Note: The following story has been translated from my Greek book ‘From Cape Town to Alexandria’ narrating an overland trip from side to side of the African Continent.
I very often happen to be asked by different people: how my relationships are with other humans when I travel the whole time; whether I experience some emotional deprivation, being forced to maintain only strictly superficial relationships, since limited time does not allow a relationship to be deepened. My answer to this kind of questions is what I have understood. To wit, that they fool themselves terribly if they believe that the emotional depth of human contact depends on time. That they do not understand the nature of emotion, nor the one of time. Many times, a brief interaction, the exchange of two words, or even the fleeting intersection of two blinks are oversufficient to tighten an inextricable bond between two people.
Such was the case with that rare human I was destined to meet that morning. We only hung out together for a few hours; I’m never going to see him again in my life; nor will I ever hear anything of him. But no doubt, the memory of him and the feeling which he awakened in me will never fade until the very last of my days. All of us, I believe, are constantly swinging back and forth on an emotional scale, in whose two extremes we find misanthropy and altruism. Getting acquainted with some of these people alone can give you a good push to the latter.
So was I then getting down Dar Es Salaam’s Morogoro Road towards the harbor, when I suddenly took notice of that bloke walking by my side. He started telling me some stuff to which I initially paid no attention, because I bore the biased impression that he must be some tout of the ferry companies. That impression of mine, though, was soon dissolved. Firstly by catching his sophisticated English speech. And then observing on his physiognomy that he wasn’t local but he was coming from the Horn of Africa.
I then halted for a moment to examine him. He was a young, shabby, emaciated chap. From whatever angle you looked at him, his whole appearance evinced dire hardships and affliction. I got a bit puzzled over this, as I wasn’t used to seeing people in such extremely miserable condition in that city, where the standard of living (for African standards) was generally decent. I observed his two tiny eyes lying deeply, like in two small caves, inside his fleshless eye sockets. A vague, bizarre glow which those eyes of him were emitting, transmitting some kind of superhuman serenity, was what motivated my curiosity to listen to his story. After I bought my ticket at the harbor, I invited him with me to buy him a meal at a canteen. While we were sitting there, he slowly recounted to me his life.
His name was Marty. He was 27 years old. He came from a village of Tigray in north Ethiopia, where his father held a coffee plantation. There he lived a happy, peaceful, and well-off life with his family; until one morning, they were attacked by a group of Somali guerrillas who had crossed the border in a looting raid. They plundered and set ablaze the entire property of his family. By and by they tortured and massacred his parents and his fourteen siblings. Himself, they chopped off three of his one hand’s fingers with a machete, and planted three bullets in his abdomen, when, at a moment, he took to his heels to save himself.
After all, he didn’t only manage to escape but to survive his wounds as well. After a lot of trouble, he made it to a refugee camp in Kenya, where he gave himself up and remained a prisoner for three and a half years – And I say a ‘prisoner’ because they too – refugee camps – operate on exactly the same principles as all prisons all over the world: They receive funds by the state (the U.N. in this particular case) per capita. Hence they do their best to increase the numbers of convicts and consequently their revenue. ‘Goodwillers’ to embezzle their shares will always emerge, it goes without saying.
There, in the refugee-prison, it was Marty learned to speak English. Eventually, when he understood for good that to be let to go was impossible, he escaped by jumping over the fence and hacking his arms severely on the razor-blades. Thereafter, he came to Dar Es Salaam, hoping that he’ll manage to settle down and start a new life. Things did not turn out so ideal as he had imagined them, however. He had been there for a year already, homeless in the streets, running the constant risk to be arrested and imprisoned because he had no papers – Since, in our modern world, someone who does not carry any identification document is not considered to be someone, but rather no one.
For all that time of his stay there, he was eating invariably thrice a week: on Sunday, when the church was holding a charity handout; on Tuesday – the Mandir; and on Friday – the Mosque. To the Mosque, he was going everyday, as the Al Wudu taps were the only water source he had access to. On top of all the rest, he also had to fight against diabetes and arthritis: diseases which he had developed.
I’ve heard a lot, I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve learned how to keep myself dispassionate. Listening to and looking at that guy, however, I confess that my blood seethed and I freaked out outright. Although, Marty’s singularity was not inhered so much in his story itself, but mostly in his attitude towards it and life in general. I was striving within me, while we were together, to understand: What could it be that gave him such a strength to fight? What could it be that gave him the drive to constantly smile and laugh heartily at the slightest thing he would deem funny? What could it be that made him to want to continue to live? Indeed, I never remember having met a more cheerful, smiling, and positive person!
After all, though, I think I understood what it was. It was the ability to dream! To dream of something pure, noble and high. I realized this when he spoke to me about his future plan; his dream. He was dreaming to return home. He was dreaming of his home. Deeply touched, I was listening to him speaking long about his home, while something like a divine thrill was flashing in his eyes.
We stayed together until the afternoon, discussing non-stop on many interesting topics: politics, history, society, man, soul, God… How wiser I felt after that fellowship is beyond description. I finally bid him farewell at the bus station. I had just bought him a ticket to the Kenyan border. There he would have to cross again the border clandestinely and… figure out what to do. The long trip back home was just starting for Marty. I wished him good luck.