Chapter Sixteen: Crossing
[Chapter Fifteen can be found here.]
The Peugeot diesel engine that had been dropped into the red truck a couple of years earlier started immediately the next morning, much to Eric’s professed surprise. Brian had been out earlier looking around, and had somehow and somewhere found a mechanic who said he could put the windshield back in, so they loaded their bags and Eric drove them to the roadside shed that served as the man’s garage. While the work was going on, the five of them found a bar nearby and ordered a morning round of beer.
“This,” Paul tapped his bottle, “seems to be the primary similarity between you and the Togo PCVs. You alldrink too much. But I think you do it more.”
“Don’t talk. You joined us of your own free will.” Brian held up his glass in mock toast. “We may be drinking now, but we do a lot more… drinking, the rest of the time.”
“Actually,” Jerry ignored Brian’s jokiness, “we don’t get that much of a chance to drink, so have to take advantage when we can. Normally, all we can get is weak dolo and the occasional So.Vo.Bra.”
“So.B.Bra,” Lori corrected him. “That’s the national beer. They changed the name when they renamed the country.”
“Little hard to keep up with things there, right now?”
“Just a bit.” Eric put down his empty glass and got up. “The guy should be done with the windshield by now.”
“If not, maybe we can hurry him along.” Jerry rose, too.
“It would be nice to get to Koupela today. Got things to do.” Lori followed them. Shrugging. Brian got up, too, and Paul followed a little more slowly.
The others were already in the truck when he got there. Eric jammed it into reverse, nearly stalled, then managed to get them moving. The truck rocked from side to side as Eric manhandled it onto the road, shifting with the forward of two sets of gear levers. “The Peugeot transmission wouldn’t fit into the Comer couplings and shaft, but would into the Comer gearbox itself. So, the guy I bought this from simply shortened the drive shaft and put in both transmissions.” He grinned at Paul, who was standing behind the front seats watching, arms stretched to each side, for stability. Lori was stretched out on one of the couches behind him, Jerry sitting on the other. Brian occupied the other front seat. Eric pulled the truck onto the paved road, aiming them towards Burkina Faso.
The guards at the Togo side of the border, when they pulled up an hour or so later, remembered the truck and its drunken occupants from the morning before. They let them through quickly, with a joke or two and a request that they buy them beer next time through. On the Burkina side, however, even the fact of having Burkina plates didn’t speed thing up. They had to go through controls for customs, the army, the gendarmes, the police, and the CDR, all in separate places. They were crossing on a major trucking route, which accounted for a part of the control, and into the domain of a nervous, new regime, which accounted for the rest. Though they had reached the border at Sinkassi only a little after nine that morning, they weren’t through and on the road to Koupela before two in the afternoon, progress of about fifteen kilometers in five hours—slow walking speed.
Paul watched his companions with growing amazement. That they could be so patient in such a ludicrous situation seemed impossible, especially in light of what he had seen of them over the last day. They were polite at each stop, almost obsequious, doing exactly what they were told, never complaining, even if what they were told was simply to wait, which they did a lot of, smoking cigarettes and, from time to time, playing hands of gin rummy in the back of the truck while the relevant official took a long lunch somewhere else, or was in the middle of an important meeting. “Look, there’s nothing we can do about it. Bribes don’t work, under the new regime. And we want to stay in the country. So, we learn a little patience. Eventually, they let us through.” And, eventually, they did, at each post.
That road to Koupela, Paul saw, once they were past the last stop, was much straighter and flatter than anything he had seen in Togo. Its unrelenting precision made the land seem stark and undifferentiated, though he knew from his time in Massiga that the view was deceptive, that life—all sorts of it, lay hidden in the wide spaces. At first, he sat in the front with Eric, engaging in desultory small talk. Later, he sat on one of the benches in the back of the van and listened to more stories about the revolution (the PCVs especially, who had lived through it on a personal level, couldn’t seem to stop talking about it)—and thought about what he should do once they got to Koupela. The road they were on ended there, making the base of a “T” against the route that ran from Niamey to Ouagadougou and beyond. One way or another, he realized, it was bound to be his decision point.
“If you can’t decide which way you’re going to go, you’re welcome to stay at my place for a few days.” Paul had earlier told them that he didn’t know if he should go on with the van to Ouaga or wait for a bus to Niamey, in Niger, where he could eventually pick up his flight home. Lori’s offer, though, took him by surprise. He looked out the window for a moment, staring at the low fields that had been blending into one vast savannah, then nodded. That would be perfect. He could wait there until a decision came clear to him.
Just a little later, Eric pulled the van to the shoulder so that Lori and Sam could descend and walk the short distance to her house. There were no real goodbyes, just curt waves as Eric forced the shift lever into place, revved the engine, and eased out the clutch. They were, Paul saw, on the south edge of town, just where buildings were starting to crowd together, zinc and thatch roofs differentiating the compounds and other buildings. They stood and watched as the van reached the intersection just a hundred meters away, its left turn signal blinking brightly, the noise of the diesel still carrying to them. Lori led him around several compounds to the place where she lived, a single room in the compound of a family named Kiema. When she introduced him to the parents, Abel and Marie, he noticed that they referred to him as her frere, her brother. When he had a chance, he asked her about that.
“Oh, to Africans, to the Mossi, at least, family is more important than anything else. If you move somewhere and have a house, and a cousin comes to town, that cousin willstay with you. There’s no other way. On the other hand, no one here can conceive of allowing a mere friend to stay, certainly without paying or working. As the Kiemas don’t think you are my lover, you must be a relative.”
They were then sitting in what might be called a trucker’s bar, a round building set well back from the road at the top of the T intersection, with plenty of space in front of it for the 18-wheelers coming up from Lomé, some soon to be heading off to Niamey to the right, others leftward to Ouaga. Around the inside walls were crude paintings of black pop starts, from Jimi Hendrix to Bob Marley to Alpha Blondy. Lori said it wasn’t a place she liked to go to, but it was the only real bar in town—the only one with cold beer, at least.
“Tell me about them, the Kiemas. What’s it like living with an African family?”
“Oh, I like them a great deal. They’re a Christian family, Catholic. Abel does a lot for the church, and his sister is a nun somewhere in Senegal. He’s a farmer, but a fairly successful one, for around here. He doesn’t drink at all, which is a little bit peculiar—even the Moslems will drink if no one is looking. Marie has her own fields, and grows mainly millet, which she makes into dolo and sells on market days.”
“So Marie drinks and Abel doesn’t?”
“Actually, neither of them does. She just makes and sells the stuff. You’ll smell it, when she’s making a batch, if you stay more than a day or two.”
“I’ll have to try some, if I do.”
Lori smiled, “It’s generally pretty good, but it depends on the batch.” She paused for a swallow of beer. “The oldest son, Michel, isn’t here. He lives in Ouaga, where he works repairing radios and other small electrical items. If you go to Ouaga, I’ll tell you how to reach him. He’s a nice guy.”
“The rest of the kids are all here?” Paul avoided the question of where he would go next.
“Yeah. Marie has given birth to seven or eight kids, but only four have survived.”
“I only saw two at the compound, one that looks to be about five, and the girl.”
“She’s twelve. She has an older sister who you’ll see sometime, about fifteen. The youngest, by the way, is deaf. You’ll see people signing to him. There’s a sort of hand language for that, that’s grown up over the years. Almost everyone knows a little of it.”
When they left the bar, they took a few bottles of beer back to the compound with them. There were places closer to the house where beer could be bought, Lori explained, but it would not be cold.
They sat in an alcove that had been reserved for Lori back at the compound, drinking, talking, and listening to Marie bustling about the fire as she prepared dinner. In honor of the visitor, she had added a bit of meat to the gumbo sauce she soon served the family and Lori and Paul along with their millet paste. Lori showed Paul how to take a bit of the paste in his fingers and make a small scoop with it before dipping it in the communal pot of sauce. It was quite spicy and rather greasy, and Paul wasn’t sure how much he liked it, but he was rather hungry, so managed to eat enough not to embarrass himself or, he hoped, to be considered rude.
After dinner, the family members disappeared to their own tasks and lives, leaving Lori and Paul sitting alone in front of her hut once again, drinking the remainder of the beers they had brought back from the trucker’s bar.
“I heard you say you came to visit a girlfriend in Benin.” It was dark enough, now, so that Paul couldn’t see Lori’s eyes. “Too painful to talk about?”
“No, I guess not, though it was… though I don’t like to think about it. She dumped me, didn’t even show up at the airport. Guess she wrote me not to come, but the letters didn’t get there in time. Oh, well. I’m here, and trying to make the best of it.”
“Well, if it’s any solace, that happens a lot. Maybe it’s not so dramatic as that, as landing to an empty airport, but I don’t know anyone who’s relationship back home has survived Peace Corps.”
“What about you? Did you leave anyone?”
She nodded. “Yeah, and he came to visit soon after swearing-in. He even wanted to stay, to try to get some sort of job here.”
“When I saw him at the airport, well, I knew. Even in the three months of training, I had changed. I couldn’t go back anymore, not home. I had committed to this and had shed him with the rest of it, I guess. It almost made me ill just to think about it, to imagine ETing, early terminating, washing out and going home, not finishing up what I had begun here, and there he was, the central part of a life that was gone, suddenly inserting himself into my new life.” Paul was glad Lori couldn’t really see much of his face through the gloom as she talked. He purposely had not considered the other side, the pressure he had put on by announcing he was coming without really making sure he was wanted.
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? He had come all that way. I brought him here… I had told Abel that my boyfriend was coming, but he interpreted that as my husband… and he stayed for a while. Eventually, I had to tell him it wasn’t going to work.”
“And he went back home?” That, Paul thought, might even be harder than handling the shock he’d experienced at the airport.
“Yes. He didn’t seem to like it here, anyhow.” She got up, walked to where the alcove joined the main compound, looked out, then walked back again, adjusting the pagna wrapper she had changed into after dinner. “It was hard. It would have been easier if he hadn’t come, or if I had realized earlier that it wasn’t going to work. I still feel bad about it.”
She interrupted him, holding her finger to his lips. “Shh… let it go. It’s too far and too much. Think, instead, about what you want, what you want to do. Look forward. Do you go to Ouaga and stay longer? That seems to be what you are thinking, sometimes. Or go to Niamey, do a little sight-seeing, and go home? But tell me—maybe I can help you with this—what would you do in Ouaga? Do you have any ideas for staying longer?”
“I was talking to Eric about that when I rode in the front and the rest of you were sacked out in back. He says life in Ouaga is cheap, and, if I want to stay in Africa awhile, I could probably teach a little at the American Cultural Center there, or maybe even a math or intro physics course at the university. I’ve taught university level, tutored, at least, when I was getting my Masters, so…. ”
“So you can get by, should you decide to stay. Or might be able to. What about your ticket, though—will it still be good if you don’t use it now?”
“Yeah. I paid full fare, so have some time. A year, I think.”
“Why would you want to stay, though? Even if it turns out you can. What would you want from Burkina Faso?”
“I’m not sure. And that’s the problem, really. I’ve been seeing something here, though, and I’m not sure how to define it. But I am intrigued by it, and might even feel regret if I don’t take the chance and explore it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t really know. Look, I’ve lived alone, pretty much, since I was sixteen. And my father worked most of his career for DuPont, and was transferred around a lot, generally every year or two. I think I went to fifteen different schools before I graduated from high school, and I graduated a year early.”
“So, what’s that got to do with being here? I’m not sure I see what you are getting at.”
“Two things,” he held up a couple of fingers, gaining a little confidence from her gentle questioning. “First, the Africans. They don’t live so individually as I have. They seem to care about their homes, their families, and their communities in a way I have never experienced. I would like to get to know something of that. Second, the PCVs. You guys have something special, an attachment to each other that I envy. Something again that I have never experienced.”
“I think you are deluding yourself,” she broke in before he could continue, but quietly, “for what you are seeing in the Africans is simply the remains of a rural life, of a subsistence agriculture life—like that found all over the world, even in America, until recently. It’s almost gone and, if you live in Ouaga, you won’t see much of it at all. As to the other, well, if it’s so—which it isn’t, not really—you won’t be part of it, anyway. I mean, you are not a PCV and won’t be, if you do as you say you might.”
“No, but I can see that it’s something different from my experience, and I can try to understand it.”
“Then you’ll learn that it’s artificial, that there’s as much pain in these groups as love. As much hate. But it’s not something even other expats really understand. They don’t think much of us, for the most part. And the young ones, the travelers who come through and even stay for a time, they haven’t shared the intense training and don’t live the same way we do—couldn’t, I don’t think.”
They sat for a while in silence before Lori spoke again.
“So I don’t see it, don’t really understand what you are thinking of.”
“Guess I’ve been realizing, since I got here… “
“What’s it been, two weeks?” For the first time, she sounded slightly sarcastic. Paul ignored that.
“Yeah, two weeks.”
“Be careful of decisions come to so fast.”
“I know, that’s why I’m not sure yet what I’ll do. Anyhow, something’s been missing from my life, and I don’t want to go back to that emptiness.” He looked at her. “I guess that’s the simplest way to put it.”
“A lot of us here, all of us expats, are avoiding something back home. I’m not sure that’s the best way, though.” She spoke softly again, and Paul wondered what she was remembering from back home.
“I don’t think I’m avoiding, but seeking. Before, I don’t think I even knew I had something to look for. Before two weeks ago.”
“Hmmm… well,” she stood up, “we can talk about this more, if you want to. Now, I think I want to go to sleep.” She got up and walked into her hut. He followed.
“Where do I sleep?” There was only one bed, even though a large one.
“Here. But let’s just sleep, huh? You’re nice and all, but I’m tired, and not sure if I want a lover right now.” She pulled her wrapper tight and removed her bra without taking off her tee-shirt. While she was lowering the mosquito net, Paul, with a shrug, shed his pants and shirt and climbed in.
He slept well, which surprised him when he woke, the net no longer bothering him and the presence of the woman not even distracting him. Though, he saw, she had risen before him and he was now alone in the bed.
That day was market day in Koupela. Paul and Lori went with Marie to set up her dolo stand and sat with her for a time, each drinking a calabash full, but neither wanting more, certainly not after the amount of beer they had drunk the days before. Lori showed him around the market, introducing him to friends and explaining what things were when Paul asked.
A little before noon, they heard drumming from across the market and Paul asked if they could go over to see and listen. Lori nodded, and led him to an open area, crowded with people, where three men with long drums hung by straps from their shoulders were playing to the accompaniment of a fourth man with a small, wooden flute who was swaying forward and back as he played. A number of women were dancing in an open space in front of them. They stopped at the back of the crowd to watch, both of them tall enough to see over the crowd.
The dancers were all dressed in pagna wraps much like the one Lori had worn the evening before (now, she was in jeans, as Paul was), generally the same pattern on their wrapped skirt, their top, and their headwrap. Some had babies strapped to them, using the same cloth even for that. The babies didn’t seem to mind their mothers’ dancing, not even when they bumped hips—quite forcefully and to the applause of the watchers—with other dancers.
The flute, Paul saw, only had two finger holes, one on each side, and the player blew across another hole in one of the ends. Like the drummers, he played with his eyes closed about half the time, the other half, glancing about as he bobbed up and down, apparently watching the reactions of their audience. The drummers seemed to play mainly with their palms, using their fingers for accents.
One of the dancers was a woman who had been disabled by polio or, Lori said, possibly by a poorly administered injection when she was a baby. “It happens a lot,” she told him, “hits a nerve and leads to withered legs, just like hers.” None of the dancers seemed to mind, though she couldn’t do the steps the others negotiated with ease.
Soon, Paul and Lori found that the crowd had grown behind them. Several hundred people, now, had gathering around the drummers and the dancers, and all were in a in festive mood. Occasionally, a new dancer would join and another would leave, almost always with a cheer or clapping for the exhausted one, who would fall into the hands of her friends. The lame woman, however, kept dancing, though sweat sprayed from her face and had soaked her blouse.
After a time, one man, obviously drunk, decided he didn’t like the way the lame woman was dancing, and so he started yelling at her to leave the group of dancers. Lori translated for Paul, saying he was telling her to get out, to let better dancers have a chance. The woman ignored him, but Paul could see that she had heard. The drunk yelled at her a couple of more times, then pushed her, trying to get her out of the way. She fell down.
The players saw this. Without losing a beat, without any obvious communication with each other, they started moving. A couple of women got the fallen one up and out of the way as the drummers and their flute player surrounded the drunk. He didn’t notice, not until it was too late. Suddenly, on the closing of their circle with him at the center, the tone of their playing changed. Paul suddenly realized that they were no longer playing for their audience, but were playing at the drunk, who quickly saw that he was surrounded and in trouble, turning his head back and forth, trapped. He tried to break through and away, but the drummers blocked him, and the crowd, mainly women, formed a solid circle around them, making escape for the drunk impossible, even if he could manage to break through the smaller circle.
“He’s from another village. He’s a Gourma, not a Mossi. I could tell by his accent. Moré is not his native tongue. There are lots of Gourma here, but he isn’t one of them. He didn’t know who she was, or what could happen.”
“Who is she?”
“I don’t know her, but I’ll bet she’s a relative of one of the players. They’d probably get after him anyway, but they are really angry.”
The drunk turned around a few times, his eyes now glancing over the heads of the musicians as though something in the sky could save him. Slowly, he then sank to the ground, covering his ears and head with his arms, as though protecting himself from the musicians.
“What’s he doing?”
“What do you think? Giving up, I expect. Asking for mercy. They will continue the drumming for as long as they think he deserves it, then go back to playing for everyone else.”
Paul didn’t want to leave, but Lori pulled him away, saying she didn’t want to watch anyone’s humiliation.
“It just seems a little too voyeuristic to me.”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it, a group of people so seamlessly, so effectively… it’s hard to express, but they were taking care of their weakest, even without urging.”
“Did you notice that the other dancers were courteous to her, even before?” They were now walking toward the Kiema compound, crossing an empty space south of the village.
“No,” Paul was surprised. “I just thought it was odd that she was dancing.”
“I did, but didn’t think I should mention it right then. You saw how the women bump butts sometimes?”
“Yeah. They seem to get a kick out of that.”
“When they do that with another healthy woman, they smack with a great deal of force. Good dancers can bang together quite fiercely and not lose the beat. That’s when they get the most applause.
“They’re considerate, though. They never smack into someone they might knock down, not without easing up so they don’t hurt the other. It’s almost as important that the other person not lose the beat as not losing it oneself.”
“So it’s not a competition?”
“No. And I saw that all the women were particularly careful to look like they were bumping hard against the disabled woman, but they must have been taking it easy. Any of them would have knocked her down, otherwise.”
Paul didn’t know what to say. He thought back to what he had seen. “Surprising people, these Africans,” was all he could come up with.
Lori frowned at him. “How so?”
“They care about each other more than I would expect.”
“More than you’re used to, perhaps? Maybe it’s America that’s strange, where family and community have been shrunk to the nuclear family and a couple of friends, if that. Here, people aren’t rich enough for the luxury of individualism and separation. They haveto help each other, or everyone would die, eventually.”
They walked on in silence for a bit before Lori continued.
“It’s not that these people are any better than anyone else, it’s just that they face problems more immediate than anyone else’s. They are poorer, their healthcare is worse… and their governments have almost nothing to do with or for the people.”
“That much, I’ve noticed.” Paul wondered where she was going with this.
“But think about it, about government: If you pay attention to experts on Africa politics, you’ll hear people say that the best thing Europe ever gave Africa was its national boundaries.”
“So?” They had arrived at the compound. Lori unlocked her hut and pulled out her two chairs, which she placed under an awning in her alcove, for the sun was still high.
“So, these borders, which everyone thinks so much of, are part of Africa’s problems. They have nothing to do with ethnic divisions, and they force Africans into entities totally alien to their cultures.”
“What do you mean?”
“Countries. Countries, in the European sense, don’t fit with Africa. So, they become completely new entities, entirely outside traditional governmental systems. To be effective, they have to be based on force. Otherwise, they would be ignored.”
“Aren’t some of the traditional chiefs involved in some of the governments? I know that in Nigeria…. ”
“Nigeria?” She cut him off. “Do you know how ridiculous it is to try to call that mass a country? Do you have any idea how many people died just to keep it one?”
“No, sorry. I don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t know that much about Africa. I’m just trying to learn. Remember, it has just been two weeks.”
“Sorry.” She lowered her voice. “Millions of Igbo died in a civil war not all that long ago, but a war the world has forgotten. They tried to separate from the rest of Nigeria, called their country ‘Biafra.’”
“Biafra. Yes, I have heard of that.”
“Anyway, the borders here, the very countries themselves, were created for European colonial needs and through European colonial competitions. They have nothing, let me repeat, nothing, to do with African cultural realities.”
“I never thought about that.”
“Sorry I’ve been going on about it, but it’s a passion of mine, and it makes me sick.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
Lori told the Marie they wouldn’t be there for dinner that evening and they walked to a place near the crossroads where a man was grilling chicken for travelers and a woman was serving rice and sauce. Lori ordered chicken for both of them and Paul managed to get rice and sauce for himself, as well as a couple of bottles of beer. They ate by the dim flames of the chicken cooker and the headlights of passing trucks.
“Have you decided which way you are going to go?” Lori dipped her fingers in a small bowl of water she had placed at her feet and flicked them dry.
“I don’t know. It’s tempting to try to stay here. I mean, I’ve been having the best time of my life, when I should be miserable. And I don’t know if I can face life back home again.”
“Sounds like you’ve been bitten by the Africa bug—but I knew that as soon as I first saw you—takes one to know one. Don’t worry. It happens all the time. But it’s an up-and-down thing. You’ll go through periods where you regret even having heard the word ‘Africa.’ Then something will happen to make you love it again. It’s also a hard thing. There will be times when you will be desperately miserable and alone. But interspersed with real joy.”
“I know. I see it in Brian and Jerry, and even Eric. I saw it in Togo, in the guy I told you about, who I met on the plane, though only hints of the up side. But I don’t know, yet, if it’s for me.” He put down his empty plate and took a drink directly from the beer bottle he had placed on the dirt next to him. “Also, the thought of spending the next two weeks wandering around Niger by myself makes me rather sad. It seems pointless. I’d be lonely, and would know I had turned my back on something I had only tasted, but that had beckoned me.”
“When I watched people leave, in stage, especially after the first month, when those who got sick or couldn’t face it or were pulled away, I always imagined it was me. I saw in their faces what I would feel, an incredible loss, a realization that they would never drink deep from the well of Africa. Leaving here can feel like real failure. Though staying isn’t always much better, at least it keeps the loss away.”
“If I go back, I think I will feel something of that loss. Maybe not to the extent of someone who had, after all, planned on coming for two years and was leaving early, but loss, nonetheless.”
“Then you should stay.”
“If only it were that simple. What would I stay for? What would I be trying to accomplish? What would I do for a living? Would teaching a class or two be enough? And why should I stay? Is this vague wanting enough? I won’t have a purpose or a plan, the things Peace Corps gives you. I won’t have a community, just the people I meet. What would I be heading for?”
“I don’t know. Guess you’ll have to answer that yourself.” She got up, collected their dishes and empty bottles, returned them to the vendors, and made clear to Paul that she was ready to walk back to the house.
[Chapter Seventeen can be found here.]