Chapter Twenty-Eight: Exploding
Chapter Twenty-Seven can be found here.
Tombouctou’s large central well, dug in sand, lacks straight walls. In fact, it is so wide as a result that people have to walk down into it to use it, circling along its gently sloping sides. As he passed by, looking curiously at the women carrying vessels of water on the head up from the bottom, Paul also watched for vehicles with European plates. He was planning on asking any he saw for a ride to Mopti—but he didn’t see many. Not many vehicles at all made it into the dessert.
Though he had planned on staying a little longer, on stretching his vacation by a week, Paul had ultimately decided that he should try to get back to post, to Djibo, on schedule. Even if none of the other teachers at the little school ever showed up in time for the start of the term, that was no reason why he should be late, too.
The first people he asked were a group of Brits working their way to South Africa in a large, open-sided truck. They didn’t think so, they said. Their guide, their group leader, didn’t like anything out of the ordinary. But, they said, he could ask him.
When Paul finally found their vehicle and leader, the man looked him over, thought for a moment, then told him no, they already were filled to capacity and all of the others, after all, were paying for the ride.
“This is a tour of sorts, then?” Paul felt a little embarrassed, as though he didn’t quite measure up.
“Sure is. I do this once a year. Sell the truck in South Africa, fly back to London, and start advertising for the next one.”
“Beats working. Good luck.” The man went back to his task, adjusting something or other under the truck’s hood. Paul walked away, feeling a little better but still not happy that the man hadn’t been willing to give him a ride, if only as far as Mopti.
A little later, while wandering aimlessly past Tombouctou’s anemic market, Paul ran across a Belgian photographer in a new pickup with a huge dog. He had met the man before, but had been told he had already left town when he had looked for him at the spot where he’d been camping. Not expecting much, he asked for a ride.
“Sure, I’ll drop you in Mopti. Planning on camping tonight near Goundam, so you’ll have to be ready to leave, soon.”
“All I have is this,” Paul patted the Tuareg-style leather bag he was traveling with.
“Toss it in, then. Get something to eat and drink, and we’re off.” Paul walked to a nearby stall and bought himself a liter bottle of water and a hunk of wagashi-like cheese. The photographer started the truck as Paul returned and climbed in next to the dog.
“How’d you end up in Tombouctou without transport?” They were already bouncing across the desert, avoiding the scrub trees that grew through it, even this far north.
“I took the river boat from Gao, but wanted to stay longer in Tombouctou, so didn’t get back on.”
“Could’ve waited for the next.”
“Didn’t feel like it. A day or two in Tombouctou, it turns out, is enough.” And that was true, Paul thought. Though he had been excited by the idea of Tombouctou, the reality proved a little less enticing. Certainly, the doors of some of the buildings were marvels, and the fact that the library had existed since the fourteenth century was astonishing, but there really wasn’t all that much to see, and even less to do, especially once the day was done. If one wanted to eat meat, it had to be ordered the day before. There were no bars and little beer. The only place of any evening action was the modern French hotel just south of town, a shocking anomaly, this modern building with its own electric generator at the edge of a town that had changed little over hundreds of years. Paul had stepped into it once, then quickly out. It wasn’t for him, he’d decided. Most certainly.
“Better than Gao, though.” The Belgian laughed. He, too, had spent a couple of days there and knew exactly what Paul meant.
Gao had been the center of food aid activity during the drought, just a few years before. The focus of a huge international aid effort, including the Live Aid concerts, it had attracted foreigners of all sorts, and Africans. The foreigners had been trying to help and to further their own careers. The Africans, merely to survive. Not only could food be found there, they quickly found, but money and even a chance to do more than merely eke out a base existence. For a couple of years, Gao had been a boom town. Shipments of food and supplies had come in from all over the world and were distributed over Mali, Niger, and northern Burkina Faso.
Now, however, the foreigners had left. All that remained were Africans, many more than the town could handle. No longer was there money flowing around, money that could end up in the hands of the enterprising man or woman willing to cater to the needs of the foreigners. No longer were there the loads of goods stacked in the cavernous new airport building. Now, it stood empty, all but one small corner used when the lonely daily flight came in from Niamey.
Remembering how good it had been, the young Malians, the ones who had worked small jobs or had been hangers-on to the aid projects, still looked to whatever foreigners they could find to bring it once more, waiting for any stranger passing through for largesse.
If it wasn’t forthcoming, anger was.
Foreigners who refused to hire guides, for example, were now routinely stoned. Not badly, not constantly, but enough to hurt, to drive them out of town, or to find and pay a protector. It had become a business: make the visitors miserable enough to pay to keep the annoyance at bay.
Once a sleepy and friendly town, Gao had become a home to hate. Most travelers ended up staying close to their rooms until they could leave. Paul had, the Belgian, too. They traded memories of it as they bumped over the desert heading southeast.
Near Goundam, close to dusk, the Belgian chose a spot he thought looked good for camping and stopped. He pitched a small tent, then went off to photograph the sunset, accompanied by his dog. Paul propped his bag against a wheel of the truck on the shady side and dozed until he got back. While the Belgian fed his dog and fixed himself something of a sandwich, Paul got out the cheese he had bought.
“What’s that?” The Belgium pointed at the wagashi that Paul was preparing to cut.
“I’m not exactly sure, but it looks almost exactly like the Fulani cheese wagashi. I hope that’s what it is, anyway.” He took a bite from the slice he’d cut off, chewing the rubbery substance for a moment. “Yeah, that’s what it is. Great stuff, but a little tough. Only cheese I’ve ever seen that doesn’t melt in the heat, by the way.”
“Can I try some?”
“Trade for a bit of that bread?”
“Sure.” They swapped food and continued with the simple meal, talking until the sun completely disappeared.
There was room in the tent he set up only for the Belgian and the dog, so Paul arranged things in the bed of the pick-up and slept there, looking up at the incredible number of stars in the African sky above him, well away from any ground lighting. The sky must have always looked like this, he thought to himself and not for the first time, not by far, before human light began to compete. This was what night should be, not what we have made it.
He had loved looking at this dying sky, had done it often, the past year in Djibo. It was one of the only things that had made life there passable. His house had a flat roof. He would take a few bottles of beer up there after dark and watch the stars. At first, he had decided to learn the constellations, to imagine the sky the Greeks had seen, thousands of years before. Later, he just stared, especially at the Milky Way. It was his one escaped from what had become a self-imposed prison.
Certainly, it hadn’t been a good year. A sad disappointment for a man who had faced the prospect with such enthusiasm.
First of all, there was the loneliness. Though he had wanted a remote post, Paul hadn’t been ready for the isolation he would feel, cut off from most contact with his fellow Americans. He had believed that he would make local friends, that the other teachers, also strangers to the town (though themselves Burkinabe), would include them in their community—that Djibo residents would welcome him to their homes. But, no. They were friendly enough, but saw no reason to bring him into their lives.
At first, he had tried to stay away from Ouahigouya, the big Mossi town to the southeast, as much as he could, for it could take half a day or more to get there by bush taxi and, often, there would be no other PCVs there anyway. But he found himself spending more and more weekends there. The Mossi were more welcoming and more like the people he had known in Ouagadougou. Plus, there was more electricity there, and more foreigners.
The people of Ouahigouya, Moslems for the most part, like the residents of Djibo, showed more interest in getting to know him, and he began to develop a few friendships there. Back in Djibo, the only people who accepted him at all were those fellow teachers, all from other parts of the country, and all as lonely and miserable as he. And all of them also spent as much time away from Djibo as possible.
School, after all, seemed canceled more days than it was in session. Any Moslem or Christian holiday was reason enough for a day off, as was the long list of national holidays, a list growing with institutionalization of the new regime. Plus, there were all of the French holidays that continued to be celebrated long after independence and, just to keep things interesting, the national holidays of whatever other nation happened to be in favor at the moment.
Paul’s classes, when they did meet, were all scheduled in the morning. In the afternoon, he was expected to work on curriculum development with other teachers, but—more often than not—no one else showed up.
So, he found he had way too much time on his hands, and that had worried him. Too much time had led him to too much drinking, to say the least, back in Ouaga. It was one of the reasons he had felt he had to leave.
His house sat alone atop a small hill on the south side of town. It was new and cheaply built of cinderblock in the center of a cinderblock wall, and was unbearably hot in the middle of the day. Paul had an awning of thatch built in the front courtyard as soon as he arrived, and set a table and chair under it. He faced them so that he could see out of the compound’s entrance as he read. The gate was wide enough to admit a car. When open, it allowed him to see something other than the bare compound walls.
The only problem with that was that, at first, neighborhood kids would stand in the gateway, sometimes for hours, just watching him. It unnerved him. He tried talking to them, shooing them away, and asking their parents to keep them home. Nothing worked, so he decided he would just have to live with their eyes on him.
Almost immediately after that, their numbers started to diminish. Paul chalked that up to just another of Africa’s ironies.
In one of his rare spurts of real activity, Paul decided to develop a science lab at the school. He asked for, and was granted use of, a small room, little more than a closet, where he could put together material for a variety of experiments. For a couple of weeks, he wandered around the town, picking up whatever he could find that might be used in some sort of demonstrative. He saved plastic bags from his own purchases when in Ouahigouya and just about anything else he came across.
Finally, he was ready to show his colleagues what could be done. This, he was sure, would interest them. He asked each one specifically to show up to a demonstration.
It was a disaster. As he was starting, one of the other teachers interrupted him.
“Do you use these things,” he pointed to the stacks of material Paul had collected, “in your schools back in America?”
“Then why do you expect us to use it here?”
“Because the resources of America aren’t here. We need to work with what we have.”
“Why aren’t those resources here? Why don’t you send an oscilloscope here? We aren’t good enough to use one?”
“It’s not that.” Paul paused, confused, uncertain how to proceed. “We don’t even have electricity in the school. How could we use those things?”
“And why don’t we have electricity, when your country is so rich?”
Paul couldn’t answer that. Another teacher started arguing with the first, but the topic soon changed, and everyone was yelling at someone else, a variety of arguments going all at once.
The meeting disbanded in chaos. Paul went home and got drunk.
It was after that when Paul started going to Ouahigouya more often. It was also when he started ordering cases of beer from the bar, to be delivered up to his house.
Ouahigouya, however, was a better place for drinking. The PCVs of the region paid rent together for the little maison de passage, and for a guardian would also do chores as they were needed and would sleep in the maison if no one else was around. His name was Yusef Sawadogo and his family lived in a compound on the other side of town. He had started working for the PCVs just a few months before Paul arrived at post. Though Yusef didn’t drink much, he was always a willing companion when Paul came to town.
The Sawadogo’s had converted to Islam when Yusef’s grandfather was young, though Yusef, when Paul asked him, wasn’t really clear on why. The grandfather, though, had been quite a successful farmer and landowner, and had even gone on the hadj to Mecca. Under his constant watch, his sons had grown up quite devote, but now the old one was dead, and Yusef’s generation found it could take more liberty. A couple of Yusef’s uncles still prayed five times a day, but even some of them had slid toward the more laissé-faire attitude the Mossi generally take toward religion.
Once he had moved the family into town, the grandfather had gotten involved in a number of businesses, the surviving ones, like the restaurant at the side of the family compound, still run by his sons. Times hadn’t been that good, though, so much of the family moved back to farming.
The grandfather’s pride and joy had been a Mercedes Benz he managed to buy sometime in the 1950’s, toward the end of his life. After he died, the sons couldn’t decide who should get it. Each wanted it, but each also recognized that he couldn’t afford it. Eventually, they decided together to keep it, to cover it and leave it at the compound in town.
Paul was fascinated by the old car, but Yusef didn’t dare ask any of his uncles (his own father had died soon after the death of the el hadji) if they could try to get it running again. That was a can of worms he had no interest in opening.
So, having found a place with his new friend and his family Paul found himself spending more and more time in Ouahigouya, getting to know the variou Sawadogos and drinking with whatever other PCV happened to be in town, if any.
Sometimes, when he wanted to get his life on a more sober track, he would drop in on the Simsons, where he could generally wrangle an invite for a meal, though the Spartan, Christian life of the family seemed somewhat oppressive to him. Still, he had gotten to know Josh Simson a little, and like to accompany him as he went around to his reforestation sites on his motorcycle.
As his interest in teaching in the Djibo school waned, his friendship with the kid Josh and his enthusiasm for reforestation increased. Josh had introduced him to a Mossi man, one of the few living near Djibo, who shared Josh’s own passion for plants and trees. The man had planted windbreaks along all of the paths around his home and to his fields, and had trees almost completely surrounding his compound. His place looked like an oasis from the distance, so green and lush was it in contrast to the dusty, bare laterite around it.
This man, Adam, had two grandsons who, he had told Paul, were also interested in trees. Paul had asked to meet them and, with their help, had started a tree nursery, a pepiniere of his own, near their village, readying trees for transplanting as soon as the rains started. Because of this project, he had delayed his vacation into August, just so he could see all of the trees planted and growing. Most of what they had decided on were neem seedlings, which were nitrogen-fixing, so good for the depleted soil, as well as fast-growing eucalyptus and a few other varieties. Paul liked to sit and watch the seedlings in their bag-like pots and talk to Adam or to his grandsons.
The little pepiniere, now Paul’s secondary project, had become the main thing that kept him going, now that it was clear that the school was little more than a warehouse for kids and even the teachers. He loved the transplanting that came a little later, and hoped to get back to see rows of small trees—if, of course, the grandsons had continued to tend them while Paul was vacationing. Knowing the grandfather and his interests, Paul believed they would.
As they sat eating, in the dark of the desert near Goundam, Paul related all of this to the Belgian, who nodded, paying only polite attention. The dog wandered around the perimeter of their camp coming back in every few minutes to check on his master.
They went to sleep early, rising next morning while dawn was yet but an eastern promise, quickly up and heading, once more, east by south.
They overtook the truck of Brits at Niafonkay, the one that had refused Paul a ride, where both vehicles stopped to take advantage of the marché. Paul wandered through the booths that were selling cloth while the Belgian sought out food. Paul noticed, the cloth was quite different from what he was used to. Among the wares in most of the booths, and dominating everything, were long strips of synthetic material in black or white. He asked what they were for.
“Those are turbans.” The vendor sized up Paul, and smiled. “Look, buy one, and I’ll show you how to wrap it.”
The vendor—he told Paul as they bargained that he was a Tamachek, a type of Tuareg, but that he had been forced to leave the nomadic life—mentioned a price. Paul made a counter-offer of about one-third of what the man had proposed. They haggled as they talked, neither one seeming to be in any hurry, and finally settled.
Paul then held the slick material in his hands and waited.
“Put the cloth around your neck, with it hanging to your waist on your left side.” The rest of the cloth pooled to the floor on Paul’s right side. “Now, bring the right side around your neck. That’s right…. ” He continued to direct until the black cloth had been twirled into a neat wrapping around Paul’s head. He kept it on, unsure that he would be able to recreate it later.
Paul walked back to the pick-up, feeling a little silly, but also tickled to be in a turban. The Belgian, he saw, had walked, with his dog running loose at his side, over to the Brit’s truck.
A couple of sheep were being herded down to the river by a child a little further on. The dog noticed them. Without a word, it charged toward them. A couple of the women on the truck started to shriek. The Belgian whistled for the dog, but it didn’t stop. Instead, it launched itself onto the back of a sheep, killing it in a matter of seconds. The Belgian whistled again. The dog bounded back to him as he turned and left the vicinity of the Brits, followed by shouts of outrage. He strode quickly back to the truck.
“Get in. We’re going.”
The dog jumped into the back. The Belgian started the engine and thrust it into gear.
“You don’t want to pay for the sheep?”
Paul didn’t say anything. It really wasn’t his place, he told himself, feeling guilty anyhow. After all, he was this man’s guest. Still, when they arrived in Mopti, he left the Belgian with as few words as possible, just a quick thanks. He didn’t want to see the man again, feeling somewhat angry at himself for his own lack of backbone.
When he arrived back in Ouahigouya, where he had headed almost immediately, sick of traveling, skipping a planned visit to Dogon country, wanting to get back home even to desolate Djibo, Paul discovered that, in his absence, there had been another coup attempt. All around him, once he had made it back over the border, the country, the men with the guns, at least, were tense. Peace Corps had sent cars out to check on each PCV. One of these was in Ouahiagouya and would be leaving for Djibo in the morning, on the way to Dori, Gillian’s post, taking along her sister, who had come for a visit. Paul asked the APCD who was making the rounds if he could be dropped off.
They got to Djibo in faster time that Paul ever had before. The car had diplomatic plates and an Associate Peace Corps Director in it, so they didn’t expect trouble. By diplomatic protocol, they could pass all stops without even slowing. In principle.
As they went by a stop on the edge of Djibo, though, they heard a loud ping, like a rock hitting the side of the car. They didn’t stop, however, until they had reached Paul’s compound a few minutes later. He got out and grabbed his bag from the back. The driver, obviously upset by that sound, went around to look at the side of the car. Squatting and searching for a brief moment, he found a hole in it, just behind the rear seat. Metal bent in, paint scraped off, round, it looked like a bullet hole. But, though they searched for over an hour, even taking the seat out, they were unable to the bullet.
The car went on, leaving Paul who, though glad to be back on familiar ground, looked forward only glumly to the new school year and his second in Peace Corps. He unlocked the door to his compound and then his house, throwing both wide open and doing the same to the windows. Everything inside, even though it had been closed up and only for a couple of weeks, was covered with the dust that enveloped everything south of the Sahara. With a sigh, Paul found a few rags and started dusting off his belongings, starting with the few books he had collected and that he would be using to prepare classes for the coming term.
Months later, when Gillian happened through Djibo, Paul found out what happened to the bullet.
“You were in the car that day, with my sister, when it was shot at?”
“Yeah. Weird. We never did find the bullet.”
“We did. After the car had left. Susie had a book with her, in a loose-knit carry bag. She pulled it out one day, and screamed.”
“The bullet had lodged in the book. Just inches from where she had been sitting.”
“What did she do with it?”
Gillian shrugged. “Took it home with her. A souvenir.”
In the meantime, Paul had returned to teaching, this time with a little better idea of what he was getting into and, as a result, a little more successfully. He also had gotten back to his pepiniere, now turned to vegetables, for he and Adam’s grandsons had time for them before starting on a new round of trees. The trees they had planted the season before had disappointed him, for the rains had been weak again that year, but Josh told him to be patient. Now it was up to the rains and the ground. There was nothing else Paul could do, he said, but wait and watch. And keep on going.
Josh continued to instruct him, showing him, among other things, how to use neem seeds to create a pesticide to protect the vegetables, and gave him a great deal of other advice as he got ready to leave for the States and college. What Paul really wanted to do, but couldn’t, was to spend some time riding Josh’s moto off road. It was, to his eyes, a beautiful bike, and he lusted after it. But riding it, if he were caught, could have gotten him kicked out of Peace Corps, so he kept his yearning to himself. All he could do was accept rides on the back.
“What I’ll miss most are the baobabs.” They had ridden on Josh’s moto to a small village not too far from the Simson’s house, passing a magnificent example of the tree on their way to the marketplace, sparking Josh’s comment. They had gone out for one last time, a tour of the small villages where it was market day. “I’m going to climb as many as I can before I leave. I want to remember them, each one, to take the feel of their bark with me, the smell of them, their berries.”
“You do that, then. I’ll watch or drink dolo.”
Josh laughed. “You sure you wouldn’t mind if I left you for a bit?” They were walking through the marché.
“No,” Paul waved his hand, “go ahead.”
“Well, I’ll see you in a little while, then.” He hesitated. “It seems silly, I know, but I’m going to miss this place. We’ve been back to the States a lot, but this has been home for a long time. And I do love these trees.” Josh got up and walked back the way they had come. Paul into the next dolo still, sat on the rough bench seat and accepted a full calabash from the woman serving there.
A few minutes later, He heard yelling in the distance, then saw people running. Curious, he got up, too. He could hear bits of shouted conversations, including words like “fall,” “bees,” and “tree.”
“Uh, oh.” Suddenly he was scared. He bent over for a second, almost throwing up the dolohe had just downed. He ran, following the others, ran toward the very baobab tree that Josh had said he was going to climb.
A thick crowd had gathered around it, but well back. A fire of twigs blazed up suddenly, with a few men hurriedly piling more wood on it, others fanning it with blankets forcing the smoke towards a black mass on the ground, a black moving mass, just beyond it. Paul pushed his way through, but someone held him back, telling him not to get too close to the bees.
He knew it was Josh, there, under the bees, the thousands to bees, and his mind comprehended what the fire and smoke were for, but he couldn’t stand there, so struggled to move forward. But the man held him.
The bees, bothered by the smoke, started to move away. A couple of youths pulled shirts others were handing them over their arms and were covering their heads as best they could. They moved closer to Josh and fanned him with smaller pieces of cloth while another pulled him closer to the fire, directly into the smoke. Paul broke free and ran to them.
Josh was conscious, but breathing in gasps. His face was starting to puff up and turn red. Paul bent to him, reached into his pocket, but immediately pulled his hand back. A bee had been in the pocket, and stung him. He grimaced, reached in again, and pulled out Josh’s keys.
“Josh, listen to me. Hold on. I’m going to ride to your house, get your parents. We’ll be with you soon.” Josh’s eyes found his face. Paul imagined that he nodded.
He got up and yelled that he was going for help.
Sprinting to the motorcycle, he jumped on it, kick-started it and swung a helmet onto his head. He hadn’t ridden a motorcycle since leaving El’s house two years ago, and hoped he could remember how. He pushed the shifter down into first, twisted the accelerator and eased out the clutch. The rear wheel slid as he turned the bike around, but he managed to stay upright and speed off.
Fortunately, the village was one fairly close to the Simson’s house. He squealed the brakes as he stopped, and ran into the compound, calling out.
Both Jean and Art were in the yard. As soon as they saw Paul, they stood. Clearly, they realized in looking at Paul that something had happened. As he explained, still out of breath, Jean was already on the radio to their mission in Lomé while Art looked for the keys to his truck and a medical kit.
“He’s allergic, you know. Come with me. We have to get him back here.”
They bounced over the dirt road with no concern for the pick-up’s suspension, sliding to a stop at the edge of the crowd that still surrounded the tree.
Someone had wrapped Josh in a blanket, but he was beginning to turn white, and the puffing had continued, his eyes almost forced shut. Art, who spoke Moré much better than Paul, asked people to throw blankets in the back of the pickup. He opened the medical bag, pulled out a needle from a small kit, and injected Josh. Then, with Paul and two of the villagers, he lifted him up and carried him over and laid him on the blankets.
“You drive. I’m going to stay in the back with him.” He threw his keys at Paul, then took a deep breath. “But drive gently. I don’t think time is going to matter.”
Paul stared at him, thunderstruck.
“Just drive.” He looked at Paul, his face as composed as his eyes now were clearly in torment. “We might not get him home alive, but I don’t want to add to his agony.” He climbed into the bed of the truck and cradled his son’s head in his lap, stroking his hair.
Chapter Twenty-Nine can be found here.