The Art of Life
No one remembers exactly how the bag arrived at Mike Eldon’s home in Nairobi, only that it took several weeks after Dan’s death to get there. It was a black nylon military bag, something he’d come by in a trade with a Marine, the same way he’d accrued several pairs of combat boots and other military paraphernalia. Mike put the bag in the middle of Amy’s bedroom floor. Along with Donatella Lorch, a New York Times reporter who had been stopping by the house regularly since the news hit on July 12, they slowly went through its contents.
At first Amy Eldon was reluctant to open it. As with so many things, she couldn’t help but think, “This is the last time…” The last time she’d unpack her brother’s bag. The last time these things would be sent. But then the converse feeling set in, the almost desperate need to tear into it, to touch and smell what was inside. She had already been in Dan’s bedroom, laying her head against his pillow and sifting through his belongings. These things, however, had been with him last and bore the freshest remnants. What had been merely a toothbrush or old pair of sandals now carried new significance; if one looked hard, they might reveal some truth or message.
The leather vest was on the top. Dan wore it so often that it had become his trademark—surely it had been too hot for Somalia. A pile of carefully folded T-shirts was also there, including several of Dan’s own design and a well-worn Tusker beer shirt. Under-neath, she found a kikoi, some blue jeans, and a pair of sunglasses, a cheap copy of the Ray Bans he always wore. She fished out some books farther down: Goethe, Vonnegut, and the explorer Wilfred Thesiger. Opening the latter, she saw that Dan had been underlining passages, one of which caught her eye: “I have often looked back into my childhood for a clue to this perverse necessity which drives me from my own land to the deserts of the East.”
Next to Amy, Donatella was rummaging through a box of cassette tapes that had arrived with the bag: Somali music, reggae, Dan’s own mixes, and Edith Piaf. Donatella laughed at the sight of the Piaf tape, recalling how Dan had brought his small boom box down to the hotel cafeteria and they’d all sung along to “La Vie en Rose.” Such funny music for a guy his age, she’d always thought. Amy stopped her excavation, remembering how the previous Christmas she and Dan got caught in a rainstorm on their way home from lunch in downtown Nairobi. Dan’s Land Rover no longer had a top—he’d had it cut off—so they were thoroughly soaked as they cruised through the streets as Edith purred, “Je ne regret rien.” Donatella smiled at the image. She was getting a fuller sense of the person she had known only in a war zone. Earlier, Amy had shown her photos of Dan’s girlfriends and, to Donatella’s amusement, there were dozens. Seeing Dan’s bedroom had also been enlightening; in so many ways, it was still a kid’s bedroom. She had to remind herself how much of a kid she had been at twenty-two.
As though to cast a smirk on the high-mindedness of the books, some Somali daggers—additions to a weapons collection Dan had started in his G.I. Joe days—and several packs of Marlboro Reds were toward the bottom of the bag. Amy took the cigarettes and shoved them under her bed when her father wasn’t looking. She had hidden Dan’s habit from their parents for years, and although they both knew about it—the war in Somalia had made him a chain smoker—her gut instinct to protect him remained. Going through her brother’s pockets, she pulled out wads of cash, not just tens and twenties, but fifty- and hundred-dollar bills.
“Yes,” her father said, showing her several more bundles of cash he’d found. “It must be from the postcard and T-shirt business. He was doing well.” Mike smiled at his son’s innate entrepreneurial habits. Dan had started the business on the side about six months earlier, selling items he’d designed and had printed to UN soldiers and aid workers. It nicely augmented the money he made from his work as a stringer photographer for Reuters. Donatella added that everyone carried pretty hefty wads of cash in Mogadishu. It took a lot of money to buy one’s way around, she told them, recalling how hardly any bargain was sealed without a few hundred-dollar bills changing hands.
On the very bottom was something Amy and Mike both could have predicted would be there, though they had forgotten until now. Amy held the large black-bound journal in her lap. It was eight by eleven, the same size Dan had been using for years. This one was still thin, not yet stretched by the sheer mass of objects, glue, and paint with which he layered the books. Gently, she flipped through the pages. About fifteen of them, not even a quarter of the book, had photographs pasted in, either a single five-by-seven image or a series of smaller photographs. And then the pages went blank. Amy snapped it shut. The bareness, even the unadorned photographs over which he had yet to draw or glue more layers, was too strong a reminder of the life that would not be lived, the life that previously had been the inspiration for filling page after page. Suddenly, the pages had come to an end.
Less than a month before, Dan had been in his father’s comfortable house where he had a bedroom, complete with a veranda as well as a private bathroom where he took long soaks while opera played full blast from the stereo and a collection of candles flickered. On the most recent visit, he had straightened some of his notorious mess, exposing long-covered surfaces. He had also given driving lessons to a friend and taken another to visit her family’s home for a last time before the property was sold. The entire Eldon household, including the cook, gardener, and house guests, had played rounds of volleyball in the garden. In the evening, Dan had sat with his father, who was recuperating from a car accident, and the two had read the daily paper or Dan had worked on his journals. He’d called both his mother in London for her birthday and his younger sister, Amy, in San Francisco, where she was finishing up an internship before heading to Mexico City for a summer job. He listened with amusement to details of her urbane, American life. She’d been at a gay pride rally that day, taking in one of the city’s biggest festivities with friends, and then had gone to a trendy little restaurant in the evening. Nairobi may not be San Francisco, he told her, but it felt quite cosmopolitan after Mog. “I went dancing last night and never even worried about having a gun stuck in my face,” he quipped, taking a drag on his cigarette.
To some who saw him during that visit, Dan seemed tired and depressed. Twelve months of covering a grisly civil war and famine were surely wearing on him. He looked different. It wasn’t only the slight beard he was sporting; his eyes were darker, his body more spare. Others, especially his journalist friends and his father, thought he was in good form. He wanted out of Somalia and was beginning to consider what to do next. His entire adult life—all five years of it since graduating high school—had been lived in quick bursts, from project to project. Another assignment for Reuters or film school in California were both on his radar, though as usual he would wait until the last minute to decide, leaving much to fate.
More immediate, however, was his desire to go on safari. Ironically, he’d been in Mogadishu longer than he’d stayed anywhere else. He was itchy to travel. A few of his old mates were in town and they had gone with him to the Carnivore, a favorite club, to make plans for the summer. Afterward, he’d called Soiya Gecaga, his old friend and sometime girlfriend, in London, encouraging her to come to Nairobi soon: “We have so many safaris planned. You’ve got to come!” Without telling him, she made arrangements to fly in as soon as he got back from his next stint in Mogadishu on July 13.
Instead of shorts and tank tops, Soiya’s bag had a simple black suit in it when she arrived in Nairobi a few weeks later. She didn’t come for a safari but for a funeral. As she’d readied herself to go home to Kenya, the call had come: Dan and three other journalists were killed on July 12, 1993, while covering the aftermath of a bombing in Mogadishu. Dan had worked extensively in the war-torn country for the past year, and Soiya had telephoned many times to wish him well, heeding him to take care. This was her worst fear come true.
Three days after his death, Soiya, and Dan’s many other friends, and his family gathered at one of his favorite places. On the sloping backside of the Ngong Hills just before they give way more steeply to the dramatic expanse of the Great Rift Valley, they celebrated his life. Just the month before, his photographs had appeared in Newsweek and Time magazines, as well as on the front page of newspapers like the (London) Times. These successes were certainly mentioned, but there were many more facets of his complex, chameleon-like personality to celebrate as well: entrepreneur, adventurer, artist, motivator, philanthropist, lover, friend, son, prankster, life of the party, master of disguise. With sobs, laughter, and song, in English and Swahili, his life was paid tribute.
Returning to Mike’s house after the ceremony, friends and family looked through Dan’s journals, the large books of collages and photographs he had been making since he was a teenager. There were about eight journals in the house that night, but over time more would be found—including several small ones he’d done as a child—bringing the total to seventeen. Held on the laps of American cousins, high school pals, embassy workers who knew the family, his paternal grandmother, and so many others, the books gaped open, overflowing with coins, feathers, rice, call-girl cards, and Christmas tinsel.
Like their author, the journals are big. They take up space in the way that people who are charismatic, brash, and youthful do. They are messy—which also describes Dan. “Dan didn’t like things neat. He didn’t like lines,” many of his friends remembered about him that day. He was a chaotic mix of talents, moods, and destinations. And like his journals, in which he superimposed images from trips that occurred years apart, confounding the original order in which they took place, he resisted linearity at every turn.
Already on that sunny day at the celebration, a myth was being born—a myth of a person who was bigger than life, a saint. Just shy of his twenty-third birthday, Dan had traveled to more than forty countries, led a group of young people through southern Africa to deliver the sizable money they’d raised for a refugee camp, and been among the youngest Reuters photographers ever, helping to alert the world to the tragic famine in Somalia. His prolific, boundless energy is one of the first things people recall about Dan; he certainly accomplished a lifetime’s worth in a brief period. But for all of his good, he wasn’t a saint. Some of his best friends almost immediately rallied to remember Dan the regular guy, Dan their friend, who had his flaws. He could be moody and was almost obsessively protective and jealous of the women in his life. He was generous, providing loans and gifts without question, but could suddenly nitpick over a small sum. Overall, he’d been a strong student and a witty writer and orator, but his math skills were abhorrent; he’d teasingly threatened to excommunicate Amy from the family if she did better than him in math. His flamboyant style—he had a penchant for masks, disguises, and costumes—amused many, but made others uncomfortable.
While Dan may have had his regular-guy traits, he was undoubtedly blessed with an unusually good set of life circumstances, not the least of which were his family and his home. His immediate and extended family supported almost every new thing he wanted to try (sometimes after Dan charmingly convinced them) and every new place he wanted to see. They provided him not only with financial backing, but with love, encouragement, and role models. And they brought him to Africa. He moved there when he was seven, and no matter where he traveled, he always returned. There probably wasn’t a better place in the world for someone with Dan’s adventurous spirit to live. It challenged and delighted him; it served as both his teacher and his canvas.
Rather like his fondness for the 1930s French singer Edith Piaf, another quirk of Dan’s that seemed out of place for someone his age was his frequent use of aphorisms. At nineteen, he’d even created a mission statement for himself: Safari as a way of life. He sometimes signed his letters “Live and die on safari” and repeated certain sayings throughout his journals: Don’t run your body like no gas station. Fight the power. Look for solutions, not problems. Seek clarity of vision. Although Dan employed such grand statements with a wink, always underlining them with humor, he believed in them nonetheless. In the journals, he combined these words with vibrant imagery, exploring life’s poles, good and evil, beauty and ugliness. The end result is a sort of road map for living, formed out of years of roaming.
Many people sensed, both during and after his life, that he had a clearer vision than most of us. Perhaps it was his impish, mischievous grin. Even more so, it was the way he managed to follow his dreams, no matter how unlikely they sometimes appeared. The questions he asked and tried so hard to answer through his art and his wanderings are the same questions many people ask when they plunk down money on therapy or self-help books. Instead of finding answers on the couch or in words, Dan was more apt to find them in a sweaty hotel in Casablanca, on a desert drive outside Los Angeles, or in the backstreets of Nairobi. Could it be that with his quick wit and singular way of looking at the world, he was closer than others to life’s so-called answers? This certainly is the lure of the journals: the inquisition and revelation embedded in their pages, the vivid representations of his search and what he discovered in his short life but long journey.
Read more when you purchase Dan Eldon: The Art of Life