A Writer Writes
George Branson (Chad 1975-78) was a water well driller in country. Since then, and over the years, he has written several short pieces on his experiences in Africa. One of his African pieces won first prize at the Space Coast Writers Guild Conference in Coco Beach. His pieces are short and humorous, all non-fiction vignettes. He has also written a few fables/parables that draw on the animal characters in African folklore.
Here are three of George’s essays.
In early ’77, when we had been drilling wells in Chad for The Peace Corps for well over a year, one of my fellow well drillers, Mark, and I decided to take our vacation in Cameroon, where it was a lot greener, a welcome change from the desert. We got a real kick out of Western Cameroon, the old English speaking part of the country. The people there loved to party. We were there in February, and several tipsy people wished us a happy New Year. They loved grandiose names too. On the foggy slopes of Mount Cameroon, we ate beans and rice in a little roadside shack named The Genesis of Culture Hotel, and then we strolled down the street to The All For God Bar.
Staying in the seaside town of Victoria, we heard that we could walk to a nearby beach. A couple miles from town the road bent away from the direction we needed to go, so we cut across an oil palm plantation. A nicely dressed Cameroonian drove up in a golf cart and informed us that we were on private property. We explained that we were PCVs from Chad on vacation who just wanted to swim in the ocean. His face lit up and he gave us a tour, eventually dropping us at a black sand volcanic beach that was a bit tough on the feet, but sufficed. Before leaving our new friend invited us to stop by a bar on the way back.
Hot and salty on the way back, we tried to bypass the shack bar on the top of a hill, but our friend shouted us up. The shack was a portal we passed through to the field behind, where about a dozen men sat on wooden coke crates. They were drinking Guinness Stout and palm wine mixed half&half. We drank with them. It tasted like the diesel fuel I’d swallowed once while siphoning. I noticed that the men varied in age and dress, from the mid-twenties to very old and from nice suits to rags. The order of business was drinking and conversation. Some spoke the Queen’s English and others spoke the local pidgin, and interestingly I couldn’t peg them before they spoke. A well-dressed middle age man might speak pidgin, and a fellow in rags might speak with a clipped British accent. And on the end there was one shabbily dressed old man who never said anything.
As the afternoon and the drinking wore on, I noticed that for an American the conversation seemed oddly cooperative. Nobody argued or tried to one up anybody. When someone made a statement, more often that not, a few people would mutter: “Yes, yes, quite so.” I felt a part of some uniquely male society, commiserating over timeless male concerns. The conversation floated along from subject to subject. At one point someone mentioned President Kennedy. It amazed me how much they knew about him. Then someone mentioned President Ford. The old silent fellow perked up and said in flawless English: “President Ford, seemed like a nice chap, but he wasn’t very bright was he?” And we all nodded our heads and murmured: “Yes, yes, quite so.”
ADVENTURES IN SOUTHERN CHAD
My first year in Chad I spent a good bit of time living in Sarh, the most significant city in Southern Chad. The French liked to call that region “Le Tchad Utile”, because the wetter climate permitted the cultivation of cotton, peanuts, and some rice along the rivers, with cotton and beef being Chad’s only important export commodities. Cattle could walk across many miles of borders in a country the size of France, but the harvest and sale of cotton lent itself to central control, and thus was the most significant cash crop and a major source of tax revenue. Sarh was a medium sized city, maybe 40,000 give or take, with a largish expat community that disappeared during the rainy season, which was really no worse than summer in Florida. Peace Corps had a small wells project there, a stepchild of the larger project up North, starved for funds. Scotty, the other wells volunteer in town, and I shared a house. He had taken our one working vehicle up to the capital to attempt to get some funding. It being the end of the rainy season, the expats had all disappeared, the last being the Swiss volunteer Hans, who had a house in our walled compound. He’d left for vacation the previous night. Unbeknownst to me, before leaving Hans had instructed his domestic employee to do something about the huge bee hive tucked underneath the overhang of his tin roof.
The next morning I awoke to ungodly screeching. I ran to my front door and looked out. It was snowing, at least that was the first thing it looked like. Then I realized that bees filled the air. Most of the noise came from Hans’ duck pen, but some came from a female Patas monkey that we’d inherited from our predecessor. She was tied to a mango tree on the side of the house. I saw Hans’ cat running across his roof, swatting at bees. It backed up to the edge and fell off. Landing of course on its feet, it saw me and made a beeline (pun intended) straight for me. I opened the door. The cat ran in and cowered under the coffee table. I decided I had to try to save the monkey, so I donned layers of clothes, sunglasses, work gloves, and a motorcycle helmet and headed out. I’d made it about five steps when I was stung at least ten times. Worse, the bees kept going for my eyes. It was only a matter of time before they got around the side and under the glasses. Plus it was obvious that I would be stung several hundred times before I could free the monkey. Be they African or American, honey bees don’t pack much venom punch, but several hundred stings can kill you. I turned and ran back in. I was swatting the bees that came in with me, when someone pounded on the door. The monkey had chewed through the rope and wanted in. She ran under the coffee table too, grabbing and hugging the cat. I surmised that the thick leaves of the mango tree must have provided some protection. Still I half expected her to go into shock, but she survived, none of the blinded ducks did. And there we sat all that day and late into the next before the bees disappeared. Later I learned that that entire section of town had been shut down.
When the air cleared shortly before sunset on the second day, I decided to get out of stir and find a cold beer. There was a Chadian bar on the far side of town that I liked. I’d gone there a few times with my Chadian co-workers, but when I did, I paid, and a Peace Corps Volunteer could only do that once in a while. So I headed out across town on my mobylette (French motor scooter). I stopped on top of a rise to view an accident scene below. There was an ambulance and policemen and a victim. The victim was one of the ubiquitous thin old white-bearded men of Chad. He lay on the pavement beside his smashed bicycle. He was smashed too. Even from a distance I could see the odd angle of his leg, and jagged bones, and blood. The policemen were busy drawing a chalk outline around him. No one seemed concerned by his serious injuries. The old man had propped his elbow on the pavement to hold his head up, and while he watched as the policemen chalked away, he had a look of utter disgust on his face. To me he seemed some Old Testament prophet prophesying doom. And I knew, as he knew, whose doom it was he prophesied.
I detoured around. As I drove, a full moon peeked above the horizon. Fitting. Although the phrase was not original to him, one of the older volunteers was fond of saying that one day in Chad they would discover immense deposits of time. On occasion I’d felt like I’d slipped into some alternate universe where the rules of time and space were slightly different. I called these “Fellini moments”. This seemed like one.
I walked through the enclosed bar to the brightly lit courtyard behind and ordered a beer. The tinny repetitive electric guitar music of West Africa played through bad speakers. I sat at an empty table and looked to the east, as a huge yellow-orange moon rose behind a picket of kapok trees. The tall stark trees were eerie enough, with their broad fluked trunks near the ground. The full moon completed the scene. As I drank my beer, it started to snow again. I had a moment of panic before I realized that the air was filling with termites, not bees. Whenever the termites struck a wall, a chair, me, they dropped their wings and began to crawl. I looked around the courtyard. The Chadians were picking up termites and eating them. I was adventurous in those days. I tried a couple. Not much flavor, but they crunched nicely.
“Tonight is the night of the termites,” said a deep voice in booming French. At my side stood a big broad Chadian. From one of the southern tribes, he bore three large raised scars on his face, three arcs, one on each cheek and one on his forehead, suggesting a circle. “Tonight the young queen flies toward the full moon. She is bigger and stronger than the males. Only the strongest, most determined male can fly as high as she can fly, and when they meet they lose their wings and tumble leaflike back to earth, making love the whole way down, and where they land they form their new nest.” Then he waved his arms and looked out with disdain over the termite filled courtyard. “These termites have mistaken this bar’s lights for the moon.”
NEW YEAR’S EVE PARTY
My first two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chad we had no single female vols, hadn’t been any in years due to some ugly incident in the past. So they caused a stir when they started coming back in. Barbara was an interesting young lady with a fun personality (dam hafif – light blood, as the Chadians would put it). Attractive in a tomboyish way, the daughter of missionaries, virginal but not naive, she was fluent and literate in Classical Arabic, not the creole Chadian Arabic most of us spoke. She just seemed a cut above the average. All the new female volunteers were English teachers. Of course I was one of the hard-drinking, cowboyish water well drillers. Although none of the male vols ever got very far sexually with her, she seemed to like my company. It might have been wishful thinking but I thought there was a little Bogart/Hepburn chemistry thing going on.
New Year’s Eve party. Barbara was on the far side of the room, bent over, back to me, stone sober, playing chess with another vol, oblivious to the chaos behind her. I sat on the floor, back against a pillar, having lost the ability to stand for long periods of time. The Peace Corps Director, Bill, was feeling no pain, standing with a lampshade on his head singing Elvis Presley songs. Things were looser in those days, including Bill’s two front false teeth. From my vantage with Bill between me and the light, I watched as an especially enthusiastic version of Heartbreak Hotel ejected Bill’s teeth and caused them arc upward and finallydrop unnoticed by any but me down the gap in Barbara’s pants. An immediate search began. I tried to be helpful, but all I could say was “teeth”. Somebody patted me on the head. “Yes, George, we’re looking for Bill’s teeth.” I staggered to my feet and looked at Barbara, still oblivious. It then occurred to me that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I meandered across the room and plunged my hand down Barbara’s pants. She screamed and whipped around, beet red, chess pieces flying, and yelled, “What!!!”. Sensing the urgency, I managed to double my vocabulary. “Teeth pants!” “What!!!” “Teeth pants!” “What?!” At that point someone intervened, “I think he’s saying that Bill’s teeth are in your pants.” To this day I thank whatever gods may be that when she reached back she found them.
Eight years later I landed in Khartoum on a job for a private voluntary organization, only to find that the US had bombed Libya the night before and there was anti-American rioting in the streets of Khartoum. One American had been shot. I was restricted to my hotel until the embassy could arrange an evacuation of non-essential personnel. The next day in the hotel I chatted with a missionary who turned out to be working with Barbara at a mission outside of town. He wasn’t under the control of the embassy and was heading back to the mission. I asked him to say hi to Barbara for me. The next day Barbara showed up on a mobylette, a risky thing to do, and we had lunch together. It was nice to see her again.