Chapter Twenty: Arriving
[Chapter Nineteen can be found here.]
The first thing Paul had bought for his new room was a lock. Eric had suggested that when Paul told him he’d found a room, and where.
“Near the Hotel Oubri?” They were sitting on Eric’s porch, shaded by a pomegranate tree. “If you are going to live there, make sure you don’t buy anything worth anything.”
“I like the Oubri, though. It’s a good place to meet people.”
“Sure. If you like Europeans traveling on the cheap and Peace Corps Volunteers.”
“I like them well enough. And I don’t see you avoiding the place, either.”
Eric laughed. “Yeah, I like it as well as anywhere, and I love the vendors most people hate, the guys selling African crafts, the Tuaregs with their bags and leather boxes. But you should watch yourself around there. A lot of thieves work the quartier.”
Paul didn’t have much besides his clothes to begin with, so wasn’t too worried about theft. He hadn’t even brought a camera. But he did want to keep what he had. So, after leaving Eric’s rented house halfway between downtown and the American embassy, he decided to walk down to the center of town to look for a lock.
Over his first five days in Ouaga, he had managed to find out how to get around fairly well. It wasn’t a city for walking, though, too hot and dusty, so Paul was learning to do his errands early, then to stay put—for the most part. However, he wished to get the lock as quickly as he could—even though it was nearly noon—for he wanted to move in that day.
He’d liked Ouaga from the moment he’d arrived. A flat, spread out city whose buildings were, as he’d been told, often of mud brick, Ouaga’s broad streets, dirt for the most part, were filled with two-wheeled vehicles, pedestrians, and donkey carts. Few of the buildings were more than one story high and there was a surprising amount of open space. Only in the center of town were the streets at all narrow or the buildings consistently of a European fashion. Most of these, though, were old, some of them two-story or even three, and they housed commercial establishments that Paul could imagine having operated unchanged since the 1920’s. At their center was an empty, open space that had once housed the city’s main market. Now, it showed signs of construction—a new complex had been proposed—and the market had been temporarily moved to a field at the edge of town, a couple of kilometers away.
Not far from the center of town, off the road to Eric’s house, a huge construction project was going on. New streets had been laid out and were being paved and streetlights had been installed. The skeletons of apartment buildings were already appearing, replacements for the mud homes that had been bulldozed.
“The thing is,” Eric had explained to him, “these new apartments aren’t going to be too popular with the Burkinabe. These buildings are being paid for by Czechoslovakia or someplace like that, after a design of their own. It’s all designed for Eastern Europeans, not Africans, imported here wholesale.”
They had been walking to Eric’s house a couple of days earlier, on a tour of the neighborhood. “Look, you see how each is going to have a small porch?”
“Yeah, I see that.” Paul followed Eric’s finger.
“That’s all the outside each family will get. This, for a culture where most of life is lived outdoors, where all cooking is done outdoors. Where the courtyard is the center of family life.”
“They’re not going to be happy, huh?”
“They probably won’t stay in them, but will build traditional compounds again, if further out of town. These are a showcase, something to say to the world, ‘Look, we’re as modern as anyone.’”
“Shouldn’t they get to be modern, if that’s what they want?”
“Sure, but it should be an African modernity. There are plenty of African architects who could have designed buildings that would fit and reflect African culture. But, no, they have to have things that look like those of Europe.”
“Why is that?”
Eric looked at him like he was a fool. “Don’t you see? It’s the legacy of colonialism. That which seems European is always better than that which seems Africans. There are Africans who are actually ashamed of the traditional compounds of their ancestors, who would rather suffer in a building designed for another climate, just so they can imagine they are in something somehow ‘European.’”
“So you like this thing called ‘Africanization’?”
“Not as much as you might think. That’s mainly a cover for thugs to continue to rule in thuggish fashion. Mobutu in Zaire, Eyadama in Togo. They take African names, after using European ones their whole lives, throw on African robes, and pretend they are in some way ‘traditional.’ For the most part, it’s a hoax, a belligerency telling the former colonial rulers to keep their distance—while still providing the money, of course.”
“Huh. Well, I don’t know much of this.”
“Oh, you will, if you stay here long enough. You will.”
It was fine, staying at Eric’s, eating the food his cook prepared, sleeping in a room with a fan, always having someone to drink with, even first thing in the morning, but Paul was anxious, more and more, to be on his own, now that he had decided he was going to try to make a life here. The room was his first step. The second would be purchase of a Mobylette. Then he could join that horde of two-wheeled traffic infesting Ouaga, where each major street seemed a chaos of bicycles, Mobylettes, and motorcycles, with a few cars and trucks thrown in just to make a further mess of things. Oh, and the ox-carts, donkey-carts, whatever.
Until then, he would be walking, getting to one of the Lebanese shops around the old marketplace just before they closed for siesta, and purchasing his lock. With it in his hand, he walked back to Eric’s to pick up his pack, and then on to the compound where he would now be living.
He smiled at his new place as he dropped his stuff and examined the room. The bed was handmade and rope strung, but it looked solid and the mattress wasn’t as lumpy as some he had slept on recently. And there was a chair and even a little table. The bare walls and floor were plain cement. Not much, he told himself, but it was a start. He fit the lock through the hasp as he left, and snapped it shut. Looking down the row of cheap doors in the cinderblock building, he saw that his lock was not alone. Though there was a guardian for the compound, he was asleep in a low chair by the door to the road, next to the single spigot that served to provide water for the compound. This was going to be an experience, Paul told himself. The idea made him quite happy.
Later that evening, Eric met him, and they walked back toward the center of town to a bar that was quickly becoming Paul’s favorite during the night, a dive called Don Camillo’s, a wide-open bistro that made no pretense at being anything more than a venue for dancing and hard-core drinking. It had no decorations on the walls and only the most rudimentary chairs and tables. Even the bar, though long, contained little but coolers filled with So.B.Bra and a shelf or two of cheap liquor.
On the bandstand, a trio worked through old rock songs and reggae. The guitarist, a skinny little man with dreadlocks, attacked his instrument as though thousands were watching at a grand rock festival and sang, amazingly (to Paul, at least), with an English accent. Eventually, after a hair-raising version of “Hey, Joe” which had left Paul wanting to stand up and shout, the band, clearly exhausted, took a break. Eric signaled to the guitarist, who came over, pulled a chair around, and joined them, wiping sweat from his brow onto his ragged jeans. Eric bought him a beer and then introduced the two of them.
“Paul, this is Mousa. I’m not sure where he’s from, for he gives me different answers different days, but it’s somewhere in Nigeria.”
“’Meetcha,” the guitarist stuck out his hand and snapped Paul’s finger as the shake ended. “It’s Lagos, actually, that’s my home.”
“Right.” Eric laughed. “Never trust this guy. He plays guitar damned well, but he smokes so much dope, he’s living in some other universe.”
The guitarist laughed and affected a Jamaican accent. “Yeah, mon. Want kaya, you, talk wid me.” He got up and walked back to the bandstand where he picked up his guitar, unplugged it, sat in a chair, and started playing for himself, his back to the dancers now moving to a tape blaring from the speakers surrounding the room.
Watching Mousa, Paul didn’t really notice the two women who had replaced him at the other side of the table until one of them touched him on the shoulder and said, “Buy me a drink.” She was small, with carefully braided hair, and spoke English with a Ghanaian accent. Eric was already in conversation with her companion, so Paul signaled for the waiter, who brought her a concoction of some sort.
“My name is Fati. What’s your name?”
“Paul.” She said it as though tasting it, drawing the name out. “And what are you doing here, Paul?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.”
“Are you here for long?”
“I might be.”
“You here on business?”
“No. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure why I’m here.”
“Well, you can dance with me anyway.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him onto the dance floor.
She danced close to him, touching him lightly with her hands and her body. Half drunk, he was entranced. From time to time, he tried to get her off the dance floor, to talk, but she would only stop to quickly drink before dragging him back out.
He noticed, during one break, that Eric was gone, as was Fati’s friend. He decided it was time for him to leave, too.
“You want I should go with you?” She picked up her bag, already having decided the answer would be yes. He nodded, suddenly shy.
When she saw where Paul was living, Fati laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“You are living like we do. I thought you had money.”
“Not much, no, not until I get a job.”
“But I will stay with you, anyway.” She pulled him inside as soon as he had opened the lock.
In the morning, as she was leaving, Fati asked him if he could give her some money.
“It doesn’t matter how much. I like you. But I have to pay for my room, and I owe one of the other girls.”
Embarrassed, and kicking himself for not having enough sense to know what was going on the night before, he gave her two thousand-franc notes. She quickly secreted them away.
“I will see you again, I hope.” She waved as she stepped out into the sunshine.
“I hope so, too,” he called after her, halfhearted.
He did see Fati after that, for she lived not far away and frequented the same bars. But she never came on to him again. She treated him, instead, like an old friend. “You are my brother, now,” she told him as she pushed him away the one time, some weeks later, when, a little too drunk, he made a pass at her again.
“Come on, dance with me, though, just to dance.” This time it was she who made the advances, surprising him. Maybe she was bored, he thought. Maybe there was no potential john around. Maybe she did simply want to dance. Fati grabbed his hand, almost pulling him from the chair, surprising him with her strength, so small was she. So Paul got up, and moved onto the dance floor.
It was crowded, so they had to dance close to the tables. For African dancers, the lack of space seemed fine, they could work with it; for Paul, it made dancing almost impossible. He tried not to move, to imitate the Africans, but was rather drunk, so quickly forgot himself and began to twirl around a bit too much. He knocked into a table, spilling the beer upon it, some of it running into the lap of a man sitting there.
Who stood up, cursing.
Paul stopped, and tried to apologize, but his weak French wasn’t really up to the task, and the man didn’t want to hear it. He yelled at Paul as Fati, who had stopped dancing, too, tried to pull him away.
“Come,” she tugged on his arm, “we must go.”
Paul gave up trying to apologize and let her lead him away, angry words from the wet man quickly fading into the music.
“You have a problem now,” Fati said, once they had regained their table, “and must leave right away.”
“Those very bad men. They will look for you.”
“Why? Because of a little spilled beer.”
“They would kill you, those men.”
The music ended and the other couples in their party returned to the table. Paul and Fati, as first back, were crowded back into a corner against the walls. As Paul reached over for his bottle, he saw that the man he had spilled beer on was approaching, backed by three or four others.
The man pointed to him, and said something in an African language. One of the other women at the table, one seated close to him, looked up at him and said something sharp in return. The man laughed, and turned away.
“What was that?” Paul asked Fati.
“You must leave now, but even now, it will be dangerous. If they see you, they will beat you.”
“But why? I don’t understand.”
“He thinks you make fun of him.”
“Should I tell him I don’t?”
“It’s too late. He thinks you bumped the table on purpose.”
“Oh.” Paul finished his beer and pondered that. He had no idea what to do or how to make amends. Instead, he ordered another beer.
By the time he was ready to leave, Paul was quite drunk, something more and more frequent since he had arrived in Ouaga. In Burkina Faso, for that matter. Fati and her friends had remained with him, he noticed, none of them going off with their partners, which surprised him. He got up, telling her it was time for him to go.
“Then we go now, too.”
He shrugged and moved from behind the table, stumbling a bit and reaching out to the wall for support. All of the women got up and followed. As he walked toward the door, they formed a circle around him. He wondered what was going on, but was too drunk to work it out.
Outside, he saw that the man he’d spilled beer on was standing across the street with his group of friends. Next to the door to Don Camillo’s, someone else was trying to back a car into the road. The driver had let the car drift forward, however, and one front wheel had dropped down into the sewage channel that ran in front of the building. No matter how much the driver tried to gun the engine, the car refused to move.
Fati pulled on Paul’s sleeve, trying to get him to go with her to the left. He shook her off and motioned for the driver of the car to wait. Then, bending over, he grasped the bumper above the wheel in the channel and lifted, shouting “Allez, go!” as the car’s corner rose. The driver responded, and the car jerked back into the road.
It must have looked, from across the road, as though Paul were lifting the whole car, rather than merely shifting its weight toward the rear shock absorbers, for the men across the street quickly turned and walked away.
“Oh,” Fati laughed. “They think, now, that you are a strong one. You scare them, now. But, come. Come now, quickly.”
She took him back to his room, but wouldn’t stay. “You funny man, but you have no money.”
“But I paid you before.”
She shook her head. “I want more than that, don’t like doing that. I was teacher, back in Ghana. Now, I just want rich man for always. Not one night only. You, sorry, are not he.” She walked back to the street and, Paul suspected, to another bar. He turned to his room and fumbled to get his key into the lock.
[Chapter Twenty-One can be found here.]
[Chapter Twenty-One can be found here.]