman returned home and began putting together a show. He placed an ad in The Guardian calling for volunteers to join a circus trip to Kosovo. A trapeze artist signed on, as did a member of a Loughborough juggling club and one of Brookman’s sons. Back in Kosovo, a NATO-led peacekeeping force provided floodlights, and native Albanian bands agreed to perform.

The festival was scheduled for July 2003. With the appointed weekend days away, performers arrived in Skenderaj from London. They cobbled together stilts from any material they could find, erected a stage, and practiced the aerial show, which the trapeze artist would perform suspended from the UN crane. Brookman promoted the event in radio and newspaper interviews and walking tours through villages and towns. He carried placards and occasionally stopped to eat fire from Kevlar sticks in front of astonished onlookers.

On the first day of the festival, a few hundred curious locals showed up in Skenderaj’s main square. The first performers took the stage before a huge banner emblazoned with the word “United.” As bands, dancers, and other artists cycled through their performances, the audience grew. Brookman queued up and directed the performers, sometimes running on stage to execute a stunt or pantomime. By evening, when the aerial show was scheduled, more than 1,000 people packed the square. Suspended from the crane by a cord attached to his feet, the trapeze artist swung high into the dusky sky. Then he dropped down and scooped up a young boy from where he stood in the square clutching a candle. The move had been rehearsed at length, though the audience didn’t know it. Holding the boy close, the aerialist soared back up, eliciting screams and applause.

The morning after the festival ended, Brookman walked alone past the dismantled stage, then drifted around town. He noticed a house with walls pockmarked by bullet holes. It was the site of a massacre, a passerby said. Brookman fingered the scarred plaster. Then he ordered coffee at a café that offered a view of a field leading to the Klina River. As he looked out at the expanse, a pack of dogs stormed past, as if on a hunt. “Like headless horsemen,” Brookman recalled. Pets abandoned in the war coursed through the city in search of food.

Freetown, Sierra Leone, 2005

Two years after Sierra Leone’s devastating civil war ended, Brookman was sitting at home with his teenage sons watching the news when a segment about the country’s amputees aired. Hacking off appendages, the reporter said, was the signature atrocity of the 11-year conflict, fought between a corrupt, unpopular regime and unscrupulous, foreign-backed rebels. Some 20,000 civilians, many of them children, were missing arms, legs, lips, ears, or other body parts. Harrowing images of mutilated infants and teenagers filled the screen.

Like any normal person, Brookman was shocked. But a much odder notion popped into his brain, too: Surely a kid with no hands could still learn circus skills. Helping young amputees develop physical talents could rebuild the self-confidence lost along with their limbs. Brookman decided to test the idea on his sons and other children whom he coached in performance at a local community center.

All he needed was a diabolo—a free-running yo-yo shaped like an egg timer that can be spun, hurled into the air, and caught again on a string—a stick on which to balance a spinning plate, a pair of stilts, and some rope. With the rope, Brookman bound one boy’s bent arms so they ended at the elbows. To each truncated limb he tied the diabolo’s string. To another boy’s right arm, which was also tied up, he fastened the stick for the spinning plate. Brookman then challenged them to do tricks. After some trial and error, the boys were using the gear with ease.

Next, Brookman asked them to sit on the floor and bend their legs at the knees. He attached stilts to the joints and told them to try walking. They wobbled at first but gradually found their balance. This is going to work, Brookman thought.

Rather than just showing up in Sierra Leone, as he had in Kosovo, Brookman got in touch with the Single Leg Amputee Sports Association in Freetown, the capital. The organization sponsored soccer matches and other sporting events for people disabled in the conflict, and it agreed to meet with Brookman. In January 2005, carrying suitcases full of juggling balls, plates, and diabolos, he flew to Freetown.

Before leaving, Brookman wrote down the hymns he wanted sung at his funeral and gave the list to his assistant, Sally Renshaw, for safekeeping. Sierra Leone was more dangerous than Kosovo had been—armed gangs operated with impunity—and Brookman was preparing for the worst. He chose “When a Knight Won His Spurs” and “To Be a Pilgrim,” classic British songs about gallantry and faith. The latter has been used as a battle hymn by Great Britain’s special forces.

 He who would valiant be           
‘Gainst all disaster,           
Let him in constancy           
Follow the Master.           
There’s no discouragement           
Shall make him once relent           
His first avowed intent           
To be a pilgrim.

At a glance, it might have seemed that Brookman was seizing the tedious mantle of the prototypical white savior headed to Africa to make a difference and, if necessary, become a martyr. But melodrama in the service of others was Brookman’s business—his life’s work. He was prone to hyperbole whenever he spoke and often prefaced statements in our conversations with, “Now, this will sound awful, but.…” He recognized his penchant for self-aggrandizement, even as he barreled right into it. The choice of hymns was no different.

In Sierra Leone, Brookman visited schools and explained his idea of teaching circus skills to children. He was surprised to see only a handful of amputees. He asked if there were others. Without proper medical care, he learned, most had already died. Ultimately, Brookman would teach a young man missing one leg to hold a flaming torch in his hands as an aerial rig hoisted him up. Another man with no lower arms learned to balance a spinning plate on a long stick tied to one of his biceps. To have a bigger impact, Brookman was going to need a different project—and a team of locals to pull it off.

Pantomime of a gun misfiring.

One day he was having lunch at an outdoor café when he noticed that another customer, also a foreigner, was sitting alone. The man’s jeep was parked nearby, branded with a UN logo and the words “Arms for Development.” In typically forward fashion, Brookman approached the customer, a dark-haired French Canadian in his mid-thirties, and took a seat in a plastic chair at his table. Later, Brookman would describe the moment as if it were fated.

The man’s name was Daniel Ladouceur, and he was working on a new disarmament strategy for the United Nations Development Programme. Despite a government campaign to collect everything from anti-aircraft battery to AK-47’s to rocket-propelled grenades, there was still a lot of weaponry floating around Sierra Leone, particularly small arms and ammunition. Ladouceur’s job was to persuade communities to hand over guns in exchange for UN-funded development projects worth up to $20,000 apiece. So far it wasn’t going well. Ladouceur could see that distributing leaflets and posting placards wouldn’t advance the campaign. He was looking for a more creative, radical approach.

“What are you doing?” he asked Brookman.

“I’m doing circus skills,” Brookman replied, explaining his work.

“Have you got any ideas that could help us?” Ladouceur asked. “Anything you could do to get people interested in handing in their arms?”

Brookman took the question seriously. He scanned the ground until he spotted a few stones. He picked up three. “Let’s say I’m juggling hand grenades,” he said, giving Ladouceur a running commentary of the pantomime. “It goes wrong”—he let one stone land on his head—“and ow!” Brookman shrieked. “But let’s say I have a UN helmet on, and the stone lands in the hat. Then it’s safe.” He pretended to take off a helmet, flip it over, and use it to catch the stone. “People must give the grenades to the UN, else they’ll get burned,” Brookman continued.

Then Brookman pulled a honker from his canvas bag. It was an old-fashioned brass car horn with a large rubber bulb attached to one end. “You could go like this,” he said, drawing the horn up to his shoulder as if it were a rifle, arranging his face into a grimace, and squeezing the bulb—honk—as he mimed taking a shot. “And then this,” he said, aiming the honker but squeezing the bulb such that no sound came out. With a puzzled expression, Brookman flipped the honker around and peered into the imaginary barrel. As he did, he produced another honk, imitating a gun misfiring into his face. “Or how about you fashion a gun out of a balloon,” Brookman said, pretending to eye a target from behind a chair, “but you have a pin hidden in your lapel, so that when you take aim, the balloon blows up in your face.” He reeled his body back in mock pain.

“I suppose something like that could work,” he said more quietly, his muscles relaxing as the adrenaline drained away.

Ladouceur was intrigued. He knew of one-off, didactic plays staged to encourage disarmament, but Brookman’s sketches were simple, engaging, and replicable. “I had a feeling that this was a crazy idea,” Ladouceur told me, “but then the crazier the better, I felt.” He asked Brookman if he’d consider working for the UN, and Brookman said yes. It was exactly the sort of opportunity he’d been hoping to find.

In Sierra Leone with a cache of weapons.

To deploy the pantomimes, which Brookman refined and scripted, the two men envisaged a traveling troupe of performers. Brookman’s job was to recruit a local person to lead it. He short-listed six candidates who responded to a newspaper ad, then selected Albert Massaquoi, an actor who spoke three local languages as well as English. After Massaquoi learned to juggle, twist gun-shaped balloons, and lead discussions on disarmament, he and Brookman drove to remote villages to test his new skills.

Brookman documented the trip, during which Massaquoi performed in town squares and forest clearings, in a report that was nothing like the usual UN fare, full of Orwellian doublespeak and impenetrable syntax. Brookman’s account was candid, colorful, and written in the third person to mildly comic effect. “Bill is concerned that some drivers drive insensitively up-country,” he wrote, describing the UN employees who ferried him and Massaquoi. “Pedestrians are covered in dust or splashed and raced past in villages. Some of this is unavoidable. But to see a considerate driver in action shows it can be done.”

After the successful trial, Massaquoi recruited other performers. They took off like a traveling circus, turning up in more than 300 locations nationwide in an old bright yellow Land Cruiser. They collected any weapons communities were willing to give up. According to Ladouceur, they gathered more than 1,000 arms, including semi-automatics, hunting rifles, and chakabulas, crude, locally made guns. Finally, Brookman’s clowning was proving effective in the way he’d always hoped it would.

When Ladouceur was reassigned to Haiti, where the UN was struggling to contain urban guerrilla warfare, he asked Brookman to come. The clown was game.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 200

Brookman’s flight to Haiti was a bubble of serenity that burst as soon as he disembarked in Port-au-Prince, with its thick dust and exhaust fumes, blaring music and car horns. From the window of a taxi, Brookman spotted a dead body. At the Hotel Oloffson, a gingerbread-style Gothic mansion and an inspiration for Graham Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians, foreign aid workers spilled onto shaded terraces overlooking lush, tropical gardens. Theirs was a rarefied club. When the guests went to bed, singing from nearby streets continued through the night, haunting four-part harmonies that drifted through Brookman’s open shutters. Occasional bursts of gunfire broke the melodic reverie.

The sounds represented what Brookman had come to do in Port-au-Prince’s bidonvilles, or slums: alleviate violence through music and art. Of particular concern was Cité Soleil, a shantytown of almost 300,000 people. Numerous gangs vied for control of the streets, killing their enemies and terrorizing civilians. Neither Haiti’s government, in chaos after a coup d’état, nor the police were up to the task of flushing them out. A UN peacekeeping force had arrived in 2004, but it wasn’t able to penetrate the compact neighborhood of flimsy buildings leaning together and overlapping like rooms in a house of cards. Whenever soldiers went in, gunfire from the gangs drove them back out. Several peacekeepers had been killed.

Desmond Molloy, an Irishman and former military officer working for the UN, was tasked with figuring out how to disarm the gangs—composed largely of young men, including many children—and help members transition into civilian society. It felt like an “impossible” job, Molloy told me, and it nearly broke him. The gangs had tens of thousands of weapons in their possession. They used women and children as human shields. On average, Molloy noted at the time, five kidnappings were reported in Cité Soleil every day. His team once met with more than 30 children who belonged to gangs, to discuss alternative ways of life. Within three weeks, Molloy heard that gang bosses had executed at least five for conspiring with the UN.

The gangs had tens of thousands of weapons in their possession. They used women and children as human shields.

Distressed, Molloy contacted Ladouceur, whom he’d worked with in Sierra Leone, and begged him to come to Haiti. The two men drafted a plan to adapt traditional disarmament strategies to a place verging on anarchy. But during a presentation of their ideas, flicking through PowerPoint slides, Molloy abruptly told the room full of UN officials, “I have to stop.” Haiti was in conflict, even if a proper war wasn’t raging. There was no peace agreement signaling any side’s willingness to disarm. Conventional UN solutions wouldn’t work.

Certain that he would be sacked from his job, Molloy was surprised when his boss allowed him and Ladouceur to come up with a new strategy—if they could do it in two days. Molloy and Ladouceur devised what they called community violence reduction, which they were soon allowed to implement. The plan prioritized the well-being of populations affected by gangs by helping people exit the organizations and supporting nonviolent culture in places like Cité Soleil. With no clear way of convincing gang leaders to gather at a negotiating table, Molloy and Ladouceur decided to approach them individually, using Haiti’s vibrant arts scene as a channel. Music was a language the gangsters understood; rap kreyòl, as Haitian hip-hop is known, was born of social discontent.

The UN, though, had a legitimacy problem. Nervous peacekeeping soldiers who were supposed to be protecting civilians rarely got out of their tanks. In January 2006, gangs had shot two of them dead—the third fatal incident affecting UN personnel in under a month. For community violence reduction to work, Ladouceur and Molloy needed outside help.

Brookman was the man for the job. Ladouceur asked him to set up an ostensibly independent organization—it was fully funded by the UN—through which local performers would tour parts of bidonvilles that peacekeepers couldn’t reach. Some Haitian officials were skeptical. “What are you doing bringing in foreigners to run carnival for us?” one asked when he heard the news. “You think you need to teach Haitians how to do carnival?” (The country’s weeks-long celebration leading up to Mardi Gras is legendary.)

Heeding the lessons of Sierra Leone, however, Brookman planned to draft Haitian entertainers and collaborate with them. After his first night at the Hotel Oloffson, Brookman got to work. Through newspaper ads and word of mouth, he found young, street-savvy performers who seemed capable of navigating both chords and conflict. Jerôme Jacques, a stocky, gregarious Haitian with an easy laugh and a beautiful singing voice, was chosen as the troupe’s front man. He and the other performers made bright orange T-shirts emblazoned with the initiative’s name, Caravane de la Paix (Caravan of Peace). They removed the telltale blue logos from the UN vehicles they’d be using and painted the sides with murals inspired by voodoo art. Brookman taught them circus skills, including how to toss a diabolo that had been set on fire.

The caravan set their sights on Cité Soleil, which the UN was eager to access by any means possible. Each gang controlled a parcel of the slum; to secure a location for a show, the caravan would need approval from the relevant gang boss. Jacques decided to drive in to request a meeting with Amaral Duclona, a powerful leader who held sway over an area of the slum known as Bélécou. Among the most feared men in Port-au-Prince, Duclona was suspected of being connected to the murders of several foreigners. Yet Jacques had heard that he was surprisingly approachable and interested in development that might benefit Cité Soleil.

Haitian performers pose with caravan vehicles. 

On the road into Bélécou, Jacques and three other caravan members who’d agreed to join him were stopped and questioned several times. Once they arrived, about 30 young men blocked their path. Jacques asked where Duclona was. A cluster went looking for their boss while the rest stayed behind to watch the uninvited guests. Fifteen minutes later, a polished blue Honda convertible arrived and produced Duclona, a tall, heavyset man with a buzz cut and a silver chain around his thick neck. He and several armed men disappeared into a nearby building. Duclona found a room with a desk, where he sat with his guards flanking him, like a lord holding court. Only then was Jacques allowed an audience.

“We are working to promote the culture of peace,” Jacques told Duclona. “The whole community honors you as their leader, a great leader, a leader who exudes extraordinary sensitivity toward the people of the Cité.” But those people, Jacques continued, weren’t happy with the status quo of poverty and violence. He asked Duclona’s permission to bring the caravan into Bélécou to engage residents in music and performance.

The gang leader responded by comparing life in Cité Soleil to being in a prison. “The population lives in fear,” Jacques remembered him saying. Duclona also complained about the unearned reputation that slum residents had throughout Port-au-Prince. “People living in this area cannot move with ease around other parts of the capital,” he said. “Men and women, all are considered killers.”

He agreed to let the caravan come, with one stipulation: Jacques also had to get permission from Duclona’s brother-in-law, Évens Jeune—known as Ti Kouto (Little Knife)—a gang leader who controlled a neighboring area known as Boston. The two bosses had made a pact to prohibit public leisure activities as a method of controlling their communities, so Duclona couldn’t agree to the caravan’s request on his own.

Jacques drove with two of Duclona’s men to Ti Kouto’s house, all brick and glass with modern plumbing, air-conditioning, and a driveway in which new cars and motorbikes were parked. When he heard the pitch, Ti Kouto gave his agreement. Jacques left the slum and reported back to Brookman, anxiously awaiting news of the reconnaissance trip, that the caravan’s work was a go.

Two days later, the team loaded into its vehicles and set off for Place Immaculé, a square in Boston. Brookman trusted and admired his Haitian colleagues. He also felt responsible for them; he knew that they were risking their lives because he’d asked them to. But if something went wrong in the slum, there would be little he could do to protect them or himself.

The ride was rough. Gangs had dug trenches on either side of the road; known as “tank traps,” they made it nearly impossible for armored vehicles to pass. When the troupe finally arrived at Place Immaculé, the members cautiously spilled out wearing their orange shirts. Armed men loyal to Ti Kouto emerged from narrow alleyways. They’d been sent to provide protection.

The caravan split into two groups. One managed the curious crowd that had begun to gather. The other, led by Brookman, set up for the show. Every half-hour, Brookman sent a text message to a UN contact so that the official could monitor the caravan’s progress. He was walking a fine line; if Ti Kouto found out the troupe wasn’t a wholly neutral party, as it had been presented to him when Jacques first visited Boston, the caravan could be run out of the slum, even attacked.

Brookman kicked the show off with his accordion, pulsing the instrument’s keys and pushing and stretching its bellows. Several gunshots rang out close by, presumably a warning to the caravan from gangs hostile to Duclona and Ti Kouto’s. The band looked to Brookman for guidance and saw him play on. So they did, too. Later they learned that Brookman hadn’t heard the shots: The accordion is a strident instrument, and he already had hearing loss from years spent cocking his head toward it, the rasping notes blaring into his ear canal.

Jacques and another vocalist took up two microphones. Their first song, a catchy rock tune, beseeched the crowd to lay down their weapons, which the lyrics called “a great burden.” Women clustered near the troupe, with green and yellow buckets bearing laundry, food, and water balanced on their heads. They laughed and swayed to the music. Eventually men joined in, and as the crowd started to cheer, the band’s confidence grew.

Then the audience parted, making way for a lean, muscular man with tattoos and silver hoop earrings. Brookman’s heart fluttered; he wondered if the man was going to shut the show down—or worse. Instead, the man took one of the microphones and began to rap. When he finished, another man, this one skinny, wearing bleached dreadlocks and a leopard-print shirt, jumped in to replace him. The caravan, Brookman realized, was engaged in an unprecedented musical dialogue with some of the most wanted men in Haiti.

The caravan, Brookman realized, was engaged in an unprecedented musical dialogue with some of the most wanted men in Haiti.

At one point, he set down his accordion, picked up a small camera he’d brought with him, and gingerly took a photograph. Rather than get angry, the man in the leopard-print shirt exaggerated his performance gestures. Over the course of the afternoon, keen to document the caravan’s first success, Brookman took more photos of gang members, most of whom had elaborately tattooed arms.

When the troupe finished performing, members distributed T-shirts to the crowd, Brookman said a few words—translated by a local priest—about music being a common language, and the caravan packed up and left. That evening, Ladouceur asked how the show had gone. Brookman played down the fact that, in a matter of hours, the caravan had been able to get into a place the UN had been trying to access for months. “I met the gangs. I performed with them. Oh, and I got pictures of them all,” Brookman said matter-of-factly. “We were not expecting him to go that strong,” Ladouceur later admitted with a chuckle.

After that, Brookman moved in and out of Port-au-Prince’s most violent areas. Embracing the local rara street-festival tradition, he bought a number of bamboo trumpets, known as vaksen, that the caravan incorporated into its repertoire. Jacques continued to meet with gang leaders, explaining that the troupe could be trusted and asking for their blessing on the performances. Ever conscious of the abduction risk, Brookman and his team sketched a map on a translucent piece of paper that, when aligned with a satellite image of Cité Soleil, detailed the locations of gangsters’ houses and hideouts, the tank traps, and the safest roads. The caravan didn’t take it into the slum. The plan was to use the map as a bargaining chip: If a gang kidnapped one of the troupe members, the rest would threaten to give the map to UN soldiers unless their colleague was freed.

The idea was typical Brookman—madcap, but with a certain degree of logic. It also revealed that he was wrestling with his loyalties. He was dedicated to the UN, which he saw as a force for good in the world. To what extent should he be concerned with fidelity to his target audience, including hardened criminals? In Sierra Leone, the two sides had aligned more naturally, thanks to the civil war being over. In Haiti, they were foes.

With UN troops.

Complicating the dilemma was an August 2006 ultimatum issued to the gangs by then president René Préval: Surrender or die. This put UN negotiators like Molloy and Ladouceur in the difficult position of managing a peaceful disarmament process as the specter of a joint UN-Haiti military action loomed. Their team operated alongside peacekeepers with the common goal of overtaking the slums, but the groups had different mandates and often employed clashing methods. If an offensive were to start, as Molloy put it, “Our game is up.” At best the disarmament team’s work could forestall that moment, but privately its leaders held out little hope that would happen.

Still, they asked Brookman to do more—“because he was able to reach places and talk to people that nobody else was able to,” Ladouceur explained. The caravan began to encourage gang leaders to release its rank-and-file members for demobilization, a formal process wherein the young men would leave the slums and, in a UN facility, receive support and education in order to return to civilian life. Jacques again took the lead in negotiations. It was painstaking work, with little progress. Once, after a three-hour meeting, the leaders of a gang known as Base Egaré (Lost Base) told Jacques that they had no reason to trust that demobilization wasn’t a trick. Over the course of the fall, gang leaders agreed to hand over about 100 men to the UN. At the demobilization facility, Brookman helped them record music in which they articulated their grievances and expressed their desire for a new life.

In a matter of months, however, many of them would be dead.

One Friday in February 2007, Brookman received a phone call from Molloy. “Why don’t you come along and spend the weekend up at my place?” the UN official asked. He lived in a cool, leafy home atop a winding escarpment road some ten miles outside Port-au-Prince. Brookman agreed. “Where is the rest of the group—Cité Soleil?” Molloy asked casually. Brookman said his team was in a different city for a few days. (They had started performing regularly outside the capital.) “Fine,” Molloy replied. “Come and stay. Let’s meet for lunch tomorrow, then we’ll drive up to my place.”

During lunch, while Brookman ate pizza and drank a glass of wine, Molloy’s cell phone rang. Brookman listened to his boss’s side of the call, gleaning from the snippets of conversation that a complex military operation was under way somewhere in Port-au-Prince. Calls kept coming in that afternoon as the pair drove to Molloy’s home and after they’d arrived.

Curiosity morphed into disbelief as Brookman learned where the offensive was happening. “Got an op going down in Cité Soleil. They’re taking them,” Molloy said, referring to the gangs. Some 700 UN troops were going after the groups with which the caravan had spent months building relationships. In fact, the primary target was Ti Kouto, whom the head of the UN mission described to The Washington Post in its coverage of the operation as a “psychopath.” (Ti Kouto would manage to escape and flee south of the capital.) Molloy had known about the incursion in advance; it’s why he’d invited Brookman to his home, to ensure his safety. But the decision to move against the gangs hadn’t been his, he explained.

Some 700 UN troops were going after the groups with which the caravan had spent months building relationships.

Brookman understood. He’d been a UN contractor long enough to grasp the nuances of the unwieldy organization’s component parts, and he didn’t begrudge his boss’s position. Still, he was worried. He wondered if he would be taken for a spy, or if the rest of the caravan would. He was relieved that no hostage situation had ever prompted him to use his map. But he knew that if a gang leader wanted revenge on his enemies, even perceived ones, he would take it. When Brookman learned that more than 20 of the young men he’d worked with at the demobilization facility had died after returning to Cité Soleil, some specifically to fight the UN troops, he felt helpless.

He spent the weekend at Molloy’s, anxious and drinking heavily. When he left to rejoin the caravan, Brookman knew that the troupe would have to start from scratch to rebuild trust in the slum. More than ever, it would need to be careful to hide its UN affiliation.

But Brookman never went to Cité Soleil again. The Haitian government had asked to take over the caravan’s operations, so he spent his last few weeks in Port-au-Prince coordinating the transition. He grew increasingly neurotic, telling drivers to turn off the road if his car came close to a UN vehicle, lest a disgruntled gang member associate him with the men who’d invaded Cité Soleil.

When he boarded a flight out of Haiti, police escorted a handcuffed man onto the plane. Brookman craned his neck to see if he recognized the tattoos on his arms. Unable to make them out, he shrank into his seat. He could never get comfortable.

Loughborough, England, 2007

Brookman’s friends were worried about him. After he returned from Haiti, one of his foundation’s board members saw him hurl a piece of circus equipment in what seemed to be a moment of anger. Renshaw, his assistant, thought he looked drained. Brookman admitted that he sometimes thought he heard gunshots that weren’t actually there. When people suggested that he see a therapist because he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Brookman acquiesced, though he was skeptical. What do you do apart from talk? he thought.

Then again, he had things he wanted to talk about—Haiti, and much more. 

His therapist, a woman in her fifties, worked in a sparsely furnished room in a converted farmhouse. Sitting across from her, Brookman confessed that he had an obsession with death, particularly the untimely demises of great men. Did she know that the composer Henry Purcell had died at 26? Alexander the Great at 36? There was also his grandfather who’d died in front of a crowd. After first mentioning him, Brookman kept talking about Lancelot Wykes. His grandfather’s ghost was always there, almost on his shoulder, Brookman said.

Performing at a festival in Britain.

The therapist told him that he was pursuing an impossible goal. Brookman felt he had to live up to his grandfather’s legacy in order to prove himself to his family, particularly his mother and grandmother. “You’ll never, as a human being alive now, equal a mythical character who’s dead,” the therapist said. As for his unusual knowledge of the age at which men died, she suggested that Brookman was desperate to achieve as much as he could as quickly as possible, in case his own life suddenly ended.

For all the light therapy shed, it did little to temper Brookman’s appetite for risk. “If somebody gives me a project, I just get excited. I get a rush of blood,” he told me. And Renshaw had been Brookman’s assistant long enough—on and off for 11 years—to know that when Ladouceur got in touch, “something international was afoot.”

When Ladouceur phoned one day in 2009, it was about East Africa. He wanted Brookman to visit Somalia, which was languishing without a functioning government. An African Union peacekeeping force was there, but al-Shabaab was on the rise, particularly in the south. In areas the extremists controlled, which would eventually include swaths of Mogadishu, they banned music, cigarettes, sports, gold teeth, bras, movies, the internet, and dancing. Women were forced to wear heavy black robes and were forbidden from working in public. People suspected of spying on behalf of the UN or any other enemy of al-Shabaab were executed, often in public.

Ladouceur wanted Brookman to go to the north, where two autonomous regions—Somaliland and Puntland—were relatively stable, despite rampant piracy and kidnapping. The UN was eager to stem the tide of extremism from rolling in. This wouldn’t be like Haiti; Brookman would be working with people who weren’t armed, encouraging them not to become so, rather than ingratiating himself with fighters against whom the UN might later decide to take a different tack.

He packed his bags.

Over the next four years, Brookman took several trips to Somaliland and Puntland. He rolled around in a tangerine-colored bus with local performers, staging shows that targeted young people, encouraging them to disavow violence. The threat of religious zealots loomed, and there were near misses: bomb attacks on roads the bus took, an accidental detour ten miles into an active minefield before anyone realized and the group had to anxiously backtrack. Many seasoned aid professionals and conflict journalists tone down their tales of closely averted disaster. Getting into trouble often means you’ve messed up and put other people in danger; drawing attention to fiascos as derring-do can be viewed as a mark of inexperience. Brookman, however, never self-censored. He told me stories in full color, with unabashed enthusiasm and, at times, vanity peppered with embellishment. He was first and foremost a performer who saw life and the retelling of it as the ultimate theatrical production.

Brookman was first and foremost a performer who saw life and the retelling of it as the ultimate theatrical production.

When Brookman got home from what was supposed to be his last trip, in late 2012, he sat with Renshaw in the garden of his home. He was spent. “I need to stop now,” he told his assistant. “I need a break.”

Not long after, Ladouceur called. He had another mission to Somalia in mind, this one to Mogadishu, where battles with international forces had cost al-Shabaab key positions; the militants had shifted to a strategy that prioritized car bombs, grenade attacks, and suicide vests over territorial control in the capital. Mogadishu wasn’t safe, but the worst was over. What better way to show it than a public concert to signal that al-Shabaab no longer held sway over the city, its culture, and its inhabitants?

Bloody hell, Brookman thought, I’m going to do another one.

He got off the phone and found Renshaw’s eyebrows furrowed in concern.

“Are you going to say yes?”

Brookman looked apologetic. “I have done so already,” he answered.

Mogadishu, Somalia, 2013

The Reconciliation Music Festival, as the planned event was called, had two enemies. First were the militants, and second was the national government that had formed in the wake of al-Shabaab’s retreat. While they weren’t members of the extremist group, many politicians were still hard-line conservative Muslims. A show featuring singing, dancing, unveiled female artists, and other religiously forbidden activities was frowned upon. “It is not possible to do music in Mogadishu,” an official told Brookman and two other festival organizers when they paid an exploratory visit to the city in January 2013.

On the same trip, the visitors went to Afgoye, a town reclaimed from al-Shabaab less than a year before. The terrorists were making their continued, if fractured, presence felt with regular attacks. As Brookman and his co-organizers were looking around the town, their security guards abruptly bundled them into waiting vehicles and ushered them back to Mogadishu as fast as the bumpy roads would allow. They were told that forces in Afgoye had arrested two or three armed al-Shabaab sympathizers suspected of planning an attack on the visitors.

The concert clearly needed local security support. That’s where the contacts and experience of Shiine Akhyaar Ali came in.

A trailblazing Somali rapper known to his fans only by his first name, Shiine was the festival’s mastermind. In the early nineties, when he was a child, extremists had killed two of his brothers and driven the rest of his family out of Somalia on foot. They traveled across semi-arid desert and eventually settled 700 miles away in Nairobi. Shiine learned to read and write, and he began to compose and perform poetry as a teenager. In 2004, when he was in his early twenties, he and several other Somali exiles formed a creative collective called Waayaha Cusub (New Era). The group recorded hip-hop albums that it performed live across Kenya and in other parts of East Africa; many of the songs promoted nonviolence and tolerance, and some called out the enemy by name. “Who is behind this trail of destruction? Al-Shabaab,” one notable track asserts.

Playing with fire.

By 2006, Waayaha Cusub had caught the Islamists’ attention. When one of the members, Zakaraia Ciro, traveled to Somalia to visit his dying mother, he was kidnapped and murdered. His dead body surfaced in a river, after which three of his bandmates quit in fear. Even in Nairobi the group wasn’t safe; men loyal to al-Shabaab lived among the Kenyan capital’s large Somali population. A street attack left a female member with a gash down the center of her face. In 2007, armed men broke into Shiine’s apartment one night. He managed to grab and break the light fixture on the ceiling of his bedroom, plunging the space into darkness. The men pinned him down and fired several rounds, only two of which hit home. The attackers left him for dead, blood pumping from an exit wound and a bullet lodged in his stomach. Shiine survived—and kept performing.

Brookman and Shiine met for the first time in 2009, when Brookman was traveling to northern Somalia by way of Nairobi. Shiine, who was garnering a reputation among admirers as a cross between Kanye West and Gandhi, wanted to bring live music back to Somalia and use it to promote peace. He and Brookman talked over coffee at a hotel, where they took an instant liking to each other. Brookman found Shiine, then just 26 and soft-spoken, with a square, boyish face and curly hair, to be confident and mature. Shiine liked Brookman’s humanitarian-cum-artistic work and came to see him as “a friend of the Somali people,” the rapper told me.

Four years later, the idea they’d discussed was finally happening. The UN had signed on as a funder Waayaha Cusub would headline, with an array of global musicians performing sets, including Afghan-American folk singer Ariana Delawari, Filipino reggae artist Jahm-Eye, Kenyan soul band Afro Simba, and Sudanese singer Alsarah with her band the Nubatones. There would be a series of six shows over the course of a week, leading up to one large concert that would be broadcast live on local television. Brookman’s job was to manage UN financing, but he also wanted to stage one of his aerial acrobatic shows and breathe fire during the performances.

To counter government opposition, Shiine went looking for allies. He knew there were no security measures, however large or costly, that could guarantee the event’s safety. “Mogadishu life is knowing that one day you’ll get bombed and you’ll die,” he told me at the time. “People are dying everywhere. The people around them are sitting drinking coffee. That’s the normal.” Yet he placed faith in the hands of two liberals inside Somalia’s intelligence apparatus: Ahmed Moalim Fiqi, the national chief, and Khalif Ahmed Ilig, district chief for Mogadishu. Both men promised to do everything in their power to protect the musicians.

In early March 2013, Brookman landed for the second time that year at Mogadishu’s airport, where the model and caliber of weapons one was traveling with were standard fields on immigration forms. Along with his fire sticks, Brookman smuggled in money, concealed about his person, to pay festival contractors. “I came over with $30,000 stuffed down my knickers. Not all large denominations—wads and wads of it!” he told me. Six armed guards picked him up in a truck, which then transported him at breakneck speed, guns sticking out at odd angles like the quills of an unkempt porcupine, through the streets of Mogadishu. At the City Palace Hotel, a low-lying compound with a quadrangle where guests on plastic chairs drank milky coffee or thick mango juice, Brookman underwent a rigorous security check: body scan, bag scan, extensive pat down. He was introduced to the local police commander in charge of his security detail. A tubby, goofy-looking man with a mouthful of gold teeth, the officer didn’t inspire confidence.

But Brookman had other things to worry about. The stage that the producer had arranged to be shipped in for the concert was missing, probably on a boat somewhere between Mombasa, Kenya, and Mogadishu’s port. The sound and lighting gear they’d ordered were also missing in action, as was a satellite dish rumored to be en route from Dubai. It would’ve been cheaper to import some items over land from Kenya, but it also would’ve required paying bribes to al-Shabaab.

“I came over with $30,000 stuffed down my knickers. Not all large denominations—wads and wads of it!”

Brookman’s idea for an aerial performance, meanwhile, raised eyebrows. “For us that’s very strange. We’ve never seen a lady dancing in the air,” Nur Hassan, a Somali journalist working as a fixer, told me. The security brass saw it as less strange than risky—a person flying through the open air was asking to be a target of terror. They insisted that Brookman not orchestrate the stunt, even though he’d already been training a local aid worker to dangle from a climbing rope and harness, practicing on the veranda of her Mogadishu home.

A few days into the event’s preparation, Brookman and other festival participants decided to check out the concert venue and visit Mogadishu’s fish market. Armed guards went wherever the performers did. Everyone needed a spot in a vehicle. With so many people to organize, departure from the hotel was delayed.

Just as the team was preparing to leave, news came over the radio: A car bomb had exploded less than a mile away, near Mogadishu’s presidential palace. The performers wanted to see the scene, so they drove over. Police and onlookers surrounded the smoldering shell of a public minibus and the charred wreckage of the bomber’s car. The minibus, with civilian passengers aboard, wasn’t hit intentionally, police said. It had been in the way of a car carrying Khalif Ahmed Ilig, one of the festival’s local guarantors. He escaped with minor injuries, as did some 20 other people. At least ten more, however, had died.

Brookman snapped pictures. He felt compelled to bear witness, but he also recognized that he was rubbernecking a disaster. He marveled at the force of the bomb: Only one wheel was still attached to the stunted chassis of the bomber’s car, and the bodywork was blown to bits. Cracks of gunfire—police shooting in the air to disperse the crowd that had gathered—reverberated amid Mogadishu’s crumbling brick and plaster walls. Brookman nervously scanned the street, worried the sounds might be hostile fire.

As the festival drew closer, threats multiplied. Shiine, who arrived from Kenya a few days after the car bombing, and the rest of Waayaha Cusub received menacing calls and text messages. Most promised that death was imminent. One day, Shiine said he received a small amount of prepaid mobile-phone credit shortly before a text that read, “Use this credit to say goodbye to your family.” He worried about the guards hired to protect him. They were undoubtedly poor locals, and al-Shabaab might try to buy them off, giving them more to harm Shiine or festivalgoers than the event’s backers were paying to keep everyone safe. In one incident, Shiine’s guards exchanged fire outside the hotel with men in a moving car. Intelligence officers later determined that it was an attempt to ambush the rapper.

Consulting with Somali policemen ahead of the peace concert.

The day of the event was chaotic. Much of the gear had still not arrived, so the festival team would have to make do with what could be sourced locally. Around the time that organizers announced the concert’s location via phone calls and text messages, I shared a car to the venue with Brookman. He already had on his performing outfit and eyeliner, not yet smudged. He was jittery, speaking as much to himself as to me.

“A three-hour live broadcast!” he screeched. “Who made that call? It might be me.” At another point, he turned in the passenger seat to face me where I sat in the back. “Do you realize what we’re doing?” he asked almost frantically, his eyes blazing with excitement and fear. “It’s going to be a grenade thrown over the wall,” he continued, imagining a simple yet deadly attack al-Shabaab could wage. “It’s not going to be a man with a gun, it’s not going to be a man with a bomb strapped to him.” Then Brookman stopped, struck by an idea. “I hadn’t thought of that—a VBIED!” The possibility that someone might rig up a vehicle-born improvised explosive device and leave it in an inconspicuous car next to the basketball court sent him down a rabbit hole of new fears.

When we arrived at the venue, women in head scarves were sweeping rubbish and dirt from the crude stage. Brookman channeled his energy into telling security personnel what to do. That he had no formal military training didn’t stop him from trying to seem like an expert. There were roughly ten guards standing outside the court’s walls. “If the enemy watches TV, they may bring a VBIED and park it,” Brookman told the men in fatigues, who listened—without comprehension, as they didn’t speak English—to his carefully enunciated words. “They may already have brought one.” (He forgot to order someone to check.) As he walked the court’s perimeter looking for security gaps, Brookman muttered to no one in particular, “I’ve got to show leadership.”

He spotted a young guard with angular shoulders slumped in a plastic chair, his phone clamped to his ear so that he could listen to the radio. Brookman yanked the chair from beneath him and wagged a finger, as if to say, Don’t be caught off guard. Another man standing on a soggy berm was playing a game on his phone. Brookman crept up behind him, snatched the device, and shoved it into a pocket of the man’s fatigues. Brookman mimed a quick lesson on staying alert, stamping one foot next to the other, as if in salute, and holding an imaginary weapon across his body in a ready position. The next guard had been paying attention; he was standing tall with a semi-automatic in his hands when Brookman approached.

The concert was set to start at 3 p.m. and last three hours—I had been told that it was too dangerous for it to continue into the night. By 4 p.m., though, a large screen and the sound system were still being set up. Attendees, mostly young people, sat around the court looking mildly interested. If you’ve waited your whole life to see a concert, what’s a few more hours? I reasoned. By the time the mismatched equipment, multiple cameras, and satellite feed had been set up, and the musicians played their first notes, it was a quarter past six. Clouds the color of pink cotton candy swirled across the sky.

If you’ve waited your whole life to see a concert, what’s a few more hours? I reasoned.

Jahm-Eye, the reggae artist, kicked things off with a song accompanied by acoustic guitar. The crowd swelled as wide-eyed arrivals came seeking the music they’d seen on TV or heard drifting through Mogadishu’s streets. When Waayaha Cusub came on, the crowd went wild. “I’ve never seen this before,” Abdullahi, an out-of-breath 13-year-old, told me. “I never liked music, but when I hear it I like it, because it makes me want to dance.” A woman in a white patterned tunic and fuchsia scarf took me by the hand and we danced.

When I saw Brookman next, he was still fretting—and furiously misquoting ancient Greeks. “Aristotle talked of kings and philosophers,” he said, meaning to refer to Plato and indicating that he didn’t have time to talk about how he felt because he needed to act. Next came an attempt at a line from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “When the blast of war blows in our ears, then is the time to imitate the action of the tiger.” It was as if he was using his literary heroes to steel his nerve. He concluded with some words of his own—“Al-Shabaab are angels of death with an incredible degree of commitment”—before hurrying off to check on the guards once again.

In the midst of the jubilation, Shiine began receiving a flurry of messages and calls from one of his intelligence contacts. They’d learned that al-Shabaab members were trying to cut the power lines to the venue. Their plan, inevitably, was to use the darkness to cause as much panic and devastation as they could. With only one exit—a flimsy metal gate opening out onto a mess of mud puddles left by a recent storm—the court wouldn’t empty quickly. Even one man with a gun would be able to kill a substantial number of people. Shiine encouraged the artists who’d already played to exit the court and go back to the hotel. Meanwhile, he kept getting updates from the intelligence officers.

Unaware of the unfolding security threat, Brookman stood looking at the concrete walls. Fire-breathing on top of them was without a doubt the craziest thing he would ever attempt to do. I’m going to stand up there as a taunt to al-Shabaab, he thought.

And up he went.

In the literary version of this story, here is where the hero would get cut down, sacrificed on the altar of his noble cause. When I saw Brookman on the wall, that scenario flitted through my head. For his part, Shiine thought it bold for Brookman to make himself a target at the venue’s highest point. By then, however, intelligence officials were assuring the rapper that the security threat was under control; police had arrested two would-be attackers.

Later, Brookman would describe feeling as though he was in a play, an actor inhabiting a character who courts disaster. When he sent flames into the sky, some piece of him even felt a fatalistic desire for al-Shabaab to shoot at him—if not hit him. It would be the most dramatic ending imaginable. But he quickly chastised himself for thinking so and leaned instead into the intense feeling that performing always brought, heightened by the scene before him, the crowd shrieking with delight.

The night was the kind that could melt even the most hardened cynicism. The concert was an unqualified success. As for Brookman, people in the crowd told me that for 25 years the fire of guns and bombs had vanquished Mogadishu’s spirit—and now this strange, reckless man had made fire into a triumph. I scribbled in my notepad, “Artists are brave, they dare to dream.” It was sappy, but also true.

Loughborough, England, 2017

Mogadishu was Brookman’s last heady cocktail of drama and danger. Ladouceur left the UN, and the organization didn’t call on Brookman again. One day, though, a letter arrived from a lawyer, asking if he would be a witness for Shiine. The rapper had applied for asylum. After 20 years of living in Kenya, his residency document had been revoked by officials in Nairobi as part of a controversial strategy to expel Somali refugees.

Scanning the material the lawyer sent him, Brookman’s attention fell on a clause entitled “Bombing of vehicle convoy, Mogadishu; March 2013.” It described the car bomb that had gutted the minibus shortly before the festival, the carbonized remains of which Brookman had seen. The legal statement claimed that Waayaha Cusub, which al-Shabaab may have believed was traveling with the festival team at the time, had been the probable target.

Shiine told me that had Brookman’s group not been late setting off that day from the City Palace Hotel, they might now be dead. “If they’d seen the white man?”—he paused to exhale—“They like that. They’re more interested in a white man than they are a Somali.” In killing one, that is.

When I asked Brookman about the matter, he agreed that it seemed plausible. If true, “then I went and filmed my own funeral,” he said, referring to the photos he took of the bombing’s aftermath. Melodrama aside, he confessed that the chance, however small, that he might bear some responsibility for the deaths of innocent people on the minibus distressed him. “I don’t know whether to take that responsibility to my maker or say, ‘You’re not to blame, Bill,’” he told me.

“I don’t know whether to take that responsibility to my maker or say, ‘You’re not to blame, Bill.’”

Like the UN, Brookman was imperfect and in need of modernizing. When I asked him once how he would respond to criticism of his work—a foreigner parachuting into places he doesn’t know to do theatrical work some people might find trivial—he answered solemnly, “Come along and join us, and see if there’s any animosity from anybody anywhere we go.” He’d always championed local artists and traditions, and he took seriously the possibility that his mere presence in a place could cause people harm. He offered to do whatever he could to support Shiine.

Brookman attended the asylum hearing in a nondescript office off Fleet Street. He felt proud to be British as his country offered Shiine a fair hearing. The court discussed the finer points of the case, ironing out the contradictions and debating the merits. By the end of the proceeding, Shiine’s asylum was granted.

Not long after, age proved a greater enemy to Brookman than any gang member or militant ever had. He suffered a heart attack at 60. He recovered but knew that his days of dangerous travel were likely behind him. He had to focus on taking his pills—and on getting married. In August 2017, Brookman wed for a second time at the church he’d attended for most of his life. His new wife was a woman named Madeleine, whom he’d known since he was a young boy but had reconnected with only a few years prior. After the ceremony, Brookman donned his one-man band and performed for his bride, family, and friends.

Not long before the wedding, I asked Brookman if he had exorcised his grandfather’s ghost. “No” was the firm reply. When he’d recently got word of a potential assignment in Sudan, he admitted, his “heart started to beat again.” Brookman told me that in his darkest moments, he wondered if he’d proved himself a man of valor. Making his dead grandfather proud may have been a “pathology,” but he’d been helpless to stop it from setting the course of his life.

After a brief pause, Brookman began to recite from memory Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” a poem about an elderly hero, stalked by death, whose insatiable longing for adventure leads him out to sea on one final—and perhaps fatal—quest: “How dull is it to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! … Come, my friends / ’T is not too late to seek a newer world.”

Then he jumped to the poem’s conclusion, his voice tinged with purpose: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

You can still catch Brookman performing around Great Britain, at big festivals like Glastonbury and smaller ones closer to Loughborough. Or you can pull up on YouTube what he calls the biggest production of his life: his 2016 appearance on Britain’s Got Talent, the popular variety competition show.

Brookman traveled to Liverpool, one-man band and candy-cane-striped stilts in tow, to perform before four judges, dozens of cameras, a studio audience of thousands, and a live TV audience of more than ten million. When he clanked on stage, a bewildered blond judge asked her colleague, “Is that a colander on his head?” The main camera showed a young girl in the crowd exclaiming, “That is amazing!”

As Brookman played, the audience—including his soon-to-be-wife, to whom he blew a kiss—cheered and clapped in time to the music. Two of the judges stood up from their chairs to dance. Ultimately, they would vote him on to the next round but eliminate him soon after. “You are exactly the kind of British eccentric we love,” one said.

YouTube video

“What’s your name, please?” asked judge Simon Cowell, the music producer notorious for his scathing commentary on American Idol and other reality programs.

“Bill Brookman.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m 60.”

“Bill, do you work?” Cowell asked.

Brookman hesitated for a fraction of a second, as if unsure how to answer, of which role to play. Then he found his voice. “I work for the United Nations,” he said.