Africa Lifelines: FBI Cultivating Africans as Security Teammates

Denver agent training Kenyan officers in forensics The U.S. views Africa with interest as a frontier for terrorism, but any military acts can stoke resentment.

Nairobi, Kenya – Nine thousand miles from his home in Denver, FBI Special Agent Carle Schlaff faced 60 top African detectives packed into a room in Nairobi as part of a new U.S. focus on Africa.

Schlaff’s mission: to work with these African counterparts on
forensics and cultivate them as security partners.

The U.S. government views Africa with renewed interest as a
frontier for terrorism where al-Qaeda and other Islamic radicals
hide. Africa also supplies a growing share of the oil Americans
consume – nearly a fifth.

Terrorists in Africa could affect U.S. interests and organize
attacks inside the United States, said William Bellamy, U.S.
ambassador to Kenya.

“We try to monitor as best we can” airport travelers to prevent
terrorists from entering America, he said. “But I would not
exclude the possibility that could occur. … It’s certainly

Kenyan police recently found anti-tank missiles – some U.S.-made – in a terrorism suspect’s apartment at Mombasa, Kenya.

The U.S. priority in Africa of combating global terrorism has led
President Bush to deploy military forces at a growing network of
bases from Algeria to Uganda – in a pattern Bush set after the
Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

About 1,600 U.S. soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors are posted
in Djibouti at a base called Camp Lemonier, a former French Foreign
Legion outpost. It is the first large long-term deployment of U.S.
forces to Africa.

Bush also sent special forces soldiers to Mali, Chad and Niger for
exercises with local forces against radical Muslims.

And U.S. officials have delivered more than $152 million in weapons
to sub-Saharan Africa since 2001, up from $92 million during the
previous four years.

But the military approach stokes resentment. African leaders say
they’re more interested in fighting worsening poverty than serving
U.S. interests.

African authorities believe young men were willing to join
anti-U.S. groups “because they had no jobs,” said Nicholas
Kamwende, commander of the Kenyan National Police anti-terrorism unit.

“We think fighting poverty is one of our ways of fighting
terrorism,” he said.

Kamwende said the United States traditionally has used skillful
diplomacy and developmental aid to help Africa address water,
health care and economic needs.

Tensions are mounting. Kenyan courts recently acquitted several
terrorism suspects indicted in the United States, and Kenyan
lawmakers have refused to pass an anti-terrorism law.

U.S. State Department officials say savvy cops such as Schlaff, who
also has worked in Botswana and the Red Sea area, can be more
effective than soldiers in helping locals root out terrorists.

In a spartan conference hall in Nairobi, Schlaff wore a sport shirt
and slacks instead of the camouflage fatigues that mark most U.S.

He smiled the way he might over coffee back home as the African
detectives in coats and ties stood quiet. He handed out FBI pins,
patches, fingerprint kits and cameras. He showed photos of his
family in the Colorado mountains.

He told of his forensics work on the FBI team that investigated the
bombing of the USS Cole warship that killed 17 sailors. Schlaff
helped dredge the harbor off Yemen and found part of an outboard
motor that cracked the case.

The attentiveness of Kenyan police officers impressed him, Schlaff

“Their focus is street crime. We’re not suggesting a different
focus. We’re just trying to make them aware there could be a
terrorism matter involved.”

Now, Schlaff is back in the United States. But detectives he
coached are working in Eastleigh, a Somali-run ghetto on the
outskirts of Nairobi, trying to recruit sources, offering money for

They’ve discovered funds flowing from Somalia to Eastleigh for
construction of shopping malls. They’re investigating who might be
sinking roots or raising money in Kenya.

These efforts bore out Schlaff’s conclusions. Street-

level police when treated with respect “are genuinely interested
in working with us” against terrorism, he said.

“If you want to convince people Americans are not the aggressor, I
think you’ve got to do it by being there low on the ground.”

Africa Lifelines: Orphaned by AIDS…Embraced by Strangers

Idweli, Tanzania – From the back of a lantern-lit schoolroom at a rural orphanage, Fodi Julius fixed his shining eyes on the blackboard. He was fighting exhaustion and trying to please his parents.

They died three years ago, leaving Fodi, 11, and his brother,
Nhambo, 8, among Africa’s 12.3 million children who’ve lost parents
to AIDS.

Their mom and dad’s final advice: Do well in school, because
survival depends on it.

Before moving to the orphanage, Fodi and Nhambo rose each morning
from their mats by a fire pit in their crumbling mud-brick hut.
They straightened their smudged school uniforms. Their small
fingers wove grass in place of lost buttons to fasten tattered

The boys set out barefoot and without breakfast down the dirt path
to school. At lunch break, while others ate, they waited. Finally,
when the teacher dismissed them for the day, Fodi and Nhambo
wandered through farm fields, foraging for food.

“We’d get leaves,” Fodi said. He weighs 48 pounds, half the
weight of others his age.

He mixed those green leaves with water and urged Nhambo to eat, no
matter how bad the leaves tasted or how sad he felt.

“I’d just tell him: ‘She died. There’s nothing we can do about
it.’ I’d tell him: ‘Even if you cry, she’s not coming back. So we
should stop crying and do what we have to do.”‘

But now, after three years on their own, Fodi and Nhambo have beds,
meals and basic instruction at an experimental children’s center
where they live with 56 other orphans on the outskirts of this
dusty, Swahili-speaking village.

Americans half a world away in Colorado and Oregon set up the
center – stepping in where governments and big charities had done

As the world grows more intertwined, African villagers mired in
disease, poverty and conflict – and those who want to help them –
are discovering new ways to connect, bypassing Africa’s
corruption-crippled governments and Western bureaucrats.

Television, radio and reports from migrant sons and daughters have
whetted village appetites for better living conditions. The recent
arrival of cellphones and e-mail in rural hubs encourages direct
links with Americans.

Help began with an e-mail

Here at Idweli, whose 1,300 people include more than 200 orphans,
the children’s center where Fodi now finds full plates of rice and
potatoes began with a simple e-mail.

Godfrey Mahenge, a student from Idweli studying medicine in
Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam, five years ago vowed to do
something to help orphans back home. He’d told elders of his plans.
They’d dismissed him as a dreamer.

Mahenge drowned five years ago while swimming in the ocean. But his
girlfriend, Neema Mgana, kept sending e-mail queries to groups
outside Africa. One e-mail reached Barry Childs, 61, a corporate
executive turned philanthropist in Oregon who’d formed the group
Africa Bridge to try to help villagers.

Instead of dismissing the message as just another African e-mail
scam, Childs asked for details. He paid for Mgana to visit him.

Childs enlisted Vic Dukay, 49, a former aviation-business owner in
Denver with experience running AIDS projects, to work with him at
Idweli. Their first visits in 2002 focused on listening to children
and village elders.

“You want to be useful,” said Dukay, a heavyset, jovial man prone
to overworking himself. Orphaned at age 15, he was later moved to
tears as he sat with kids unsure where they’d find their next meal
and who habitually raised their hands before speaking.

“It took me back instantly to when I was 15,” he said. “That
look in the eye, body language, speech, that low, soft voice,
wanting to be in the back of the room away from everybody, not
wanting to be seen. You look in their eyes. Have you ever seen
anybody really sad? I can see sadness in somebody’s eyes. …
Probably from looking at myself.”

Dukay and Childs guided construction of the center, five ochre-hued
buildings with cement-and-stone foundations. Village men did the
work. There’s no electricity or running water.

This year, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded Dukay a grant to
assess whether the children’s center is meeting village needs. He
led an evaluation team, including psychologists and social workers,
on his 10th visit to Idweli this fall – feeling “more alive than
I’ve ever felt,” he said.

Staving off extremists

Sustaining this children’s center, and possibly replicating it
elsewhere, is more than a humanitarian effort, Dukay said. Security
analysts worry that Africa’s millions of desperate AIDS orphans
will join jobless urban masses adrift and vulnerable to extremists
who could lure them into violence.

“Where best to recruit?” Dukay said. “Out here in the
hinterlands where there is no security.”

He watched Fodi playing soccer in donated white sneakers, fighting
hard for the ball against bigger players, despite his physical
weakness after three years of eating very little. Nhambo, solitary
and silent, played a bit, too.

Any chore, Fodi volunteered. He hauled a 16-foot-long bamboo pole
for a mile to help cooks who were building a shelf.

Life’s better now than before, Fodi said, recalling how taunts from
children with parents tormented him.

“I’d leave, go sit someplace alone. Very bad to hear. I thought:
‘This will happen many times in my life. People will always be
telling me I am an orphan.”‘

Far more typical across Africa today are orphaned children who
raise other children with no help. Village elders are overwhelmed.
Nearby at the village of Ndulamo, three teenage girls – Shida
Mahenge, 16, and her sisters, Ona, 14, and Rehema, 12 – huddled
together at sunset. When they beg for food from neighbors, “people
cannot give,” Shida said.

For five years after AIDS killed their father and then their
mother, Shida served as surrogate parent and caretaker, insisting
that Ona and Rehema stay in school.

“I’m always telling them they need to behave and to listen to
their teacher and when they don’t understand, to ask questions,”
she said.

She deals with food. Working to earn money means enduring
harassment from boys and men unaccustomed to working with a girl.
First, Shida broke rock into gravel that villagers sell to road
crews for maintenance.

“Very hard work. You have to carry the rocks. It takes a long time
with the hammer to break the rocks into small stones. Now, I work
carrying timber. I think it might be better.”

But this night they had no food or wood to burn and stay warm. The
girls huddled silently in the cold, blue darkness. They were
hungry, barely able to think about their dreams of attending a
vocational school.

“We like to pray,” Shida said. “We have a very hard life now. We
pray to God to help us, so that we will not get sick. … We need
help to survive.”

HIV adds to struggles

Helping children such as this can be difficult because many are
infected with HIV, the virus causing AIDS. Doctors are scarce,
about one per 50,000 people in rural Tanzania, let alone anti-retroviral drugs for villagers.

At a German-run clinic nearby in Bolongwa, Dr. Rainer Brandl was
amazed to see a tiny, bloated girl, her feet swollen, staggering in
from a farm.

When he tested Veneranda Ganga, 13, he found she was HIV-positive with virtually no immunities. Doubting she’d survive,
Brandl put her on anti-retrovirals.

Veneranda gained strength. She began helping around the hospital,
cradling an abandoned 1-year-old girl. She told nurses she’d been
sick for years, after her father died of AIDS. Later, her mother
died, too, when Veneranda was 5. Before dying, she said, her mother
told her: “You must listen to other people. One day I will die,
and you must get along.”

Each day Veneranda retrieved water, washed dishes and took care of
her brother and an aunt’s two young children. This year, she grew
too weak to work. “I told my uncle, I better go to the

Frustrated and deluged with sick children, Brandl works on a
shoestring, unable to pay and keep staff. United Nations and U.S.
aid often funds workshops for doctors and social workers in cities,
drawing them away from urgent work in villages, he said.

“Nobody wants to work out here,” he said.

Orphans start to cope

At the Idweli children’s center, regular meals, chores and classes
let orphans begin coming to terms with their plight.

Vaileti Bonifasi, 14, who was 2 when her parents died, said she’d
been sneaking away to visit their graves, praying a bit, talking
and crying.

“I was walking back home from school thinking: ‘How can I not even
know what my mother looked like?”‘ Vaileti said. “I thought about
it all the way home. And I was lying on my bed. When I got up, the
ghost of my mother came to me. She was speaking to me. But I
couldn’t understand her.”

Godfrey Mahenge’s younger brother Elia, 21, told Vaileti she should
ask her brother Fred at the family house by the graves if he had a
photo of their mother. When they arrived, they found Fred standing
with his wife, Gloria, and their baby.

“There’s no picture” of their mother, Fred said. Instead, Fred
produced a wrinkled, laminated driver’s license showing their
father, who died in 1994. Vaileti clutched it but still wanted a
photo of her mother.

“I need to compare it with the face of the ghost,” she said.

Involving the villagers

The cost of the project at Idweli, including construction and
support for daily operations, has been about $300,000. Now Dukay’s
evaluation is focused on perceptions of villagers and the

“Are there any concerns?” Dukay asked recently in the meeting
hall, addressing village elders. “If there are any problems in
what we are doing, I would like to know directly.”

Some villagers benefit – such as Florence Doset, 39, a mother of
two who teaches at the center. She earns $50 a month.

“Because of these children, we have money,” she said. “So we’re

Others are bewildered. Orphans at the center suddenly enjoy better
living conditions and food than other children living with their
parents. Project supporters have begun to give small
“microcredit” loans to villagers.

Fodi is now studying as his parents advised, but the habit of
worrying about Nhambo is ingrained. He recently warned Elia that
Nhambo’s mind wanders in school.

But Fodi also was beginning to think about himself. In the
classroom where he sat recently in the early evening, he summoned
the last energy he had to hold his head up. Three lanterns cast a
golden light just bright enough to illuminate the blackboard. Elia
was teaching English, writing sentences – “You sing a song” – for
students to copy.

This was extra instruction to give the orphans a better chance at
school. Twenty boys, mostly older, were taking advantage.

And Fodi was especially resolute.

He wanted to be ready for competitive tests that determine who
qualifies for college.

“I want to be a teacher,” Fodi said. “Then I can help other



Series reporter: Bruce Finley covers international affairs and
security for The Denver Post, which he joined in 1988. He has
reported from more than 30 nations, including his third tour in
Iraq with a U.S. combat unit earlier this year. This is Finley’s
fifth Africa assignment.

He grew up in Colorado, graduated from Stanford University in 1984
and earned master’s degrees in international relations as a
Fulbright scholar in Britain and in journalism at NorthwesternUniversity.

Finley can be reached at

Series photographer: Helen H. Richardson previously traveled to
Thailand and Indonesia to cover the South Asian tsunami and to Rome
for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, among other overseas
assignments for The Post, which she joined in 1993. Her freelance
work has appeared in The New York Times and Christian Science

Richardson grew up in Aspen and graduated from Parsons School of
Design in New York.

Richardson can be reached at

Series editor: Mark Harden

Photo editor: Larry C. Price

Copy editor: Eddie Chuculate

Maps and graphics: Severiano Galván

Multimedia producers: Doug Conarroe, Demetria Gallegos



Cellphones, e-mail and migrants are connecting rural Africa with
urban America, creating new possibilities for action to address
Africa’s pressing problems. Private groups in Colorado and
elsewhere are reaching the villages where two-thirds of Africans
live. “Africa Lifelines,” a three-day Denver Post series,
explores these efforts.

Today: A Coloradan works in a Tanzanian village where the spread of
AIDS is leaving growing numbers of children parentless.

Also, a Denver FBI agent cultivates African police as partners
against terrorism.

Monday: Efforts by Colorado-based Water for People to drill wells in Malawi help
thousands who search daily for safe water.

Tuesday: Colorado engineers assist Rwandan schoolgirls quavering
from the horrors of war.

Some quoted material in these reports was translated from Swahili,
Tambuka, Kinyarwanda and local dialects.

Village’s Hope Died Here

Dia’s family devastated by his death

DIORBIVOL, Senegal – “Baba?” cries 3-year-old Amadou,
clinging to his visiting uncle Abdourahmane’s right leg, dark
eyes shining with hope.


Little Amadou is bewildered by the soft sobbing among adults
he hears in this hot windy village at the edge of Africa’s
Sahara Desert. He’s never met his quiet, coffee-colored father.
They were supposed to meet this year. Yet now when Amadou asks
about Daddy, the sobbing gets louder.

Nobody can bear to tell Amadou the truth: His father –
38-year-old Oumar Dia – is dead. A gas station clerk shot him
one November night as he waited at a bus stop after work, half a
world away in Denver, Colo.

Now in tiny Diorbivol, the full meaning of Dia’s death is
starting to sink in: A bit of wanton barbarism in Denver
threatens the very survival of his village. Like villagers
across Africa, and much of the developing world, Dia’s people
depend increasingly on their migrant sons.

They sent Dia into the growing wave of tens of millions of
sons and daughters migrating from poorer nations to richer ones
to make better lives for themselves and their families back
home. And Dia became one of the newest of such immigrants in the
United States, where just about everybody has an ancestor who
came from someplace else – Ireland, Italy, Germany, Mexico. It
is a phenomenon that has defined our country.

Here in Africa, the situation resembles that of American farm
boys leaving the heartland for city lights. Young Africans go
far to get money at gateways to the global economy. They scrub,
lift, sell – any kind of job – in Dia’s case cleaning at a Hyatt
hotel. They send home money and sustain the places of their
heart – the familial villages where two-thirds of Africa’s 700
million people live.

The Denver Post decided to go to Dia’s village to investigate
the impact of his death on the people he was supporting. A month
after the murder, you can already measure the difference here in
Diorbivol. The rice supply is running out. The water pump that
used to irrigate rice paddies doesn’t work, and nobody’s in a
position to diagnose the problem, let alone pay for fuel. Eyes
and noses of the sick are left to run. Children no longer can
aspire to attend high school. Dia’s family must forget about a
solar panel that would let them turn on a light at night.

This wasn’t the first tragedy the family endured. In 1989,
they were driven from their village in Mauritania by the Moors
in a massive land grab. The conflict has racial overtones
because the lighter-skinned Moors still enslave dark-skinned
Mauritanians without land.

Now in this village where the Dia family resettled along the
Senegal River, Dia’s grieving relatives slump on straw mats
beneath the acacia tree that grows in their compound of cement
houses and adobe huts. A pale blue-and-yellow mosque towers over
the survivors: his widow, Mariam, veiled in black; his frail
father, Barka, tears seeping through slits of his nearly blind
eyes; his mother, Aissata, lines on her face etching in what
feels like too much of an endless struggle.

“Since Oumar died, we cannot live normally,” says
80-year-old Barka, clutching empty bottles of the glaucoma
medicine he needs to save him from blindness. “All what Oumar
had done in the United States, we saw it here. Everything we
needed to lead a good life came from Dia – health, shelter,

Now the family must decide what to do. Justice is one thing.
But they’re more concerned about simply managing to live.
They’ll send out other sons to try to take Dia’s place. And
they’ll pray.

“Alhamdoulilahi (Thanks be to God),” they say, bowing
repeatedly in respect at the rising and setting of the sun and
the moon and the stars.

The wooden casket sitting behind the mosque here has a splintered
hole in one end. This is the casket that carried Dia’s body
home, accompanied by Mohamadou Cisse, one of Dia’s friends in
Denver. The villagers received it, pulled out the body, and
buried Dia lovingly in the cemetery overlooking the Senegal
River. Dia’s freshly turned grave isn’t marked. The villagers
can’t afford that. But they welcomed Dia back, eulogizing him as
a hero slain while doing his duty for the village.

The villagers understand all too well: Dia bridged a gap that
is wider than the oceans.

Until he was 30, he lived the life of a subsistence farmer.

He was born and grew up in Rouji Aoudi, Mauritania, a squat
adobe village half a day’s hike from here on the northern side
of the Senegal River. He liked to wrestle, sometimes tussling
with other boys to the beat of a drum in parched, dusty yards.

At age 7, he began school, hiking 3 miles and crossing the
river to Senegal, then climbing up through eroding gullies to a
village called Poste. A teacher in a one-room concrete building
taught French, bits of geography and history. At 12, his
education was finished, because his parents had no money to send
him away for high school. So he did what boys do across this
Pulaar-speaking region: herded goats, fished from pirogues in
the murky green river, tended green shoots of maize and millet,
savored the strong sweet tea that women prepare after dusk.

But then, one day in May 1989, everything changed.

Khaki-clad Mauritanian soldiers approached his village. The
fertile floodplain around Rouji Aoudi is one of the few parts of
Mauritania with the potential for large-scale development. In
1989, indiscriminate attacks on Pulaar-speaking people flared
into a brutal campaign that forced out more than 70,000
landowners – persecution that human-rights groups describe as a
Bosnia that the rich world ignored.

When the soldiers arrived, most of the villagers, including
Dia’s family, fled, paddling pirogues across the river to
Senegal. Dia and a half-dozen other men never made it.

The soldiers caught them and arrested them. They marched them
20 miles along the river at gunpoint to what Dia later would
describe as “a military labor camp” at Mbagne. Moorish
authorities have jailed hundreds of Pulaar-speaking people as
political prisoners, and other dark-skinned Mauritanians are
condemned to work as indentured slaves.

The soldiers put Dia and the others to work tilling hard soil
and hauling rocks. Apparently, the Moors believed rocks near
Mbagne contained iron. They used the prisoners as miners. In the
camp, soldiers fed Dia very little.

Others fared worse. In Rouji Aoudi, soldiers gang-raped a
local beauty named Djeneba Baidy. As refugees tell the story,
her parents rescued her one night, led her to the river, sent
her away in a pirogue to Senegal. She took shelter with Dia’s
uncle, Djiby, in Diorbivol. When the soldiers found she was
gone, they threatened to kill the parents if Djeneba wasn’t
returned. Resigned, Djeneba’s brother Adama crossed the river to
collect his sister at Djiby’s house in Diorbivol. The two headed
back to Rouji Aoudi. As they were approaching the village,
soldiers with machine guns opened fire, mowed them down and left
them dying in the dirt.

After two months, the soldiers released Dia and other
prisoners, and ordered them out of Mauritania across the Senegal
River. Dia searched for his family at the Thilogne refugee camp.
When he found them eventually at a camp near Matam, his parents
looked defeated and old. He stayed with them for a few weeks.
But he knew, without asking, there was only one thing to do.

The ethnic cleansing in Mauritania forced Dia to leave rural
Africa for a fundamentally different world.

He squeezed into a 16-seat Car Rapide bus and set out for
Dakar, Senegal’s capital. It was a 12-hour drive down a pocked
two-lane blacktop road that curls across the threshold between
traditional and modern. The closer Dia got to Dakar, the busier
life became. There were more cars, and they moved faster.
Streetside stacks of watermelons for sale grew higher. There
were more merchants, and their voices grew more and more
aggressive. There were power lines and factories of all sorts
making tissues and phosphates and battery acid.

In Dakar, Dia shared a room with a cousin in the crowded slum
of Pikine. He worked shining shoes, lugging a box of rags and
polish. He charged about 20 cents a shine. He saved up enough to
travel, by train and bus, to Abidjan, capital of Ivory Coast,
and later to Libreville, capital of oil-rich Gabon. In these
cities, Dia bought and sold costume jewelry, stringing the
necklaces enticingly across his long, slender fingers and
smiling so that maybe pedestrians would stop.

In this new, busy city world, family life fit in on the side.

On one brief visit to Diorbivol, Dia married Mariam. On
another visit, he rejoiced at the birth of a daughter. Two years
later, Mariam gave birth to another daughter. Dia told her he
also wanted a son. And he wanted to stay with the family. But
the family needed money. Life was tearing Dia apart.

He left again, vowing to return one day and keep their
fractured family together. He promised Mariam he wouldn’t be
like his oldest brother, who went to France 25 years ago and
never came home.

Yet living up to that promise – a promise made by millions of
African men – became incredibly hard. Between 1970 and 1990,
economies crashed and jobs disappeared across Africa, where 270
million people live on less than $1 a day. Conflicts flared from
Kano to Kinshasa. An old bailout option for West Africans in
former French colonies – migrating to Paris – was closed off
under tough new immigration rules.

Dia grew desperate. And on June 3, 1994, he boarded his first
airplane, the Air Afrique flight to New York, where his cousin
Sileye Gaye was living in a basement in Brooklyn. Dia had
embarked on the heart-driven struggle that led millions of
immigrants from around the world into better lives in America.

Almost as soon as he landed at Kennedy International Airport,
he felt a new “time is money” ethic sweeping him up like a
desert wind.

He hailed a cab, and gave Gaye’s address on Dean Street. When
the cab arrived, Gaye emerged from the two-bedroom basement. Dia
got out, said: “America, it’s not like what you hear once you
arrive. It’s harder.”

Gaye knew what he meant. Sometimes Gaye missed Africa so much
he stayed awake all night thinking. If only there were more jobs
at home.

At first, the two worked together as street vendors. “Seven
to seven,” they would say, referring to their 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

They’d hurry, hurry, catch the A or C train to Manhattan.
There, at a wholesale warehouse, they’d buy discounted
merchandise – Tommy Hilfiger knockoffs, watches – then haul the
stuff back to Brooklyn to sell on the streets.

It was anxious work, complicated by neighborhood gangsters.
When street vendors started packing guns for protection, police
told them: You fight, you both go to jail. Some vendors still
carried bats to scare off gangsters. “We never worked like this
before,” Gaye said, referring to the long hours and the danger.

At night, they retreated to the basement, ate together and
prayed to Allah. After praying, Dia would sit for a few minutes
stroking his red prayer beads contemplatively.

“Alhamdoulilahi,” he would whisper. Thanks be to God.

Meanwhile, across the world, Dia’s mother, Aissata, was
praying, too, in her crumbling adobe hut. Aissata thought about
her son even when she was sleeping. She missed him. Yet facing a
severe drought, she relied on the money he sent to buy rice and

“In ancient times, there used to be everything here in the
forest,” she explained to her villagers when they asked about
Dia. “Everything we needed was right here. Man did not need to
go away to get things for the family. But now that the wars have
destroyed everything, man is obliged to go abroad to find things
for the family. Many of our fields have been confiscated.”

Here’s the real tragedy of Oumar Dia’s life: Starting in
1996, he was actually managing to make his miracle – the
American miracle – happen the way it’s supposed to. He found a
better job in New York, running a trash compactor for a
janitorial company. Remembering his imprisonment in Mauritania,
he also filed two applications for political asylum.

“The situation in Mauritania has not improved, and I still
fear returning there,” Dia wrote. In the United States, he
sought “protection and relief from the atrocities I have

He seldom took time off work. One day he made an exception.
He rode the ferry from the southern tip of Manhattan to the
Statue of Liberty. He came back smiling.

And in July 1996, after two years in New York City, he
boarded a Greyhound bus for Colorado. He’d heard that a growing
number of West African immigrants earned good money there, and
that Colorado was cheaper than New York. Africans said they felt
less racial tension than in New York.

In Denver, he shared a third-floor apartment off East Colfax
Avenue with fellow Africans. He found work as a janitor at the
Hyatt hotel Downtown. He wore a white uniform and earned $6.50
an hour. And he enrolled in an English class at Emily Griffith
Opportunity School. He took copious notes.

“I am tired” and “She is lonely” are two sentences he
wrote in a workbook.

On Nov. 12, 1996, his application for political asylum was
approved. Dia cried. He celebrated over dinner and fruit juice
with friends. For an African migrant, asylum status means you
can at least think of visiting home without worrying about not
being able to get back into the United States.

And Dia was thinking a lot about his family in Diorbivol. He
sent back $200 a month. He figured out how to phone home through
an expensive and tedious process.

Once a month, he dialed the number of a shop run by Abdul
N’Diaye in Orefonde, a town near Diorbivol. Dia would tell
whoever answered to send somebody to Diorbivol to tell Mariam
Dia that her husband in America would try to call the next day
and to be by the phone in Orefonde. She would walk there, two
hours each way. Sometimes, when Dia couldn’t get off work at the
Hyatt, she waited all day for a call from the United States that
never came.

But when they did connect, Mariam’s heart leapt at the
sensation of hearing Dia’s voice.

“How are the children?” he would say. “The family? What is
lacking there?”

They made plans. They relied on Mamadou Gaye, Dia’s cousin
who lived in Dakar, to relay goods and transfer money. There are
no banks, not even a power line, in Diorbivol. When Amadou was
sick with an open sore on his stomach, Gaye brought the boy to
Dakar for medical treatment.

For the future, Dia envisioned a solar panel on his family’s
roof so his children could see at night. He wanted to help fix
the machine that pumped water up from the river to irrigate rice
paddies. He thought about maybe moving Mariam and the children
to Dakar, where schools were better – maybe even flying them to
Colorado. On the night before he was killed, he telephoned Gaye
in Brooklyn and said he was missing his family too much. This
system of living apart made no sense to him.

“I want to bring them out here,” he told Gaye. “They’d be

More than anything, Dia wanted to meet Amadou, his son who
was born after he left for the United States. Now that he had
papers, he promised Mariam he would visit this coming summer, no
matter what. He set aside some money he usually sent home to buy
a plane ticket.

“That’s why this year we couldn’t have new clothes,” Mariam
tells me.

He would get to know his children at last. Then it all fell

Maybe it was Dia’s determination to see his son Amadou that
explains why he didn’t fight back that night Nov. 18.

He’d just finished work at the Hyatt, was sitting on a 17th
Street bus bench waiting for the last No. 20 bus, which was due
to come by at 11:49 p.m. Jeannie VanVelkinburgh, a single mother
he’d never seen before, joined him waiting by the bench.

Denver police reports describe what happened next. About
11:40, Nathan Thill, a 19-year-old who called himself a
supremacist skinhead, and a friend, with a few beers inside
them, approached the bus bench. They saw Dia. They taunted him
and called him racist names. Finally, they knocked his cap off,
onto the pavement.

VanVelkinburgh reached and picked up the cap. As she was
handing it back to Dia, at 11:46, one of the men opened fire. He
pumped three bullets into Dia’s upper chest and neck. Then, as
VanVelkinburgh turned trying to flee, the killer fired another
bullet into her back that left her paralyzed. Thill later
confessed to the killing. He said he targeted Dia “because he
was black” and didn’t belong in America.

At 12:15 a.m. in the Denver Health Medical Center emergency
room, Dr. Brad Post pronounced Dia dead.

Is that Oumar?” comes the voice of 3-year-old Amadou in
Diorbivol, mid-December, two weeks before Ramadan.

He has glimpsed a framed photo of Dia that village elders are
passing around as they look over condolence letters I delivered
from Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, Dia’s classmates and dozens
of other people in Colorado.

The elders are sitting on the floor of a 12-by-14-foot room.
They nod as a visiting graduate student I hired slowly
translates Webb’s letter into the local Pulaar.

Afterward, the elders make public speeches of thanks to Webb,
President Clinton and the thousands of Coloradans who attended
public anti-hate rallies after the slaying. The killing was a
tragedy for which people of Denver “should be embarrassed,”
Barka Dia allows. Yet the sympathetic way Denver leaders dealt
with Dia’s death – from paying to send Dia’s body to Diorbivol
to prosecution of the crime – leaves the villagers heartened.

“We consider Americans to be the leading people in the
world,” Barka Dia says.

Yet here in this village, where people have virtually
nothing, nearly every family has delivered me a meal to eat. And
the elders have given me a goat – enough meat to feed a family
here for several days. This African village – with such marginal
prospects for the 21st century – is a cradle of basic human

The elders tell me villagers have accepted Dia’s death as fate.

Fate is the standard explanation African villagers settle on
when their migrant sons are slain far away. Of the thousands of
Africans who set out from Senegal’s old slave port of Dakar, at
least 40 were murdered in New York over the past five years,
government officials told me. Most were gypsy cabdrivers,
serving dangerous neighborhoods that other cabdrivers avoid. In
each case, villagers mourned. Yet village elders won’t hesitate
to send out more sons to America, government officials said,
because the murders were fate and the villagers have no better

Now in Diorbivol, Dia’s people explain intently that they’re
struggling to move beyond their grief. But there’s so much to
do. For example, the broken water pump. Nobody can afford to fix
it, let alone pay for the fuel to run it. The rice paddies are
drying up, and food supplies are dwindling. Store-bought rice in
Orefonde costs too much. Then there are sick villagers with
runny noses and watery eyes.

Amadou squirms insistently in the arms of his sisters –
5-year-old Djeneba and 7-year-old Makai. The girls remember
their father. They are fine-boned, gentle, content to be quiet,
the way Oumar appears in videos taken before the murder. They
like to play by the river, scooping mud from the banks, molding
it into pirogues and cows. If American children come to
Diorbivol, Makai informs me, “I will take them down to the
river to play.”

As Amadou squirms, Barka Dia, draped in blue robes, clears
his throat, then lays out concerns that are far more pressing
here than the abstract concept of justice. He points at the
children. Makai should be starting school, but the teacher
appointed to work in Diorbivol hasn’t shown up. The family can’t
afford to send the children away to school.

“I am 80 years old now,” he says as the villagers fall
silent. His left hand shakes, still clutching those empty
bottles of glaucoma medicine that he needs.

“As you can see, I cannot work, I cannot do anything,” he
says. “I was always waiting for Oumar to give me things. What
we are eating now was given to us by Oumar. Everything we have
now came from Oumar. And he’s got these three children, two
daughters and one son. These children cannot live if you in the
United States don’t help us.”

The only silent adult on this day is 27-year-old Mariam Dia,
Dia’s widow. Tall and slender, downturned face shrouded in
purple, she’s following a tradition of mourning in seclusion and
silence for three months. But she makes an exception on behalf
of her children.

“If I had the means, I would send my children to study
abroad,” she says. “The men who are responsible for Dia’s
death, I pray to God they may help us, so that we can raise the
children in the best way.”

She pauses for a moment, thinking of the long road from
Mauritania to murder, and how her family in Africa fits into the
modern world. She sighs.

“The best place for the children,” she says resolutely,
“would be the United States.”


Friends of Oumar Dia, local Muslims and Dia’s employers at
the Downtown Denver Hyatt Regency Hotel have been collecting
money since Dia was killed Nov. 18. The goal is to provide for
Dia’s family, said John Schafer, general manager at the hotel.
So far, more than $20,000 has been raised.

Donations can be made to:

c/o Norwest Bank,
1740 Broadway, MS 8671,
Denver 80274;

For more information, contact John Schafer, general
manager, Hyatt Regency Denver, 1750 Welton St., Denver 80202.
Telephone: (303)295-1234.

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