Published September 11th, 2015
I am sitting under a Pergola, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on 9/11, just a few minutes' drive from the old American Embassy that was bombed by Al-Qaeda in one of its first attacks on American targets. (See first scene in the movie American Sniper, the event that propelled Chris Kyle to Iraq).
Today, I was at a place called Protea Amani Beach, working to develop a healing retreat for executives in 2016. A most beautiful spot on the Indian Ocean...'Amani' means 'Peace' in Swahili. I feel blessed to have been in a place called Peace today, as that is the only word that seems worth repeating today. Peace, Amani, Peace, Amani, over and over again…
I was actually on the border of Tanzania and Kenya on 11 September 2001, in Namanga, on the road from Arusha to Nairobi. There were five of us, two Tanzanians, two Europeans and myself; we were to spend the night in Namanga and leave early morning for Kenyatta International Airport to pick up my friend and colleague, an American author flying in from her current home in Paris. Our group was to head to author and conservationist, Kuki Gallman's ranch in Laikipia region, to speak with her about traditional medicine research and education.
There is no electricity or running water in Namanga. But, there are generators. We found a bar-restaurant across from our guesthouse and my brother Sululu and his Maasai son were asking about the kind of meat and vegetable available to eat. I noticed the crowd of locals watching the TV, hooked to a car battery for power. It made so much noise. I hated the fact that so many bar-restaurants blasted television so loudly all day. I looked over at what was on the screen. Big words said "America Under Attack" and smoke and fire and crumbling buildings were on the screen. I said to my European colleague "It is really sad when they play these terribly violent videos in these places, I think it gives a bad impression of the West". I started to walk away. Then, something stopped me. I looked at the screen again and saw the CNN icon. My knees weakened as it hit me that this was no video. I quickly sat down and stared at the TV, still inside the box packaging it came in, to protect it from the dust. I was the only American surrounded by East Africans and a few Europeans; all of us transfixed at what played out on the screen. It was evening in Namanga, 10am in the morning on the East Coast of the USA, 11 September 2001.
I didn't sleep that night. I kept seeing planes crash into buildings. I still couldn't believe it was real. There were no phones to call the US, I had to trust the images I saw the night before on the TV screen. It still didn't feel real.
We crossed the border at sunrise. Pink skies over the hills on the Kenya side. I walked into immigration Tanzania and the officer was reading The Nation – a newspaper published in Nairobi. Giant-fonted letters plastered on the front page - "Terror Rocks the US". The nightmare may be true. I passed over my American passport for him to stamp. He says, "Hmmmmm…American…your country has a big problem." Indeed.
All the flights at Kenyatta International were delayed. There was a strange uneasiness in the air, almost half-way around the world from New York and Washington. My friend doesn't arrive. I can understand why, with so many friends and family in NYC. I was so looking forward to hugging another American and to share our emotions. But, of course, it was smart for us all to stay put at that moment. And watch what was to unfold.
I felt strange. What was happening in the world? We decided to go ahead with our plans and drive to Laikipia. Seemed safer to be in the Kenyan bush than anywhere else at the moment.
We spent three days at the ranch. The staff and I listened to BBC news on a small world radio as we watched elephants move slowly in the distance. There was non-stop coverage. I lied on the grass, head next to the radio speaker, watching the blue sky through acacia branches, listening to the Egyptian geese and thinking about the dawn of humanity, and "civilization"; in the Rift Valley, in Egypt, and into Europe, across the Atlantic…I wondered:
"What have we done to get us to this point in the "modern" world?"
I had little appetite. I heard screams in my stomach. Concrete crumbling. I sensed the world had shifted, it would no longer be the same. What felt so strange was not having any idea of where we were now. I tried to explain to my Maasai friends why I felt so sad, so angry, so full of anxiety.
"America is a big and diverse country. It doesn't really have a culture in the same way your tribe does. For decades, the country has created an understanding amongst its people that the important pillars in the foundation of American culture are its economy and its military. What happened on Tuesday was like having a huge amount of all cows (money/source of wealth in Maasai culture) belonging to the Maasai killed and the rest threatened with some disease, and, so many of your warriors killed. AND, you don't see the people who do this. You don't really know where their tribe is based, and WHY they have chosen to do this. It is really hard. And you feel scared."
During our meeting with Kuki she explained:
"I am supposed to be in America in October giving a speech about my work, but now I feel I have to change the topic. I think this next phase is going to be about healing."
We agree, but I wondered still what this will look like…if it is possible.
It was difficult to receive radio communication on our way back to Arusha. The road travels through bush land - impala, introduced camels, and an occasional monkey swinging through the trees. On the outskirts of Arusha town the radio receives a local Swahili-language station. We all listen intently. All the news is about America. The reporter explains about President Bush's ideas for war. Then-Kenyan President Moi's response of hoping Bush considers other options before retaliating with force. Our group discusses: "Where will he attack? This is not a visible target…it is a network of people positioned throughout the world". The reporter then says:
"Unfortunately, now the US knows what it feels like to be attacked. To have innocent people killed." He makes a comparison to the US Embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998. An attack by the same people suspected in the US – bin Laden and Co. He describes how many who died were men and women outside of the Embassy. Women dressed in colorful kangas, selling bananas piled high on their heads. Lucky to make US$4 a week. Their lives taken away for reasons they never will understand. Will any of us?
Everyone was nervous in Arusha. The economy there is dominated by the international tourist industry. Friends describe the loss of business in the last week with no visitors arriving from the US and many cancellations from Europe. What will happen if there is a war? Our interconnections were rawly visible at that moment...as we all waited to see what happened.
I knew that day would change the course of history, for large swaths of the world. What I didn't know was how, how would things change? Would people become more curious about others? other cultures? other types of suffering? From my viewpoint, in East Africa, the attacks on the U.S. on 9/11 was a wake-up call. When I got back to America in November that year for a visit, I realized that very few people shared that viewpoint. My eternally optimistic self hoped that 9/11 would resurrect in my fellow Americans, a sense of curiosity, our compassion. And it did, for some. Especially our brothers and sisters in New York City. But, sadly, I have to tell you, during that return visit, and all visits after, I felt very different senses dominating: fear, being the most prevalent. I honestly never understood the years of war strategy. As if the punishment didn't fit the crime. I still wonder how the world would be if another approach was taken...
America changed dramatically on 9/11 2001. I don't have many more words to say other than I pray we are getting over our collective post-traumatic stress disorder and can finally resurrect our sense of curiosity, compassion. And ultimately, a sense of gratitude. As I lived my week this week in Dar es Salaam, surrounded by the din of generators, 3-4 hour traffic jams, grinding poverty, and deep, deep injustices, sacrifices and human suffering, I am pleading with you, my brothers and sisters in the United States of America: appreciate what we have -- electricity, roads, food, a relatively working legal system -- and, each other. Because, at the end of the day, that is all we have. Yes, we have terrible problems, but they will never be solved from a foundation of fear.
Many blessings to you from under the Pergola at the stunning, tropical, garden cafe of épid'or, Dar es Salaam. The crowd tonight is Tanzanian, Chinese, Lebanese, people dressed in traditional Muslim, African, Western clothes. The energy is amazing. I can feel it, a global society. It can be done people, living in almost-perfect harmony.