[Chapter Thirteen can be found here.]
On his own for the first time since he’d arrived in Africa, Paul looked out of the bus window and wondered if he could actually manage to travel here. By himself, that is. Could he make his trip alone, without being miserable, without scaring himself into, well, simply running through it with his head down? Or even just into giving up and scrambling onto the next plane out? Could he navigate this unknown land?
As they rolled north, he stared through the glass, looking at a landscape still alien to him, even though he was trying hard to like it, to understand at least a little of it. He also kept hoping to see something that would mean something to him, something that could give him some sort of sign, that could tell him that what he was doing made some sort of sense or, at least, could provide a little comfort, for he was feeling lonely as well as scared. El had provided much more of a safety blanket than Paul had realized.
Was this worth it at all? Why was he doing this? Was he only going through the motions of a trip, perhaps doing it on the off chance that she’d hear about it? As an ego salve? Maybe he should just admit defeat, go back to Lomé and take that first plane from there to anywhere.
But it was too late; he was heading in the opposite direction. So he tried to stop thinking and simply see Africa.
As they had finished their beers the evening before, El had told him to watch for the two game parks he would pass through during the ride, one a lot larger and south of the other, with lots of antelope, and maybe warthogs or monkeys to see. The second, smaller and close to Dapaong, was home, El had said, to a small herd of elephants. If Paul paid attention, he’d been told, he might even spot some. Sitting in the bus, now, Paul couldn’t generate much enthusiasm for seeing elephants, but he did keep a watch out the window.
In both parks, speed limits were deliberately low, for the protection of the animals. Paul felt himself getting more interested, though far from excited, as he caught glimpses of what might have been animals. Flashes that disappeared before he could focus on them. He began to keep his eyes on the landscape more steadily, feeling he’d been teased, now wanting to see something. As the hours passed, he found he was hoping to regenerate the excitement for this land that he had been enjoying just the day before. To regenerate it on his own, without help from the Peace Corps Volunteers he’d just left. Or, if he could, at least to get rid of the depression that he now felt building inside of him, a depression brought on, he knew, by his new loneliness.
He was feeling more and more isolated the farther they went, though he was sitting crushed against people on either side in a van holding more than twenty. Now as he feeling very adventurous, but the timid outsider not only from the continent and its people, but from the few people of his own culture he had met. African or American, their problems were all so much greater than his own, yet they dealt with them much more competently and calmly than he could. It made him feel insignificant and also unwanted. And it made him feel guilty that he wasn’t more satisfied with his own situation.
Why was that? What did their lives, especially the African lives, have to do with his? What could he do for them, anyway? He was no visionary, no leader of people. The few skills he had were in no way special, and nothing he knew how to do was going to help the poor become less so. So why the guilt?
He did not know.
Though it was his time with El and the other PCVs that had made him rather lonesome, constantly aware that he was the outsider in an extremely close group, Paul had quickly grown to like them. A sad bunch they made, these people struggling so hard to find a way of dealing with the gruesome enormity that had slapped them so ruthlessly and so recently, of developing their own support system thousands of miles from the friends and families they had grown up among. Though he knew he had been an intrusion, a part of him would have liked to stay with them. After all, he had been a welcome intrusion, someone not involved, someone whose situation and whose questions could distract them from their own tragedy. There were things, he knew, he could learn from them even in tragedy. And there was a comfort, oddly enough, a protectedness that he felt in their presence.
And he really had liked the Africans he had met, people who seemed to understand the depth of the grief of the PCVs and respect it, though death, to them, was sometimes a monthly reality. While he could never even get across the divide that had been erected between him and the Togo PCVs, the wider one between all of them and the Africans might as well have been an ocean. Yes, the PCVs common tragedy created a great barrier, keeping everyone else out, at least for as long as they remained together as a group. It wasn’t nearly as wide, however, as the gulf created by American wealth and African poverty.
Though he now wanted to keep his eyes open for animals, he dozed. Even the park, the big one, once they had started their slow passage through it, was starting to seem just more of the same to him, lacking only the villages of round houses with thatched roofs that he had begun seeing south of Kara on that first long ride. Here, also, there were no people. And no animals, at least not that he could see more than in a flash or two. Nothing but trees, bare laterite, and the occasional huge anthill. Though he kept looking and hoping, he began to feel disappointed.
No, he analyzed his feelings with anger, he felt forsaken, sorry for himself. He had been trying to cover it up this past week by spying on the lives of other people. And, he now accused himself, he had been doing it in Togo, a land no more important in the larger scheme of things than he was, a land like him. Both, in a way, had been left behind, were struggling to have a purpose, somewhere to go. He was worse, though, pretending, acting out after a trivial and trivializing loss, refusing to deal with an embarrassment that only he cared about. Africa, on the other hand, didn’t pretend; it just was. Togo, too. He decided that his enthusiasm for the continent, so great just an evening earlier, had been a delusion; he felt that he had been a fool. Everything he hoped for here was proving to be nothing more substantial than the ubiquitous West African dust. Everything he hoped for here was simply in his head.
He closed his eyes for a moment, overcome with self-disgust.
His loss? The tragedy that was controlling his actions and thoughts? What about it? A fool’s loss, certainly not enough to justify idiotic traveling about in a land that, to be frank, he didn’t really care about, didn’t know. A land that could prove, from everything he had heard, quite dangerous. Just his pride kept him on this continent, he decided. Yes, he’d only been fooling himself, to keep himself from embarrassment, to keep from going home too quickly, going where he would have too many questions to answer if he returned too soon. Face it; turn around. Don’t be a baby. Go home. Admit your mistakes. Build a new life; make yourself a new person.
No one will laugh at you. No one will even care. No one knew him anymore.
His time on the road passed slowly, as slowly as these thoughts, or others just as depressing and accusatory. They pushed the bus at a turtle’s pace through the first park without exposing any animals for more than split seconds, then more quickly on up and into the second, where the tortious resumed its march.
They were approaching the barrier at the end of the second park, and Paul had pulled himself out of his self-criticism long enough to realize that he had now experienced another bit of misfortune. He had seen nothing in the country’s pride, its parks, nothing but trees, rocks, and dirt. In addition to worrying about himself, he now despaired of seeing any animals at all.
It was his lot, he thought, to be missing out. The lack of even a simple tourist experience confirmed that everything else he’d decided about himself was true. Always so close, but ever off the mark, always reaching from the carousel but never grasping the brass ring. Plus, he admitted, he really was lonely already. That was ironic, he knew. Not only had he just left new friends, but the bus was crowded. Yeah, right. The people around him might as well have been sacks of grain. Paul’s lame attempts at conversation in French had only brought glazed looks and polite smiles from his neighbors, who turned back to their companions as quickly as they politely could.
He started craning his neck, looking ahead on the last off-chance of seeing something alive outside of the bus. Nothing. So, he gave up and leaned his head back and let his eyes slide to the right, looking far beyond the road. They rested on three gray shapes off in the distance. His concentration was now so internal that nothing alerted his brain that, just maybe, out there was now exactly the thing that he had wanted to see. An unconscious part of him, perhaps, had decided the elephants were just rocks, and he saw nothing more.
But they moved, something rocks couldn’t do. Though they were now clearly progressing, stately and slowly, the branches of trees swaying back and forth in their wake, in the same direction as the van, Paul’s brain still didn’t make the connection.
The man next to him tapped him on the shoulder, smiled, pointed, and said, “Les elephants.” Paul had smiled back his thanks before he realized what the man had said. He sat up quickly once he had, pressing his face to the window, mesmerized, his eyes on the animals, drinking them in as the bus slowly trundled on past. One of the elephants stopped—he could see them more clearly now as the bus rounded a soft curve in front of them—grabbed the branch of a tree and pulled it off, the top of the tree snapping up and swaying back and forth furiously. Then they were out of sight.
Maybe he had been wrong; maybe he was always wrong. He leaned back into his seat, a new great feeling of comfort settling over his mind. “Maybe I have been wrong.” The man next to him smiled, uncomprehending. “And maybe it doesn’t really matter.”
He twisted his head to look back the way they had come, hungry for even a last quick glimpse of elephant. Perhaps seeing the elephants was itself some kind of accomplishment. Maybe there would be more. Or could be.
But more what?
Stop that. Perhaps it was an omen of good things to come and of good will on the part of the continent. No, that was foolishness, too. Stop it. Still, it could be a sign that said his stay in Africa would be good, in fact and not just in his wishes. Though continually aware that he had no one to share it with, and aware of the pang that the loneliness becoming part of him had just now caused (he wanted badly for someone to join in with what he had seen, someone he could talk to and not just the man next to him whom he could communicate with only through smiles), he suddenly felt happier than he had since realizing that there was no one waving at him at the Lomé airport.
He was, he knew, acting like an emotional idiot as the wave of joy threatened to overwhelm him. He had thrown out the doubts, flipped a switch, bounced to the other side of the table. Without thinking, he turned and grinned at the man next to him, who smiled back. “Thank you, my friend. Merci.”
“Ils sont interesante, non? Les elephants?”
“Yes. Oui. Encore, merci.”
The man nodded then turned his head away.
Paul twisted now to look every way he could out of the window, to look for more elephants and to seek forward to the town, finally anxious to see what would begin to take shape ahead of him. He was eady to face this adventure, or so he told himself, no matter what it might now bring. Ready to become a new person, to live a new life, to rebuild himself as a new man in a bright new land. Ready, he admitted rather ruefully, to be the fool. And surprisingly content with the idea.
Dapaong’s roads, he noted as they pulled into town, now trying to drink in as much as he saw as fast as he could, created less of a grid than had Kara’s, and Kara’s had less than Lomé’s. Perhaps, Paul thought, after he had left the taxi and was following his written directions to the Peace Corps maison de passage, this was more of what El had meant by an African town. The one paved road, he had discovered, curved down a hill into a small traffic circle with post office, police station, and town hall around it. After heading east for a bit, the road turned north again and out of town, taking almost all of the traffic with it.
As he walked into town from the taxi gare, he passed a couple of bar/restaurants by the paved road. They were already blaring African music, though it was hardly noon. Beyond them and off to his right, Paul could see the marketplace, packed with people even though, he had been told, this was not a major market day in Dapaong. The only building in sight that was more than a single story high was the hotel de ville, the town hall. Along the road, on the other side of an open street sewer, sat a row of shops, including a photographer’s with a large twin-lens reflex camera painted on the front, and a tailor’s with its door open and the sewing machine plainly in sight in front of a row of brightly colored cloths draped from hooks.
As he walked by, looking in the shops, so strange and yet quickly becoming so familiar, the feeling of joy he’d been carrying since seeing the elephants grew unbearably strong. Never had he experienced anything like it, this weird enthusiasm that had been spawned by the gray monsters and that was now sitting inside of him, a glowing, private sense of satisfaction and anticipation. Following El’s directions, Paul turned from the paved road and down a wide, dirt street that angled away to the left. The buildings along it were almost all of mud, banco brick, some round and covered with thatch, as usual, others rectangular and under zinc. Paul stopped at a cigarette seller in front of one of these and bought a pack of Marlboros, his first truly independent purchase in Africa. He felt unreasonable proud of himself once he had concluded that transaction, that accomplishment. He knew that he was thinking stupid but he didn’t care, so it didn’t diminish his happiness. Maybe this was going to work out. Just maybe the disaster was turning to adventure.
A little farther on, at a bar on the left side of the road with stools outside and on the dirt, he bought a beer on his own, also for the first time. He tried to talk to the barman in French; that the man could make no sense of what he was saying didn’t even matter. Paul was trying things out on his own and, startling himself, was getting by. He savored that. He really didn’t have to always rely on other people, as he had been since arrival. It made him giddy, gave him a curious confidence, admittedly unwarranted, and a new freedom, a feeling as though all conventions and restrictions could now be dropped away and he might, for the first time in his life, do whatever he liked, and do it whenever he liked. It made his head light and kept him happy, though he also knew that it probably boded ill—but that, he also recognized, was the thrill of it. Or so he told himself.
He bought a paper cone of roasted peanuts and, munching and drinking, watched for an hour or more as the people of Dapaong walked by. This was the life; this was freedom.
As he stood up, ready to head on, he left a tip on the counter, shouldered his pack, and yelled a thanks to the barman. He had hardly gone three steps when the man shouted to him, hurried over, and pressed the coin back into his hand. Paul tried to hand it back, but the man wouldn’t take it. Somehow, this added to Paul’s already elated state.
His slip of paper indicated that the maison de passage was only a little further on, and that he would know it because it had a walled courtyard painted yellow in front and an entrance with a green gate right around the corner. If he saw a Yamaha DT100 or two chained in the yard, he could be sure he was in the right place.
He found the compound easily enough, sitting alongside a huge and ancient red van with two long, gray tubes running back to front over its top. The half of the passenger side of the split windshield was missing and the whole was covered with dust and dried mud.
Three white men were sitting on collapsible canvas chairs in the yard beyond the open gate, drinking beer.
“Hey, come on in, have a BB!” They were all bearded, all wearing loose African shirts of heavy, hand-made cloth, jeans, and sandals. And they were all filthy, but evidently and loudly happy. “We don’t belong here, and don’t know anyone who does, but, hey, the key was under the can….”
Paul smiled and accepted the bottle one of them held out to him. He sat down on the steps and asking who they were.
“No,” one of them rejoined as they all laughed, loud, long, and completely confident in a way that made Paul extremely jealous, “that’s who you are. After all, we were squatting here before you came waltzing in. So come on now, come clean. And don’t try to tell us you belong to this place.” The speaker pointed to Paul’s pack. “You’re as much a stranger here as we are.”
“Yeah, I’m just someone passing through. A no one.” Paul, still high on his own thoughts, managed to catch the spirit and energy of their jesting. He went on, realizing he was blathering, but unable to help himself or stop. “Or, if I am anyone, I’m either one of two things: I’m one who has just been born, an unformed one, someone in need of teaching, of guidance. Or, I’m someone you will soon forget, a faded photograph you’ll shrug at, wonder about for less than a second, then throw away. So don’t bother with your questions. They don’t have any worthwhile answers.” He drank deeply from his beer.
“Bravo,” one of the three clapped, slowly and ironically. The other two merely raised their bottles, joining Paul in drinking. “That pitiful little speech earns you, yes, you, Mr. Nobody, an introduction to the decrepit crew you see before you here in this paradise south of the border.” He paused so that he, too, could drink. “We’ll start with me. I’m Brian Pesla, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolgatango in Burkina Faso. This,” he pointed with his bottle at one of the others, “is Jerry Elred, also of Peace Corps Burkina, Gurango being his post. That other wastrel,” the bottle shifted to the third man, “is our prize catch, a Fulbright so-called scholar and proud owner of that red monstrosity sitting on the other side of the wall. The authorities, by the way, think those tubes on top hold cruise missiles and want to look in. Actually, they’re full of water, or so the supposed scholar tells us. Anyway, their owner’s name might be Eric Bessler, presumed intellectual, or he might actually be a CIA agent hauling cruise missiles around.” He shrugged, “Not that it makes a difference.” Pesla paused to take another long drink and wipe his lips. “Oh, and lest I forget, there’s a fourth of us, a woman Burkina PCV stationed in Koupela. She’s showering. Named Lori Lange, of all the unfortunate alliterative names.”
“Well, then, you can know and probably will forget quickly: my name’s Paul, family name Cassamude, and I really am a nobody here, just a wayward soul passing through on his own strange journey.” He threw his head back and laughed like a fool, wanting to spread his hands and shout, so silly happy did he feel. “And loving it. As of today, that is, loving it.” And now, for the first time, perhaps, he really meant it. Or didn’t. There was still a part of his mind observing and criticizing.
“We’ll drink to that,” said one of the three, looking at him and grinning. Paul had already lost track of who was who. Not that it mattered: Paul was already thinking of these three not as individuals but as a group, as something that had come together, through a serendipity that felt just right, and that now should never be forced apart.
“We’ll drink to anything,” another said. It’s wonderful to be here. Good beer—we can’t get anything like it in Burkina Faso—and we’re away from the revolution for once. As a result, we’re celebrating.”
The woman came out a few minutes later, toweling her short, jet-black hair. She was dark, darker even than Paul, with eyes as black and shiny as charcoal. She grabbed a bottle of beer and pulled around another chair. Paul took a drink of his beer, watching her surreptitiously. She didn’t match the others, of course, but was obviously comfortable enough with them not to need to speak, every inch their equal. Still in his new high, he decided he would love to learn more about her.
“This one of the owners? One of those Togo PCVs?” She pointed her beer bottle at Paul, not even acknowledging him with a glance or a nod. “Someone we should treat with a little respect, whether we mean it or not?”
“Naw, he doesn’t belong here, not anymore than we do. Insult him at your will.”
“Good. Thought he might be here to tell us the rules, or something.” She lit a kitchen match with her thumbnail and put the flame to a cigarette.
Paul, in his euphoria, felt an odd and almost immediate affection for these four maniacs, even though they shocked him, so different were they than the Togo volunteers he’d met, so brash where the others had been subdued. There was an intensity about them, a passion, that the volunteers near El’s place had lacked. Nothing gentle about them, not even… Paul looked at Lori for a moment… not even with her, though she was, he had to admit, the most interesting woman he’d seen in quite a while. Something that struck him as odd, until he remembered what had brought him here, and what had resulted.
“So why are you guys down here?” Paul wished he had something witty to say again, but nothing occurred to him, so he just asked. “I mean, are you headed someplace, or is this the destination?”
“Why go further than this?”
“They’ve got good beer here.”
“We just want to relax.”
“There’s no CDR, here.”
“What ever could you mean?” The voice of one of them rose above the others. “Why come down here? Compared with life in Burkina, this is Hollywood. Who wouldn’t want to go to Hollywood?”
“What’s CDR?” Paul held up his hands in defense.
“Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Sankara’s kids, armed with AK-47’s and comic books. They seem to be at every crossroads, and they take themselves damned seriously.”
“And everything else, besides.”
“Tape players, cameras, pens, whatever you’ve got on you, they’ll take.”
“They’re honest, though. They don’t take for themselves, but because these things can be used to undermine the revolution.”
“Sure. Honest as the day is long.”
“And kind. One time, they told two Dutchmen to race each other, and that the loser would die.”
“They’ve scared everyone in the country half to death. It used to be a place of gentle, kind people. Now it’s turning into a home to fear.”
“They got the idea for the CDR’s from Cuba, as if that matters.”
“Great model, Cuba. They wanted to be buddy-buddy with Albania, too, but the Albanians cold-shouldered them, said they weren’t revolutionary enough.”
“But Gaddafi loves them.”
“The CDR kids think we’re spies, and want to show us they aren’t afraid of us, so give us a hard time whenever they can.”
“So does the military, though, the police, the gendarmes. They all seem to think they can prove something to America by shoving us PCVs around. It gets tiring.”
“If you go by one of their posts in the morning or evening when they are raising or lowering the flag and you don’t stop, they will shoot you.”
“It’s a country on edge. Drought, famine, revolution. Bad combination. The only way to relax is to get out for a bit.”
“And this is the place to go. Better beer, and lots to buy in the market. Hell, in Burkina it can be difficult, sometimes, just to buy batteries for a transistor radio.”
“Here you can buy them anywhere. Can even buy a radio.”
“It can be a damned scary place to be right now, up there.”
“Then why do you stay there?” Paul cut into the rapid-fire comments. “You can leave, can’t you.” Paul had followed all of this as well as he could, but made sense of little of it.
“Hell, the horrible part of it is, we like it there. Though the revolution is a major pain, the country’s a good one, at heart.”
“The people, well most of them, are the friendliest you will ever find.”
“And, as to getting away from home, there’s not any place more different from the States than Burkina Faso.”
“Aw, that’s all shit. We’re used to it, that’s all. And to leave now would be to cut our service short, and no one wants to do that, if they don’t have to.”
“There are other reasons, but we won’t get into them.” They all laughed at that, for some reason. Paul just stared at them.
“Well, when did you get here?” Paul didn’t know who to address, so looked off at the open gate.
“Just a little while ago. It took us so long to get through the Burkina side of the border last night that the Togo side was closed when we got there. Fortunately, there’s a bar with BB’s in the frontier area, and the truck sleeps four.”
“What happened to the windshield?”
“Fell out just as we were leaving Koupela. Didn’t break, but we need to find someone who can put it back in.”
“Didn’t want to stop—have to be back after the weekend—so just laid it in the back and kept going. Brian, in the front seat, put on a pair of motorcycle goggles.”
“Hmm.” Paul thought for a moment, then asked, caution evaporated, “If you’re going back so soon, care for another rider?”
“Sure, though I don’t think any of us would have a clue as to why you would want to come.”
“For the water.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, you may just have been misinformed.” One of them laughed. Another put on a Humphrey Bogart accent.
“Well, come on, Rick, there’re cafes in all the world, at least in all of Dapaong, that need walking into.”
“I’ll show you where you can put your stuff.” Lori got up. Paul followed her into the house.
After Paul had stowed his bag in one of the multi-bed rooms in the back, they locked the door, replaced the key in its hiding place, and started working their way back toward the center of town, stopping every now and then for another round of beers. Finally, they made their way up the hill to the campement where, they told him, draft beer was served, the furthest north one could find it, south of the Sahara.
As they drank, Brian told tales of the large outdoor black market near his post, where the people refused to send their children to school, for learning to write might make them lazy, might ruin their abilities to memorize.
A few months ago, when he had been wandering through the market, a man had come up to him and said with a wink, “I know what you want. Come with me.” Intrigued, Brian had followed into a dilapidated tent. There, the man, and a companion who had appeared out of nowhere, opened the larger or two crates, revealing a carefully-packed machine gun. “The bullets are in the other crate,” his guide had told him. Brian laughed as he recounted how he had said, “No thanks,” and had backed out of the tent, suddenly sweating like crazy and anxious to get out of the market town completely and back to the safety of his home some miles to the south.
Lori told about trying, again and again, to raise rabbits. They’d be good for food and for pelts for fur, she said. But they kept dying. She tried all sorts of hutches. Worried that they got too hot, she even developed ones off the ground and with thatch awnings above them, but no luck. In a year, she had lost more than thirty rabbits. The villagers just watched her and chuckled. One time, she got furious, and yelled at a couple of them, people who were normally her friends.
“Why don’t you try anything? What’s wrong with trying, with experimenting? Why do you just sit there and accept your lives, your problems?”
“But why,” they asked her, genuinely puzzled, “would we do anything that we know won’t work? Why do you nasaras do that? You always have, each one of you who comes here doing it again and again, just like before, and we have never understood. Don’t you talk to each other?” ‘Nasara,’ she explained, was the Moré word for ‘white.’
“What did you say?”
“What can you say to that?”
“If you ever want to shock a Mossi kid when he or she is yelling ‘nasara’ at you, by the way, yell back, ‘nasabliga.’ That’s the word for ‘black.’” Jerry, for it was he who spoke (Paul could finally tell them all apart), had learned more of that Mossi language called Moré than any of the other PCVs. He liked to spend his days sitting in local marketplaces drinking dolo and talking.
“One of my favorite times was when an el hadjim was describing his trip to Mecca. Everyone wanted to know what the airplane had been like. He explained that you sat there, and were told not to move, and that they brought a marketplace around to you.” He paused, drank some of his beer. “I wonder what his listeners thought. There’s no way he could have adequately gotten the idea of an airplane ride over to them in Moré. The language just hasn’t developed that sort of vocabulary. Did the people in the village, after his attempt at description, think that plane was filled with market women, carrying trays of peanuts and oranges on their heads, walking up and down the aisle?” He laughed, and they ordered more beer.
Paul asked Eric, the Fulbright, just what he was doing in Burkina Faso.
“Oh, I’m supposed to be studying mask-making for the Bwa-Bobo down in Ouri, but the guy, the best mask-maker, seems to be spending his time in Ouaga, making copies of the masks in the national museum for the director’s private collection. He’s the best, Bakary is, and I’ve got to get to know him, but he feels he has to finish this project before even talking to me.” He paused. “Strange, but there’s nothing I can do about it but wait.”
“And drink.” That from Jerry.
“So Eric’s taken a house in Ouaga,” said Brian, “and we’ve made it our maison de passage there.”
“Yeah, I like having a lot of people around.” He drained his beer and signaled for another from the waitress, “When you get to Ouaga, you’re welcome there, too.”
“Don’t know if I will. I’ve got to decide, at Koupela, which way I’m going to go, to Ouaga or Niamey. As my flight’s out of Niamey, it might make sense to go that way. Plus, from what I hear, there’s more to see in Niger than in Burkina Faso. And, from what you guys say, I suspect it’s a little safer, so I think I’ll probably head that way.”
“And miss Ouaga?” Brian threw up his hands in mock horror. “There’s not another city in Africa like it.”
“It’s really the only African city left,” Lori added.
“This guy I met in Lomé said most of them aren’t African at all.”
“He’s right. African architecture is based on mud bricks… and you wouldn’t believe what can be done with them. In Mali, there’s a mud mosque that’s absolutely huge, and Tombouctou, one of the oldest cities south of the Sahara—though it’s kinda in it—is almost all of mud.”
“So Ouaga’s of mud?”
“The downtown looks colonial French—which it is—but around it, there’s still huge mud quartiers,’ Jerry answered him. “The new regime has decided to rebuild the city, bulldozing down the mud building and putting up ‘modern’ ones, but that’s only happened a bit, so far.”
“So,” said Brian, “if you want to see it as it was, you gotta come now.”
“I dunno. I really don’t have that much time left.” Paul was making excuses, he knew, but the high was wearing off, his doubts reappearing.
“Your choice.” One of them shrugged. They turned to other topics.
By then it was dusk, and the three Burkina PCVs, after a little discussion, decided it was time for dancing. Dapaong, unlike the villages around it, had electricity, and so a number of dancing clubs open into the night. The one they decided upon consisted of an open courtyard surrounded by tables against the walls on three sides, the other side being a long building housing the kitchen and storerooms.
The dancing went on into the evening to music from places like Abidjan and Kinshasa, much of it showing reggae influence, but most based on a bell-clear guitar style centering on repetitive runs, a style, Paul would learn, that is the base for much of African pop music. The dancers, mostly barefoot, their feet shuffling against the cement, adding an additional, soft rhythmic element to the music, moved with much more control and decorum than the dancers Paul was used to at home. Very little motion, he realized as he watched, could actually mean quite a bit more than the flailing about that he was used to. There was no grand swinging of arms or spinning around, only gentle, careful movements, almost all of it aimed down, starting at the head, but focusing on the hips and feet.
In a country where all rise at dawn, however, dancing never goes too very late. Well before midnight, the five made their way back to the maison through a town completely black except for the occasional hurricane lamp over a late-open seller of cigarettes.
Paul collapsed on the bed where he’d lain his pack, glad that the house was well-screened and that there were no nets. He wondered, as he fell asleep, about the decision he would soon have to make, thinking for the first time that he might even want to stay a little longer in Africa. Left at Koupela instead of right.
If he went to Ouaga, could he find something to do there? Could he make a life there for a while, as an expat? Would there be a goal for him, there, something he could accomplish, for himself, for the people who live here? Or was that just a stupid thought? Could he find a way to make a living? He wasn’t sure. Wasn’t even sure he wanted to. After all, he had been on the continent for less than a month. The idea of going back home, however, was beginning to seem rather strange and unattractive to him.
He had forgotten, conveniently, his feelings of the morning of most of his ride to Dapaong, his desire to be rid of this place forever.
And he wondered, with his last conscious thoughts, if he really did have the guts to make that turn at Koupela, to go to Ouaga and stay longer in Africa. Aw, he’d probably end up taking the easier way, right and on to Niamey and, finally, Milwaukee.
[Chapter Fifteen can be found here.]