The Maree Hotel
Fruit & Valentines
Old Friends, New Acquaintances
The Dragoman Truck
Running of the Bulls
Marketing Marrakesh Style
Bits of Drama & Humor
Diarrhea in the Minefields
The Sahara Desert
Ship of Flies
Summary of M. & M.
God is Great
Hotel de California
Beach Blanket Bingo
Dining al Fresco
The Agony and the Ecstasy
Why I Wear Shoes
Summary of Equatoria
First Week in Zaire
First Week in Zaire, part 2
Bridge Over River X
Forest of Snakes
Bastards of Buta
JimBo's Jungle Bakery
Zaire's Last Grasp
To Bathe or Not To Bathe
My Kind of Town
Gang Attacks & Death Mobiles
Land of the Carnivores
The Big Game
Losing It in Zanzibar
Summary of East Africa
Goodbye Africa, Hello Asia
Mission Improbable (Part 2)
Hello Yellow Silk Road
A Tale of Two City-States
Let's Make a Deal
Trolling for Trouble
Can You Say Kyrgyzstan?
Cheap Hotels & Expensive Women
The Ugly Americans
Central Asian Summary
On the Road Again
Shangri-la Part 1
Shangri-la Part 2
Shangri-la Part 3
Valley of Shawls
Temple of Rats
Born in the USA
Back to Home
Going mental - our lead driver, Dave, warns us about this. It is the worst disaster that can befall us. But what does he mean? I know that nature can be a violent place. Just look how many species survive by eating one another. Life in Africa is a little closer to the earth than most continents because the natives didn't discover ready-mix cement, barley hops, and gunpowder as soon as the rest of us. Apparently, according to Dave (and the western media) those locals can revert to uncontrollable primordial behavior, and indiscriminately kill everything in their sight, usually in a barbaric fashion - bullets can be expensive in some economies. Mob violence in a setting where most men carry machetes is a scary thought. Dave's number one priority is to avoid any situation where the locals might be going mental.
It's not hard to see why black Africans might resent whites for carting off large portions of their population and ravaging their unguarded homelands. But what I don't understand is why the Africans would inflict so much violence against each other. Now that I think about it, we white people have been killing each other off with every horrific means available for several millennium so why should I be surprised.
I guess I suffer from a common Caucasian tendency to see all Africans as the same. In fact they are not. Tribal warfare has existed on the African continent for centuries. But what I have trouble grasping is the shocking cruelty one man or group can inflict on another. In my mind, there can be no rationalization for the atrocities one reads about and, hopefully, never encounters. For example, read the following report from the Associated Press.
"The macabre annals of Liberia's civil war include gunman in drag, human skulls used as soccer balls and the videotaped torture of the ousted president. But nothing compares to the tale of Gen. Butt Naked."
"Nude except for lace-up leather shoes and a gun, the general led his fierce Butt Naked Battalion into battle on behalf of the warlord Roosevelt Johnson, who hired the unclothed warrior for his fearlessness and fighting skills."
"As the war wound down, so too did Gen. Butt Naked's commitment to kill. Today, he is an evangelical preacher leading his Soul-Winning Evangelistic Ministry on a crusade against war and warlords."
"He now uses his birth name - Joshua Milton Blahyi - and wears a suit and tie as he roams the battered capital with a microphone preaching peace and reconciliation."
""I was just an ordinary man, but I was also very spiritual. I was deep into occult,' Blahyi, 25, said as he explained how he became a ruthless general. His fighters were among the most notorious in the seven-year conflict that wracked the West African Nation, founded 150 years ago by freed American slaves."
"The war began when Charles Taylor launched a cross-border invasion aimed at ousting President Samuel Doe. A rival faction that emerged the following year captured Doe and filmed torturers as they sliced off his ear and mangled his face before killing him."
"Seven warring groups, including Johnson's, formed over the years, and about 200,000 people died before warlords signed a peace accord that cleared the way for presidential elections July 19."
"Blahyi publicly urged voters to reject the warlords running for office, but they still chose Taylor by a landslide. Blahyi's political views and religious conversion were big news here, evidence of how famous his antics became even among Liberians hardened by one of the world's weirdest wars."
"Drunk and drugged teenagers and boys composed much of the warlords' fighting forces, and in their intoxicated states they would waltz into battle wearing flowing dresses, colorful wigs and carrying dainty purses looted from civilians."
"They took ghoulish glee in displaying their trophies: posting a victim's head on a table set in the middle on a Monrovia intersection; using a skull of another victim for soccer practice."
"Civilians rarely seemed fazed."
"But the Butt Naked Battalion stood out, not just for its nudity but for its brutality and its apparent fearlessness. Blahyi says this was the result of a contract with the devil, sealed at the age of 11 when he was initiated into a satanic society that demanded regular human sacrifice and nudity on the battlefield to ensure protection from his enemies."
"He started out as an armed robber and killer - killing too many people to count, Blahyi says - and was recruited into the war in 1994 when Johnson asked him for help."
"'I agreed, because at that time they offered me a lot of money. Everything I did, I did on a commercial basis.' said Blahyi, speaking in the dingy, shabbily furnished second-floor apartment he shares with several other people in Monrovia."
"Blahyi said he was required to make a human sacrifice before battle. Usually it was a small child, someone whose fresh blood would satisfy the devil."
"'Sometimes I would enter under the water where the children were playing. I would dive under the water, grab one, carry him under and break his neck. Sometimes I'd cause accidents. Sometimes I'd just slaughter them,' he said in a matter-of-fact manner."
"Before leading his band of fighters to the front lines, Blahyi would stop and strip to only his shoes, then charge into the fray yelling orders to his loyal followers."
"It was during one of these battles, on the New Bridge linking central Monrovia to the outskirts, that Blahyi's conversion began. He was naked on the front line when, he says, God appeared and told him he was a slave to Satan, not the hero he considered himself to be."
"That was in June 1966, when Monrovia was in the midst of fighting that nearly destroyed the city and led to intentional pressure for a peace accord."
"Blahyi admits it took awhile to accept his new calling, but in November he finally turned full time to preaching and even attended theology school in Nigeria."
"When he goes out to preach now, he says he sometimes encounters relatives of his victims. 'I fell very bad, so bad,' he said, but he insists it was satanic powers that possessed him in the past and he cannot be held responsible."
"To try and make up for the past, Blahyi is now selling cassettes of his sermons for $20 each to raise money for a school for ex-fighters such as himself."
"'Even now I'm fighting. I'm fighting a spiritual war,' Blahyi said, before heading outside into the rain for another day of preaching."
My overland truck did not go to Liberia. Thank God! This is not to say we didn't have encounters that darn near drove Dave "mental." We were in Nigeria entering a town called Abeoketa. They must not get many tourists there (like any at all would go to Nigeria). The truck cruised the streets as we changed money, restocked the bar, and bought food for dinner. The people seemed extraordinarily friendly - children running alongside and shouting, adults smiling and waving from the houses and shops. Emma and I amused ourselves by making outrageous faces at pedestrians who responded in kind. We were accustomed to being the center of attention in isolated villages but Abeoketa was a good sized town less than an hour from the capital.
Then all of a sudden - as the truck turned a corner - we were confronted by an unexpected mob. A block away the street was packed with a very large throng of people shouting, waving their arms, and COMING IN OUR DIRECTION! Dave analyzed the situation in three seconds and shouted back: "Time to get the flock out of here!" The street ahead was very congested. Backing up would have involved running over numerous pedestrians (who, in Africa, habitually walk down the middle of the street) and assorted small vehicles that we outweighed 10:1. What to do?
Letting the truck become engulfed by a riotous crowd of unknown purpose was at the top of Dave's list of uncool things to do while touring Africa. The usual solution - passing out cigarettes - seemed unfeasible. Plan B, quietly reasoning with the agitated natives while smoking those cigarettes, offered little hope. Being in the middle of a real town meant that donation of a few extra liters of cooking oil was not going to garner any preferential treatment so Dave did what any man facing the end of his career would do. He rolled a cigarette and prayed for a miracle.
Like the Red Sea parting for Moses, salvation appeared in the form of a skinny side street! Without hesitation Dave steered the truck toward it. To this day neither I nor anyone else on the truck that day knows what might have happened had not good luck prevailed. Maybe the group was merely celebrating a holiday. Maybe the holiday commemorated some despicable moment in history with which we might have been associated. Perhaps it was a political gathering, celebrating the defeat of a rival party, or the rival party seeking revenge. Most likely it was simply a big party for a wedding or a funeral. Nevertheless, I was glad Dave didn't take civilized behavior for granted in Africa.