Where You’re Not

Daniel was a rare and talented warrior.

He was razor sharp. He picked things up so quickly it was like he’d seen it all before. His eyes would latch on to someone when they talked like he was quietly downloading them. He was strong and tough, viciously so, if he needed to be. We beat him down like we beat down the others so that we could build them back up. But he never flinched. He never lost that deep set, dark stare. He refused to be broken down. Perhaps because we could never build him back better than he already was.

It was his home, not ours, but he had traveled further than any of us to be where he was. 

When we worked, he was always first through whatever it was that was his. Not because he wanted to impress us. He simply did things better. Soon he was doing them better than we were.

He knew books and scripture. If you sat down to talk to him, when it was quiet and everything was still, the mentoring quickly changed directions. Once, churning through a hard tactical problem for longer than I normally did, insistent on solving two objectives when there was only time for one, he shuffled close to me and said in his delicate Swahili accent, “Lieutenant, if a man tries to serve two masters…he will serve neither.”

He was right. I didn’t listen. And I almost killed us all.

I hadn’t told anyone what I was looking at or solving for. He simply figured it out. He knew the problem as well as I did. He could see things beyond the range of his rifle and outside his field of fire. Like he was looking down on the whole battle problem from above. It was something that had taken me years to learn.

If they let me, I would have put him in charge of all of it. But I couldn’t. He was a corporal.

The officers from his world were jokes compared to him. They were bureaucrats from the right tribe. He was from the wrong tribe. The wrong family. The wrong country.

He was every bit my equal. And they paid him six dollars a day.

I think about Daniel from time to time. I wonder where he is or what he’s up to. I hope he’s still in the fight. Because I don’t think he’s got much of a place to be what he is if he isn’t. The tragedy of that last sentence can’t be over stated.

There’s a hundred stories wrapped up in Daniel. About inequality and opportunity and poverty. About privilege, white, American or other. Chances are, wherever on earth you started, your rung was above his. He was born into a dirt floor in a mud hut with a thatched roof on a lake in the heart of Africa. His family had been there for fifty thousand years. Mine had been in Manhattan for 300. The unfairness of that is consuming if you take the time to honestly account for it all. Even more when you consider that many Americans who never lifted a finger in the fight we served shoulder to shoulder in would lock him out, if he came knocking at our door in need.

He was, after all, from the wrong country. Wrong family. Wrong tribe.

There’s not a political message here. No lecture about how we ought to be and why someone else is wrong or why I’m right. I don’t want to debate anything. I just wanted to tell you about my friend.

The other day, a poet friend of mine posted the poem, Poem About My Rights by June Jordan, who I don’t know anything in the world about. I get out of my depth pretty quickly when it comes to poetry or poets or feminism. If she’s a horrible person whose politics don’t agree with yours, then fine. I’m sure someone will let me know. It won’t change her words though. Or the soul they came from.

“I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this”


It’s all horribly unfair. All of it.

The sting of inequality in this world always reminds of of Daniel. So much of the story of man is told in the space between his life and mine. I feel a deep and genuine sadness for those who have never crossed that river to the other side and learned to walk and live with those over there.

How can they ever feel anything about where they are, until they’ve felt what I’ve felt about where they’re not?


8 thoughts on “Where You’re Not

  1. I really enjoy your writing. I went to Africa (Zambia) last September for a few weeks helping in a village. I have felt something like you write about here ever since. I probably felt it before, but not as profoundly. For most people so very much of the quality of their lives has to do with where and who their tribe is.


  2. Sean, once again your writing knocks me out. Simple, powerful, elegant, but what makes it great is that it is in the service of your humanity. Your compassion and honesty are brave and heartfelt. Thank you.

    Have you seen the documentary Wardance?


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