Thursday, July 31, 2014


For the past two hours I’ve been watching CNN.  Actually, that’s not 100% true.  For the past two hours I’ve been writing a research article with the television on in the background tuned to CNN.  One hundred and nineteen minutes of that broadcast was dedicated to Hamas, Gaza, the sanctions against Russia and the Malaysia airlines crash.  In the last 60 seconds Anderson Cooper squeezed in a story about a stowaway found on a U.S. Air Force plane.  In case you missed it a U.S. Air Force plane landed in Germany yesterday after a trip to Africa.  Upon landing, the maintenance crew discovered the dead body of a “young black man presumed to be African” in the wheel well which housed the landing equipment.  By a show of hands, how many people have heard about similar incidents in the past?  No one?  I didn’t think so.

Believe it or not, this is actually a very common occurrence.  Of course this is probably news to anyone reading this because the media only reports stories which sell papers or directly impacts the lives of their viewers.  As a general rule, stories about nameless individuals from countries most people have never heard of before, who are dead anyway, don’t provide a return on investment, so the media houses don’t report it.  But stowaways happen all the time, particularly on international flights out of African countries.

During my time in Africa I met a number of people who worked for the UN, the Red Cross, the World Bank, the IMF and various other NGOs.  The rule is if you see a white person travelling alone in an African country (especially if it is a country most foreigners don’t frequent) there is a high likelihood they are associated with one of these types of organizations.  I was approached countless times and asked point blank, “Who are you with?” meaning, “Which NGO do you work for?” When I would respond that I was a tourism professor visiting XYZ country as a Fulbright Scholar people would look at me as if I had lost my mind.  In short this expression translated to, “What is WRONG with you?  You mean you CHOSE to come here?  By your own free will?  SERIOUSLY????”

The good thing about meeting all these globe-trotting do-goers is that they love to talk about the misery associated with their chosen professions.  I was once on a plane with a man who had worked for the IMF in about a dozen African countries over more than two decades.  People always think I’m a great person to invite to a dinner party because I have good stories about my travels.  Well, if I was throwing the party, I would invite this guy.  Over the course of our four hour flight, and then two dinners together later that same week, I learned about how to obtain illegal weapons, how to embezzle and bribe high ranking government officials, methods used to torture private civilians and among other things, the prevalence of stowaways.

As our flight was landing we were delayed on the tarmac for over an hour.  The flight crew made no effort to explain the delay but we could see the airport less than 100 yards away.  They refused to open the doors telling us only, “There is a problem with one of the wheels and we cannot deplane until the officials investigate.”  Upon hearing this, my neighbor Mr. IMF said, “God I hope this isn’t another bloody stowaway.”

While security in some areas of Africa can be downright frightening at times, it appears most African countries have a significant deficiency when it comes to securing the planes and runways themselves.  Mr. IMF told me that on a regular basis (at least monthly or more often) “kids,” sneak onto airfields and climb into the wheel wells of planes in hopes of catching a free ride to a better life.  He said one of the most unfortunate incidents happened on a commercial flight from Equatorial Guinea to France (I think).  He said three boys, no older 12, died during the flight.  When French authorities found them the smallest, and likely the youngest one, was gripping a note which had written on it something to the effect of, “We are seeking a new life in France.  If we die, please consider helping our younger brothers back home.  They need you.”

I think the only reason yesterday’s stowaway situation was granted any air time was strictly because of the recent Ebola outbreaks in Africa and the fact the plane had visited several countries currently suffering from this illness.  Otherwise, this likely would have never been reported.  I guess there are two morals to today’s story: 1. despite all the best efforts at attempting to maintain a secure existence, people are always finding ways around it, and 2. desperate people are willing to take extreme measures, even when they know they are unlikely to succeed.

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