The paved road ended in the town of Isiolo
, in the shadow of Mount Kenya
. When we rolled over its lip, the music of the languages spoken in the bus quickened in the blazing heat outside our cracked windows. I had seen flatlands in the American Midwest, but this was a flatness unbroken by strip malls, or anything else except swirling yellow dust and the occasional acacia tree. The first dirt pothole hit us like a roadside bomb. Live chickens, rolls of khat
, boom-boxes, one newborn lamb, tin suitcases, and fluorescent plastic water containers came crashing down onto our heads. One women was knocked unconscious by the blow. Her friends lifted away their black veils and crowded around her, tipping back her head and pouring water down her throat. These women never veiled themselves again after this first pothole, and slowly stripped off the rest of their Arab covering throughout the dusty trip, letting their African colors fly. I rode my seat as if on the rolling prow of a pirate schooner, marveling at their beauty.
I understood early on in Kenya I had a problem with Somali women
. The first time I saw one I was almost hit by a moped when she happened to let her veil fall from her face as we passed on Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi
. Their combination of Arab and African features, flowing desert clothing, and most effective of all, Islamic modesty, seemed designed to seduce. These women floated in their desert robes in my imagination during the long nights in my faculty housing space in Ol Kalou. Eventually I turned to my maps, searching for the road to Somalia.
When the town of Wajir
began wavering on the horizon, I thought it was a mirage. I had been chewing khat
furiously the entire ride with the other male passengers. I stepped with them out into Wajir’s sand, my eyes darting around like a lizard’s. How the town floated, and with such a steady vibration of well-being below it all. The many legless beggars around the bus, also chewing khat, seemed to agree. The sun was beginning to set, but the colors were so pretty, and the people of Wajir
so nice, I didn’t care about time. I cared about khat. I bought more bundles from the many dealers that had gathered around the sighing bus, then made my way from the station and searched for a room where I could keep chewing.
I didn’t sleep that night. I sat chewing on my hotel bed listening to the buzz of mosquitoes and the moaning of prayers from a nearby mosque. My hunger had disappeared since I had started chewing earlier that day, as had my desire for anything but more khat. I didn’t even think about Somali women. Yet as relaxing as this sensation was, and how rare, I knew I was cheating. Drug trips had been done to death by another generation, not mine. Worse, getting high seemed to confirm the unspoken accusation I had read in the eyes of both friends and family before I had left the United States. I was going to Africa, they hinted, to run away from real life. I went down on shaky knees in the hotel room in Wajir and swore off khat. By noon I was starving again and searching for a Somali girlfriend.
Abdi, my guide, never stopped chewing khat the entire time I spent with him in Wajir. His face looked frozen into a mask of astonishment, and his eyes were bloodshot and yellowed and stared on the world as if it were a stem of khat he wished to get his teeth into. He never once ate solid food during our time together, and only took sips of milk, to ease the flow of khat into his bloodstream, he explained. When I raised the issue of dependency, Abdi admitted he was an addict, but being a khat addict meant you got to chew it all day, every day, and why, his bloodshot eyes pleaded, would anyone want anything else? As he spoke he clutched the khat stems in his bony hands and plucked away their leaves with a crazy, bird-like quickness. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead as if his brain were leaking khat juice.
Abdi led me down the main street of Wajir and out to the town well, displaying me to the residents like a trophy kill. A group of Somali women were gathered around watering their camels. At least half of the faces would not have seemed out of place on a Paris cat walk. The women showed no interest in the white man standing a few feet away, trying not to look like a pervert as he watched them dropping their black-rubber pouches into the well. Camels groaned around us in pleasure, sucking gallons of well water up into their twitching bodies. Eventually I turned back to Abdi and asked for help.
He pulled me aside and tried to break the bad news lightly. “You could offer them a Toyota Pajero, a big house, millions of American dollars, a mountain of khat, but they would never accept. It is not your fault. It is the way they are. These women prefer the bush.”
I wouldn’t accept it. A life of constant movement across a burning moonscape under the threat of drought and starvation and unending clan warfare was something I had been trained to believe anyone would flee at the first opportunity. And here I was, an American, and willing to buy dinner, and they would have nothing to do with me. I convinced Abdi to ask them if anyone was unhappy with her lot, and would like to be my girlfriend, if only for one night. (Their men had gone to the town to buy khat.) When Abdi reluctantly translated my message, they broke their cool and shook with laughter, some of them even dropping their sacks of water in the hilarity. They looked even better when they did this, their pearly teeth shining and their huge, Arab eyes dancing with delight. It was painful to watch, and I turned away from them and headed back to town. The next day in Wajir was no better, or the next, and I finally said goodbye to Abdi and hopped the bus further north, to the town of Mandera, located on the Kenyan border of both Ethiopia and Somalia.
finally began to appear in the setting sun the next day, I thought of the French Foreign Legion
. There was something Saharan about the flat rooftops, and the low, mean way the buildings seemed to cling to the sand. The town looked like it was burrowing into the earth like a cold-blooded reptile. Before we reached the main street, soldiers carrying AK-47s
boarded the bus and wanted papers from anyone who seemed vulnerable to intimidation. When their eyes fell on me, they leaned with their mirrored sunglasses towards my face like they were discovering an unexploded desert mine. They escorted me off the bus and placed me into a battered Land-Rover. We then sped off to the District Commisioner’s office for questioning.
“What is the purpose of your visit to Mandera?” the commissioner asked, still not fully believing what had been dragged into his office.
“I want a Somali woman,” I almost croaked. I needed a Tusker beer
and a bar of soap. A small cloud of red dust rose as I shifted in my seat. “Tourism,” I told him. The commissioner studied me closely after I had spoken. He had seen my kind before, he told me with his sharp, watchful eyes, and was hip to the joke. I silently assured him that this was indeed no joke and flashed him my Peace Corps ID. He stared down at this with wonder, as if it contained a secret truth he had long suspected, but never completely believed. This is how I probably looked when watching elephants in the wild. The ID seemed to cheer him, and when he looked up at me again I offered him a hearty American smile. His expression coiled back into suspicion at this sight. The falcon eyes let me know he thought I was a disgraceful outcast. He reached over to a pile of census reports on his desk and lifted a rubber stamp and slammed it down on my permission letter, then told me to get out of his office.
As I walked down the dusty main street with my pack, the residents of the town ducked into alleyways and yanked away their gawking children. When I tried to check into a hotel, the man I greeted in the dingy reception area disappeared into a courtyard behind the building and never returned. That is when the thinnest man I have ever seen slipped out of the shadows behind me. I flinched when he approached. He lifted his stick-figure arms above his head as if telling me not to shoot him. We stood frozen in our positions for a few seconds. He then slowly lowered his arms and let his face move toward me on his long, stretching Somali neck, as if mimicking a snake.
“It is too Issssssslamic here,” he hissed, then reached his hand out and clamped down on my wrist and began leading me away.
He had learned his act from Hollywood action films, I later understood. The pirated versions did brisk business in Mandera’s video houses, along with Asian martial art releases and Bollywood soft-porn. I had seen the influence of these action films throughout Kenya, but never developed into such a convincing performance. He had internalized the American version of the black, Third World bad guy to a point where his acting appeared organic. It was a Mandera version of Method Acting, and he relished his role with conviction as he led me through the streets by the wrist, slinking ahead of me like an evil slave-trader and leering at the shocked townspeople. I’ll call him Brando.
He told me right away that he had valium, and access to other drugs, including opium. When I brought up the subject of Somali women, he suggested he bring them to the infidel hotel he had found me, where he would drug their Fantas. That way, he explained, his accent a Somali tangle of Chuck Norris and Stallone, there would be no language issues. I agreed to the women, but told him I didn’t want any drugs. I then slipped him some cash and he slinked away, checking for heat, before he slid on his mirrored sunglasses and flowed back into the streets. I ordered a spaghetti and goat meat and gave it a 50/50 I would ever see him again.
He returned in less than an hour with two girls. They were not Somali, or fifteen. Brando went to the counter and ordered orange Fantas as the girls took their seats at my table and lowered their large, frightened eyes. They looked to me like fourteen year old Boran
girls. The colorful African khangas
wrapped around their heads were not their own, and were tied in a way I have never seen in Africa, before or since. These girls didn’t need me. They needed school fees, steady rains, and some clean luck. After an attempt to make conversation, I asked Brando if he had any of the valium he had mentioned earlier. I decided to drug myself to sleep. He told me that he had already crushed the drugs into the Fantas the girls were drinking. I went to my room and locked the door, popped my Mefloquine
, and tried not to jerk off before I finally slept.
Brando was waiting for me in the tea house when I walked in the next morning. There was a pile of spent khat leaves on the table. His eyes sparkled with the drug in the sunlight blazing into the room like the flash of an explosion. The calendar over his shaved head advertised farming machinery. A Rambo decal was stuck to a greasy mirror on the tea house wall. The flies were already swarming.
We failed for the rest of the day to find a Somali woman willing to even talk, and so decided we would cross the border into Somalia. Brando told me to tell them I was going to buy a TV. When we returned empty handed, I was to tell them the TV was too expensive. But we never even got within fifty yards of Somalia before a soldier emerged from a tin shack border post and started shouting at us and waving a rifle.
“I want TV!” I shouted back at him, drawing a large square in the burning air around my head. I then made a peace sign with my fingers, to indicate the television antenna, which worsened the Somali’s mood. When he disappeared into his shack and reemerged with another armed soldier, Brando grabbed my shirt and began running with me back into Kenya. The faces of Somali women returning to their homes, many of them laughing, flew by me like beautiful demons as I sprinted with Brando back to the shelter of my hotel. I locked myself into my room and refused to come out. Eventually, I surrendered to Brando’s continuous knocking,and joined him back in the Rambo room for tea.
I needed to get out of town. The Somalis would be coming for me, he explained, and everyone in Mandera knew where I was staying. I had done nothing wrong, I protested, and had a permission letter. Brando grinned at me as if I were an innocent child and urged me to get my pack from my room, now, and follow him to the air strip, where he would negotiate a seat back to Nairobi on a khat-running Cessna. I had heard the plane buzz over the town while hiding in my room, and there was something in Brando’s dilated pupils that looked serious about his warnings. I downed my tea and allowed him to wrap my head in an Arab kaffiyeh
, covering even my face, and accepted his mirrored sunglasses and slid them over my eyes. I saw no indication that anyone was trailing us, and the townspeople of Mandera, however polite, could not hold back their laughter at our sight as Brando and I crept with our backs against their buildings down the narrow alleyways and peered around corners as we made our way across town. I felt as if I had entered into one of the cheap action flicks playing in a Mandera video house.
The Cessna waited at the end of the dirt air strip at the edge of Mandera’s booming khat market. As we approached I saw the pilot seated in the cockpit and counting a pile of cash. He had the pot-belly of a Kenyan politician, and the slow, lazy movement of a hippo basking in hot mud. He kept the plane doors open, for the breeze. I followed Brando up to the metal fencing that blocked access to the air strip. A crowd of people were waving money and begging for a flight to Nairobi. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my emergency fund, a one-hundred dollar bill. Brando took the money. I tightened my muscles, preparing to chase. But he slithered through the crowd skillfully and waved me over in less than a minute. A Kenyan police officer, conspiring with Brando for his cut, quickly opened the metal fencing. Before I could say goodbye to Brando he shouted for me to run for the plane before someone else has claimed my seat. I aimed for the open Cessna door and sprinted through the dust.
It was only when I saw the blue shadow of Mount Kenya and the highlands appear below us, on the horizon, when I finally peeked over at the pilot’s face. He looked over at me next to him, in the co-pilot’s seat. Somali women had made a fool out of me, and he knew it. But I didn’t look away, only grinned back at him, exhausted. His heavy, scarred cheeks widened in approval as he turned back to the controls, chuckling. I joined him, not knowing exactly what I was laughing about. Below us, the northern desert dissolved against the green edge of the highlands like the foaming wave of a burning brown sea.
Kila mtu akule bahal yake