Chapter Twenty-Two: Masking
[Chapter Twenty-One can be found here.]
Making good, finally, to a promise he had made the first day they had met, Eric introduced Paul to the mask-maker he had called the best in West Africa, a man named Bakary Kabouré from Ouri, down in the southwest of the country. Bakary’s family had been making masks for the Bobo people for generations, had lived among them, worked with them, but had never become a part of them, always keeping their own alien identify and connection with family far away in Mali.
The artist was a slender man, a few good inches shorter than Paul, with longer hair than most Africans and a love for wood that kept him talking and stroking his creations as he pulled them out for Paul and Eric to look at. He exhibited an intensity, a focus that put Paul off balance a bit, for he seemed to assume that others could follow his thoughts and assumptions as easily as he did. For Paul, who was just beginning to be able to manage a conversation in French, it was difficult to understand this man who clearly hadn’t the patience for either explanations or repetitions. He was always looking ahead, Paul saw, to the place where his thoughts pointed, never pausing for the immediate word. So, the two of them talked little, each paying more attention to the art than the people.
Even though Bakary paid him scant attention, especially once he realized Paul could hardly understand him, Paul found himself fascinated by the artist the more he looked at his carvings and tried to follow his conversation. The man’s assurance, as he showed off his goods and answered Eric’s questions, demonstrated a comfort and confidence in his work, confidence of a sort Paul had rarely seen anywhere. Lacking any similar sort of talent himself, Paul was slightly in awe of it, and in Bakary’s obliviousness to the extraordinary nature of his work.
Since arriving in Ouaga, Paul had seen other examples of Bobo masks, but none quite like these. The circles and triangles at the heart of each mask design were neat and regular, the larger curves and connections smooth and soothing. There were masks of three distinct sorts. Most looked old, the wood sometimes cracked or chipped, the paint almost completely worn away. These were like the ones Paul had examined in the market. Some others, new looking, had been painted, quite clearly, with acrylic whites, blacks and reds. The colors were even a strong, almost sparkling. A few more were obviously recently painted, but with muted colors and a somewhat matte finish. Paul wondered at the differences, and if the first group were antiques, not Bakary’s creations at all.
They were sitting on Eric’s verandah with Bakary, drinking beer, of course, surrounded by more than a dozen of the masks along with a number of wood and bronze statues and the four empty large gunny sacks he had brought them in, all four strapped to the back of his bicycle. Bakary was arguing with Eric over a point Paul couldn’t understand. He showed Eric something on the mask he was holding. Nodding, Eric took it, and added it to the two or three he had already put aside as those he wished to buy. Paul watched, envious. Not only would he have liked the knowledge both showed of the art, but he didn’t have the money for any such purchases. He had no place to keep them, anyway. Even with his lock, his room was not particularly secure and the cinderblock walls were not conducive to art, anyhow.
Bakary had picked up another item, this one a wooden statue of a woman carrying a jar on her head, when a noise from outside, a motorcycle engine dying followed by a banging at the gate and then a voice, interrupted them.
“Eric!” It was Brian’s voice.
“Over here. We’re on the porch. Open the gate. It’s not locked.” All three waited, not moving, as Brian banged the steel compound gate back with his front moto wheel, thrusting it hard enough so that it banged back against the wall, then wheeling inside and slapping down the kickstand. He jumped off the bike and threw his yellow helmet from his head. “Jerry’s had an accident.”
He didn’t wait for a reaction but, acting almost as though he was unconscious of what he had said, got back on his bike and started to put his helmet back on. He turned back to them, though: “They’re medivacing him this afternoon.” He was panting, they could hear, as though he had been running, so stopped to take a breath. “As soon as the plane gets down from Geneva. If you want to see him, come now.”
“Bad, then?” Eric had risen as soon as Brian had spoken, the blood draining from his face as he listened. Brian nodded rather than trying to speak again. Paul got up, too. “Where is he?”
“Embassy medical unit.” He slurred the words, getting them out with great difficulty as he stood to kick-start the bike.
“Let’s go, then.” Eric lifted the helmet off his own motorcycle, which was parked by the verandah, and tossed a second one to Paul. “Bakary…. ” He looked at the African, the question unsaid.
“Go.” Bakary waved him away, and started packing masks back in the bags. “We can finish this another time. I will stop by.”
“Thank you, my friend.” He reached his hand out. Bakary took it.
Paul, who had been strapping the helmet to his head, hopped on the back of Eric’s little Honda dirt bike as soon as the engine roared. They followed closely behind Brian, speeding through the Ouaga streets, dodging pedestrians and bicycles.
It only took them a couple of minutes, the way the two were riding, to reach the embassy. As they were chaining their bikes in front of the medical unit, Brian gave them a brief description of what had happened.
“We were at Don Camillo’s last night, until pretty late. For some reason we left separately. I was staying at Jenny’s, and he at Alexi’s. Maybe that was why. Anyway, when I went home, he was still there.
“This morning, I rode out to Alexi’s, but he wasn’t there. She hadn’t seen him, but wasn’t too concerned. There’s a lot of places he could have slept. But we had a couple of things to do, today, so I was surprised. I rode over to Peace Corps, but he wasn’t there. But a phone call came. He was here.”
“Did they say what had happened?”
Brian shook his head. “They don’t know and, apparently, Jerry doesn’t remember. They found him, unconscious, bleeding, at the base of the pillar in the middle of that traffic circle by the RAN hotel.”
“Good thing,” Eric said, “that they didn’t take him to the Ouaga hospital.”
“Yeah,” Brian opened the door. “He’d be dead by now.” Paul listened quietly. He hardly understood what they were saying.
Jerry, they saw once they had entered the small medical unit, was tied to a gurney to be moved to the airport as soon as the medical-emergency jet had landed. He had been cleaned up, and was bandaged, but he still looked awful. His helmet had saved his life, but had split, and his face was bruised and cut. The nurse said he probably had a concussion, but the worst damage was his leg, which might be lost. He was awake, but drugged, and obviously confused. His beard was matted, parts of it plastered flat to his face.
“Can’t, Jerry, they won’t let me, in here.”
“Gimme cigarette.” Eric looked at the nurse, and raised his eyebrow. The nurse shrugged and turned to leave the room. “Just open the door, so the place will air out.”
Brian shook one out of his pack, lit it, and held it to Jerry’s lips.
“Thanks,” he inhaled. “Thanks.” He closed his eyes.
They waited with him, no one speaking much, until the vehicle arrived to take him to the airport, keeping a cigarette constantly lit for him, though he was rarely awake enough or coherent enough to ask for a smoke. The three followed the embassy van to the airport on the two motorcycles.
The plane, a small hospital jet from a rescue organization out of Switzerland known as SOS, landed quickly on the empty runway, turned by the abandoned DC-3 at the far end, and pulled as close to the terminal as it could. Paul, like the other two, had been refused entry to the VIP waiting area where Jerry had been wheeled, so was standing with them on the outside observation deck. There were no flights scheduled until later that day; the place was empty.
A couple of people appeared below them, pushing the gurney with Jerry on it, just as the door to the plane opened and the steps were let down.
“That thing’s even equipped with an operating room. He should be OK.” Eric lit a cigarette. They watched as the people from the plane took over and lifted the entire gurney inside. Two minutes later, the plane had turned once more and, engines roaring, was heading down the runway, its nose already in the air.
“I’m going to ride to Koupela,” Brian turned away. “Lori needs to know.”
“I’ll go with you.” Eric turned away first and headed out to where they had parked their bikes, Brian and Paul following.
Paul knew that it was useless, at that point, for him to say anything to the others about Jerry. Their decision to go to Koupela, though, was a good one. He was sure of that. It wasn’t talking that they would need, not now, not yet. The enforced silence of the noise on the road and the demands of riding would keep them focused and away from the possibility and reality of a loss they could do nothing about. He had realized that on the short ride to the embassy, had seen how important concentration on something as simple as riding could be. Plus, on the road they could be together but wouldn’t be forced to face that there was nothing to say, nothing to do. It was over: they had lost their friend, probably until they, themselves, returned to the States. Possibly forever.
And Lori, Paul knew from his own experience, was the best person any of them could turn to in a crisis.
They walked back to the motorcycles. Without a word to Paul, without a look back, Brian and Eric roared off toward the highway heading east and Paul walked back into town, Eric’s extra helmet dangling from his hand.
Though he understood that he could not be a part of what Brian and Eric—and Lori—would be going through that evening, Paul felt more at a loss than he had since deciding to stay in Africa. It was a shock, what had happened to Jerry, but it was not something that involved Paul a great deal—though much more than he had been in the tragedy back in Togo. He had met Jerry that day in Dapaong and had spent some time with him, but had seen him rarely since, though he knew that Eric, who he now saw regularly, considered Jerry and Brian his best friends in the country.
Looking at the helmet he was holding, he decided to do what he had earlier planned for the afternoon, even though he now felt slightly guilty about it. Why not? He was now equipped.
After looking around for the last few days, inspecting used Mobylettesand other mopeds, Paul had decided that he had enough money to buy a new Peugeot P-50, the smallest, cheapest model available. He had seen what sort of shape the used mopeds for sale were in, and thought they would end up costing as much as a new P-50 anyway. Though he was shaken by Jerry’s accident, he figured he might as well go ahead and get the moped. Or at least look at it again. It wasn’t as large or as fast as even the small Yamahas of the PCVs like the one Jerry had been riding when he crashed, so it couldn’t be nearly so dangerous. Or so he told himself. He walked into town, past Don Camillo’s, which he looked at for the first time with a slight bit of distaste, and made his way to the showroom, which was only a block further on.
Though he had been in Africa only a couple of months and even though he had been a little lost when Eric and Bakary had been talking, Paul’s French had improved much more dramatically than he, himself, recognized. There was nothing good about it, but he could now communicate adequately for his needs in Ouagadougou—as long as the conversation was slow and simple. He quickly concluded his discussion with the sales clerk, laid out his money, and saw a new blue P-50 wheeled out of the back. As he was leaving, thinking of Jerry and looking at the helmet in his hand, he decided he should actually buy one of his own—and a lock and chain. He selected an electric blue helmet, solid, and full-faced and mask-like, such as those the PCVs wore. It would be protection of a sort, he told himself, thinking of Jerry.
The way back to his house took him across a wide, open space filled mainly with pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles. Paul realized, as he approached it, that he hadn’t bothered to check the gas tank as he left the dealer. He pulled over to one of the many small places with a pump out front, one worked by hand through a handle at the side. After paying for almost a full tank of the mixture of gas and oil his moped ran on, he pedaled to start the engine and moved away to rejoin the flow of traffic.
Waiting for a break, hardly moving, he saw a bicycle heading right for him. For a second, he thought of speeding up to get out of the way, but the bicycle started to swerve to pass in front of him. So he stopped and put his feet down, giving the cyclist a clear path around him on either side the rider might choose. One accident today, he thought, was enough. The cyclist, though, who seemed to have decided initially to go one way, suddenly changed his mind and swerved in the opposite direction. He almost fell as he turned, but managed to straighten up plow straight into Paul and his moped, knocking them all to the ground but hurting no one badly.
“Ah, well,” Paul said, as he recounted the incident an hour later to one of the PCVs he’d found congregated at the Oubri, talking mainly about Jerry, moving to other things only when there seemed no more to say. “So now the little Peugeot has been in its first accident. I won’t have to worry about that initial blemish any longer.” Paul had received a few scratches on one arm, and the cyclist was surely bruised, but neither had needed medical attention. “I just wish Jerry could have been as lucky.”
“Where do you think they are by now?” The PCV hadn’t really been listening. Jerry and Brian had been in his stage, had been his training mates. Though he hadn’t seen them often since their swearing-in, the near-death of one of the group had, of course, affected him deeply.
“It’s been, what, five hours? Maybe over Italy. I don’t know.”
“I wonder if he will come back. I hope they let him come back.”
Paul studied him, thinking once again that the man was hardly even aware of him, or of his new moped and his small accident. Again, he realized he was intruding on someone else’s pain, something he seemed to do way too often. He got up to leave.
“Let me know, if I can do anything.”
The PCV nodded, but didn’t look up. He shifted over to listen to the conversations of other PCVs.
Once again aware of how much of an outsider he really was, both in terms of Peace Corps and of Africa, Paul wanted to do something that could take him away from that, to see somebody not associated with Peace Corps and its rather closed community. He had intruded enough. Been rebuffed enough.
He decided, finally, to find the son of the family Lori lived with, the one who lived and worked in Ouaga. He had long ago promised, after all, to greet him for Lori and for his family. Now that he had transportation, he could do that, for it was a long way on foot to where he had been told Michel worked.
And he did find Michel, finally, after a number of wrong turns, in a little hole-in-the-wall shop in a mud quartier out beyond the university, itself beyond the presidential residence and the cluster of embassies to the east of the city center. Trying to follow the directions Lori had given him, Paul had wandered around for the better part of an hour, retracing his path a number of times to a known landmark and trying again. When he finally reached the right shop, he found a tall, slender Michel, clearly his father’s son, an excitable young man who seemed absolutely unable to keep a smile from his face. A willing man, looking to be friendly.
Good, Paul thought, he needed that. Another shy or withdrawn person would only have depressed him even further. This fellow seemed to be the right companion, right then, at least.
Paul had liked Jerry and would have enjoyed having him as a friend, but Jerry had never liked coming in to Ouaga and Paul had no way of getting about in the countryside except by bush taxi, so the two had met rarely after that first weekend. Plus, Paul really hadn’t been around very long. So, even though he had seen Jerry at the medical center, the accident wasn’t having the impact on him that it had on Eric and Brian and the other PCVs. He also suspected, remembering El back in Togo, that all of the PVC’s and Eric were feeling guilty about what had happened, though it had in no way been their fault. He couldn’t help them with that, unfortunately.
It was best to stay away. Let them deal with it their own ways, and on their own. Jerry would probably recover fully—something never possible for Joan Rodham. He might even be able to return. Still, Paul really couldn’t be with them for very long in a time like this, as he had already found in Togo, and they probably would resent it if he tried any further. He needed to respect their loss and their privacy, though once again it kept him outside.
He took Michel for dinner at a place near his shop, a compound called “The College Bar,” a dance establishment across the street from one of the most impressive baobab trees Paul had yet seen. They ordered rice and brochettes, and Paul decided to risk a salad. They watched early dancers take to the floor as they ate and talked and sipped beer.
Michel, it turned out, lived not far from Paul’s own room. He took a Tata bus back and forth each morning and evening, and walked—it took him more than an hour each way, in total—to the little shop where he worked. He told Paul that he wanted to save enough money so that he could set up his own place, which he would open closer to home, but it was difficult. The family always needed money, even though having Peace Corps Volunteers living there always helped. He also wanted to get married, so needed to save even more.
He had finished secondary school, he told Paul, and had wanted to go to the national university for electrical engineering, but he hadn’t done well enough on the competitive entrance and scholarship exam. Now, he recognized the irony that he fixed tape players and the occasional television in a shop not far from where he had wanted to study—learning by practice the trade he had wanted to address in school.
“Does that bother you?” Paul was finding that he could understand Michel’s French much more easily than he would have thought, certainly more easily than Bakary’s. As a result, he also talked more fluidly, surprising himself. Only rarely did they have to struggle over a sentence before they finally agreed that both understood what one or the other was saying.
“No. I don’t mind. I rarely see the students.”
After dinner, Paul rode Michel back home, making him wear Eric’s spare helmet, which he had strapped to the back of the moped right after he had bought it. Michel objected at first, but Paul had told him about Jerry’s accidence and his own slight mis-adventure, so eventually he acquiesced. As he dropped him off, Paul proposed that they meet again later that evening. Michel agreed and named a bar nearby.
To some extent, Paul knew, he would rather have seen the PCVs who might be in town, but, he now was beginning to suspect that he had been a fool that afternoon, a fool for not understanding the intrusion he would represent and the triviality of the story of his own accident. Scared it was becoming a habit, he didn’t want to barge in any longer on someone else’s troubles. It was too bad, what had happened to Jerry, but it would have little impact on Paul’s life—and everyone knew that. It would be hypocritical, Paul felt, for him to join in the commiseration that had, most certainly, already started. Besides, the two friends of Jerry that he knew best had already left town.
It would be better to spend the evening with Michel who, though he had also met Jerry, on a visit to Koupela when Jerry had been staying with Lori, knew him no better than Paul did.
Michel took Paul to a dolo bar about halfway between their homes. When Paul, after a calabash, suggested that they go to Don Camillo’s, Michel shook his head no, which relieved Paul a bit. Michel said he would show Paul some better bars instead, places where Burkinabe went, where they could be comfortable. Don Camillo’s, he hinted, could never be one of those.
“That’s a place for foreigners,” he told Paul. “I can show you where the Mossi go, where the real people are.”
Paul shrugged his shoulders, and followed.
Later, though, after Michel told him he needed to go home and sleep, Paul did end up back at Don Camillo’s, drinking So.B.Bra and listening to Mousa’s plaintive guitar. No one else he knew was there, which suited him just fine.
[Chapter Twenty-Three can be found here.]