Chapter Eleven: Assessing
[Chapter Ten can be found here.]
Ouahigouya, a quiet town, spread-out and dusty, almost a small city, seemed, to Sam’s eye, just another in that series of the barren and bleak decaying universes he had been thrown through the past days. Bandiagara writ large, he thought as he looked around, trying to get some purchase, trying to keep something familiar in view. Standing beside the pick-up on the edge of town, he was now in another unknown country, after all, one even more alien, if possible, than Mali. He knew that, until a few years before, this “Burkina Faso” had been called “Upper Volta,” a name that sounded like it belonged somewhere in Russia. The country, he had heard back in the hotel in Mopti where people talked of the troubles between the two countries, was still in the grip of a “revolution,” one that had spawned cadres that roamed the countryside looking for anyone who stepped out of line. He had a visa for it, for his trip south would have taken him through it one way or another, but he had not planned on spending any time here.
Few of the buildings he could see as he looked down the road were more than one story high. Most were of mud brick, with thatched roofs. The streets were wider than those of Mopti and the light traffic upon them flowed smoothly. The garbage he had begun to think ubiquitous to African cities (from his exposure to Bamako and Mopti) was unseen. A couple of vultures, gigantic birds he had never encountered before coming to Africa and was having a hard time getting used to, picked over the meager trash. Still, it was a serene place. Despite his own tamped down feelings of anxiety, this was clearly a spot assured and peaceful in its rhythms. He breathed deeply, hoping to take some of its tranquility into him. They were across the border, after all, safe and able to move.
Still, quiet or no, he was even more at sea and alone here than he had in Mopti, the knowledge of that ruining any chance of really relaxing. Here, he certainly was in the middle of nowhere; not only that, but he was now completely dependent on a ragged, often drunken stranger. The very idea replaced any chance of capturing the local calm; another chill replaced it. Damn. He turned his head so that his eyes could capture the wide, flat vista behind him, and took in what now seemed, once again, little more than desolation. He knew he had made the right choice in coming here—he was out of Mali, now, and might just make his flight down in Abidjan—but there is always risk in choice, and he had no idea what that risk might entail.
At least he knew that much. He couldn’t quite catch the situation swirling around him, moving him. This place, this trip he was on, had now slid well beyond his comprehension, and that lack of understanding depressed him. He was alone on a strange sea, currents taking him, control long gone.
Paul, on the other hand, seemed quite excited by their arrival. He had become positively loquacious, though oblivious of his audience’s lack of interest.
“Look at the trees here, and you will see what the vast majority of this world once was, before desertification.” He spread his arms, embracing the town on one side of them, the countryside on the other. They were standing by a low dam at the edge of town, Paul having jumped from the bachet before Sam had slowly climbed down. Sam looked where Paul pointed, but little more than he had seen before registered. It all seemed the same, brown and a bit of green. “This, much more than Mopti or Bandiagara, is the savanna, the vast plains that stretches across Africa under the desert. There are baobabs here, lots of them, even in the compounds. See? That large, gnarled tree, almost a symbol of the continent. And teak, and those are eucalyptus, those neem.”
“Is it like where you were posted in Peace Corps?” Knowing he should, Sam forced himself to say something, anything, though he didn’t care and though he was aware that he had barely caught the thread of Paul’s comments. During the trip that morning, Paul had mentioned his Peace Corps experience more than once, so the question seemed natural. Probably it had even been expected.
“Djibo? Naw. Djibo’s not far from here, but it’s really a rather desolate place. Closer to the desert. Sand, and more sand. Fewer trees. Too few trees.” Paul was so absorbed in what he was seeing that he failed to notice Sam’s anxiety and inattention. He felt at home here, clearly, and safe. That depressed Sam further.
Paul grabbed his pack and led Sam down a small lane toward, he said, the compound of the family of a friend, the place where he had left his motorcycle. He continued to talk excitedly all the while they walked, babbling, really.
“I haven’t been here in a month, though it seems longer, but I love this place, love the people, love the land. If I were to live in Africa, it would be here. There’s a spirit, here, a gentleness that is uniquely African, and a quiet, unlike anything I’ve found elsewhere. The people don’t seem to get tied into anxiety, dealing with what comes—I know, sounds naïve, even condescending, but there’s something different here.
“I used to come down here from Djibo as often as I could. It’s only an hour or two by motorcycle, if you’re lucky. This was the big town, and so lush after all the sand, the barren expanses. Plus, this is where the PCV’s—the Peace Corps Volunteers—of the region would congregate. We had a little maison de passage, a couple of rooms in a compound, really, where we would stay. And we all made friends with people here.
“Once I met Yusef, for example, I started staying at his place rather than at the maison. I like his family and it’s quieter there. Come. It’s not far. We’ll be welcome there, and can relax and clean up. Might even find something to eat. Eggs? Coffee? Sound good? The family has a little restaurant off to the side of the compound.”
None of the men of the Sawadogo family was at home when they arrived. Though Sam didn’t really know it, not having anything to compare it to, the compound he and Paul walked into was a standard one of traditional style, set behind the cinderblock restaurant Paul had told him the family owned and one of his friend’s uncles operated. At the center of the central open space, a fire burned under a large black pot held up by three rocks while a number of smaller pots simmered in the coals at the edges. At the side of the compound’s entrance a tarp covered the distinctive shape of an old Mercedes Benz. A Mobylette was chained to a tree growing beside, and almost into, one of the banco walls. A couple of small children stared at them. One fled into a building as Paul clapped his hands twice, announcing their presence.
A young woman ran out of another thatch-roofed building, wiping her hands on a small towel, and met them with a slight bow.
“Ne zabre.” She spoke to Paul in what Sam would soon learn was Moré, the dominant language of Burkina Faso, the language of the Mossi people, the ethnic group more than half of the Burkinabe belonged to. “Good afternoon.”
“Ne zabre lafi.” Paul responded. “Is Yusef around?”
“He’s gone into town but he should be back soon.” She gestured toward the compound behind her. “Would you come in and sit down? Would you like something to drink?”
“Thank you. Yes, we would.”
Two of the children dragged chairs from one of the rooms and placed them in the shade. Another brought a low table and set it between them. Finally, a large bottle of orange soda appeared, along with two glasses. Paul poured for both of them, again carefully rinsing the glasses with a little soda he then poured out, and drank.
“Yusef will arrange a room for us here, probably the one I used to rent. I’ve got to do a little servicing on the motorcycle before I leave, and there probably won’t be a taxi leaving for Bobo, or even Dédougou, until the morning, so we won’t try to go anywhere tonight. Anyhow, it would be rude to move on so soon. We have to accept some hospitality. Tomorrow, I will put you on a taxi and meet you again in Bobo after I drop of the bike in Boromo, to get you situated so you can head to Abidjan.”
Though he was desperate to get going south, this was fine with Sam. He felt exhausted; all he wanted right then was to withdraw for a little while, to find someplace, something with walls, even of mud, a place that would allow him to retreat a little from this world that was getting to be too much, too foreign, too large. Furthermore, Paul’s enthusiasm for this alien world depressed him, for reasons he couldn’t verbalize, couldn’t order, even in his own calmest thoughts. Perhaps it was just seeing the other so enthusiastic, so confident, but he thought not—it couldn’t be so simple. Perhaps Paul seeming so at home reminded him of how far he was from his own, but he suspected it was more than even that. He sipped at his soda, though it was warm and way too sweet, hardly looking around, trying once more to center himself. Paul, oblivious of his needs, leaned back in his chair and chatted with the women who came and went through the compound, catching up on family news and neighbors.
Just as the young woman had said, Paul’s friend Yusef soon appeared, slowing from a run and walking into the courtyard with a wide smile as he saw Paul. He was a tall, slender young man, muscular in faded jeans and an armless tee-shirt, out of breath and sweating. Paul stood up as he approached and Sam followed his example.
“They told me you were here, a couple of the kids came running.” He caught his breath quickly, clearly not put out by the exercise. “Got back as quickly as I could.” He spoke in French.
“Thanks.” Paul shook his hand. “But you didn’t need to run. Yusef, this is Sam. He’s traveling with me down to Abidjan.” He translated what each had said into English for Sam.
Yusef shook Sam’s hand, greeting him, then spoke again to Paul. “Here for your moto?”
“It’s chained in one of the sheds. Should be OK. No one has touched it.”
“But I did not expect you back. When you said goodbye, we thought it was for good, and that Bob Marlin would pick up the moto.”
“Yusef, you know how hard it was for me to leave.” He paused and looked around. “I didn’t expect to be back again, and wanted my good-byes to be strong and final.”
“Yes, but people do understand. They know that the real good-byes are done, even if someone comes back shortly after, for a day. Don’t worry. You don’t have to see anyone.”
“Thank you, Yusef, for understanding.”
One of the children dragged out a third chair and a glass, and Yusef sat down with them, pouring himself some soda. He said something to another child, who disappeared for a moment, coming back with a cloth that Yusef then used to wipe away the sweat on his face and neck.
“It’s not good here, right now, you know.” Yusef had drained half of his glass before speaking again. “I’m glad to see you, of course, but I don’t think you should stay here.”
“Yes, we know. We came from Mopti. The real reason we came this way is that the border on the paved road to Bobo is closed.”
Yusef nodded. “I wondered if you had gotten through before that. I suspected that you might end up coming this way, if you got across the border at all, so I am not surprised, and I am pleased to see you, though I know that the visit must be short.”
“Thank you. And I am pleased to be here. Again, I only wish we could stay longer, but I think we should leave tomorrow.”
“You are probably right.” Yusef looked at Paul, relieved that the visitor didn’t plan on staying long, no matter how he might like him. “My friend in the military says they are on high alert. It may be that war will come, and soon.”
“I doubt it. This is just another of those things.”
Yusef shook his head. “I don’t know. This doesn’t feel like other times. People aren’t crossing back and forth on the pistes like they usually do.”
Paul suddenly realized that he’d forgotten that Sam, who had been looking to and fro between them, couldn’t follow any of this. He turned to him and translated the gist of their conversation into English.
“So you think it might really be more dangerous?” Sam asked, once Paul had finished. “I mean, have we gotten into a situation we shouldn’t have? Would it have been smarter to stay and suffer in Mopti?”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t have thought so. But I haven’t been in anything like this before, have never heard such talk. Generally, these things blow over. Neither of these countries can afford a war, so it’s probably all bluff. Still, we had better pay attention of what Yusef says—he generally knows what he is talking about. We need to get out of here as soon as we can.”
Sam shuddered and lowered the glass he had just picked up. “So, when do we leave? Shouldn’t we be trying to go, now? I know what you said, but…. ”
“Like I said, as soon as we can. Which will be tomorrow morning, if all goes well.”
“Why so long? If there’s going to be a war, shouldn’t we be trying to get as far away from the border as possible?”
“Yes we should. But there are three reasons why we can’t, at least, not this evening. First, the motorcycle has been sitting for more than a month, and hadn’t had much maintenance for a good period before that. If we want to get anywhere, I have to take care of it before we go, change the oil, regulate the chain, clean the plug. Second, and probably most important, two whites on a motorcycle at night, if things really are that tense, are just asking for trouble, asking to be stopped and held. At best, we’d be simply sent back into town, at best—as I said. Shot, at worst. Third, if I put you on a taxi tonight, you’d get no further than Dédougou, and would have to stay there tonight. I’d have to meet you there, or you would have to find a room on your own. And, in terms of safety, we might as well be here.”
“So,” Sam said, suddenly finding he was content to stay in the courtyard, a place seeming more and more comforting with its walls and doors, “we wait until morning.”
“That’s right, we wait until our chances of leaving in safety are greatest. That should be just after sunrise.” All three leaned back in their chairs, now silent.
That night, Paul and Sam ate with the family rather than in the restaurant/bar the family owned, Paul telling Sam that the food would be fine, although a little spicy. Sam, though, once more hardly touched what he was given. Afterwards, by lantern-light, Paul worked on the motorcycle, using a small took-kit strapped onto the rack welded to the back of the bike. He bought gas and oil at the BP station down the street, pumped up the tires, sanded the plug, oiled the chain and adjusted the spokes and brakes while talking to Yusef and drinking beer. Sam, quiet, spent most of his time looking at it, at this machine that would be Paul’s transportation the next day, glad he was going by bush taxi, however rickety. The motorcycle’s white plastic fenders rode high above the wheels; the whole thing sat higher than any of the bikes he was used to, for it was built for traveling off-road. The small, red gas tank had an elephant painted on it in profile, its trunk raised. Along the side of the long red seat was the word “Yamaha” in large white letters. The metal rack with the toolkit was made of rebar and had been welded on behind the seat, sticking out beyond the rear fender. Though it had obviously seen a lot of use, it was clean and certainly well cared-for.
Sam remained on his stool in the corner and was soon lost once more in his own rather morose thoughts, unable to follow either the French or the Moré of the discussions around him. It didn’t bother him, not this time. He had plenty to think of on his own.
As soon as he thought he decently could, he excused himself, walked into the hut he and Paul were sharing, closed the door, lay down, and tried to sleep. Instead, when he closed his eyes he was overcome by visions of himself forever stranded, wasting away, or, worse, arrested by the military in this forsaken place and left to rot. He found that he wanted to curl up into a ball, especially when he heard occasional laughter from out in the compound. Let them have this world. Please, get me back to my own. Give me what I know. He knew his emotions were regressing, but he couldn’t help it, couldn’t bring himself back to center.
No. He sat up and took a deep breath. He couldn’t allow himself to feel that way. In the system of being he had developed for himself over the years, he had learned not to ask for things, but to accept things as they are. That way, he had managed to live and thrive in a society that had tried to keep him the constant outsider. Instead of expecting, he took what he found as unchanging, and worked through it, with it. The question, he had learned, never rested in the external, but in his reaction to it. The inside: that’s what counted. That’s always been where, he reminded himself, success and well-being begin, and where they end.
He lay down again, steeled his thought and, this time, managed to fall asleep.
[Chapter Twelve can be found here.]