I Nearly Died in Africa

In Africa, my wife’s body rebelled against her, and against the heat. She was in constant physical distress: always in heat exhaustion, and often close to heat stroke. This caused us a lot of stress. One thing I particularly worried about was, “what if we have an accident, and the car is stuck immobile for hours?” She could not survive without AC, and I could imagine her dying in front of our children, with an angry mob outside.

One day, my fears seemed to be realized. I was turning in to our compound. To do so, I needed to turn through oncoming traffic. Traffic was not the same there as it is here. Motorcycles wizzed by at incredible speeds, cars drove by not much slower, bicycles passed, camels plodded along, pedestrians wandered about, and cows chewed cud and garbage watching the whole thing.

On this very corner, a missionary had been involved in a fatal accident a few years ago: by my accident was not fatal, because God delivered me from that.

As I was turning left, a reckless motorcycle passed on the left. I had to hesitate in my turn for just an instant as his zoomed by, which closed the small window I had between fast cars and slow pedestrians. Another motorbike came hurtling towards me, on a collision path. Trying to get out of his way, I lurched forward into my turn: he chose the same direction, and clipped the front of my car, cartwheeling over the hood and into the ditch.

This was it. What could I do? I knew I needed to keep my wife and family safe above all.

“Take the car home, I’ll deal with this.” I told her. We were at the corner of our compound. I took water for myself, and let my wife drive off.

The man was angry. Very angry. Also, I knew, full of adrenaline from the fall. He had been driving in sandals, shorts, and a t-shirt, with no helmet. He had skinned his toes, parts of his elbows, and a place on his head. He was very angry.

He was pacing back and forth, very angry at me. I did not really know how to assess the situation. I went to the motorbike, and we could see that there was black oil coming out of it. Later I would find that one of the shocks was broken: a minor repair. At the time, we both thought the engine was cracked, and the motorcycle was scrapped.

What I would only find out later was that this man was driving without insurance, on a borrowed motorcycle. If the police became involved, he could lose the bike. Later I went to the police station, and saw behind the building a huge mountain of impounded motorcycles. Apparently, many vehicles had gone this way before. And so I did not know that his anxiety was not only caused by myself: no matter how I handled the situation, he did not want the police involved.

My phone battery was dead, and I did not know the number of the police. Soon, some other missionaries came, since it was a baseball tournament just then. This was God’s deliverance, because if it wasn’t for this, I would have had no help, since my phone was dead and I could not call anyone.

Around this time, I asked a fellow-missionary to go back and get my car. The car was parked just around the corner. I was expecting him to be back in a minute: but it took him a very long time. He did not seem to see the seriousness of the situation, and left me exposed.

None of my friends knew the number of the police, and so I asked the injured man to call: he said he would, and took out his phone. I trusted him. But what I did not know was that I was next to the university, and the university had their own version of the police: a student-lead militia named Kazo.

Soon, the crowd became larger. I was trying not to talk to the injured man, but it was hard because he kept engaging me. He would come and yell that I was a bad driver, and clearly had not passed my driving exam, as he had done. I do not remember all of our interactions, but do remember that I told him that he had been driving too fast. He took offence to this, and said he was a very good driver. He seems to have taken from this that I was blaming him entirely, and perhaps was trying to get out of paying for the accident.

At this time, I took out a sum of money amounting to about $20. I was intending to give it to him, and say, “Whatever happens, just keep this. I am sorry for the accident, and want you to know I will take care of it.” This was a good thought, but I did not know if this would be considered illegal there.

I did not know how to behave in an accident, because I had received no training on the subject. My mission did not protect me: but my God was a shield to me.

I was talking with fellow-missionaries when I heard the man say to his friends, “il se-moque de nous!” (“He mocks us/scorns us”) It was then that I knew things were moving in a very bad direction. I tried to deliver myself through anger. But anger would not be my salvation. I tried to tell them that I respected them, and their country. But it fell on deaf ears. Suddenly, he realized that my car was not there. I told him it was coming back: but I did not tell them why I had moved it, because I did not want them to know where I lived, or anything about my family. And so they did not understand, and began accusing me of breaking the law. Things were going very wrong.

I told them that I would wait for the police, and if I needed to go to jail, I would. They told me that they were the police, but I did not believe them.

I thought at this time a few times of running away. I was very close to our compound, and we had guards. However, if I had ran, I learned later, they likely would have attacked and killed me, and “your blood would have been on your own head,” said the police sergeant.

But I did not run: my God protected me from that possibility.

Then my first deliverer arrived. He was very muscular, and people clearly respected him. He had a baby-blue t-shirt on. He came, and everyone began to fill him in. After apprising the situation, he became visibly angry, and began accusing me. He pointed his finger in my face and began asking me rhetorical questions, all variations of, “Isn’t this a human being? Do you respect our laws?”

I stammered some responses, then said, “I am waiting for the police.” He said that he was the police. I said angrily that he was not the police, and turned my back to him.

They conferred more, and the crowd grew more. I did not know the danger I was in, but the man in blue knew. He came to me at some point and said, “did you call the police?” I said I had not: the injured man had called. “OK,” he said, “you need to come with us.” It was for my protection. I did not know it at the time, but the man meant to protect me. He was actually a Christian, and the president of a local gang, who called themselves “the police.” He needed to keep up appearances to appease the crowd, but he was a deliverer.

I said I would not go with these men. And some of the missionaries with me also said I would not go. “Kim,” a missionary from South Korea, made moves like he was ready to fight: but there were over 50 strong men.

As I tried to resist, five men grabbed me, lifting my legs so that I was powerless. I raised my hands in defeat: “OK, I will go with you.” I could see I had no choice. Maybe they were the police? But as we walked, I yelled at the top of my lungs, “These men are kidnapping me! I am a tourist here! These men are kidnaping me! Help me! I am being kidnapped!” The men with me said nothing. The men on the street said nothing. The men in many cars said and did nothing. No one stood with me to save. My voice and whits were not able to save me.

And yet my God was working, to save me.

We came to the gates of the university, and went in. It was very still: there were no people there. I had just said, “Will no-one save me? Will you do nothing?” Darkly, as we turned the corner, one of the students said, “Bien sur, ils ne font rien…” (“Damn right, they’ll do nothing…”)

I was alone with them now.

I was lead towards a nondescript building. I noticed there was no sign above the door.

“That is not the police station!” I said, “You are not police! I am not going in there!”

My memory blanks out here. I think I fought as hard as humanly possible, but do not remember it. I think I can see a man hanging on to the door-frame with both hands, as men drag him in, but I may be imagining it.

I had a bruise on my arm which mystified me for days, because I could not remember where it came from.

My memories restart in a very small dorm room. Someone had told me to kneel, and so I did. They told me to take off my glasses.

“Are you going to beat me?” I asked them.

“Bien sûr on va vous frapper” (“Damn straight we’re going to beat you.”) came the reply behind me: but he did not speak for everyone.

Kneeling, powerless, trapped, I began to pray, and God began to deliver me.

“God, am I going to die?”

“Your story is not yet over.”

So that was that. I knew I could relax, because I would not die today.

Suddenly remembering something I had heard in a movie, I asked, “May I have my water?” (I had brought along my water-jug). They granted it to me. I drank, then offered it to the man by me. He was off-put, and refused. “You have been working hard in the sun — surely you are thirsty!” I said. The man turned away, and would not take any. But I had made myself a “real human being” with needs, and generosity. It would be harder to harm me now.

Invisible to myself, some missionaries were following me. Kim from South Korea followed, and was ready to fight: but they would not let him enter. Another Tom, from Germany, also came. But he was very calm. He did not try to stop them men: rather, he found a man of peace among them. This man turned out to be the second-in-command of the Police. As they walked, they talked. “Some of these students are trying to make this into a marxist, class struggle sort of situation. But it is not that. It is just a traffic accident. They are blowing things out of proportion…” As they talked, they came to the gate. Tom said, “would you mind if I come in?” “Not at all,” the man answered. They sat for a while in the room outside my own, as people came and went. “Why don’t we just go in there?” Tom asked, “And just get this all dealt with?” “Sure, why not,” came the reply.

Suddenly, Tom came walking in. Soon, we were both sitting on a bed together. People came and went, much was said. I could not say anything, or else everyone would cry and accuse me at the tops of their voices with frightening intensity. But Tom was able to calmly speak on my behalf.

I abandoned my anger, and took on a submissive stance. I would not argue with anyone: I just wanted to appease them, so that I could get out of there.

Then, Sam came in. He was the acting director of our mission at the time: a very experienced missionary. He told me later that he had been detained by this very group, in this very room, a year before. While driving through the University property on his daily commute, he had not respected a Police check-point, and they became furious, brought him here, and threatened him. After paying a small fine, he was let go.

Sam was quickly brought up to speed on the situation. The students were fairly disorganized: with some saying one thing, some saying another.

Then another deliverer entered. He was an older man, wearing the clothes of an imam. He instantly commanded respect from the students around. I was later told that he was a professor at the university. Like all professors, he had the power to expel any student instantly and without any explanation from university. Even if it is the last day of a multi-year degree, such a person could say, “You are done,” and the student would leave with nothing. Some students were very angry, but God had sent me a mighty deliverer.

We stood up then. Tom and Sam on one side and the other. The Imam face to face with me, with the man in baby blue beside him, and students swirling all around. Everyone seemed to be speaking at once, as they tried to fill in the Imam with the worst possible version of the events.

“This man was the cause of the accident.” I did not respond.

“The other man is hurt very severely” I did not respond.

“The motorcycle is damaged a lot.” “Yes, it is,” I replied.

“This man moved his vehicle! He broke the law!”

“Oui. J’ai fait tort.” — It was an expression I had learned not much earlier than this, and it seemed to speak very powerfully to them when I said it. “I did wrong.”

The imam was getting the information that he needed, and the students were sensing a change in the tides. The man in baby blue took out his phone and said, “look at me — I will take your picture.” I tried to look away, but he would not let me. He took my picture. He said, “We will share this picture all over, and ____” I do not remember what he said. But I had the sense that I would not be safe on the streets any more.

Negotiations were made on my behalf. At one point, the imam told a student, “Go out and tell the students out there to calm down. They are really exaggerating out there!” He left. I had a feeling of an angry mob outside.

What I did not know was that it was the mob that was the real danger. On the street, in front of my house, I could have been killed on the spot by the angry mob. I found out much later that the man in baby blue was actually a Christian, and the leader of the Police. When he saw that the police were not on their way, and the mob anger was rising, he had feigned anger to get me to Police headquarters where at least there would be some modicum of justice. This is what he told my guide much later: although he really was mad, and so I cannot know how much of his story was true. But one thing I do know: I was saved from the mob on the street by the Police, and saved from the mob at the university by the imam.

Discussions continued. It was clear that the imam wanted me to settle things legally at the police station, which is what myself and my two advocates also wanted. But the students wouldn’t agree to let me go until I signed something. They wrote something out, and forced me to rewrite it word for word, so it was all in my own handwriting. John read it over with me. There were sections that we did not agree to write. But they were very firm on the wording. I remember that I wrote it, but modified some of the terms slightly. I purposely misspelled some words, because I knew this would invalidate a document, in French court. However, one line that I was not able to avoid was, “This accident was my fault. If I do this again, I know that I must pass through the procede dure — (the hard way).” And I had to sign it.

Noticing the changes I had made, they were not happy: but they accepted it, and agreed to let me go.

That experience of signing something against my will was extremely difficult. I told someone later that this was as close as I had ever come to being raped: I felt like my basic rights were violated.


[I wrote this in my journal after a session of EMDR. This is as far as the EMDR session took us that day. For the rest of the story: from there, I was released to the police station, and final details were worked out over the next couple days. However, I had very serious PTSD symptoms for several days, which became moderately severe for months, and continued in the back ground of my mind until my EMDR session, four years later. As I write this, these memories are not pleasant, but are not as traumatic to discuss as they were before the EMDR session]