A friend, my brother, and I had been in a a small African village for four days before heading to Arusha, the big city near Kilimanjaro, which we were going to climb the next day. We met our guide, one of those know-it-all pricks who grew up on its slopes, had been climbing it since he was a young man, was the president of the climbing guide association, brought lawsuits against negligent/shady climbing companies, fought for pay raises for the porters. And he was irritated that we didn’t prepare questions about the flora and fauna of the Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park. He was concerned that we didn’t bring sleeping bags and walking poles, even though our paperwork said those would be provided for us. He tried to insinuate, calmly, that we were stupid and that we would die up there.
We went back to our hotel and all immediately agreed we hated this guy and that we were no longer terribly excited about our climb. My brother went to bed; my friend and I decided to go out for some fresh air and internet. We set off on foot and I immediately regretted it. In dark-as-hell, middle-of-nowhere, Arusha, at only 7 PM, with every single ramshackle shop closed for the evening, and bug-eyed eyeballs tracking us from every shadow, it was impossible not to feel like a target for somebody, for at least the most desperate among them.
As my initial butterflies began morphing into silent screams of “Go back! Run away! We shouldn’t do this!” I heard a loud whistle. I immediately thought that it might be a signal to somebody, some kind of perverted “dinner bell,” communicating to the criminals-at-large the fact that there are white tourists wandering around at night, so come and get ‘em.
I sensed them coming before I should have; they were fast, it was dark, and we were easy prey. I turned to see three guys running at my friend with pangas (local version of a machete) raised above their heads. As I ran away, I saw two guys that had been heading for me give up and change direction—they joined the others and swarmed my friend instead. He didn’t stand a chance.
I didn’t know what else to do. I figured he could still get away. I figured the attackers were just bluffing and all he needed to do was run and he would be OK.
It’s always easy to assume that, to say that, but when you’re actually there, in the moment, staring at some creepy, breathless dude with a blade trained on your face, it makes way more sense to just stand still and let him take what he wants. All that runs through your head is the advice you always hear from people who’ve been through it before:
“Whatever you have on you is not worth your life. Whatever you have on you is replaceable, don’t fight back, don’t be a hero, that’s how people wind up being dead for no good reason.”
And it’s true. It very well could be the case that this guy is just figuring you’ll shit your pants and let him have his way, and he never planned on using the weapon, but it’s equally as likely that he is a deranged lunatic who would just as soon slice your head off as look at you.
I stood about 25 feet away, ignored, watching it all happen. My friend stood in the middle of the crowd, calmly saying “No, no. Come on. No...” as the five assailants picked at his pockets. I knew I couldn’t leave him here, I couldn’t run away, but what could I do to help? What should I do?
I walked back over toward my friend and two machete-wielding assholes quickly converged on me. Just like him, I was strangely calm. I was crossing my fingers they were not the type to actually use those machetes and glad to only have $10 on me, tucked away in a secret zipper pocket of my pants. I raised my hands like a police negotiator walking in to a bank heist.
“Give us your money!”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Give us your money!”
“I don’t have any!”
I watched over their shoulders as my friend tumbled into the street with one of the other attackers. Traffic stopped on the somewhat congested thoroughfare as this guy sat astride my friend in the middle of the street. One of the guys accosting me at the time grew frustrated with my tack, yanked out my right pants pocket, and sliced it out with his panga. Then the guys all ran away.
I figured I might only have one shot at this guy on top of my friend, so I’d better make it count. I ran as fast as I could, into the street, straight at the guy, leapt off the ground, raised a knee, and smashed into his ribs. I knocked him to the ground. His machete went flying.
My friend got to his feet and we were both standing in the middle of the street, cars honking at us. We turned to see a crowd of people running right for us and froze in fear. Luckily, they were not coming to finish the job.
Not 30 seconds after his attacker fell to the pavement, a total stranger was booting him in the face with abandon. Then another went after his ribs. One by one, a mob of people—regular people—ran over and stomped on this guy. He cowered from the blows, reacted to the blows, but did not avoid them. Several of the bystanders ran across the street, grabbed enormous railroad-tie-sized pieces of wood and beat him till they broke.
I scrambled to see what of our possessions we could recover: I found my pen, oddly the most valuable thing I owned at the time, next to my passport, and my friend's White Sox hat, but that was it.
Two guys approached and asked us, in English, if the attackers got our passports. We told him they got my friend's. They checked the beaten guy’s front pocket and amazingly recovered his passport, credit cards, and driver’s license.
And then we realized the mob was planning to beat this guy to death in the street. They were not stopping. It was not a beating to teach him a lesson, it was a beating to teach others a lesson. And so our consciences thrust us into the awkward situation of trying to rescue our attacker. We shouted at the crowd to stop, told them it would do no good to kill him, that it would solve nothing, and tried to shoo them away.
At some point, a security vehicle—think Tanzanian Rent-A-Cop—pulled up. I had seen the same vehicle drive by twice before and not stop, but for some reason it did this time. Perhaps somebody flagged them down and they were bored enough to see what was the matter.
At any rate, they came over and dragged the unconscious, beaten criminal into the back of their pick-up SUV. Turns out one of the guys who spoke to us in English earlier had also been robbed by these guys, not long before us, and he wanted to take this one to the station and press charges, file a claim.
“If you want to talk to the cops, you have to come with us.”
My friend and I looked at each other, unsure.
“Is this cool?” he asked.
I didn’t think it was a great idea, but I also couldn’t think of a better one. At least we were not injured, at least we were not alone, at least we didn’t have to walk the gauntlet back to the hotel.
“Where’s the police station?” my old friend asked the new friend.
He was shouting, impatient, wanting information. I started to get freaked out. As an unstoppable chill cruised up my spine, I suddenly felt a hand on my knee.
I looked down to see the no-longer-unconscious attacker, covered in blood, grabbing at my knee, mumbling something in Swahili. I did not want this guy’s blood on me, because of what may or may not be in it and because this was my only pair of pants—and it already had a fucking pocket sliced out, thanks to his friends.
I booted him in the face.
“Get the fuck off me! Get off me!”
I booted him a few more times before he got the hint. I think he went unconscious again. We rolled into the parking lot of the police station and everybody hopped out.
The Rent-A-Cops dragged the assailant’s body inside. We followed. They deposited him underneath a flip-up counter-top, like you might see at an old coffee shop or library checkout counter. A large police officer immediately walked over, flipped up the counter, and booted the criminal in the face. He then dragged him by the collar and propped him up against the back wall, about twenty feet from where we were standing.
Another police officer passed through the area on the other side of the counter and gave our assailant a boot in the ribs, us a thumbs-up. I did not return the gesture.
Another officer smiled at us as he kicked the guy.
We didn’t know how to respond.
The police station felt like the customer counter at an electronics wholesaler; you know they have a huge warehouse in back, they have everything you could ever want in stock, and plenty more you don’t want, but you are only granted access to a tiny room staffed by four or five guys that come and go as they please, bringing you only what you specifically ask for after perusing their 9,000-page catalog.
This particular warehouse just happened to have jail cells behind it that looked like they belonged in the Count of Monte Cristo. The history in here was sickening to think about.
Along the back wall, our attacker was conscious again. He was moaning at us, loudly, unintelligibly, pleading with us in Swahili. A police officer walking by looked at me.
“They’re always sorry when they get caught.”
He then booted him in the ribs and dragged him into a nearby cell.