A Writer Writes
Michael Varga is a retired American diplomat, who spent much of his career in the Middle East. The BBC broadcast his short story “There Are No Kangaroos In Egypt,” and four of his plays have been produced and one published (Payable Upon Return; Juniper Press, 1983). His essay was used by the Peace Corps as the introduction to a book, Uncommon Journeys: Peace Corps Adventures Across Cultures, published in 2004. Other stories, essays and poems of his have appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The South Bend Tribune, The Foreign Service Journal, Commonweal, Archer, Earthwise, The New Jersey Poetry Monthly, Notre Dame Magazine, The Scholastic, Cabin Fever, and Rider University Magazine. The Peace Corps has a slideshow on its website about his service in Chad, entitled “Africa Colors A Destiny.” This essay was first published in Literal Latte in 2011.
Addicted to Chad
When I was a child and my parents argued, my father used to escape to the basement and listen to his short-wave radio. Growing up in Philadelphia, I knew nothing of a wider world until I snuck down to the cluttered, messy cellar and eavesdropped behind the stacks of magic-markered wooden storage boxes and shelves of re-labeled peanut butter jars of nails and screws. He often had his head down on his desk listening to Radio Budapest, the BBC or Radio France Internationale. He spoke Hungarian and knew some scattered idioms in French. When he would lift his head, I could see his face transformed as he listened to these voices from abroad. Sometimes he would smoke a pipe, and as he stretched his feet onto on an old fruit crate and crossed his legs, he looked like someone I hadn’t met, an international film star perhaps, pausing to blow smoke rings off the low ceiling as he waited to be summoned for the next scene. Even now, whenever I get a whiff of pipe smoke, it sends me back to my childhood and that basement, my nose burning in a curious, oddly pleasant sensation, linking me to my ruminating Dad.
Maybe he didn’t understand much of what he heard over the short-wave or maybe he got it all. I was never sure. But I know that these foreign voices — pinging through the atmosphere across oceans and continents — seemed to massage away his worries and propel him to a special consciousness no longer deflated by a small red-brick house mortgaged beyond his means. That short-wave radio was a conduit to another existence. As I grew older, I too become enraptured with the adventures imagined in other places with fascinating, hard-to-pronounce names. It was a refuge my father and I shared as we waited for Mom to cool off upstairs.
When I finished college I decided to join the Peace Corps and experience something of that wider world. My family’s low income meant I was never going to have the funds that some did to travel abroad. Trading a couple years of service in the Peace Corps would buy me something I wasn’t likely to get otherwise. My father seemed to understand what was driving me, peppering me with foreign phrases and pushing me to repeat them back until I had them memorized. He took great joy sounding out the syllables to me and laughed as I tried to mimic his melodic intonations. By contrast, my doting Italian mother worried about my survival skills. Up to that point, I was still fretting when the mashed potatoes touched the green beans on my dinner plate. She couldn’t imagine a son of hers functioning far from her kitchen.
In 1977, the Peace Corps sent me to Chad. A young man, fresh out of college, full of all the brashness and naiveté that colors the visions of such men and how they think their lives are going to unfold. I knew so little about life but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was all swagger and braggadocio and ego. But it doesn’t take long working in Africa, with those who make do with so little materially, to make you realize how puffed-up you are and what is really a core truth: you’re just one human being lucky enough to be born somewhere else. And you can’t take any credit for being lucky.
Chad is a dusty country in the center of Africa where sand from the Sahara blows over much of its northern half so that everything winds up being buried and requires a digging-out to discover what’s there. The southern half of Chad is green, closer to the Equator. Vegetation loops out in uncontrolled frenzy over rutted roadways and the humidity soars during the six-month rainy season as sudden downpours cascade from the sky, sending villagers rushing for shelter or scavenging for containers to collect rainwater.
Chad seemed to have missed the twentieth century. People traveled everywhere by foot, the better-off few sometimes having an animal to mount. Herds of camel and goat grazed the sparse grasslands outside the few cities. Fields were divided into grave-sized plots tribes farmed by hand to produce meager harvests of cotton and peanuts. Despite the hard life, Chadians did not whine about what they didn’t have. They knew other places enjoyed electricity and running water; they hoped one day Chad would too. They celebrated their bonds in tribal rituals marked by singing in four-part harmonies, dancing in elaborate criss-crossing routines that reminded me of the split-second timing acrobats perfect.
My time in Chad was a mélange of the otherworldly and the oh-so-earthy. Moments of epiphany tumbled one after another as I found my way to the river to wash or to the market to buy each day’s meal, as I scratched out lessons under the flickering light of a kerosene lamp for the next day’s students. Soon I was addicted to Chad, savoring the highs that come from living intensely when everything becomes an adventure and nothing is mundane. Even the stink of fresh cow dung, and the swarms of flies that hover above it, or the all-pervasive smell of urine that shadowed the trails that divided the village where I worked could not sour me on Chad. Then something happened to alter the expected two-year time frame of my sojourn, compelling a series of rapid-fire decisions that have had life-long consequences for me.
Civil war erupted in Chad’s capital, N’djamena, at the beginning of 1979. Moslem rebels backed by Libya seized government buildings in the city. Six hundred kilometers away in the village of Baibokoum in southern Chad where I taught at the high school and worked at the village dispensary, things were calm. Except for a few itinerant Italian Jesuit priests who came through to say Mass, I was the only foreigner Chadians ever saw in Baibokoum.
In the open-air market, the wealthier merchants had their transistor radios on full volume so everyone could track the violent twists in N’djamena. Troops were being mobilized and rumors of invasions from Libya abounded. Whispers of a coup were widespread. Moslems feared Christians and Christians feared Moslems. But that all seemed far away from Baibokoum and most people went about their lives — bathing in the river, harvesting cotton, napping through the hottest hours of the day, gathering around a fire at night and recounting tales of the tribe’s ancestors — as though the war could not touch them.
As I drilled my third-year students on the use of the present progressive tense,
Are you studying now?
No, I am eating goat now.
What are you drinking?
I am not drinking. The well is dry . . .
there was a sudden whirl of dust outside the school when a Land Rover raced into the village. Nothing ever moved that fast in Baibokoum and no one in the village owned a car (donkeys were the means of transport that everyone aspired to own one day) so my students jumped to the windows to see. The open-air classrooms were just cement blocks and there was no glass in the window openings; the students climbed onto the ledges to get a better view. There were ninety students in the class, two girls and eighty-eight boys. I tried to restrain them but there was no stopping their investigation of what had stirred up the village and soon they were barreling away from the school in the hundred-degree heat.
The Land Rover whizzed by so fast I did not see the American flags strapped to its roof until the mass of students encircled the vehicle and began repeating part of a dialogue we had memorized the week before: Welcome to Baibokoum. How are you? May I help you find something?
As I strode toward the chaos, my students turned and pointed at me. I greeted the young white man and his Chadian driver and sent my students back to the school while we talked. He told the driver to stay with the Land Rover as we headed toward my house.
The American Ambassador had decided that things were getting out of hand and he wanted all U.S. government personnel — including the scattered Peace Corps Volunteers — moved to the major cities. Then, in the event of a formal evacuation, the departures of all Americans could be more easily accomplished. Since Baibokoum was so isolated the Ambassador had ordered my evacuation first.
That’s what the thin, sandy-haired, young American diplomat in the Land Rover told me. But sometimes you can’t just leave when danger threatens. At first, I argued with him that Baibokoum was calm and that pulling me out of this serene village, nestled in the thick rainforest below a hulking gorilla-dominated mountain, was bound to exacerbate tensions among the local tribes. I told him that if the U.S. intervened to rescue me, the tribes were bound to conclude that things were more dangerous than perhaps they were. He didn’t buy it.
“People at a much higher pay grade than you or me have decided you have to leave with me,” he said, adding that if I didn’t, I risked being left behind when an official evacuation occurred.
It was obvious I was going to have to share a more personal reason for not cooperating with his mission.
A year earlier I had met a Chadian woman named Marie who spoke French. Most Chadian women had never been to school and had learned only their native tribal language and a few odd words of Arabic and French. Marie was exceptional. She’d had a lover among the French soldiers when Chad had been part of French Equatorial Africa and he’d taught her a vast vocabulary.
Her name was actually Deneyom, but in the colonial mindset of the time the French soldier had re-named her Marie. After we began dating, she admitted to me that she still thought of herself as Deneyom. But she had learned to answer to Marie for so long that she no longer bothered to tell most people what her given name was. I called her Deneyom, but after a few weeks she asked me to stop. She said that she enjoyed fantasizing about being another woman in another life — maybe even in another country — and she wanted me to call her Marie. So I did.
After her French soldier finished his tour and went home, Marie was ostracized by Chadian men since they considered her soiled. The only way she could make any money was by prostituting herself from time to time with a Chadian too drunk to care about her having crossed the color line.
When she explained how she mastered French —something I found attractive as I struggled to learn basic phrases in the tribal African tongues — I found myself imagining spending more and more time with her. I, too, was seen as an oddity in Chad. Not only as a white foreigner but as a single man in a culture that prized family and tribe. Most Chadians asked me why I lived alone. What was the point? they asked. Where was my family? Where were my wives, my children, my parents? But until I got to Chad, I had thought of my single life as an invitation to the open road, to go wherever life took me, to be free. Our American culture prized independence and freedom, and I was so much a product of that embedded culture, that it never occurred to me that in my twenties I should have anyone with me. That seemed such an extraneous idea to me back then. But the more time I spent immersed in Chadian life, the more I felt that I should be sharing my life with somebody.
When I first arrived in Baibokoum, the tribal elders came calling with fathers and daughters in tow. My predecessor had taken a Chadian wife and the fathers turned up to show me their ten and eleven-year-old daughters as potential wives. As the girls, eyes downcast, paraded before me in a bizarre beauty contest, my mind fumbled for an excuse for not choosing one without offending the tribe’s leaders.
“They’re all so beautiful, I cannot choose just one.”
“You don’t have to,” one gray-haired elder declared. “Mohammed, the prophet — peace be upon him — told us we can have as many as four wives.” The others nodded in approval.
As I looked at the girls and listened to the fathers’ guarantees of their virginity, I grew more ill at ease over how freely they offered up their daughters to me.
“My wife is still in America,” I lied. “She will be joining me soon. She won’t understand if I have a Chadian wife.”
“Choose one to enjoy until your wife arrives,” another elder suggested.
“You don’t know my wife. That will make her angry when she finds out.”
That got the men exchanging can-you-top-this tales about the various times their wives had lashed out at them, and soon everyone was drinking beers and bili-bili, the local alcohol brewed from fermenting millet. As the men got drunker, they seemed to forget their mission and my choosing a wife and they stumbled back to their huts and left me alone to ponder my solitary status.
I met Marie a month later in the Bar Minzo, the only bar in Baibokoum. She was dancing with some women and one of the Chadian teachers introduced us. She was from the Moundang tribe and her cheeks were scarred from a tribal ritual — three vertical lines etched into the skin on either side of her nose below her eyes. It gave her an always surprised look, which made me review everything I said to her to determine if there was cause for genuine astonishment or if my words were just a French version of a trite pick-up line I had used in America before.
Marie and I slipped away from the others and chatted about the rumors that a bloat of hippos had descended on the river, forcing some Chadians to bathe elsewhere. We dated a few weeks and then Marie moved in with me. Neither of us pretended it was a real marriage. Nothing that was going to endure beyond my stay in Chad. We enjoyed each other’s company and I felt good about sheltering her so that she no longer had to sell her body.
She seemed to enjoy preparing meals for me and being identified throughout Baibokoum as the femme du blanc (wife of the white man). There was a certain regularity to her life now that gave her purpose and whether we were in the middle of the rainy season or the dry season, she had plenty to eat and no money worries for the first time since her French soldier had gone home to Marseilles.
Marie introduced me to sex, African-style. She would lie on our thin multi-colored cotton mattress, still as a corpse, as I embraced her. She didn’t like kissing and I struggled to caress her hair, looped in free-flowing tendrils that snuck out from beneath the purple and green African-patterned cloth she tied around her head. She would stick her fingers in my ears during sex, and press them deeper inside until it hurt. I learned this was a Chadian custom, which didn’t turn me on, but made her cry out in ecstasy as we completed the act.
But loving only me was not something that came naturally to Marie. Fidelity was an alien concept to her and she knew that one day I would be leaving Chad. Then where would she be? As the months passed, I knew that sometimes she would entertain while I was teaching. It was her way of keeping her options open with some of the Chadian men who were not so offended by her liaisons with foreigners.
Three months before that Land Rover came blazing into Baibokoum Marie told me she was pregnant. I suspected the baby could not be mine since I had almost always used a condom. But there was a small chance that it was mine. When she revealed this to me, we were sitting high in the mountain that towered above the village and gave it its name (in Ngambaye, Baibokoum means chief at the foot of the mountain.). Since the village lay on Chad’s southern frontier, we could see for miles into Cameroon and the Central African Empire.
A family of gorillas was just above us in the swaying reeds that predominated above the tree line. Two baby gorillas were screeching as their mother handed them some yellow berries. The father gorilla was nearest to us. He had already finished munching on some leaves and was using a big brown stalk as a kind of napkin to wipe his face. I wanted to talk about the pregnancy but Marie kept her eyes focused on the gorillas.
I was obsessed with calculating the odds of paternity. I needed to know how many other men she had been entertaining while I was teaching. But as I pressed for answers, she kept making funny faces at the gorillas, telling me we should find rocks to launch at them if they should charge us. She said one time a gorilla had run toward her, but when she hid behind an outcropping of rock, the gorilla seemed to forget about her once she was out of sight.
“Marie, enough about gorillas. I want to talk about our baby.”
“Save your breath, mon cher. You’ll need it for the descent.” She put her hand over her own mouth to indicate she was done talking. She looked into my eyes for a moment and then looked away again toward the gorilla family. The babies had now run to the father gorilla and they were climbing on his shoulders as the mother gorilla went ahead of them toward the summit. As the animals scampered away, Marie rose and started to descend and I followed.
With the diplomat telling me I had to leave, there were some tough choices to make. When I explained to him about Marie, he said she could come with us. She didn’t have a passport or any official papers, but we could take care of that if the Americans did flee Chad, he said. I asked him to wait outside while I talked to Marie. When I asked her about going with us, she said, “My life is hard here. I have very little. But I know what I am. I am not your wife and I will never be your wife.” She said she was Chadian. It was where she had been born and Chad was the only country she knew. She wasn’t going to abandon it. I could stick around to see if the baby were mine, she said, but even then, “the baby will be Chadian.” Even if I were the baby’s father, the baby was not going to be American, she said. He or she would be Chadian, just like her.
I tried to paint a picture of life in the U.S. and how nice it could be. How Americans didn’t work the fields but had machines to do that. How Americans got their food from air-conditioned stores where everything was packaged in bright colors with prices displayed so no one had to argue about the cost. How Americans didn’t pound their clothes on the rocks in river water to wash them but had machines to clean them and to dry them. How Americans voted for government leaders and how seamlessly one president followed another.
Marie seemed tempted by what I described but when I mentioned learning English, something I thought of as a minor adjustment she would have to make, she drew a line. She said she spoke French and yet she had not agreed to go with her French soldier to France. Why would she ever agree to go with me to America when she didn’t speak English?
“I’ll teach you. You’ll learn it easily.”
But once I mentioned learning English she would not be moved. The dialogue ended, like so many other conversations, with her walking away from me in silence and my sense that nothing was resolved.
In Chadian culture, women are taught to be subservient to men, to walk behind them in public, to turn their eyes away in conversation, and to always keep their heads lower than any man present. But Marie was not the typical Chadian woman. That’s what I liked about her. She had an independent streak that made me feel like we were equal partners in something bigger than ourselves. Her French soldier had taught her not only French vocabulary but her sense of herself as someone with a point of view. While I admired her backbone, my young male ego felt disrespected by her boldness.
I told the diplomat that in good conscience I had to remain in Baibokoum to find out if the baby was mine, and if so, to stay with Marie and help her. He said he had other Peace Corps Volunteers to pick up in other villages and he could not wait any longer. If I wasn’t coming with him he had to get on the road. The Ambassador would not be pleased with my remaining in this isolated village, but he — this weary, young diplomat sparked by adrenaline coursing through his veins in his first life-and-death crisis — said he could respect my decision, and then added with a nod of his head, “You gotta do what you gotta do, man.”
The Land Rover sped away and I went back to school to finish the day’s lessons.
Over the next couple of days the civil war intensified and the fighting spread throughout Chad, although Baibokoum still remained quiet. I received a telegram through the village military post from the Peace Corps director, advising me that the Ambassador had in fact ordered all Americans to be evacuated. They were preparing a convoy to travel overland into Cameroon. They were planning a departure in thirty-six hours. The telegram said I needed to find a way to Moundou — the nearest city — as soon as possible.
“Why are you staying when all of your brothers are leaving?” Marie asked me.
“I’m staying for you. For the baby.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, shaking her head. “I did fine before I knew you and I will do fine after you go.” She was scrubbing the inside of a calabash and she seemed intent on removing whatever was staining the inside of the carved bowl.
“But if the baby is mine, I cannot just leave you,” I said. She didn’t look up, but pressed harder on the calabash, her thin fingers bent around its edges as she gripped it. She stood up, went outside to the cooking area behind the house where I stored my charcoal and cooking utensils. I knew we were out of rice. I told Marie I was going to the market. I needed to think.
As I paced up and down the rows of kneeling Chadian women and their wares displayed before them — pats of peanut butter, mangoes, roots of manioc, dried fish heads, brochettes of goat and beef — I didn’t hear their pitches to me. I stalled before heading to the little shop that sold rice. What was the right thing to do? Was it honorable to abandon Marie? If all of the Americans were leaving Chad, what was I choosing in staying behind? What kind of danger would I face?
When I came back home, I heard a strange muffled metal sound. I found Marie jumping up and down on our thin cotton mattress. The mosquito net that normally shrouded it lay on the floor. Marie’s head was hitting the tin roof, making a sort of rhythmic popping sound. I grabbed her legs and held her down.
“You think you have to stay because of the baby. If I make the baby disappear, you can go.” I told her this was not the way to solve this, trying to induce a miscarriage. We wept together and I held her for a long time. We heard a group of women chanting in the market over their joy at a recent rainstorm, arriving unpredictably during the normal dry season. Marie started humming the melody to their song as I rocked her back and forth like a baby. She let me do that and I felt like we were finally in sync.
Late that night there was a loud knocking at the door. One of my Peace Corps friends had asked a Frenchman who owned a car to drive to Baibokoum to get me. The Frenchman said that if we drove all night we could make it in time to Moundou — the city where the convoy was starting. But we would have to leave right away. There was no time for playing Hamlet. Moundou was 135 kilometers to the north and the recent rains meant the roadway was a soupy river. His vehicle’s tires would not gain much traction. We would have to proceed at a very slow speed for long stretches.
In the dim light of the kerosene lamp, I asked Marie what she wanted. The sleep in her eyes did not mask her frustration at my posing this question again. She repeated that she did not want me to stay and that whether the baby was mine or not, it too would be staying in Chad. With war flaring and tribes fighting, she said it was obvious that I should leave.
“Who stays in danger when they don’t have to?” she asked.
“But what about you, Marie? What will you do?” I took her hands in mine. She shook free of my grasp, touched my face, and pressed a finger to my lips to shush me. I traced the tribal scars on her face, letting my finger dawdle in the crevices between the lines under her left eye. The Frenchman cleared his throat to remind us that we didn’t have time for some slow melodramatic farewell. Marie pushed my chest toward him.
I put a few things into a bag, gave Marie what money I had, hugged her, and I left with the Frenchman. We drove all night. I had to exit his Peugeot a couple of times to push it out of the mud in the darkness. We made it to that convoy with a half-hour to spare. I was told the Ambassador was not happy with me and I would be “dealt with” in Cameroon. The Peace Corps staff seemed slightly forgiving — although cold and short with me. But it was clear they were relieved that I had emerged — mud caked up to my thighs on my jeans — in time to depart with the convoy.
Months later I learned through a letter from one of the Italian priests that my clothes had been distributed among my students. He wrote that even as the war worsened, it seemed to give the Chadians some brief joy to be wearing my shirts and my pants and remembering a time when things were more hopeful. I like to think that in their wearing my clothes, some part of me remained there, a ghostly presence even in my absence. The priest wrote that Marie disappeared after my departure and no one was sure where she went. He said many Chadians were convinced I had taken her with me and we were enjoying life together in America — away from the horrors of the inter-tribal murders that marked the country, even in Baibokoum.
Once I got back to the U.S., people asked me about my Peace Corps experience. I didn’t know how to capture in words how I had evolved over those months in Africa. I felt like I was nothing like the boy who had sorted screws in my Philadelphia basement. I had grown into a man, who might even have a child in Chad. That was not something I felt free to confess. I told no one about Marie. I talked about the flare-up of the war and the evacuation. That kind of action-packed recounting was enough to satisfy most people.
Eventually I went to graduate school and became a diplomat. Although I served in northern Africa, I never returned to Chad. I never heard from anyone again who had any news of Marie. It’s thirty years later and I rarely go a day without thinking about Chad. I remain addicted. I have a short-wave radio that I tune whenever I’m able and doze to the sounds of alien voices in sometimes unintelligible tongues. I daydream about what might have happened to Marie and to the baby. And how my life might have been different if I had remained in Baibokoum. Or how my life could have ended there.
I remember my father — long dead now — and how he used to twist the dial on his short-wave radio and a voice would bellow in some foreign accent that often reminded me of an old Hungarian prayer, begging God to bless those whom we no longer see.
When I recall how frightened everyone in Chad seemed to be as the war escalated, and yet how calmly Marie seemed to know what was best for her, for the baby, and for me — I nod at all I experienced during that wondrous time in Africa’s heart. Even today, I can close my eyes and see Deneyom so clearly — the way she wore bright African cloths around her head with her wiry tresses peaking through, the way she pounded millet with a mortar and pestle in our yard, the way the chickens flocked toward her and then ran away at the reverberations of the mortar.
Those years in Chad remain so much a contradiction — so full of wonders but in the end so fraught with danger. Deneyom liked fantasizing about being Marie, a woman in another country. But when the opportunity came — made all the more urgent, coming as it did in the middle of a war — she didn’t want to risk leaving what she had known for an unknown future with me in a foreign land. Or maybe she didn’t trust my love to endure. Or maybe she knew deep inside her that the baby she was carrying was not mine.
Her question to me — who stays in danger when they don’t have to? — remains unanswered for her. She chose danger over me and three decades later I’m still not sure why.
A priest friend counsels that you can be resentful of the things that happen in your life, or you can be grateful. But you can’t be both. You have to make up your mind which stance you are going to adopt in receiving what destiny doles out to you.
Chad was a place where so much was happening that it was all almost too much to comprehend. Like a magic trick, it was over before I was sure I had even seen anything. But one thing I did take away from Chad was the importance of sharing lives, and how significant my time in Chad was because of the sharing with Deneyom. Or Marie, or with mother Africa, or whatever you want to call her. And if the baby was ever born, whether it was mine or not, I am praying that that boy or that girl has lived a life made richer through sharing with others, and is not trying to go it alone.