Thursday, May 03, 2007

Part III: A Day Between Two Mountains

The following is the third of a five-part reminiscence from my time in Kenya as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-Sixties. See the first two parts in posts from earlier this week.

I spent the day at the Marsabit Secondary School and then in Marsabit Town, arranging my ride back. I could catch a ride on a lorry, part of a convoy leaving at sunrise the next day. It seemed simple enough. Weary from staying up half the night at the lodge, I fell into one of those deep mountain-high slumbers.

I was literally blasted awake.

My host had failed to tell me that the principal elephant path to town ran just outside the bedroom window. Emboldened elephants often pounded down the trail from the mountain to the vegetable shambas below. There they fed on lettuce and yams and bananas until they had had their fill or were frightened away by alert guards.

When the old bull bellowed, he must have been no more than a bed’s length away. The blast erupted from deep inside him and ripped me from sleep.

Nearly as unnerving, the thudding, lumbering, snorting herd shook the room for a good two or three minutes.

Finally the shaking lessened, the foot fall faded and mountain sleep enfolded me again. I never heard the elephants on their return up the path. In the early morning, I was roused by the throngs of birds. The elephants seemed no more than an African dream.

My pack slung on my back, I set out to join the convoy south. I strode down the road from the school to the town through the chill mountain air. Fingers of mist clung to the ground and hung in the trees. In the market square at the center of the town, the lorries idled and puffed out wisps of exhaust. The drivers clutched themselves against the cold.

They were waiting for the soldiers to arrive.

It was the first I heard of soldiers. The news was as chilling as the cold.

The word was out that the Shifta, notorious Somali bandits, were working the area again. They had been known to attack lorries venturing alone on the Moyale road.

The thought of being in an armed convoy and fighting off nomadic bandits in the desert clashed with my exalted sense of my humanitarian Peace Corps mission. Suddenly the dangers in the desert confronted my cause. But I had no choice. My fate was yoked to the convoy’s.

Soon our military protectors arrived in two olive drab, machine-gun equipped Jeeps and an army truck loaded with 10 or so soldiers. The plan was for one Jeep to lead the way. The convoy would follow. Behind it came the remaining Jeep and truck with its soldiers bringing up the rear.

I climbed into the lorry assigned me and struck up a conversation with Ali, the wizened Ethiopian driver. The truck was laden with gunny sacks of charcoal, the principal domestic fuel in East Africa. A tool in his trade between Ethiopia and Kenya, Ali’s English was far better than my Swahili. English allowed us to get to know each other.

Turned out that Ali had a half-brother who drove a cab in Chicago. To this day I have concluded that anyone you meet abroad has a half-brother who drives a cab in Chicago or Manhattan.

At any rate, I grew up 90 miles from Chicago. I’ve even hailed cabs in Chicago. Small world, Ali remarked as he gunned the engine, eased into low and coaxed the lorry into its assigned place in the convoy.

I didn’t want to bring up my concerns about the Shifta alert. At least not right away. I assumed that a natural transition to the topic would present itself. Besides, Ali had enough to do as the convoy lurched out of town. He conveyed a stoic acceptance as he went about his work, wheeling the lorry around chuck holes. If he harbored fear, he didn’t show it.

As Marsabit fell behind us, the convoy got up to speed. Surprisingly, the trucks eagerly hurtled down the shoulder of the mountain for the desert. I had falsely assumed our escorts would keep us close together for protection, in case we needed to perform an East African version of circling the wagons or some such defensive maneuver. But no, the intent drivers in control of our fates had a different strategy. They shortened our time of vulnerability with raw speed. The convoy raced flat out across the desert leaving billowing wakes of dust behind us. The drivers followed each other at a distance determined by the time it took for the dust to settle and their visibility to be restored.

Ali and I did not share what we both knew: The clouds of rising desert dust were a clear invitation to bandit gangs.

To be continued....

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