He weighed 300 pounds and most of that was heart. Hailing from rural North Carolina, he had taken two months of his vacation time to serve with us in Mogadishu. This was the time before the United Nations entered Somalia; times where we were more free to move around the city in the countryside with relative safety. I was walking with him down one of the insane streets in Mogadishu trying to orientate him to what his new two-month environment felt and looked like.
To say he was overwhelmed would be a misrepresentation of the words he said and the looks he gave me as we walked through the market. There one found the usual pieces of goat meat, a few stringy vegetables, and some cans of Pepsi-Cola that were 8-10 years old. What caught one’s eyes was the availability, next to these food staples, of AK-47s, RPG’s, bazookas, and other weapons of destruction – all for a miniscule amount of money.
Walking down the main street Bum was amazed that one had to buy their petrol and diesel fuel from cigarette smoking young men sitting on the barrels of these combustible liquids! Neither of us was accustomed to taking our lives in our own hands just to watch Somalis hand-fill the tank of our 4 x 4. I stopped to talk to one of my friends and Bum wandered a little bit ahead of me. Once I caught up with him he looked at me apologetically and told me he was sorry for leaving me behind. I jokingly said to him, “Don’t worry. It is organizational policy that volunteers walk in front of career personnel. This way, if there is any fighting, the volunteer will get shot first, protecting me as a career person. You need to understand the home office has thousands of dollars invested in me as a career personnel, whereas volunteers arrive, paying their own way.” Bum looked at me and laughed, seemingly catching the Somalia-tainted humor.
Two weeks later the situational humor was turned back onto me.
I was on the roof of the team house listening to Bum as he orientated four new nurses to our relief organization. It was rewarding to hear how well he orientated these nurses after just a few weeks in such a insane environment. Everything was going well until I heard him say, “Don’t be surprised if Dr. Nik asks you to walk in front of him out on the street, because it is the policy of the home office that volunteers are to be shot first as there is so much money invested in career personnel like Dr. Nik.” I ran down the stairs as fast as I could to assure the nurses that no such policy existed and apologized to Bum for the leg-pulling a few weeks past which seemingly had made sense to him.
Now we laugh as we retell the story to each other, but sadly such was Somalia.