The street I’m on is made of individually laid bricks, like some fancy district in a Western capital. But this is no western capital. This is Duomba, the capital of the Republic of Garubia. And so – even on the nicest of streets – there is only a veneer of luxury; bricks are missing from the street and weeds poke up from the ill-defined border between the road and the uneven concrete that is called a sidewalk. It is different from the poorer neighborhoods. In those places, there are no streets, only narrow passages that snake between hand-built huts.
It is nighttime. The air is fresh, cleansed from the sewage-like smells of the city by the recent monsoon rains. There are puddles in the street, filling every low spot in the unevenly laid road. But it is not the puddles or the street that stands out to me. It is the music. The puddles are jumping to a beat emanating from the house before me. The music is Nigerian rap. I know the artist. Mode Nine. It is dark, powerful and violent. And, yes, it is threatening.
It is meant to be threatening.
Duomba is a densely populated city. There are houses all along this street. Mansions. But the people who live in them won’t complain about the music. They are too intelligent to complain. The house is owned by Fulabaso Akinye. He is a brutal man. He is a killer. He traffics in drugs and people.
And his hand rests heavily on every part of this city.
Nobody challenges Fulabaso Akinye. Nobody has in 20 years. He is immune to the struggles of lesser men.
But, tonight, I’m going to challenge him. I, a 30-year-old white woman from Boston, am going to challenge Fulabaso Akinye, the boss of Duomba.
I’m going to challenge him because I don’t have any other choice.
I never expected to end up in West Africa. I was born to a wealthy family in Boston. We weren’t the new rich, but the very old rich. I grew up in a mansion on Beacon Hill in a house my family had lived in for over a hundred years. We were Boston Brahmins. We were the people who produced University Presidents, Governors and Presidents. And, like every generation before me, I bristled under the elitism and conservatism of my family’s life. I didn’t appreciate that my own restlessness was the same restlessness that had enabled our family to endure. If we had simply accepted our place, we would have quickly drifted from the power centers of the commonwealth’s dynamic society. But we were always restless, and pushing against our reality.
I bristled. Just like I was supposed to. And I decided, like many of my forebears, that I would do something that mattered. I just didn’t know what.
And then, during my Junior year of high school, I read a magazine profile of a famous ‘social equality architect.’ His name was Aarav Mishra. Aarav talked about using space, light and material to not only change a person’s experience of a place, but to change humanity itself. He talked about using these elements, the tools of the architect, to fundamentally rewrite human culture, human relations and – with time – the social reality of the future.
I read that article, and I knew what I wanted to be. I enrolled in architecture school. My cohort there, like so many other architecture cohorts in so many other universities, decided to design the ultimate building solution for slum dwellers. We could make life so much better, we thought, with our scientifically developed approaches to slum construction. But, unlike many others, we didn’t start in a vacuum. We started by examining others’ efforts. And we discovered that most attempts to do what we were doing assessed the need from a distance, trying to identify the ideal materials and cultural needs based on the students’ own expectations. Those groups ended up making awesome YouTube videos while seeming to help out a few families with fantastic new homes. But when the cameras were gone, those families deconstructed and repurposed the houses they were given. We wanted to understand why.
So, we decided to do some hands-on research. We decided to send students to different slums, globally. They would live in the slums for a month straight, to try and understand the cadence of life. It would be dangerous. It would be uncomfortable. But they would emerge with a far stronger understanding of what was needed, and how architecture could help.
We pitched the idea to our alumni, and our missions were funded. Among the many applicants, I was chosen as one of the researchers. I wasn’t sent to India or South America. I was sent to Duomba. Our group set up a relationships with a local bank – so I drew on my personal accounts. And then I flew to Duomba, got off the plane, and walked straight to the largest of the slums I could find on a map.
I had no guide. I had no language skills. I really had no idea what I was doing or what I was up against. I expected to visit for a month and then return with what I needed to change the world.
I was incredibly naive.
The first person I saw was a woman walking across the clearing. She was strikingly beautiful, with nearly perfect skin, strong lips and a confident expression. She was wearing a simple skirt and shirt. Her thoughts were clearly on some task.
But then she saw me. And in a moment, her trajectory changed.
She stopped short, rushed up to me and asked me a question in a language I did not recognize. I looked confused. Then she switched to French – which I speak badly – and asked, “What are you doing here?”
I started to explain the whole project in English, but she didn’t understand.
And so I said what I could in French “I want to live here for a month.”
The woman looked flabbergasted. Her eyes darted from side to side.
“It is very dangerous,” she said, “You could die.”
I nodded, naively and ignorantly. And then repeated what I said before.
I was on a mission.
Urgently, she grabbed me by the sleeve and pulled me towards a group of tiny buildings. I didn’t think there was anywhere to go but into the huts themselves. But then she pulled me between them and we entered a tiny, crazy, pathway between the jambled up shacks. We passed under leftover boards and between loose hanging sheets. We climbed over unidentified obstacles and ducked our heads to avoid overhead dangers. I smelt the scents of feces and cooking oil and yams and roasted cashews all piled one on top of another. And I looked at the shacks. They were made of whatever could be found. Corrugated roofs were common. But walls varied. Some had walls of stood-up and tied together scraps of wood, some had walls of dirt and a few had walls of brick or even stone. Despite all the chaos, I was amazed to see one regularity: the slum dwellings were all roughly square, and all roughly the same size. Their placement was haphazard, but their scale was not.
A few minutes in, the woman pulled me into one of the huts. It was dark inside. There was almost no furniture: just an old and rotted futon on the floor and a single cooking pot. Two hungry-looking kids looked up at their mother, expectantly. All they were wearing was underwear.
The woman looked at them, and then at me. “Do you have any money?” she asked.
I had promised myself I wouldn’t be a fool, to be taken in by the first person I came across. This was something I was worried about. I just looked at her suspiciously.
The woman saw my expression and then said, “I went out to make some money, and then buy some food. They’re hungry. You came, now I need your money to buy them food.”
I handed over what I thought was a small sum. Two local bills. About $5. The older of the children, a little boy of about 6, eyed the cash greedily. The younger child, a two or three-year-old girl, just watched, not yet understanding what cash was.
The mother handed one of the bills back to me, said ‘stay here’, and then shot out the door.
I stayed. The children eyed me. I eyed them. We kept our mutual distance. About 10 minutes later, the woman came back with a few yams and a small collection of sticks. She made a small fire in the center of the hut and put the yams in the pot. I noticed a hole in the roof above the pot, so some of the smoke could escape.
A few minutes later, lunch was served. The children – the little boy, Mobo and his sister Oluchi – wolfed down their meals like they hadn’t eaten properly in months.
Maybe they hadn’t.
We started talking, and we kept talking – for nearly a week. The woman’s name was Adaku. She didn’t own her own hut. She paid rent on it, to a group of landlords. She, and the vast majority of the slum’s other permanent adult residents were women. The fathers of their children were absent: working in the old fields or elsewhere and only occasionally visiting the mothers of their children. As the boys grew up, they too would leave as their fathers had done.
The huts were square because they represented a standardized size for rent collection. When the slums were knocked down (and they were, regularly), huts were rebuilt to that standard size and rents resumed as they had before. If you built too large, they charged you for two units. If you built too small, you got no discount. The landlords had a standard rate. What the landlords didn’t have was any sort of title to the properties. They didn’t build the huts themselves and they didn’t supply the materials. But if you didn’t pay them, they would collect from you. No courts were necessary. They had collectors; toughs who traversed the slum and took what they wanted.
The collectors walked the slum from morning until night.
But your debts didn’t stop with your rent. If you had a little extra income, the collectors would track you down and they would collect their share. If you hadn’t told them in advance, their share might be more than you could pay. More often than not, you’d be left penniless – or even so desperate you’d die of exposure or hunger. And if you got building materials, like from some well-meaning overseas architects, you wouldn’t be able to keep them. Either the slum would be flattened by the government, or the collectors would tax away your windfall.
Adaku told me her name meant “a girl who brought wealth to a family”. She told me her son’s name Mobo, meant “freedom”. And she told me Oluchi meant “G-d’s work.”
But she also told me their names were prayers. They were not their reality.
In reality, Adaku and her people were trapped.
No matter the wonderful intentions of my architecture class, there was no way out.
I stayed that week in Adaku’s hut. I never left. Adaku told me why I couldn’t leave. I was a source of income. If the landlords got word I was there, they could kidnap me and they could ransom me and, even if my ransom was paid, they could kill me.
I was young and I thought of myself as invincible, but I wasn’t stupid enough to walk around in the open.
I didn’t walk in the open, but I did stay in the slum.
And that, I shouldn’t have done.
One morning, Adaku rushed into her little house and dragged me out of it and into another, nearby hut. It was empty. She told me to stay there. And then she ran back to her own place. A few minutes later, I heard a commotion. I looked between the cracks in the wall and I saw three men. I watched as two of them entered her hut and then emerged. One was dragging her by her hair. The other was pulling her struggling children behind him. And then they left, that small convoy of six people. The third man, the one who hadn’t entered the hut, seemed to be in charge.
I, not knowing what else to do, began to follow them.
They came to a small clearing. A little crowd of women, all with frightened looks on their faces, had gathered.
I kept my distance, hiding behind a makeshift wall.
The leader of the little group of men looked around at the gathering. And then he made some sort of angry pronouncement in a language I didn’t know.
And then he pulled a gun and pointed it at Adaku. He asked her a question, but she said nothing.
A moment later, the man shifted his pistol and shot the little girl.
She fell to the ground, her blood soaking from her limp body and into the dry earth.
I bit my hand, in shock and fear. Adaku started screaming.
The man asked Adaku the question again, but she wasn’t paying attention. And so, only a few seconds later, the man turned and shot her too.
The little boy, Mobo, was crying now, calling out for his mother. He was reaching for her fallen body. But the man just grabbed his arm and began to walk away.
The men were leaving and they were taking Mobo with them.
I knew I had to do something. And so, I stepped out from where I was hiding.
It was stupid. I knew it. But I did it anyway.
I had to save the boy.
Then with as much confidence and force as I could muster, I commanded the man to stop. I spoke in English. The small crowd turned to me. A gasp ran through it. The man turned and looked towards me.
And an evil grin crossed his face.
He commanded his men to go to me.
And I shouted at him to release the child.
I told him it was his last chance.
He actually laughed.
And then, a moment later, his head exploded. There was no crack, there was no shot anyone could hear. It was like a bullet had come from nowhere and dropped him where he stood.
I still don’t know what happened. Maybe somebody, miles away, had fired a round into the air and it had happened to fall there. Maybe a sniper had shot him from too far away for us to hear the report. I didn’t know and I still don’t. But the man was dead and his men were frozen, suddenly uncertain of what to do next.
I turned to them and shouted at them, demanding that they leave.
And they did.
They just turned and they ran. I felt a sudden power, as if I could reinvent this place. Not with architecture, but with brazen resistance.
I ran to the boy, past the bodies of his family.
I expected him to be grateful, because I had rescued him.
But he wasn’t.
He was angry. And he was hateful.
And in a moment of shock and fear, I understood what had happened.
His mother and his sister had been killed because they had hidden me.
They were dead because of me.
I suddenly understood what had happened. The man had asked the crowd where I was, and they had not answered. And then he had pointed his gun at Adaku and asked her where I was. But she had refused to answer. She had been willing to give her own life for mine. And then he killed her girl and Adaku had become useless. And so they killed her too.
Killing them was easier than searching for me.
Taking Mobo was their next move. Perhaps, then, I would have emerged.
That part of their plan worked.
If not for the shot that killed their leader, the men could have captured me and ransomed me. They could have made more in a few weeks than a hundred thousand slum dwellers could have supplied in a year.
Their plan had failed. I had won.
But Mobo had lost everything.
We went back to his mother’s hut. But the boy just sat in the corner, glowering hatefully.
I didn’t know what to do, I was still processing what had just happened. My first clear thoughts were of emigration. I had to leave this place. But I had to take the boy with me. He needed to escape. I needed to give something in return for what I taken.
But the boy had no papers.
And even if he had papers, it took only one look to understand that he might leave, but he would never leave with me.
So, we stayed. We stayed in his mother’s hut and he sat in the corner, not speaking at all.
It took a day, but eventually I had to go out.
I had to buy food.
I emerged from the hut, frightened. I told myself to look confident. I told myself I had nothing to fear. I told myself I had no choice. And it must have worked. Nobody harassed me or attacked me. They were all frightened of me. Perhaps, I thought, they believed I had killed the man who had shot Adaku.
I bought food, I brought it back. I cooked it as Adaku had done. And, slowly, I settled in to that place.
The collectors came for their rents after only one day of absence. But they didn’t collect from me. They saw me and they steered clear of me.
They too were frightened to get involved.
As the days – and then weeks and months – passed, I began to go out more and more. I wandered through the slums. I began to speak to the people. And I began to learn the local language.
I learned why the slum dwellers and the landlords were afraid of me. I had not only killed the boss of the City, but his death had come from the sky.
I was an American, they calculated. I had a drone hovering protectively around me.
I could not be touched.
I thought about arguing, about knocking down their ridiculous theory. But I realized it was all that kept me safe. And so I, quietly and in my own way, encouraged the rumors to grow. “I am here to help,” I said. And I left it at that.
After a few months, I called the University and I called my parents. I dropped out of school and told them I was staying in Duomba. Somebody, had to redeem the life of Adaku.
Eventually, the boy began to speak. The immediacy of his pain and anger faded, but just a touch. I spoke to him in English, desperate to help him in some way. Maybe we still could escape together. He learned English quickly. And, after overcoming his initial resistance, he learned eagerly.
Less than a year after I’d arrived, he’d read a full book for the first time. He was so proud of what he had achieved. Aside from me, nobody else he knew could read. He alone had that power. He alone could explore the world beyond the slum. That day was the first time I’d seen him smile since the death of his mother.
I still remember looking at that smiling face. He had the beauty of his mother. He had the beauty of Adaku. I still remember that day, looking at that smiling face and realizing that I loved that beautiful, wounded, child.
We could have left, then. He would have been willing to go with me. But I knew he was scared. He wasn’t ready to leave. And I didn’t want to leave either. The slum had become my home. I knew my neighbors. I knew their routines and their loves and their fears. I was no longer an anthropologist or some well-meaning westerner. I lived there, among them.
I knew I wasn’t like them. I had no fear of hunger.
I knew I lived in their world. But I also knew I did not share their reality.
I learned, after that first year, that a new boss was in charge of the slum, and the city. The new man was Fulabaso Akinye. He was only seventeen. He was the third-oldest son of his father, the man struck from the sky. But he had inherited. After a year of struggle, he had killed all of his brothers. The slum dwellers spoke his name in reverence and fear. His father had been brutal, I knew that. But Fulabaso recognized no limits to his power. There were no limits to his power.
Except one: his collectors never came to my hut.
I saw Fulabaso a few times, in the slum. He came when his personal touch was required for some special task. And he saw me. I was unmistakable. I was the famous white woman of Duomba.
When he saw me, he glared at me, his eyes full of hate. But that was all he did.
I was his father’s killer and I was a woman, but he was too frightened to try to harm me.
As the years passed, my neighbors asked why I didn’t kill Fulabaso Akinye. Faced with the question, I just mysteriously demurred. For my part, silently, I wondered why they didn’t rise up and kill him themselves.
It took me a long time to understand.
I saw an underclass, struggling against a criminal class. But that wasn’t what they saw. They lived in a world of power and powerlessness. If they killed one landlord, another would take his place. Even if it was one of them, their burden would not be lifted. Only the strongest and most violent could rise to such power. So, they did not see the possibility of a better reality.
All they saw was the possibility of new overlords.
Somebody like Fulabaso Akinye was always going to be in charge.
But even so, I imagined something different. Adaku had been something different. As the years past, she had become an example to me. She was willing to stand up. And she had been willing to give everything for a naïve woman she didn’t even know. I had known Adaku, however briefly, and so I still believed there could be a better reality.
I lived in their world. But I did not share their reality.
The boy grew. He took my last name as his own. He became Mobo Jones. I loved my boy, more than anything else in the world. But I saw something else in him. He had his mother in him. He had her kindness. I thought, perhaps, together, we could change this place.
Perhaps he could show his people another way.
I wrestled with that idea. Should we stay and try to fix the unfixable – living in the example of Adaku? Or should we leave, and should I repay some part of my debt to that woman by saving her son from this place?
When Mobo was twelve, I began to work on his papers. I made up a birthday, got him a birth certificate and worked my way through all the paperwork. And then, on his fourteenth birthday, I legally adopted him.
We could travel to the United States, when we wanted to.
We could return to Beacon Hill, when we wanted to.
We talked, debating which path was better. Mobo could understand my reality. He talked about it with others. But they saw no way to make it real. And so he saw no way to make it real.
Together, we decided to go.
I chose his seventeenth birthday (as recorded in his papers) as our date of departure.
I even bought the tickets, hiding them with our passports in the walls of my hut.
Our decision had been made.
But then, two days before our flight, he vanished.
I asked around and, reluctantly, my neighbors told me what had happened.
He had gone to Fulabaso.
And so, I am here. Outside the massive house of Fulabaso Akinye. I am watching the puddles jump as the violent Nigerian rap thunders through the bricks in the street. I am here because I have no other choice.
I remember that I’m supposed to have a drone watching me. I remember that I cannot be touched. And then I step up to the gate and push it open. There is no guard.
Nobody would threaten Fulabaso Akinye.
I enter the house, and I enter a bacchanal. There are men and young women. I recognize some of the women from the slum. I tell myself they are simply paying their tax to Fulabaso, but I know the reality is different.
These are men of power.
I wander through the room, watching the people pull away from me. They are confused about why I am there.
And then I see him. I see Mobo. He is sitting next to Fulabaso. And the older man’s arm is over his shoulder – as if they are best friends. Mobo’s face is directed downward, towards the neck of a bottle of beer. But I can see that he is smiling.
He is happy in this place.
Fulabaso looks up and sees me. I am the only white woman in the room.
He looks up, and he smiles. It is the first time I’ve seen him smile. It is the smile of a monster. It is the smile of ultimate victory and it shakes me to my core.
I draw closer to him, pushing away my fear.
I am untouchable, I tell myself in a repeating mantra.
And then I shout – to be heard over the music – “Mobo, come home now!”
My boy lifts his face. His eyes are bloodshot. His pupils are the wrong size. He sees me, dreamily, and then he says, “You killed my mother.”
I repeat myself, more forcefully, “Mobo, come home now.”
But he says, simply, “Go away.”
And then a moment later, the music stops.
The room is suddenly completely silent.
The whole crowd turns to Fulabaso. And then, in a powerful and steady voice, he speaks. His accent his thick and his delivery slow. But he speaks in English.
He says, simply, “When I was two days short of seventeen, you took my father. Now, I have finished his work and taken your son.”
I imagine he has been practicing that sentence for months. But that is little comfort. There is nothing I can do.
In reality, I have no drone.
I turn away and I leave. I am dejected and destroyed.
There is nothing left of Adaku and her kindness.
I hear Fulabaso laughing as I leave the room.
The music returns. The house shakes. And I return to my hut in the slum.
I dedicated my life to that boy. I dedicated my life to his mother. And he has betrayed me.
And everything has been lost.
Mobo comes home later. He apologizes. He insists, in a slurring voice, that he was forced by Fulabaso. He vows that it was not his choice. But I do not believe him.
We are leaving in one day and I do not believe him. I know he succumbed to the temptations of my enemy.
He sleeps that day, recovering from his night at the mansion.
And then he leaves again that night.
But I do not follow him. His path is one of destruction, not of hope.
Instead, I sleep.
I dream of gunfire and violence, and I sleep.
When the sun rises, so do I. I go out to buy breakfast, on my final day in this place. Perhaps Mobo will come with me, to Beacon Hill. Perhaps he will not.
But I know that even if he might physically accompany me, he will never again have my trust.
I am so absorbed in my thoughts that I do not realize something has changed. I do not realize my neighbors are smiling. I do not realize their fear has lifted. And I do not notice that the collectors are gone.
And then a woman stops me. I know her, she’s a bit older than I am. She’s a mother of three.
And she tells me what happened.
During the night, the women of the slum rose up. And they killed the collectors and they killed the landlords. And they killed Fulabaso. They eliminated not only the landlords, but their mistresses and their sons – the threats of the future.
They erased the evil from their lives. And they took the wealth of landlords as booty.
The woman hugs me.
And then she explains that they rose up because of my boy. For years he had been talking about my reality. But he hadn’t really believed in it himself. And then, that night, he had come to them. And he had said that the time for delay had ended. The time for action had arrived. It was time to see if another reality was possible.
That night, on his insistence, they attacked. And their assault was so unexpected that not a single woman died.
After all, nobody challenges Fulabaso Akinye.
Now, in this new day, they have something other than corruption.
In this new day, there is something more rewarding than survival.
In this new day, there is hope and there is freedom.
As she completes the story, the woman adds one thought.
She says, “I understand now why you did not kill Fulabaso.”
“Why?” I ask, confused.
Then she answers, “Because we had to. Only then could we be free.”
And then I see him. I see Mobo. My boy whose name means “Freedom.”
His eyes are not bloodshot, but his hands are covered in blood.
I grab hold of him and I find rags and I wash him off.
And then we take our papers and our tickets and we walk from the slum, together.
Mobo Jones will visit to Beacon Hill, as we had planned.
But we will not stay there.
The blood of Adaku is soaked into the earth of Duomba.
But the work of Adaku – the bringer of fortune – has only just begun.
The great question of the Torah readings of Mattot-Masai is: How could G-d want the destruction of an entire people – including women and male children? And why would Moshe command such an attack?
As I see it, G-d wants to change a corrupt reality. He chooses our people as his vehicle. He chooses us because of the love of our forefathers and foremothers. We struggle and we resist, but eventually, we agree to His mission. And then, on the cusp of entering the land, and taking the next step in our growth, we betray Him. We fall for the very corruption He is challenging. Where we are to represent physical creation and the dedication of that creation to the divine relationship, but we are drawn instead to animalistic pleasure without holy purpose. We worship Ba’al Peor, the religion of exposure and the celebration of animalistic desires.
We fell prey to Fulabaso Akinye and his corruption.
We lost the trust of G-d. Our relationship was shattered. But Moshe was not willing to leave it broken. He acts to restore the relationship. In a legal sense, we claim Midian attacked us. And we demonstrate our claim, however outlandish, by acting against them. We violently thrust away those who would challenge our relationship to G-d. We act like Mobo, trying to demonstrate our fealty. And in the process, we act like the women of the slum, thrusting away a fundamental impediment to a better reality.
G-d can not attack Midian. Only we can. G-d can not change our culture and leave us free.
Only we can both change our reality and retain our humanity.
It is a lesson for our people. We cannot simply turn to G-d and expect Him to deliver a better reality.
We must act on our own and find His blessings on the road we create.
Our work is only beginning.
Postscript: Of course, the story of Midian is a tragedy. We only had a conflict with them because they were disgusted and frightened of us. In our reality, we must reach out to others so they can understand us and our goals before such conflicts can arise.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Toby Rose Levin, my wife’s aunt. She passed away this week after decades of service to the Melbourne Jewish Community. She was a woman not easily dissuaded. May her memory be for a blessing…
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image: Tim Abbot, Kireka. CC from Flickr