“What is the world’s greatest lie?” the little boy asks.
The old man replies, “It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.” – The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
My jaw hangs open as I read the news.
Gunmen stormed Garissa University College in Kenya early this morning and killed 147 people.
I push my breakfast aside, lean closer to the screen. No. Please god no.
Al-Shabaab rounded up 700 students from the University’s dormitories and then executed all the Christians.
I’m numb with fear. It takes a deep breath to brace myself before I can keep reading.
Collins Wetangula, the vice chairman of the student union, said that when the gunmen arrived at his dormitory he could hear them opening doors and asking if the people who had hidden inside whether they were Muslims or Christians. “If you were Christian you were shot on the spot. With each blast of the gun I though I was going to die.”
He said that when he heard the gunshots he locked himself and three roommates in their room.
“All I could hear were footsteps and gunshots – nobody was screaming because they thought this would lead the gunmen to know where they are,” he said. “The next thing, we saw people in military uniform through the window of the back of our rooms who identified themselves as the Kenyan military,” Wetangula said. The soldiers took him and around 20 others to safety.
“We started running and bullets were whizzing past our heads and the soldiers told us to dive,” Wetangula said. He said the soldier told the students later that Al-Shabaab snipers were perched on a three-story dormitory called the Elgon and were trying to shoot them.
I lean back on my chair, unable to process this, frozen like a deer caught in headlights. Why would anyone kill so many unarmed and innocent people? I will never know.
Practical thoughts cut through the fog of horror. This affects my personal safety as well. I’m supposed to leave Kampala for Nairobi tomorrow morning, and then after that I’m supposed to travel north to the Ethiopian boarder town of Moyale. I have been planning to cross Kenya as quickly as possible for this very reason.
Garissa State University is located just a few hours northeast of Nairobi, and it sits close enough to the route I’m supposed to take that I will have to rethink my plans. But there is nothing to rethink. I’ve already researched this to exhaustion.
If I want to get out of Africa overland, this is the only way I can go. There is no alternate route.
As I read over more of the awful details of the attack, my phone buzzes. It’s a text from Roman, the manager of the FedEx store where I received my passport two days ago. What is this? I’ve already picked up my package…
“I don’t know how true it is but just beware. A massive bombing or hostage taking mission is expected in Uganda in the next 48 hours. It’s advised to stay indoors. Army deployment is heavy in Kampala. Apparently Al-Shabaab wants to enter a place and shoot as many people as possible. So avoid crowded places. Please inform your loved ones.”
My hands start trembling. I’m not equipped to deal with this. My dream was to travel around the world and express myself in creative ways, but dealing with all that surrounds Al-Shabaab has gone far beyond anything I’ve ever expected. Everywhere I need to go is now feeling a serious risk. I don’t feel safe in Kampala any longer (which is why I’m leaving), I don’t feel safe going to Nairobi, and the route from Nairobi to Ethiopia is probably the most dangerous of them all.
I’m left with only option if I want to guarantee my safety. I must book the next flight out.
I search for the cheapest flight to either Rome, Barcelona or Paris. The internet spits back fares that are all reasonably priced, but each time I stop and think about boarding, my heart sinks.
As I settle on a flight that leaves for Rome later today I can feel all the joy draining from me, like I’m back working for someone else again. Each time I envision a boarding pass in my hand, it’s overpoweringly depressing.
If you have ever truly listened to your heart then you know that when you quit on a dream, a piece of you dies the moment the dream does. And I know that if I quit now, I will never be able get it back. Some people can ignore that missing piece of themselves and approach life with what’s left. I can’t. No – I won’t.
If I decide to fly to Rome I will be giving up on my dream, but if I decide to keep going, it’s very possible that I will put myself in a life-threatening position.
As I weigh my options I look around the rooftop of the guesthouse I’m staying at. There is a worn-out tiki bar in the corner, a refrigerator with a few bottles of water and soda piled inside it and a couple of lounge chairs facing Kampala’s skyline.
I literally have no idea what to do. I can’t quit, but I can’t keep going either. I’m angry and frustrated.
Needing answers, I start talking to the empty rooftop.
“I’m tired of trying to figure all this out on my own. Why are you making it so hard for me to get across Africa? I have given every single ounce of myself to this. I don’t know what to do. I could use some help. Could you give me a sign or something? Can you please help me? Can you please tell me once and for all exactly what it is that you want me to do?”
While I wait for some kind of response, I can hear children playing in the park across the street and birds chirping from the telephone wires they’re resting on.
The only book in sight is the Bible on the coffee table right in front of me. I didn’t see it when I first sat down, but I suddenly have a strong urge to pick it up. Something deep inside me tells me that this book has my answer. It’s not like I hear a voice or a get a fuzzy feeling or anything like that. In fact I can’t even really put into words, it’s just something that I know. I know that when I pick this book up it will tell me exactly what to do.
I’m going to close my eyes and blindly open this Bible to a random page and then I’m going to spin my index finger in circles and then plop it down on a random line on that random page. Whatever that line tells me to do is what I’m going to do.
I’ve gone through this routine before. Sometimes when I’m at the bookstore and I have to decide between two books, I’ll compare randomly-chosen lines, and whichever line I relate to more, that’s the book I’ll buy.
But I’ve never imagined doing it to determine the course of my life.
Time out for a second. Before I go any further, this seems like a good place to pause for a second to my feelings about the Bible, so people can determine if they need to start hating me. Fact is, I’ve never cared for the Bible too much. It’s clearly an incredibly important presence in the lives of many people – but not mine. I was born a Presbyterian, and by definition I am a Christian, although I probably wouldn’t call myself that. I went to Sunday school, got confirmed and did the whole youth group thing as a child, but I don’t remember much about it. On Sundays, all I wanted to do was sleep in and then watch football all afternoon. Sunday school and Church was always the one-two combination that stopped me from doing that. They painfully pulled me out of bed early in the morning, stuffed me into uncomfortable clothes that never properly fit my lanky frame and then caused me miss the first quarter of the Eagles game. Going up against my two childhood loves, sleep and football, the Bible never stood a chance.
It wasn’t until 2012 and when I really started to travel more that I spent some time in Buddhist and Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues and Christian churches that my views on religion and spirituality began to broaden and change.
I love what Elizabeth Gilbert says about religion, and she sums it up much better than I can.
“In the end, what I have come to believe about God is simple. It’s like this – I used to have this really great dog. She came from the pound. She was a mixture of about ten different breeds, but seemed to have inherited the finest features of them all. She was brown, when people asked me, “What kind of dog is that?” I would always give the same answer: “She’s a brown dog.” Similarly, when the question is raised, “What kind of God do you believe in?” my answer is easy: “I believe in a magnificent God.”
On that same trip in 2012, I found what came to become my Bible, and although it’s a work of fiction, I’ve treated it like it’s fact. Paulo Coelho’s book The Alchemist has undoubtedly changed my life. I reached for it on a flight from Bangkok to New Delhi and I read it cover to cover before I landed. It immediately became the most important story in my life.
The message for the main character was simple, Santiago, a shepherd boy, has a recurring dream which tells him that he will find a hidden treasure if he travels to the Egyptian Pyramids. He sells all of his sheep and decides to take the risks required to pursue his Personal Legend. Many of the characters Santiago meets along his journey use the word Maktub, which in Arabic means, “it is written”. The word Maktub typically appears to Santiago every time he is about to take a big risk. Every time he sees this word he is able to relax with the reassurance that all of his actions are in the context of fate which God has written. As Santiago learns, fate always cooperates with those who pursue their Personal Legends, so as long as he remains true to his heart, he can be at ease because his destiny has already been written.
I close my eyes and tilt my head up towards the sky, and I think about those same Egyptian Pyramids, I picture what they will look like at sunset, and what it would mean to me if I actually saw them with my own two eyes after crossing all of Africa. The sight of them has become my treasure.
With my eyes still closed I flip open the Bible to a random page, then I start to swirl my finger around in circles – and push my finger forward until it meets the tissue-thin paper.
There are 783,137 words in the Bible and my finger lands three of them. I whisper them to myself as tears flood my eyes…
“It is written.”