Mountains for Mohammed
By Nelson Price
© The Indianapolis Star, Saturday, October 10, 1998
Reprinted with permission.
To many Hoosiers, he’s remembered as the starving nomad boy with a club foot, malaria, tuberculosis, and spinal disorders who survived two famines in West Africa. And as a refugee who had never been in a school until he was 13 years old.
But here’s the latest about Mohammed ag Albakaye: he graduated this year from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service where he earned a degree in political science and international relations. Albakaye, who burst to national attention in the mid-1980’s with an 18-second appearance on CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes is back in the spotlight with his most recent achievement. Another news magazine, NBC-TV’s Dateline, profiled him in connection with his graduation from Georgetown,
one of the countries most prestigious universities.
"It was kind of weird being followed around campus with camera crews," Albakaye says during a recent visit to the two-story, far-west side home that he calls "the only actual house I’ve ever lived in."
He’s playing with a pet spaniel and bantering with his adoptive mother, Cheryl Shotts, as he explains his next goal.
Hoping to capitalize on his Georgetown education and contacts, Albakaye, who lives in Chevy Chase, MD., wants to enter government service, eventually becoming a diplomat to an African or Middle Eastern country. His dream is to be the U.S. Secretary of State and help bring peace to the world.
"I feel I was just born to do it," Albakaye says. I just know I’m supposed to work on peace, particularly in the Middle East."
Coming from any other 26-year-old, all this might sound delusional. But not from Albakaye, who exudes an almost spiritual quality with his soft voice and broad, beaming smile.
"At this point, almost nothing Mohammed achieves surprises me," says Rick Doucette, chairman of religious studies at Brebeuf Jesuit Prepatory School. Albakaye graduated from the private Northside high school in 1994, even though he had never held a pen or pencil when he came to Indianapolis in 1985.
"There’s no doubt in my mind this young man will be involved in some significant way in international relations," Doucette continues.
"He’s a survivor in the best sense. The physical, cultural, and emotional challenges he’s grappled with have been overwhelming, but the astonishing thing is the absence of bitterness or hardening in Mohammed."
The physical impact of his ordeals remains obvious. But the frail-looking Albakaye, who stands nearly 5-feet-11 and weighs less than 110 pounds, cheerfully professes to be in "no pain". Shotts, 55, is quick to dispute that.
"Mohammed doesn’t complain, ever, and he’s lived with so much pain he doesn’t even recognize it anymore," she says. "As a mom, I can’t help noticing the way he rubs his rib cage, and the fact his limp is as pronounced as ever."
In the Dateline profile, he was described as a "medical mess" when he came to Indiana. Born with a club foot and taunted as a "cripple" in Africa, Albakaye suffered advanced gangrene in his other foot because of an untreated wound from a game of "street soccer". Other disorders ranged from scoliosis (curvature of the spine), tuberculosis of the spine and malaria to a closed head injury he suffered as a child when he was struck by a car as a homeless child.
A veteran of about a half dozen surgeries, including a grueling back operation in which ten of his spinal discs were removed, Albakaye says he won’t go under the knife again even if doctors recommend it. But that’s all he’s turning down.
As a result of the Dateline piece, he’s been asked to be the keynote speaker at a conference on adoption in Virginia. Public Broadcasting Service officials want him to be among a group of "youth leaders" who question Fortune 500 executives in a special next year.
And while he’s looking for a paying job, Albakaye has been volunteering for U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne, D-N.J. He meets with African and Middle Eastern dignitaries and then briefs staff members of the congressman, who sit on international affairs subcommittees.
"What shouldn’t be forgotten is how hard Mohammed has struggled every step of the way, how he had to read, re-read and then re-read single paragraphs to comprehend them," says Sara Compton, social studies chairman at Brebeuf.
She tutored Albakaye privately for a year before he was admitted to Brebeuf in 1990. The school’s entrance exam, which most applicants complete in about 90 minutes, took him six hours.
"Mohammed wouldn’t eat in the cafeteria because he couldn’t stand to see food thrown away," Compton says. "He broadened our students so much, in his quiet, determined way."
By the time he was 13 and interviewed by 60 Minutes about his near-starvation in African famines, Mohammed spoke six languages, including English. He picked them up simply from mingling with various ethnic groups and foreigners in Africa. But without any formal schooling, he was illiterate.
His delayed start in writing and spelling still affects him, Albakaye says. At Georgetown, his struggles with written language persisted – despite Albakaye’s astonishing ability to instantly converse in almost any tongue. He says some of his biggest challenges at Georgetown, one of the country’s most prestigious universities, came in his Arabic classes – specifically, in written grammar.
"It was really rough," he says. "But Brebeuf was rougher in some ways because I was so sick then. To keep pace with his college classmates, Albakaye spent most summers in class. He either lived with Shotts and studied at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, or stayed in the Washington, D.C. area and took additional courses at Georgetown. Last summer was different.
"I cut loose," Albakaye says. "After I graduated in May, I backpacked around Europe. I went to Paris, Vienna, Spain, and all over Italy. His smile broadens even more. "Switzerland was the best, man. The people are so nice, the weather is perfect, there are lakes, mountains and green nature. You can’t beat it."
He may apply for a job as a foreign languages teacher at a Swiss school if opportunities for American governmental or public service agencies don’t pan out. Recent scandals involving politicians’ personal lives don’t lessen his desire for governmental service.
"That stuff is just ‘show’," Albakaye says. The real work occurs in the other rooms behind closed doors. That’s where I want to be."
Shotts says Albakaye always has wanted to work toward peace – partly because of the ethnic turbulence he saw growing up as a nomad. "Also, Mohammed just has a powerful, innate feeling that peace is his mission."
Like her adopted son, Shotts- who founded an international adoption agency after "Mohammed changed my life" – has been busy. She has placed about 200 African children in North American homes. Albakaye’s recent Indiana visit was planned in part so he could attend the wedding of one of those now-grown children, a Bloomington resident who makes part of his living by raising camels.
Albakaye also dropped in on his alma mater, accompanied by Shotts’ adopted daughter, Kelem, 13, a native of Ethiopia. Kelem, a seventh-grader at Kingsway Christian School, asked her brother to give her a tour of Brebeuf, which she hopes to attend.
It’s a place where Albakaye lingers in many ways.
"If anyone ever had a right to self-pity in this world, it’s Mohamed," says Doucette, the religious studies teacher. "He didn’t spend time asking: ‘Why did the world deal me such a lousy hand?’ To this day, I talk about Mohammed as a way to inspire new students."