Melinda Gates

Americans are a unique breed of species who came to conquer the denizens of this planet some five or six hundred years ago.  Conquerors are mostly abhorred, but the American invasion was so wild that we didn’t know what hit us.  We didn’t know whether to hate them or love them. They came with their hamburgers and we loved it. They came with their Mustangs and we loved it. They came with their movies and we all wanted to marry Marilyn Monroe. Then they gave us Elvis Presley; are you kidding me, every young man in Africa emulated the Elvis gyration.

The parts I love about them are their unmitigated courage and compassion, traits that are abundantly exercised everywhere by all Americans. You may think I am merely reminiscing acts of valor and generosity that had happened in the 50s or 60s.

No, no, no!

Forget that.

Just yesterday ( I mean months ago), Melinda Gates, the richest woman on earth, was down in Malawi carrying a jug full of water, along with the destitute Malawi women who do this everyday for a living. It’s not that Melinda hadn’t supported these people or that this was a media stunt and a clamor for attention. No sir; Melinda was sending a message to the world, asking for all humanity to bond together to ameliorate the abject poverty from our planet.

To eliminate hunger, to do away with wars, all these require a collective effort.

That’s America for you, America with the heart of gold!

And Melinda Gates is an American!

Many people think America is all about the sky scrapper buildings, the big cars and the big malls. How about that young woman, Ella Watson-Stryker, who is working in an Ebola stricken Liberia, and the doctor, Kent Brantly, both risking their lives to save others?

They are Americans.

Thank you Melinda!

You are truly an American!

The Saddleback Church

I can mention million more reasons why I should pay my gratitude to many Americans; only I picked the few salient examples that have deeply impacted me. There are more; trust me.

I have documented all of them for my Griot stories.

By the way, such effusive praise isn’t rendered blindly (I have seen my share of racial animosity, especially in the 70s and smell its stink from a distance even today), nor deny the

fact that there are great countries in the world who deserve praise. America is still a work in progress. We haven’t seen yet her days in the sun. We haven’t seen her reaching the pinnacle yet!

And in closing, I want to thank the late Herb Cane of the San Francisco Chronicle from whom I had picked up some of my writing styles (not as good as his, however), and Professor Clark Smith, who, when I was going for my undergraduate study in Organizational Behavior at USF (a program that I had no idea what it was all about, but liked the essay writing part) he encouraged me to continue writing, because he thought my stories as a Griot on America were insightful and amazing.

And then there is the Reverend Rick Warren (of the Saddleback Church, almost sixteen years younger than me but sixteen million years wiser), for his unflagging support and encouragement every time I met him at the gated community where he lived. After that incident with the Cat in the Freeway, I had gone back working as a security guard and was able to complete two books and gave him a copy of my Ethiopian book (Fikre-Kidus) and a copy of The Prince of Africa. These two books were merely intended as limited edition to gauge their approvals among a few colleagues, but not intended for public consumption.

Reverend Warren took the books with delight. Not that he didn’t have enough souvenir collection from around the world cramping his shelves. Especially after his blockbuster book The Purpose Driven Life came out, he was traveling the world and preaching tirelessly in Asia, Africa, you name it. I thought, however, my little accomplishment would mean something, because I was really trying to say thank you to him as an African for his remarkable job in Rwanda. He, along his wife Kay Warren, were seriously involved in the Rwanda case, trying to ameliorate the condition in that country, in the same sense that the late Senator Kennedy was doing in Ethiopia in the 80s.

The difference: one was a politician and the other is a religious man.

“I know you don’t read the Ethiopian language, but I want you to have these books because you mean so much to me. Just keep it as a souvenir,” I said, giving him the books.

He said: “I will consider it a greatest gift. It means a lot to me,” was all he said.

I haven’t seen Reverend Warren since, but I follow his work intently. His gain is my gain and his loss is my loss. I had met his late son Michael at the guard gate several times and I was shattered when I heard the news of his passing. He was my friend.

And I say to you Dr. Warren and Mrs. Kay Warren: Africa loves you.

And we are eternally indebted for your unmitigated love, for your unflagging spirit,

and for your unrequited benevolence. Yes, the Griot in me will mention your love everywhere I go. God Bless.

Meeting President Nixon – 1979

I have something else about America, this land of communists!

The United States, the newest and brightest nation, after breaking the rigid class bonds inherited from Europe, had set out on a fiercely ambitious democratic agenda, coupled with robust economic growth. The benchmark set by America pushed also the rest of the world into a new trajectory of competition. I met, by complete serendipity, the president of the United States who was one of the architects of the American foreign policy.

This incident happened in 1979.

Two years after the San Jose Police incident, I had straightened out my act and was doing great. I was now looking for a new adventure and a new town to explore. And in 1979, after having flown from San Francisco for an eleven o’clock job interview in San Clemente (Southern California), I was hungry like hell and stopped for a meal at the nearest McDonalds before the interview. I still had an hour to spare. There was a line at the restaurant, with two people ahead of me, three behind. I despised the two who were ahead of me, since my stomach was growling like a trumpet.

It was loud enough that the guy behind me could hear it. I turned around with a foolish smirk trying to tell him that my stomach was a stupid stomach. The guy smiled back at me knowing that he understood my dilemma. Then, it struck me like a thunder. The guy wasn’t an ordinary guy. The guy was the former president of the United States, Richard Nixon! The two guys behind him were the Secret Service Agents who were assigned to the former president’s protection.

I knew him instantly from all the pictures I had seen of him. I panicked. This was a typical response when an African meets authority figures. I didn’t know what to do. Suddenly I had this urge to pee. I started calling God in my native language.

“Tossento, Tossento, Tossento!” I said silently.

Then I mustered the courage to speak. “Mr. President, please go ahead of me,” I said trembling. He knew instantly I wasn’t American; I can tell. He smiled that famous Nixon smile, seemingly directed to all humanity.

He wasn’t condescending at all. In fact, he was respectful.

“It’s okay young man; I have time,” he said curtly.

“No, Mr. President. It’s not right for me to be ahead of you,” I argued.

From the back, the Secret Service Agent didn’t like the fact I was being persistent. His contorted face spoke to me to back off. The President wants to remain incognito and I was making a spectacle. I got the message.

Oh, how I wish to tell them that I was from Africa, though!

I mean my story.

Here was the former President of the United States, going about his business just as an ordinary man, unencumbered, casual, and nonplused.

Only in America! What a great communist country!

Where else can you find in this planet where a leader, former or current, deemed himself equal with the common man? That day, after having my breakfast, completely mesmerized by the event that took place, I cancelled going for my interview. Forget the job! For a Griot this was just a big job, too much to fathom and too much to digest.

I am going to tell my people someday about the communist president of the United States.

“America typifies capitalism. How could their leader be a communist?” they will ask.

Would they believe my story? He looked content for a man who had gone through the grueling process of the Watergate scandal. He was, without doubt, the president of the United States.

And yet, he was the epitome of any regular man on an American street, nothing more, nothing less. Actually, the behavior of retired American presidents reveals their immortality even more.

Theodore Roosevelt, who won the Nobel Prize for negotiating the end of Russo-Japanese War went on an expletory mission to South America to see the beginning and the end of the River of Doubt, later renamed Rio Roosevelt River.

Accompanied by a famous Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon, Roosevelt, entranced by the idea of adventure and challenge went into this interminable expedition along with his son, Kermit. From the beginning the expedition was fraught with myriad problems. They faced diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, fatigue, fever, nausea and vomiting in the Amazon. To add insults to injuries, attacks from the natives made their journey impossible. As if all that weren’t enough, internal bickering among the crew members, resulting in one crew member killed by another made the president’s dream a nightmare. Before the expedition was over two more followers would die.  And still, the president was holding onto a doomed dream.

His son Kermit begged his father to abort the plan and go back home. Almost everyone knew that they would be dead before finding any thing tangible. The stubborn president would not relent. He was as adamant and persistent as the day when this idea was conceived. His son questioned his father’s state of mind, but he didn’t see capitulation.

By the time the expedition had reached only a quarter of the journey, Roosevelt himself was near death stricken from a leg wound infection that was spreading. The son begged again. The entire crew pleaded with the president to change course. The president was unflinching.

Even amid this tragedy and the infinite difficulties facing his crew, death hovering all over, anger mounting, Roosevelt insisted on completing his mission.

“It’s not in an American spirit to quit. I am never going to quit!” he announced.

At last, when they accomplished their mission, Roosevelt was almost gaunt, having lost over forty-five pounds and looking terribly emaciated.  A hero’s welcome accosted him in New York harbor when he returned home. Americans were grateful. They saw him as simply another person, but appreciated his determination.

At McDonald’s in San Clemente that day, when by serendipity I met former President Nixon, I had panicked. I thought if under the same circumstance I were standing in front of Idi Amin (Uganda), Mengistu Hailemariam (Ethiopia), Muammar Gaddafi (Libya), Sekou Toure (Guinea), Siad Barre (Somalia), what would be my fate?

I would be shot, that’s what!

I brought this story, because we actually learn something from retired ex-presidents of the United States. Take for example the indefatigable Jimmy Carter, and the indomitable Clinton. And the guy behind me, this former President of the United States, went on to write six

books after that incident: Leaders – 1982, Real Peace – 1984, No More Vietnam – 1985,  1999 – 1990, Seize the Moment – 1992, and Beyond Peace – 1994.

This is what Americans do.

They write books.

They explore.

They never die.

Thank you President Nixon for that brief moment of your presence in my life – you made me see the incredible spirit of Americans. I went back home that day, having acquired a lifetime story for my Griot assignment.

The Fireman

It was 2014, and something had happened here in Southern California, again, something that had grabbed extensive media attention. This time it was a fireman.

A fireman from the City of Arcadia, camping along with his friend in the Los Padres National Forest had disappeared. He was reported lost and couldn’t be traced for days. His name was Michael Phillip Hardman. He was thirty-seven-years old.

You do the math; the Michael that saved the cat was no more than twenty years in 1997.

Could he be that Michael, my hero, who inculcated in me the love of animals, I asked myself. This Michael, the fireman, had been searching for his dog (the dog had disappeared from his side and wasn’t seen for hours), moving frantically everywhere in the thick forest.

I felt a deja vou in this story.

I thought about the Cat in the Freeway incident in 1997. And that clean cut Michael I saw could be the same clean cut Michael today who was lost in the thick forest. I didn’t know his last name, nor did I know where he lived when I briefly talked to him that day.

I am normally very parsimonious in asking God for help, but in this case I bugged him. Lunch, dinner, and breakfast, I asked God to protect the fireman from danger, regardless of who he was. I didn’t care whether God was busy or not, but I called. Almost a week later, my hope was dwindling and I was getting desperate.  I don’t know why, but I believed this lost Michael was truly my freeway hero of the 1997 Michael.

“God, should I go to the mountains and look for him?” I beseeched God.

No answer.

God sends signs if you can read them, but no voice answer. Still, I persisted. He probably had concluded I nagged too much.

Two weeks later, however, the body of Michael was found in the Ventura Wilderness and I was really heartbroken. I felt I knew Michael although this dead Michael could be a completely different person than the person I was imagining.

On July 9, 2014, a day when the memorial service for Michael was held at the Arcadia Performing Arts Center, I was again in the back pew (having driven for almost two hours), tears in my eyes cascading again. This time, I was seventy years old, a little older, and the tears came niggardly, but enough to draw curiosity.

There were nearly 600 people in attendance and I counted about twelve black people. I was also, without doubt, the oldest person in the crowd and everyone looked at me as if I had come from a different planet. But they all seemed to appreciate my presence.

White people like older black people; I don’t know why.

Now looking at Michael’s seven year old daughter became excruciating painful to me. After the service, I went ahead and hugged Michael’s wife and whispered in her ears that I am an African storyteller, grieving for her husband. She probably had thought that I was a crazy old black man from the hood.

On my way back, Michael’s amazing courage to save that cat in 1997 from her demise reverberated in my mind once again. He was a hero. I don’t need to go to the battlefront seeking for heroes. America creates them in abundance in her backyard.

Just look.

Look.

And that’s America for you.

And the Americans!

the heart of the americans

 

The Son Jose Cop

I am going backward and forward with time, so bear with me.

This was in San Jose, a drab town south of San Francisco which was completely unknown at the time. No baseball team. No ice hockey team. No soccer team. Nothing.

How can a black man live without them?

The San Jose Mercury was the only glaring thing at the time with great promises for the Pulitzer Prize. The internet technology that galvanized the city later and took over the region by storm (Palo Alto, Los Altos, Santa Clara and more) was alien then. I had never heard of Steve Jobs at the time.  Who was he?

The city was an absolute  drab and lacked a flair that big cities like San Francisco and Chicago possessed. I had just moved to the area from Toronto (having seen all the great cities in Europe), married to an American and lost her (divorce) after moving to this godforsaken land called San Jose.

I don’t think the city had its welcoming mat pulled out for me.

Meanwhile, I had to deal with that devastating divorce.

It happened only a year after we moved to San Jose  and had a crushing effect on me that shattered my serenity. There was a cute baby involved. I had grown attached to my little girl.  She was a beautiful girl you had ever seen in your life. She was adorable. She was even more prettier than Hale Barry. She looked exactly the Queen of Sheba! I could envision Solomon at her feet, clamoring to serve her for the rest of his life (and even divorce all his other wives all for her). That was my daughter!

My daughter was my angel.

But then, the divorce, this savage split that was totally unexpected, took us by surprise. I don’t think my ex had planned it. And certainly, I was busy getting drunk and never saw this coming. Drunks have a poor eye sight; I believe that now.

I got drunk mostly to get away from the confusing culture, but the drinking was causing a lot of agony and friction in my personal life. I was overwhelmed by the immense weight of the American culture. The alcohol, however, was revealing the normally concealed behavior I thought I had under control.  When drunk, I seemed a bit belligerent, showing readiness to fight at minor things. And then I was told I got blasphemous. I had picked up these American words, Goddamn and the F word, and used them literally on every Tom and Dick I encountered. It made me a cool American, in my eyes.

Then, as if all that weren’t enough, even my friends said, when drunk I flirted with women in front of my wife. I think the alcohol may have disguised her from top to bottom when I was flirting with every woman who wore skirts.

Would you blame her for leaving me?

Now I was truly lost!

The binge drinking ensued. San Jose wasn’t enough for me, so I drove to Mountain View, Cupertino and Oakland, cities nearby, discovering new bars where blacks were welcomed without a scathing frown from the bartender. All along I was in pain. I had loved my wife  very dearly. She was my everything: My dreams, my hope and my joy. Barry White’s song “You are My First, My Last, My Everything” that came at about that time resonated in my ears constantly. I tried to sing like him, but ended up scaring myself.

The alcohol was good.

Oh, my little girl!

I wouldn’t even start telling you what my daughter meant to me. We would be spending the rest of our lives here and even then the story will never end. So here I was in America, badly confused and lost, badly out of shape, and empty. Here, alcohol provided the gates to asylum.

And then came that night when I met the despised police!

It was a normal summer night, and as usual, I was in a bar, at least fifteen miles away from my home, drinking. This was my post separation period and I was in high distress.

At the same time, I kept busy drinking. The bartender was unusually generous that night and was pouring a large portion in my glass, knowing too well that it soothed my burning soul. I had told him a story that in Africa I could drink like a fish and was good at maintaining my balance.

“Oh, what do you guys drink in Africa?” he had asked me.

“Whiskey, beer, wine and everything you drink here,” I answered with a suppressed resentful tone. I was a bit defensive. Obviously, when he said “Oh, what do you guys drink in Africa?” I interpreted it as if he had insulted me. I thought there was a slight whiff of racism in his language. And guess what? He, too, had detected my suppressed resentful response and was now generously rewarding me with enough alcohol. He didn’t mean to insult me at all. It was all in my head. I had the tendency to take things the wrong way.

Then at 2.00 am when the bar was closed I staggered to the door, almost falling twice.

“Watch out Mr. Africa!” the bartender yelled from behind, sarcastically.

“I am Okay,” I said with my African pride intact.

“I can call a cab for you if you want,” he said.

“No, no, no! I am perfectly fine. I can drive.”

Then, after fifteen minutes laborious search in the parking lot I found my car that was all along parked in front of me. Even the damn car was playing a trick on me that night! I now waved my hands up in the air twice and staggered into the car.

I found the keys.

I found the ignition hole.

The wheels were there.

The engine was fine, too.

I had forgotten turning on the headlights when driving the car, however!

And just after about two miles driving left and right, zigzagging to Africa and Berlin, I saw the police light flashing and heard the siren screaming. It was meant for me to stop. I may have driven through the stop signs without even pausing. I didn’t see that my headlights weren’t turned on, either. Now, I wasn’t even mindful to the stoplights coming and I may have passed about six of them without stopping, and the police was still at my tails. I remembered passing through two red lights! There were more that I didn’t remember.

At last, after passing non-stop through twelve stop signs, no headlight and drunk like a skunk, I stopped! The cop was white. I had stopped (now this could tell you the degree of my drunkenness) in a dimly lit area, no pedestrians at all, not even passing motorists.

It was me and the white cop alone!

“What if he were a racist cop?” I asked myself.

Prior to that incidence, there was news of police shooting a black man in the Bay Area (I think Oakland) and that news now intensely reverberated in my head. Suddenly I was paralyzed with fear. Wanting to drive the car to a well lit area, I restarted the engine. I thought it was better to die under the bright light, even when there was no one watching.

The cop was right there and said, “What are you doing?”

I honestly thought the cop was going to shoot me then for my inexcusable infraction, deeming that I didn’t belong on the road. Hell, I didn’t belong in America! My irresponsibility was indefensible even to me. “Fucking African!” I yelled at myself.

At last, like it or not, I was there at the mercy of a would be racist cop, in whose hands lay my fate. I would be killed in a minute. In a flash Good Old Africa appeared before my eyes. I was empty stomach and hunger was gnawing at me at the wrong time. I had no idea why I was devastatingly hungry now, because in a minute or two, I would be dead!

I hated being a black.

The cop was young, big, and muscular. He was about my age, maybe a couple of years younger. He asked for my driver license in a very calm manner.

I waited in trepidation when he examined it.

“Sir, lower your window,” he ordered.

“Okay, Mr. Cop.”

“Do you know that your headlights are not turned on?”

“Sorry sir, sorry, Mr. Cop.” I probably had said sorry Mr. Cop hundred times.

“And you have at least passed twelve stop signs without stopping. Do you know that?”

“Sorry, sir; sorry Mr. Cop.”

“Can you step out of the car for a minute?”

I did, but I couldn’t carry my own weight and fell to the ground. He pulled me up by the arm and sort of tipped my back to lean on my car so I won’t fall again.  My legs were wobbly, especially the right one. At this point he had concluded that there was no need for a sobriety test, because I was completely out of shape. I should have never, ever been behind the wheels that night, period!

Then, I thought I saw his hand moving toward his gun.

“You aren’t from here?” he asked.

“No, Mr. Cop. I am from Africa.”

“Why are you drinking this much?” he asked earnestly.

Then I broke down. I told him what I was going through. I had lost my wife, my daughter, my purpose. I was in the darkest place in my life. I was a stranger lost in a strange country.

I continued to cry like a baby at the old age of thirty-two! It was a pretty pathetic scene with me falling on the ground, totally defeated. There was a killer cop standing above me with his gun secured to his waist, his hand fiddling with it. Then something miraculous happened.

The cop lifted me up and hugged me. He was genuinely sympathetic. His embrace was

brotherly. “Come on Brother, get up” he ordered.

He even called me “Brother!”

I got up.

“You are going through hell at this point and I want to pray for you. Is that Okay?” he asked.

Perplexed, I asked, “why?”

“We are going to pray together. We are going to kneel on the ground right here, and ask God to help you. You need God to intervene in your life,” he said.

And then the both of us knelt on the ground, in the middle of that immense darkness, in absolute tranquility, in this place called San Jose and asked God to help a lost African!

I turned around and saw the cop crying.

I am not kidding; he was crying! You know the tears you and I shed; just like those tears, fluid all over his face was cascading down from his eyes!

Stunned, I didn’t say anything. I was expecting him to kill me, but here was a white man crying for me. Go figure!

“You will park your car here and pick it up tomorrow. I will give you a ride to your home now. I will not give you a ticket, because you already have three drunk driving arrests and more ticket will ruin your chances of getting a job. I am hoping this will be your last,” he said.

I promised him that I will never ever drink again and with that the night ended.

I have never met that cop again in my life, but I had kept my promise. I am sober for over thirty years! I don’t smoke! I don’t gamble! That cop, who I thought was going to kill me was actually my guardian angel. And to sweeten this story (if that cop, the cop whose name I don’t know would read this saga, his story included), not only have I stopped alcohol, but I have written five books!

You hear me Mr. Cop?

Five books!

And that night, I saw the heart of America through the compassion and love of a cop in a most unlikely place and a most unexpected instance. The San Jose cop incident had a much deeper impact on me beyond being the greatest factor for my final separation with alcohol and cigarette. I truly began to appreciate American law enforcement agents even when their presence intimidated me quite often. Yes, there are bad cops, but I think to put all of them in the same box is a mistake. When police vilification gets out of control, we must remember that not all cops are racists, not all are bad.

I can attest to that!

I recorded these manifestation nearly forty years ago. The Story of the Cop in San Jose is paramount to me because it saved my life. It is also a great metaphor to the existence of virtue in American society and in the American law enforcement agencies.

Readers: that cop was an American and this is America for you!

Doesn’t Americans deserve a big thank you?

The Heart of the Americans

In the early 1990s, a young woman named Denise Anette Huber (from Newport Beach, California) was missing and the focus of the media was fervent. Weeks after weeks, the search went on and on, continuously and vigorously. In the process I got into it (as a Griot) and felt deeply about the missing young woman, although I had never met her in my life. I wondered what her parents had to go through when search results turned empty-handed. Dennis body was found two years later in Arizona, the body stashed in a refrigerator, unclad.

I asked myself what kind of monster would do something like this.

I also asked myself what kind of person Dennis might have been. I wanted to know these

stories because when I returned to Africa someday, the Griot in me would be impeccably competent and prepared in narrating her story to people in a faraway land.

With regards to Denise, people who knew her said she was a deeply humanitarian person who cared sincerely for the wellbeing of others. In an effort to know more, I began my own Colombo style investigation. I didn’t want to go overboard for obvious reasons ( I will probably end up being the prime suspect if I dug too deep), but I got a few tidbits that meant something to the Griot in me. Dennis Huber was interested in a law enforcement career. And that knowledge triggered the San Jose cop incident and gave me a clue as to what kind of people choose to work as cops. The love and compassion rendered to me by that San Jose cop was still fresh in my memory then. In 1994, when her memorial service was held at the Mariner’s Church in Newport Beach, I was in the back seat, under a dim light, tears cascading on my face like a rainfall.  I felt she was an incarnation of the San Jose cop. Even though, deep down I knew Denise might have not even considered being a cop, I still thought she was that cop from San Jose.

I was devastated. When leaving I hugged the parents at the entrance and told them I was an African Griot. There were six black people, men and women, and I hugged all six of them, because their presence there meant a lot more to the parents than anything else.

I was fifty then and my thought process was a lot deeper. Black presence in a pre-dominantly white people’s functions seemed to me an indication of something favorable to come. This fantasy of mine may be a thousand years away, but the mini version of that final nirvana was prevalent in the Mariner’s Church that day. The races were all one!

Now going to Denise Huber memorial, it actually became a beginning for me for more memorial attendance to many others. I attended the memorial service of Amy Bihel, the young woman killed in South Africa by young African thugs who went out on a killing rampage of white people during the Apartheid period. Amy had nothing to do with the Apartheid system; if any she would have stopped it herself if she could.

Ladies and gentlemen: These are the Americans – the Amy Bihuels and the Dennis Hubers who made me see the world differently.

And they deserve my gratitude.

The Heroes

Americans are loud; pretty loud!

And their loudness came to me through their grief when the Shuttle Discovery went aflame and the whole country was devastated. I was in San Francisco when that happened. And it was like a dream in hell. I was driving. The man in the radio was screaming. He was loud. He was saying, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”

I had to pull to the side and digest what I had heard. Then, I screamed loudly than I had ever screamed. The humanity in me came out blasting. In that flight America represented to me the dream of all humanity and that dream was mine!

I was part of that dream.

Yes, Americans deserve my gratitude! It was a day when I accepted the notion of being an American. I am an American!

 

The Freeway Cat

As a Griot I see things from a different perspective.

The year was 1997, almost twenty years after my miraculous encounter with that cop in San Jose. I had moved out of San Jose, lived in San Francisco for nearly sixteen years and moved once again to Orange County, settling in a rather quite and unassuming town called Tustin, bordered by Anaheim, Irvine and Costa Mesa. I had passion for writing my story and nothing seemed to work to get me going in all the previous places. I thought a small town like Tustin would provide the right ambience I sought for motivation.

And it did.

For a living, I declined all jobs that paid well. They all demanded undivided loyalties and meticulous attentions. I didn’t have that to offer. Instead, I took menial jobs, being the drudge man, taking tedious and unpleasant duties just to pay the bills. In the early 1980s, I owned a

café on Market Street in downtown San Francisco, but the job was too demanding. I didn’t want to be tied to a job (I put my Griot job on the line) and finally sold the café.

At last, I took a job as security guard, just to pay the bills. The only problem is, it paid little. A poor mother and a mélange of destitute relatives back in Africa who depended on me for their living were bugging me to death, clamoring for me to do more. Unfortunately, the good jobs that paid well were inundated with office politics that are toxic and harmful for a writer. To write, I desperately needed my serenity and to stay away from office squabbles and politics. I wasn’t willing to pay that price, but the poor relatives in Africa suffered. They said, forget about your idiotic Griot tales.

“SEND MONEY! WE HAVE TO EAT!”

Then, in 1997 I took a job as a Security Field Manager (that paid a little more), mostly checking up on security guards who weren’t doing their jobs properly or those who were sleeping on duty. I also monitored their punctuality while reporting to work, reprimanded those who didn’t put on their proper uniforms and advised some of those who came to work with a lackadaisical attitude. I was now sending more money to Africa.

My mother was happy.

T          My  relatives also wrote to me to keep this present job. “Do you know that the guys who left the country after you had now bought huge houses, businesses for their relatives, everything!” they added in their letters.

They were laying a guilt trip on me, and it worked.

I was all into my work now, came home at the end of the day, exhausted, and watched the rerun of Gilligan Islands and life was great! I was being a couch potato. I was hooked to Cheers. I was getting into the American way of life.

Then, something stupendous happened that changed my life once again as a Griot.

It was another spectacular day in Southern California, with 80 degree Fahrenheit, and the blue sky above was as clear as the ocean. I was driving south on Freeway 55, going to where my company had an account in Dana Point, a small beach community near Laguna Beach. There was a report that the security guard at the sight wore no uniform. In fact, he put on a baseball cap with a caption that read “Kiss My Ass”, and belittled everyone.

My employers had told me that if he were found without a proper uniform, I should send him home (a euphemism to firing him) immediately on the spot and assume the job until a replacement was found for me. They said I should be there before the start of his shift at 3.00 pm.

I knew the guy, a Mike Tyson look-alike, who acted pugnacious every time he opened his mouth. The truth of the matter is that the guy actually wasn’t only an Iron Mike look-alike, he was literally built and was endowed just like Mike in every sense of the word. He even had that Mike Tyson squeaky voice.

Except this guy was white!

I had never seen a black Mike Tyson look-alike, let alone a white one. Mike Tyson is inimitable even by God. Mike Tyson has a matchless bone structure and a unique body mass that cannot be copied. He was invented by God as an early prototype for a future species in a different planet. This white guy was scary and he was explosive just like Tyson, ready to burst into indefinable rage even without provocation. He was scary.

I can tell you one thing: He didn’t like blacks, period!

I panicked each time I met him. I could see my demise when I tell him to go home that day. Imagine a guy with an attitude problem, who called every female client “Hey Mama!” and every male client “Hey Dude!”, including the CEO of the company. He also had no respect for

me at all. He hated authority figures, and the fact that I was a black supervisor didn’t help. On three of my prior visits to this site, I was accosted by this same guy with cursory nod and contemptuous look, making me nervous about being there. Of these three visits, I had verbally reprimanded him once and wrote him up for his poor judgment and lack of professionalism twice. I was trembling when I did that. This would be his last write-up if he was found not following the work orders and site policies as defined in our Post Book.

Unfortunately on that day a huge problem arose on my way to the site.

At 2:30 pm, I was stuck in the freeway, before the intersection of 55 South and 405 South, heading toward San Diego. The traffic jam was atrocious. At 2:45 I was getting pretty nervous, and the traffic still wasn’t moving. It wasn’t only the south side that was jammed; it seemed the north side was equally crammed with vehicles going nowhere.

3:00 pm!

Nothing.

3:15 pm!

Nothing.

Remember, these were the days before the sleek cell phones were ubiquitous. My walkie-talkie radio frequency was unable to connect me with my office, either. Now, I was fidgeting and cursing, not knowing what to do. There were hundreds of people out of their vehicles watching the scene intensely. Something was going on for sure; I simply couldn’t tell what it was from my distance. I could hear, however, about twenty feet away cheers, clapping and loud applaud. The crowd ahead of me was distracted by the incident and didn’t mind to stay there for what seemed infinity.

I, on the other hand, had an assignment to send Iron Mike back to his home and if I didn’t follow the instruction, my job was on the line. Imagine my nervousness at this stage. I could see the sad face of my mother if money to be forwarded to her would be any less. And the confrontation with Iron Mike wouldn’t end peacefully either; I can guarantee you that!

Then, like everyone else, I got out of my car and went a little to the front where the main action was going on to witness the incident. I was expecting some kind of fist fight, a result of road rage, between two combatants. Why the police wasn’t summoned so far was beyond me. Although the cell phone was not everywhere at the time, there were still some privileged people who possessed it and wondered why they didn’t call.

Alas, I was in for a big surprise.

As I looked, with my neck stretched, I saw a young man whose car was parked about twenty feet ahead of every vehicle, and there was a cat in the middle of the freeway, completely paralyzed from fear, not moving. She must be a lost cat, now at the risk of being crushed in the freeway by speeding vehicles, not only by one, but by hundreds!

Except the young man who was adamant to save her wouldn’t allow it.

He was adamant, alright, you could tell that from a distance.

Only in America, I said to myself.

In Africa, where I came from, that man will be shot along with the damn cat for his foolish conduct! I kept watching. The cat didn’t trust the man who was trying to save her. She wanted to flee. Every step he took forward to grab her, she ran away from him. When he stopped following her, she would stop moving. When he retreated, she moved toward him. When he was too aggressive, she resisted him.

After about five minutes, it was obvious he had gained some ground on her. You can tell she was half way trusting him. For every gain however, the onlookers applauded and cheered. This was equivalent to Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. Armstrong’s courage was a test of

humanity; so was the young man who stopped thousands of vehicles just to save the life of a frightened and lost cat!

What more courage do you want more than that from Americans?

At last, the cat came to him, falling in his arms as if she belonged there. The freeway applaud could be heard miles down in San Diego. In a planet of cats, the cheer was even louder. The guy entered his car with a newly acquired pet and drove away with a smile. I followed him. He was headed toward the Newport Beach, only about five miles further south. I wanted to meet this incredible animal lover and see his soul. As a Griot, this was the type of a story I sought desperately.

Now, as far as firing Iron Mike was concerned: Forget it!

He probably would have crushed my bones anyway.

I caught up with the Cat Man (who couldn’t be more than twenty or something), as soon as he exited the freeway. I waved. He lowered his window to talk to me.

“Hey, that’s amazing!” I yelled.

“Thanks.”

“No, thank you, thank you. Thank you!”

“Not a problem, I love animals.”

“Do you live in Costa Mesa?” I asked, sill in my car.

“No, I’m actually not from here,” he said.

“I’m Daniel.”

“I’m Michael.”

“Hey thanks again Michael. Good luck!” I said, and drove away.

That brief encounter with this young man meant a world to me. I felt as if I was meeting Moses. It was that deep. That day (I didn’t even go to work), I went to a nearest pet adoption agency and donated fifty dollars. The next day, when I reported to work, I was told that I had been sacked of my job title for not calling or not firing Iron Mike. Another Field Manager was sent to the post and got rid of the officer after finding that Iron Mike actually had on a different T-shirt that read “FUCK YOU!”

“It’s amazing what you find in America. Here is a man risking his own life in the middle

of a freeway just to save a lost cat from getting hit. And then there is a man who is trying his hardest to pass for a black man and challenge the system. What country am I in?” I asked myself eternally amazed.

Finally, I was back to my regular security job and resumed my writing.

This incident with the Man and the Cat in the freeway had a pivotal role in my life. I learned to love animals deeply. America to me is a huge university with countless branch of wisdoms to be attained everywhere, not merely in campuses and traditional research and learning institutions.

America is a university on her own!

Americans are awesome!

They came to Ethiopia in 1962

Dazzled by the American Peace Corps presence and intrigued by their thinking, I, along with my friends followed them wherever they went.

To Mars? Sure, why not!

We saw them in the marketplaces when they were mingling with the locals, engaging in petty bargaining over a small price for a live chicken. They were having a blast.

“What is the price of this vegetable?” they ask.

“Two pennies!”

Then, after finding the real price for the item (a penny), while enjoying the excitement in bargaining, they would leave the scene with a dollar left for the merchant without any purchase. A dollar at that time was ten times what the merchant could have made in a day, given to him by the time-conscious Americans.  We went wild witnessing this incident.

That side of the Americans’ magnanimity was seen as insanity.

The merchants were bedazzled.

They would scream, “Come again, Ferenji! Come again!”

Later, they would talk about them over their coffee gatherings.

“Let me ask you something,” one would ask.

“Ask.”

“If an American came and asked your daughter for marriage, would you bless the marriage?”

“No!”

“Why? These Americans seem kind, gentle and generous. Don’t you want to see that character in a son-in-law or daughter-in-law?”

“No, that’s not what I am thinking.”

“What are you thinking?”

“You see how big and how loud they are?”

“Yes, they are loud,” confirmed the second one.

“What if they are just as loud and as big in the bedroom? I don’t want to hear my daughter screaming while I am at her house for a visit. Oh, God!” he would say, as if he heard a loud groan.

For the Americans, the scrutiny was inescapable. Trying to be part of the community and part of the people, they made themselves available, on every corner. One famous Peace Corps member in particular who quickly learned how to play a masinko (popular Ethiopian musical instrument), and was fluent in the language, became the star on Ethiopian television. For us, he was larger than Elvis or Frank Sinatra. He sang like a native with an impressive style and energy, attired in Ethiopian costume, giving the people of Addis Ababa a sense of appreciation for their culture and music. Some of us even wanted him to lead the country! Many men were willing to give their daughters to this man, despite the loud noise that could emanate from his bedroom.

One American, I remember, trying to be like the natives who crossed a river infested by crocodiles, ended up in the bellies of two crocodiles. This was hearsay by the way, hearsay emanating from the stupendous nature of the Americans. It was equivalent to seeing a small antelope and claiming that it was a lion. The Americans created those fantasies in our brains.

A native woman who had heard of this horrific incident, as was told later, said, “I bet you that American has exited through the other end of the crocodiles.” When asked how, she responded, “Because the American is strong!” So, the make-believe stories about the Peace Corps volunteers mushroomed all over the country.

There was another Griot tarik (story) I had heard, which I will never forget. It was told that a female Peace Corps volunteer returning to the capital city after a three months stint in the rural area (drinking mud water and eating raw meat), found a nice looking Ethiopian guy on the street of Addis Ababa. She was dazzled and took him to a nearby hotel and made love to him.

In broad daylight!

She didn’t even wait for the night to cover her room. She didn’t ask the sun to go away. She didn’t even close the windows. She didn’t enter between the sheets. It was all on top of the bed, they said! All exposed! And the sun was watching. And the world was watching. And the king f Ethiopia was still on his throne, watching!

In our custom, sex was performed in the dark. The body remained hidden. Carnal pleasure was deemed as vile, something gross and ungodly. But this female American went into her room and took off all her clothes and exposed her entire body to that lucky man in broad daylight!

Then, it was told again, she sat on top of his body and made love to him. When the guy came out from the hotel, it was reported, he was weak and shaky. His buddies congregated around and started the interrogation. They thought she had beaten him up.

They said, “What happened? Did she beat you up?”

He confessed to them, that she sat on top of him and rode him like a horse, completely dominating him. He said, she smothered him with passion. She had him in all kinds of positions he had never experienced before. In the end, he told his friends, it was an explosive experience and the best sex of his life.

“Oh, America! She’s even number one in sex,” we said in unison.

There were also nobler acts by the Americans. Their incredible thirst for adventure was the talk of the town. The mosaic of Ethiopian life and its diversity gave these young people what they sought in Africa. Perils were ignored as the young men and women who, undeterred by attacks from hostile tribes, or being mauled by savage lions, crisscrossed the country to explore. Spirited and courageous, they vowed to penetrate the impenetrable. Sharing their world, while at the same time learning a bit of our African culture undeterred by the grim realities of our life, became their motto.

Goethe once said, “With sufficient learning a scholar forgets national hatred, stands above nations, and feels the well-being or troubles of a neighboring people as if they happened to his own.” President Kennedy’s troops in Africa were showing no religious borderlines, no color lines, no racial lines, no class lines in doing their jobs, as they brought hope and aspiration to Africa; but above all, they brought a piece of America with them to our continent!

Equipped with courage to accept the burdens and responsibilities of leadership, not only of America, but the world over, the Americans came to Africa with a message of hope. And in Ethiopia the name Kennedy was on the lips of every man, in every household, as America became synonymous with charm, joy and comfort.

More than anything else, however, we couldn’t anymore label the Americans with any color. The white Americans didn’t look real white to us, even though they were white.

There was something mysterious about their nature. Unlike other whites, who happened to be obnoxious and lordly, the Americans were easy, comfortable and laid back.

This was the age of innocence.

It was a crucial time when our perception of white changed completely. First, the behavior of some whites like Father who courted a selfless life of virtue, kindness and compassion in our continent, shifted our beliefs about the white race. Then, to top it all, Kennedy’s troops, the Peace Corps, demonstrated the degree of the human race’s union and its capacity for love.

The arrival of the Peace Corps in Africa and beyond stirred a curious aspiration about the world beyond ours. Thanks to their influence, we all wanted to see their country and devour their big burgers! Sure, I, too, wanted to meet John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the rest of the Hollywood gang. I wanted to go to America and be an American! But above all, I wanted to shake the hand of John F. Kennedy. I had no idea why I loved that man, but I wanted to come to America and tell him how much his leadership meant to me and to the rest of the world. Yes, and ten million yeses, the Peace Corps idea is a stupendous idea that should be celebrated and cherished.

Thank you Peace Corps!

And thank you to many-many American Peace Corps volunteers!