March 23, 2011

The Night I Should Have Died. ~ Joe Yeoman

Or, the dead body on the side of the road.

My father, brothers, and I are taking a safari through Kenya. We are there for Christmas.

Our first stop is the Masai Mara National Park. Like all the other white tourists, we have paid five dollars to enter the Masai village on the north end of the park. They are kind, and a patriarch is leading us around. We are assured that we are safe here.

I hold out my hand, and a Masai child puts his forehead into my palm. He is saying hello. I hold all of the children. Then they continue to play in the dirt.

Their clothes are stained and filthy. Mucus covers their mouths and noses. Flies land on the children, sucking up the snot. Some don’t wear pants and underwear, and their private parts rub against the ground.

There is trash everywhere. I am surprised how much trash there is in Kenya, especially in the countryside. A paint can and pop bottle are incorporated into a house’s structure.

I am able to ask my male guide any question I want; I have paid to be invasive, and I don’t feel bad about it—I guess I think I’m entitled to the world.

Here, if a man dies, his wife transfers to his brother, cousin, or father. Polygamy is encouraged. The women don’t go to school. The boys are usually in charge of a man’s flock. A dowry is ten cows or cash.

Mangy dogs circle the campsite; they bark when a lion jumps the fence, looking for an easy meal. A boy and girl chase a flock of goats back toward the circle in the middle of the camp. I walk past them back to the safari wagon and campsite.


That night we camp on Masai land.

We sit on the porch of our tents, drinking Tuskers, talking about the lion pride from earlier. It is still a couple of days until Christmas, and it is good to be starting our vacation in Africa.

The sun goes down, and they turn on the generators for an hour. I am getting tired. After a seven-hour flight to London, sleeping in a hallway, and then an eight-hour flight to Nairobi, I am still exhausted.

My brother David and I walk into our tent.

A man begins to scream in Swahili.

I wake up. David curls up in his bed, shielded by the mosquito net.

The man yells louder than I have ever heard. I am scared.

David whispers, “What are we supposed to do?”

“I don’t know, wait,” I whisper.

In the other tent, Devin and Dad are up and whispering back and forth.

“Devin, Devin,” I say.

“What?” he whispers back.

“What do we do,” I ask. Devin has been living in Kenya for a year.

“I don’t know.”


The man begins to shout in English: “You are not welcome here. This is not your land. You are not welcome here. This is not your land.”

Anything could be out there: this man could be here to kill us? Devin said that recently a band of men ripped open the tents with machetes and went after everyone’s money.

Or it could be one of the guards roaming around the complex with spears or machetes. Does that mean there is another man out there, coming to kill us?

The man continues, “Leave here and never return. Leave here and never return.”

I believe we are going to die. We have several thousands of dollars, passports, cameras, and other expensive items. I don’t even know what I am thinking. I have several regrets, and I don’t want to die in Africa. I can’t just run. This isn’t Chicago where I could just call the police. The police don’t exist here.

Instead, I hope that they are just here to rob us and leave us. Or that they leave us alone and go after another tent. I hope that they attack the Swedish family across the campsite. Clutching onto my flashlight, I think that I can use it as a weapon.

David whispers, “I vote we don’t stay here tomorrow.”


In the morning, the Swedish family says they didn’t hear anything, and that they slept straight through the night.

That night, they keep the generators and lights on into the twilight.

We continue forward, not talking about the fact we should have been murdered. I guess death was part of the adventure.


Later in the trip, we are driving South East of Nairobi, following road A 109. George, our driver, sits behind the wheel, and floors it around other cars, matatus, safari wagons, and semi-trucks. I think he is going to crash, and we are all going to die. There don’t seem to be any enforced driving laws here.

The traffic on the other side of the road slows down and weaves toward us.

On the shoulder, an evergreen SUV is pulled over, and two wazungu, their white skin reflecting the sun, pace forward in their safari outfits. They’re retarded. Traffic flies by them—one of these truckers could veer left instead, and no one would say anything.

The wazungu head toward a burlap sack. The sack leaks a mercurial red liquid into the clay shoulder, and then it seeps into the road.

We pass by, and I see black skin, clothes, and blood pooling under the man.

This is the first dead body I’ve seen since I was a kid in the hospital. Those bodies weren’t dead yet, but dying. I’ve been to several funerals and seen wax-model versions of human beings. But this, this lifeless man is never going to breathe; he died, on the side of the road. He was left there like trash.

No ambulances or police or other cars come to help. The whites sprint to help. Our driver commutes on to Tsavo.


Later that day, we are at a checkpoint before entering Tsavo.

Our driver gets out of the car, and the Masai swarm us with trinkets. They take up every window.

Good price.

A man holds up a carving of an elephant.

1000 dollars.

We stare straight ahead; at this point in the adventure, we have lost the giggles.

Ok, 500 dollars.

The men, dressed in Salvation suits, stand behind the women, dressed in red Masai robes.

Ok, 250 dollars.

George, the driver, is negotiating with a military officer armed with an AK-47; he is stationed next to the log gate.

Ok, 100 dollars.

We already have our Obama bracelets, our spears, our rugby shirts, our knick-knacks, and our tchotchkes.

Ok, 50 dollars.

George gets in the driver’s seat.

20 dollars, please, 20 dollars.

George turns to us and says, “We missed the last escort and caravan, but he says we can catch up.”

Please, 20 dollars. Please. Sir, 20 dollars.

“There are bad people on this road… We must hurry.”


George guns it through Tsavo. I hold onto the roll bars and stare out the windshield. My knuckles are turning white from fear.

A white truck filled with Masai men comes toward us on the dirt road. They are standing and looking over the cab. Red gravel dust kicks up behind them. The other night lingers in my mind: You are not welcome here. This is not your land.

My heart is pounding. This is it. We haven’t caught the convoy or the armed guard. The truck aims right for us. No one in our van speaks. We all heard George say that the road is dangerous, and we are white, and Dad has a few thousand dollars under his HD camcorder.

I see myself as a sack of potatoes on the side of the road. A dead body that everybody passes. I can’t accept that these are the final moments of our lives.

The truck pulls over and slows down. George does the same, and we pass each other. The men turn and stare at us. They keep moving forward and so do we.


Joe Yeoman loves you. He is an MFA candidate at the Jack Kerouac School. As a displaced Chicago writer and editor, he hopes to see the Windy City soon. You can contact him at Joeyeoman [at] gmail [dot] com. Follow him on twitter @themindfullife, @walkthetalkshow, and @joeyeoman. Friend him of Facebook.

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