Chapter Thirty-Four: Breaking
Chapter Thirty-Three can be found here.
None of the supply stores in Ouaga had seen anything like the parts Paul presented to them. One, finally found a diagram matching one of the pieces in a supply book, and said he could order it from France, though it would be expensive, and would take several months. It wasn’t from the pump manufacturer, however, and might not even work.
Appalled, Paul rode back over to the AfroProg building. Earlier, he had visited there, to ask if there were a supply of spare parts around anywhere, but no one who had been connected with the project was still around to tell him anything. No one who was there knew anything about the project, and no one cared. They had given Diabagou the wells. Now, responsibility rested with the local people. When a project is finished, they told Paul, it is best that the aid organization move on. Otherwise, dependency can result.
On walking back into the office, he asked if he could rummage through their storage sheds, to see if something had been left over and forgotten. The administrator told him to help himself, but he doubted he would find anything. When he returned to the office several hours later, empty handed, he asked if there were any possibility that AfroProg could pay for the needed parts or, even better, could find a way to expedite their delivery.
No. That part of the project was over. It was up to the people of Diabagou. The administrator spread his hands. There was nothing he could do. In fact, he said, Paul shouldn’t even be concerning himself with the pumps. Paul, wanting to explode, closed his mouth, turned, and left. It wouldn’t do him or anyone any good for him to get into a fight with AfroProg. After all, he was still dependent on the NGO’s money.
Because it was nearby and he needed the release of a drink, he drove over to the Oubri and ordered a beer, flipping bottle tops at the road the way El had taught him, so long before. No one he knew was there. At least, no one joined him or recognized him. Not even the waitresses were the same. He tried to ask about some of the ones he had known, but the new ones just shook their heads. Instead of making himself feel better, he now started to get depressed as well as angry.
There weren’t even the European tourists, he noticed, who once had populated the bar, swapping stories about trips across the desert, relaxing before heading south, or getting ready for the crossing north once more. They might have been vain and obnoxious, but they had certainly kept the place interesting.
He left, too depressed to stay there, and decided he would give Don Camillo’s a try. He couldn’t do anything more about the pumps that day, that was for sure. Probably couldn’t do anything at all. So he might as well get drunk, try to find some people he knew and see if they couldn’t tie one on together.
When he pulled to a stop where Don Camillo’s had stood, he saw only a hole in the ground, and a sign telling him that a new building of some sort would soon arise on the spot. Stunned, he stared at it for a moment. He couldn’t imagine where the clientele would go. Without Don Camillo’s, Ouaga just wouldn’t be the same. Not in his eyes, at least. He rode on, looking about more carefully and trying to figure out what had happened to the town.
He hadn’t really been paying attention, the last few times through. It had been two years, really, since he had spent a great deal of time in Ouaga. As he rode around, just looking at the places he had once known, he saw that a lot more of Ouaga than he knew had been torn down, to make way, he assumed, for more of the new quartiers like those he had seen on the road to Koupela. Most were of the cement the regime preferred to the bancobrick and mud. An entire sector near the airport, once a vibrant community, was now merely a clear space over rubble, still crisscrossed by the streets that had once served the neighborhood. Riding through, Paul wondered how he had missed it last time going by; it gave him a chill. He quickly moved on to places where buildings still stood. There was a good bar/restaurant, he remembered, down the road from the airport, near where one turned to go to the American embassy.
He ordered and sat at one of the two tables in the little courtyard by the street, hoping to see someone he knew go by. No one he knew appeared along the road, and the food didn’t seem quite as good as he remembered it. He ate, drank a beer or two, and got up to go.
But where? Though he had visited Ouaga every few months while in Peace Corps, and had been there just a few weeks ago, he no longer knew it the way he had when he had lived there. The hangouts, obviously, had changed, as had the people. The people, at least, that he had known.
Now more than a little depressed, Paul decided to find Michel and see how he was doing. He drove out to the shop, hoping to take him out for a drink. It was just about time for him to be getting off of work, after all.
But another man was there, older. Paul had never seen him before, though he had been to the shop often.
“Hello.” The man looked up from his work adjusting the belts of a cassette player. “Is Michel around?”
The man put down his tool and stared at him, then slowly shook his head, saying nothing.
“Will he be back soon?”
The man shook his head again.
“Has he quit? Did he finally open his own shop?” Paul couldn’t figure out what was going on. Was the man being hostile? Had Michel done something wrong and gotten himself fired?
Again the man shook his head. But this time he looked directly at Paul and spoke. “Il est mort. He is dead.”
Paul arched his neck forward and stared at him. This wasn’t possible. It took him a moment to speak, for his breath seemed to have died. “Michel?” The man nodded, his own eyes sad with the news he had imparted. “How? How could he possibly be dead?”
The man, compassionate if distant, walked from behind the counter and motioned for Paul to go out front, where he could sit on the bench for a moment. The man sat next to him. After a few minutes, he told Paul what had happened.
“He was stopped at an intersection in town, one with a light, on his way to work. A couple of weeks ago. A truck going too fast, came around the corner and into his lane. Gave him no warning. Hit him. Smashed right into him. Threw him into the air. He came down on his head.”
“He wasn’t wearing his helmet?”
“Oh yes, he was.” The man nodded vigorously. “But it flew off.”
As usual, Paul thought to himself, sickened, Michel had left the chin strap undone. He put his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. After a few minutes, the man got up and went back inside to his work. Paul didn’t even notice.
Not quite knowing where he was going, Paul later rode back to the Peace Corps office. When he saw where he was, he shrugged, parked his bike, and walked to the small bar across the street, really just a hut with a bench out front. He ordered a beer and tried to think.
As he was brooding, missing Michel, wondering why so many people had to die such stupid deaths, he saw one of the APCD’s, a man named Walter, walk from the Peace Corps compound, which should have been closing for the night right about then. He looked uncertain, baffled. He started to unlock his car, fumbled with the key, dropped it, picked it up, then spotted Paul sitting across the street and walked over.
“About Michel?” Paul was perplexed. He didn’t think Walter knew Michel at all, though he probably had met the Kiema’s, having been Lori’s APCD.
“Michel?” Now Walter was confused. “No, who’s Michel?”
“He’s… never mind. Just someone I knew who died.”
“Oh.” Walter stared at him for a moment, then sat down and indicated to the barman that he wanted a beer. “I’m sorry about that. That’s not what I meant, though. No, I was talking about Peace Corps.”
“Why? What’s happened to Peace Corps?”
“We’re kicked out. We’ve been told to leave Burkina Faso. The stagiereswaiting in Philadelphia to fly here will all be reassigned.”
“Jesus.” That woke Paul from his shock about Michel. “And the people already here?” he’d heard about cases of Peace Corps being kicked out before. Often, all the PCVs were forced to leave immediately.
“They can stay, but no extensions. We will be gone in less than a year.”
“They give a reason?” Why would a poor country give up free teachers, free forestry workers, and more? It didn’t make any sense.
“Spying, of course. We’re only here to spy on them.”
“Right.” On second thought, when had anything this regime had done make any sense at all.
He sat with Walter for an hour or two, joined by others who straggled from the building. They held an impromptu wake for Peace Corps, with Paul holding a private one for Michel, too.
He would have to drive out to Koupela, he knew. He would have to see the Kiema’s. The only son they had left, now, was the deaf boy. He hoped they weren’t so traditional that they could no see the value of their daughters, for it was with them that their future now rested. He got up and slipped away, riding straight east to Michel’s family.
The trip out to Koupela was a disaster. Paul should have known it would be. The Kiema’s might have been interested in seeing Paul soon after Michel’s death, but it had been weeks now. It was rainy season and there was work to do. Yes, there would be a funeral at the end of the year, but it wouldn’t be much. Michel had been young, after all, and had no children. It was the children who made a funeral feast, anyway, not the parents.
The stoicism of Michel’s family shocked Paul. He had planned on staying the night, but decided to drive back to Ouaga in the dark. He would, he decided, leave Ouaga the next day, to get back to Diabagou. All anyone he might know now in Ouaga would want to talk about was Peace Corps leaving. Paul didn’t want to think about that, let alone discuss it. It was just too absurd. And all he wanted was to talk about Michel.
By the time he returned to Diabagou, three more pumps had broken down. The chief came to his house, this time alone, as soon as he heard that Paul had returned, asking if he had been able to find the parts. When Paul told him that he had had no luck, the man just shook his head. He was facing a disaster, now, for Diabagou no longer had the water to support its overgrown population. If Paul couldn’t help him, he said, he had no idea what he was going to do.
Paul didn’t either. It would be useless to turn to the government. It hadn’t been their project and didn’t care about a village in the middle of nowhere, anyhow. And who else was there? None of the other aid organizations would be willing to come in. To do so would be for them to admit that AfroProg had made a mistake, that USAID had, too.
“We’ll just have to try to dig more wells, and deepen the ones we have,” the chief told Paul, as he left. “There’s not much else we can do.”
“Let me know if I can help.” Paul didn’t know what else to say.
“No, but thank you. I think it is time for us to try to take care of ourselves.” The man walked away without looking back. Paul stepped into his house, feeling guilty and cursing himself as a failure, though he knew there was nothing he could have done to change things.
Paul’s contract would be up in another two-and-a-half months, so he decided just to wait it out, even if there wasn’t much good he could do, now. The rains had begun and his seedlings had sprouted. If he were lucky, there would be enough rain so that he wouldn’t need water from the wells. However, he didn’t think, given what had happened, that he would be willing to use well water at all for his trees. That would just seem too much like he was robbing the villagers.
Though it might lack water, Diabagou still had plenty of bars, and plenty of beer. Paul spent more and more of his time in them. There was, he kept telling himself, little remaining that he could do on his project. Nothing he could do about the pumps, which continued to break down. Soon, only two remained working; it would only be a matter of time until there were none. His seedlings would soon need transplanting, if any survived. After that, he could write his report and wash his hands of this whole dirty mess.
While he wasn’t drinking, Paul spent his riding his Yamaha and learning motorcycle mechanics from Abel, the mechanic who had helped him with the Isuzu and the well. They became pretty good friends, Paul’s only friend in Diabagou. Paul would generally ride over to his stall in the morning and complete a new maintenance project on the bike. He learned to take off the head and replace the piston, to change the chain and sprockets, to adjust or replace brakes. The work fascinated him, and kept him from thinking about the failures surrounding him, or the failure now growing within him.
Chapter Thirty-Five can be found here.