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TALKING POINT : THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY - PART FIVE.


NAIROBI
AHMED LEANED AGAINST THE STEEL door of the overcrowded bus, locally known as matatu, and paid off the young taut a ten shilling note, leaving him a generous tip. The young taut looked at him, and said "Asante Sana, Bwana" (Thank you, Sir). The bus stereo churned out deafening reggae until it reached Tom Mboya Street, infested with pickpockets, prostitutes, scam artists and pimps. So he slid out of the matatu without speaking to the other passengers and stepped into the sudden cold morning in front of Odeon Cinema, putting both hands in his pockets, just in case. The Odeon Cinema has been playing James Cameron's Titanic and a rerun of the Hollywood classic "Gone with the Wind," alternatively for the fifth week in a row. He distanced himself from the pickpockets, pimps, scam artists and the prostitutes and oriented himself to the gray column of the sky-scrappers, and picked out the steel and glass office tower, which housed the Joint Voluntary Agency offices and staggered toward it. Shards of windshield crushed under his new boots as he crossed the parking lot. He wore blue jeans and a snow-white parka, a far cry from the haggard and scrawny militia gunman who was ready to join street battles in Mogadishu.

Now he had enough money in his pocket, a month's bed and breakfast at Imam lodging & Boarding where the family rented a cockroach infested room after their long trek from Ifo refugee camp. In hindsight he felt naked without a gun!
The feeling of nakedness was all the stronger since in Somalia you always carried a gun. And your gun was always loaded, and your clips full, too. And sometimes you had hand grenades too and reserves of food in your pack - so you were always self-sufficient in that environment. You felt protected by that heavy weapon. You slept with it and even gave it a woman's name. Ahmed called his AK-47 Dayax (The Moon). It was his Moon until the American Army Rangers and the UN peacekeepers confiscated it from him along with several other lethal weapons.
Now in Nairobi with its sky-scrappers and Mercedes Benzes' and BMWs, he felt unprotected without his Dayax. His great fear was the police and immigration officials. He decided he had better just walk faster and try to imitate the office workers hurrying up for their offices at the fashionable Harambee Avenue.


He hesitated as he saw a dark green Land Rover with a GK plate number parked near the American Embassy, where the JVA offices are located. The acronym stands for Government of Kenya. It could be the police, or even the immigration officials, he thought. He kept walking faster without looking around. In that instant an electric current ran through his body, like a jolt in his stomach -- he almost bolted. Probably they were waiting for him at the JVA offices to bounce on him! And in another instant two plain-clothes detectives and a uniformed constable, probably their driver emerged from the ground floor. None of them looked at him, instead the two detectives were yelling at the uniformed constable in Kiswahili.
Ahmed breathed a sigh of relief.
The girl selling cigarettes at a kiosk in the lobby of the 15th story building opposite the JVA offices smiled at him after he bought a packet of Embassy and a box of matches. Ironically, NO SMOKING in conspicuous signs prevailed at the lobby. Sensing his uneasiness, the girl told him to light up and ignore the signs, "put up by frightened English people," she said.


In the dim light of the lobby he studied the Embassy staff roster. There's only one Pamela Dixon. He copied her number in his dog-eared address book. A khaki clad Kenyan security guard, wielding a club the size of a giant sledgehammer handle wanted to know what was his business copying the names of the Embassy people. Ahmed, in his perfect English said he was a delivery boy trying to get the correct names of his company's customers.

Then the security guard rubbed his thumb with his forefinger, the international symbol of money. Instead Ahmed gave him the unopened packet of cigarettes and the matchbox, which in Kenya is called Tao kitu kidogo,(TKK) or in English give me little something, bribe, dash, kickback or Hawl-fududeyn in Somali. A husky US Marine watched them under his eyelids, unmoved. Probably he was nursing a bad hangover. Then Ahmed left the building by the same way and fled to the relative safety of Eastleigh, which is rapidly becoming little Somalia.


Next morning he kissed his stepson and his wife and dressed quickly, leaving the cockroach infested boarding house with its communal showers and pathetic Ethiopian and Somali refugees.
Araksan never questioned his comings and goings. She believed he was up to something for their well-being.
Outside Ahmed headed for the nearest telephone booth. He found the number in his dog-eared address book and lifted the receiver. He hesitated. A bang at the door made him jump. An elderly Kikuyu woman was shaking her cane at him.
"Are you telephoning or simply occupying the booth to keep out of the rain?" she said angrily. Ahmed dialed the number and spoke into the mouthpiece, giving the operator Pamela's extension number.
At first, there was only a heavy silence. He thought the line had gone dead, or perhaps he dialed the wrong number.
"Hi," a voice said. "This is Pamela Dixon."
"Ahmed Gheddi from Somalia speaking… I got to talk to you."
"Good God! Where are you? Are you all right? When did you arrive in Kenya?"
"I'm all right, but I got to see you tonight at your residence."
"Listen Ahmed. I'm inviting some friends and I will not be able to see you tonight."
"Let's forget it. Forgive me for bothering you."
The elderly women outside banged the door again with her cane, pointing angrily at her wristwatch. Ahmed raised his arm reassuringly, and turned his back. Ms. Pamela Dixon spoke quickly and urgently.
"Come to my house around midnight. This is the address." He wrote the address. "If all the lights are out and cars are parked in front of the house, it will mean I can't see you tonight. I'll fix another date. Be careful. Use your common sense."
"Thank you." Ahmed was relieved. After apologizing to the lady with the cane, he walked toward the bus stop at the corner of Eastleigh's Seventh Street.
He alighted at the now familiar Corner House, where Somali refugees meet and trade gossip. Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper dubbed the Corner House and its proximity as Little Mogadishu.
It was close at midnight when he arrived at Westlands, an exclusive suburb in the outskirts of Nairobi. He walked up a paved road, with the full moon showing trees and flowers on either side of the road. Ahmed could distinguish more plush cottages and bungalows with two car garages behind the land.


At last he found the number at the end of a long paved road. He could make out an imposing villa surrounded with high walls, spiked with razor-sharp barbed wire and broken bottles, to deter potential wall-scalers. When he reached close to the steel gate and seeing no cars parked in front of the house, and the lights were out, he pressed the bell, ignoring the Umbwa Kali sign, which means fierce dogs in Kiswahili.
Almost immediately Pamela opened the gate herself and flashed her electric light at him.
"Ahmed Gheddi, I presume," said Pamela Dixon. "I'm glad you finally made it," she added in her Boston voice.
Then it begins.
From the verandah, from dark corners of the of the lawn and hedges and outhouses came dogs, lolloping dogs, scampering dogs,, galloping dogs, intermingled with cacophony and whish of waging tails, muddy paws and slobbery jaws.
Pamela chased the dogs away, using a language Ahmed could not comprehend. "It is dog trainer's language," Pamela said with a Mona Lisa smile.
"Hi," he managed to say, looking left and right in case some of the dogs still lurked in the hedge.
She closed the heavy steel gate with the help of Ahmed and led him into the living room where several candles flickered in every available space. The living room contained modernist furniture and several oil paintings in gilded frames by Italian and French masters, including Modigliani and Renoir hung on the walls of the dinning room. Ahmed noticed six teakwood chairs and a large dining table laden with food and pitchers of cold drinks.
After a lavish dinner Ahmed told her about his escape from Mogadishu with his wife and stepson and his numerous close encounters with the Kenya Police and immigration officials in Nairobi.
"You saved my life and that of another American diplomat, putting your life in the line of fire. Certainly you deserve every assistance," she said as she dubbed her eyes with Kleenex.
His USIS teacher in Mogadishu used to talk about Teleprompters in which artists and speakers could read their lines and say whatever they were supposed to say without much effort. Now Ahmed wished he had a Teleprompter. The need for English words, no matter how simple, was suddenly there.
"In all honest, it was spur of the moment and I did what every person with human feeling would have done in an emergency situation." Ahmed said modestly.
The episode took place when Pamela Dixon, newly assigned to the American Embassy in Mogadishu as Cultural Attaché, and her male companion, were stranded behind USC guerrilla-controlled section of the smoldering city during the uprising against the former military despot. Ahmed who was leading a group of young trigger-happy militia gunmen broke into their residence with the intention of killing the occupants with looting spree in the minds. But he restrained the boys and told the couple to dress quickly and pack up for the dangerous ride to the American Embassy Compound southwest of the burning city.


He drove the couple in their armor-plated Pontiac through hellish fire between government forces, rebels and common criminals. Fighting continued throughout the city at all hours of the day. After negotiating with every trigger-happy gunman on the way, Ahmed eventually drove into the Embassy Compound with several bullet holes. One machinegun bullet had found a gap in the vehicle's armor plate and cut across Ahmed's seat, an inch from his backbone. To Pamela such man deserves all the help in the world. She recalled how he refused to accept the money she offered him, saying that she would need it for the long voyage home. Then Ahmed melted among the huge crowd outside waiting to assault the luxury US Embassy compound, in order to put their hands on the shiny limousines left behind by the American Foreign Service personnel.
Ahmed watched as several helicopters flying at treetop levels in a bid to lift Americans to a helicopter carrier anchored off the Somali coast, with hundreds of Marines aboard ready to storm the Somali capital, if the need arises. The American Ambassador, James Bishop, who is no stranger to anarchy, African civil wars and military coups, was the last to be evacuated when cutthroat insurgents, let by warlord Charles Taylor were reported to have over-run the city. As in Mogadishu he was the last to be evacuated when the Liberian insurgents targeted the American Embassy in Monrovia with mortars and heavy weapons. To Ambassador Bishop it was simply a repeat performance.
Now in her posh villa in Nairobi Pamela promised to do everything in her power to help the family settle in the United States.
"What happens to you if higher authorities find out you helped a Somali clan gunman emigrate to the United States?"
Pamela shrugged. "I'll get a slap on the wrist, I suppose. After all, you saved American lives, putting your own life at risk."
"I don't want you getting into trouble on my account."
"Don't torture yourself, Ahmed. Any person who saves American lives deserves Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest in the United States."
"But not to a former Somali militia gunman, especially to a man suspected of ambushing UN and US soldiers in south Mogadishu during former president George Bush's Operation Restore Hope."
"Innocent until proven guilty." Pamela said, mimicking Al Capone's defense lawyer during the 1920s prohibition in a Chicago courtroom when the Mafia don was accused of committing every crime in the book.
After some pondering Pamela said: "Tell me, Ahmed, don't you miss Somalia at all?"
"Is there something I should miss?"
He told her about leaving Somalia at the height of the clan warfare soon after the UN peacekeepers pulled out because he couldn't understand why his country seemed to be self-destructing and he wanted to distance himself in the hope that he could see it better one day, and without guns and mistrust.
"I could see Somalia moving very rapidly toward something I didn't like at all, and I didn't know how to deal with it. Not because I left when the heat was on in the battlefield, but because the killing of innocent people and the destruction of properties in the name of the clan broke my heart. So I voted with my own feet," Ahmed concluded his little speech.
"News agencies in Mogadishu report that warlords dupe young people to do their dirty work. What is your own appraisal?"
"Many of our youth have been used as cannon fodder by the warlords and lost their lives in vain."
She congratulated him for his flawless English, which would help his family settle in the United States without drawback.
"Did you pass your TOEFL at the USIS School in Mogadishu?"
"Yes," said. He also described how the American school was teeming with NSS undercover agents and Hangash (the military intelligence) who routinely shadowed students who were friendly with the teacher whom they suspected working for the CIA, trying to recruit potential informers among his students.
"Why the military intelligence?" she asked.
"Because some of the students were from the army, navy and air force. Of course with the approval of their commanding officers. Most of these students spoke fluent Russian because they trained at Moscow's Frunze Military Academy before the military dictator tore up a 20-year treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union after the Kremlin sided with Ethiopia, Somalia's archenemy, during the Ogaden war of 1977."
"I know that piece of interesting history. What I didn't know, however, was that Bob was undercover CIA agent. What a surprise!" She smiled, showing her bridges.

In less than two weeks of agonizing wait the family received from the Joint Voluntary Agency a folder containing their travel documents and air tickets to New York City, via Rome. A check for five hundred dollars was also attached to a letter giving them Convention Refugee Status eligible to work or study in the United States.
He trudged three miles, with the folder under his white parka, through the heaviest rain of the year to the boarding house in Eastleigh.
The date on the calendar was the first of the month. April Fool's Day, but Ahmed's culture does not believe such thing as April Fool's Day.
At JFK Airport in New York City, an immigration official, who looked like Robert Redford welcomed the family with the words: "Welcome to the United States of America!" without looking up.
It was an emotional moment!
Ahmed and his family are living in an apartment in a small town in New Jersey where Ahmed works as gas station attendant after defeating the culture shock, language (American English) barrier and the sub-zero winter months. Araksan and her son Darman attend ESL (English as Second Language) school in a leafy neighbourhood with the prospect of obtaining a permanent resident status document known as Green Card.


Just like every newcomer from war-torn Somalia compounded with famine and drought, their genuine surprise was to hear, for the first time in their lives, words like child obesity, potato coaches, carb-free diets, veggies, same sex marriage, gays and lesbians, men wearing ear rings, euthanasia (assisted suicide), plastic surgery, liposuction, panhandlers (street beggars), winos (alcoholics), Skid Row (drunks and homeless section of New York City and Los Angeles), World Series (a game played only by American teams, yet it is called world series), collateral damage, commies (communists) etc.
But to the family home is where the heart is. At Immigration hearing Ahmed told the judge that with secure environment and a job that pays well, Somalia is the last place he would think of going for the foreseeable future. His wife, Araksan nods in agreement.


He was beginning to understand the meaning of claustrophobia and looked with pleasure upon whatever awaited them in the United States. Araksan, on the other hand, seemed comfortable anywhere. The strange American way of life didn't seem to bother her at all; even when she saw men wearing ear rings and was told about same sex marriage. And as the name Araksan defy conversion; she had settled for the occasional Arak from Americans with little time, or even Arkansan.
END.

This short story was M. M. Afrah's contribution to a BBC's World Service International Radio Playwriting Competition. It was later serialized in the Life Section of Kenya's Daily Nation.
The Webmaster.


A SHORT STORY IN SIMPLIFIED ENGLISH FOR OUR YOUNGER VISITORS
By M.M.Afrah©2004
afrah95@hotmail.com

NOTE: PRINTABLE VERSION - PLEASE CLICK HERE FOR ALL FIVE PARTS OF THE STORY.


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