Chapter Twelve: Exploring
[Chapter Eleven can be found here.]
When he returned alone to the Mango Bar later that evening, El’s equilibrium seemed restored, restored most emphatically compared to the near wreck Paul had spent the last few days with. He appeared as genuinely gentle as Paul had seen he could be, and serene, though his hand still occasionally stroked the videotape, now back in its bag. Neither Paul nor Jeff asked about it, but the showing had somehow completed a cycle for El, had brought him back to a sort of interior safety. He sat way back in his chair once he had been dropped off, for the most part just watching Jeff and Paul talk, making little effort to join in—and drinking little. Out of deference to him, they had moved away from the topic of Joanie, Paul questioning Jeff about the Peace Corps experience.
“You want to see brousse life for a day or so?” El asked Paul, a beer or two (for the talkers) later, “If you do, I’ll take you up to my place, so you can see how we really live.”
“Sure.” After what he had heard from Jeff, Paul was getting interested in the lives of these PCVs despite himself, despite seeing them initially as a little less than the friends he would choose. Now, he wanted to see a little more of this fractured group of people that he’d fallen in with. “I would like that.”
“We’ll have to take a taxi up, for my moto’s chained at my house, but it’s only a thirty minute ride.”
“I don’t mind. I didn’t think the bus today was too bad.”
“This will be a little pickup, crowded and dusty. But it won’t be for long.” El stood up and stretched. “Come on. Let’s get some sleep.” He paused, lowering his hands and looking down the road. “You know, for the first time in a long time, I’m ready to get home. I’m tired and want to go to bed.”
“OK.” They left Jeff, who was expecting some of the others to return for a little more drinking, and made their way back to the house where they had dropped their bags. It sat within a small compound; built of cinderblocks; its windows and doors were metal with louvers over screens and no glass. The bed El showed Paul had a mosquito net hung above it. El helped Paul lower it, explaining that the house’s screens were not very effective and that, though malaria wasn’t such a great problem in the area, it paid to be attentive.
Once in bed, Paul felt a little peculiar. He didn’t like the feeling of being shrouded that the whiteness of the netting gave him, and he woke several times during the night, distracted by the slight swaying of the ghostly material. Once, his hand sneaked out from under the net, and mosquito bites startled and woke him. Another time, he rolled against the net, allowing the mosquitoes to get at him through it. All in all, as a result, it wasn’t a very satisfactory sleep and he was up soon after dawn. He was glad they wouldn’t be staying there longer, and hoped he could either learn to sleep under the net soon or would always find rooms with screens.
El heated water for coffee on a little two-burner propane stove while pouring cold water from a small kerosene-driven refrigerator into Paul, who was once more a little bit hung-over and dehydrated.
“You’ve got to learn to drink something other than beer and coffee around here,” he said, once they were about finished with their breakfast of mangos and a bit of stale bread El had discovered in the kitchen and had packed up to leave.
“I’m serious. Dehydration can be a big problem. Drink liquids all day, whether you are thirsty or not. Whenever you get the chance. And I don’t mean beer and coffee, but rehydrating liquids.”
“I haven’t seen you do that.”
El laughed, “Believe me, I do.” He got up, grabbed his bag, and motioned for Paul to follow. They walked out into the street, pushing the heavy courtyard door closed and locking it with a large, efficient-looking padlock.
The bachet they got on in the Kara gare left quickly and soon dropped them off on the edge of the paved road where a small dirt lane stretched between fields of what El said was millet or, in a few cases, sorghum. Mango trees again dotted the landscape and, just off the road, one of those huge, gnarled trees with deformed-looking branches rose above all the rest. It was bigger than any Paul had seen before. For some reason, to Paul, its branches looked more like roots. He couldn’t help but stare at it.
“What’s that again? I’ve forgotten the name.” They had picked up their bags and were starting down the lane.
“That’s a baobab tree, the greatest tree in Africa.”
“Looks sort of, well, stumpy, though it is big.”
“People say the baobab used to be a fine, spreading tree with great leaves, but it got uppity, and challenged god. To show his displeasure, god pulled the baobab out of the ground and stuck it back in upside down. That being why it looks as it does today.”
“I like that.” Paul stared at the tree as they walked, taking in the improbable outline, imprinting its solemn, silent magnificence onto his memory as though he might never see another. “I was wondering if anyone else thought the branches looked like they should be underground.”
El saw that Paul was still staring at the tree and laughed. “Don’t worry; they’re common. You’ll see many that far outstrip that one.”
Further down the lane, Paul could see the grouping of houses that, El informed him, made up the village of Massiga, where he was posted, where he had lived for the past year and a half. The road passed over a stream, and El told Paul that he had managed to get hold of the culvert tube under them (one of the aid organizations was about to throw it away) in Kara and had transported there it via oxcart at the very end of the past dry season. This year, the rains had not yet washed out the road, so El was hoping that the culvert was actually doing its job and that the road would prove passable year around.
“But one should never expect success, not here, not in Africa. We didn’t dig far enough, didn’t place the tube down enough. So it might get washed out itself. Might cause things to be worse than before.”
“Why didn’t you go deeper?”
“It rained, and no one would have been able or willing to work on it more, even another day. So I decided to finish as quickly as we could.”
“What did the rain matter?”
“They had to plant. Everyone works on the planting. All else stops.”
They walked on.
The village they arrived in, Paul saw, consisted of eight or ten round, brown compounds, with round, thatch-roofed rooms built into the walls, all set within what looked like a mango grove. The compounds had no doorways, just open spaces, and in the center of each a fire smoldered beneath a huge blackened pot or two. Children ran out and surrounded El, a couple of them taking his bag from his hands, all of them speaking to him. One of them shyly put his hand on Paul’s bag. Paul released his grip and let the kid carry it. Ahead of them, several older men were reclining in the shade of a the largest of the mango trees, sitting on long, low benches. El headed for them.
What he said, Paul could not understand. Some of the words were French, and he did catch a few, but others were in the local language. El shook hands with all of the men, then made what Paul could recognize as an introduction, so he, too, stuck his hand into those of the others. The men smiled, and indicated that the two newcomers should sit with them.
A woman came out of one of the compounds carrying a clay pot and two calabash bowls much like those in the hands of some of the men or resting by them. She handed a calabash each to Paul and El and poured in a milky liquid from the pot.
“This is ‘t’chakpa or t’chakpa-lo.’ As you get even further north, they’ll call it ‘dolo,’ but it’s the same thing.”
“And just what is that?”
“Oh,” El smiled, “millet beer. People drink a lot of it around her. And when you drink it, smile. You don’t want to insult anyone’s hospitality. Which means, by the way, that, if anyone ever offers you something to eat, anything at all, always take a little of it. Complete rejection is an insult. Oh, and watch what I do before you drink, and do the same.”
He swirled the liquid in his calabash and then poured a little bit of it on the ground. “Pour les ancestres.” For the ancestors. Paul watched and imitated. The oldest man nodded, but Paul had a funny feeling that the others thought the gesture polite but a little silly.
They drank. To his surprise, Paul found the concoction sweet and cool, though grainy and gritty, odd on the tongue and with a distinct residue. He smiled and nodded himself, and said thanks in English, then in French.
“That man in the white robe is the village chief,” El told him, between bits of conversation with the men. “I was posted here because he had bought a pair of oxen and wanted help in learning to use them in his fields. Now I go around to villages, do demonstrations, and teach people how to repair their plows.”
Paul surreptitiously examined each of the men, trying to imagine their lives here, in a landscape that could be on the moon, for all he could understand of it. What did they think about? What was “normal” to them? He looked at them, top to bottom, all of their faces harshly lined, some cheeks sunken, others full, hair graying, the muscles on their exposed arms and calves stringy but clearly still strong. Each reclined comfortably on a wooden seat. They were talking to each other in low tones and short statements, speaking louder only when addressing the Americans or the group as a whole. They sipped their own drinks, watched the land around them, and occasionally laughed and something another had said. Paul gave up trying to get a fix on them. He had realized that it was a futile exercise to try to build a conception of their lives or thoughts; never had he encountered people this different from what he was only beginning to see was an American, not a human norm. He lowered his head but found he was staring at them anyway, entranced, fascinated, and still wondering.
After what El deemed a reasonably polite length of time, he excused the two of them and took a reluctant Paul away and over to his own compound, newer and smaller than the others, and lacking the fire in the center.
One of the rooms didn’t have a roof, but a rude tripod atop the walls that had been erected in its place. “That’s my shower. I brought this solar shower thing, a plastic bag with a shower head attached, that you sit in the sun so you have hot water. I rigged that up,” he pointed to a rope through a pulley hanging from the top of the tripod. “I lower the bag, siphon water from that big jug,” he pointed, “and raise it back up. By evening, I’ve got a solar-heated hot shower!”
El’s other buildings were a kitchen with a propane stove, a broken kerosene refrigerator, a large, lidded caldron filled with water, a water filtration system made of two large plastic buckets one set in the other, and a series of shelves built up near the thatch of the roof and holding a variety of packaged goods; a store-room; a bedroom; a smaller guest room; and, just outside the main compound wall, an open-sided shed where his motorcycle was chained. Right beyond was a paiotte, an open-sided but covered sitting area.
“I had all of this built about eight months ago. Was living in the compound of one of the families, but wanted a place of my own, and wanted to learn more about how they build around here. Wanted to get involved in that directly.”
“Nice.” It did look inviting. The ground in the compound had been cemented over and was well-swept. The rooms were dark and the low, cloth-slung folding chairs that El dragged out to the paiotte were comfortable. El drew a couple of bottles of BB from the bottom of the caldron in the kitchen and handed one to Paul, who felt its cool side, surprised. “And the beer’s cold! I thought you guys lived the hard life.”
“Oh, it can be hard enough… but not compared with PCVs in places like Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Yeah, for the most part, we’ve an easy life here. Still, it’s easy for any of us to get sick, for one thing.” He popped the cap off his beer and flipped it away, snapping it between thumb and forefinger so that it arched like a Frisbee. “Malaria’s not so common up here as in the south, but it’s still around, and there’s lots of other things.” He took a drink and smiled, but this time Paul noticed a slightly diabolic twitch in place of the usual self-deprecation.
“Ever heard of Guinea worm?”
“It’s particularly nice. Get it, and the worm eventually pops its head out of your skin. You can’t pull it out, though, for it will break, part of it stay inside, and make you really sick. So you have to wait until enough of it is out for you to wind it around a stick. Then, each day, you wind it a little further, until it comes out entirely.”
“Sounds wonderful.” Paul shuddered and drank a little more beer. Hell, he thought, I’m committed to this trip now, so I’m not going to think about things like that. El, though, continued with a litany of diseases, describing them in detail until they had finished their drinks and decided it was time for sleep.
The following few days, the ones he spent with El in Massiga, proved to be the most idyllic Paul would pass in Africa, though neither Paul nor El was particularly happy, each sinking, too often, into private regrets and ruminations over the losses they had suffered, real on El’s part and largely imaginary, on Paul’s. But neither of them wanted to press the other with his own aches or woes, so neither spoke at all of loss. During the evenings, Paul listened to El’s stories about the adventures—more often, misadventures—of Peace Corps Volunteers, drinking in information about their successes and failures, about Africa and about the cultures around him.
In the mornings, he helped El recondition plows and ready them for storage until next year, working large bolts loose with rudimentary wrenches and covering everything in grease. Also in the mornings, soon after leaving El’s compound on one errand or another, they would be invited to drink millet beer. For the first time in his life, Paul found himself generally tipsy by noon. In the late afternoons, usually after the day’s rain, they wandered around, sometimes on foot, with El showing Paul some of the sights about the village, sometimes going off on El’s moto and visiting other PCVs and the various Togolese El felt he needed to greet now that he had returned. At night, they drank bottled beer, sitting outside at El’s and talking about everything and anything either of them could think of.
They spent more time with Rachel and Bouk, whom Paul had met at the Mango Bar, than with anyone else. Rachel’s post wasn’t far from El’s, and Bouk worked for the animal traction program in Kara, so often dropped by to talk to El. Generally, Rachel, who worked with women’s cooperatives, would be with him: they tried to dovetail their schedules as much as possible. Paul had a feeling that they were also making a particular effort to look in on El frequently, still worried about his emotional recovery.
Bouk had a bigger motorcycle than the Yamaha DT100’s of the PCVs, a Suzuki. Because of Peace Corps regulations, Paul couldn’t ride the Volunteers’ bikes, but Bouk had no such restrictions. He gladly, along with El and Rachel, gave Paul a few basic lessons, getting him to the point where he could shift without stalling and accelerate without falling off. Though Paul wanted to, they wouldn’t let him take the bike out on the roads. He had to be satisfied riding on the dirt paths around the village, scaring chickens and guinea hens, avoiding goats and sheep, dismounting breathless from the excitement of it, once he had made it back to the compound.
A couple of times, El and Bouk had to go off together in a service pick-up, leaving the bike for Paul to practice on, going slowly on the paths, standing on the pegs like he had been told, riding over small logs, through the creek, and up the small hill behind the village, never going more than fifteen or twenty kilometers an hour. He expected he drove the women working in Massiga compounds crazy with the noise, but the kids seemed to love watching him, especially when he would fall, landing easily on the soft rainy-season soil.
So it was that, there in Massiga, Paul slowly began to fall in love with Africa, falling in love without ever knowing it was happening, not until many further months had passed, at least. Never before had he experienced a life lived at such a refined pace as that he saw around him, once he had learned to see beyond the simply oppression of poverty. It seemed remarkable to him, for that same life was a harsh one, in the village as on the continent as a whole. Famine wasn’t unknown, and disease was a constant. Dust got into everything all the time, making cleaning a perpetual task. Though some now used oxen for plowing, the farming was still tough work. The only manufactured items anyone owned were a few pieces of clothing, most of them ragged but one dress outfit, a light blanket, maybe a bicycle, possibly a transistor radio. Someone in the village owned a bicycle pump, a few others had a tool or two, and the chief had an old Mobylette that didn’t often run. Other odds and ends were secreted around the village, but there really wasn’t much, though most people had some cash stashed somewhere in their compounds. The pride of the village was a small gas-driven mill for grinding grain. Its noise provided the backdrop the market days, when people brought in their grain.
Though he began to see what life was in the village, and to identify some of the things that had, on arrival, seemed baffling strange, Paul knew he still had little insight into its people, history, or possibility—so far. He wasn’t sure he could ever gain that, no matter how long he might stay, but he was fascinated by the inhabitants of Massiga, graceful and careful, slow and reticent. He tried, as best he could, to engage various people in conversation. Most were polite, but they had little to say to him. He discovered soon enough that many of them spoke no more French than he did, anyway, making any sort of meaningful discussion all but impossible. He also found that, except on a market day, few people but the old and the very young had time to sit around and talk. The urgencies of poverty kept them working, during the growing season, every possible moment.
What did they think about? What were the problems, besides basic survival, that concerned them? He wished he knew. As the days passed and he began to understand just how different he was from them, he ached to know. Almost anything he could enumerate as a concern of his at home, he observed, had a parallel in Massiga, but, oh, so different! He saw that there was longing, anger, jealousy, covetousness, everything he knew of. But the ways of dealing were different, and more difficult, mostly. Sometimes more direct, often with even more subterfuge.
Frustrated by his ignorance, he wanted to find out more about them, and peppered El with questions. When he could, he tried to get Bouk to talk, too, but Bouk, who lived in Kara and thought of himself as a city person, claimed to have little interest in the peculiarities of village life. He had electricity and even television at his house, and had been to school, earning a degree in agriculture at the national university in Lomé.
The local primary school, where most of the children spent at least a little bit of time, was in a village about a kilometer away. Though school wouldn’t start for a few more weeks, El and Paul visited there so that El could tell a couple of the teachers that he was back and give them the few books he had thought to ship from the States. The school building was little more than three rooms in a row, one side open to the air, with simple benches and tables within.
Everyone in the village, Paul had discovered on the morning of the second day, rose at daybreak, to get as much work done as possible before the heat got too great. The noise of early activity made it difficult to oversleep. At eleven or twelve, depending on the urgency of the work, the time arrived for lunch and siesta. If needed, work resumed around four, and went on until dusk, at seven. The only important variation was market day, when trucks brought goods to fill the little market area and women brought in wood and millet beer on their heads, and tomatoes and onions. Men led in sheep and goats for sale and slaughter, and everyone drank and talked. Otherwise, work only stopped when it rained, and the rain, though often torrential, never lasted very long.
“It’s too bad you won’t be here after the harvest.” El and Paul were sitting under a thatched awning, drinking t’chakpa and watching the market a few days after Paul had started trying out the motorcycle. “That’s funeral time, when people have the money to celebrate the people who have died through the year. The funeral parties are awesome. Drinking, drumming and dancing through the night. For days, if the person was important enough.”
“Wish I could stay, wish I could do that.” Paul was realistic enough to know he was romanticizing the place, but he couldn’t help it. “This is a wonderful village. I can’t believe it. I mean, I wish I could just stay here like this.”
El nodded. Paul saw he had once more gotten that wistful smile on his face.
After more than two weeks in the village, however much he was enjoying himself, Paul had to admit that it was getting to be time for him to move on. El probably would have let him stay longer, but there’s no virtue in over-staying a welcome, even though Massiga was becoming a haven to him, a place where he could keep the world, and decisions (he admitted), at bay. A place where he didn’t have to think of his own future, or his bit of poor decision-making or ill luck, still so recent and so much on his mind. Though less and less, he also had to admit.
But he really did want to learn more, to explore this culture, so different from his own and so much more, well, interesting. Something was awakening in him, a new curiosity and enthusiasm relating to what was, for him, the great unknown. The world of Massiga raised emotions in him unlike anything he had ever felt. He even went so far as to ask El, the evening before he left, what it took to join Peace Corps, thinking he might apply when he got home, though even then he knew he was seeing things rather too romantically.
“It’s a tedious process.” They were sitting under the paiotte watching the sunset. “If you decide to do, just keep at it, and eventually you will get in. But you have to push it, never giving up.”
“Maybe I’ll do that.” The sky over the small hill to the west that hid the sun glowed red behind a low strip of clouds. It cast a baobab just south of the hill into steely relief. “It would make this trip worthwhile. Rather than just a vacation, rather than just a stupid quest that led me to fall flat on my face, maybe it will have led to something for me.”
“Don’t jump into it, though.” El put down his beer bottle and looked around for a full one. “You may feel in love with Africa right now, but you also may hate it in a week. Wait until it sneaks up on you and smacks you in the back of the head. Then see how you feel about it.”
Paul didn’t respond to that. There was nothing, after all, that he could say to that. Not only had he never experience that, but El clearly had.
The next morning, El took him to down Kara on his moto and deposited him at the gare, where he quickly got on a taxi for Dapaong, far in the north of the country. It was almost full, and soon left. As the taxi passed the lane to Massiga an hour later, Paul stared off at the distant village and wondered for the thousandth time about the life he had glimpsed there, and about the life that El had once found there, but had lost a good part of when Joanie Rodham had been killed. He hoped El could find it again, for it must have been precious—and he wished he had been able to find a way to let El talk to him about it. They never had, no more than they had ever talked about how Paul had been dumped by his girlfriend.
Now, though, he had to move on. He couldn’t join in with those lives, El’s and the other PCVs of the region. It could never happen. Not here. Not with them. The barrier erected by their grief was just too large.
[Chapter Thirteen can be found here.]