Black Ivory Soul

(Appeared in the literary quarterly, Unbound Press, Fall 2006)

Monday, October 15, 2007

 

The first thing I noticed was the AK-47, cradled in the arms of the Gabonese military checkpoint guard. That, and the fact that the man looked angry. He sprang to attention as our dust-caked van rolled to a stop, clutching the rifle close, arms at rigid angles. A steel bar, supported by two rusting oil drums, stretched across the unpaved road, preventing us from passing without his permission. Since my arrival in Gabon forty-eight hours prior, I’d discovered military checkpoints were common in Africa. At the first one, outside the Gabonese capital of Libreville, the guard had waved us through without rising from his seat. At the second, a soldier was sleeping in a chair tipped against a cinder-block building. Only the noise of our honking had awakened him. But this third official took his job seriously.

Inside the Peace Corps van, I glanced around to see if anyone else noticed the danger we were in. No one was looking. Animated chatter filled the overheated van. “Um, excuse me?” I called out over the din, my voice abnormally high. “Someone with a big gun is heading toward us.” This elicited a few raised heads. The two second-year Volunteers in the van glanced through the smudged window before returning to their conversations. Carmen, an education trainee like myself, leaned over me to peer out.

“Whoa—check it out.” Her fascination shouldn’t have surprised me. Although she was tiny and pink-cheeked, her multiple piercings, spiky hair, heavy eyeliner and combat boots probably saved her from ever being referred to as cute. Back home, I would have given her a wide berth. Here, she’d become my close friend. Together we watched the soldier draw closer. His eyes glowed with a fanatic’s fervor, as if he were drunk on his own power. Or maybe just drunk. The authorities here, I was learning, bore little resemblance to the clean-cut police officers back in Omaha who patrolled the suburban neighborhoods, stopping me in my dented Ford Pinto to inquire whether I was aware of how fast I’d been driving. That world seemed very far away.

Our van driver, a wiry Gabonese man, slipped out, waving a fistful of papers at the soldier. The two began a heated discussion. A moment later, the soldier relaxed his grip on the rifle. Once he’d accepted two packs of cigarettes from our driver, he became downright amiable. He slung an arm over our driver’s shoulder and the two of them walked off. “Buddies, just like that,” Carmen muttered.

Another uniformed guard crunched over to our van. “Descendez, descendez,” he called out in a bored voice. The Volunteers in the van rose, grumbling and stretching.

“What’s happening?” another trainee asked.

One of the Volunteers shrugged. “Checkpoints….”

This wasn’t part of the plan, and that bothered me. We were supposed to arrive at our training site in Lambaréné by mid-afternoon. We’d already stopped once for a flat tire and another time for a steamy, bug-infested half-hour, the reason never made clear. No one else seemed bothered by all these delays. I could only fret and grumble to myself as we shuffled out of the Peace Corps van into the staggering humidity, squinting at the equatorial sunlight. Away from the city, deep inside the country’s interior, the whine of insects was a noisy symphony of clicks, buzzes and drones. Jungly trees crowded the landscape, broken only by the red dirt road and clearing. A group of children, wearing an assortment of ragged thrift-store castoffs, shrieked at our sudden appearance and ran from us. The rifle-toting soldier and our driver had disappeared. “But what’s the delay?” I persisted, trudging behind the others over to a mud and wattle shack set up next to the checkpoint station. “How long will we be here?”

“Who knows?” a Volunteer named Rich replied. “Long enough to have a Regab.” He entered the shack and we followed like ducks. In the dim room, lit by sunlight filtering through cracks, Rich pointed to a table where our driver was sitting, animated in conversation with the guard. Both now clutched wine-sized green bottles of beer. Regab.

“There’s malaria, of course,” Rich was telling us after we’d grouped around a back table, armed with our own tepid Regabs. “Then filaria, hepatitis, typhoid….” He ticked off the diseases on his fingers, undistracted by the whispers and giggles of the children who’d returned. Through gaps in the wall, I could see them outside: a half-dozen pairs of dark eyes watching our every move.

“Don’t forget giardia,” a woman sitting next to me on the bench sang out. “Purple burps and green farts,” she added for explanation.

“These are diseases a person might get here?” I asked.

“Hell, these are diseases the Volunteers have right now,” Rich replied.

“You’re telling me someone’s walking around with malaria?”

“That would be me,” he stated with obvious pride.

I scrutinized him. Tangled blond curls framed his gaunt, stubbled face, but there he sat across from me in a poncho-like shirt with wild swirls of color, swigging his Regab and chuckling as if having malaria were great fun.

“Aren’t you, like, supposed to be delirious and burning with fever?” Carmen asked.

He shrugged. “The fever and chills come and go. I feel like shit right now, but hey, might as well drink and have a reason to feel that way.”

I stared at him, uneasy. “I thought taking Aralen kept us from getting malaria.”

“Theoretically, yes. But it’s chloroquine-based and the mosquitoes are becoming chloroquine-resistant.” He wagged a finger at all the trainees. “You’re not safe from anything here.” At his pronouncement, the contents of my stomach—an earlier lunch of mystery meat in fiery sauce over rice—leapt around.

“Oh, now don’t go scaring them,” the purple-burps woman told Rich, her pale, shiny face earnest. All the Peace Corps Volunteers seemed pale, which disappointed me—I’d thought one thing I could count on getting here was a good tan. “It’s been years since a Volunteer in Gabon has died, and it’s usually from car accidents anyway. Aside from intestinal parasites and skin fungi, I’ve never gotten sick. If it weren’t for the stares that make you feel like a circus freak, and problem students in the classroom, life here would be a breeze. Well,” she added after a moment’s reflection, “except for those packages from home that keep getting torn into at the post office and arriving to me empty. Oh, and the loneliness, of course. That’s a killer. But hey, there’s Regab.” She raised her bottle and paused to regard it with something akin to reverence.

“Have you talked to Christophe about the post office business?” Rich asked before tipping his own beer back.

“No. Think I should?”

“Definitely. He might know someone there.”

“This guy, Christophe,” Carmen said, “I heard someone mention his name in Libreville. Is he Peace Corps staff?”

“Only as a Gabonese trainer for you English teachers. But his father’s the Gabonese Minister of Tourism, so he knows a lot of people.”

Regab, I decided, wasn’t bad—exotic and heavier than Coors Light and packed with alcohol. It began to soothe my jangled nerves, numb my over-stimulated brain. Sitting in a dark shack in the sultry Central African interior gradually became the grand adventure it was supposed to be. Pinging foreign music blared from a battery-operated cassette player. Two chickens crooned and wove their way around our ankles, pecking at the dirt floor. Inconceivable to think that only five days prior, I was in Washington, D.C. with the other nineteen Peace Corps Gabon trainees, beginning preparation for our two-year assignment.

The delay extended into another twenty-four ounce beer. Apparently our driver didn’t have all the correct papers qualifying him to drive a group of us in the Peace Corps van. Ben Curtis, the Peace Corps Gabon country director, also en route to the Lambaréné training, could solve the problem with a signature. When he showed up. I drank more Regab and pressed the bottle to my sweaty face. Carmen fanned herself with her Welcome to Gabon! leaflet. “I need to use a bathroom,” I mumbled. “Where do you suppose it is?”

“Got me.” She shrugged and grinned. “I think you need to go ask those friendly guys at the checkpoint next door.”

Instead I asked the bar owner, in careful textbook French, the next time she brought beers to our table. “Là-bas,” she told me, pursing her lips in the direction of the back door. Over there. “Follow the path,” she added in French.

“Want company?” Carmen asked.

“No thanks.” I teetered through the bar and stumbled outside where the bright dry-season haze momentarily blinded me. The Regab, heat and jet lag had made me queasy and disoriented as well. A minute later, however, I found the path and started down it.

The forest behind the checkpoint station appeared scraggly, disappointingly commonplace. The thin trees and spindly brush were like something I might have found in rural Nebraska. Only the flies were remarkable, for their sheer number and tenacity. Waving them away from my ears, nose and mouth, I wandered down the foot-worn path, in search of the latrine. The woods cleared, replaced by weedy scrub that rose on either side of the path, up to my waist. I began to wonder if my translation for là-bas as “over there” was way off. Because I’d gone pretty là-bas and I was nowhere. The marching cadence, however, relaxed me. In the past week, through the Peace Corps stateside training and transatlantic flight to Gabon, I’d rarely been alone. And I craved solitude the way I craved dance.

Dance. My ballet practice.

The thought made me stumble. To deflect my attention from the sadness that billowed up like a storm cloud, I focused on Rebecca. Rebecca and her boyfriend. Rebecca the queen. The rage kicked in, clearing my head, making me feel strong again.

Okay, so maybe the Peace Corps business was a mistake. At least it had offered me an escape. Nine months ago, back in September, Dad had given me an ultimatum. I’d been finishing up college, performing with a dance company, avoiding thoughts about the future. The same thing I’d been doing for three years. “Time for a job, Fiona,” Dad told me. “Get that degree, then do whatever you want, but just do it.” When I dropped by the university placement center a week later, my heart sank at the corporate listings tacked up on the bulletin board. Actuary. Oscar Meyer sales rep. Claims adjuster. UPS supervisor. No, no and no.

Then I spied a Peace Corps brochure. Teaching English sounded responsible and yet romantic. To placate Dad, I started up the application process. The CARE commercials on television, after all, had always touched me. I visualized myself, noble and selfless, helping rid the world of poverty. Africa, I decided, was real life, a true adventure.

The acceptance letter six months later, after a series of phone interviews, made me want to run the other way. Once again, my grand idea, viewed up close, had lost all its charm. I told my family about the letter, more for show than because I was going to do it. But while Mom and Dad congratulated me, I saw my siblings exchanging glances. “You’re still playing with that idea?” Russell, the oldest, asked.

Rebecca’s porcelain-smooth face creased in bemusement before she shook her head and began to chuckle. “Oh, Fiona,” was all she said.

I knew what that shake of the head meant. I’d seen it every time I’d announced yet another change of majors—from dance education to paleontology and a year later to women’s studies, followed by sociology. It was the pained look you gave someone who’d just stepped in dog shit. This, on top of the other humiliation and grief she’d caused me. I had to get away from her. The Peace Corps was my ticket out.

“Yes, I’m still ‘playing’ with that idea.” I glared at them. “In fact, I’ve decided to accept.”

And so I did it. Except now I was stuck in Africa for two years, thanks to my sister. But I was going to stick it out, even if it killed me. Which, evidently, it might.

It dawned on me that I’d walked for a long time without seeing the latrine. “Screw this,” I muttered. Stepping away from the path, I squatted down to pee. Then I turned around and headed back. But the return began to confuse me, ten minutes after the path forked. I stopped and looked around. Had that grove of banana trees been there before? After a another minute of walking, my heart began to pound against my ribs. I retraced my steps back to the fork and went the other way. It was worse—I recognized nothing. Ten minutes later, I turned around again. This time, I could find no fork, even after fifteen minutes of walking. Dizzy and nauseous, I began to trot, stumbling on a gnarled vine half-buried beneath the path. I followed the path until I came to a new fork. Had I taken this fork? The hazy equatorial sun, directly overhead, offered no directional clues. Finally I stopped and sank to my haunches, covering my face with my hands, my breath coming in short, panicked gasps. Rebecca would crack up—I hadn’t even lasted the first week.

“Eh… Ntang, wa ka ve?”

I dropped my hands and looked up. Like a mirage, a tiny, dusty African woman had appeared out of nowhere. She stood in front of me in bare feet, bent from the wicker basket load on her back. A twig poked out of her matted hair. She wore a sheet of fabric, the print faded with age, wrapped around her body like a bath towel. As I stood up, her face broke into a wide grin, revealing gaps from missing teeth. Her milky-brown eyes lit up in pleasure as she reached out with both hands to clasp mine in greeting.

“Ntang, wa ka ve?” she repeated, pumping my hand. She smelled smoky.

“Uh … bonjour.” I pasted a bright smile on my face.

“Ah, madame.” She beamed at me. In French, I explained I was lost, and could she help me find the checkpoint station? She bobbed her head and cackled. It dawned on me that she didn’t understand French. I imitated an AK-47 with my arms, putting a fierce look on my face. She nodded and patted me. She began talking, a patter of incomprehensible language in a soothing, hypnotic voice. Her face was serious now, eyes riveted to mine as if this would make me understand her language better.

“I’m sorry,” I told the woman in English finally, my voice breaking. “I don’t understand a word you’re saying and I’m lost and I’m starting to freak out here. That stupid Regab...”

At this, her eyes lit up. “Regab, oye!”

“Regab, yes? Regab—to buy, to drink!” I mimed gulping down a big bottle, tossing my head back and making glugging actions. “Where,” I placed my hand over my eyes and with sweeping theatrical gestures, pretended to scope out the scenery, “is Regab? With guns?”

This time she understood my rifle imitation. Taking me by the hand, she led me back the way I’d come. For a few minutes, the only sound was her bare feet slapping against the dirt and the hushed rustle of the grass and trees. Even the bugs seemed to be holding their breath.

We arrived at the fork. “Regab,” she said, and pointed to the right. I paused—I’d tried this way already. She sensed my hesitation and made a little “eh” noise and nudged me down the trail. After a few steps, I turned around.

“Please, mama—this isn’t the right…” I started. No one was in sight. The woman had disappeared into the grasses as silently as she’d come. A chill crept over me, in spite of the sweat pouring down my back. She’d been there and now she wasn’t. But I had no time to ponder the woman’s disappearance. Pushing down my panic, I hurried past the unfamiliar areas, past the trees until I heard music and the sound of voices and laughter. The trail rounded a bend and suddenly, there it was—the clearing, the two buildings, the Peace Corps van, which, in my absence, had become two, with trainees and Volunteers milling around.

Ben, the Peace Corps country director, a burly, vibrant man with a grey ponytail, had arrived. He stood waiting for me. “Well, there you are, Fiona. We were wondering what happened to you. You went down the wrong path, I think.”

“I don’t know where that latrine was they were talking about. I went forever and then got lost.” He glanced over at an adjacent path. My eyes followed his down the path that was more obvious, better traveled, at the end of which stood a wooden outhouse. “Oh.” I could think of nothing more clever to say.

As we crunched down the dirt to where the others were starting to board the vans, I caught sight of the checkpoint guard. “Peace Corpse, oye!” he called out to everyone as they boarded. A broad grin now covered his face. He waved his arms, benevolent as a mother seeing her first-grader off to school, the image marred only by the presence of the rifle in one hand.

It was all too weird. I slowed down and Ben glanced over at me. “What’s wrong?”

It took a moment to figure out my uneasy feeling. First, the rabid guard who was now our buddy. Then Malaria Rich and his stories. Getting lost. The old woman. My intestines began to grumble, in tandem with my pounding head. I didn’t know what I’d seen out there or how I’d gotten unlost or what happened. Gabon was feeling a little like The Twilight Zone. “It’s just that… things here don’t make sense,” I tried, and then shut up.

Ben’s face widened into a smile. He nodded. “Welcome to Africa. You’ll be saying that a lot.”

© 2007 Terez Rose

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