Little Bill Clinton’s Celebrity Dad

Amisi Juma, (far left) and a few other members of the Kanembwa welcoming committee (center) pose for a photo for their friend Hassan, while other former neighbors (right) study photos of him and his family and compare notes about the American life of their friend "Protection." Kanembwa refugee camp, Kibondo. Image by Mary Wiltenburg. Tanzania, 2009.

Two. That’s how many friends Hassan and Dawami told me they had in refugee camps in Tanzania as I prepared to go there. Thanks to the generous help of the United Nations refugee agency, I planned a week of travel around these five words: “Jean-Paul Rukundo, Mtabila” and “Eva, Kanembwa.”

By now, we’ve met Jean-Paul and his family, desperate in the face of Mtabila camp’s planned closing, and preparing to go on the run. But halfway through my week in northwestern Tanzania, bumping up and down red clay roads in formerly white UN Land Cruisers, I had yet to lay eyes on Eva, or even to learn her last name (Dawami, embarrassed, said she had never known it; she called her good friend Mama Emma, Mama Mgeni, or Mama Elisa, after the youngest three of her four children).

Even with a full name and cellphone number (yes, I learned, many refugees have cellphones), it had taken half a day of driving around Mtabila to find Jean-Paul. Driving into Kanembwa – a special camp for 2,000 refugees approved for resettlement in permanent homes throughout the world – as we passed the Tanzanian army checkpoint, the sign at the entry to the “American Village” that read “GIFT OF THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT,” and the community food distribution center, I had my doubts that we would ever find Eva.

But as we paused outside the food center, a man approached and introduced himself. This grandfatherly gent was camp chairman Amisi Juma. At UNHCR’s request, he explained, he had found the family I was looking for. He was a refugee too, he said: he had lived down the road from Dawami and Hassan in Mkugwa camp before they left for Atlanta, and remembered them well.

This was a revelation. I had thought their friends were all scattered to the four winds: in Canada, Australia, and throughout Europe. Yes, Amisi said, many were – but many more were right here. He asked if I’d brought a photo of the family.

As I dug in my bag, a crowd began to gather. When I pulled out the photo, Amisi’s face broke into a wide grin. But someone behind him quickly snatched it away, and it was soon making the rounds.

Along my journey, I’d been warned by UN volunteers to be skeptical of such moments. When word got out that I was visiting friends of a particular family, refugee workers cautioned, I would be mobbed with people claiming acquaintance who wanted money, contacts in the US, or just a little excitement. So as the young men grabbed the photo of
Hassan, Dawami, Bill and Igey on their Atlanta front steps, I was prepared.

Then, the man holding it shouted, excitedly: “Mwanasumpikwa!” Which, you may recall, is Hassan’s last name. And definitely not one you can hit on by chance, even in Central Africa.

“Eh, Mwanasumpikwa!” guy after guy exclaimed as they passed the photo around. Others remembered him as Hassan Amandus (his middle name), and still others by his nickname, “Protection.” One ran home and returned with a photo of a younger, skinnier Hassan in a purple t-thirt. Many shared memories and details that confirmed their long friendship and high regard for “Baba Clinton” ([Bill] Clinton’s dad).

It turned out, Hassan, the jolly, good-time guy whom I’ve gotten to know this year as something of a lost soul in his new land, was immensely popular in Mkugwa camp – and remains so in Kanembwa. For the two days I spent there, every few minutes another former friend would seek me out wanting to be remembered to him. I met his cousin (Baba Wawili), and numerous others whom Hassan had helped to get jobs, extra food rations, and medication.

The best friends, of course, were Eva and her family, whom Amisi had indeed found – and I’ll save our meeting for tomorrow’s post. Meantime, on the drive home to the UN compound that evening, Pablo Joseph, the Tanzanian UN resettlement clerk who was kindly interpreting for me, finally got a good look at the photo of Hassan, and recognized him too, from his previous work in Mukugwa camp.

“Oh, Protection!” he said, sounding a little incredulous that I didn’t know I’d been dealing with a celebrity all this time. I marveled too, at how little I seem to have grasped about Hassan in his Atlanta context.

“Yeah,” Pablo said, “that guy’s famous here.”