In Africa, when you see people running, you run!

 

Africa 1982

 

         “Mzungu, what’s your biggest misconception about Africa?” The locals asked him.

         The white man turned and asked in confusion. “What does Mzungu mean?”

         “It means white man in Swahili.”

         “My name is George,” the white man corrected. “And to answer your question, I used to think that I would see wildlife everyday and everywhere in Africa.”

         The locals laughed. “You mean like a lion on the street? You are very funny Mzungu.”

         My name is George. It was hopeless. In reality, and many years later, nobody in Africa would remember his name; they would all talk about the Mzungu who once walked amongst them.

         

         A loud explosion suddenly cut through the air and while everybody else ran, Mzungu turned and stared with curiosity. Was it a bomb or a grenade? He wondered. And where were the policemen? He pulled out his camera and took some pictures and by the time he looked around, the streets were deserted and he was standing alone.

         An eerie wind blew down the street and he felt the coming of something evil and finally, George turned on his heels and started running. It was too late because the soldiers saw his white disappear around the corner. Bullets tore around him and he ducked his head and ran for his life.

         It was hard to understand what was happening. Everything had looked so peaceful
a moment ago and now suddenly, he was running for his life. This would never have happened to him in
America. With everything that he knew about Africa, there had to be one explanation and one explanation only.

         Boots pounding. They were gaining on him. To have a white prisoner was like finding gold in Africa. It would completely tip the scale and give
anybody an edge in terms of bargaining power.

         At the age of 40, George’s lungs were not cut for running and so he tried to ignore the stitching pain in his abdomen as he ran between the houses, making sharp turns to confuse his pursuers.

Suddenly, a dead end appeared and he came to an abrupt stop. His eyes darted around frantically but no matter how hard he looked, he just couldn’t find an escape. For one paralyzing moment, he stood there and listened to the approaching footsteps. Hot sweat dripped down his face and he had his first real sense of fear. He was about to die.

         “Over here!” A small voice called.

         George turned and saw the little boy holding open a tiny gate. He dashed for it and slid through effortlessly. The boy closed the gate and put a finger to his lips. “Shhssss…”

         They heard the soldiers arrive on the other side.

         “Where did he go? He must be here somewhere. Find him!”

         George and the boy lay very still and listened to the soldiers kicking and breaking down doors. Ten minutes later, all was quiet.

         “They can’t find us Mzungu,” the boy said as he stood up. “We are safe now.” Pause. “My name is Nene.”

         They shook hands. “Thank you Nene for saving my life. My name is George. What’s
going on?”

         “It’s a coupe sir. We don’t know much about anything but I think the air force men are trying to overthrow the government.”

         Suddenly Nene yelled, “Down George, down!”

         They both dove under the dense bougainvillea covered fence and waited as a
black helicopter hovered above and then nose dived away. Both sighed in relief and George drew quick short breathes to recover.

         A few minutes later, the white man stood up and tried to figure out where he was and the most amazing view stared at him in the form of beautiful one story brick houses with red roofs. These were unlike any other houses he had seen in Africa. They were designed in a European style with a front porch to welcome friends and family to the foyer. Between the houses was a beautiful playground equipped with swings, slides, climbing castles and other playing equipment that kids fantasize about. The land was a golden green and the only brown patch was the one under the
playground signifying a high volume of traffic.

         “What’s this place?” George whistled as they walked through the playground and headed for a house on the other side.

         “It’s an orphanage,” Nene replied. “Homeless kids from all over the country are
brought here and given a second chance at life.”

         George looked around and saw no one. “How many kids?” He asked.

         “Approximately ten kids per house. There are sixteen houses in total.”

         The white man did a quick math and wondered where all the kids were.

         “And where are the adults?”

         “No adults here sir. Adults run away. Adults scared of the soldiers.”

         It made sense, but to leave the kids alone? George didn’t know what to make of it.

         “It was a single man’s dream come true,” Nene continued. “His name was Hermann Gmeiner, an Austrian philanthropist. Having experienced the horrors of war himself as a soldier in Russia, he was then confronted with the isolation and suffering of many orphans and homeless children as a child welfare worker after
the Second World War. In his conviction that help can never be effective as long as the children have to grow up without a home of their own, he set about implementing his idea for building an orphanage with only 600 Austrian Schillings or approximately 40 US dollars. Eventually, he became so busy that he had to drop out of medical school to focus on the children. There are over
450 orphan villages worldwide.”

         George shook his head in amazement. “How come you know so much about him?”

         “We celebrate his birthday every year.” Beyond the houses, George saw the top of tall trees rise and sway in the wind and he was fascinated to realize that it was a forest. Only in Africa could one find a forest in the middle of a city. This orphanage, this village was the most beautiful thing he had seen in a long time. And then Nene opened the door and he saw the
children; nothing like the half naked mucus dripping kids they showed on CNN. No. These kids were dressed in fancy modern clothing; a blend between American and European fashion. They crowded around him and hugged his legs in greeting. They were all little kids and Nene stood the oldest at twelve years of age.

         “Welcome to our home Mzungu!” They greeted in one voice.

         George felt a tear form in his left eye and he buckled his knees and hugged all ten kids.

         Suddenly, a loud banging at the gate.

         George looked up startled. “I thought you said that we are safe?”

         Nene smiled. “Don’t worry Mr. George, these are good soldiers knocking.” The little boy pushed the big man back. “You stay in here Mr. George and hide. Don’t let them see you.” And with that, Nene and the other kids dashed out and
ran towards the main gate.

         The house had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a restroom, living room and a dining room downstairs. A wooden staircase led to three upstairs’ bedrooms where the children slept and George hesitated and decided not to go up. Instead, he leaned against the wall and peered through the window.

         Two army trucks rolled through the gate and children from all the houses dashed out and sung praise songs to the soldiers. The trucks pulled into the play ground and the soldiers in full combat gear started unloading boxes of what
looked like food containers: bread, fruits, vegetables and candy. The second truck however didn’t have any food and George’s eyes almost popped out of their sockets when he saw the soldiers dumping televisions, radios and watches that had probably been recovered from the looters and broken shops in downtown. The children grabbed the watches and ignored the larger equipments.

         A muffled cough caught George’s ears and he whirled around sharply. There was nobody there but he was certain of what he had heard. Worry on his face, he crept towards the staircase and for the first time saw the tiny door underneath
the stairs. He placed his hand on the door knob, took in a deep breath and then yanked it open. At first he saw nothing but slowly his eyes adapted to the darkness and he saw the scared woman hunkered down inside.

         “Please don’t hurt me!” the woman pleaded. She looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties.

         “Move away from my mother,” a voice growled behind him and George spun and
found his gaze dead on the barrel of a submachine gun. It was Nene and the little boy wasn’t smiling. “Are you okay mum?”

         “Yes son.” The woman crept out of the dark room and ran behind her boy.

         The white man looked confused. “But you told me that you are orphans?” His gaze flitted from the boy's face to the gun.

         Nene grinned. “We just kids Mzungu. Someone has to take care of us.” And George
finally understood. She wasn’t their real mother but the only one they knew.

         “Get in there!” Nene growled pointing at the tiny dark room. “You were not supposed to see her Mr. George.”

         “Please,” George pleaded. “Let me help you. I’m your friend.”

         The little boy cocked the gun and the white man quickly dashed into the dark room. He had lived long enough and knew better; boys were suckers for their mum. They would kill to protect the woman that had nurtured them through their
scared childhood.

         There was nothing much to do in the cold dark room but wait. The army was outside the house playing with the kids and somewhere out there, the air force was trying to take over the country. His mind drifted back to the submachine
gun that Nene, a twelve year old boy was carrying. He had easily recognized it: a Heckler & Koch MP5, German made, effective range 200m, 800 rounds/min. So much for the AK 47s they showed on TV. Something was obviously very wrong with this picture.

        A sense of foreboding washed over George and he pulled out his cell phone and dialed long distance. The phone was answered on the second ring by a rushed female voice.

         “Hi George, how are you doing? How is Africa?” It was his wife.

         “I’m fine. Africa is as gorgeous as ever. How’s Boston?”

         “Boring without you. When are you coming home?”

         George coughed. “Listen Diana, have I ever told you how much I love you?”

         Silence. “What’s wrong George? Is everything okay? Are you in trouble?”

         “I’m okay,” he laughed it off. “You know that I love you right?”

         “And I love you too darling. Where are you? Do you want me to come and get you? You are freaking me out!”

         “No, no,” he replied. “I’m feeling sentimental here and I just wanted to hear
you voice. I’m so glad to have you as my wife. I realize that now more than ever. And I want you to know that I love you very much.”

         She started crying and he quickly added. “Don’t cry honey. I will call back again, okay?”

         “Okay,” she whimpered. “Please make sure that you do. I love you and I miss you.”

         The line went dead and a jaded George sat in the dark room and thought about his lovely wife. Would he ever see her again? He wondered. The country was in a state of emergency.  An evolving Africa was a very conflicted place, especially now when the sand was trickling down the hour glass.

          
A rap on the door and it swung open. George squinted his eyes as Nene held the door open.

         “Mama says that you are a good white man.” Nene’s voice sung from the doorway.

         “I’m your friend Nene. You don’t agree with your mum?”

         “No,” the little boy replied. “You smell wrong Mr. George. But mama says that you will starve if you don’t come out and join us.”

         George gratefully walked out and calmly observed that Nene wasn’t carrying a weapon.

         “This way,” the little boy motioned and he followed him into the kitchen where he found the other kids digging into what looked like a combination of maize, beans and potatoes. Most of the food had been dropped off by the army.

         The other children were too young to speak and the woman’s eyes bore through him suspiciously. It was Nene who did all the talking.

         “Why are they fighting Mr. George, do you know?” Nene’s mouth was full.

         George found the food tastier than it looked. “They call it the road to democracy,” he explained. “Americans went through the same thing too and many died in the civil war.”

         “What’s democracy?” One of the little boys asked in a show of confidence.

         George smiled at him. “Democracy is a system…” Blank faces. “Democracy is when a government finally understands that it works for the people and not the other way round.”

         “You mean the government works for us?”

         “Yes. When you vote you are saying: I’m hiring you to fix my roads, my streets and the security in the neighborhood. And when the government does a poor job, the people rise up and demand for its resignation.”

         “Aaaaah!” the children intoned as they pretended to understand. Then they quickly lowered their heads into their bowls and continued eating.

          George turned to Nene. "Where did you get the MP5?" he asked trying to sound indifferent.

          The little boy wrinkled a youthful brow. "Too many dead soldiers on the street Mr.
George."

          "You sure nobody gave it to you?"

          "Yes am sure."

         After dinner, George watched with fascination as the kids broke into their respective
duties. One washed dishes, another one wiped them dry. A third kid wiped the granite counter and a fourth mopped the kitchen floor. The one mopping the floor looked agitated that he had to be the last in the room.

           "Why aren't the other kids helping?" George asked with curiosity.

            "Their turn is tomorrow. We have a schedule," he was told.

             At around 9pm, the lights were switched off and an eerie fear crept into the house and the children’s faces. In the distance, they could hear the bombs exploding and an occasional helicopter flew over. George, the woman and the children huddled around a tiny radio and listened intently to the news update. The Air force rebels had taken over the radio station and the man who claimed to be the new president spoke with an articulate tone that was full of conviction. The government had failed the people, he said. The richer were getting richer and the masses were getting poorer.

        In the dimly lit living room, not a word was spoken as the kids broke into their upstairs bedrooms. George couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the real president. He could only imagine.

         “There’s a guestroom down stairs next to mum’s room,” Nene said as he walked George over. Weary legs and all, George thanked him and gratefully slid between the sheets. It had been a long day and there was just too much to digest. He would think about it tomorrow. For now, he was going to sleep.

 

         Someone was shaking him. “George, wake up!”

         “Ha?” He struggled to open his eyes and saw the blur of what looked like Nene. He reached out for his cell phone and looked at the time; 2am.

         “They are here!” Nene said in a scared voice. “They are everywhere!”

         “Who’s here?” But he knew already.

         “The rebels from the Air force are here!” Nene quickly made a sign of the cross and mumbled a quick prayer. “They jumped over the fence.”

         George was awake and moving fast towards the window. He saw them in the gardens
uprooting sugar canes and carrots, pulling bananas and guavas from the trees. They were hungry!

         “They not good soldiers Mr. George,” Nene said in a scared voice. “They loot, rape and kill.”

         Suddenly they heard a muffled scream coming from the adjacent room. “It’s mum!”
Nene exclaimed but before he could dash off, George grabbed and pinned him
down. “You stay here Nene, I will go. And I mean it!”

         A glitter of hope appeared in Nene’s eyes and George released him. The corridors were pitch black and the white man was grateful that he knew his way around. As he approached mum’s bedroom, he heard a scuffling noise and hard
breathing. He peered through the cracked door and saw the shadow of a man leaning over the bed, his pants pulled down to the knees. There was only one way to do this.

         He kicked the door, punched the lights and rushed the man with a hard left to the head. But the man was a trained soldier and by his composure at the surprise attack, a veteran. The fist was easily evaded as the soldier simultaneously pulled up his pants. George turned to face his opponent and a left kick to his chin sent him flying towards the wall. He had been caught
completely by surprise and blood gushed from the corner of his mouth and soaked his white t shirt. The rebel grinned at him as he tightened his belt.

         At the corner of his eye, the glitter of the AK 47 lying on the floor caught George’s eye and he quickly calculated the distance. The soldier dove for the gun and George kicked him in the face. The sound of the impact was sickening and the soldier stumbled backwards and groaned. Everything was happening too fast and both men were breathing hard. A knife moved from the soldier’s side pocket and George launched with a flying kick. The rebel moved and the kick hit
the white wall, shaking the whole house. 

The soldier moved like stealth. One moment he was standing next to George and the next near the children’s mum, a hunting knife in his hand, a malevolent look in his eyes. He never made it anywhere near her.

         Suddenly, a loud explosive noise rung through the air and the man dropped dead with a gaping hole in his stomach. In the doorway, George turned and stared in shock at the smoking MP5 in Nene’s hands.

“Nobody touches my mother!” the little boy screamed as tears streamed down his face.

 

 

         George ran towards the bedroom window and scanned the outside, and he didn’t
like what he saw: approximately twenty rebels approaching, AK 47s at ready.

         “Get the other children Nene, now!” he yelled as he grabbed the dead soldier’s
weapon. “The soldiers are coming!”

         The children were already awake and the small group of midgets ran down the stairs and crowded the big man as he moved from one window to another, looking for a way of escape. The rebels had moved from the gardens and were flanking the house from to the playground side.

         “How do we get to the gardens Nene?”

         “There’s a sliding door in the dining room Mr. George!” Nene replied.

         The white man dashed into the kitchen and ripped the gas line from behind the cooker. Instantly the smell of gas began filling the air.

The pounding footsteps of the soldiers were very close as George ran back into the dining room and hustled the kids through the sliding door. The cool night air hit their faces and gave
a second burst of energy to their clenched lungs.

         “Which way Nene?”

         “To the forest. They won’t find us there!”

         George turned and scanned his rear one last time. The rebels had just broken into the house. “Run,” he yelled, “ruuun!”

         The dirt path was full of jagged rocks and George fully relied on the children’s eyes to guide him. A burst of gunfire exploded around their feet and the children screamed. The bullets came in waves and tore into the tree trunks and bushes forcing the kids to subconsciously lower their heads as they ran. George turned and with practiced hands, fired a couple of rounds into
the kitchen.

         “Everybody down on the grass!” he yelled, reached out and pushed the kids down. The explosion that followed turned the night into day. Burning furniture and kitchen utensils soared above the flames and landed softly on the burning
house. What had once been a pretty home now looked like a war zone with screams of pain cutting a gloomy ambience in the air.

         “Run children, run!” George yelled, a hopeful edge to his voice. He wasn't taking chances. As soon as the rebels realized what had happened, they would hunt them down and use their mutilated bodies as an example to others. That much George knew as he escorted the children past the chicken house towards the
soccer field.

         “They are following us!” Nene suddenly yelled as flashlights appeared behind them. George cursed and looked up at the soccer field which sat between them and the forest. The only way to get to the forest was through the soccer field:100 yards of full exposure where sniper rifles would pick them out one by one. The white man’s eyes searched around for an alternative route but there was none.

         “Listen children,” he said in a solemn voice. “Halfway through the soccer field, you will hear gunshots. Whatever you do, don’t stop running. And if your brother or sister falls don’t stop to help because you will be shot dead. Understood!”

         The children looked up at him and started crying forcing George to soften his voice.

         “You have to be brave children, just like in the movies. You understand?”

         The children nodded.

         “Run!” George said in a deep voice. “Ruun!”

         It turned out to be the longest fifty yards of his life. He couldn’t run as fast as he wanted to because he had to run behind the kids and protect their rear: constantly looking over his shoulders for signs of trouble.

Trouble came from above and not behind. The spotlight of an apache helicopter picked out the small group halfway across the field and the children raised their hands to protect their faces from the whirling air.

         “You are surrounded!” a hollow voice from the chopper said. “Lay down your weapons and raise your hands and you will not be harmed!”

         “Do as they say!” George yelled as he threw his gun down. He felt disappointed in himself and his inability to safeguard the kids. The bad feeling came back and he realized that they would not spare his life after what he had done back in the house.

         The chopper landed and three soldiers dressed in full military gear walked over
to the children.

         A big man stepped forward. “Captain Nassir here. You and the children are safe now. No need to run anymore.”

         George looked puzzled. “You are the army?”

         The Captain smiled. “Yes. The coupe ended five hours ago. The true president has been restored to power. My men are sweeping the land for the last rebels.” George perked his ears and heard the distant burst of gunfire.

         “We are safe?” Nene asked with a stunned expression.

         “Yes,” the Captain replied as he ruffled the kid’s hair. “But you have to thank the CIA man over here for saving your lives.”

         The little boy’s face beamed with excitement. “I knew he wasn’t a tourist!” Nene ran over and hugged George.

         The Captain took a step back. “The Americans are always watching. We know that.”

         “We take care of our allies,” Mr. George replied and the Captain saluted.

           Somewhere in the distance, a roaster crowed, and the rising sun begun the hard chore of burning off the morning chill.

And so the story of Africa continues. While America celebrates over 200 years of independence, most African countries are clocking 50. A new generation of Africans mushroom over the land and the whispers in the jungle ignite the
embers in their eyes … hunger … the rise of a new dawn. Like in
Berlin, the walls that divide us crumble and the threads that join us thicken. We rise and fall as one nation on the road to democracy.

 

News

Off to AFRICA

 

My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.

 

The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen

 

Contact

 

mrobertto@yahoo.com

Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...