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.
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
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
"What happens to you if higher authorities find out
you helped a Somali clan gunman emigrate to the United
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
"News agencies in Mogadishu report that warlords
dupe young people to do their dirty work. What is your
"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
"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
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.
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.
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