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Kenya driver's come a long way

After driving a reporter to the camp, Lucas stays at a guesthouse, under bright stars. When he's helped out on the road next day, he thinks himself lucky — though he still worries about camel meat.

October 19, 2010|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Dadaab, Kenya — "You have served me camel."

"No, no, it's goat."

"It's camel," said Lucas, the driver.

"Goat," said the waiter.

Unconvinced, but with limited dining options, Lucas spooned meat and gristle from a silver bowl onto his rice. He ate quickly. This wasn't his kind of place, this outpost of herders, mechanics, butchers and a few Lutheran missionaries scattered at the fringe of a refugee camp.

He would be here one night, then back to Nairobi. The guesthouse, where he parked his SUV behind a metal gate, seemed safe enough and the manager, a tall man with a short broom in his hands, had a reassuring, timeless face, one you could count on when darkness fell. A room with two beds and mosquito nets was offered. Spiders looked down from the ceiling. The floor was well swept and the pillow was shadowed with the imprint of the last guest.

Lucas showered.

He had driven a journalist eight hours over rough terrain to the refugee camp. There were interviews to be done, lives to be recorded, a story to be told about these Somalis, thousands and thousands of them, who had escaped to Kenya, Lucas' country. There but for the grace of God.... Or maybe it was more a matter of birth, circumstance and geography. Lucas didn't earn a lot of money, but he didn't live in a tent behind barbed wire either. He wasn't pocked with shrapnel scars, he didn't dream about guns and slit throats and the clenched faces of suicide bombers.

Lucas was wise about engines, steering wheels, highways and broken mufflers. Refugees once knew such things too, but much that had passed through their hands was gone, lost bit by bit. Lucas slipped his toothbrush into a plastic bag. He called his family to say he'd be home tomorrow. He pulled off his cap and sat beneath the sky.

The stars over the plains are brighter than the ones above Nairobi. Cities steal the sheen of stars; it is only in the outlands that they glow hard and white and seem to multiply.

The call to prayer echoed from a small mosque. The guesthouse manager and a few travelers rolled out rugs and prayed. Minutes later, a TV was turned on in the courtyard. Men crowded around the last minutes of a soccer match and then a soap opera filled the night, a tense trill of strings suggesting love and betrayal.

The manager and the boarders talked in the way of men with spacious hours to fill. A woman in a veil sat alone on a stoop. By 9 p.m., long after the last of the machete boys had returned home from clearing brush, the guesthouse gate closed and the village quieted.

Lucas slept. Across the road, a boy who had escaped a massacre in Ethiopia lay not far from a Sudanese who had fled genocide in Darfur, and not far from them, thousands of Somalis slumbered — the wreckage of the world gathered and sleeping beneath the same crystal stars. The bleat of a goat, a whistle of wind, the night ticked on and war rattled 60 miles away down a bad road where smugglers guide the desperate along hidden paths.

Lucas sat up in the morning with the growl of a cough. Dust. The refugees awoke to a day that resembled the one before it and the one before that, the same note played again and again on a poorly tuned piano. A lady with silver teeth and a dead husband wept. The guesthouse manager opened the metal gate and Lucas drove toward the arc of the sun. Goat herds moved through thickets and willowy men with sticks waved from the roadside, but they became fewer and fewer and soon the landscape turned bleached and lonely.

Thump. The SUV swerved and stalled in a patch of sand. Tires spun in vain. Lucas got out, not a thatched hut or donkey in sight. A bright day spoiled so soon —when suddenly a Land Rover rumbled out of the bush. A man hopped out and tied a rope to Lucas' vehicle and jumped back in the Land Rover, hitting reverse and freeing Lucas from the sand. The man quickly unfastened the rope, waved and was off in a plume of sand and grit, a gray-brown ghost across the horizon.

Luck, timing, the goodness of strangers in desolate places, sometimes we are smiled upon, sometimes forgotten. Lucas drove home. He felt blessed, but was sure he had been served camel.

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