One Bullet. . .One Goat
The story of a bishop, 3 Turkana warriors, a poorly timed laugh and AK-47s.
What struck me as strange was the abstract beauty of the half-moon, high overhead, reflecting off the barrel of the AK-47 pointed at my face. In truth, the young Kenyan, a Turkana warrior, was sitting in a seat directly in front of mine, in the Toyota Land Cruiser I’d hired as a crew vehicle. He was facing forward, immersed in a heated debate with his two, armed companions, while his weapon was casually aimed at my left eye. I leaned ever so slowly to my right, but the heavily rutted road caused the barrel to bounce crazily, crisscrossing my head and torso. I finally stopped looking at it. This situation made me think of chaos theory, and the unlikely number of things that had to line up perfectly in order for me to find myself under the control of 3 men arguing about whether to simply rob me or to kill me first, then rob me.
Years ago, when I got sober, my fear was that life would be boring. Drugs and the ubiquitous lifestyle that came with it, had long since lost its luster, but the adrenaline pumping quest of drug procurement became the payoff, much more than the actual doing of the drugs. I craved the unpredictable process, fraught with the kind of danger that filled me with joyful dread. The moment of the exchange always struck me in a primordial way, knowing that anything could happen. The possibilities seemed infinite. After the transaction was done, the dive into the abyss was all too predictable, unable to achieve a real high anymore, simply hoping to disappear for a while. Damage done, my body worked to purge the drugs, while simultaneously trying to keep the cloak of invisibility for a bit longer. But deep down, I knew that while others might not see me as I truly felt, I was fully exposed to myself, flayed open and unable to deny my purposeful destruction, let alone the accompanying self-loathing. Nothing about it was fun. But it wasn’t boring! Despite the misery that addiction brought me, letting go of the danger was one of the hardest parts.
My first 11 days of 5.8 Africa fulfilled every need I may ever have for danger and excitement, spending every day wondering how I could possibly get through this. Some of the challenges were purely physical, fighting my way through 13-hour days in blistering heat, choking dust and torturous climbs. But there were also painful episodes of rock-throwing that was dead-on aimed at my head, sides, and back along with name-calling at close range and 18-wheeler side swipes. Add this to Africa’s relentless heat, wind, bugs and roaming animals . . . I couldn’t possibly feel more alive!
But this moment in the Land Cruiser was different; this was danger that had a taste and feel, visceral in nature. Only 3 hours earlier, I had reached the border of Kenya just 15 minutes before the crossing closed. I felt victorious for having met a goal that was important for me. Bureaucrats, paperwork and warnings of danger delayed our actual crossing for a couple of hours, but at least we were working our way through the system with the help of a priest and a peace worker sent by my wife to help me through the border challenges. Finally, we were escorted to the Kenyan side, where we said goodbye to our Ethiopian crew and were picked up by Charles and Vincent, our Kenyan support team, who would be with us until we reached Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
The tension was palpable as we loaded the gear into the Land Cruiser. The guards were on high alert and everyone looked like they would rather be ANYWHERE else but here. I watched Charles having a conversation with two federal police officers. It was clear by the serious tone and body language that Charles was being reprimanded. When he walked over to me, he looked crestfallen, clearly shaken by the conversation. He explained to me that only 2 days before, several Kenyans had been killed less than a mile from the border crossing. A fierce tribal war was in full swing between the Turkana tribe of Kenya and the Murle tribe of Southern Ethiopia. The reasons are many, but the core of the dispute is based in a fight for grazing land for cattle. Murders and robberies were at an all-time high. Charles was being advised in no uncertain terms that if we chose to proceed, it was against recommendations. We would be on our own.
It's true that I am a risk taker by nature, sometimes too quick to say yes, but I didn’t see this situation like that. We could not go back to Ethiopia and we could not stay at the police station. Our only choice was to go forward.
We departed the border as darkness fell, headed for a Catholic Mission, only a couple of miles away, where my wife had arranged for us to camp with a Kenyan bishop on the property. Vincent was driving and we were all getting acquainted. 30 minutes later, Vincent and Charles began to speak in low voices, which was not necessary since my Swahili is a bit rusty! ;-) They began pointing in different directions, clearly recreating the route that we had taken. In short, we were lost, very lost....in open desert, with no cell signal. Together we all concluded that we should try to return to the border crossing and begin again. Easier said than done. We became hopelessly stuck in the mud. It is rainy season which meant that at any moment the car could punch through the hard outer-crust, into sticky deep mud. It happened, just like that . . .
Vincent gunned the engine, switching from forward to reverse, our lights shining like a beacon for miles around, the engine screaming our location to anyone in the region. Just as the car lurched forward one last time, breaking free of the mud, a figure appeared in our headlights. The first thing I noticed was the rifle, an AK-47, slung across the man’s back, the strap angled across his chest. In the brief seconds he was illuminated, I saw the remarkable facial scarring of a warrior and skin that was an opalescent blue-black. He was shirtless but adorned with various bracelets and armbands. He had the intensity of someone accustomed to fighting.
He stood at the driver’s side window speaking with Vincent. Luckily for us, Vincent understood and spoke some of the Turkana dialect. The man demanded money in exchange for giving us directions to the mission. It was clear he was very curious about the passengers in the back of the truck (that would be me and my friend, Clay Frost). As we pulled away, I saw Vincent breathe a sigh of relief, but it was short lived, as we drove directly into the path of two more Turkana warriors.
Now there was a Turkana on each side of the truck and one standing in front. Vincent became very agitated and I could tell he was pleading for something. I might not have known the words he was speaking, but their visceral fervor was clear. Still, I could not have possibly known the stakes in that moment.
The oldest of the three Turkana, who appeared to be the leader among them, demanded to ride with us in the truck and that, then, they would take us to the mission. The two younger ones, probably in their mid 20s, climbed in the front seat. I moved farther back so the leader could take my seat. To be clear, he had not made a request, he had simply taken over the vehicle. He turned and looked me in the face, clearly disgusted by me. We began to drive again, slowly and seemingly without direction. It felt like movement was safer somehow than sitting in one place. As the we bounced and bumped along, this is the moment when I noticed the moon glowing on the barrel of the gun. I silently reached down and hit the record button on my phone. I didn’t dare raise the phone, but I thought maybe the audio would be useful, especially if I ended up buried in the desert.
Then the worst possible thing happened. We became stuck again. Vincent revved the engine, rocked the truck back and forth, but we could not get free. The Turkana leader ordered everyone out of the truck. Instinctively I knew this was bad, that getting out of this truck could change everything. Just as my door was opened, Vincent slammed the gas pedal down one more time, freeing us from the oozing mud. Without thinking, I let out a loud whoop of joy, smiling and pumping my fist. All eyes turned to me, the leader clearly glowering, not sharing my enthusiasm. Charles was seated next to me and he gently put a hand on my arm and slowly shook his head side to side. Apparently, I had done the exact wrong thing. I tried to lighten the mood, to use my spirit and enthusiasm to ease the pressure. I would later learn that the leader thought i was calling for help and mocking them. He demanded, without nuance, that Charles let me out of the car so he could shoot me.
From here, I mostly remember raised voices, pointed weapons, hand gestures. The words uttered were translated to me after the fact. The debate was not about robbing us, they had already decided to do that. The leader said that he had not killed anyone for a few weeks, and he wanted to see what color white blood was.
It was at this moment that Vincent had an idea. He told the Turkana that Clay and I were doctors, just arrived to work at the mission. There was no need to kill us now because they would know where to find us anytime. The leader turned to look at me again, weighing some unknown number of things, deciding our fate. It’s important to note that shooting Clay and I would have also meant shooting Vincent and Charles. This a zero-sum game, all dead or all alive. The leader seemed to reach a decision, turned back towards the front seat and gave an order. I saw Vincent visibly relax and I hoped that meant that we were free. He started the truck, began to drive towards some distant lights, which I hoped was the mission house. Ten minutes later, we arrived at a locked gate. The bishop himself opened the gate and led us inside.
The Turkana warriors immediately launched into a story of how they saved our lives and deserved to be paid. A price was negotiated, around 200 dollars, and they seemed satisfied. I did not relax until the Turkana were on the outside of the gate.
I sat speaking with the bishop for a while longer, as nighttime paced near daylight. He said that there had been killings even inside the mission camping recently. He had “never seen it so bad.” I asked him why they decided not to kill us. He looked at me with sadness and gave a simple answer. “It costs one goat to purchase one bullet and the Turkana did not want to waste a bullet on you.”
The adventure continues,
Postscript: I’ve now been in Kenya for a week. Each day I have been greeted with warmth and generosity. After that first, truly awful night, things have been as I remembered them. I visited Kenya when my wife was working here 5 years ago. We made lifelong friends and filled our memory banks with positive mementos. As I have run and biked through the communities of the Great Rift Valley, I have said to myself around each bend: Ah, yes, I remember this place. I love it here.
Granted this time in Kenya is much more grueling. The physical demands of covering up to 200 miles each day are great, and that’s exactly what I signed up for. Lowest to highest journeys aren’t meant to be easy. I welcome the physical and mental challenges of this journey. I might not always be happy in the moment and I might loose my cool — I’m sure Clay will have some stories to tell — but I try to find my way back to this singular thought: I have chosen this pain, this opportunity to suffer properly.