“Hey my man. Look at all the government officials. They are looking for trouble.”
“Where?” I asked.
“That man.” He pointed. “With the long sleeved shirt. And him.” Pointing again. “They are all assholes. They look for immigrants and especially for bikes with no licenses – look at how all the bikes are turning around.” Again, the man points, this time down the road, where I see motorbike taxis reach a certain point, look ahead, do a U-turn and speed away in the opposite direction. “If bikes are caught without a license then they must pay or go to jail. They have to pay TS400,000 [R2500 or $220) or it is 8 months in jail.”
“And what do the government officials do with that money?” I smiled, mimicking the act of putting money in my back pocket.
“Yes!” The man laughed. “5 out of 5, my friend. My name is Matty. You? Where are you from?”
Matty was perhaps a couple of years older than me, with a somewhat indistinct English twang apparent in his fast-paced discourse; once he’d learned of my background, he happily rattled off some Afrikaans words while commenting wistfully on my use of South African slang. He was noticeably thin and lanky, though he was not much taller than me, wearing a chequered shirt over a dirty white vest, with old dark, loose pants and torn, tattered shoes. His black, mattered, curly hair hung delicately over lightly-coloured skin, offset by big bright eyes, and an equally bright smile. To me, he did not seem to be a man of absolute desperate poverty, though he was clearly not a man of wealth either. Perhaps his laugh, effortless, infectious and continuous, dispelled common perceptions of those on either end of that particular spectrum.
I was still in Dar es Salaam, almost a full day after the robbery, now travelling solo and happier for it. I had been taking a walk towards the seaside at dusk when Matty approached me; he asked to join me on my walk. I welcomed him.
I don’t think I was quite prepared for our conversation that followed. After he’d bought me a small bag of peanuts from a street vendor, on his insistence, we strolled together down the wide, busy roads of Dar, an unlikely pair if there was any, and he told me his story.
“My family were killed in Ethiopia when I was 14,” Matty started slowly, though he was clearly happy to have someone to talk to, or so it seemed. “My father was one of the most prominent coffee farmers in the area, but we were a Christian family from a Christian area. Then the Somali’s came – they demanded that my father convert to Islam. He refused. Then he paid the worst price. They kept him alive, but then they shot and killed my mother and three sisters. His legs were cut off at the knee. They kept him alive so he could see what the consequences of his decision were. He is now in a refugee camp in Kenya.”
The conversation had taken quite an abrupt turn since our happy meeting. My knees were already weak, shaking slightly, but I listened carefully, fully aware that I’d probably misread Matty on first impression.
“I was lucky, I suppose. I survived because I pretended I was dead. I didn’t want to be taken by them, because they were known for taking young boys and making them kill people. They cut off two fingers on my right hand – one slightly shorter than the other – it is the mark of the Somali traitor,” Matty showed me his hand, confirming the mark. “They then shot me four times,” lifting his shirt and once again providing proof, “and do you know what they did next? They hit me with the butt of the gun, in the face and the teeth, to make sure I was dead. I was in so much pain but I had to be limp. Then I heard them start to shout – I opened my eyes a little bit and there was a UN van coming towards us, the blue vans with UN in white printed on the side. I fainted then, and woke up some time later with lots of tubes in my face and neck. They had already buried the bodies of my family – they didn’t want to keep the bodies around.”
I stayed silent, unable to look directly at him as he spoke, scuffing my shoes on the dirty pavement as we walked.
“They took care of me, and afterwards I managed to go to England. I was in Liverpool, trying to find work and doing odd jobs. But then, in 2011, I think, David Cameron came in and we were all sent back to where we came from. I went to South Africa, near Joburg. I loved it there. But the Home Affairs demanded that we pay them $150 dollars a month, and at first I paid them but then I stopped because I wouldn’t have any money left. So then, one Sunday, they came and arrested me and the guys I was living with, and they chucked us out the country.”
By this point, we had reached the seaside, and stood overlooking a small beach near a thriving fish market.
“An Arab man helped me across the Zambian border, and then I came in a truck to Dar. It is hard here. I don’t fit in. They all call me Somali because of how I look, and it is so offensive to me because of what the Somali’s did to my family. I want to go back home, back to Ethiopia or even Kenya, but I don’t have the papers. Everyone here knows I am a refugee, they know I am an immigrant. I worked at an Indian restaurant in town for three days, peeling potatoes, but they fired me when I couldn’t produce papers. Now everyone knows. I want to get out.”
Matty looked out over the sea, the last of the sun’s rays exposing his sad, downcast eyes.
“Sometimes, I just wish that I could have joined my family.”
We walked through the fish market, trying delicious pieces of swordfish and eel, though the experience was overshadowed by what I had heard. Once his story was over, he was back to his bright, seemingly happy self, laughing at everything in that infectious way of his. After the fish market, he showed me a voodoo house, which I could not believe actually existed, the prime minister’s house, including his personal zoo with lions, monkeys, and brilliantly colourful peacocks in the backyard, and various embassies.
He was an expert at knowing all the various types of people that we passed and where they came from: “That’s a group of Italians, definitely. They come on transport ships for one night and drink. CIAO!!” He gleefully shouted at them as we passed. “CIAO!” They slurred back, already bleary-eyed.
As we wandered back towards the part of town where my hostel was, I realised that my mind was still numb from Matty’s story. Just then, he showed me where he stayed every night, behind the alleyway of a shop, by the overflowing dumpsters. Despite my initial impressions, Matty was a man of absolute, desperate poverty: homeless, unemployed, and alone.
It was an unfortunate self-conscious reaction on my behalf, but on this trip I had developed the characteristic of being very slow to trust. There were times where I felt that everyone was out to get me, especially now that the robbery was still so fresh. Those quick to help would do so expecting cash in return, even if you did not even ask for their help in the first place. They are experts at making you feel obliged.
Despite this, I offered to buy Matty dinner at a small restaurant where I planned to eat. He looked at me, sad-eyed once more.
“My friend, I want to ask you a favour,” he said, without responding to my offer of dinner. “I have told you that I do not fit in here. I need to get out, but I cannot afford it. I am hoping you can help me. I need to get to Kenya. I hope my father is still alive, in a refugee camp, and I want to visit him there.”
I was torn, ripped into pieces. I knew I could not help him to that extent. I would have loved to, absolutely loved to, but it was not possible. Not only from a financial point of view, but I had also promised myself before this trip that I could not get drawn into positions like this: while there are so many people that I wish I could help, who need and deserve it, it is just not my place to do so. Many people had told me their stories, and asked for help, and many more would do the same for the rest of my trip. I would get torn and ripped apart by stories like this continuously. I felt powerless. I was distraught that this trip had given me such bad trust issues.
With a heavy heart, I gently refused his request, and painfully offered to buy him dinner once more.
He smiled sadly at me. “You have a good heart my friend. It was good to meet you.” With that, he walked off into the night, leaving me to a table for one. I sat, wandering how much that small bag of peanuts had cost him, hating myself.