A Funny Thing Happened in Zanzibar


I was convinced I had malaria. In Africa it could be sleeping sickness, bilharzia, typhoid, dengue fever, hepatitis or just about anything else. I’d been on 2 weeks of safari traveling in the middle of Tanzania and Kenya so just about any disease was possible. I’m lucky when it comes to illnesses, but my luck had run out. I had arrived on the island of Zanzibar and suddenly my health took a sharp left shortly after getting off the plane.

My traveling companions were worried. What if something happened to me and they had to figure out how to do stuff on their own? I usually handle the details of a trip and they weren’t quite sure what to do without my normal guidance ( or travel OCD). Without an itinerary they kept popping back into the hotel nervously to make sure I wasn’t dead. Suddenly they had a plan. Call the doctor and see if he had a miracle cure.

The doctor picked me up at my hotel in his personal car. That seemed a bit odd but it was convenient. He shuttled me through the narrow streets of Stone Town until we finally reached the hospital. When I say hospital, that’s  a stretch. It was a one story cement L-shaped building with peeling paint, trash on the ground and more flies than I have ever seen anywhere. The windows were open and the flies were buzzing desperately around my head. I swatted them and realized the irony of being in such an obviously unhealthy place. There were a lot of Africans sitting around looking like they had nowhere to be. After an eternally long wait, I was ushered into the examination room. It was really more of an office with a beat up desk and a folding chair. The doctor started asking me questions. As he asked a question, if I said “yes”, he’d grab a small packet of pills and put them in a bag. “Do you have a fever?” “Yes”. Pills got dropped in the bag. Pretty soon he was out of questions and I had a bag full of pills that I doubted I would ever be able to take in a lifetime. Besides that, I’m not sure that I really trusted a diagnosis based on how my questions had been answered. I might have not really understood the question.

He then took me back to my hotel and as I was about to exit his car, he said ” That’s great that your American president would come all the to Zanzibar to visit our clinic”. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. He explained that earlier that day Bill Clinton had visited his “hospital” for an AIDS campaign that he was supporting in Africa. Interestingly enough, the former president was staying at the hotel right next to mine and scheduled to leave the following day. I had met Jimmy Carter and Bush Sr. both through random events in my life and wondered if lightning might strike a 3rd time. Maybe Bill might hang out at the rooftop bar of my hotel later or I’d spot him in the street jogging with his secret service agents.

I dismissed my silly ideas and retired into my room to see if I could turn my nausea around. Somehow, a miracle occurred in the night, my fever broke and the next morning I was back to life.By the time I got dressed and had breakfast, I felt like I’d just eaten an energy bar. I walked outside to do some sightseeing, but noticed the street had been blocked off. There were crowds of people behind barricades like they were watching Star Wars being filmed or something. I quickly realized that they were hoping to get a glimpse of Clinton. I wanted more than that. I wanted to meet him and take a picture.

There were a lot of guards around but I have met a lot of famous people by just walking backstage or to a restricted area and looking confident. My friends were nervous. They didn’t want to get shot. I explained that getting shot by secret service agents in Africa would make a really good story but for some reason they weren’t crazy about the ending. I got my best game face on and walked right into the lobby of the hotel without hesitation.I believe that if you look like you’re supposed to be somewhere, people will believe it. There were lots of guys in black suits seemingly guarding whatever guys in black suits guard, but Bill was nowhere in sight. A few VIP people were standing in the foyer looking at the stairs expectantly. I walked into the midst of them and became part of their group. No one knows everyone and they had no reason to doubt my membership.

All of sudden there he was. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. William Clinton, former president of the USA was suddenly walking down the staircase and cameras were flashing. A friend of mine met Clinton years ago and said that she was amazed that he had such a presence and that he remembered everyone’s name that he spoke with. I’ll admit I never considered myself a big fan until William shook my hand and asked me my name. Maybe it was an act, but his actions, voice and candor seemed so sincere that when he looked me in the eye and gave me that powerful presidential handshake, I was immediately sold. He had buckets of personality that seemed to have been concentrated into one guy from Arkansas. I got my picture, thanked him and then walked out the hotel door.

The moral of the story. Don’t follow the crowds. You have a choice in life: Watch the show or be IN the show. Hopefully you won’t have to go to Africa to meet someone famous. 

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