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  • I have had some strange moments in my educational career but the situation with Manuel’s bodyguard tops the list. And I think it is finally safe to tell the story now. At least I sure hope it is.

    Have a seat and a listen.

    Manuel was from Equatorial Guinea. His father was the new ambassador and was a brother or an uncle or something up close and personal with the president. The entourage that arrived to enrol Manuel in grade 4 walked into the school fresh from a shopping trip. They carried bags from boutique shops and were busy setting up new cellphones. No one seemed to speak English except me. I smiled and nodded and got someone to round up the Spanish teacher because it sounded like Spanish was an official language through some historic quirk or chance. The Spanish teacher listened, tried a few phrases and concluded that if it was Spanish it was not her Spanish.

    I smiled and nodded some more. We got them a stack of forms papers waved good bye.

    A week later Heinrich walked in. He was at least 6 foot 8 a towering, rangy Afrikaans ex-special forces, ex-anti-terrorism trainer, long-faced hulk of a man with hands that swallowed mine completely. He explained as he crushed my hand that he had been hired as the children’s guardian. The parents and entourage were apparently not planning on being around much. Heinrich came around a lot during Manuel’s first year. He sat in the small classroom chairs, all elbows and knees and met with teachers. Suddenly he was responsible for checking homework and arranging play-dates and responding to calls about showing respect on the school bus and perseverance in the classroom.

    He told me that back in Manuel’s country the power went off each evening and kids did their homework in the median strip of the highways by the streetlights’ glow. He knew a great deal about the situation various African countries. He showed us pictures of the opening of the family/state run new luxury hotel. He knew the guest list by heart and pointed out each one as though he was going through a security briefing. He took careful notes during parent/teacher conferences and went through report cards comments with his small gold-rimmed glasses pushed firmly up the bridge of his nose.

    Manuel was with us for three years and after he moved up to the Middle School at the main campus I didn’t see Heinrich. I was surprised when he showed up one morning before school and said he had to talk with me.

    I said sure and we found a couple of chairs in the computer lab. After crushing my hand and going through the formalities of greeting, he carefully and firmly shut the door and we sat down.

    Mr. Ben, he said. I have a problem and you must help.

    I nodded.

    He said he had been to the embassy but no one would listen to him.

    He said this was very important.

    He said I had to pass on his information.

    By this time I was not sure whether to sit on the edge of my seat or edge for the door.

    Mr. Ben, he said in a hoarse whisper with an eye on the door. Osama bin Laden is here in South Africa.

    Okay, he had my attention now. This was about the time there was a 25 million dollar reward out for the dead or alive deliverance of the number one wanted man in the world. I was all fuckin ears.

    He said he was doing military training for different groups in the suburbs around Johannesburg and Pretoria. He glanced to make sure I got the emphasis on groups. Like I said, I was all ears.

    He said that a lot of groups were coming down to South Africa to shop and train and, well, sort of, get some R&R. Hang out around the pool, have a braai, shop for cell-phones and laptops, get in a game drive or a game of golf maybe, that sort of thing. Everybody needs a vacation.

    He said one of the groups he was working with told him that Osama was in the area. He had tried to get in to the US Embassy but no one would listen. He looked positively mournful. I tried to picture him at the security check point at the embassy explaining the purpose of his visit in his heavily accented and wonderfully phrased English. Picture Lurch trying to crash a diplomatic function and you'll be close.

    I wondered if he thought my principalship was some kind of super deep CIA cover.

    I said I would call and pass on the information.

    He unfolded himself and crushed my hand once more. Thank you Mr. Ben. I knew I could talk to you, he said.

    So that morning I called the Regional Security Officer (RSO) at the US Embassy and reported that Osama bin Laden was reportedly having a bit of a break in a compound in the northern suburbs of Jo’burg.

    The RSO didn’t laugh, just heard me out said thanks and that was that.

    I never heard back from the RSO or the embassy, never got the 25 million, and never saw Heinrich again.

    You really never know what the day will bring in an elementary school.
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