Once again I am in the air for the fourth time within a year and it was just 10 months ago that I asked, “What am I doing?” as I flew to Amsterdam, alone, traveling internationally. This go round I’m asking, “Seriously, Aaron, what are you doing?” as I travel to the African region and after I tell you the stories I’m going to tell you you’ll see why I should know better.
First off, this trip began with a flight from Saint Louis to Atlanta and seated two rows in front of me was Missouri governor Jay Nixon. It’s a shame I didn’t sit next to him because I could’ve said, “hey, you know, I was the recipient of your first “governor’s youth leadership” award two years ago. Nah, I probably would’ve been shy but as much as I’ve done around Missouri I’m sure he would know of me and the work I’ve done across the state.
That was the first flight and now I’m just about to cross over into the Atlantic headed to Paris. From there I’ll have a two hour layover followed up by a 12 hour flight to Antananarivo. Yeah, today is an endurance round of traveling and that will give me plenty of time to think about the previous exploits I’ve had in Africa.
All my life, before I first went to Kenya in 2005, I had heard my dad tell the story of the time he was stuck in a coup in Liberia. I was only three at the time and all I knew was that my dad wasn’t home and my mom was crying a lot, but over the years I heard the story told and retold of the time some drunk soldiers called him out onto the street. This was a trick because everyone was told, “Anyone on the streets after dark would be shot” and it was dark and when on the street the soldier coyly asked, “What did the man on the radio say? And where are you standing now?” It was a miracle of timing that a superior officer came and intervened, but that was my impression of Africa for many years until March of 2005 when I went with my dad whom was filming a video and I went to take still photos.
I had been writing just for about a month and when we got there I became seriously sick with something that barely gave me enough energy to get out of bed. My dad went south while we were in Kisumu and I stayed at the Imperial Hotel for several days. It wasn’t that bad as I regained my health and watched the US movie channel (which aired nothing good. It’s bad when the highlight of the day is the movie Glitter) and watched EuroSport and soccer match after soccer match.
Several days came and went and when my dad got back I was feeling better and the next day we did a drive around town when the event that changed my life happened. It started when we were just one block west of downtown main street and about 10 blocks away from Lake Victoria. It was at stop sign and some kids came out of nowhere and put their knees below the front bumper of the car. A few of the kids recognized our driver as a local pastor and knew that he would not run them over.
This started out as an inconvenience but it quickly turned tense. I looked behind and saw about a dozen kids running towards our car. I yelled, “We gotta go now! Go! Go! Go!” but my dad and the driver didn’t see the throng that was descending upon us.
The dozen kids became two, became three, became about 75 kids and one kid entered the back seat with me and we were surrounded on all sides and there was even a kid on the roof. Now, I say kids; the ages ranged from 3-18 and all of these kids were AIDS orphans and if I recall correctly it actually brings shame on a family in the culture there if, say, your sibling died and had kids and you brought them into your house. Whether or not that’s accurate I’m not sure, but that’s the story I recall being told so I didn’t exactly blame these kids for doing what they were doing as they wanted our money. Some though, also wanted our blood.
Fifteen minutes passed and I’m now a trembling mess. I had never been in anything as dramatic as this much less over such a long period of time. The mob demanded that our windows be rolled down and much of the talk was in Swahili so I didn’t know what was going on but it was obvious that the driver was negotiating with the mob and I kept hearing the word, “chair man” which was the name of the leader of the group. About this time an older kid put a machete through my open window and lightly touched my chin with it and said, “America, why are you scared? It’ll be okay.” Almost a decade after this, when in the movie Captain Phillips, there’s a line very much akin to that I had what I think was a flashback and broke out in a cold sweat and I trembled for many hours thereafter.
The drama was heightening and the mob was becoming restless at this apparent stalemate. I don’t know what the driver had, in terms of bargaining chips, but each time they tried to get us out of the car the driver played a trump card that kept us in the car. It was obvious that if we left the car we wouldn’t be getting back in… ever.
The episode kept going and the knowledge I had that I was surely going to die was not concrete but then there was hope! Two police officers neared the scene and as they walked equivalent with my window I looked them right in the eye and one of them looked at me and with a flip of his eye back to the sidewalk he was traveling it was as if he said, “I’m sorry, but you don’t have a chance to get out of this.” To feel hope and to have it crushed just as fast added to the terrifying roller coaster I was experiencing.
With the restlessness also came a lack of attention as the battalion of kids blocking the front bumper dwindled down to just one kid who was perhaps just eight years of age. The look in his eye was one of utter determination and even though I was hyperventilating I understood the determination this kid had to survive because I looked back at him, through the tears and shaking, with the same look of wanting to simply survive.
The driver took out a 100 Kenyan Shilling banknote and motioned for the kid to come take it and the kid took the bait and the coast was clear and the driver put the pedal to the floor and that 1983 Corolla took off with all the might of, well, it wasn’t mighty at all. The formerly distracted mob instantly objected and the race was on. A slew of rocks, bottles, and other objects clattered on the rear of the vehicle with a gigantic rock almost penetrating the rear window. The one kid of the mob that was still in the vehicle was now outnumbered and his confidence was nil and he was now the one shaking.
We ran a stop sign as we got to the edge of Lake Victoria and had to turn right as the mob was about half a block behind and gaining ground fast. The situation go complicated as a pickup truck was having the most difficult of times trying to park and the already narrow road was blocked. I looked behind and the mob was now turning the corner and they were none too happy. If they got to us there would be no holding back on their part and no negotiating. At this time a private security guard saw this from his post in front of a store that was to our right so he stood up and unsheathed a long sword. The sun reflected light in all different directions as he brandished it in different directions. The front of the mob quickly stopped only to be ran over by the kids behind that didn’t know there was no a formidable foe in their way. Meanwhile, the truck was still making a mockery of parallel parking so our driver swerved almost violently and we jumped the sidewalk, almost hit several pedestrians, and got back on the road, drove three blocks, kindly asked the unwanted passenger to get out immediately, and then we drove two more blocks to our hotel and that was that.
I remained in a heightened state of alertness for several hours thereafter and it was actually writing that helped me calm down. When we boarded the plane to head back to Nairobi that evening I made a vow to myself that there must be something to this writing thing; I had only written about ten chapters of Finding Kansas at that point but I thought that there must be a reason I survived this ordeal and I made it point to not give up writing because surely I had a purpose in life. I made that vow but I could never have imagined the way things would turn out, but before they did I would have another episode in Africa.
It was February 2006 and the Olympics in Torino were going on and as we landed in Antananarivo the gold medal match of the men’s hockey tourney was happening. This trip was going to be almost two weeks for me but my dad would be leaving halfway through due to a prior commitment so I would, for the first time, be out of the country by myself. This excited me, but I wouldn’t be fully alone as I would be traveling with a group of seminary students.
I was quickly amazed at the scenery of Madagascar and the people, and it was unlike any place I had visited. However, several days in, on a drive to a town south of the capitol, the van in front that had the students in it abruptly stopped and one of them got out and made a big mess on the side of the road. I thought nothing of it but it was an omen of things to come.
That evening, around 3AM, I awoke with a stomach ache unlike anything I had ever experienced. I tried to go back to sleep thinking it would vanish with sleep but without thought I rushed to the bathroom and, well, hours went by and it was one trip to bathroom after another. It was to the point I was praying for death because I was sure there was going to be nothing left of me at the rate I was, well, it was awful.
This town didn’t exactly have a doctor and it was a Doctors Without Borders doctor who hailed from Minneapolis that came to the hotel to assess the situation. Several of the students were now suffering the same symptoms and he asked if we had ate the same foods but we had not. Eventually he gave the diagnosis of e-coli and medicine was not available so his prescription was for us to drink lots of Coca-Cola with extra many extra spoonful worth of sugar. Other than that he said we only had about a 1 in 1,000 chance of death so don’t worry (I was NOT a fan of those odds to be honest) and within a week all should be fine. He also advised getting back to the US as fast as possible just in case the 1 in a 1,000 should pop up so medical care would be able to save us.
We heeded his words and the next day we were back in Antanarivo and my dad had a ticket but the odd thing was that the Air France representative couldn’t find my return ticket for that day or the originally scheduled departure date. The flight was held up as surely I had a ticket because who would book a one-way ticket to Madagascar? Eventually they just threw me on the plane ticketless and when I got to Paris the same thing happened with there being no ticket in my name so again I was just thrown on the plane without a ticket and when I arrived in Atlanta the lady at the Delta courtesy desk looked at my passport, then her computer, then me, and said, “how are you here? You’re still in Antananarivo!” and I had managed to travel 10,000 miles with no ticket.
I would go back to Kenya in October 2006 when my dad gave me the opportunity and I took it because I wanted to go back; I wanted a trip to Africa that didn’t have a misadventure and sure enough the trip went smoothly. It was on this trip that I completed my book Finding Kansas and it was then I realized that, despite what I read on the all knowing internet the night I got diagnosed with Asperger’s that I was able to experience joy, and love, and all the emotions that any person can feel.
So those have been my experiences on the African continent and that being said 2 out of 3 times I’ve been there something rather noteworthy happened so again, I ask, “What am I doing?” There’s also a bit of drama right now as yesterday morning I woke up with a rather large mass under my ear that has all the hallmarks of a MRSA infection. I’ve had MRSA a couple times and I went to an urgent care place in Joplin as I was down there presenting, and this doctor wasn’t much help on whether it was, or wasn’t, or whether it would be dangerous to travel or not, but he did give me a prescription of some MRSA killing stuff so I have to hope that it does, or that it isn’t MRSA at all, because if it is it will be three out of four times that something noteworthy happened in Africa and in my past two trips in this book something has happened from the quake in Tokyo to the Hammerfest incident. It does make for some great writing material but this is about me discovering myself and not going through these tribulations.
As for now it’s dark on the plane and I know I’m annoying the person in front of me with my typing so I shall try and rest now and as the sun comes up I will be landing in Paris which will only mark the halfway point of this day’s journey.