An essay by Dail Bridges
Neva Dail Bridges was born and raised in North Carolina and moved to Seattle, Washington in 1984, when she got a job with the National Marine Fisheries Service working on Japanese and Soviet fishing vessels in the Bering Sea. Dail has spent much of her adult life adventuring, working, and living around the world--locations include New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Africa, Russia, Ukriane, and the Caribbean.
Dail currently resides and writes in Seatte, where she has taken on a whole new adventure--her son, Willis, was born three months ago, with a passport clasped in his hand!
"Hello, Miss, how are you?" His scrawny adolescent body separated itself from the crowd of black Africans that teemed around me on one of Nairobi's bustling back streets.
"Fine, thank you." I nonchalantly laid my hand on my money belt, whose pouch protruded, kangaroo-like, from my belly. Cheerful Zairian music filled the air as the sights and smells of this foreign city swirled around me. Women ambled along with brightly colored kangas tied around their waists, many with babies wrapped upon their backs. Huge stalks of bananas seemed to meander solo through the crowd, until one spied the strong black heads and shoulders on which they were perched.
"You are from America, yes?" The boy's face loomed before me, forcing me to take a step back, off the curb and into the street. I nodded.
"Oh, please, then, may I ask you some questions? I will be going to university in your country and only know of it from books. And you cannot ask a book a question!" He smiled, delighted, it seemed, at the fact that I would speak to him as his books did not.
I eyed him suspiciously. His grin widened and he continued in perfect, East African-accented English.
"Yes, miss, I am accepted at Harvard and will be going to your countryto the city of Bostonin only a few months' time. Can you tell me, is it cold now in Boston?"
As I stood sweating in the noonday equatorial sun, it was hard to conjure up images of a coldpossibly snow-filledBoston. But cold it would be, as this was November.
"Oh, but Miss, I am forgetting my manners. Please, you are very warm standing here in this sun. Here, let us go to a cafe for some tea. Then I may ask you questions about your country." I hesitated, and he looked at me beseechingly. "Please, miss. I only want to speak with you for a few minutes. After all, you cannot ask a book a question. But you, I can ask questions!"
I was not so naive as to believe there was no ulterior motive behind this young man's innocent inquiries. But I was curious to see how this scene might play out. I pointed to a small cafe across the street.
"I will go there with you and sit for a few minutes and tell you what I know about Boston." I stepped toward the shop, but the youth jumped in front of me.
"Oh, no, please, I know a better place than this. It is not very far from here. Come, follow me, I will show you." He motioned for me to follow as he pushed through the crowd that filled the sidewalk.
As we walked, the young man, whose name I did not even know, continuously looked back over his shoulder to ensure that I was following. We turned right at the first intersection, then left at the next one. We passed several coffee shops, and I stopped twice, indicating that we should enter one of them.
"Oh, no, MissI know a better place. It is not much further. You will like it, I think." He grinned encouragingly as he led me rapidly down a tiny, twisting street, maze-like in its orientation.
He stopped in front of a small shop and pulled open the door. I stepped into the dim coolness, trying to take in my surroundings. Several small tables crowded with people lined the front window. A few white faces stood out in the black crowdother tourists, I hoped. Overhead ceiling fans whirled lazily, stirring the air. A counter stretched across the back half of the room, and behind it two men leaned against the wall. I aimed myself toward a small empty table, but my companion gently grabbed my wrist.
"Please, miss--upstairs is better. We can talk more privately." He urged me toward a staircase at the back of the cafe. I halted, thinking that I should probably be sensible and leave. This had long ago lost the sense of a chance meeting in the street.
"Oh, please, just a few minutes of your time, miss. I have had no one to talk to about the United Statesonly my books, and you cannot ask a book a question!" I allowed myself to be propelled upward and emerged into an even dimmer room than the one below. Small groups of men, huddled around tables, fell silent and stared at me. No white faces here. No women, either, as far as I could tell in the gloom. An arm waved at us from a table on the far side of the room.
"Ah, there is my friend who is also going to your country. He also would like to speak with you about your homeland."
We wriggled past tables until we reached the waving arm. A young man in a white polo shirt stood and shook hands with my companion then turned to me. He did not smile, only nodded his head and said "Please sit down." A vivid scar stood out against sharp angular features. His eyes were hard and flat, with no sign of friendliness. Reminding me of a sleek and strong animal, he coiled his taut body back into his seat and continued to stare at me with those cold eyes.
"My name is Joseph and this is Peter." He nodded at the original man who now sat beside me, nervously shaking his knee up and down, causing our small table to rock back and forth. Joseph glanced at Peter, then at his leg, and immediately the motion stopped.
A waiter strode over and placed three bottles of Coca-Cola on the table. There had been no signal from anyone in our group.
Nervously, I said "So, I hear you are going to the United States. Will you also be going to university?"
Peter began to speak, but Joseph's look stopped him. "I have been accepted to the University of California at Berkeley and Peter will be attending Harvard, in your city of Boston. We are both from South Africa, not Kenya as you may think."
"How did you end up in Kenya?" I wondered aloud.
"Before I answer that question, I must ask you one. Are you against apartheid?" His eyes drilled into me.
"Of course I am opposed to apartheidof course." I nodded, aghast that he would even think otherwise.
"Then perhaps you will help us, if you are truly against apartheid as you say you are. Many white people say they are opposed to this thing, but when the time comes to help, they do nothing. Are you sure you do not support apartheid?" Joseph questioned me again.
"I told you I do not." I felt my sense of White Guilt creeping up, but I easily waved it away. This seemed too obvious a play for its' sympathy.
"Peter and I were students in Johannesburg and we are members of the ANC. Do you know this group?"
"Because of our ANC activities, we were thrown in prison in South Africa. We spent many months in prison but finally escaped, and with the help of ANC contacts made our way to Nairobi. We have been on the road for a long time. If the authorities catch us, we will be sent back to South Africa. We need only to reach Kampala in Uganda and we have a contact there who will help get us to the United States."
"Wait a minute, how did you apply and get accepted to Berkeley if you have been in prison and then on the road for so long?" My natural skepticism was doing its job. And surely Kenyan authorities would never send these two back to South AfricaDaniel Arap Moi, Kenya's president, was no supporter of the South African government.
Joseph's calm demeanor did not change. "We have many contacts who have helped us, including one who helped me with all of the necessary paperwork for Berkeleya professor in Johannesburg. May I continue now?" Mutely, I nodded.
"I would like to show you a map of our journey thus far. As you can imagine, our trip has been arduous." Joseph said something to Peter that I did not understand, and Peter pulled a well-worn map from his back pocket, carefully unfolding it and spreading it out on the table in front of us. Voices from men at other tables hummed around me; I heard no laughter, only a constant undercurrent of quiet rumblings.
Joseph pointed to a thick black line winding its way from South Africa north to Kenya, jagged through Zimbabwe and Malawi, straightening out in Tanzania, and ending in a black dot that obliterated, on the bedraggled map, the name of the city in which I now sat with these two strangers, sweat trickling down my backfrom the heat or my own unease, I did not know.
"Here," Joseph's finger slowly tapped a spot on the map in the northern part of South Africa. "A man from the government's secret police, a man who found me hiding in the home of my Aunt. My Aunt, she screamed and beggedI heard her cries from my hiding placeand then I heard nothing. I found her on the floor with her throat cut; her bloodso much bloodwas everywhere. The blood, I slipped in the blood as I tried to get away from the man. He chased me through the dark streetsI heard his heavy breathing, closer and closer. I ran so fast, but he caught meand with his machete, he did this. " He fingered the scar on his face, his eyes losing their intense focus, his mind seeming to travel the thousands of miles away, back to what had happened to him. Had it happened the way he told it? Had it happened at all? I did not know; I was being drawn into Joseph's spell. His thick scar stood as evidence, daring me to disbelieve him
"But this man was only one man, and though he had a machete, I was stronger and bigger. And so I killed him. " Joseph smiled at me, for the first time.
"And here," Joseph pointed on the map to Malawi, "in the country of an African traitor, Hastings Banda, who openly supports the South African government, we were thrown in a prison, worse than the one in Johannesburg." He glanced at Peter, who, for the first time, seemed to lose his ebullience. "Banda's men did unspeakable things to us. Things that I think you would not believe. Things that I think no white person from America would believe." Joseph looked again at Peter, and so did I. Peter was staring at a place beyond me, but I could tell his eyes were not fixed on another table or another person. His hands, which had tapped nervously on the table top until now, were still. His entire body had gone slack. Now he, too, seemed to have gone back to that time, that place that had caused him such terrible pain.
Joseph's voice startled me, pulling me away from my own envisioning of the demons that Peter was seeing.
"But we escaped from this place, as we escaped from the prison in Johannesburg. And we made it to Nairobi. And now, we must get to Kampala so that we can go to your country. And you must help us." Joseph leaned toward me, his face inches from my own, his voice quickening. "Because you do not support apartheid, you must help us. We have nothing now, no money at all. We need $2,000 dollars from youmore if you have it."
It was too fast. And it was too much. The spell was broken. I abruptly drew back from Joseph's mesmerizing stare, finding it only a little difficult to extract myself from the power of that gaze and those hard, cold eyes. I held up my hand, palm facing Joseph. It shook, but only a little. "Stop. I cannot help you." My words became stronger as I spoke. "I am sorry for what has happened to you, and I hope you will reach your goal. Now I must go."
I stood up quickly, feeling the weight of my money belt under my clothes. The restaurant seemed to fall silent. Neither Joseph nor Peter stood, neither attempted to stop me.
"I thought you said you did not support apartheid." Joseph's voice, accusing me, following me, as I quickly made my way to the staircase. I waited for hands to grab me, for any of the silent men at the tables I passed by to pull at me, to stop me, to do much worse. But they didn't. I stumbled down the stairs, across the bottom floor of the restaurant, aiming for the light that I could see just outside the windows, just outside the front door.
I traveled alone in Africa for six months, and often I think I must have run into every scam in the book. But I fell for none of them, choosing to give my coins only to the women on the streets whose arms ended in nubs deformed by leprosy, to the children whose bloated bellies and thin faces made me see supermarket shelves at home, lined with endless rows of food. Or to the man in Blantyre who strapped sandals around his knees and the palms of his hands so that he could pull himself along the pavementas if the damage from dragging his limbs on the rough sidewalk would be worse than the shriveled body he lived with. These people I gave my money to. I could see their suffering; it was real to me.
I resisted the stories, the endless stories of bottomless need that I heard so often in my travels. In a dim coffee house in Nairobi, Joseph had forced me to make the choice between pain that I could see and pain that I could not. But Joseph had not taught me what was real and what was notonly that I had to choose for myself, one or the other. I chose what I could see, and I forced myself to put away the rest, somewhere inside me, in a place safe from questions.