Out of the Rain
In Central Africa there is a small village called Mbossembelli. It lies at the foot of three small hills on the edge of the great savannah plains that stretch northward to the Sahara. The village has only one road, a narrow dirt affair filled with potholes and washouts. As you enter into the village you come along a stretch lined with mango trees covering the road in a regal canopy of shade. Official buildings, a small barracks, and the Colonel's residence once crowded around this stretch of the road. Years ago fire had claimed these buildings, except for the frame and tin roof of the barracks, which today house the small marketplace. The village goats and dogs often laze under the trees, finding refuge from the equatorial sun, moving only for the occasional truck on its way to the capital or the Cameroon.
At the far end of this pompous stretch sits the only establishment in town with the right to be called a bar, as you or I would know a bar to be. It is situated just off the road on the left as one comes from the capital, under a copse of mango trees. The actual bar itself is made from glossy, dark, carved ebony and is long enough for four or five men to stand leaning on its rounded front edge while sipping a whiskey and water. Traditional masks, carved into the wood, make a border around the bar front, and in the middle stands the local hero of lore, Nzini, flanked by an elephant and a crocodile, two animals that he alternatively does battle with and tricks into tentative friendship in the endless tales told about him around the evening embers. This beautiful hunk of wood sits heavily under a tin-roofed shack with three walls made of thin wood slats, uncomfortably reminiscent of another day when it sat under a well-kept payote with a thick thatched roof.
The proprietor in those days was a Frenchman who years before had left his wife and kids one day in Alsace and never returned. He brewed his own beer and distilled whiskey, and prospectors, large, daring, hardy men from all over Europe, hunkered around his bar, singing songs of their homelands and drinking all night long before going back into the bush to dig, with disappointingly moderate success, for gold, silver, and diamonds. Then it was a real bar.
These days, an Arab owns it. His family deals in groceries all across the country. Its patrons tend to leave the bar alone under the tin roof, sitting instead in low, comfortable chairs placed out under the trees with small, shaky tables beside or between them, just big enough to hold a few glasses and bottles. In some ways, it's more like a café today than a bar, except that it serves no coffee and no food. It's a quiet and pleasant place all the same.
Only two people occupied the bar on this particular afternoon. One, an adolescent Arab boy with his shirt open, leaned behind the bar listening to a radio and moving only occasionally to swat at a fly or adjust the antenna. The other, a young American working for the Peace Corps, sat under one of the mango trees and sipped at his beer, which had gone warm and flat half an hour before. Seen from afar, their forms could have been mistaken for a man and wife, abiding together in perfect conjugal distaste, a loathing so refined that it disdained words. The young American nodded imperceptibly except to those who spend time on one side of a bar or the other, and the Arab sulked over for another wordless exchange of 150 francs for a fresh bottle of almost-cold beer. He set the bottle on the table unopened, walked back to the bar for the bottle opener, and walked back to the table and opened the bottle with a jerk.
The American sipped at his beer and looked at his watch, and somehow managed to look completely uncomfortable in spite of the afternoon breeze, the shade of the mango tree, and the three beers that he had consumed since lunch. He looked again at his watch and determined that Imballi was definitely late—even by local standards. Imballi Jean-Noel was the village chief. The village had a sous-prefect who managed the local administration of government, so the position of chef-ti-village was largely a traditional and honorary position. Jean-Noel had inherited it from his uncle, who was still living but considered himself too old to represent the village. Jean-Noel assumed these duties, as he did all others, with a hearty laugh and a smile. Most people called him Jean-Noel. Some called him Chef Noel; the title of Chef, alone, was yet reserved for his uncle, who was also loved by his people.
Chef Noel had agreed with a smile to meet with David, this intriguing young American, at the bar at four o'clock—which to Noel, who had never owned a watch, meant after siesta, before supper. At four o'clock, Noel was still digging in his garden, along with the rest of the villagers who worked nearby on the hillside in theirs, and he remained there, shirtless, sweaty, and smiling, until dark. No one in the village, except David and young children, had taken a siesta this afternoon.
It is important to understand the reason for Noel's rudeness. There are two main seasons in Central Africa: rainy and dry. Noel's village was enjoying a rare sunny day in the middle of the rainy season. It had rained for twenty-seven days straight: rain that hid the sunrise like a magician and defied high noon with his shroud, rain that drummed on corrugated tin roofs in a doling rhythm that kept time so completely that the villagers gave up the human burden of trapping time into numbers and listened to the rain instead. They lay themselves down for twenty-seven days of animal-like slumber, rising only to eat, drink, make love, and take quick trips to the holes dug a little way out from each cluster of huts. They talked little, having little to say more compelling than the basso-continuo of the rain.
On this morning, the sun shined forth in all its pagan glory, awakening the villagers from their cocoon-like slumber into the verdant splendor of a tropical rainy season. What they had last seen baked and brown and brittle, greeted them now gushing with green and life: tall grasses flowed across the savanna, choking off trails that led to the hillsides where trees and vines bloomed—and where their gardens sat in complete tropical disarray, needing desperately to be tended.
The afternoon dragged into evening. David now sat brooding instead of waiting. He lit a cigarette with a match and crumpled the empty pack on the table. He drifted off in his silence. He jumped visibly when a truck pulled up. The clattering of diesel valves and the scrunching of heavy braking on the dirt road shattered the café silence. With a twist of his wrist the driver killed the engine and instantly reinstated the silence, an uneasy and fragile quiet after the dramatic interruption, punctuated clearly now with a door slamming, a dog barking.
The truck was a Toyota pickup, white, covered with a muddy spray pattern. Typical for the bush. The roads would not have been much fun after the rains. A large white man got down slowly from behind the wheel. He called to his dog in German, walked around the truck to the café, and approached the table where David was sitting. He greeted David wearily, informally in French, and then snapped an order to the boy in Arabic. He dragged a chair to David's table and motioned a request for permission to join him—hand out, elbow bent, and a slight shrug of the shoulders.
—Oui, and David sat up a little straighter and attempted to slide his chair over by pushing with his legs on the ground. His chair didn't move, and the man sat down anyway, while the boy put a glass of whiskey and a bottle of water on the table and moved away.
David watched the newcomer as he sipped his whiskey, first straight and then with the addition of water from the bottle. The man looked into his glass as he drank. He wore, with almost comic effect, traditional safari khakis, shorts, and a collared shirt with pockets. His head was covered with a mop of dark, curly hair, matted around his temples with sweat. Thick eyebrows weighed down a face covered evenly with two days' growth of beard. He pulled a dark handkerchief from his hip pocket and wiped around his brow, temples, and neck, and then spoke.
—Vous êtes américain.
—Yes, then I speak to you in English. That is good.
—Je parle français.
—Yes, but I think it's better that we speak English together. You are Peace Corps?
—The Peace Corp has not been in Mbossembelli before.
—What kind of work are you doing?
—Why are you not working in the yakas today then?
—I was supposed to meet with the chef-ti-village, but he never showed up.
—Interesting. The man nodded, sipped his whiskey, poured some water over it, sipped again, and asked —Will you join me? And without waiting for an answer snapped an order to the boy who brought over another glass and the bottle. The man poured whiskey into the empty glass. He pushed the bottle of water over to the American, waited for him to add water to his whiskey, and then introduced himself.
—My name is Frank.
—Then to your health.
Shadows lengthened on the villagers in their gardens on the hillsides, telling them the time as it had always been told, telling them that soon the day's work would end and that night, with all its subtle powers, would come down. Jean-Noel looked out at the western horizon and saw the changing colors. He smiled and thought of a good meal by the fire tonight. It would be a warm night with the rains building back in the skies. Perhaps there would be some music. Perhaps not. This was a short but hard work season for his people. But working in his yaka on a sunny day in the rain-softened ground made Noel want to dance early for the harvests to come. He whistled to his wife and motioned for her to start back. The work had been good. Time to start the fire for dinner.
His wife and two daughters set their empty water jugs on their heads and started down the trail to the village and their hut. Others took notice and realized the lateness of the hour and started for home as well. First the confident and carefree. Others, the worriers, would stay until after dark, getting to their huts in time for a meal of pounded gozo and then sleep.
Noel sat on a boulder and talked with a small group of men. He was gesticulating and telling a joke about one of the village's young brides, about the way that she walked in the marketplace with the other women and the way that she walked by the place where the men sat and drank coffee in the mornings and afternoons. In the middle of his laughter, a young boy ran up. He was a son of one of the men listening.
The young boy stood a couple of respectful paces away from the group of men. He was not a part of them yet. But his news was urgent. He had to have their attention. He had to tell them. So he clapped his hands softly together, as if he were standing outside of a hut and wanted to address someone inside, as was their custom. The laughter stopped, and all of the men turned to look on this bold youth. No one said a word to him, not even his father, and he said nothing back but looked up into each of their faces with eyes wide open.
Noel spoke. —How does it go, my son? Noel smiled his big smile. He toyed with the boy by addressing him informally, in slang, as if they were childhood buddies meeting in the marketplace. The men all held back smiles. Every one of them had been a part of Noel's jokes before, and they knew that Noel did this because he liked this boy, liked his boldness in clapping before a group of men.
—I am without problems, baba. The boy did not yet know that he was part of a joke. He called him baba, father, a term of respect. He answered formally, and after a pause, added —Are you without problems?
Noel continued his smile, transfixed the boy with his smile and gaze so that he could not see the snickering of the other men. —I am fine, my son. I am tired from working in my garden, but that is good to be tired from working. It will be a good year for the gardens of this village. Do you agree, my son?
—Baba, you have spoken true words. There will be plenty this year. All the signs are good.
—What are the signs, my son?
The young boy looked up, eyes even wider, and stamped his foot, visibly shaking from the news held within him. Noel laughed his hearty laughter, and all the men joined him. He motioned the boy to come to him. The boy felt his eyes well up but forced them dry with his desire to be strong in front of the men, in front of his father and his chief. He straightened his back but did not go to Noel.
—Baba, your strange brother, the allemand mboungou, sits in the village. I saw him.
The laughter stopped. All the men looked at Noel, who was looking out over the horizon and rubbing his beard. The boy had called Frank the allemand mboungou because ... well, because that's what Frank was. Allemand because even in a small bush village most knew French, and of all the languages that they spoke, only French would actually differentiate between types of white people. In the African tongues, all white people were mboungou. He had called Frank Noel's strange brother because Noel was very close to Frank. Jean-Noel had called him ita-ti-mbi, my brother, on many occasions. The word ita is not restricted by direct blood relation but can be extended to anyone in your family or clan, or even, as in this case, to a foreigner with whom you feel a life-long bond.
—Baba, he sits in Abu's place, with the American.
—Then, my son, you must go to him fast-fast. You tell him that I will sit with him soon.
The boy's face smiled, but he forced it back and stood straighter still. This was his chef commanding him, sending him on a mission.
—Go. Fast-fast. And the boy turned and ran down the path. The men laughed and laughed and patted each other on the backs. Noel stroked his beard and thought, perhaps there will be music tonight after all. I must possess a mildly prophetic spirit.
Frank had driven since sunrise. He was expected in Bossangua the next day, which meant that he should have gone on to Yaloke that night. But the roads. After so much rain they were little more than shallow river beds in some areas. He had had to pay out bribes three times during the day to make it through the rain gates.
—These damn provincial gendarmes and sous-prefects. They put the gates up when the mango rains start—spitting compared to this—and they sit by the roadside with their hands out until the harmattan winds come down.
He poured whiskey for himself and David. —How long have you been here? One year?
—About a year.
—What do you think?
—I like it.
—And you live in a hut like the other Peace Corps?
—Oh, I don't mind.
—Yes, I think that it's not good for you. It's not good for you Americans to live this way in Africa.
—But why not?
—Yes, but it's not good. You get no respect from them when you live in these little huts.
—Patron! Patron! And breathless, running, shouting, waving, the little messenger arrived with eyes still wide open.
—Balalamo, petit. What is the matter?
—Balalalla, patron. Catching his breath. —I've been sent by Chef Noel. He is arriving in this café very soon to sit with you.
—Petit, you know Michel who keeps many goats.
—True, and he sells them for wedding and for feasts.
—Go to him, fast-fast. We will need his fire and his goats.
And fast-fast he went. Prices were set with minimal haggling. The hour was late for commerce, and this was a season of much work and then rest, but little feasting. Noel stopped by his house to instruct his wife on the change of plans. And David accepted an invitation to dinner with the easy grace of a young American abroad and alone. Then he ordered another beer and sent a young boy off to buy him a pack of cigarettes. The sun set before all of this was done.
Michel squatted before his fire pit and stared at the coals. In each hand he held a stick. In his right hand was a thin, smooth stick three feet long, with a clean, charred point. This was for turning the meat that lay above the coals on a trellis of similar sticks. In his left hand, his strong hand, he gripped a thick and knotted club. It was worn smooth at the grip, but the top was gnarled with scrapes and scars. It's purpose? He would smile a slow smile if asked and whisper —Ngbo. Le serpent.
The snakes came to warm their cold hearts by his fire, he said. But he knew better; their hearts could never be changed. He was wary still of the curse that killed his mother. It could be active yet and could have been transferred to his person. His mother had been bitten by a green mamba while walking through the forest on her way to a sister's wedding in a neighboring village. He never had been able to find out who, exactly, had sent the snake. He never missed an opportunity to club one to death and to cut the carcass into pieces with his machete. If it was large enough, he would roast it and eat it. Otherwise, he left the mutilated carcass scattered along the ground as a message to other snakes and to spirits that liked to use snakes. The dogs of the village checked his plot each morning.
He poked at the goat meat roasting and put the meat stick down. He picked up a gourd and drank. It was congoya, his own, homemade palm liquor. He winced. The congoya roasted him inside the way the coals toasted his meats. Presently, he shuddered. He gripped his club and said quietly, through clenched teeth, but nonetheless aloud –Sioni a yeke mingi, there is much evil, as if this whispered mantra could be brandished like his club toward the darkness and its dark spirits, disturbing their slippery, quiet ways with his verbal declaration of his own awareness.
The sound of laughter reached him from the bar, just a short walk through the trees. As soon as he finished his gourd, the meat would be ready and he'd whistle for the two boys who were waiting in the road to come and carry it to the bar where Frank and Noel and the American now sat. So, tonight, meat and drink. This is not normal for this season, but this is good, he thought.
Abdullah came to the bar to help his nephew when he heard that Frank had arrived. Abdullah was a large, black Arab who dressed in the traditional gowns of North Africa and upheld the pillars of his faith flawlessly. He had no qualms regarding infidels, however, and fraternized readily with people of all faiths and varieties of belief, having this one to dinner and that one for tea and making deals with anyone whose faith, like his, preached that good business brought fair reward on earth as in heaven—like this Frank, for instance. He seemed to have good sense—and money too.
He walked to the table but was frustrated that the two men continued to speak in English. He returned to the bar and wiped a cloth around on the surface and thought about dinner to come.
Frank spoke very precise English, but with a limited vocabulary. He had established in his dealings with Americans a basic tack of conversation that was oriented around a compass of key words. Respect was one of them. And his idea of respect was a concrete and practical one, having to do with obtaining a wide area of operations for oneself, with as little interference as possible.
—You see, if you are weak, then they are taking advantage of you.
—Listen, now, you must be strong with these people. Then they will listen to you. Then they will not take advantage of you, always borrowing things…
—Wait. You keep talking about being strong or weak or…I'm not here to do any of that. I'm here to help them and to get to know their culture…
—Then you should be working in the yakas today.
David dragged on his cigarette and crushed it out on the table. He sat back and exhaled, simultaneously bringing the smoke back up into his nostrils, "French-style." —Why are you here?
—I dig wells.
—No, I mean why did you ever come here?
—I was young and this was the place to go. There was nothing at home. Everyone was coming to Africa.
—Why do you stay if you don't like it?
—Why do you say I don't like it?
—Well, you just seemed to have a lot of complaints.
—Of course. There are always problems. C'est l'Afrique! That is no reason to leave.
—Do you miss home?
—This is home.
—What about Germany?
—That's not my home, David. I left there when I was a young man, and I live here.
Jean-Noel walked up smiling, arms out. Frank jumped up and walked over to meet him. Frank and Noel embraced, kissing theatrically on each cheek, pounding each other on the back. Frank called to the bar for another glass, which was already forthcoming, and another chair, which Noel procured from an adjoining table, and by the time that David and Noel had shaken hands, which in the local ways does take some time, Frank had filled the new glass and topped off the old ones. Frank then sat and started into the customary inquisition regarding the health and well-being of the many and various members of Noel's family. But then, as Noel started into his typically rambling and anecdotal reply, Frank interrupted him, glass raised, with a toast to their good health.
—It's been over a year, my friend. Let's celebrate.
There is something about the African night. It is alive, not dead like a deserted street corner or sleepy like a deep forest. The twilight is quick, just a whisper, time enough to wipe your brow and exhale softly, relieved that the white glare of the sun is lessening into the golds and reds of sunset giving way into deepening blues, and then the night is upon you.
Frank, David, and Noel sat close, eating and drinking, with five or ten other men gathered round. They lit torches and cluttered the tables with glasses and empty bottles and cigarettes. Laughter and snatches of song could be heard. The village slept, windows shut against the multiplicity of evils that walk only in the night. But safe within their island of flickering light, the itas drank in celebration of their health today and the harvest to come and of friendship to stand by season after season.
A lull. A lapse into personal reverie as each felt the warmth of the whiskey and of the soft, humid night. Each felt safe, safe within themselves and within a brotherhood of walls sitting close by. Then Noel ventured back into conversation.
—Are you hunting?
—It's been a long time.
—No more? You don't hunt?
—No, no, I love the hunt. Just too much working lately.
—And your gun. The beautiful gun of your baba?
—Of course. I always have that.
And Frank jumped up and started towards his truck, and fell face first over a shadow-hidden chair. Everyone laughed, ruthless laughter, to which Frank responded with an elegant albeit drunken attempt at a formal bow.
His head and torso disappeared into an open door of his Toyota. He emerged with his grandfather's Winchester: double-barreled, hand-tooled, a pure weapon of grace and simplicity. Noel, who refused ever to shoot it—It's not mine to shoot, he would shake his head and say—still loved to hold it, coddle it, break it open and snap it shut to hear the click that, for any hunter, sounds a koan of strength, truth, and virtue.
—Njoni! Njoni mingi! Abdullah stood and clapped. He took the weapon and sighted, swiveled, and pulled on an imaginary flying feast. —Ah, la chasse. And he handed the shotgun back to Frank and sat down.
—We enjoy some of the finest bird hunting left anywhere in the entire Republique Centrafricain. You shoot birds, no?
—Yes, of course.
—He is such a fine shot. I swear to you that he will never miss. Never! He is like the coiled snake, like a silent owl who is not seen nor heard until his talons have struck! This particular brag was interesting since Noel had never actually seen Frank hunt. But spirits were high and free.
—Is it true?
—Well, I'm a decent–
—It's true. Absolutely.
—Then he must go on a hunt tomorrow. Here. It will be like heaven to him. Abdullah leaned forward and gripped Frank's forearm. —My friend, I will get for you the best guide. His nose is better than even your dog's, better than the noses of ten dogs. He knows every pheasant's roost within a day's walk of this village.
Noel beamed, proud. —And David, you hunt too, no?
—Well, I've hunted before, but…
—It has been years…
—No matter. Not at all.
—Njoni! Frank and David will hunt tomorrow. You hunt all day, and we feast all night.
This whiskey-polished banter went on until, one by one, each stumbled back to his hut. David, after agreeing to the next day's foray, slipped off into the sleeping village, taking a wrong turn once and tripping over his sleeping sentinel. He had never intended to be at the bar so late and had no flashlight with him.
Only Frank and Noel remained.
—So, you'll stay tomorrow.
—Coffee first thing. Abdullah will bring your guide around.
—Make sure that he is early, before sunrise.
—Okay. How about our David? What do you think? We've never had the Corps de la Paix before.
—Noel, I can say simply that he is an American, but I don't think that you know what that means.
—No, maybe not. Is that good?
—That's difficult to say for sure.
—Okay, I see.
Across the road, through the trees a way, Michel sat staring into the dying embers. He dozed and awoke and realized that the ruckus had died off and the insects had taken over the night's song with their endless repetition of buzzing and chirping. He grunted at the night and recited a curse against spirits who have a propensity for snakes, and used his club to help himself up. He hobbled to his door, turned around and backed into his hut, and shut up tight. Some time just before dawn, he fell asleep.