Chapter Twenty-Four: Passing

Chapter Twenty-Three can be found here.
Eric took Paul to meet the man who was running the American Cultural Center as soon as the fall semester started.  He told him, when they arrived, that Paul had been a teacher, conveniently ignoring that Paul had taught science, not language.  They desperately needed English teachers at the Center, so the Director took an immediate interest in Paul, though he recognized that Paul’s training might not be all that could be desired.  At least he was a native speaker.  He’d been working in out-of-the-way places long enough to recognize that you took what you could get.

“Give me a résumé.  We need someone to take over two courses.  Wife of the motor-pool head decamped.  If you get me something today, or soon, we might be able to work something out.”

“Thanks, and I will.”  They shook hands and Paul and Eric walked back out onto the street.

“That was quick.”  Paul was a little bit shocked that he suddenly seemed to have a job.

“Yeah.  It’s generally in knowing when to appear.  I’d heard they were going to be in trouble, but they might have turned you down, hoping to work something else out, had you come by earlier.”  They were walking just a block from the old central marketplace, now closed while a new building was constructed to replace it.

“Where,” Paul asked Eric as they headed back to where they had parked their motos, “am I going to find a typewriter, let alone a computer, to do a résumé on?”

Eric laughed.  “My house, of course.  After all, I am an academic.  No computer, but I do have a typewriter that should fit the bill.”

“Of course.”  Paul laughed.  “I should have known.  Got any cold beer there?”

“Of course.”

“Then, let’s go…  I’ve got work to do!”  He pointed over to where the motos were and stepped into the street.

“Hold on.”  Eric shouted and threw his arm out across Paul’s chest.  A light blue Peugeot 504 sped by them, just missing Paul.  It careened on, ignoring the single traffic light, the pedestrians, bicycles, and other cars.  The driver, a man whose light skin was speckled with large dark splotches, seemed oblivious.  People scrambled to get out of the way.

“Crazy…  “  Paul started to raise his fist.  Eric grabbed his arm and forced it down.

“Don’t.  You’re the one who’s crazy if you do anything.  That’s Pridi.  If you see him, keep out of the way.  And never, ever get into an argument with him.”

“Who’s Pridi?”

“Just Sankara’s assassin.”  Eric spoke through clenched teeth, sarcastic, almost hissing.  “He was part of the revolution.  Without him, Sankara might not even be in power.  No one knows how many people he has killed, but he does what he likes, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, so don’t even think it.  Watch for that car, and avoid it.”

“Damn.  Sometimes this place is just too weird.”

“That’s not the whole of it, believe me.”  Eric spoke louder now, with the tone of resignation and frustration that, Paul was finding, marked the expats who had been in Ouaga since before Sankara’s coup.  They unlocked their bikes.  “There are things going on here, undercurrents that have nothing to do with the people, things that are beyond belief, but that are not worth thinking about.”

“Like what?” asked Paul, but Eric had kick-started his moto and didn’t hear him.  “Or chose not to.”

Once they had arrived at Eric’s house and were opening bottles of beer, Paul repeated his question.

“There are people this government is helping…  ”  He stopped, paused.  “Look, we’d better not even talk about it.”

“Why not?”

“Probably no reason, but I don’t want to be kicked out of the country, and certainly don’t want to be arrested here.  There are certain things, like I said that are just as well left alone.  Hey, it’s not important, best just ignored.”

Paul looked at Eric, annoyed, but aware that he now knew the researcher well enough to recognize the warning his voice, the warning not to push it.  The man had done too much for him, and continued to do so.  And would continue to do so.  Paul shrugged, “Well, tell me next time we’re in Togo.”

“That I’ll do.  The typewriter, by the way, is under that desk.”  He pointed.

Paul pulled out the old Olympia portable he found there, reached for a sheet of paper from a stack on a shelf right by, and typed up a simple résumé while drinking more of Eric’s beer.  Eric supplied him with a large envelope for it and, next morning, he delivered it to the Director.

Though the people at the Center weren’t happy that Paul had never taught English, their need, coupled with his Master’s degree, led to his immediate hiring.  The money wasn’t much, but it would be enough to get him through the school year quite comfortably.  He had checked with the airline, and found that his ticket would be good for at least another twelve months, which would be quite long enough, he was sure.

He liked Ouaga, he had found, but he didn’t want to spend his life there.  So he hid the ticket away in a locker at the Center (relieved not to have something so valuable in his room) and forgot about going home.  Or, he told himself, for a year.

As soon as he had known for sure that he had the job, he had ridden out to Michel’s shop to tell him the news.  Outside of Eric, Michel had become Paul’s best friend in Ouaga.  On those rare occasions when Paul found himself sick of the drinking life, Michel proved a wonderful companion, showing him around the city, introducing him to his own circle of friends, and getting him interested in the local soccer matches that seemed to take place every day in a wide number of locations.

“Hey, Michel!  I got a job.  Guess I’ll be staying around longer than you thought.”

“Does that mean you’ll move into a bigger place?”  Michel put down his soldering iron and stepped out from behind the counter.  Paul smiled and shook his head.  Everyone he knew, it seemed, thought he was demeaning himself by living in a simple room in a compound.  That wasn’t for someone like him, that was for a student or someone with no money at all.  But he was getting to know the other people rooming in the long building and had become comfortable there.  “Michel, I like it there.  I think I’ll stay.”

Michel shrugged.  “But it really isn’t right for you.  Still, I am glad you have a job.”

Living arrangements and work established, the following months blurred into a memory of one long drunk for Paul, broken only by mornings of an easy teaching load.  Ouagadougou, at that time, was a wide-open city, filled with refugees from the new regime in Ghana.  Almost anything could happen, and often did, despite the CDR kids forcing constant stops on the streets, occasional curfews, and a regime that talked of a new dawn of socialism.  It was an exciting, unknown city, especially for a certain kind of expat, the person who wanted a cheap life, unknown and without the responsibilities of a stable society.

For Paul, almost all of life there was accented, of course, with Mousa’s blend of reggae and rock, played through blown amplifiers at Don Camillo’s those nights when Mousa wasn’t resting in the Ouaga jail.

Paul felt that a lot of the craziness of Ouaga at that time had to come from the Ghanaians, forced out of their own country by its own political strife and the resultant economic downturn.  They were now living in a country of guns and political repression much worse, paradoxically, than the home they could not go back to—but with a better economy, thanks to the common francophone West Africa currency tied to the French franc.  There was a feeling among the Ghanaians of hopelessness with the lack of restraint that almost naturally follows.  Unable to use the skills they had developed at home in this new land where few of them spoke the language, they saw no future for themselves, so drank and debauched.  And the Burkinabe, more terrorized than anyone else (certainly more than the foreigners, including the Ghanaians) by the CDR cadres and the other arms of the new and repressive Burkinabe government, tried to keep low profiles, out of sight, unnoticed, waiting for the times to change.  So, they did little to try to control the growing wildness of the city.  If anything, some of them would join in, surreptitious, when they could.

The Europeans who stayed in Ouaga once the coup was over tended to be people willing to brave the frequent stops and the kids shoving guns in their faces—unless they were high enough placed in one embassy or another to have the low-number CD plates that allowed one to sail right on through.  Some thought living in a country teetering on the edge of mayhem made them tough; others just didn’t care.  The repression kept most other people away, and that, in their eyes, was good.  Their own reputations, however, got worse as the year wore on, as did the craziness they were involved in.  What had been long considered a hardship post by the various foreign services was on the verge of tipping into chaos.  And not simply because of the political situation.

One story he heard became emblematic, for Paul, of the strangeness of the time.  He hadn’t known any of the principals, but felt he could have.

A French expat, drunk, took home a Ghanaian prostitute.  There, he forced her, at gunpoint, to have sex with his dog.  The prostitute went to the police immediately after.  They raided the man’s house, shot the dog, and forced him on the first plane back to France.  They then drove the prostitute to the Ghana border and, basically, threw her across, telling the Ghanaians why.  Within a few hours, she had been killed, beaten to death by outraged Ghanaian border guards.

The story didn’t surprise anyone in Ouaga.  It was the type of thing that was happening, that’s all.
As the school year progressed to its end and the drinking picked up its pace (if that was possible), Paul began to face that he had to decide what he was going to do with himself.  Stay in Ouaga?  Though he loved it there, he, at least, had come to realize just how bad a place it was for him.  Hell, for anyone.  He couldn’t romanticize it, the way some did, imagining they were living dangerously.  Life, for an expat, was too easy, and he was too much the realist to imagine that he wasn’t in a charmed position, even among the dangers.

All he had to do was teach a couple of classes a week and drink—and show his American passport when he was stopped.  Yet what he saw as his own future in what was happening around him had become too crazy, even though the craziness was partially his own, and not just the country’s.  He was headed for personal disaster, he knew, if he kept on the way he was going.

It was taking a toll on him.  He could see that when he looked in a mirror.  Fifty pounds lighter than when he had arrived, he was now bearded, and his shaggy hair ran, in strings, to his shoulders.  He now wore cast-off jeans bought in the market, shirts of homespun African clothe, and sunglasses bought off street sellers for a few francs.  Besides, this certainly wasn’t what he had come to Africa for—rather, this wasn’t what he had decided to stay in Africa for.

He had to leave the party, to stop pretending his life had nowhere to go and that he was only along for the ride, anyhow.

Though he constantly told himself he would spend more time with the Burkinabe themselves, the friends he was making in Ouaga, continued to be mostly expats; they had become the center of his supposed African life.  Even most of the Africans he had gotten to know were from other countries, mainly from Ghana, but some from Côte d’Ivoire or Mali or Nigeria.  By the end of the school year, the only Burkinabe he could really call friends were Michel and the mask-maker Bakary, who had learned, at least, to put up with his presence.  Unlike the Ghanaians, who drank as much as the rest of the expats, Michel and Bakary weren’t much interested in alcohol, so he found he was spending less and less time even with them.

Bakary, Paul had eventually discovered, lived in a cinderblock neighborhood on the road to Bobo, in a house filled with art he either made, sold, or “antiqued.”  Paul developed a real fascination with him and with what he could do.

“You mean, you see nothing wrong with making something look old, even if it isn’t?”  They were sitting in Bakary’s parlor.  Paul had just contracted for him to make a mask, a copy of one that Paul had admired that hung in Bakary’s stall near the American embassy, but Paul had insisted he wanted his copy to look new, like the masks actually used in dancing—not antiqued, like the ones normally for sale.  His French, by now, was strong enough for him to confidently hold a conversation, even with Bakary, something that made him inordinately proud.

“Why not?”  Bakary shrugged.  “It’s what the collectors want.  They don’t want anything that looks new.  It’s you who are the strange one.”

“But when you make the real things, you make wonderful stuff.  Don’t you wish you could just make that?”

“What makes it so wonderful?  To the people who buy the other stuff, it’s the look of age that’s wonderful.  Many of them know that the stuff is fake, but they just like the way it will look on their walls.”  He paused.  “You know what’s funny, though: the ones who know my masks are fakes, they want to believe that I don’t know that they know.  That way, in the bargaining, they feel that have an advantage over me, knowing that I am lying to them.  But, because I know they know I’m lying, it is I who has the advantage!”

They both laughed—though Paul wasn’t completely sure what he was laughing at.  At himself probably, he finally figured.

Chapter Twenty-Five can be found here.

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