By Wyatt Emmerich, Syndicated columnist
The Picayune Item
As the gleaming white eight-foot-long African bull elephant tusks neared Bill Boykin’s body, he had an overwhelming desire to run, a desire which would have been fatal. Boykin stood between the raging bull and two defenseless women. If he ran, the elephant would charge, trampling all in his path.
Using every bit of will power he could muster, he fought the urge to run and stood his ground. The huge bull stopped and snorted, eyeing Boykin up and down. Seconds seemed like hours as the aghast guests watched what was transpiring. The bull snorted again, turned and went on his way, leading his herd of 70 elephants to the lake’s edge.
Moments later, the native guide ran up, armed with his automatic M16 rifle, but the moment of truth had already passed.
I read my prose out loud to my African travel mates as we clamored along the ruddy dirt road deep in Malawi’s Kasungu National Park. They laughed. “You’re embellishing,” David Beard asserted.
I challenged them: “Is there a single word that’s not true?” I demanded. Laughing even harder, they had to agree that I was right. Every word was true.
“It’s just good writing, plain and simple,” I said. “Y’all are failing to properly appreciate our African adventure.”
Then just hours later, I had the chance to write some more good prose:
I remember the words of our fearless leader, Victor Smith. “It’s a good road from Lilongwe to Mzuzu. A straight shot.” Seems Victor forgot to mention the mountain range in between the two cities.
Because of the tobacco crop failure, the Malawian government, desperate for fuel to keep the electricity generators running, was harvesting trees rapidly. Huge swaths of clear cut land stretched as far as the eye could see. Fires simmered everywhere, burning off the leftover wood scraps.
Our van came around a bend in the road and suddenly everything went pitch white. Zero visibility. A steep mountain road. No time or space to turn around. A blast of searing heat penetrated our vehicle. We had driven straight into a forest fire.
We were soon coughing as the temperature rose rapidly. In the boondocks of the poorest country in the world, what was the likelihood of proper controls preventing accidental death from a runaway brush fire? Zilch. Well, this is it, I thought. Who would have guessed death by forest fire? At least it’s on a mission trip. That will add some zip to my funeral eulogy.
If we didn’t see headlights coming from the opposite direction within a few seconds, we were all dead. There was no time for introspection, only fear. Just as another hacking cough welled up from my chest, headlights emerged. We could pass through. No death today.
Or how about this one:
The guidebook said the dirt road to the Kasungu National Park took 45 minutes. But the guidebook was eight years old and years of rain had created unending ruts in the road, slowing us to five to 10 miles per hour as the dark approached and the gas ran low. We could always walk, but the leopards made unarmed walks dangerous. A few years ago, a cyclist died this way.
Just as the sun set, we passed by a remote village of mud brick huts with thatched roofs. We could see a band of villagers dressed in “juju” costumes - horrifyingly grotesque and scary. Juju, or voodoo as we call it in America, is the provence of witch doctors. All-night dances and strange rituals of which we did not care to be surprise guests.
The car stopped to navigate a huge rut. We looked out the window at the costumed villagers. They glared back. It could have been 500 years ago. I said a prayer for the engine.
The tension at the African House was so thick you could cut it with a knife, as the Malawian police grilled us about our operation. Our finance director had been arrested and detained because one of the drillers didn’t get his paycheck. Dare we go to the police station? Would they also arrest us? Should we flee to the embassy?
We explained that the Clean Water for Malawi money was a private charity and this was simply an accounting snafu we could quickly resolve.“Ah, but you are a nonprofit organization. It is not your money. It is the public’s money. You are accountable to us. Failure to do so is punishable by ten years in Malawi prison.”
One of the police was tall and thin and the other short and fat. They were polite but insistent as they grilled us about our finances. After an hour of interrogation, the police called the meeting adjourned. But they would not leave. They hung around the hotel for hours, talking to themselves and generally loitering. Were they waiting for some compensation for their investigative efforts? Was this a set up or standard operating procedure? Finally, they drifted off and we collectively sighed with relief, still confounded by the turn of events.
The police at the roadblock motioned for us to pull over. Oh no, not again. We had just minutes to get Peter out of jail, have him sign for the replacement gearbox at the FedEx office, withdraw a large sum of money from the bank, attend the Lilongwe Rotary Club, and head to Mzuzu to review our new operation there. Our schedule was impossibly tight. It seemed hopeless.
“Let’s pray,” Bridgett, our executive director, suggested. I led the prayer, apologizing to God for asking his intervention in such a direct, logistical way, pointing out we were on His mission and now needed His divine intervention. It was a bold prayer. I laid it on the line.
Then everything changed. As our prayer ended, the police waved us on. The cell phone rang. It was Peter. He had been released from jail and was waiting for us at the bank. It had all been a big misunderstanding. Everything was straightend out. We got the money out in no time flat. We discovered the Rotary Club met a half hour later and we were right on time. At Rotary, we met an American Embassy official who could assist us with any remaining problems. We got the gearbox and set out to Mzuzu right on schedule. That night we sat on a porch overlooking a beautiful lake full of hippos and marveled at the power of prayer.
It was a true African adventure.