Things happen in Africa on dark roads. When there is blood, the crunching of human bone, a nearly severed foot, the night will shout into morning, leaving it to dawn in pain.
Reuben Gray was driving his 17-year-old son, Brandon, to meet with the math tutor. It was on Ngecha Road, in Nairobi. The boy remembers the moonlight, the clear moonlight. And then:
"Brandon, what happened?" the father, his body twisted, asked his son, twisting the words out.
"I tried to move," the son remembers. "My body did, but my legs didn't."
A small crowd gathered, and the rising voices frightened Brandon. He thought of carjackings, terrible things. Whoever hit them was gone, ferried away.
It turns out that the other driver, Dirk Dijkerman, was a high-ranking American diplomat, the head of a regional office of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
What gnaws at Leslie Fair-Gray, seated in her New York apartment, surrounded by legal documents related to the crash -- is this: If only Dijkerman had looked closer through the darkness, had tried to speak to the two injured inside the van, he or the U.S. Embassy employees who arrived later might have realized that her husband and son were not Kenyans -- but Americans. Americans with black skin.
And if he had looked closer still, he would surely have seen that Reuben Gray was wearing a shirt from the International School of Kenya and was the same man who taught his own son, Derek Dijkerman, there. But he did not. He climbed into a U.S. Embassy vehicle, under his own power, and was taken to the hospital.
In a country where the average policeman doesn't even have a vehicle, there is no traditional ambulance service in Kenya -- and none ever came to the crash scene on Ngecha Road. Americans -- diplomats and expatriates alike -- depend on the U.S. Embassy for emergency services. And in the vastly uneven world of Third World health care, the Western and the wealthy get taken to the hospital while the poor and the native are left to help each other.
The Grays loved being in Africa, where their American heritage had given them an elevated status. The culture of skin color -- mixed in Kenya's keen brew of class and colonialism -- had a different texture than in their native America. It mattered, but so did the red, white and blue of their nationality.
And yet something had come whipping fiercely across an ocean to catch up with them on Ngecha Road. They were out of America -- and in Africa. But in Africa, on a darkened road, on the night of Feb. 5, 2001, they were suddenly up against the old newsreel vision of race in America.
Dirk Dijkerman is white. The white man and the black man were treated differently that night.
"My son didn't feel that night he had to scream, 'I'm an American!' " says Leslie Fair-Gray, Brandon's mother.
And so the black Americans arrived at the hospital like destitute Kenyans -- in the back of a pickup truck, driven by poor black Kenyans who had rescued them from the side of the road.
Within two days, Reuben Gray would be dead.
They met at Howard University in 1980. He was majoring in chemistry. She had chosen English lit. At a basketball game, she accidentally kicked him in the back during a moment of exuberance, turning him clear around. It bloomed like that, a kick. She grew up in Cleveland. He was from Newport News, Va. His father worked in the shipyards. Reuben Gray had lost his mother to leukemia when he was 16. "He took it as if he were always deprived," says his brother William.
On campus that year, the holidays approached. Leslie Fair had purchased a plane ticket home. Reuben, it just so happened, had a sister who lived in Cleveland. Leslie was shy; a girlfriend persuaded her to accept Reuben's offer of a ride. "So I cashed in my ticket," Leslie remembers. And it happened like that, a ride to Cleveland, rhythm and blues on the radio: Baby, it's cold outside. It was the start of something called falling in love.
They were married Jan. 18, 1982, in Prince George's County. She was 21, he was 23. It was a bare-bones ceremony, minus family. "I have to say, honestly, it was an impulsive thing," Fair-Gray says.
He found work at Children's Hospital in the District. She was finishing up at Howard. Then the children came -- first a son, Brandon, then a daughter, Briahna. They didn't like the public schools in Washington and the private schools were too pricey. In 1988, the Grays moved to Durham, N.C.
Reuben found work in research science for Roche Biomedical Laboratories. Leslie enrolled at North Carolina State University for graduate studies in psychology. And there they were, in the rat race: suburban shopping, their kids hungering for the mall, keeping up with the Joneses. Leslie wasn't sure it was the road she wanted her family on.
"I worked on Reuben and said, 'I want to live overseas.' " The children were young. The Grays were young. The ground was fertile for movement, and Reuben agreed to go.
In 1993 they left for a three-year sojourn as teachers and counselors in Saudi Arabia. She donned a veil. "A lot of people's reactions to women's restrictions was outrage," she says. "I didn't have that immediate response. I saw the complexities of mixing religion and government. My parents experienced restrictions in their own country. I think I wasn't so quick to make harsh judgments."
In 1995 they moved again, this time to Nairobi. They were far, far away from her Ohio, from his Virginia. "To Reuben's family it seemed bizarre," Leslie Fair-Gray says of their being in Africa. "But we grew as a family."
She started doing consulting work for international aid agencies -- CARE, UNESCO, UNICEF. Eventually she landed a job with the U.N. Security Office as a stress counselor. Reuben began teaching at the International School of Kenya. It thrilled her to suddenly be in hot spots, in killing fields, in Somalia and Papua New Guinea, in Sudan, counseling beleaguered and brave U.N. personnel, rifle fire in the distance. Brandon and Briahna would be back home in Nairobi, practicing their violins, Reuben sending tender e-mails over the hills. In one, he talks about an upcoming trip to New York City and a family rendezvous:
"I know I have a tendency to get long-winded, so I will stop here," read one. "I was very sad that I missed your call and that Brie had to answer the e-mail for me, but I'll make up for it when I see you in NY. Have a safe trip and know that my love light for you is shining brighter than it ever has and it is getting stronger each and every second. Until the next time, my loving wife, partner, and soul-mate of 19 years. Love, Reuben."
At the International School, Reuben taught a full load of classes. He smiled away homesickness on the faces of the students. He seemed crazy for the kids, many of whom were children of diplomats and international aid workers. No tennis coach? Reuben to the rescue! No basketball coach? Reuben to the rescue! That strapping man out there kicking a soccer ball with the kids: Reuben. The American introducing his students to the Masai warriors: Reuben again. He gathered the kids and said let's go climb Mount Kenya! And they did. Atop the mountain, there was Reuben, looking at his students, at his son and daughter, everyone looking off into the blue skies. Motherless Reuben in the mother country. Af-free-ka.
Reuben tooled around Nairobi in a beloved Volkswagen van, a big white boxy thing he doted on. He'd call his brother William, who lived near Baltimore, asking him to send parts. And Reuben would go to the Nairobi airport and deal with the inconsistently paid customs workers who had been feeding for years on the corruption bandwagon. Your merchandise for a fee; the fee in lieu of the missing monthly paycheck; the missing monthly paycheck somewhere in the pockets of the men in the shadows of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi.
Reuben had rules about the van. No eating in the Volkswagen. No trash in the Volkswagen. "He was crazy about that car," says Leslie.
On the night of Feb. 5, 2001, when Reuben climbed into the van to take his son to see his math tutor, Dijkerman was leaving a party in Nairobi. It was around 7:35 when both men came to turn onto Ngecha Road from opposite directions. Within minutes, they were driving toward one another. In the same lane.
The Diplomat Who is Dirk Dijkerman?
He is a career Foreign Service officer. He was born in Indonesia to a Dutch father and an Indonesian mother. He has a doctorate in economic policy and rural sociology from Cornell University. He began his Foreign Service work in 1979 as a USAID officer in Kenya. And he is on the phone from Pretoria, South Africa, where he now heads the USAID mission there. "It's just always what I expected myself to do," he says of Foreign Service work. "I don't view it as a sacrifice." He talks about his family being kicked out of Indonesia in 1958 because of anti-Dutch persecution led by President Sukarno. The family came to America under a special visa program. "People were made into refugees," he says of the immigration.
After his academic studies in America, Dijkerman had a clear career goal: "I expected to work overseas." Following service in Kenya -- where he met his wife, who worked for Catholic Relief Services -- it was off to other locales: Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi. In several locations he was in the middle of nasty coups, of oncoming genocidal rampages. A 1994 Reader's Digest article titled "Escape From Hell" chronicles Dijkerman's odyssey in leading a convoy away from ethnic strife in Rwanda. "Dijkerman, with his colleague Bill Martin's help, would lead that day's largest evacuation convoy out of Kigali," the article states. "An advance party had left 20 minutes earlier. . . . As the 35-vehicle convoy crept toward the edge of town, Dijkerman stared ahead. He could not bear to look at the bodies -- some, he knew, were friends and co-workers -- under the trees."
Dijkerman talks passionately about a new program he's involved with in South Africa, which is helping AIDS sufferers who have mortgages keep their homes. On advice of his Washington-based attorney, however, he will not talk about the night of Feb. 5, 2001. Still, asked about Reuben Gray, he says this: "I met him several times. A very good teacher from what I recall. Tough, fair. He encouraged my kid [Derek] to perform in tennis."
He is asked about the aftermath of Gray's death, and he mentions trying to meet with Leslie Fair-Gray. "I called the school and offered to meet with Mrs. Gray. The school official said, 'You can meet at my house and here's the time and day.' I came back one evening with my wife and there was this message on the phone machine from Mrs. Gray saying she was tired and couldn't meet." He goes on: "I wrote a personal note to her about how I felt what she must be going through. We gave it to the superintendent of the school to give to Mrs. Gray."
Dijkerman says he couldn't attend the memorial service for Gray at the International School because he had been recalled by the government to the United States. "My wife went to the memorial. Matter of fact, she insisted on going to the service for him."
The City The city that brought Reuben Gray together on a road with Dirk Dijkerman is a place that gloats, mesmerizes and frightens. For years, it has both attracted and challenged Americans.
While post-colonial "freedom" struggles consumed much of Africa, Kenya -- with Nairobi its heartbeat -- remained mostly stable. The country laid to rest its beloved old lion -- Jomo Kenyatta -- and replaced him with Daniel arap Moi, a former schoolteacher who seems to smile only when it snows. The country's president since 1978, Moi has defeated opposition parties using a combination of gift-giving to his Rift Valley supporters, cash outlays to the army (often charged by Amnesty International with human rights abuses), and allowing a free press to write and report with the zeal of the Fleet Street tabloids. Perhaps most importantly, Moi has shrewdly allowed the U.S. military to use his country as a staging area.
But there is a dark side: Moi has turned a blind eye toward the corruption that has engulfed his country. The World Bank repeatedly slaps Moi by cutting off loans, only to have him respond with a subtle threat: If Kenya falls, imagine the deeper chaos that would threaten surrounding countries. For years, his message to the outside world has been: Kenya is safe, Americans are welcome, the giraffes are beautiful to see.
So the expatriate American community -- feeling Kenya safer than other countries embroiled in civil war -- had been growing. Not far outside Nairobi the country turns beautiful -- the sweeping vistas, the cool green hills, nomads crossing the landscape in the distance. And Nairobi itself has its attractions, a kind of old African grandness in certain locales. For instance, there is the Norfolk Hotel, with its lovely wicker and wood furniture and hotel messengers gliding into the lounge to summon a guest who has a phone call or telegram by holding a chalkboard aloft. Parts of the cast and crew of "Out of Africa" -- the Robert Redford-Meryl Streep film -- stayed at the Norfolk during the filming of that 1985 movie. On special family occasions, Reuben would take Briahna, Brandon and Leslie to the Norfolk to feast on crab and African delicacies.
On Aug. 7, 1998, Reuben was at work, Leslie and Brandon on their way to the U.S. Embassy to have their passports renewed. The boom boom boom sounds stopped Leslie with a shudder to the heart: The embassy had been bombed by terrorists. The death toll was frightening: 213 dead and more than 4,000 injured.
The world of Nairobi changed overnight. "A lot of expats started leaving Kenya then," says Cyril Joseph, a Canadian diplomat who knew the Grays in Nairobi. Joseph, now based in Jamaica, was among those who departed after the bombing. The Grays stayed. They were reluctant to uproot the children from school. And both Leslie and Reuben were happy in their work.
The Accident As 2001 dawned, it was time for Brandon to start thinking about college. He began filling out applications, making preparation for his SAT and ACT examinations. He aimed to improve his math skills and started working with a tutor. On Feb. 5 he missed his appointment at home and his father offered to ride him over to the tutor's house. They hopped in the van.
"It was only five minutes away," remembers Brandon, sitting in a Manhattan restaurant blocks from the family's apartment. "I was daydreaming out the front window. Since it was dark, the only thing I could see was a line in the middle of the street. I then see lights getting in my line of vision. I realize they're on the wrong side of the road. I heard my dad say something. Then he swerved. I heard a clink. My glasses flew off. Then that was it. Everything was black."
The oncoming car had crashed into their vehicle. It stayed stuck, like an accordion gone in -- but not out. The U.N., which investigated the accident because it involved the spouse of one of its employees, issued a report. Among its findings: "Mr. Dijkerman was driving on the wrong side of the road, at excessive speed and with his headlights on high beam. . . . Mr. Dijkerman was coming from a party which was held at the residence of the American Deputy Chief of Mission."
According to the report, Dijkerman was able to get out of his Land Cruiser and dial a cell phone. Within minutes, American security officers from the U.S. Embassy arrived. Then the embassy people left with Dijkerman, who was taken to Nairobi Hospital, examined and, without any serious injuries, released that night.
The Grays remained on Ngecha Road. Kenyans had gathered around the van, peering in at Brandon.
A Kenyan night can have a velvety look. To Brandon, without his glasses, things looked fuzzy.
"The first thing that came to mind is you're in a country with high crime," says Brandon. "I thought the voices were people who were going to rob us."
But what he imagined to be a gathering mob turned -- poof -- into a phalanx of good Samaritans.
"They opened the door and tried to get me out of the car." The pulling hurt. He shouted out into the night, he cursed. A bone was jutting from his hip. The cursing roused Reuben, who admonished his son. Then Reuben slipped back into unconsciousness.
That haunts Brandon: his father being a father, even covered in blood. The Gray kids did not curse. At least not in the presence of a parent.
Brandon was finally lifted out of the van. It was impossible for him to gauge the extent of his father's injuries. The moonlight lit the blood on the dashboard, on his father's clothing. They waited, the American father and son, the backpack with the math lessons on the car seat. "A pickup truck pulled up," says Brandon. "They put my dad in. They put me in the truck next to my dad. I looked at him. He looked like he was sleeping. He suddenly woke up and said, 'Brandon, what happened?' I said, 'Somebody hit us.' He dozed off again."
The truck rumbled off to the hospital. Brandon wanted his glasses. He wanted to better see the face of his father.
The Wife and Mother Leslie was in Georgia -- the former Soviet republic -- when the U.N. reached her late that night to tell her about the accident. She wanted to run right then, but she was in a region so remote that she had arrived by helicopter. "We couldn't leave." Night travel was impossible. A couple of U.N. staffers were in a truck with her the next morning, racing for Tbilisi, where she could get a flight out. She landed in Vienna, where she had to stay overnight. "Later that night I was told Reuben would probably lose his foot. And that there had been damage in Brandon's sciatic nerve. They told me Reuben was still talking but was in some pain."
Next morning she hopped in a car to get to the airport and a flight to Amsterdam, from where she'd travel to Nairobi.
"While I was in the car my anxiety was thinking about Reuben, who was this incredibly athletic guy. I was thinking about the repercussions of him losing his foot." Once at the airport, she made another call to Kenya, and was told preparations were being made to transfer Reuben to Johannesburg in an effort to save the foot.
Brandon was in traction at M.P. Shah hospital in Nairobi, his sister Briahna down the hall with her father, whose condition was beginning to worry doctors. Told that her father was going to be moved to Johannesburg, Briahna fixed an overnight bag for him. She slipped a note into the bag: "I love you daddy." When she turned to him, Reuben started singing to his daughter. It was "My Girl," an old Temptations tune:
I've got sunshine on a cloudy day
When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May
I guess you say, what can make me feel this way
My girl . . . my girl . . . my girl . . .
When Reuben landed in Johannesburg -- it took six hours for the transfer -- he was taken to Milpark Hospital, where a surgical unit was waiting at the door for him, says Jacques Goosen, one of the surgeons. Goosen, reached at his home in Johannesburg, says Gray was suffering from a multitude of injuries that had turned him into "visually, a broken man." He says Gray suffered "bruising to the lungs, pulmonary contusions, and what we call respiratory distress syndrome." The damaged foot, Goosen says, affected the blood supply to the rest of the body. "That set up a reaction similar to something called 'crushed syndrome,' which we see in mining accidents here, allowing poisonous toxins to [enter] the body."
Goosen's medical team had Gray for only three hours before he died. "The doctors in Nairobi did what they could, and very well," he says. "But a patient with those injuries would suffer a risk to his life even if he had been just outside the area of a top hospital in America."
Leslie was in a transatlantic lounge in Amsterdam when she phoned the hospital in Johannesburg to check on Reuben. For minutes and minutes and minutes, she froze. Which direction to go? To Johannesburg, to be with Reuben, who was dead? Or Nairobi, to be with Brandon, who was in traction?
The wife who was now a widow flew to Nairobi, where she was still a mother.
And right away, Leslie Fair-Gray focused on something that disturbed her: Members of the expatriate community in Nairobi always go to Nairobi Hospital. It was where the Grays went. It was where Dijkerman had gone the night of the accident. But Reuben and Brandon had been brought to M.P. Shah, a hospital known for taking the very poor in a country where the median income is little more than a thousand dollars a year.
Sharon Barnett, a friend of the Grays who lived in Nairobi for seven years, left New York and flew to Nairobi to be with Leslie and the children. Barnett accompanied Leslie to the site of the accident, to the police station, trying to piece together the events of that night. "I swear, it was the hardest thing I ever did in my life," Barnett, who now teaches law at Florida International University in Miami, says of returning to Nairobi under such conditions. "I know the driver would have been afraid to leave them if they had been white," she says, referring to the driver who came to pick up Dijkerman from the scene.
It is common feeling in Nairobi that to linger at the scene of an accident might invite retaliation by vigilantes. "In Kenya," says Alphonso Gaskins, a friend of the Grays from Nairobi who now resides in Jerusalem, "people say if you're in an accident you go straight to the police station -- because you might be lynched. Maybe the whole idea of expatriates played itself out on that road that night. If an accident happens, you just get the hell out of there."
Still, Leslie Fair-Gray and Sharon Barnett both began to wonder why the U.S. Embassy security personnel didn't assist the Grays at the scene of the accident. Leslie did get a meeting with Johnnie Carson, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya. "The reason the meeting wasn't helpful," she says, "is no one answered why they left Reuben at the scene." The U.S. Embassy would have provided "all the things a 911 call would provide for," says Barnett. "If someone from the international community would have taken them to the hospital, they would not have been taken to M.P. Shah."
Cyril Joseph, the Canadian diplomat, knows why Westerners would be reluctant to take Kenyans to the hospital. "The feeling is if you take an African to the hospital, the hospital is going to rack up hundreds of thousands in shillings [the Kenyan currency] and there's not going to be anybody to pay for it and they are going to come asking you," he says. "People were averse to being saddled with this type of bill."
The riddle of the night: not mistaken identity, but assumed identity -- by skin color. "Someone who had achieved so much," he says of Reuben Gray, "had a brilliant mind, and you throw him into the back of a pickup truck like a piece of meat."
After three days in Nairobi, tending to her children and launching the outlines of an investigation into her husband's death, Leslie Fair-Gray, the stress counselor, made her way to Johannesburg. Reuben had always told her that if something happened, choose cremation. She did.
But Reuben's family in Virginia and Maryland wanted to see him. They wanted to touch his body. A death in Africa made him seem farther away than death itself. "We didn't have his body," says the Rev. William Gray, attending a religious conference in the District, dressed in a gray suit and shiny go-to-church shoes. "You've got to understand, Reuben was the star of the family. He was so close to his nieces and nephews."
So 12 days after Reuben's death, there was a memorial for him in Essex, Md., outside Baltimore. "More than 300 came," says William. There were tears. And memories. Inside St. Stephen African Methodist Episcopal Church, the same church stage where little Briahna and little Brandon had pulled out their violins and started playing years back. Now there were old family friends from Virginia. Nieces and nephews talking about Reuben. Oh Reuben. Hushed voices and organ music and Oh Reuben and the dabbing of eyes. Like the minister in the hotel room has just now begun doing. Oh Reuben, and a dab to the eyes.
William Gray loves Leslie and Leslie loves him, but Reuben was gone and everybody wanted Reuben back and Leslie couldn't make the memorial because she was in Nairobi, tending to Brandon. "They just couldn't wait," Gray explains of the relatives. "They had to do something. So we had the memorial service."
Without Reuben's ashes. Or his wife and children, who were still in Africa.
The Claim Leslie has maps of the accident scene. She has statements from eyewitnesses. The tears come like drops from a faucet and she talks right through them without a tissue. She's off on a riff about Reuben's foot. His athleticism. A climber.
A climber without a foot.
The faucet's on again.
On Oct. 30, she filed a claim with the State Department and USAID. The government has six months to respond. Absent some kind of settlement, say her attorneys, they will file a lawsuit.
"It is not about money," Leslie says. "I want justice."
"If this had only been Kenyans, some day laborers on the side of the road, then this would have been just another forgotten episode of what happens when our people overseas cause such terrible tragedies," says Stuart Newberger, Leslie's lawyer. "Most of the time you don't hear about it. The people overseas don't hear about it. This case is different. It is the U.S. government's problem."
The issue of diplomatic immunity has challenged foreign governments in recent years. One of the most notorious incidents involves an auto crash in 1997 when Georgian diplomat Gueorgui Makharadze plowed into a line of cars at a stoplight on Dupont Circle. He killed a 16-year-old girl and injured several others. He had been drinking. U.S. diplomatic pressure forced Georgia to waive Makharadze's diplomatic immunity. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. He began his sentence in the United States, but was sent to Georgia in 2000 to finish serving his term. He was released from prison there earlier this year for health reasons, after serving about half his sentence.
Whether alcohol was a factor in Dijkerman's case is a matter of dispute.
"It's my understanding," says Newberger, "that alcohol was served at the deputy chief of mission's house" -- site of the reception Dijkerman had attended -- "and that alcohol was consumed by many of the people at the party."
J. Michael Hannon, Dijkerman's attorney, denies that alcohol had anything to do with the accident. "My understanding is that alcohol was served," says Hannon, "and that Mr. Dijkerman had no alcohol to drink at all. Within a few minutes after the accident he was attended to by a physician, and in assessing Mr. Dijkerman he saw no evidence of alcohol. In fact, Mr. Dijkerman left the party early because he was on his way home to help his children with their homework because his wife was out of town."
Newberger also contends Dijkerman has had vision problems.
"Mr. Dijkerman," says Hannon, "has always been advised that the medical care he receives for his vision did not prohibit him from driving."
A USAID official said the agency had no comment on the case because it is under legal review.
State Department spokeswoman Jo-Anne Prokopowicz also had little to say. "Our sympathy is with the Gray family for their tragic loss," she says. "Because the department is currently reviewing the family's recently filed claim, we are not in a position to comment further on the matter."
The Aftermath Leslie Fair-Gray has left her job at the United Nations. It's all about Reuben now. "There's this sense of injustice about it because Reuben suffered and lingered and was left to die," she says. "I'm stuck in this place with no resolution."
She is planning a remembrance ceremony, likely to take place in Washington on the second anniversary of his death. Briahna, a high school senior now, is filling out college applications.
Brandon is enrolled at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Upon his return to America, Brandon had surgery and was hospitalized for a month. Then came weeks in a rehabilitation hospital. His physical therapy has been interspersed with counseling. To watch him walk along a Manhattan street is to see a young man almost shadowboxing with thin air. It's the limp from Ngecha Road.
Among the many notes and letters the Grays received after Reuben's death was one from a former student recounting a class trip. "The 9th grade got up Mt. Kenya, the whole 9th grade, because of one man. It's quite hard to keep yelling Keep moving, Come on! at 17,000 feet."
One of those ninth-graders climbing Mount Kenya alongside Reuben Gray was his son. But now Brandon has three plates and 12 screws in his hip.
A climber without a good hip.
Brandon Gray will climb Mount Kenya no more.
When Reuben Gray died, he was 42 years old. Those who knew him say it seems such an unfinished life:
A Virginia childhood. Washington. A young groom. Baby, it's cold outside. A lab-coated research scientist in North Carolina. A teacher in Nairobi. The old lovely wicker inside the Norfolk Hotel: Please Mr. Gray, this way, your table is ready. The old Volkswagen van, which to this day remains parked in a lot in Nairobi.
And so ended the short, happy life of Reuben Dimitri Gray, who, among other things, lived to climb the green hills of Africa.