by Jon Anderson (Gabon/Mali 1974–77)
A Trip to Okandja
Uneven plywood table. Sticky plastic tablecloth. Big bottles of Meuse. We get the cold ones. Since there is no electricity, “cold” means bottles that have been put into a bucket of water. They are maybe one degree cooler than the ones coming from the crate. We try hard to believe it makes a difference. The storm lamp on the table seems to throw more shadows than light. For a while there is no one else but me and Steve. Congolese music playing on the radio. The one armed, blue eyed bartender dozes. Our truck is parked in the darkness outside.
Julienne comes in and asks about her bra. Then she asks for us to buy her a beer.
But from where the truck is parked there is a sharp, bright, loud scream. Followed by “What the fuck? What the goddamn fuck? Whose fucking blood is this?”
Steve looks calmly at me. “It’s alive,” he says.
. . .
Steve, Bill and I go into town. Ninety minutes away on a laterite track through the forest. Through occasional villages selling palm wine and smoked bushmeat. And kids running out to try and sell wild fruit and bananas.
In town we go to the post office – poste restante – to see if our concerned mothers have sent us aerograms. They have. Our fathers have not written. But we have not written to our fathers. Bill has a letter from his girlfriend.
We go to the small store. We buy lots of sardines, macaroni, and tomato paste. This is our fallback meal. We fallback often. We buy bread. We buy nails and cement for work. We fulfill orders from our local families and friends.
- Please buy vegetable oil. Two liters.
- Please buy salt. And condensed milk.
- Get batteries. A box of Ds and a box of Cs.
- Get me 3 liters of kerosene.
- Buy storm lamp wicks.
- Get shotgun shells.
- Don’t you need a permit?
- No, go to David’s. He’s behind the Mayor’s office.
- Please buy perfume.
- What kind?
- “Love Me”.
- I need a bra, extra-large. I will pay you back.
- Please buy me a gift.
- Ok, what kind of gift?
- Something nice.
- Get me notebooks and pens for school.
- What’s your average?
- If you promise to get Bs.
- It’s okay you don’t have to buy me anything.
We do the errands as best we can. Then we go to the bar. We flirt hard with the barmaid. We drink. They have a kerosene fridge and the beer is mildly cold. The bar has a record player and has one English 45. It’s called “Believe in the Pill” by a group called Birth Control. It’s terrible, but it reminds us of home. We drink. Bill has gotten a Dear John letter. He drinks faster and deeper than Steve and me. We offer thoughtful advice — we say “Fuck her.” We buy him beers.
It’s dark when we leave. Immediately outside of town it’s profoundly dark. A deep and haunting dark. Bill is almost passed out. We help him climb into the bed of the truck so he can sleep. I drive, Steve next to me. The narrow laterite road weaves through the darkness, the road almost a tunnel.
As we go around bends we hear Bill sliding around in the bed of the truck, sometimes knocking into the side walls. Steve asks me to slow down. He says “I hope the tail gate is up” and laughs. We don’t check. The villages are dark. Maybe one lantern in a doorway. It is quiet.
I come around a sharp curve. In the road is a civet. A big one. He turns his masked face and freezes. I brake too late and skid on the laterite. I hit him. I come to a stop maybe 10 yards down the road. Since the rear lights are not good enough to see well, I back up trying to avoid the civet. Finally I see him again in my headlights. He is snarling and shaking his head. Baring his teeth. Salvia flies from his muzzle.
His hindquarters have been crushed. Yet he tries to drag himself across the road to the forest. We get out and walk towards him. He increases his thrashing. And his screaming.
I say “Shit” and walk back to the truck and get the tire iron from behind the driver’s seat. I have never done anything like this. I walk up to the civet. I look at Steve. He says “Yeah, back of the head.” I try and make sure that I can do it with one blow. Strangely I am successful. The civet — may be 20 pounds — is finally quiet and still. Our local families will appreciate the meat. I pick the animal up and throw it into the back of the truck.
Back in Obili we go straight to the bar. Julienne comes in and asks about her bra. Tomorrow we say. Distribution of orders can wait till tomorrow. She asks us to buy her a beer.
After the second beer we hear a scream from the truck outside.
The Letter Writer
From the broad concrete steps of the old Post Office in central Bamako he sees her approaching and looking around. She wears a pale blue boubou, not new but freshly washed and ironed, the fold lines proudly showing. The flowing gown has white embroidery. She sees him and comes over towards where he is sitting.
“Greetings. I hope the night was peaceful. Are you a letter writer?”
The young man looks up at her, squinting in the sun.
“Greetings. I trust you have slept well. Yes.”
“How much does it cost?” she asks.
“A long letter is 200 francs. A short letter is 100 francs.”
She felt the corner of her scarf where she has tied up her coins. The bus home would cost 150 francs.
“A short letter,” she says.
“Ok,” he replies. “Please sit.”
He gives her the old wooden stool and sits on one of the dusty, concrete steps of the Post Office. She carefully places her handkerchief on the stool, smooths it and sits. He gets out his small box of pens and paper.
“Do you have an envelope and stamps?”
“Where is the letter going?”
“A stamp is 75 francs. An envelope is 25 francs.”
She pauses and then asks “How much for a very short letter?”
“Still 100 francs.”
The woman decides that she will walk home, it’s not that far.
“Ok” she says.
“Do you have the address?”
She takes a folded letter from her bra and gives it to the young man.
The young man takes the folded letter and feels its dampness. It has a return address in Montpellier. The envelope is open. He hesitates, but takes the letter out and glances through it. It is not long. It’s addressed to Fatou. The letter says that the man will not return to Bamako and that he frees her of all obligation to him. It says that he has met a woman who is smart and who understands him. The woman speaks French and can read and write and has a car. He is proud to be with her. The letter says that Fatou is simple and traditional and uneducated. The letter says that she should ask her parents to find someone in the village to marry.
The letter writer looks at the woman sitting on her handkerchief on the stool. She is young. Her hair is covered with a scarf, but the neat ends of her braids have slipped out. Her skin is smooth and glistens with sweat. She sits erect, motionless. Her face is still.
He wonders who read the letter to her. He wonders if the reader read exactly what the letter says. He folds the letter and places it back in its envelope. He tears a sheet of paper from his notebook and picks up his pen.
“Ok,” he says, taking out a sheet of paper, “what should the letter say?”
The Green Shoes
After washing and dressing in her best Sunday clothes she sat on the bed and pulled the trunk closer to her. She unlocked it and pulled out a bundle. She unwrapped the bundle and, as every Sunday, her green shoes lay there before her in their entire splendor.
The color of the shoes! No other shoes had this beautiful green. Like the fresh grass, the new grass at the end of the long dry season that the first rains give birth to out of the brown dust. That green that lifts your heart and gives you a smile — the shoes had magically captured that green. No other shoes in the world had quite this shade of green.
And the heels were so cleverly done. Not the heels on the young girls that stand on Mandela Avenue in the evening. No, not heels like that. But not heels like a wash lady either. Heels that subtly underlined her attractiveness and her class, which demanded attention but not too much attention.
The straps were also not too thin and not too wide. Just right to send the message of lady-likeness. And they had a nice gold buckle on the side.
She put the shoes on her wide brown feet. Sitting on the bed she looked down at them. The green shoes fit perfectly. Maybe her feet were a bit broad and bulged out a little, but the shoes fit perfectly anyway.
She took them off, and carried both of them in her right hand.
She was ready. She opened her door and started the walk to church. She felt the warm smooth earth on the soles of her feet.
She always got to church a bit early so that she could put her shoes near the door. Everyone who came after her would see her green shoes. They would wonder at how beautiful the shoes were and what a special person must wear them!
At the end of the service she stayed a bit longer and gave an extra prayer. She asked God for forgiveness that she had spent most of the service praying that no one would steal her shoes. They were hard to resist she knew. And staying a bit longer gave the people who left before her time to pick up their brown and worn shoes and admire her green shoes. She knew that God understood beauty and would forgive her.
Walking home she switched the shoes to her left hand so that Amadou, the shopkeeper, would be sure to see them. As she walked by she sensed him looking at her. She kept her back straight and her head facing forward. But maybe out of the corner of her eye she saw him smile and maybe shake his head a little. She would not acknowledge him, she was too classy for that. She strode purposely home, the shoes dangling attractively from her hand. Maybe one day Amadou would mention the shoes and then they would start a conversation.
When she got home she sat on her bed and pulled her trunk closer. She put the green shoes on just so that she could look at her feet in them before putting them away. Then she took them off again, wrapped them in the cloth and put them back in her trunk and locked it.
Jon Anderson is a liberation ecologist intent on empowering the impoverished through expanding their bundle of rights over resources, making markets work better, and linking to technical solutions and problem-solving. He has had a checkered international development career including, but not limited to, Peace Corps (Gabon/Mali, 1974-1977), USAID, FAO, and MCC. He has taught at both Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. One of his favorite biological processes is fermentation. He writes some.