News of the September 11th attacks took over 31 hours to reach me. In a time of on-location television images, up-to-the-second Internet news web sites and remote wireless new feeds, how did I miss it? Was I under a rock?
Just about. I was living in a remote village in southern Africa. This is my story of my reaction and, perhaps more importantly, the reactions of those around me to the terrorist attacks of September 11th.
In July of 1998, Miranda Buck and I started dating. On our very first date she told me something that I brushed off as unimportant, although, as I would later tell people, what she told me turned out to be the beginning of my new life: she was going to apply to the Peace Corps in a year and was hoping to serve in Africa. That year went by very quickly, and at the end of it Miranda and I found ourselves happily in love. We decided that even though she would soon be leaving for 27 months of service as an English teacher in a tiny country named Malawi, we would continue our relationship through the mail and I would come to visit her there when the time was appropriate. Seven months later, the time suddenly became appropriate and I was on my first trip ever outside of the US.
I can't begin to explain how I felt those two weeks in Africa traveling with Miranda and a few of her friends. Miranda is an great linguist and already had an excellent sense of the culture, so my trip was far more than just a tourist getaway. I toured what the IMF says is the world's fourth poorest country; I saw the continent that has seen mankind longer than any other continent; I saw the results of tribal migrations, a corrupt government, a stark dependency on one crop and a society's mortifying inability to deal with the HIV epidemic. I came away from my trip a new man, sad, angry, and amazed.
But more than anything else, I was curious. My travel bug had hatched. Five months later I sold most of my guitars, sold my new car, quit my job, and had moved out of my apartment. I left America to live in Africa with Miranda.
Now, living in Africa, let alone in an incredibly poor country like Malawi, is not easy. A potentially dangerous atmosphere, no personal transportation, no immediate form of income, the constant reminder of just how lucky you are compared to the Africans you are living with and, of course, the threat of serious illness all made my daily life much tougher than it had ever been in America. And the Malawians amongst whom I lived had it much harder than I did. Imagine working all day under in 95 degree weather to make less than 40 cents per day. A Malawian is lucky if they have food on his or her plate at the end of the day, to say nothing of medical attention. Have you seen those Save the Children commercials showing tiny babies with flies crawling all over them? That was filmed about 60 miles from where I was living.
Despite the horrible conditions, Malawians are very friendly and have a genuine interest in foreigners and the outside world. There has never been a war in Malawi (unlike many of the war-torn countries of western Africa) and there are rarely violent crimes (although I saw those rising during my time there). Malawians would tell you that they would be honored to be your friend and would very happy if you could take them back to America. I made many friends and starting working with Peace Corps to create a training tool for volunteers. Life was literally a new adventure every day.
When Miranda started approaching the end of her contract with Peace Corps, I started to look into jobs in the States for when we returned. I had been lucky enough to secure an Internet connection (operating at about .2 kps) in a nearby city and, on the morning of September 12th, I hitched a ride into Kasungu to sent a few emails out to potential employers. A friend of a friend was kind enough to let me use his phone line for a few minutes to connect. While I was download the messages, he said (in typical broken English), "I'm sorry for what has happened in America."
I looked up. "Bwanji?" (What?)
"You have not heard?"
"Airplanes have crashed into houses."
By this point I had already begun to pull up cnn.com. After waiting about two minutes for the page to load, I was shown the image that everyone has stuck in their minds: a plane flying into a building, a building that I had once stood in myself.
I was stunned and started to quietly sob as I read the article. My mind was racing. My first thought was my family, my next thought was telling Miranda (who was teaching at the moment in the village) and my final thought was that we needed to get into the capital of Malawi, Lilongwe.
I saved the page on my laptop, raced out of the building and flagged down an old pick-up truck to hitch back to the village.
That was the end of my first set of reactions. They were all actions. Call Dad. Find Miranda. Get to Lilongwe. What I would find, though, was that I was not surrounded by people who reacting the same way I was. I was the only American for miles.
Hitchhiking in Malawi is quite easy, especially for a white person. The previous dictator in Malawi made a national law forbidding Malawians to pass a foreigner on the road without stopping to help. Fortunately for me, many drivers still followed this strange practice.
A small ratty pick-up truck with about twelve people in it (about half-full in Malawi) stopped and offered me the front seat (the best, because I was a foreigner). I was in no mood to fight with them for equality amongst passengers, so I jumped in the cab and told them that I needed to be dropped off in my village about 25km away. That drive took only about ten minutes or so, but it seemed like forever. After a few minutes, the driver and other two passengers up front wondered why I hadn't said anything (of course I was completely involved in reviewing the story in my head). I asked the driver if he had heard what had happened in America.
"Several airplanes have crashed into building and have killed many many, people."
The driver's reaction would both surprise, anger, and confuse me all at once. He laughed.
Was this person a supporter of the terrorist acts? Did he hate Americans? Did he really think that this was funny? Thousands of lives had been lost for no apparent reason and this guy was laughing at me and those several thousand families! I was furious!
But I caught myself. As I like to say, my cultural filter turned on and I realized what was happening. The driver was not happy and he probably did not find it funny. He reacted like many Africans do when they encounter something that they do not know how to react to: they simply laugh hoping to understand how they should react by watching the person telling them the information.
The driver saw me not laughing and immediately stopped.
"Do you know what an airplane is?"
"Do you know what terrorism is?"
This is what I would encounter countless more times in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. Malawi has two tiny international airports, each of which handles three to five planes a day. Many Malawians have seen pictures of airplanes but have little or no understanding of their speed or size. The same goes for terrorism. There has never been terrorism in Malawi. There have been conflicts, but none of these conflicts ever reached war status. Many times, I would be asked if terrorism was a country. I usually replied that it was not a country but a group of people. They would stare at me wondering what the difference wasand sometimes I did as well.
I did my best to explain to the driver of the truck and was relieved when we finally arrived at my village. I raced to Miranda's school (several small brick buildings with no water or electricity and an average of one book to every forty students and even fewer desks) and wondered how I was going to break the news to her. Miranda's father worked near the Pentagon. I was pretty sure that he was going to be ok, but I knew that Miranda might be quite worried nevertheless.
Miranda was exiting a classroom when I reached the school. I can imagine that I had a horrible look on my face as I approached her. She quickly signaled that she knew what had happened with the same look. She told me that in the two hours that I had been gone she had already heard from both her parents and Peace Corps headquarters in Lilongwe. Getting a phone call to go through to Malawi in regular circumstances usually takes an hour before a reliable connection can be established, so her parents getting through under the unusual circumstances of Septemer 11th struck me as no less than a miracle. Both of her parents were ok and the Peace Corps agreed that we should both come into the capital.
As Miranda gathered her belongings from the school in preparation for our dearture, several of the native Malwians who taught with her reacted just as strangely to the news as the driver of my truck had earlier. I found it odd that even these educated Malawians who worked as teachers (and who were good teachers by Malawian standards) still laughed at the situation. Miranda seemed to find it equally unsettling, but we were able to contain ourselves by briefly explaining the situation and promptly leaving the school.
At home, I showed Miranda the CNN article on my computer. After we both silently read the article, we sat on the floor of our living room and stared at the ground. What did this mean? What was going to happen now? Who did this? Would America's response kill more people? Would we go to war?
It took us four hours to hitchhike into Lilongwe. Those were four very silent hours. Miranda and I would periodically look at each other and shake our heads. We knew what this meant. Our lives would be different from now on. We agreed that we were more scared of what America's response would be than we were of further attacks.
Miranda and I both remembered something that the American media never seemed to really pay much attention to. A mere 2000km below us, the world racism summit had just finished. America and Israel had walked out of the summit two times calling the wording of Israel's treatment of Palestinians unfair. The summit leaders eventually gave in and changed the wording (because without America's involvement, most agreed that the summit would end a failure). We figured that this was the response from the Palestinians. A scary thought knowing the situation there.
We arrived in Lilongwe and found ourselves surrounded by other scared and confused volunteers. We all shared our stories of how we learned about the attacks and found out what the latest news was. It felt good to finally be around people who understood our feelings, but we knew that we would, in a few days, have to brave it back in the village and answer a multitude of questions from eager Malawians. We weren't scared of the questionswe were scared of the answers.
After a long day, Miranda and I went to the local pizza place (owned by a very friendly Muslim family) and sat down. It was late and the air was still warm. We relaxed at an outdoor table and tried to chat about something other than the day's events. As we waited for our pizza, Miranda excused herself to wash her hands.
I sat alone at the table and thought about those who had died and those who would die. I couldn't have felt worse.
Just then I spotted a Malawian eyeing me. He slowly walked over to my table and held out his hand to shake mine (the typical greeting for strangers in Malawi). I was hardly in the mood to talk with someone, let alone someone who was so far removed from what I was feeling. I shook his hand loosely.
He said, "Are you an American?"
I was a bit startled. "Yes."
"I want you to know that I am very sorry for what happened in your country. We are praying for you," he said with serious, compassionate look on his face.
I was stunned. Before I could utter a thank you, he left.
I was alone again. But now I knew that I really wasn't.