Why you should care

Because Ivy League doesn’t always mean ivory tower.

This is a story about going from Exeter to selling gray-market diesel made from plastic garbage and waste oil on border towns in West Africa.

You see, growing up in a seriously dysfunctional family, I had a good nose for failure and collapse. I first smelled it in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. I remember the postelection was like a requiem. I was at Exeter at the time, and Exeter was a strangely brutal but highly functional place. But by the time I got to Stanford, there was no denying collapse. No ideas, no guts, no passion — just smiley faces looking for “careers” and all that monument building. So upon graduation, I joined the Navy SEALS training program but washed out. I was not tough enough and, given I spoke Spanish, they would likely send me to Central America. I had already spent eight years in Central America, including four during the height of the Nicaraguan civil war (to this day, I hate the sound of firecrackers). Even if I was tough enough, I didn’t need to kill “Indios” for Uncle Sam.

To redeem myself, I got into the Yale Ph.D. program in cultural anthropology. I decided to do my field work in Nigeria. I had lived there as a child and I was fascinated by the Yoruba religion — especially the god of war, Ogun. I landed there and went to a hotel I had gone to as a child to learn swimming. There were 10 hustlers for every guest. Prostitutes tried to chase me into my room so they could stage fake-rape shakedowns. Luckily, I run fast. I was literally sprinting with my key in my hand.

My field work went well. I was initiated into a secret society and taught cult secrets. I loved the diviners. One basically wrote an entire chapter of my dissertation. Their stories were sometimes staggeringly beautiful. But the wear and tear was ferocious. I lost 20 pounds in two or three months every time I went. No lights, no running water. I lived on powdered milk and bananas for days a time. I had malaria frequently, amoebic dysentery constantly and nearly died from one case of bacillary dysentery (it killed far more of Napoleon’s soldiers than winter, bullets or cannon fire).

While armed robbers were always a threat, my biggest fear was the police. They considered executing and robbing me at least three times that I know of. Five hundred dollars was more than enough to get you killed. So Nigeria burns neurosis out of you and you have zero stomach for bullshit. If it is not a rusty Kalashnikov pointed at your head, you kind of don’t give a shit. Even with a gun to your head, you check to see if the holder has the balls to use it.

2010 01 05 04.16.00

Purified water

Source Courtesy Jessica Teal

But I had received no grant money and had to sell museum-grade African textiles around the world to make ends meet. I kept the best pieces for myself. I reveled in their beauty; they represented something that only I could do. No other art dealer had the guts to go where I went. They relied on runners. They never built the relationships that got you the truly great stuff. Through it all, somehow, I graduated from Yale and as a consequence decided to go back to Africa. But I wanted to go back a man, not a student. I wanted to help my crew. I promised them almost 20 years ago I would change their lives if they changed mine. They helped me through malaria, death threats, police shakedowns.

I went back with a purified-water business. It was not clever, but I wanted to sell good reverse-osmosis water to poor people. Bottled water is, like, $2 a liter in Africa. I wanted to sell it through vending machines for 10 cents a liter. No PET bottle pollution, just clean water. The machines broke all the time and my once lively crew were now old men. The superhuman effort that was their hallmark in the ’90s was gone.

I needed an idea easy enough for my fading crew to handle. I also wanted to do something that mattered. My dying mother wants me to be a success. She only loves me when I achieve, so I decided we could collect plastic and waste-engine oil and make it into diesel. I got the idea from an overpriced Japanese machine that did very much the same thing.

We paid people to pick up plastic garbage, and we paid fishermen to catch it. We could clean up all those disgusting beaches and help school kids pay their fees and finally I could help old people eat. I put all my money into making portable pyrolysis machines. Even now, I virtually live at the factory. I don’t trust anyone to give a shit enough (they don’t). We are failing but also improving more than we are failing. The machine is coming together, and people seem to like the idea. This week, we had two major breakthroughs and, on top of that, I’m heading off to Abu Dhabi in the hunt for cash, for the factory and for trucks. We’ve got one already, to haul the fuel from the factory.

So pyrolysis will make the trucking super profitable and, barring getting beaten half to death or, God forbid, all to death by people I suspect of being oil-company fronts, I’ll be making fuel for these trucks and avoiding nettlesome government regs while keeping the beaches clean and my people employed. You know, if you have balls and brains, your life should matter at some point.

It’s good to be alive.

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