“Journey as a Way of Life”
Carrying the story of a stranger.
By Kate Cough
This is a photograph of Dan Eldon. The photograph was a gift, one that I have carried with me for years. It is one of the first things I hang on my walls and one of the last I take down. I move often and travel light — it’s been over a decade since I’ve spent more than nine months in any one place — but I have kept this as a reminder of the kind of life Dan lived, and the kind of life I have aspired to.
Dan died on the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. He was 22; it was mid July, no doubt it was ungodly hot. U.S. helicopters strafed a building where they thought clan elders were gathered, the home of lieutenant of General Mohamed Farah Aidid. The strike killed dozens of civilians — women and children among them.
Dan was preparing to leave Somalia. He’d spent months covering the carnage, and he was exhausted. International papers were tiring of the story, and things were becoming increasingly violent and chaotic. Journalists were leaving to cover more profitable wars — Bosnia, Burundi, Sierra Leone. But Dan had stayed, and that day he rushed to take photos of the aftermath of the strike. A group of civilians, anguished by the deaths of their friends and family, chased him through the dusty streets. Dan was fast, but the mob was faster: in a fury, they caught Dan and stoned him to death.
The strike that brought about Dan’s death was part of increasingly desperate attempts to corral a situation that was rapidly deteriorating into a tangle of warlords and rebels and blue and green helmets. Less than a year later, in March of 1994, all U.S. troops would be gone: after Paul Watson’s photos of a naked American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu were published in the international papers the U.S. lost its appetite for the war.
Dan died that hot July day alongside three of his colleagues: Hos Maina, Anthony Macharia and Hansi Krauss. Dan’s obituary ran in the British papers and on the wires. They called him “a romantic figure of war journalism for whom an early death sometimes seemed inevitable.” More than one said, “His heart was in Africa.” Some simply noted his death in the confused string of others: 54 dead, 85 dead, 175 wounded, three journalists, four journalists.
Aidan Hartley, a journalist and friend of Dan’s, wrote an account after his death: a circling Black Hawk helicopter followed Dan as he ran through the streets of Mogadishu. Dan shed his bulletproof vest so he could run faster. And after the mob caught up with him, the same helicopter picked his body up from the dirt and flew it home.
The year before Dan died, wrote Hartley, he made Hartley a photo collage, with a note: “To Aidan, with mixed thanks for giving me my first exposure to the horror.” Hartley wasn’t in Somalia the day his colleagues were killed. He survived the continent’s wars, covering the famine in Ethiopia and the bloodletting in Rwanda. He made documentary films, married, had two children. Hartley settled in Kenya and became a cattle rancher, finding “solace in cows and family.” And in 2003 he wrote a book: The Zanzibar Chest. It was this book that would lead me to Dan.
My copy of The Zanzibar Chest is held together with elastic, covered in pen, and a whole section has simply fallen out. The pages are soft from years of reading and re-reading. There are poems and drawings and quotes from friends in the margins that make little sense to me today.
But one story has always stuck in my mind: Dan’s first day in Mogadishu, and the group of Reuters stringers he was with, including Hartley, had gone down to the “green line,” an imaginary line dividing north and south Mogadishu. “The area between them has become a ghost town, haunted by the memories of splendor and of failure,” wrote Diana Schemo in the New York Times.
According to Hartley’s recollection of the day:
Dan got cheeky to a teenager who thought the rocket-propelled grenade launcher in his hands entitled him to the respect of all. The youth lost his temper and pointed at Dan, ready to pull the trigger…. I urged Dan to put his camera down. He ignored me to my alarm and opened his photo bag, from which he fished out a rubber monster mask I had seen in his room at home and slipped this onto his head. It had warts and wrinkly skin and green hair and when Dan stuck his pink tongue out of the little mouth hole the gunman brought his tirade to an abrupt halt with a yelp and a giggle.
In so many accounts of Dan his memory buzzes with life: selling t-shirts he made printed with Black Hawk helicopters on the beaches of Mogadishu; driving an old Land Rover to donate thousands of dollars to a refugee camp in Malawi, breaking hearts with his wide, easy smile. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times years after his death, Dan’s mother described him like this: “He was a totally normal guy, manipulative, chauvinistic, lazy and terribly messy. But the way he lived his life can help others.”
For me, Dan is anything but normal: he is mythic, outsized. His life is like an outline — just enough around the edges to give guidance, with room for me to fill in the details. I see him so clearly in my mind, this person I will never meet — lanky and laughing on a bright white beach, wading through the tepid waters of the Indian Ocean. Alive.
Dan came into my life ten years ago this month. At the time he had been dead for fifteen years. I was living in Kenya, “teaching English” in a village in the Rift Valley west of Ngong. But I was a terrible teacher with zero training, and I wanted big adventures: I wanted to be Beryl Markham, flying my little two-seater over the Masaai Mara with the savannah spreading out below.
Of course being a bush pilot was pretty much out of the question, but I felt useless and restless in the little village. And so I said my goodbyes. My host mother, Veronica (her Masaai name escapes me now), sent me off with a stunning beaded necklace that I would later hang on the wall of my drab dorm room in the Philadelphia suburbs. I don’t remember if I gave her a gift in return. I hope that I did.
Leaving the Rift Valley meant a dusty, hours-long, shoulder-to-shoulder ride in the back of a pickup truck to the nearest town, where one could then catch a van to Nairobi. I think I stayed in Nairobi for a couple of nights and flew to Dar Es Salaam, but I remember arriving in Dar on a bright day in early spring.
The volunteer organization I was working with provided housing just outside Dar, in what we came to call the Bahari Beach House. The house itself was big and airy, with a screened porch and tile floors that were pleasantly cool most of the day. I shared a room with Elsa, a French girl who chain-smoked cigarettes and had big brown eyes. Our room had a bathroom attached and a king bed with a swathe of mosquito netting that we used as a curtain to separate our respective sides. Elsa insisted on sleeping under the net and I hated it, it was hot and unbearable when mosquitos got trapped inside.
We were seven after I arrived at the house. We played a lot of cards because there wasn’t much else to do and the sand at midday burned the bottoms of your feet if you walked too far. The sea was tepid like old bathwater and I missed the cold of the Atlantic, but in the evening it was the most beautiful place in the world. The sky was pink and yellow and we swam to keep warm.
We spent our weekdays painting a nearby school whose children were on vacation, and after the children returned we would visit during the day, playing with them and helping out wherever it was needed. For a while we went to the orphanage down the road and helped care for the children until one of the babies got sick and the Catholic mothers didn’t want so many people visiting anymore.
During the week we went to work and on weekends we took a taxi into town, usually one driven by a man named Joseph, who smoked Kenyan Portsman cigarettes, as they were called then. Joseph had a big laugh and eventually a daughter named Princess but his car was too small for all of us and everyone had to get out to go over potholes. We made friends with some bush pilots from South Africa. They had good stories and were always having adventures and getting uproariously drunk.
Sometimes Joseph would drive Elsa and me into town and we would meet the Italians. The Italians were older and worked at the embassy and lived in a house by the sea. The two of them would make us dinner with imported pasta and we would sit around on their oriental rugs drinking wine and reading Baudelaire poems. I liked to climb up to their roof to see the stars because they felt very close and I could lie on my back and the cement was cold on my shoulders. The palm trees around the house were very tall and their leaves blocked out some of the sky and made a rustling noise like two hands rubbing together.
Years later when I was back in America Elsa called to tell me the Italians had been in a car accident and one of them had died. They always liked to drive very fast and the roads in Tanzania were bad but no one ever expected them to die. We were young and nothing could happen to us. After we hung up the phone I went and lay down in the grass outside and looked up but the pine trees didn’t make noise in the wind and I couldn’t imagine that house half emptied of its poetry and song.
NEW YORK, 2016
Lately I haven’t been sleeping well. When I first moved to New York I refused to bring anything that wasn’t strictly necessary — I was tired of lugging things from place to place, and I hated most of my things anyway. I liked to say that if they’d all somehow wound up in a bonfire, I wouldn’t have cared less.
On the list of things I deemed unnecessary was a bed. So I sleep on a grey inflatable mattress from Wal-Mart, the kind that you keep in the closet for when relatives visit. It’s plenty comfortable really, and makes it easy to turn my bedroom into an extra living room for parties (which we’ve done precisely once, though it’s nice to have the option). But the first week one of the panels on the bed blew out and I woke up on the floor. I went looking for epoxy and fiberglass tape, but the man at the hardware store on the corner didn’t seem to speak much English and I couldn’t figure out how to mime fiberglass, so I wound up with a repair kit for inflatable pool toys. It cost $7.99. I brought it home and sat cross-legged and patched the panel as best I could.
The fix has held for months, but now it has a tiny hole somewhere that lets out just enough air so I wake up most mornings around four in a soft little dimple in the middle. I can’t find the hole to fix it, so I’ve taken to embracing my new predawn awakeness to re-read the books that I brought with me, the ones I deemed more important than proper furniture. A few have been added to the pile — the stories of John Cheever, which I bought at the used bookstore on 79th street partly because I like Cheever and partly because I like old books that other people have scribbled in. Last week I found a fat biography of Walt Whitman with a note on the title page: “So you will remember me. — Anna.”
Sometimes I open my laptop, although I hate the neon glare so early in the morning. Today I checked for an answer from Dan’s friend Aidan Hartley, who wrote to me last week that he carries around tattered copies of Anna Karenina and the poetry of Byron, and was touched that I had so much loyalty to his book. “I know it was not a great book,” he wrote, “but it was important for me to write it the way it was done.”
Why do we carry some things, and leave behind others? I remembered the lists in Tim ‘O’Brien’s Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried: They carried their own lives. They carried strobe lights and responsibility. They carried jungle boots and Dr. Scholl’s foot powder. Syrian refugees take cell phones, prayer beads, chargers, good luck charms, shoes, insulin. The men in Vietnam carried love letters, Kodacolor snapshots. I’m not a refugee or a soldier. I bring my books.
When I wrote to my Bahari housemates to ask what they remembered of The Zanzibar Chest, I was surprised to find that not everyone had read it, like I’d thought. But of those who had, it had made a similarly strong impression. One girl sent photographs of her handwritten notes on the book from a decade ago — yellowed pages of quotes she carries with her to this day. One I didn’t remember, but I liked: “I look back now and see how foolishly I longed for scars to make me wise.”
All these years later I’m still carrying the book — and the photo of Dan — and still reading about war. I pick up Dexter Filkins’ book, The Forever War, and open it in the middle; it doesn’t matter really where I start and where I end. It all feels the same: bullets and confusion and everyone lying to everyone else and everyone hating the Americans being there and a sense of deep and utter hopelessness. It’s like 350 pages asking, what are we all doing here? The Iraqis are there because they have to be, because it’s their country and they’ll pick up the pieces after everything is said and done. But what about everyone else? At one point Filkins meets CIA Mike, who reminds Filkins of himself. “I looked at his haggard face and I wondered why he’d stayed so long, which was the same question my friends asked me.”
Why would someone with any other options go to a place where mass burials are so common that they appear orderly? Why would anyone choose a place where people have learned to dig such a perfect trench? And why would these be people whose words and photographs I carry with me?
“Bearing witness is important,” Hartley told me, of his time covering war. “It was worth it. You’re going to die of something. Those of us who made it through the nineties are now dying of cancer, suicide or boredom.”
The first time I left Africa it was largely for practical reasons. I had been accepted to university in the United States; I’d resisted at first, but there’d never really been a question of my not attending. Besides, Bahari was emptying, all of us drifting back to our respective realities. I loved Tanzania, but I didn’t know what I would do if I stayed.
I moved to Philadelphia, first to the leafy suburbs and later to a room in a townhouse in the city, next to a community garden that had a fig tree and a wrought iron table where I liked to sit and read. One of my housemates from Tanzania lived nearby and we become good friends, spending long nights up on his roof, drinking wine and looking out over the city. We dreamed up plans to go back to Africa; we solved the world’s problems and watched the sunset.
The following summer I returned to Tanzania — this time to a town at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro — under the auspices of doing research, a project that was constantly close to falling apart. I spent my days visiting orphanages and my nights sitting on curbs, looking for children to interview — the project was on “access to healthcare for street children,” but they weren’t as easy to identify as I’d imagined.
One afternoon I met a young woman — my age, maybe younger — all bones and skin, so it was hard to tell. She was crying — she’d lost her child to AIDS. She needed money, and a doctor. I went with her and paid for the visit; we went weekly after that. I would wait for her in the stifling waiting room, sitting among the patients on the cool tile floor. Afterwards we would eat Zanzibar Pizza — flaky dough stuffed with minced spiced lamb, vegetables and eggs that crumbled and left your fingers greasy. We sat on white plastic chairs, mostly in silence. Her English was fair and my Swahili passable, but our conversations were stilted — whether she enjoyed my company or simply felt obligated I could never tell.
In Moshi I fell in kid-love with the DJ at a local club. His name was Goodluck — although everyone called him DJ, which he hated, and I called him Goody — and the club was outside of town in a dusty field. I liked to go midweek, when they played mostly Tanzanian music. He drank dark frothy Guinness — a luxury in Moshi. Goody taught me to dance like a Tanzanian — a slow, foot-to-foot shuffle, a little bob of the shoulders. Sometimes he would let me put on his clunky headphones and teach me to scratch, but I could never get the rhythm quite right. We had careless fun. We stayed out all night and danced down the street in the shimmery hours of the early morning.
One night Goody took me to a corner of town I didn’t know, what felt like an endless piki piki ride down dusky winding streets. Piki pikis are motorbikes — small things, 150 CCs or less. It was a dark night and the room we entered was darker — layers of shadows. When my eyes adjusted I saw a man, his ribs protruding under a thin t-shirt, lying in the corner on a dingy mattress. He didn’t say anything to me. The air inside felt damp and warm and full of sickness. I don’t remember much else; whether Goody explained what was happening, or where we were. I’m sure he did. He was thoughtful in that way.
The next day we had lunch, and Goody asked me for money. He didn’t need much, he explained, and it was for his uncle — the man I’d met — who was dying of AIDS. Everyone was dying of AIDS.
We’d been holding hands across the table; I let go and leaned back. A space opened between us. He made good money at his job, and had never asked me for anything.
I gave him the money; I had it, and I cared for him. But everything had shifted. Everything felt unsteady.
ON LEAVING, 2008
I don’t remember the day I left Africa for the second time. I don’t remember packing my room, or my suitcase, or saying goodbye to friends, although I’m sure I did all of those things. But I remember the ten hour bus ride to Nairobi: opening the windows even an inch invited a thick coating of red dust on everything, so we kept them closed, sweat soaking between shoulder blades and pooling under thighs. Two seats in the back were inexplicably missing, literally ripped from their posts; I assumed they’d been bounced out at some point on the roads, which washed away each year in the spring rains.
I remember hours into the ride the woman across the aisle pulled back her bright khanga to reveal a sleeping baby. The baby was so still and quiet it looked nearly dead. African children rarely cried — there are actually whole articles written on this, associating it with breastfeeding frequency — which this woman began to do, using her free hand to reach across and pull her dress aside. The child stirred and latched on; she covered its head with the cloth, leaned back and closed her eyes. I watched them for a while — the shifting bundle, the tired mother. The desert ricocheted past the windows and darkness fell.
Goody came with me, even though he had a bad back and the bus ride was nearly torture. He never complained, but held my hand and napped in spurts. Sometimes he would wake up and ask if I would consider staying. I couldn’t, I would answer — I had to go home, finish school, do the things that were expected of me — although it wasn’t strictly true. Of course I could have stayed, if I’d really wanted to. I loved Africa. It felt expansive, big enough to hold all of my fantasies, enough for a whole life of madcap adventures in untamed places. But there were so many other roads to wander down — and I knew that while I might visit again it was unlikely I would stay. I was dreaming of the north, the patterned mosaics of mosques in Marrakech, the murky waters of the Nile. Or maybe south or west — see the bright beaches of Madagascar, the thick green jungles of Congo.
The central bus terminal in Nairobi is a lawless dirt lot in the middle of the city. Vendors push mesh bags of green-skinned oranges through bus windows, skinny boys in torn flip-flops hawk bottled water and candy. We arrived in the warm misty hours just before dawn. I know we ate lavishly and slept well and took a taxi to the airport the next morning. I remember waving as I passed through the security scanner — but Goody was already walking away, back turned, ambling toward the matatu stand with his tired swagger.
As a reporter, I talk to a lot of people. I speak to them in coffee shops, on the street, at community meetings. I call strangers halfway around the world and ask them personal, potentially invasive questions (nicely, of course). This story was no different. Dan had a family that survived him: a mother and father, a sister with whom he was close. I had been following the work of his mother and sister for years; they run a foundation inspired by Dan and his life. When I began to write this story I wrote them a rambling note explaining what I was doing, asking if they would be willing to speak to me. Dan’s mother Kathy replied within days. She left me a kind voicemail agreeing to be interviewed, with the best number to reach her.
I never called. I thought about it; more than once I picked up the phone and dialed. Weeks passed. I got sick, then I got better; I wrote more and contacted other people involved in the story. I felt guilty. I thought about what I might say to Kathy — how to convey the weight of her son’s life in my own, how to offer my condolences for a tragedy that happened nearly a quarter century earlier. How to tell her that I simply wasn’t ready — am not ready — to bring Dan to life. He exists for me in this photograph, in his journals, in the memories of his friends — and that, for now, is enough.
In the decade since I left Goody at the airport in Nairobi I have lived in two dorm rooms, a townhouse, two cabins, a horse barn, a tent, three apartments and a sailboat. Most of these spaces have been furnished, which means spending my days among other people’s things — drinking coffee from the retired couple’s vintage Fiesta ware, pulling the engineer’s wool blankets around me in the winter, setting the table with the dishes of the traveling physician. I don’t mind this at all. I like stepping in and out of the lives of others. I like seeing all the ways there are to live in this world.
I’d like to think this is something Dan and I have in common, Dan whose photograph and story are some of the few constants in my life. Dan visited dozens of countries and traveled thousands of miles before he died at 22. The beginning of the quote scribbled on the photo has been left off, but it’s important: Mission of Safari as a Way of Life. In Kiswahili, safari means journey; a derivative of the Arabic سفر, or safar, to travel — travel as a way of life. Journey as a way of life.