I arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, eager to begin writing again. And best of all, now that I had achieved total financial independence, I could write without worrying if it would generate income. I couldn’t believe my luck!
I was writing for two or three hours every morning from our small house on Dar’s Masaki peninsula. It is the most fashionable address in a town whose name translates as City of Peace. After writing, I’d take our fat American lab for a slow run along the Indian Ocean. Then I’d shower, buy the local paper, and read it over lunch at one of the local cafés.
I’d been into that routine for a few weeks when our pup, Alika, abruptly sat down in the middle of the run. She absolutely refused to budge. She was as sweet an animal as ever graced the Earth. And she was generally so deferential that I decided to give in to her resisting our forward progress. At least this once.
But the following day she sat down in exactly the same spot and I’d had about enough. The spot was at the top of a fifty meter dash along a narrow path through a patch of Prickly Pear cactus. It was also the only stretch of the run that dipped below grade of the road along the cliff, so I dubbed it ‘the Valley of Death’. Alika (her name is the Malagasy word for ‘dog’) finally gave in to my ever more aggressive tugging. Once she got up, she was fine for the rest of the run.
Or she was fine as far as we got. On our return, we once again descended into the Valley of Death. The path through it was narrow enough that she had to trot behind me. At the half way point, the cactus exploded and a large nearly naked man jumped out of a concealed blind. He smashed two bottles together, yelling, “Give me your money!” I jumped back and immediately assumed my often practiced karate stance. I responded, yelling, “I’ll kill you!”
He looked startled for a minute. Then he shook his head and laughed. “No. I’ll kill you,” he said, slashing at me with the bottle shards. As I jumped out of the way, I yelled, “Alika! Attack!” In all fairness to her, it was the first time she’d ever heard the word. She cocked her head and took a step back. Too late, I realized she had been born without anything like an ‘attack’ gear. So I continued back-pedaling as he continued to lung. Then, stumbling on the shattered glass, I lost my footing and tumbled to the ground. He was on me in a second holding one bottle to my throat as he dropped the other bottle to grab my hand. Then he started to put my ring finger in his mouth.
“Goddamn,” I shouted, “Don’t bite my finger off. I’ll give you the ring.” Again he began to laugh. “I’m not going to bite it off,” he said. “I just need to get it wet so I can get the ring off.”
“That’s disgusting,” I replied, working to get the ring off by myself. He took the ring along with my sunglasses and then he began to stand back up. As he did, I felt his hands run down along my legs. When they got down to my shoes, he quickly snatched them off as well.
I got back to my feet and noticed I was bleeding quite a bit from a gash below my knee. I removed one of the shards of glass I’d fallen on as I watched him run off down the path. Then I headed back towards the road.
The U.S. Ambassador’s residence was very close by so I went there and hailed his security team. I explained that I was an ‘official’ American and I’d just been robbed across the street. “He only has two ways out and I watched the one leading north so he must have headed south.” The guard looked at me skeptically and then put his radio to his mouth. He started speaking Swahili and I didn’t understand a word.
Fifteen minutes later, I was still standing in the road trying to staunch my bleeding leg. I told the guard that, as there didn’t seem any reason to stay, I’d be on my way. He nodded towards an on-coming pickup truck and said, “Give it a second.”
When the pickup pulled up, I saw three security guards in the pickup bed kicking the shit out of someone. “Is this the guy?” they asked, telling him to lift his head. Having noted my attacker had half his face melted from some ancient burn, I was able to confirm with yes, they’d caught the right guy. “This your ring?” another asked, holding it aloft. “He was trying to swallow it when we tackled him. You better get that leg looked at and then we’ll meet you at the police station.” I thanked them and told them that this sounded like a good plan.
Several hours later I arrived at the station with my wound cleaned and stitched. The Embassy guards were nowhere to be seen. The sergeant at the desk said that they needed a sworn statement from me. He also nodded toward the rear of the cavernous dark room. “And he wants to talk to you.” I squinted to see who he was referring to but didn’t see anyone. Then he said, “You can go on back.” When my eyes adjusted, I saw that there was a heavy metal grate stretched across half of the back wall. The flat iron took up more of the grid than the open space, making it difficult to see through. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness within, I could make out a teeming mass of men. Among them I noted the burnt visage of my attacker, holding a small boy aloft. “Mister, this man wants you to save him,” the child said in passable English. “He is begging you to let him out.” I shook my head in resignation before making my way back home.
That night I dreamed of him standing before a firing squad. Before he died, I said, “I told you I’d kill you – and I meant it.” I woke with a terrible start. That morning, still troubled by the dream, I went to a local cafe and bought some food. I picked up a bag of apples, some rolls and a small container filled with eggs. Then I made my way back to the jail. The officer at the desk said I’d have to get permission from the chief before he’d let me see the prisoner. The chief gave me a hard look when I told him I’d brought food for my assailant. “What, are you a priest?” he demanded. When I assured him I wasn’t, he said, “Well, do you think we don’t feed our prisoners?” I replied that I understood that was left to prisoners’ families. My assailant probably hadn’t had a chance to tell anyone he was in jail. The chief smiled, saying, “Yes, you’re right. Prisoners have to arrange for their own food.” Then he told me to go wait in an adjacent room.
A short time later, two officers arrived flanking my assailant who entered crawling on all fours. Before I could offer him the food, one of the police grabbed it and opened up the sack. “Sorry, but you’ll need to have a bite of something first. Pick whatever you want.” I chose a roll and took a bite. Then my eyes bulged wide as I grabbed my throat and began to choke, staggering around.
They reacted in horror, unsure what to do, until I let up on my obvious little act and told them I was joking with them. All three of them got a hoot out of that. When they offered him the bag, he eagerly took an egg. To my embarrassment, the egg ran down his hands when as cracked it open. But he swallowed the remaining raw yoke down anyway. “I’m so sorry,” I apologized, “I thought they were cooked.”
“Never mind,” he replied. “It was just what I needed…and it tasted really good.”
In the end he drew me a map of his section of town and pointed out where his people lived. I promised to get word to them that he was being held, and the police returned my wedding ring on my way out.
By way of getting closure, I went to check on him sometime later in the year. The police said they’d transferred him to another prison. They didn’t have any more information than that.
Shortly thereafter, I began working for the Dar Guide, Tanzania’s largest circulation magazine. I’d gotten to know some investigative journalist by then. I filled one of them in on my efforts to check on the prisoner. I said I’d give him fifty bucks for anything he could find. He got back to me and confirmed that they guy was eventually released. I was relieved to know I hadn’t killed him after all.