In 2007, I went to Tanzania, on a flight paid for by the TED conference. We’d worked out a deal: I’d record and produce their podcast, and they’d take me with them to the TED Global in Tanzania where I’d be only a few hours from the site of a mysterious and fascinating laughter epidemic. Radiolab was doing an hour on Laughter, and we’d become fascinated with this story of contagious laughter. Yet every reference we could find to the epidemic just led back to one medical journal report. I figured that if I could get there, I could find someone who’d know about it, and then I could tell the story for Radiolab.
So when I got to Bukoba, Tanzania, the first thing I did was visit the local travel agency, to try to find a translator and driver. At the desk, was Raymond. I approached him and told him my tale and in moments he’d whisked me away to meet someone who suffered from the laughter epidemic, not in 1962 but only years before when she was a teenager. It was only later that I learned that he didn’t even work at the travel agency. He just happened to be there checking his email. He’d just jumped in with both feet because that was how he lived. Life was all about saying yes. It was amazing fortune that I’d found him. His appetite for adventure was strong, and his skills were supernatural. Several times I saw him do what I can only think of as a jedi mind trick on people. He was able to talk you into helping him almost against your own will. It was a powerful tool which he applied to my benefit. People talked to us. And mainly due to Raymond’s ability to finesse and convince.
Fast forward a few years and I get an email from a young researcher at Harvard. Latif Nasser. His parents are from Tanzania and he’s decided to go back to Bukoba and research the laughter epidemic. I am overjoyed. I share my contacts with him, and I tell him: whatever you do, you must call Raymond. And he did. (A side note, Latif is now a contributor to Radiolab.)
On Tuesday, I was very saddened to learn from Latif that Raymond had passed away. The note that told us of his passing said that he’d died of tuberculosis, but it also mentioned that he had HIV. Latif described Raymond as “my translator, my guide, my research assistant, but also my friend, my mentor, my brother” and with that introduction, and at the risk of being totally unforgivably maudlin, I’d like to share something that Latif and Carly Mensch wrote about Raymond right after they met him. It’s the portrait of a very unusual man. A man who will be much missed on many corners of this earth.
The Many Lives of Raymond Mukwenda
by Latif Nassr and Carly Mensch
Meet Raymond Mukwenda. A man who has lived in the most dangerous slum on earth. A man who has gone head to head with the most powerful drug cartel in the western hemisphere. A man who once singlehandedly dissuaded a raging mob from killing a police officer. A man who survived for months in the sub-zero Finnish wilderness, eating only the fish he could catch and sleeping naked in an ice hole. A man not quite of this world; superhuman, storied, fearless. And yet, a man whose cell phone rings The Muppets' version of "Mah Na Mah Na." (Doo, doo, doo doo doo.)
The first time we spoke to Raymond was a garbled thirty second phone call. We had just arrived to Bukoba and were going through our list of referred contacts. "Hello, is this Raymond Mukwenda?" His response: "Where are you?" (Raymond later tells us you know a native Tanzanian when he answers a question with a question.)
Five minutes later, Raymond is sitting in our hotel lobby quietly sipping a tall beer. He looks like he's been there for at least twenty minutes. He's in his early 30's, head shaved, faint outline of a goatee, extremely fit, preppy collared shirt beneath a pale green commando vest.
We quickly learn his background:
JOB 1: SOCCER STAR
At age sixteen, Raymond was recruited to play for Tanzania's Premiere Football League. (Translation: Soccer.) For the next ten years, he played midfield for three teams, most notably the Kagera Stars (who, in financial desperation, changed their name to Kagera Sugar in exchange for sponsorship from the local sugar factory). Those years were spent traveling all over Tanzania - two games a week, often hundreds of miles away from each other. At the height of his game, he quit, already a national celebrity. (That said, he still wakes up every morning at 5AM to train.)
JOB 2: TEACHER
His next career choice: schoolteacher. First primary, then secondary. Raymond taught math, language (both Swahili and English), and, of course, PE.
Having both taught and been taught in Bukoba, Raymond has a lot to say about education in the region. Turns out this remote corner of Tanzania was once renowned for being the most educated in the country. (Colonial and pre-colonial missionaries traveling down the Nile would settle here first, bringing with them books and schools.) Even today, if someone from another part of Tanzania meets someone from Kagera region, they stereotype them as over-educated and snobbish - a bit like New Englanders. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. Despite their pre-colonial head-start, Kagera's education is now the worst in the country.
Around Independence in the 60s, most of the schools here were private, mission-run. Lutheran and Catholic, mostly. Their aim was to nourish Christian bodies, minds and souls. When Nyerere came into power, he saw these schools as a threat to budding national identity. So he took them over and opened them up to all citizens. In the process of transforming them into government schools, the quantity of students went up, but the quality of their education went way down. Nyerere's focus was on universal primary education. Secondary and higher education fell into his blindspots. The result? A country of elementary school students. Raymond's somewhat cynical belief is that all of this was purposeful, that Nyerere wanted to educate people only enough to follow him but not enough to question him.
As a teacher, Raymond took it upon himself to constantly question his students. His favorite question of all: "Why are you here?" Most told him they were just doing what their parents told them to. He asked parents the same question at the weekly parent-teacher day, "Why did you send your kids here?" The answer, for many, was to help their children get better jobs and make more money. Raymond challenged them: "If I gave your child a million dollars, would you still send him or her to school?" He had similar exchanges with his fellow teachers and even school administrators - asking them the same question over and over. Why are we all here? What is the point of education? Raymond already had his own answer - the whole reason he became a teacher in the first place. The point of being educated, he believes, is to learn how to think. "That's all," he would say. He became frustrated that no one in the whole school system seemed to share his ideas. Eventually, he left, in search of jobs he thought would serve his community in a more purposeful way.
JOB 3: SOLDIER
Next up: the military. Raymond was in the Tanzanian army for a year. Raymond loves the army. The organization, the punctuality, even the uniforms. He told us that whenever he sees another man in uniform on the street (and we saw many), he gets jealous. Raymond learned much in the course of his training. Most notably, hand-to-hand combat. He has a black belt in Taekwondo (or one of those martial arts, we forget which). Despite having never been deployed, Raymond believes in war. He believes in revenge. He believes in national borders and a country's need to hold them. He believes in killing in the name of war. What Raymond doesn't believe in, however: a world without women. Bye bye army.
JOB 4: FINNISH N.G.O. WORKER
After that, he shipped off to Finland. Yup, Finland. A black man in Finland. Raymond went to Finland at the invitation of a Finnish friend of his. (They met one night in Bukoba.) Their first night together in Helsinki, Raymond's friend ditched him at a bar as a kind of social survival experiment. Would this self-described 'man from the bush' be able to make his way back to his hotel with no friends, no money, not even speaking the local language? Thinking something had happened to his friend, Raymond rolled with the punches. He sidled up to the bar and, despite having no money, ordered a few drinks. Eventually, a cute girl picked up his tab. After multiple failed attempts at multi-lingual conversation, the two drafted the girl's English-speaking friend as translator. Turns out, the girl had never seen a black person before. She bought his drinks, and eventually gave him a ride back to his hotel, as an excuse to talk to him.
You might think (as we did) that Raymond felt out of place in Finland. But oh no. His soul, turns out, is Finnish. He loves Finnish women. He loves to drink massive amounts of Finnish beer to stave off the Finnish cold. He loves to eat Reindeer. He loves to sweat it out in saunas. (That said, the first time he sat in a sauna he thought he was going to die.) After that first night (a successful experiment, by any measure), Raymond's friend offered him a job at an NGO in Lahti called DeLa. For the next few years, Raymond worked on a variety of projects including hospitals for World War II veterans and orphanages. His biggest contribution, though, was in the drug arena. Both helping addicts and battling the drug-pushers.
JOB 5: ACTION HERO
Now his resumé takes a turn for the James Bond. (For the record, Raymond told us this story in response to the simple question: "How did you meet your girlfriend?")
One day Raymond gets a text message from a friend, Ari, who has been investigating big players in the Finnish drug scene. The message reads: "Help. Come find me in Siberia." No further information. Raymond drops everything and boards a plane. On the flight, he plays out multiple scenarios in his head. Ari is a photographer affiliated with DeLa, so he probably got caught taking incriminating photographs. But of what? Of who? And where? Once he lands, he gets a second text message, this time the address of a house. Before showing up to what he presumes is an ambush, Raymond does some homework. He starts asking around about the local drug trade. With the resourcefulness and ferocity of an investigative journalist, he determines that the people holding Ari must belong to the Russian mafia, who run the whole city. He also calls another friend back at DeLa, who warns him not to approach the Siberian police, many of whom work for the mafia, and are therefore not 100% trustworthy. They hatch a plan.
Raymond shows up to the house. Ari is tied to a chair and has been beaten. They have already killed three people to prove how serious they are. They ask Raymond, "Where's the memory card?" A short pause. Raymond improvises, "There is no need to pressurize my friend. I took it with me. It's in Helsinki, in a safe place. The second floor of the Almas Hotel." The photographer corroborates, "See, I told you he took it."
And so, Raymond, his photographer friend and a Russian mafia goon board a local flight back to Finland to find a fictitious memory card. (Co-incidentally, the real memory card - bearing hi-def photos of a drug-related business meeting between the Russians and the Finns - has been stashed in the heel of Ari's shoe all along. Ari sneaks Raymond the card at some point in the airport.) Less concerned about Raymond than about his friend, the goon sits with Ari to keep close watch. Raymond and the memory card sit a few rows ahead of them. Next to him is a blonde pixie-looking woman from Amsterdam. They chit-chat casually. He learns that she, too, is a photographer. An international war photographer. She seems kind and trustworthy. Raymond makes a decision: He covertly slips her the memory card and an address. He also slips her his phone number.
Once they land, the three head to the second floor of the Almas Hotel. Unbeknownst to the mafia, there are multiple people from DeLa waiting for them. One - the lookout - waits downstairs in the lobby. Another waits in the hotel kitchen for a signal from the lookout. When it's time, he slashes the gas pipes and lights a fire. In the ensuing chaos, Raymond and Ari climb out the window and shimmy down the pipes all the way to the ground, where the fire department is already at work putting out the small blaze. (Firefighters were in on the plan from the beginning. The hotel was barely damaged. More smoke than fire.) At the front entrance, the police wait with the lookout's clear description of the mafioso. They nab him as he is trying to nonchalantly exit.
Meanwhile, the girl from the airplane - Ariana - has already posted the memory card to the address on the paper: the Helsinki Police Department. The digital photos later proved instrumental in convicting mob bosses on high in drug-smuggling lawsuits in both countries. When she sees the brouhaha on the local news, Ariana puts two-and-two together and calls Raymond, outraged. "Why did you involve me in this mess?" Raymond assures her she was never really in any danger. As an apologetic gesture, he offers to take her out for drinks.
Five years later, they're engaged to be married.
JOB 6: INTERNATIONAL WAR PHOTOGRAPHER
After he fell in love with Ariana, Raymond decided that he, too, wanted to be an international war photographer. He trained for a year in Amsterdam, while she traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan. He was all set to start this new, exciting career when he got a certain phone call that put the kaibosh on the whole plan. A phone call from... his mother.
Wait wait wait wait wait wait. Raymond - black belt Raymond, super spy Raymond, action hero Raymond - has a mother?
Yup. And a father. And a home. A home with flowery couches and wedding albums and paintings of baby Jesus and a cow out front. (He forgets the cow's name.) We know all this because we visited this home. We sat on these couches. We looked at these albums. We even ate his mom's home-cooked mashed-banana matoke and beans.
Raymond has eight siblings, some older, some younger. Most are successful - lawyers, bankers, doctors. Their success is a credit to his now-retired parents - his father, once a postman, his mother, a teacher. All of the children feature prominently in Mukwenda family albums. That is, all but one. Raymond, the black sheep of the family, appears in not a single photo. Not even a stray background shot. If not for the family resemblance we'd scarcely believe that Raymond was related to these people at all.
Meeting his mother - we understand why Raymond gave up on his war photography dreams. She's a reasonable, caring woman who didn't want to live in constant fear for her son's life. We concur. There's a lot of work for Raymond to do in his own corner of the world...
JOB 7 - EAST AFRICAN ACTIVIST
This brings Raymond to his current profession: local do-gooder. Over the last five years, Raymond started a slew of NGO's one after the other, with much help and funding from his Scandinavian contacts.
The first was BUDAP in 2005 - BUkoba Disabled Assistance Program, a small crafts business run and staffed entirely by polio survivors (and now, other disabled people as well). Here, they make Tanzanian drums (called ngoma) and handbags.
In 2006, Raymond started the Bukoba Kids Sports Club, which is essentially two soccer teams for teenage boys. They train daily in a local stadium and receive more than just dribbling advice. From the website:
“People in every nation love sport. Its values -fitness, fair play, teamwork, the pursuit of excellence - are universal. It can be a powerful force for good in the lives of people devastated by war or poverty - especially children.” - Kofi Annan
After that, Raymond created a Bukoba microfinance institution, lending out money to single-mother entrepreneurs. This project has enabled groups of women to band together and start two road-side egg-and-french-fry eateries. He checks in with the women regularly but maintains a laissez-faire philanthropic philosophy.
When we met Raymond, he had just returned from Nairobi's Kibera slum, the largest in all Africa. An area with zero social services. No water. No schools. No roads. No police. No sewage. (People crap in plastic bags and chuck them out the window.) Not even a map. Population estimates vary widely from the government estimate of 170,000 to NGO estimates of over a million. Raymond was surveying the area - and assessing its needs - with his friend, a Dutchman named Bart Lacroix. The two of them decided that in order to know real Kibera residents and to understand what living in Kibera truly felt like they had to live there themselves. Of course, this was unheard of. Kibera is lawless. Stepping foot there, even in broad daylight, is a harrowing experience. For a foreigner like Raymond (his Tanzanian-accented Swahili being a dead giveaway in Kenya), let alone for a white guy like Lacroix, living in Kibera seemed absurd. Locals laughed when the pair floated the idea.
Drinking one night at a Nairobi bar, the two tried to figure out how to infiltrate the slum. They talked. And drank. And drank. And drank. At some point in the night, they met a waiter who grew up in the slum and was happy to give them his parents' contact. Overjoyed, they called a taxi. As they left the bar at around 2 AM, the driver asked them, "Where to?" They drunkenly responded, "Kibera!" To the taxi driver, their request was so incomprehensibly dangerous as to be certifiably crazy. So he drove them, instead, to the police. The police concurred and locked the two up. Raymond, a more articulate drunk than Bart, finally persuaded the police that the pair, indeed, intended to stay in Kibera that night. He whipped out the waiter's parents' contact information. Two hours later, the police escorted Raymond and Bart to the perimeter of the slum, refusing to go any further. The two now-sober men brazenly meandered through the narrow garbage-ridden streets. By 5 AM they had found the hovel they were looking for.
They stayed in this hovel for the next five weeks.
JOB 8 - OUR FIXER / TRANSLATOR / DRIVER / STREET PHILOSOPHER
How Raymond got our email while living in Kibera remains a mystery to us. But he did. And he was so intrigued by Latif's project that he rode a ramshackle bus over 24 hours to meet us in Bukoba. And boy are we grateful he did.
Raymond became like our older, wiser brother. He showed us around. He introduced us to his friends (by the way, his cell phone contacts number in the thousands. To keep up with them, he buys phone credit like a crack addict). He kicked our butts when it came to scheduling - arriving at 8am on the dot every morning to discuss the day's interviews. He cooked us his favorite dishes - frying up mushrooms he bought on the side of the road. He read us headlines from his favorite tabloids, tabloids which we never found him without ("My Teacher Shattered My Yo-Yo," or "He Drowned in my Pleasure Pool.") He asked us big questions that kept him up at night - about witchcraft, about God, about justice, about equality. He spent hours illuminating us on what he saw to be Tanzania's greatest ills: corruption, laziness, complacency, organized religion. He also shared his many solutions with us: self-sufficiency projects like creating fish ponds and beehives, higher education, a Qaddafi-esque United States of Africa, equality for women.
Raymond told us one night, "I have many many many ideas. Every day I have an idea and I write it down." These ideas, he told us, might not come to fruition until long after he's dead. But when they do - they'll turn around the entire Kagera region. Its poverty, its health problems, its education system.
We disagree with Raymond on many things. Despite it all, though, we have a lot of faith in him. He's a guy who gets things done. He's both of this world and beyond it.
Here's to Raymond.
Carly and Latif