Aidan Hartley

Wild life | 16 June 2016

As I approached their car, the pastors from Ohio flung open the doors and fled into the night

Wild life | 16 June 2016
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As soon as I pulled out of town, I knew I had made a mistake taking on the new Chinese road through the badlands after dark. The route into northern Kenya was still under construction, making it an assault course of bumps, diversions and zigzags between mounds of murram. I made what speed I could in the Cruiser but on a lonely stretch of track I saw the flicker of brake lights up ahead and slowed to a dawdle behind a black city car.

I was two minutes into Tannhäuser’s rousing ‘Pilgrims’ Chorus’ on the stereo up loud and wanted badly to overtake when to my right I saw red sparks and heard the report of a rifle. A bandit ambush! I floored the accelerator and out of the corner of my eye I saw the flash of a second shot. Luckily the black car ahead of me had also sped up so I could go even faster.

Just as we got to the bit when the pilgrims sing ‘Hallelujah!’, I hit a massive speed bump and the Cruiser flew high into the air, as in an action movie. For a split second everything inside the vehicle also seemed to achieve zero gravity, with rucksack, phone, half-eaten sandwich and house keys suspended in midair — until the front wheels hit the dirt track with a loud bang. ‘In Ewigkeit!’ sang Wagner’s pilgrims. In eternity! I wondered how the tyres hadn’t burst on impact, falling from such a great height, and miraculously I managed to keep the nose of the car pointed straight on the track. I had no idea what sort of damage I had done to the shocks or if the car had been hit — I wasn’t hit — so I put foot to pedal again and hurtled forwards at one hell of a lick.

I swiftly caught up with the black city car, which I then noticed also accelerated to a speed I thought must be dangerous on a bad road like this. Clearly, we had left the bandits far behind, so I slowed down to a more relaxed pace and let him go on ahead. A few minutes later, I saw red brake lights again and as I caught up with the car I realised it had become stuck while crossing a muddy ditch. I thought it would be nice to ask the occupants how they were and so I drove up alongside. As I did this, all four doors of the black car flew open and several people got out and fled into the black night.

I stopped and called, ‘Hello!’ No reply. Deciding this was strange behaviour and that it was best not to hang around on this stretch of track, I got back into the Cruiser and drove off towards the police post I knew was up ahead. Here I found three relaxed fellows lolling about with their rifles and urged them to jump in and accompany me back to the car in the ditch.

Minutes later we were nearly at the spot where I had left the black car when headlights approached and we both came to a halt. The policemen got out first and then I did and then four men emerged from the other vehicle. One of the men, the one who was clearly in charge of the black car, looked me up and down with great suspicion.

‘Good sirs, we are terrified,’ he announced. He reached into his car and pulled out a stack of books. ‘You see here, these are Holy Bibles, which we are distributing up north.’ I looked inside and the black car was indeed filled to the gunwales with Bibles. ‘I am a pastor. We are all pastors. I was educated in Ohio.’ He asked me where I came from and appeared doubtful when I replied that I was from ‘here’.

At this point the penny dropped. The pastor from Ohio turned to the police officers and asked them in Swahili if I was the bandit who had been shooting at them. Only now did I realise that when the shooting had started, the pastors decided it was me firing at them, rather than a bandit in the bushes. This explained why each time I caught up with them they had gone even faster. And this was also why the pastors had flung open their doors and fled into the night.

The senior police officer broke the tension by explaining to the pastors that I was not an armed robber but rather a good Samaritan who had urged his team to return up the road in order to assist a carload of terrified passengers hiding in the bush. We were all a long way from home so we said our goodbyes. As a somewhat overweight middle-aged European in large black-rimmed spectacles, I do not strike myself as a man who looks like a gun-toting gangster who chases priests’ cars around the back roads of Africa — but I am prepared to take it as a compliment.