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From Trauma to Trust: Leaving Fear Behind in East Africa

by Rob Chursinoff Dec 29, 2017

In the days after I got mugged in Nairobi, I questioned whether my decision to further explore East Africa on my own was still a sensible one. My volunteer work in the Kenyan capital was wrapping up. It would be my first time traveling solo but now I was shaken, my trust in strangers ruptured. I suppose a good mugging has a way of doing that.

Several months earlier in Canada, many of my friends and family were puzzled when I had announced my plans for Africa.

“Are you sure you wanna go there?!” my aunt asked me when I mentioned East Africa.

Her question suggested that reasonably intelligent people still stereotyped Africa as one giant country — a poor, AIDS-stricken, war-ravaged backwater full of witch doctors, murky jungles, child soldiers, and octogenarian dictators.

Taken all together, African countries have a history of brutal conflict that gives the impression of an entire continent in peril. Indeed, some of the most dangerous countries on the planet are in Africa. No one will deny that. But the media’s hyperbolic portrayal of a wretched, hopeless place, its people in need of salvation, has gone a long way in distorting the reality of day-to-day life there.

I wasn’t scared at the thought of Africa, or Kenya in particular. I’d done a lot of traveling and knew I could hold my own.

In Nairobi, I worked alongside Kenyans in the impoverished communities of Mathare and Kibera, wading through mounds of garbage in search of recyclable plastic. These people were happy, hard-working, resourceful, and kind.

I explored the city, day and night, without incident. Strangers in Nairobi would, without hesitation, go well out of their way to help me when I got lost, which I did often. Trust came somewhat easily.

Then I got mugged.

The media’s portrayal of Africa as a wretched, hopeless place has gone a long way in distorting the reality of day-to-day life there.

I was walking downtown when a thin man, wearing an oversized black suit and clutching a folder stuffed with papers, asked me for spare change. I hesitated. Something did not feel right. I gave him 150 shillings anyway.

A few blocks further, two men who claimed to be city council officers apprehended me. The shorter of the two flashed his badge. Both men also wore oversized suits. When they accused me of giving money to a Zimbabwean terrorist, a bolt of fear shot through me.

Nairobi friends had warned me about city council officers. Charged with maintaining order in the Central Business District, they are infamous for their corruption and violent tactics. I was strongly advised to cooperate should they stop me.

And don’t run! I heard my friend Patrick saying. Because they are everywhere!

With the men on either side of me, I was led to an alley café and told to sit. Five more sketchy looking “officers” instantly appeared and surrounded my table.

Fuck, this is not good, I thought to myself.

Parked outside was an unmistakable fixture of Nairobi’s streets — a white Toyota truck with a canopy, its windows covered in steel mesh — a City Council paddy wagon.

Based on what I’d heard, I faced a night in jail, and a hearing before a corrupt judge in which I’d be forced to hemorrhage money, then be asked to leave the country. Or worse.

My gut turned. I began to rock back and forth in my seat hoping the motion would mask the fact that I’d started to shake.

After trying to convince the gathered officers that I was a good guy doing good work in the slums, the largest of them decided to take a crack at me. I considered him the Commander. He stood over me and stared at me for a long time, then took a seat and leaned in way too close for comfort. His teeth were in a bad way, like dirty, rotting fence posts stuck haphazardly in the ground. His pupils were dilated and dark as obsidian. His heavily blood-shot eyes brought to mind a madman. A burning fear washed over me.

Not knowing what else to do I ordered a round of Cokes for everyone from an indifferent waitress. But I quickly understood that if there was any kindness in the Commander, it was going to cost more than a soft drink.

He leaned even closer and yelled at me. His breath was dank and fetid. He accused me of lying, accused me of given the terrorist 12,000 counterfeit Shillings.

“Look, I gave a beggar 150 Shillings,” I said, trying to sound defiant. “We do this in Canada. We give the less fortunate money. Had I known it was an offense, I wouldn’t have done it. Mimi ni pole, I am sorry,” I said in Swahili. “It will not happen again.”

“Give me your bank card,” he demanded, holding out his hand.

I brought out my wallet and showed the Commander that I only had a piece of ID and 500 shillings. I explained that I only ever came to town with a maximum of 1000 Shillings.

“In case of incidents just like this,” I said.

The Commander forced a quick, disingenuous smile, and stared at me deadpan. He brought his comrades into a huddle nearby. They talked hurriedly in Swahili while I downed my Coke.

I was sure their next move would cause me further grief. Would they take me back to my apartment and demand I retrieve my bank card? Was it possible they’d beat the hell out of me? Yes, it was, I concluded. I began to shake even more.

All of the sudden the Commander and his underlings rose in unison and, without a word, split like a group of bullies catching the scent of weaker prey.

I took a deep breath and unclenched my ass. The short officer who first approached me on the street still sat opposite me. He motioned for my 500 Shillings. I gave it to him.

With that, the half-hour ordeal was over. The trauma of being mugged, however, was not.

In the next few days I was faced with a difficult decision: ride out the rest of my trip in Nairobi but avoid downtown, fly back to Canada early, or carry on with my original plans to explore East Africa solo?
“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody… is to trust them.”

Over a meal, I discussed my options with Patrick, my friend and colleague. With the clammy brow and slouched posture of a defeated man, I recounted the mugging, finishing with the admission that I’d have a hard time trusting people, and my own intuition, on my trip. I should probably just go back to Canada.

Patrick raised his beer to me and reminded me of something Ernest Hemingway once said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody… is to trust them.”

The next morning, I packed my bags and boarded a bus headed for Uganda. On this leg of the journey, my ultimate destination would be Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (to see mountain gorillas) in the remote southeast of the country. I was determined not to let fear win, and that, unless someone wafted of deviance, I would extend my trust to them.

On my first day in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in the pure, sweeping silence of dawn, I asked myself a question: Do I trust these park rangers armed with automatic assault rifles who are about to take me and four American tourists into a soggy jungle in search of wild mountain gorillas?

The following day was no better: Do I trust similarly armed rangers to take a German and me on a hike skirting the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo? Do I trust them not to rob us or sell us to ransom-hungry rebel armies?

I reasoned that park rangers were highly-trained, dedicated professionals who put their lives on the line for the cause of conservation. I understood that ranger salaries were largely covered by tourism, so harming tourists didn’t make sense. And I recalled that I hadn’t heard any news of a park ranger in Uganda (or Rwanda or the DRC) ever harming tourists. Therefore yes, I concluded, I would trust them.

In other instances, with little time or opportunity for reasoning alone, it was my gut instinct, a hunch, someone’s “vibe” I had to rely on. And because of my misstep with the beggar/Zimbabwean terrorist, I now knew that once the gut has spoken the gut must not be disobeyed.

On my last day in Bwindi, I decided I wanted to get to the Rwandan capital of Kigali; I wanted to do it in one day and I didn’t want to spend more than $50 USD to get to the border. A local Buhoma villager said it would be difficult but offered to find a way.

The following morning, I was presented with my offer — an older model, 100cc TVS Star motorcycle with red streamers fluttering from the handlebars, driven by a man with mini dreads, wearing white goggles, a puffy black winter jacket, green cargo pants and Birkenstock sandals.

“Hello, I am Moses,” he said, shaking my hand with a warm smile.

A warm smile can be disarming when assessing level of trust. So too can someone’s choice in attire. I concluded that nefarious activity and Birkenstocks did not go hand in hand.

“Let’s go!”, I said. My gut had spoken.

“It’s okay, really. Why don’t you trust me?”

With my loaded 70-liter backpack sprawled over the gas tank and handlebars and my laptop in my courier bag cushioned between Moses and me, we were off to the Rwandan border. Over rough, high-mountain roads, past wind-swept, terraced hillsides, through virgin rainforest, along deadly steep cliffs, and into a herd of cattle, Moses and I puttered along. The scenery was lush and stunning — it was well worth the risk. One flat tire, 5-hours, and 100km later we made it to Kisoro, 3km away from Rwanda. It was here that my sense of trust faced its biggest hurdle.

Moses found me a cab to take me the rest of the way. The back seat was full. The driver and one front-seat passenger were arguing loudly in Swahili when I settled in between them and continued to do so all the way to the border crossing.

Once we got to the border the front passenger asked me where I was going.

“Kigali,” I told him.

“Me too.” He said. “My name is Peter. Come, I have a ride for us.”

Oh man, I don’t know, I thought. “What were you arguing about with the cab driver?”, I asked.

“He charged me too much even though I am local,” he said.

My gut was unsure. Peter pointed to a parked minivan, told me to put my bags in the back.

“I’ll negotiate your price,” he said.

I watched him speak with the van driver. He motioned my way. The driver looked at me, looked back at Peter then nodded.

“The driver wanted forty dollars US but I told him you were a friend. Twenty-five dollars,” he said as he walked up to me.

“How much do you have to pay?” I asked.

“Local’s price. Twenty,” he said. “Come, put your bags in the back and I’ll take you to my family’s restaurant for lunch.”

I stood in place. The price he negotiated seems fair, I thought. I felt surer.

“Don’t worry, the driver won’t leave without us. Are you hungry?”

I was starving. “Maybe I’ll just bring my bags with me,” I said.

“It’s okay, really. Why don’t you trust me?” he asked.

I placed my backpack in the van, took my laptop with me and decided to follow him. He led me into a maze of market stalls at the border bazaar. Clothing, pirated CDs and DVDs, plastic toys and sizzling meat were all for sale. When we got to a set of stairs that led further down into the border village, Peter sped up his pace a little. I stopped to check if my wallet was in my laptop bag. Half a block away, Peter stopped and looked back at me.

“Come on, it’s okay!” He shouted through a crowd of people.

Then he turned and went down another set of stairs. I tried to catch up to him but he was nowhere to be seen. In front of me, at the bottom of the stairs, was a narrow, dark passageway that led to a courtyard. My gut pulsed an alarm.

Again, I searched for my wallet, this time with success. My gut adjusted back to neutral.

I stood for a long moment as people bumped past me. I took a deep breath and thought of the day’s journey. I was exhausted but I felt good.

For a moment, I imagined the Commander again, walking away from me… swallowed up by the bustle of Nairobi outside the cafe.

I went down the stairs and when I got into the courtyard, Peter was sitting at a table in the far corner. He motioned for me to join him and introduced his wife, father-in-law, sister and young daughter.

“See, it’s okay,” he said, pulling out a chair for me.

No sooner than I sat down did a plate of food get placed in front of me.

“Would you like a beer?” Peter asked. “It’s on me.”

I heard the ghost of Hemingway loud and clear. The best way to know if you can trust someone is to trust them. Bad things happen. I won’t let those bad things defeat and define me.

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