[Tony D’Souza had been a HIV/AIDS Volunteer in a village in northern Ivory Coast when that country’s decade-long civil war erupted in 2002. Evacuated to Ghana, Tony transferred to Madagascar before coming home and writing about his experiences in his 2006 novel Whiteman.
Whiteman won most of the major first novel prizes, including from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was excerpted by the New Yorker. In 2007, Tony received an NEA grant, and in 2008, a Guggenheim.
Last fall, Tony visited his village for the first time in ten years. In this nonfiction piece for Sarah Lawrence University’s Lumina, he writes of the toll of AIDS on the friends left behind, the ravages of the war, the death of his Ivorian girlfriend, and despite all, the happiness of going back to a place one loves.
This essay Les Petites Camionaires (The Guys With the Little Truck) on his return to his village was edited by Geoff Bendeck (Ecuador 2008-10) for Lumina. His trip ‘home’ was partly arranged by Jim Hershey (Cote d’Ivoire 1979-81), Board member of the World Soy Foundation and Executive Director of the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health. After visiting a project in Techiman, Ghana, Jim and Tony traveled overland into eastern Cote D’Ivoire and crossed the border off the beaten path on dirt roads manned by heavily armed Ivorian irregulars in scenes reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. He was in Ivory Coast from late September to early November of 2013 and spent five weeks in his village, Teguela.]
Les Petites Camionaires
by Tony D’Souza
THERE WERE THREE of them; the driver and his two apprentices, they came from the north near Katiola with their small flatbed truck, white in the places where the original finish remained. The truck was an old Hyundai 65, somehow here now across oceans, continents, who knows from where and previously used for God knows what, beat to hell, with mismatched wheels of four different sizes, the windshield smashed in three places, the body covered in dents like scars — like a buffalo that had been lashed past all imaginable endurance.
The truck was their everything. When they sat for lunch, it was in the shadow of the truck. Often when it broke down, they slept in the cab or beneath it. When there was money for diesel, they poured half a dozen old glass liquor bottles of the stuff into the truck’s belly, then the apprentices set their shoulders against the tail and pushed, the driver urged them forward from his perch, then popped the gear and brought the truck into rumbling, smoke-belching life. The apprentices would heave themselves over the gate, tumble in the bed, and the truck would chug off on a dirt track into the bush. They’d be gone all day, or sometimes two or three, coming back again with a load of plantains, the apprentices sitting atop the great mound of cargo like flies on the back of a beast.
Les Petites Camionaires: the guys of the little truck, the guys and the little truck, the guys with the little truck; their name meant all of these and more. There was a prestige in the title that can’t be translated; to understand that, you have to be here, to see how even though the truck was a hideous piece of junkyard shit, it was more than anyone else had or could hope to have. The truck was a miracle of continuity, not a minor one, whose delicate existence depended on parts for which there would be no easy replacement, whose engine required a knowledge beyond intimacy to maintain. When they were not driving it, one of them was always in its guts, waist-deep in the motor, scraping something clean, massaging gears with thick oil. The truck gave them possibilities; that they might do more than simply put away enough food to last through the dry season; that they might save money, build metal-roofed homes back in the north, allow their parents to age without worry, perhaps make the haj to Mecca one day. These three boys had a different existence from the villagers because of the truck; they had no sure foothold without it. It’s not me deciding that or inputting too much on the relationship. It’s how they referred to themselves and how anyone who knew them and liked them put it: Celui la, il se travail deh, sont les Petites Camionaires. Petites Camionaires la, an ka bara fala deh. The truck was who they were.
Suleymana Koné was the driver; he went by the nickname Solo; we were about the same age and had essentially the same concerns. We both had children we hadn’t seen in some time, problems with our children’s mothers, aging parents who had become more dependent on us with the passing years, and we were both newly entered into the responsibility-filled middle part of life. We drank sweet Arab tea together in the late evenings as we sat on the wooden stumps he had, Solo often leaning back against a wheel of the truck, which was always parked right there. This was in the spare courtyard beside the main courtyard of the chief of Téguéla, who I was lodging with and who had given the truck boys an old cotton storage shed to sleep in. At that time, the boys and their truck had been in Téguéla for nine months, harvesting plantains in the area for sale in the nearby Séguéla market. This time, I’d been there just one.
I’d approached Solo to establish a friendship and not the reverse. I liked Solo for that reason and also because he was a small sturdy man with an easy smile, obsessed with cleanliness. Solo kept his borrowed courtyard swept and neat, and his first order to his apprentices when they’d returned from a day of work was that they bathe. The chief had given them a girl who cooked for them, bringing on her head a basin of rice with peanut sauce to them from her parents’ courtyard mornings and evenings. Then the three boys would crouch and quickly eat with their hands as she stood waiting to carry the basin away. She also brought them water but for all other things they were on their own. On Fridays before prayer, Solo and his apprentices squatted over buckets and handwashed their clothes. I hadn’t seen such a thing in my years living in the Worodougou region of northwestern Ivory Coast as a Peace Corps volunteer, men washing their own clothes.
I teased Solo about it one Friday in passing, heading out with my machete to cut weeds in a cashew orchard of my friend Mamadou’s father. I said, “Hein che, ee meena ke? Fani wholla? Che be fani wholla maintenant?” ‘Dude, what are you doing? Washing clothes? Are men washing clothes these days?’
He seemed confused at first, like my question had been a serious one. Then he grinned and said in French, “Therefore, I should just wear filthy clothes?”
When we met up in the evening for tea, my gibe of the morning seemed to still be with him. There was a boy from a nearby courtyard who had become an understudy to Solo’s two apprentices. Eight or nine years old, he fetched cigarettes from the one room shop across the village where they were sold on their command; he watched the truck boys work without ever speaking as though recording all they did, like programming himself to be able to recreate each act. When they left in the mornings, he was there, and he would be waiting for them in the evenings when they came back; now he had graduated to heating the little teapot over the small charcoal grill whose only purpose was for making tea. In all these ways, the boy had announced his desire to accompany the truck men whenever they might move on, to tie himself to the truck as they were tied to it, to work with them and the truck, to also derive his life from it.
I asked Solo about the boy as we sat on the stumps, the apprentices naked and hand-bathing from buckets away from us in the darkness, the boy’s face lit by the coals in those moments that he’d puff on them and the truck a great white shadow just beside. “What’s his name?” I asked and Solo said, “He’s your omo; your namesake. He’s Adama, but they are calling him Vie.”
That even that much information had been gathered from a boy I had never seen change expression, let alone speak, told of their shared culture and my apartness: when had the boy spoken and where had I been when he had? When had they come to know him enough that they had given him the nickname Vie, from vieux, the ‘old’ or ‘wise’ one?
“Are you taking him with you when you go?”
“About that, I can’t say. Everything depends on God.”
“But you like him, he works hard?”
“He’s good, he has a good manner. If there was a place with us, I might take him. He’s small, but in a few years with this kind of work, you wouldn’t believe what would become of him. He’d be strong. His parents would be happy when he came home.”
I looked at the boy who was on all fours like an animal and chuffing the coals; he had thin Asiatic eyes in a round, black face. The light of the coals on it made it seem a polished ebony mask. He was Worodougou and I knew he only spoke that language; if he had been able to follow our gnushi French conversation about his future, I could not see it. I said to him in Worodougou, “Ee be petite camion gee ahlo?” ‘You want to go work with the truck?’ He nodded eagerly, three sure bobs of his head, with a sharp intake of breath that was the universal sound of affirmation there.
Solo spoke again, he said, “My younger apprentice, Blema, he came to the truck this same way. He was a market boy in Vavoua, he’d load peanuts, onions, whatever work they would give him. We passed there often, and I observed his manner. He asked to come with us; when a place came open, we took him and you see the man he has grown into now. The manner of a boy is important when you outfit a truck. The behavior of each one will affect the truck; the better the boy, the better the truck will be cared for. When a truck is working somewhere, the people will remember the behavior of its men. They will say, ‘That is a good truck,’ or ‘That is a bad truck.’ When they see this truck, they say, ‘That is a good truck, hire it, no bad things ever come from it.’
“You see, my first apprentice, Drissa, and I were truck boys for another man in Korhogo, a big cotton truck. We were seven or eight with it at any time, we slept under it in hammocks. Drissa was small, we were from the same village; I kept him at my side. We gathered cotton all the way to Burkina, Ouaga, then three or four of us would take the load to San Pedro where it would be put onto a boat to your country. The driver had become a drunk; he could no longer be trusted with money, but the owner did not know. One time down in San Pedro the driver was involved in a fight over money and he was killed there, butchered by two Betie. This was during the first year of Gbagbo’s terror; if we did not leave right away, we knew there could be problems; they could confiscate the truck, kill us, make any excuses they needed. The other boys could not drive, nor could I, but I had watched as this boy watches us.
“I drove the truck out of the port of San Pedro and to Daloa. I still remember the moment the clutch took and the truck began to move. Che! The shock! That was the power of God in my hands. I lost the second gear on the way, but in any case, with God’s benevolence, it was done. The owner was grateful, he said that if I could find a patron to complete the stake, he would put me in a small truck. I went to my village, my father contacted a second brother in Abidjan, little by little we gathered the stake, and two years to the day that God delivered us out of San Pedro, I was driving this truck here. Half goes to the owner, the second half comes to me. Out of my part I pay the labor, all the expenses, gifts to the chief, and my debts to those who staked me. With God’s grace, in some more years, I will begin to put money away. On a good day, we carry three loads to market, 45,000 CFA. After all expenses, I will see 15,000 CFA. Is that a lot in your money?”
“And there isn’t always work. You see? This morning when you teased me about washing clothes, it irked me. Not very much, but in any case, it touched my heart-”
“Sabari? No, it is already finished. You are not from here, but I want you to understand. I wash my own clothes. And if you had told me when I was a child that I would be a man who washed his own clothes, I would not have accepted that. But I would not have understood as you have not. Because you have not gone with us all the places we have with this truck. You have not seen the hardships, nor God’s benevolence to us. And if it should be that one day I can trade this small truck for a bigger one, I will do that. But this is the day that it is, and I am grateful for the truck, and all things, including these hands, that they can wash clothes.”
The boy presented us a tray with small glass tumblers of tea, stood in attendance beside us as we sipped them. Beyond us in the darkness, Solo’s apprentices had rolled out woven plastic mats and were kneeling at prayer in their white boubous and skullcaps. The village around us was quiet, that time of evening when everyone was doing quiet things. The tea was sweet and properly made with a heavy head of foam.
I said to Solo, “It was a joke. Before the Crisis, we joked like that.”
“Before the Crisis,” he said and nodded. “‘The Beautiful Epoch.’ What a long gone time that was.”
It had been ten years since my last stay in the Worodougou. The war had begun around me then, late September 2002, I’d hidden and walked and paid bribes for two weeks to cross the warzone. Now the war was over, the Worodougou and other Islamicized tribes of the north had won; their guy, Ouattara, was president and the dictator Gbagbo was in The Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity. These included ethnic cleansing massacres in places I knew well: San Pedro, Daloa, Duékoué, Abidjan. For many years back in the States, I had felt a daily sense of guilt in having been able to flee the war. Now back in the village, I saw that Guineans, Malians, Burkinabés-Africans all-had repatriated away from the Ivorian Civil War, too.
I found the place changed in simple ways: the dirt roads were in horrid shape, there were weapons around, the price of everything had gone up. There was a heavy UN peacekeeping presence in the area and it wasn’t unusual to see their white armored convoys splashing through the village, the Bangladeshi soldiers with their thick mustaches and blue helmets manning the big guns at the turrets.
Many of my friends had died; one, Mirelle, a young woman, had been shot dead in a stampede in the fighting in Boauké, another dozen had succumbed to the general thing called Death, which came quickly through the general thing called Illness, which were both God’s will, and understood only as that. Since most of them had been under 30, I guessed AIDS, but who the fuck knew? Baby, Marlboro, Big Nose, Goat’s Child, Hunter, all teeth and bones in the communal unmarked grave lot at the edge of the village. My girlfriend, Miriam Dosso, had died, her elder cousin, her sister-in-law, the young village midwife, other friends. I’d had no contact with the village in the ten years of the war, no letters had come out, no news. My first day back, the first half hour was spent under the chief’s thatchedappatam, recounting the names of the dead.
How do you process ten years’ worth of death set at your feet in an instant? Miriam’s death hurt me most; I didn’t cry, I sat there and took it, memories of her pulsing through me and threatening to make me retch. All the news I had planned to tell her, the birth of my children, my hardships and divorce, the old jokes we had between us-‘majascule et minuscule’-her silly phrase remembered from her few years of grade school, her snorting way of dismissing all the education she wasn’t able to have: ‘Majascule et minuscule, Allah! What can I do with that?’ That I’d missed her; her smooth, strong arms, supple with shea butter, her smile; the sight of her naked body in the candlelight, waiting for me on my mat.
‘Miriam,’ I’d whispered. ‘Muso, an fe. Je t’aime.’
‘Hurry, Adama,’ she’d whispered, ‘what if we are ever found out?’
Later, alone in a friend’s rice field after a long walk on the old paths, I sat under a mango tree and sobbed, but the first few days I just took it. If part of me had ever become African, it was that part.
And the clean aquifer water I had spent three futile years in the village trying to get aid money to tap? The war had solved it in a day. High above the village now was a white water tower, a post-conflict gift from the United Nations.
Miriam and I had been secret lovers; she was married to a factory worker in Abidjan, a son of the village who had not been back in years; she prepared food for me, we became friends. I was young; friendship wasn’t enough. I asked her to come to my hut one night and she tapped at my door, stepped into the candlelight and quickly unwound her wraps. “Kill me,” she had whispered, which was the way it was said.
Now in the village, I tried to understand how Miriam had died, the last moments of her life. Our affair had been dangerous, a highest order crime, so even inquiring about her had to be handled with care; I’d asked various elders, the chief, how my friends had died: I’d come to Miriam’s name as though it was just another in the list.
“Short Fatou, how did she die?”
“She fell ill one morning, the hot illness we call mohla. In the evening she was dead.”
“The one who prepared for me.”
“Which one was that?”
“The girl from Sualla. She had the red-haired child.”
“Ah, yes, she died.”
“How did she die?”
“She fell ill. It was God’s will.”
“What year was that?”
“The year? Allah. She is dead. Let us pray for her soul.”
Her mother was dead, her father was away; of the specific year and her last days, nobody here knew. She had died sometime in the recent past, two years ago, maybe three, no more than five. She had gone home to her father’s village to die. She had walked there with the boy on her back. She had spent some time there, a few weeks or a few months, beside her father, and she had died. What had killed her? Illness, then Death. The boy was in Abidjan with his father. Some said his hair was still red, but others said it wasn’t.
What did I want? I’d asked myself on my mat at night. To know that Miriam had died at such and such an hour on such and such a day in such and such a year and in such and such a state? That she’d had a terrible fever? That she’d been in pain?
Yes, I wanted to know all of those things, I wanted to know if she had suffered. I wanted to know that someone had held her hand, and that someone had wiped her brow with a cool cloth. In any case, of course she had died that way. That was how people here died.
How could she be dead, the one I had loved? How could it be that I couldn’t really know anything specific about it? Yes, I wanted to know the date, to be able to feel sad on the anniversaries. To be able to say to myself, Miriam who I loved is dead ten years today. Miriam who I loved died surrounded by people who loved her.
Solo and his apprentices were strangers there with the truck; yes, they were Dioulas, linguistic and cultural brethern to the Worodougou, but strangers nonetheless; I found myself talking to him about it. I said to him one night, “There’s something no one in the village knows. I had a go here, she was married, her husband was away. She died while I was gone. No one knows the year or anything much about it. Why am I still here though she is gone?”
“Isn’t it so?” he said and bent down his fingers to tell the boy to bring me tea. “I myself often wonder. To say that such and such a one is gone, the good ones, the kind. It can be discouraging. It’s God’s will, that is all. I myself often wonder why it is that I am still here.”
Later that night, all my evening salutations around the hearth fires made, I was standing in the darkness of my courtyard and looking at the stars. The village was dark without the moon, and everyone but me had turned in. Miriam, where are you, I thought to the stars. I had been imagining her body for days now, wrapped in the burial muslin and decomposed in the ground. Her cheeks had been fleshy, expressive, and soft. There had been a bright bronzeness to them when she would smile and the skin would pull taut. That would be gone now. What would remain? I had been in Séguéla, the nearby market town, that afternoon for a scheduled call from my young children in the States; the hour had come and gone, my ex-wife was playing her games. The divorce had been bitter, we had fought over custody. She could easily keep them from speaking with me for the time that I was in Africa, and today I understood that she would. In two months I would go home from this visit and my children would be mine again. Somehow not being able to know how they were seemed okay. The stars were beautiful, like talc tossed across black paper.
A kind voice said to me in the darkness, “Do you know their names?” It was Solo.
“They are called lolo,” I said.
“And the moon?”
“Is the moon a man or a woman?”
“Khalo is a man.”
“And the sun?”
“Tio is a woman.”
“Ah, Adama,” Solo said, “I am happy that you know so much. Is it the same in your country?”
“It’s the reverse.”
“And do they appear as they do to us?”
Solo was quiet. Then he said, “What is your plan for tomorrow, Adama?”
“In that case come and accompany us as we work.”
I thought so many things sitting up in the dusty cab of the little truck the next morning as Solo drove us on the dirt road to the village of Vrour where a field of plantains awaited harvest; that I loved my children as I loved Africa, that I would bring them here with me to see it one day. I’d have filthy field clothes for them to wear just like the stiff rags I wore now, would teach my son to swing a machete and my daughter to beat rice from chaff. It would only be for a few days at first, maybe a week; I’d make them take anti-malarials and sleep under nets and drink bottled water and I’d be afraid at every moment that they’d drop dead. If they didn’t like it, we would leave; if they managed a whole week, we’d follow it up with a poolside stay down on the coast at Grand Bassam. I would be as easy as I could be on them; I would not push them the way I pushed myself. Maybe they would find their own Africa, and maybe they would never come back. And maybe, too, they would take to it as I had, and wish at night that their skin would turn black.
Ah, the silly things I had always felt here, filthy and exhausted all day, always with suppurating wounds on my feet and my stomach continuously upset. In the end, I’d never worried much about those things. I had put so much effort into the place, into the culture and language, and been given an identity in return, Adama Toubab, Our Whiteman. Somehow I was here yet again, banging down a dirt road in a beat up truck.
The truck would have been crushed for scrap decades ago back in the States. Here, it gave a network of lives sustenance and hope. It would have its death one day as all things must, its stripped-down corpse a rusting relic in the bush. But that day wasn’t today.
Here now, the forest thickened around us and the steam came off it in the morning sun. The tall blades of grass closed over the red road in places and Solo downshifted into a rumbling gear to motor us right through them. It was like being in a long and violent carwash back home, but a thousand shades of green. I glanced back; the sturdy apprentices were soaking wet in their brown rags in the bed; the boy, Adama, my namesake, seated on the gate for the very first time and hanging on for dear life, smiling with the kind of luminescence that only comes from bliss. If he was on the truck today, then surely they would take him, we all knew. He was tied to the truck now; the truck had become three men and a boy.
We came to a place where we had to dismount and clear the grass from the track with our machetes. Solo begged me to wait in the cab as I knew he would, the way all of them had always wanted to coddle me. After all, who had ever seen a whiteman at labor here? But I had brought my machete and I hopped out and began to swing it: Whack! Whack! Whack! After a moment, the reality of my work quieted their laughter, then we were all swinging machetes together. We quickly beat through the brush to the hot sunlight on the other side. The sweat immediately burst out of me, the way it always did.
Back in the cab, Solo told me all the places they had been with the truck, from historic Kong to genie-ridden Konahiri, Beoumi on the central lake to the great Tai forest on the Liberian border. Who had seen the country like he and his truck had?
“In any case,” he grinned and said as he wrestled with the wheel, bouncing in his seat from the ruts, “hardship and God’s benevolence, we have seen both. So long as the truck keeps rolling, so shall it be, isn’t it?”