January 31, 2003 - American Institute for Yemeni Studies: Yemen RPCV Thomas Richard writes about Yemeni Dreams

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Yemen: Peace Corps Yemen: The Peace Corps in Yemen: January 31, 2003 - American Institute for Yemeni Studies: Yemen RPCV Thomas Richard writes about Yemeni Dreams

By Admin1 (admin) on Friday, January 31, 2003 - 3:16 pm: Edit Post

Yemen RPCV Thomas Richard writes about Yemeni Dreams

Yemen RPCV Thomas Richard writes about Yemeni Dreams

Yemeni Dreams

by Thomas J. Richard

Hazam my land lord had three wives, a serial monogamist. He divorced the first two after he could not have children. On his third wife he got the message. He remained childless, but as a consolation he like all Yemeni families had lots of children amongst his relatives. He even adopted one of his cousins' children for a short time. He worked for the Saudis in one of the oil fields where he picked up a good command of the English language. He was one of the smart ones who knew when to get out and invest his money. From that choice he was able to produce a good income from a dukan in Sanaa. I rented his summer home in the Huggaria. When Yemenis talk about going back to the qariya, this was what they mean -- a kind of cabin on the lake, with lots of relatives. For some it was the wife and kids.

Hazam was excited when he learned I was going on a vacation to Kenya. He knew several Yemenis in Nairobi and Mombassa. Some were his cousins or others Yemenis he had met while working in Magic Kingdom. Hazam was a bird lover. During his two week summer vacation he would sit on the roof in the morning and late evening listening to song birds. He was also an entrepreneur who had hit some winners in Sanaa. His latest scheme was to raise and sell exotic song birds. His wife thought it was a bird-brained idea but relented when she found out the investment was minimal. Yemenis although not accustomed to keeping pets looked on a caged song bird as a kind of status symbol and a curiosity. A song bird was not your average mangy kalb or a chained monkey and it made a nice prop for the mafraj.

Hazams' proposition was that while in Kenya I buy four birds from his cousin in Mombassa and bring the creatures back to Yemen. The logistics were a little complicated but I thought if it didn't work out I could attribute it to Allahs' will. Hazam had done a great deal of work before he showed up at my door with the crisp new American dollars. Some of them were of dubious heritage. It was not uncommon to find bogus bills in Yemen but this did not stop commerce from rolling on even at the big banks. He handed me a letter to his cousin and a envelope containing all the Yemeni tasrihs I would need at the airport. He explained the few things I would have to do before I could leave Kenya with the birds. There was the veterinarian certificate, the wild-life export certificate, and the customs export certificate. All of these documents I was supposed to acquire on my free time while on vacation. I thought, Kenya being a former British Colony with a good civil service, it shouldn't require too much time to complete the formalities.

Hazams' cousin owned a business in Mombassa mostly exporting tea to Yemen. He lived on one of the back streets in the north part of old Mombassa in the Arab section. Most of the neighbors were Kenyan-Arab, a few were light skinned Arabs. The Yemenis I know are very conscious of their skin color although the Saudis call them the Negroes of the Arab World. Abd Al Wahab was one of those pure bred Yemeni Arabs. Wahab produced a fine Kenyan tea for us in his mafraj. He was an expert in the tea market and went on and on about the subtle differences in flavors of the teas of Kenya. Wahab had an aviary in the rear of his bayt stocked with exotic birds any western zoo would be love to have. Wahab produced a small box with the fragile cargo.

The return from Mombassa to Nairobi normally is an overnight train trip. When I awoke the next morning, stopped on the rail grade in the Tsavo National Park, I knew something was wrong. The conductor did not know how long we would be there. There was a derailment up the tracks and they were working on leveraging the locomotive back on the line. Finally the word came. They had no idea how long it would take for the train to reach Nairobi. The birds were holding up remarkably well confined in their cardboard prison. The conductor suggested we take a bus.

The hike out through lion country to the main road was about a mile. The conductor assured us we had nothing to worry about because the lions feed in the evening. I joined the trail of morsels for felines. The problem was that there were over 200 people who had the same idea. It was also a week end afternoon so traffic was light to begin with. Most of the buses were packed solid with workers returning to Nairobi. After the crowd had thinned I squeezed into the isle of a bus and even got a seat after a few stops. In Nairobi we began our final preparation to leave for Yemen. Unfortunately because of the train derailment we had one less day to do it.

I went off to a veterinarian to buy the health certificate. The veterinarian didn't even look at the birds. But I was glad I left with a nice piece of paper sporting an embossed seal and a few Kenyan revenue stamps. I then went to the customs office where I was instructed to go to the Wildlife Office first. The Wildlife Office near the Kenyan National Museum had a life sized bronze of the elder Leakey. These were defiantly good digs, nice clean offices with all the latest equipment. The officer in Kenyan Wildlife browns paged through his bird manual to identify the exotic birds. I sighed with relief as he pulled out a certificate, embossed it with a seal and licked two Kenyan revenue stamps. Then another piece of paperwork. In an effort to keep track of all the bird traffic the Wildlife Service was collecting information on the origin and destinations of the birds. That two page document took about half an hour as the officer typed the information on his vintage Crown relic type writer one key at a time. Finally one more piece of paper, the export certificate was issued quickly with an embossed seal and two Kenyan revenue stamps. Alhamdullah, I thought.

The next morning off I went to the airport with Hazams' cargo. Abd al Wahab had given me strict instructions to conceal the birds because it would tempt money-hungry airport authorities to contrive some certificate I had not yet acquired. Yet for a small fee I could be off on my way into the wild blue yonder. Before I could utter a word the baggage inspector had grabbed my carry on. Oops there go the birds into the X ray scanner. One minute and 200,000 ovary cooking Roentgens latter the birds emerged. Alive I thought; yes, God had willed it! But for how long I wondered. Hizam had no children and here I just ruined his only hope. The clandestine bird smuggling had worked except for the unintended sterilization.

We boarded in Nairobi for our flight to Sanaa and I was home free from here on I thought. Then the pilot announces we will stop briefly in Djibouti to refuel. Fuel, my Yemeni seat mate commented, is cheaper in Djibouti. As a precaution passengers deplaned onto the sunbaked tarmac. We all huddled under a tin roofed shelter, thirty of us and four birds. Now Djibouti is hotter than you can imagine. Humid, hot, hot as blazes, hotter than blazes. We were at least 24º C. The birds had stopped singing immediately and rolled over on their sides breathing frantically. I thought they were goners. We replaned , re-air conditioned and the birds miraculously came back to life. God, I thought, once again had willed it.

In Sanaa, Hazam was waiting at the airport to claim his precious cargo. He used the standard line to bust past the customs officers at the air port: " Oh my brother works in customs". I handed them over but I couldn't bear to tell him his dream would go unfulfilled. Several times later he mentioned the birds would not lay eggs. I told him I thought most birds in captivity were sterile. He enjoyed their singing at least but his fortune was not to be. And it had nothing to do with the birds' brains.

Author's Note: I lived in Yemen as a Peace Corps volunteer. My village was outside of Turbah on the edge of Wadi Magatira. In my spare time I would explore the country side with the village kids, peer over the edge of the wadi, chew gat, and collect Yemeni editorial cartoons. A number of Peace Corps served as medical volunteers in Yemen, working as medical laboratory technologists and nurses. Volunteers saw many unusual diseases like malaria, bilharsia and leishmania. Diseases like diabetes and hypertension are also problems in Yemen. Volunteers are plagued by many of the same problems seen in other developing countries: lack of infrastructure, supplies and skilled personel. One of the Peace Corps goals was to train local medical personel, particularly in rural areas where resources are most scarce. Volunteers were involved in medical care, laboratory, immunization, pharmacy and other disciplines. One of the most difficult problems for volunteers in Yemen is bridging the medical-cultural gap. The medical culture of Yemen is an amalgum of Yemeni, French, German, Russian, British and Cuban influences. Sometimes our beliefs and practices are at odds. Volunteers need to adapt to the daily challenges of village life and must live at the econmic level of their co-workers.

By Jamie Holland ( on Tuesday, January 04, 2005 - 5:01 pm: Edit Post

Hi Turbah Tom
I was a Mahk-bareeah too. I visited you in 1990 and we attended a seminar in the Tihama together. Thanks for the story. Would love to hear from any any RPCV's Yemen. james.holland3@comcast.net

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