Introduction to Poor Millionaires
I awoke at sunset to a loud tapping on the passenger-side window. My eyes opened to a gun barrel clicking on the glass. The assault rifle was held by a 16-year-old wearing a fraying green army jacket, a red, orange, and blue necklace made of a thousand tiny beads, and what looked like a picnic blanket wrapped like a skirt. He attempted to look through the tinted glass before motioning for me to roll down the window.
I looked at Michael. “We found them.”
“Actually they found us,” he corrected me with a smile. “And now we are their prisoners. Or guests. That remains to be seen. Either way they will bring us to the camp,” he said, rolling down his window and shouting at the teenager in his mother-tongue.
Two more teenagers with AK-47’s emerged from the desert thicket. Michael reached out of the driver’s side window, shook their hands, and asked where their camp was.
“So do these guys know who you are?” I asked, trying to sound calm. We were out of cell phone range and the radio stations had buzzed into white noise hours ago.
“Oh, no worries, buddy,” Michael laughed. “These are just some young herd’s boys from my tribe, the famous Pokot.” He pulled down his lower lip and pointed at a gap where his bottom two front teeth should have been.
The boy at the window smiled, showing the same teeth were missing. “Don’t worry. They are just taking some precautions. In fact when I was a herds boy we were always on the lookout for spies. You know, so many people out here are trying to steal their cows. And so they have to take everyone they don’t know in for a bit of questioning.”
Except for me, everyone in the car was Pokot. We had three Pokot elders in the backseat and Michael’s teenage daughter had spent the entire day in the hatchback bouncing on top of a 50-pound bag of corn flour.
“But they know you, right?” I said, my voice losing confidence with every emerging detail. Michael shouted what I assumed was my question to the herds boy standing outside my window. “Okay, you shake this guy’s hand,” he said to me, pointing at the teenager who had recently pointed his gun at me. The boy leaned in the vehicle. As I shook his hand, I could smell the acidic sweat coming from his dehydrated armpits.
The boy smiled at me for the first time. Michael asked, “Do they know me?” “That is a good question. These boys do not know me. But the older men in their camp will know me. This I am sure of because I am pretty much one of the most famous Pokot in Kenya. Between the bigness of my belly and our work with orphan children, most nomads have heard of me. But these are just some young herds boys and they are just being a little bit cautious.” Michael turned to look at me. We locked eyes and he quickly amended his explanation. “But no worries, buddy. No worries at all.”
Everyone in the car started discussing our situation in their mother tongue, but their pointing assured me I was the topic of debate. The teenagers then pointed at a path barely wide enough for two cows to walk side by side, shouldered their semi-automatics, stepped onto the SUV’s running board, and held on as Michael pulled off the broken desert road and into the valley. As the vehicle navigated the rocky terrain, I could hear the brightly colored beads bouncing around the teenager’s necks.
The path led to a field where a dozen men stood wearing what I had begun to suspect were their traditional military fatigues, all holding the same Soviet-era AK-47s, and wearing the same green army shirts and wraps around their waists. Behind them were thousands of emaciated cows with humps above their necks and ribs like xylophones, all eating short, greenish-brown grass in a field dotted with thorn bushes. One of the boys must have run ahead and warned them of our arrival. When the car stopped I noticed flies were swarming around piles of cow dung. I rolled up the windows. The travel nurse had told me to avoid all contact with African insects.
“You better stay in here, buddy. These boys told me that they have never seen a white person before, and you people can be a pretty scary thing to behold for the first time.” Michael knew the feeling intimately. “Those men up there are cattle rustlers. As Google says they are the fiercest warriors in Africa.” We had spent hundreds of hours researching the Pokot tribe online, Michael showing me pictures of his tribe in our college dorm, pointing out this or that inaccuracy, frustrated that the Kenyan media was destroying his tribe’s online reputation.
As Michael and the others stepped out of the car to speak to our capturers, a group of half-naked kids around three feet tall waddled out of the thicket and rushed to the vehicle. They cupped their hands around their eyes trying to catch a glimpse through the tinted glass. A boy in only a blue tank top and beaded hoop earrings pointed to his mouth and cupped his hands. I could see big horseflies were drinking the liquid from the corner of his eyes, and then another landed on the snot trickling from his nose. But he didn’t seem to notice. I opened the window and handed him a lemon candy as flies poured into the vehicle. The boy laughed, his eyes wide pointing at his mouth, like he was acting for a TV commercial. Michael shouted to me, “That’s good to give out the candies. The children most probably have never tasted one.” At the sight of food the other kids rushed to my window. Muddy hands cupped one on top of the other as I placed a lemon drop in each palm.
One of men started shouting and shaking his gun the way terrorists do on TV. Michael motioned for them to calm down, pointing at himself, then at me, and then at the children. I rolled up the window and reached into my backpack for my anti-anxiety medication.
I counted to 60 and waited for my neck muscles to relax and my thoughts to silence. I watched the kids sitting in a circle, taking turns spitting the candy into their hand to look at it as their hands got stickier and stickier, attracting more and more flies.
These kids were the reason I was out here. Michael and I were supposed to convince their fathers to let them come live at our school on the edge of the desert. We had been planning this meeting for three years, sitting on the couch in our apartment late at night. Michael was reading a book on the history of the Cherokee Nation. Ever since I told him about the treaties and wars and reservations he had become convinced that the story of the U.S. government and the Native Americans was being reprised between the Kenyan government and his own tribe.
He had asked me, “Do you want to put kids on the moon?”
“What?” I laughed, looking up from my homework. He pointed at the poster of JFK hanging on our wall with the words “It’s time for a new generation of leadership…for there is a new world to be won.”
“I’m going to open a school for nomadic kids on the moon,” he laughed. “Anyways, the moon is just about as far from the desert as the modern world. But I need you to help me.”
“Why me?” I asked, thinking he might want to find somebody with more experience.
“Because you are teachable, and where we’re going you need to be teachable.”