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Monday, April 11, 2011

Running on Water - Parts I & II

Running On Water


The Bamako Brawl and Other Adventures of a Gold Runner

By: Kyle A. Foster

Running On Water

Easter Sunday in Mali is a festive holiday with street parades and local barbecues, as is Easter Monday – a national holiday and a day off work. This might seem odd considering that the population of the country is ninety-percent Muslim and, at least in theory, theologically opposed to the idea of Christ as the Risen Son of God. However, I’d been in Mali long enough by then that nothing much surprised me any longer and given that the national motto may as well have been, ‘Party till you Drop,’ there was a perfect logic to this seemingly theological contradiction.

Any excuse for a holiday was acceptable. While I was there MALI celebrated Independence Day, The Prophet Mohammed’s Birthday, Revolution Day, The Chinese Vice Premier’s Visit, Easter Saturday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday and National Voter Registration Day. Each of these occasions brought with it backyard barbeques (pork of all things), visits to the local bar, and raucous nights of dancing. This wasn’t just for a select group in the society. I was trying to avoid these distractions because I had a job to do. But it was impossible, everyone celebrated. And therefore I found it very hard to avoid. As my hippie friend at the beginning of this book said to me, ‘When in Rome do as the fuckin’ Romans.’

Of all of these holidays, though, Easter Sunday was anticipated and celebrated with more‘joi de vivre’ than any of the others. I had been invited to a barbeque at our client’s home. Predictably, he called to cancel because it was ‘Easter Sunday.’ So when Sam Vanderbilt called to invite me to a picnic on the River Niger, I accepted. Sam was already at the river with his friends Clint Eastwood and Hemingway, so he gave me instructions to catch a taxi, point the taxi east on the main road out of town and then call him back. He’d guide the taximan in. ‘And bring your swimsuit,’ he added.

I put on my swimsuit and, following my doctor’s orders, a hat and sunglasses. Out in front of the hotel I waved down a taxi and directed him East. I called Vanderbilt and handed the phone to the taximan. We drove out of town through green fields and then turned south along a dirt trail following the river. The taxi bounced along the rutted dirt trail for about fifteen minutes when the driver pulled over and stopped. I looked around. There wasn’t another person in sight, just a long stretch of river and trees running along the green belt of the river to the horizon. ‘Illegal this place,’ the driver said looking back at me. I offered him more money and encouraged him forward. ‘No, sorry, illegal.’ I looked around again. There was nothing out there and this was the middle of Africa. Visions of panthers raining out of the trees and pouncing filled my head. I looked again at the driver. ‘Sorry,’ he shrugged his shoulders. I paid him and got out, watching the taxi slowly move forward bouncing on the rutted trail – in the direction that I should be going. ‘Expect the impossible and don’t take anything for granted.’

I was in the middle of nowhere, West Africa. This is one of those rare occasions when the modern cellphone actually comes in handy. I called Sam and, as I expected, they were somewhere up ahead in the direction the taxi had taken and, ‘across a beat to hell old bridge.’

I walked ahead under the hammer edge of the African sun, thankful for the hat and sunglasses and the wise, practical advice of my doctor. I’d walked for about half an hour with no bridge in sight when, in spite of my anti-sun equipment I started to wilt from thirst and dehydration. Heat exhaustion was surely just around the corner. This is exactly the situation where Mali culture has provided a very practical solution to the wayward traveler. In Mali, you must always have water available at your place of residence and you must always offer it freely to anyone who asks of it, be they Christian, Muslim, Jew, highway robber, brigand or strange looking white dudes in a funny hat and sunglasses. I had witnessed total strangers walk in off the street, point at the bucket of water (always kept near the door) without a word, receive a drink and then walk away without a word of thanks. Urged on by thirst, I was determined to try my hand at engaging this local hospitality. I scanned the rural river scene and kept my eyes peeled for any signs of peopled habitation.

Another ten minutes walk up the river I saw a traditional hut in the distance with an old woman sitting outside. This looked like a vintage painting of the rural south in the United States. I walked off the road to the hut where the old lady sat and said as sternly as I could manage, with a straight face, ‘Hey, old lady. Water!’ pointing to the clay jar in front of her. I guessed she wouldn’t understand my language. She smiled gracefully as if she understood my joke completely and stood up stooping to ladle a big scoop of water into a rusty tin. She handed the tin to me. I drank it all down and was surprised to find it refreshing and cool. Then, unable to carry my ruse any further I broke into a smile, handed her the cup and said,‘Merci.’

She returned a huge, toothless smile and gave me a little bow. I bowed in return and walked on, turning to wave when I met the trail in front of her home. She waved back.

I walked on following the river, finally coming to the ‘bridge’ fifteen or so minutes later. It wasn’t so much a bridge as a ramshackle concrete dock two-hundred yards long spanning the river where it flowed over barren, black volcanic rock.

Whitewashed concrete tombs straddled some of the higher, larger rock formations. ‘Ali’ was painted on the side of one tomb in big, bold, black letters with a large Christian Cross next to it. I wondered if he was a Sufi or just hedging his bets.

Across the bridge I could see a huge crowd of four or five thousand people on a grassy meadow down along the river’s bank to the right. I stood up on the bluff overlooking the scene: colors, tents, drums beating, a group of two or three hundred men and women line dancing, thousands of motorbikes lined up perfectly parallel parked around the green and the Niger running white and blue over rapids behind it all. I called Sam. ‘Hey, I see you white boy!’ ‘What? I asked, scanning the scene. ‘You’re the only other white man here and you’re wearing a hat and sunglasses. Come straight down the path and you’ll find me.’ I walked straight down into the crowd and there he was, smiling, shirtless and wearing some kind of weird, dainty silver slippers. ‘Nice shoes, Sam.’ I said, shaking his hand. ‘These are my jelly sandals, everyone wears them here,’ he said, handing me a beer. It was cold. ‘Where did you get this?’

‘You can get anything here,’ he said, looking around. There were little stalls everywhere, women selling cold drinks out of coolers, kebabs off the grill, homemade jewelry, clothing, candies, sunglasses…

He led me through the crowd, down to the river and across a series of stones in the water to a large boulder where Eastwood and Hemingway - both in sunglasses - sat looking back over the crowd on the riverbank like two King-Stewards in their realm. Bongo was there in a strapless yellow bikini and sunglasses sitting between them. Eastwood stood up to give us a hand up.

‘Hi Boss,’ Bongo purred, lifting her sunglasses.

‘Hey Bongo. How do you manage to keep that suit on?’ Hemingway asked.

‘You’re a bad man!’ she said, slapping his leg as I sat down behind her and Hemingway.

‘Yes I am, he said. But not as bad as Vanderbilt here, he’s dangerous.’

‘Wayae!’ Eastwood laughed, sitting down and slapping his knee.

Sam sat down next to me. ‘So what took you so long?’

I told him about the taxi letting me out in the middle of nowhere. He said that taxis weren’t allowed to cross the bridge but couldn’t make sense of why he’d let me out three miles down the road. ‘Maybe he thought I needed the exercise.’ I looked out over the crowd. There was a lot of energy there. The line-dancing group had grown, I guessed it at five or six-hundred. There was a real sense of community and abandoning of the self to the crowd. I also got the sense that one or two wrong moves by the wrong person and the whole scene could go Rwanda very quickly.

A blue school bus with large speakers attached to the roof turned off from the bridge and bounced slowly through the green field across the bank of the river, stopping frequently. I watched as groups of people cheered the bus as it moved on, looking for a place to park.

The air was cool here and behind us the rapids rushed and rolled in a white frenzy. Hemingway had a big plastic bag with ice and beers. Bongo was making sandwiches. This was turning out to be a perfect Easter picnic.

A man walked out into the river, balancing like a high wire artist as he stepped carefully over a series of bridge-stones. He stood looking at the white water and then dove into the raging river. The river threw his body like a rag doll tumbling head over heels on the water, limbs askew, before finally sucking him under the angry torrent.

‘For Christ’s sakes, Sam!’ I yelled over the raging rapids. ‘That man’s just killed himself!’

‘He’ll be alright,’ he laughed. ‘And so will you.’

‘I watched in horror, scanning the river for any sign of a corpse when suddenly, 150 yards or so downstream the man popped up out of the current and began treading water in an eddy at the bend of the river. I could feel a collective gasp of relief and looked up to see that at least half the crowd were as concerned for the man’s safety as I was, straining their bodies and eyes in the direction of the swimmer. He began a powerful crawl stroke inching towards the shore in jerky motions, each kick and arm crawl bringing him closer, slowly, to shore. You could see the immense power in his strokes as he struggled against the river ‘I could never swim with that kind of power,’ I thought to myself, as he pulled his body up onto the riverbank and stood facing the crowd, arms held high in triumph like an Olympic diver. The crowd went wild.

‘That guy’s crazy!’ I said to Sam.

‘He knew what he was doing,’ he said, taking off his silver jelly sandals. ‘And you’re going to do it too!’

‘Like hell I am,’ I protested. ‘I’ve got a wife and baby to think about.’

‘But you have to,’ he said, leaning close to my ear. ‘You must. There are people out there and, well, this is just something that you have to do. Just tell me. Are you a good swimmer?’

‘Well, I’m alright but…’

‘You’ll be fine then. Just watch and follow me.’

He stood up and jumped into the roiling water, spinning and rolling in the angry current like a cartoon character. ‘What the hell is this?’ I asked myself.

Feeling helpless, I turned to Hemingway, Eastwood and Bongo.

‘Let’s go?’ Hemingway asked, motioning to the river. The question was still written on his expression as he stepped up to the side of the rock and, holding his nose, walked off into the angry river like a diver off of a ship. The current tossed him head over heels like a spastic cheerleader flipping high speed cartwheels.

A doomed feeling of resignation was beginning to creep over me. I turned to Eastwood. ‘You?’ I asked.

Oh no, no no,’ he laughed. ‘Not me.’ Eastwood could get away with that. He was just too cool, and smart, to participate in a stunt like this.

‘You Bongo,’ I asked, pathetically.

‘This river not for ladies.’ she said. ‘Make sure this swimming trunks is on tight, very tight, she said, walking me over to the edge of the rock. I felt like a pirate about to walk the plank. ‘I take this your ring and this your necklaces and this your timewatch for safety,’ she said. ‘This river he take everything! He is big thief!’ she laughed as I handed her my belongings.

Now I felt more like a man on death row. I looked at Eastwood.

‘You’ll be OK. Just put your feet in front of you,’ he said.

I looked down the river. Sam and Hemingway were bobbing in the eddy downriver, waving at me to jump.

Bongo’s words were echoing in my ears over the roaring rapids. ‘This river take everything!’

I stepped up to the side of the rock and jumped quickly, before my senses could paralyze me with fear. I hit the water in a cannonball tuck, expecting to plunge deep into the river’s folds before being swept downstream. But instead, as soon as a single toe hit the water my body began to tumble and skip – on top of the water. There was no plunge, only a cannon blast of energy that swept me downriver, bouncing and rolling on top of the white water in the tuck position, hands over my head to absorb the skull crashing blow that I was sure would come at any instant. Instead, about half way downstream I could feel the water’s energy begin to weaken and I began to slip into the current, still moving at what felt like half light speed. I positioned myself feet first on my back, head up and guiding myself with my arms outstreched. It was something like jumping off a very high place with a parachute in tow.

Gliding into the bend in the river I pulled out of the spread eagle position and slowly sank into the slow eddy of the river. I swam over to where Sam and Hemingway were treading water, laughing in the steam as easily as if in a hotel swimming pool.

‘Are you ready?’ Sam yelled over the river water, mischievous grin on his face.

‘Yes, let’s go!’ I answered, steeling myself for the hard crawl stroke to the riverbank I’d seen the first swimmer employ to escape the current.

‘We’re swimming back upstream!’ he shouted.

I watched in disbelief as he and Hemingway began swimming, struggling, long strokes and powerful kicks up the stream against the current. I waited to catch my breath. Tens of thousands of square meters of river water were rushing down the stream. At that moment, the riverbank looked like a song and a dance away compared to the titanic struggle of swimming back upstream. I wasn’t even sure it was possible. Hemingway and Sam were still only a body and a half-length away from me – swimming but seemingly held in suspended animation against the current. I looked at the riverbank again and then turned to look upstream against the rolling white water Sam and Hemingway were about to reach.

‘This is crazy!’ I thought as I kicked into a crawl stroke following my friends up the stream. The water was heavier than even I had imagined, and fast. The river didn’t offer the leisure of a split second rest. One moment of catching a breath, one moment of non-motion and the river sent you back to square one and beyond. Sam and Hemingway were slowly moving some distance ahead, or was I in reverse? I struggled, with all my might, keeping my head down so as not to waste a half stroke – kicking, swimming, breathing, tired, tired beyond tired but moving, afraid to give a single inch or second to the river and afraid to look up. Here I was locked in my own private battle with the Niger. When I finally did look up Sam and Hemingway were nearly half- way back to our rock now. I wasn’t making much progress as all. There had to be some method, I thought, there has got to be a better way. Hot pain was rushing through my limbs as I fought against the tide. Just then my left hand caught something on the river bottom as I plunged my arm down from a stroke. It was a rock. I grabbed on to the rock and propelled myself forward kicking against the current, right hand down. I moved like this half swimming now and half rock-grabbing, propelling myself up the river rock by rock. I reached a rock ledge in the water blocking my way forward. It was more like a rock table, about the size of a small kitchen table, flat on top but submerged only an inch or two under the rushing water. I grabbed onto my table and pulled myself half up, gasping for breath. I pulled myself further up onto the rock and sat down, looking upstream through the white water spray to Sam and Hemingway, now nearing the rock we called home. After a few moments I stood up on the rock, the water raced over my feet only inches deep. I heard a sudden roar like the cheering of fans at a sporting event. I looked up and the crowd on the riverbank were on their feet, roaring in approval. I hadn’t realized that they had been watching. Then, I had the idea. ‘Easter Sunday,’ I thought. ‘Walking on water. Funny joke. But if you’ll excuse me, Sir’ I began to walk in small circles on my table over the river. The crowd went mad. Then I thought I might as well do the old Easter prophet one better. I faced the crowd and began to run in place, lifting my knees high and pumping my arms like a sprinter – I was running on water. The crowd went bonzo sending a sky-shattering roar blasting across the river.

I turned around and I was alone over the blue and white rapids of the river with the soft hills blue-green in the distance. The misty white spray of the rapids cooled my body in the sun. The only sound was the roar of the rushing rapids in front of me. I turned back around to face the crowd. I raised my arms like the first swimmer had done. The crowd raised their arms and sent another sky-shattering roar over the river. I could see them all now with absolute clarity: Bozo women selling colorful scarves, an old Bambara woman grilling kebab over a charcoal fire, a veiled Tuareq blue man hawking silver jewelry, Rasta youth dancing in conga lines, rock n’ rollers standing in clouds of smoke next to the blue bus - I knew them because for that one brief moment there on the banks of the River Niger we were one. I understood then how it must have felt to give the Sermon On The Mount. I understood what it felt like to be a rock n’ roll star. I stood there on my table rock scanning the crowd and holding on to that moment while the cool water rushed over my feet, Was it ten seconds? Was it twenty or thirty seconds? Not more. But I know now that thirty seconds can be an infinity in the human heart. For that moment is still with me as I write this down longhand in a far country. And it will remain.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Why Yemen Is Not Egypt

With the winds of change blowing across the Arab world many news organizations are focusing on Yemen as a potential next Egypt. My analysis is Yemen will not descend into chaos as Egypt, or at least Cairo, has. Why? Simple. The people of Yemen do not hate President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

President Saleh has a remarkable touch with the people of Yemen. He's actually a pretty hard working president who is seen regularly on television at various ribbon cutting ceremonies across the country - from large scale projects to small schools - Ali is there, with the people, promoting the interests of the country. President Saleh's sons have a respectable reputation and - unlike other sons of Arab leaders - they have not run rampant over the population.

In the 2006 Yemen presidential election Ali Abdullah Saleh won the vote with a reported 77%. International election monitors were welcomed and the results were reported as generally fair. In a region where president/dictators generally win with 99% of the vote this result was monumental as a standard for transparency and fairness in elections for the region. Furthermore, it may not have been too far off the mark.

The Saleh regime has managed to keep the faith with the people of Yemen. Yemenis enjoy perhaps more freedoms than any other Arab nation. Civil society institutions are permitted and encouraged by grants from the Social Fund For Development. The Yemeni press has issues with the government, however, relative to other Arab states it enjoys an incredible amount of freedom of expression.

Yemenis understand that their country faces some monumental problems. Yemen is the poorest Arab state, unemployment and illiteracy are rampant - both figures perhaps hover around 50%. The nation faces a crushing water shortage. The list of development concerns is endless.

The winds of change are blowing across the Arab region - and if they continue to do so for an extended time the Saleh regime could be vulnerable. Most Yemenis do have concerns about the pace of change and the level of commitment to democracy that the Saleh regime embraces. But they are generally willing to extend President Saleh more time - with limits. For now the social contract that President Saleh has earned through genuine concern for the nation will stand.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Tyrant's Strategy

The Tyrant's Strategy

Not much new today in Mr. Mubarek's speech. He is an arrogant tyrant. 'You need me!' He appears to be daring his people - staring them down. He may have just signed his own exit papers along the same lines of Mussolini. It appears increasingly clear to me that Hosni Mubarek's strategy is to starve the citadel of his people of food, gas and money. This is accomplished by creating shortages of food and gas - Egypt is a command economy in many ways, and by cutting off access to cash machines connected to the internet. The police have abdicated. Prison doors have been opened. Police weapons are now in the hands of criminal and jack-booted police. Mr. Mubarek's strategy hinges on creating a crisis situation in the hope/expectation that the populace will eventually riot, the freedom movement will crumble and turn on itself, and therefore the military and Hosni Mubarek will be in a position to 'save' the nation by sending in a hard-line military response.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt Uprising

The uprising in Egypt is a social phenomena caused by a combination of the enormous amount of young people in the 18-29 age range and the inability of the economy to provide adequate jobs for those young people. Add a decrepit, out of touch, arrogant old man as leader-tyrant and the scales have been tipping for the last 5 years closer and closer to this key moment in the history of Egypt and Cairo - the CITY VICTORIOUS! This is a social revolution, a people's movement and it was and is as inevitable as the dawn before the day.

The current reports of looting and hooliganism are not a sign of an underlying corruption among the demonstrators. Rather, they are a sign of the last, desperate, cynical attempt of the regime to try to maintain hold on power by allowing the thug and criminal element (which always went hand and hand with 'police force' in Mubarek's Egypt) to terrorize the people. Mubarek and his cynical circle of henchmen have engineered this wave of looting and vandal hooliganism in an effort to scare the population and - send a message to the world that Mubarek is needed in Egypt to maintain security. Do not heed this call. The tired old man of the Arab World is done - his time is finished and he is completely bankrupt of any moral or elected right to rule. Quite simply he is a criminal himself and he belongs in a rat infested Egyptian cell with weak gruel once or twice a day- he has offered the same to tens of thousands of his people.

A new day is dawning. The radical Islamists will try to use this people's revolt to their own advantage. However, this is just as much a testament to their last will as it is to Mubarak's. This is a major throw down by the people of the middle east against Islamic radical thought. This is a people's revolution made of the shopkeepers and taxi drivers that rule the City Victorious.

We pray. We wish you well.

I wish I was with you now there my friends. I stand with you!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Gold Meeting Transcript

A Typical Gold Meeting Transcript

Buyer’s Representative (Me):

Thank you for coming today, Mr. X. I trust you are well?

Seller: By the grace of Allah, yes. Thank you.

Me: And your family?

Seller: Yes, yes, thanks be to God.

Me: Well I am happy to hear that. I look forward to the
successful conclusion of our contract. A contract that you have
agreed to and signed. And when we do conclude our business I am sure
that you and your family will be even happier.

Seller: Yes, ye, yes. God willing. This is true.

Me: Mr. X. Yesterday the issue of price came up in our
discussions. I do sincerely thank you for showing me your gold dust.
It is very beautiful and I know how hard you and your village have
worked for it. I hope that today we are able to go beyond the issue
of price and focus on the secure shipment of your product considering
that you have already signed a contract and agreed to a price in that
signed contract with the Buyer, Mr. XX, whom I represent.

Seller: My gold dust is the most better in the world. Most better, yes.

Me: Yes, I am sure that it is and it will be even better when it
is properly refined and turned into authentic 99.999% pure gold
bullion ingots.

Seller: Your price is below down the world market.

Me: With all due respect it must be. May I point out, with
respect, that your alluvial ore dust is two-thousand miles from a
certified refinery, with no security, transportation, or insurance to
back it up. It is perfectly logical given these set of circumstances
that the alluvial dust will be somewhat below world market price. But
price is not my authority. You negotiated the price with my boss, the
buyer, and you signed a contract with him. And again with respect
there is no way that your product in its current state and
circumstances will fetch your new asking price of two-times the world
market for perfectly refined bullion ingots.

Seller: My gold is most better than anyone else’s gold. Most better.

Me: I am sure that it is but you need me, or someone like me, to
assist you in the process of bringing this raw product to market and
there are significant costs in that process. As it is I am offering
you a price well above that of the multi-national companies.

Seller: The Saudis are giving me two times above the world market
rate for my gold.

Me: I have a copy of the contract you signed here.

Seller: Words words. What you saying?

Me: Sir, with all respect you are contracted. You are selling a
box of unrefined rocks. It’s got a long way to go and a lot of
expenses are involved before it will reach world market price for a
refined troy ounce. I have offered you a very fair price and you have
agreed to that price in a binding contract.

Seller: You don’t respect the Africa Man You think Africa Man is
fool! Too fool!

Me: I do respect the African people. And I'd like to see you,
specifically, sir, I'd like to see you make a little money. I am
offering you the best price I know of anywhere for you and your

Seller: Stands up from table and briskly walks out, grumbling in Bambara.

Me: To interpreter, “What did he say?”

Int.: I can’t say, sir.

Me: No, please, you must.

Int.: OK sir, this seller he say, “Fuck off you bastard prick.”

The Bamako Brawl

The gold deal clearly was not going down as we had planned. Pressure was rising from

all sides. First, what we expected to be a week to ten-day in and out job had stretched

into more than one-month with no end in sight. Second, my wife and first-born newborn

baby girl were waiting for me back in Yemen - and my wife was threatening to leave me I'd been so long in Africa, if she even answered my phone calls. Third, my seller-associates were jerking me aroundand it was becoming clear that they were not serious businessmen but jokers. Fourth, I was coming down with some unknown disease that would prove to be malaria

I was tired and sweating profusely like a drug addict in withdraw. I was sweating so much into my phone that it had gone into a coma and I had to take it apart and blast it with a hair dryer

in the hopes that it would revive. The local internet provider was 128 slow and Finally, I

had slipped on a wet sidewalk and sliced my big toe open to the bone. I was a wounded,

limping, sweating, ill, tired, lonely, frustrated and angry man. I had never been in a worse mood in my life. I was angrier than a caged grizzly bear. I was a human time bomb ticking

– and I was about to explode.

With all of these pent-up emotions and physical problems I couldn’t sleep one evening.

I finally got out of bed with the idea that I’d get something to eat. The Mali-Africana had

no room service and outside of regular meal hours the kitchen was closed, so I limped out

onto the dark road and turned towards the flashing lights and thumping discos of Blah

Blah Street. I crossed the street to ‘Snak CafĂ©’ where I ordered a burger. As hungry as I

was I could only stomach a few bites due to my upset stomach, my shot-to-hell nerves or

both so I had the burger wrapped to go and walked back out to Blah Blah Street where I

was immediately accosted by about ten different taxi-men. This didn’t help my mood

because they all knew I lived less than one-hundred yards around the corner. I waved

them off with a glare saying, ‘Helicopter, Helicopter, no taxi!’ and limped on.

‘I am really strung-out,’ I remember thinking. I am mean and I must look like hell.’

I turned the corner onto the dark, dirt road to my hotel and a few limping steps later four

very large men stepped out from the shadows to block my path.

‘Take us to your room,’ the leader demanded in a deep, booming voice. I had been told about this scheme.

Local thugs try to get into your room where they think they can get your money.

‘NO!,’ I responded with force giving each man a hard stare straight into the eyes.

‘You WILL take us to your room,’ the leader insisted.

‘NO.’ I affirmed, looking each man in the eye again, ‘I WILL NOT!’

I walked directly towards them trying not to limp, ducking between the middle two and

intending to continue walking back to my hotel. I felt two arms wrapping across my chest from behind as if to get me in a ‘full Nelson’ lock.

In an instant my mind and instincts became one. I thought of my baby. I thought of my wife. I thought of my boss friend Raja back in Bangkok and how hard we had both worked for this project. I wasn’t about to let these goons come between me and any of that. Not on this night.

You must get out of this hold.

’ I dropped straight down tucking my chin in so as not to give any angle they might hold on to and tossed the burger aside.

What have I got that they don’t have?’… ‘Baseball, you’re an American, you can throw,

odds are -they can’t.’

As a boy I spent three years in the basement throwing baseballs at a small chalk circle drawn onto the brick wall. I can throw with accuracy.

Dropping out of their grasp I scoured the rock strewn road and grabbed two baseball sized chunks of granite and jumped back, taking aim at the closest man four feet away.

Right handed, two fingers on top and thumb on the left side of the stone I cocked my arm

back, took a step forward and threw my hand and elbow full force directly at the man’s

face, launcing the rock at fifty to sixty miles per hour. The missle hit him directly between the mouth and nose. He dropped straight down, instantly, into a motionless heap as if he’d been shot through the head.

I pivoted, moving the other rock into my right hand and feinted a throw. The three remaining men kept coming towards me. I aimed at the next closest man, took a step and launched.

This rock struck somewhere between the collar bone and the adam’s apple. He fell

backwards onto the road clutching his throat, screaming.

Immediately I turned and scanned for the remaining two men. They were both backing

away. One was backing directly towards a concrete wall.

‘Use your speed as leverage against him.’

I am not a big man but I can run the hundred in around eleven seconds and the mile in

nearly four minutes so I rushed at the man backing towards the wall at full speed. In a rush of adreneline I had forgotten about my toe. As I neared him and he backed nearer to the wall I thought of my friend, Micah Heibel, a University of Nebraska Fullback famous for his crushing blocks.

I tucked my shoulder like Micah aiming it at my opponents chin and flicked my shoulder

just as it came into contact with his jaw. His head whipped back hitting the wall with a

sound like a grapefruit dropped onto the pavement. He slid straight down, arms spread


All of this happened in a matter of seconds. I turned around, bursting with adrenaline,

determined to finish the fight. The last man, the ringleader, was backing away, eyes wide

with fright. For all he knew he had just seen a skinny white devil kill three of his friends.

'Finish this fight. You must finish this fight.'

I launched myself full speed in his direction. Halfway there I realized I really didn't have a plan

if I caught him. He turned and ran. I knew then that I had won the fight. This big goon

was never going to outrun me. I jogged behind laughing and almost feeling sorry for

him. I pursued him leisurely, easily keeping pace while stopping to pick up handfulls of

smaller gravel stones which I threw at the ground three feet behind him ‘cricket style’ so

the stones would bounce up in his face and keep him dancing. A block or two later he

looked back in panic and realized that he couldn’t outrun me. He looked left then right and scrambled up into a tree, climbing high into the upper branches. I stood at the foot of the tree picking up stones and pelting him with each one. There were no street lights and I could see only

the whites of his eyes high up in the tree, big and scared like an owl. With each hurled

stone I heard a ‘thud’ as the rock struck paydirt and his eyes would momentarily

disappear, wincing in pain.

'I'll kill you! He growled.

'Come on down and try, pretty boy!'

I hurled an insult with each stone. ‘Wanna come to my room now? You better give up

your life of crime because you don’t have what it takes!’

Finally, out of insults and beginning to pity the poor guy I left him in the tree and began

to walk back, limping with purpose this time so as to shame him further. I was thinking

about the first man I had drilled in the face with the concrete fastball at close range. The

way he dropped lifeless and limp made me worry that I’d killed him. When I got back to

the scene of the brawl the three were gone. This gave me momentary relief. But then I

thought, ‘maybe he was dead and the other two carried him away. Or maybe he is dying

somewhere right now.’

I had the hotel desk call the police and report my concern over the incident. The police

said, ‘Don’t worry, no problem. If he's dead, he deserved it. Whatever you did, you did the right thing.’

I spent a sleepless night endlessly reveiwing the fight in my mind as I tossed and turned in bed. In the morning there was a knock on my door. I had a phone call at reception, from the police.

'That's it,' I thought. 'I killed him.'

The call was from the Chief of Police. I picked up the phone, ready to surrender.

'I want to congratulate you. Last night you did Bamako a great favor. The four men you fought were Ivory Coast Mafia. They have lost face in Bamako now and are leaving in disgrace. Everyone is laughing. '

I had a meeting that morning. When I walked out onto the

street I noticed a new group of young men with friendlier faces than the thugs that had been lying about before.

Someone let out a yell, ‘Mali Boyz!’ They all started to clap and cheer.

I looked around in confusion. One young man came up to me and said, ‘Boss, we want to thank you for giving us our street back. '

I laughed and shook his hand.

What should we do now, Boss?’

‘Thanks, I said, but I am not your boss. Just promise me you’ll all behave like gentleme. Don’t hurt anyone. And don’t pick on me!’

They all laughed. What else could I say to this group of poor young men faced

with such limited opportunities? I wished them well and got into my waiting taxi. From

that day on they all called me, ‘Boss.’ And I never had a problem on the street

again…until the last day. But more about that later.

The thought that I might have killed my attacker haunts me. At the very least he was

knocked out cold and left in need of major reconstructive dental surgery. I didn’t want to

hurt anyone. I am normally not a fighter. In fact I am a peaceful kind of guy and that

suits me just fine. I acted instinctively that night, when cornered. Normally, I would

have run and they would have had no chance to catch me.

Land pirates like the ones that attacked me know the rules of their business when they

enter it. I was lucky. But they picked on the wrong guy at the wrong time and that is a

risk they will always face in their line of work. I sincerely hope that my attacker is alive

and well, gumming jello and pudding somewhere in the Ivory Coast and saving money

for dental surgery. I hope he is thinking about how to make an honest living. But I’ll be

forever haunted by the possibility that I killed a man in Bamako.

Mukella, Yemen. May 2009

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Yemen: Isolated and Misunderstood

Yemen: Isolated and Misunderstood

I am writing to you from a long, white sands beach under swaying palm trees on the south coast of Arabia, in Yemen. The sun is setting over the Arabian Sea in a blaze of orange and gold. These days my sun also rises in Yemen. In fact, Yemen has been the place I call home for

most of the last ten years. I met Mikael here last year and we became immediate friends; sharing a love of adventure and expanding our horizons through travel. It might surprise you to think of some of the world's most pristine and beautiful beaches in Yemen. It might

also surprise you to know that the country is not a giant sand pit but a mountainous country, incredibly green in the rainy season, with incredible gorges and vistas throughout.

So, when Mikael asked if I might write something about Yemen I grabbed paper and pen and headed straight for the beach. It is here, where the blue waters of the Arabian Sea meet the white beaches and rocky headlands of Arabia that the story of Yemen and its people begin.

Yemen has often been described by scholars as an 'island' surrounded by the Arabian /Indian Ocean to the south, the Red Sea to the west and the vast sands of the Rub al-Khali - the Great Arabian Desert - to the north. This geographical isolation has kept Yemen apart and

misunderstood by the rest of the world since ancient times. And it has also spurred the people of Yemen to look across seas and sands in search of trade and resources. The ancient Greeks called this place, 'Arabia Felix,' in the mistaken belief that Yemen, and not India and the far east, was the source of spices. In fact, Yemen was the center of the spice route from the far east and its geographical position allowed for the Kingdom of Saba (reported home of the Queen of Sheba) to benefit from the spice trade through taxes collected on the spice caravans travelling through her

land. Yemen was relatively little known to the outside world until the 1960s, when the secretive and feudal 'Imam' or king was overthrown for a republican government. Yemen has remained little known and misunderstood since the revolution. The recent barrage of international media attention Yemen has received is testament to the world's lack of understanding regarding this country. The international media is currently in the habit of calling Yemen a 'hotbed of terrorism,' 'the ancestral homeland of Osama Bin Laden,' (So what??? He wasn't born here and did not grow up here.) and a place of 'widespread anti-American sentiment.' Regarding the Bin Laden issue I pose this to readers. I am a citizen of the United States and I was born there. Ireland is my ancestral homeland. If I committed crimes against humanity would the media report anything other than that I was a citizen of the United States?

Yemen is, in fact, a place of moderate, tolerant Muslims, both Shia and Sunni, and a place

where the great majority of the population strive for a better life for themselves and their families and a better future for Yemen. Yes, there is a small (and I would call it very small) percentage of the population here for whom the words 'anti-American,' 'extremist,' or even 'terrorist' apply. It would be naive to deny this. However, I am sure that the world could use a dose of reality right now concerning the real situation of Yemen and her people.

Yemen is a developing nation with many problems, a government struggling to cope with meager and dwindling oil resources and a booming population (up to 3.5% by international estimates), a severe water crises for which there is no easy solution, a severe lack of food security causing 50% or more of the country's children to suffer from malnutrition and stunted growth and a struggling economy which relys heavily on imported trade and not enough on domestic production. The literacy rate in the country hovers around 60% for men and women.

Yemen's isolation has, since ancient times, caused her people to look abroad in search for resources and trade riches. The arches over the windows and the doors of buildings in Mukella, the city behind me,

bear the unmistakable stamp of the orient, brought back to Yemen by traders who ventured from India to Malaysia over the Indian Ocean. The people of this country also bear the diverse characteristics of

populations from the coast of East Africa, the interior of Arabia and all the way to the far east. This diverse mix has made Yemen a place of a very unique and distinct culture. And this diverse mix of

people, culture and their history may also help to explain why the majority of Yemenis are surprisingly tolerant with a love of music, art and dance all their own as well as a tolerance for and interest in


So what does Yemen need now? The country is facing political instability with a rebellion stirring in the north and an independence movement awakening in the south. Political support and a degree of military support are welcome and probably necessary at this time. However, the real need Yemen is facing is in development support and aid to help the nation through this period of economic change and population growth. What's

needed is real development aid funding government, international and local non-governmental development organizations focusing on education, food security and income generating projects and training - especially for rural areas where 70% of the population live. A sincere effort at supporting development in this country is the only way the international community can hope to bring about the stability the nation needs through increased educational standards and outputs, increased access to health care, rising levels

of nutritional intake and increased economic production leading to increased income levels for the poor and middle classes. No amount of military assistance can bring about the long term development and change that

the people of this nation seek and deserve.