Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Africans, Falling and Climbing: Berhane and Matada

On a cool London morning, around 8am, last September some previously routine suburbanites came upon the remains of a pulverized man on a street.  Cause of death was initially uncertain, despite the clear indications of blunt trauma.

The mystery was not only in figuring out which injuries, among his many, caused his death, but how they happened:  how does a man come to look as if he fell to his death from a great height when there is nothing of a great height nearby?

Police used a phone card found in his wallet to identify him as an illegal, José Matada.  Said one witness on the scene, "It is unbelievable.  The first thing I thought when I saw the body was that it must have fallen from quite a height."  Although he held currency from Angola, he was a Mozambique national.

Six months later, coroners gave the cause of death as "multiple injuries," an insight that proved unsatisfying for several reasons.  It revealed nothing new; even the first witnesses on the scene remarked that the body had been subjected to multiple injuries.  Worse, it failed to tell the story of how this African suffered a series of life-ending injuries.  The question we all asked--how did a man fall from a great height in a place without anything of great height?--remained.

Finally, it failed to do what investigations are supposed to do--it failed to provide a single answer, a cause (not causes) of death.  
José Matada
The police finally provided that story by linking Jose's story with that of others--of a faraway airport with a desperate man finding a perch on an airplane's landing gear, of that plane taking off and the gear retracting, of that man possibly being killed by the retraction, or of that man freezing to death and/or asphyxiating in the sub-zero temperatures in the lower reaches of the stratosphere.

In 1996, two brothers attempted the feat from India.  One survived, one did not.

In 2000, two bodies were found in pastures south of London; the story the press gave was that they had fallen from two different planes.

There's something about this story of a man climbing into a plane in Luanda, dying, then plummeting into the London suburbs.  I'm not sure what.

Maybe I think of the desperation Matada and others feel, and whether, when they run out to the aircraft, about to take off, they understand the misery and almost certain death awaiting them.

Maybe I think, in my first-world way, of security; surely bombs are more easily stowed than people.

Maybe I think about illegals falling from the sky, a sign, like one of Moses' plagues in Egypt, a curse upon us.

Maybe I think about Felix Baumgartner, who earned wealth and fame for jumping from 128,000 feat, for no particular reason.  As impressive and dangerous as Baumgartner's feat, I'd have to say what Matada attempted was far more dangerous.  Is it that Baumgartner's jump was done for nothing that Red Bull funds him and not daredevils like Matada?

For no particular reason.  We can identify with that; it's why most of us ride bikes.  As Louis CK notes, at some point, we managed to escape the food chain:
We only retain two of our three former enemies--self, others, and nature.

A fall from space, just for the hell of it--that resonates.  A fall from an airplane we board to escape poverty--that does not.  Probably because most of us have no concept of that kind of poverty.

I was happy to see African TT and road race champion, Eritrea's Natnael Berhane, the first black African to win at the HC level, grab a win in the Tour of Turkey recently.  The way he won is particularly impressive:
At about 7:55 he makes his completely decisive move; clearly, the guy has a bit in reserve.

Berhane held the race lead, and would have won the overall at Turkey except for an untimely mechanical.  He's 22 years old.

Africa is a continent summed up, for most of us, as a mess, the kind of place that sends its children into airplanes and to their deaths on our suburban streets.  This is unfortunate, not because it's wrong, but because it's an oversimplification.  Just as the coroner's conclusion, that Matada had died of "multiple injuries" is unsatisfying, an Africa diagnosed as suffering from "multiple wounds" tells no story.  It does not touch us.

Berhane's win is a nice example of exceptions, of moments that do touch us, that allow us to see the continent as complicated.  It has more to contribute than missionary trips and tales of deprivation.  It is more than the place we go to remember that nature is our old enemy.

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