*Featured Image: “Peeps” by William O’Brien
A Spider Moves Only Inside Its Web (African proverb)
While shopping in the Abidjan market, under the scrutiny of the searing sun, you think you spy Uncle Maurice. This man has the same devilish smile and jocular stride, as did your uncle before his death.
What are you doing in the Adjame market? Buying dried shrimp? Purchasing giant snails for a nice Kedjenou? When did you arrive here from Virginia?
You reach out to greet him, but he turns and disappears down the fabric aisle.
On a different day, in a thatched-roof restaurant, the woman across the room has the smooth-skinned face as that of your Aunt Polly-whose life tribulations never surfaced on her face to cause nary a wrinkle. She is listening intently to a companion sitting across from her. In Aunt Polly’s seventh decade, she looks fifty. You want to rush her and hug her and inquire what caused her to change her position about never setting foot in ‘Black’ Africa. But you are too slow. The two women leave before you cross the room.
Everywhere you turn, it seems, you recognize or think that you do—the faces of friends, neighbors, and relatives, coming and going.
Isn’t this what you are seeking here, really? To return to the familiar bosoms of people who look just like you?
The best sauce is cooked with an old pan (African proverb)
“There’s an animal head in my refrigerator!”
Having risen late, you had missed eating breakfast with your husband and children. They left for work and school a few hours earlier. Josephine was in the foyer readying to go to market. Your office was closed and you had no pressing errands. How down right delicious to be home with not a thing to do! If you wanted, you could take a celebratory twirl about the kitchen.
Your kitchen was an expansive room with a surround of white geometric surface tiles. There were white walls, white cabinets, a white countertop, and, a white floor. The stark absence of color imparted a sterile coolness to the space. It created an icy ying that contrasted with the yang of the hot spicy concoctions Josephine brewed up in here. Your stovetop coffee maker chugged noisily and you sashayed over to the cabinet to grab a mug. Still in the seductive throes of the heady aroma of coffee filling the kitchen, you threw open the refrigerator door and reached for the milk carton. By custom, it sat on the top shelf. Except today. In its place, a monstrous hairy head glared at you from the inner top shelf of the icebox. Had it eaten the milk container? You slammed the refrigerator door and yelled. “Josephine!!”
In the States, having a cook was equivalent to announcing ‘I am a Capitalist! A Materialist! I am Upper Class!’ Who else but the uber-rich could afford such a luxury? But, in Cote d’Ivoire, everyone in the ex-pat community employed, at a minimum, a cook, a housekeeper, and, a gardener. Josephine was your most recent hire. She was a demure, young, Ivorian woman, and, a quick study. Your request, upon hiring her, was that she prepare local African fare and she had not disappointed. She cooked attieke, pounded fou-fou with ferocity, and prepared any number of delectable African soups and stews. Her cooking skills were noteworthy and you and your family feasted like royalty. Each day, she walked to the market to purchase the produce and meat, fish, or poultry for the evening meal. She was halfway out of the house when she heard your frantic cry and rushed back into the kitchen.
“There’s an animal . . .!”
You took deep breaths and tried hard not to whine or accuse. Nonchalance was the attitude you sought. Or indifference. you wanted to relinquish any emotional attachment to the thing in your fridge. You could have been talking about the weather. You were talking about the weather. An animal head. Maybe it would rain this afternoon?
“It is alright, Madame”. You recognized Josephine’s tone: she was the patient mother placating the fussy infant. She explained that your in-laws brought by the recently sacrificed lamb’s head early this morning. It was their gift to you for Ede, the biggest Muslim holiday. A delicacy. Her tone was calm and she spoke slowly so that you might comprehend her French.
“Oh.” Your head throbbed. “How nice.”
Tabaskie (known as Ede in the States) was the most celebrated of the Muslim holidays and a big deal in your husband’s family. Your lapsed-Muslim husband forgot to mention that today was the holiday. Or, not? What you recalled his saying, some days ago, was ‘Tails and balls.’ He said that was how you distinguished the best sheep. Those with the longest tails and the biggest balls. According to the Koran, Allah asked Abraham to sacrifice one of his sons to demonstrate his love and loyalty. Just before Abraham did this, Allah told him to substitute a lamb for his son. So, traditionally, the holiday began with the sacrifice of a lamb.
And now, the lamb’s head was in your icebox. Separated from its tail and balls. Who knows where its body has been spirited or who all would consume the rest? It was headless, like the horseman. A fish flapping out of water. Your therapist once pronounced that you were, “ A duck swimming in a sea of chickens.” Continuously out of your element. Pity the poor lamb. Perhaps you could lie beside its head in the fridge. Rest your throbbing head in the cool. And. commune.
Reconciling the discordance between your perception of how you wished to be accepted and the reality of how you were viewed and treated in West Africa was a painful process. People here valued place of origin and tribal roots. The question most often posed to me was: who are your people and where do they live? It is a question you were loathed to answer. More than anything, you ached for that information, as well. What was your history? You didn’t know to what tribe your ancestors belonged. Yours were stunted and atrophied genealogic roots. Like most Black Americans, you lacked direct cultural ties to this place and had no language or true remnants of African cultural practices to proffer. Yours was a deep yearning and desire to belong. You lacked a Motherland. You were a motherland-less child. You were in this dance of life without direction; a rogue dancer stepping to borrowed music. Africans saw you as American — the very identity you were attempting to shed. When you moved to Cote d’Ivoire, you became part of an African community by virtue of your marriage to an African. Perhaps, you did not have any more business being on this continent than the animal head had in your icebox. Was that monstrosity symbolic of your attempts to be part of something to which you had little connection? You knew you were not responsible for your severed relationship with your genealogic past? You could fee an internal pity party mushrooming by the minute.
Last weekend, at a traditional Malian bridal party, there was music and dancing. You danced in a circle with the other women, your sandals cast off, your feet flying in the dust, you drew up the hems of your long hand-dyed gowns and jumped and stamped and kicked to the deep urging of the drums. There was magic in the rhythm. One of the women pulled you aside and showed you the steps and your feet and soul took over. You did not speak Bambara and no one there could communicate in English. But you shared laughter and movement and community. You belonged.
There was an animal in your refrigerator.
“I will use it to make a nice Pepper Pot soup,” Josephine said, “After I singe off all the hairs.”
“Just don’t bring the head to the table.” Please.
Opening the refrigerator, once again, to look for the milk, you were transfixed by the lamb’s eyes: two dark limpid pools look straight at you, channeling terminal surprise.
You closed the refrigerator door and walked over to the stove to pour your coffee. Your dancing mood passed. For a change, you would drink your coffee black
What is it that even the ostrich with its long neck and sharp eyes cannot see?
Answer: What will happen tomorrow (Kanuri Proverb)
The sun broadcasted its slow descent in broad swaths of color; bloody red splotches mixed with fiery orange ones streak across the sky, disrupting the dusky horizon. You’re mesmerized by the vibrancy of nature’s artistry here in Africa. Like a skilled lover, the sunset created an energetic yet languid finish to the day.
The staccato toot tooting of wah-wahs* echoed in the distance as they weaved among the passenger cars. Ripe mangos released their sweet perfume. Street vendors squatted to light their small grills in preparation for evening traffic. Soon the night would be filled with the spicy smell of smoked lamb, roasted plantains, roasted peanuts, and, succulent grilled ears of corn. Sounds of high-pitched laughter drifted from the yards and playgrounds as neighborhood children tried to squeeze in those last few minutes of playtime before sunset. Scrawny ‘poulets bicyclet’ (bicycle chickens) sprinted alongside the cars and between buildings. Nightfall in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire was a rich sensory feast.
Your husband navigated the baby blue SUV into the graveled lot alongside the high-rise apartment complex of your friend, Anton. The vehicle was glossy and new, given to Cheick by the embassy for his new position. He pulled into a parking space, cut the engine, and turned back to face his friend in the backseat.
“Come up and eat something,” Anton said “Maria’s prepared foutou and groundnut stew. She’ll be hurt if you don’t come up and greet her.”
“Not this time,” Your husband, said, in a too brusque tone. Perhaps, he was focused on the evening’s work ahead of him at the embassy.
“It’s hard to visit someone’s house and not eat. That’s why I wear these big dresses,” You stroked his arm, and felt the muscles in his arm relax. “Let’s go up for a few minutes and say hi to Maria.”
You opened your door and bent down to gather up the hem of your long bou-bou. From the shadows, two dark figures emerged and flanked both sides of the car. As you stepped down, you were jolted out of your reverie by the cold barrel of a gun jammed against your forehead.
A gun. G-u-n. Your breathing stumbled as you tripped over the running board. But you didn’t fall. You straightened, hand against the door. You kept waiting, you kept holding your breath, waiting for that explosion inside your head. It didn’t happen. You let go the door. You inhaled. The metal chilled your forehead, but you didn’t shiver. You exhaled. You wondered how long it would take to realize that you were dead after you died. With each second, with each breath, you were more and more grateful to be alive. To not have your brains splashed onto the embassy’s new SUV, not on the parking lot gravel, not even on the man holding the gun to your head. You looked past the gunman so as not to look him in the eyes. To not challenge him. Or, diss him, either. Dogs, didn’t like it when you stared at them. You had read that somewhere. Some other animals too, but you couldn’t remember which animals. A voice in your head kept shouting: Keep your chin down. Your body volume was turned up high. Like one big antenna. Taking it in. Your brain, on the other hand, was turned down slow. Real slow. Your thoughts meandered.
Far away from here, a dog howled.
Someone once told you that Ivoirians eat dogs. Maybe that dog was in trouble.
Muffled voices on the other side of the car sifted into your consciousness. As though propelled from a canon, Anton threw open the back car door, leapt out, and raced down the street, kicking up gravel in his wake. Your awareness of him was hazy, so focused were you on not getting shot. He was background noise. You were trying to telepathically communicate with your gunman, willing him to keep his finger off the trigger. A second gunman ushered your husband from the driver’s seat into the back where Anton had just exited and then climbed in beside him. The dog’s howling grew fainter. Your gunman gave a slight flick of his head in your direction, the gun was still aimed at your head. You edged backwards praying, silently, that you had not misinterpreted the man’s dismissal of you. Your legs moved as though you were wading through sticky molasses. Your gunman lowered himself into the driver’s seat and slammed the door. The SUV jerked backwards, turned, then, folded into the busy street in a trajectory of glistening blue metal.
“Madam, ce vas? (Are you OK?)” A parking lot guard had appeared from nowhere and now stood blocking your path.
“Oui, . . . No, c’ne te va bien.” (Yes, I mean, no—I’m not OK) Get out of my way, You wanted to shout at him. Where were you?
You shuffled around him, giving him wide berth, and moved toward Anton’s apartment building. Up the elevator. When Maria opened the apartment door, you crumbled into a wordless heap onto her floor.
Maria kneeled down and quietly embraced around you. She waited while you struggled to find the words in French to explain what happened. Anton entered the apartment not long after and interrupted your blabbering. In an animated tone, he narrated the carjacking. She did not know about your new SUV that the American Embassy just purchased for Cheick because of his new position. Now the carjackers had taken him away. Turning to you, Anton began to explain why he ran. You tuned him out, sipping the drink Maria had placed between your hands. You mentally replayed the parking lot events. You had little interest in Anton and his excuses. Everything seemed off-kilter and you were no longer sure what was real. What seemed real was that Cheick was gone. Where was he? Was he OK? You pondered this question when Aton’s cell phone rang. It was Cheick. The gunmen had let him out at the city limits. The car was gone, but he had contacted the Embassy who was sending someone to pick him up. Once he finished filling out an incident report, he would head straight to Anton’s house.
There was a low grade buzzing sound, like that of a fluorescent light. It was coming from inside your head. Slowly, slowly, you lower your head down between your legs.
On Monday, inundated with work, you pushed through a fog of fatigue. The medical officers in Benin and Cameroon had questions about individual volunteers. The country director in Guinea requested you attend their close of service program at the end of the month. And, you were preparing to leave for Togo next weekend. All day long, your colleagues expressed concern about the carjacking. You watched their mouths move and heard their voices. Your mouth moved in response. Yes, what a pity . . .
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the American embassy psychiatrist (the doctor who said he never kept records) called you several times and left messages for you at the office. The secretary, Marte, wrote down all the messages on pink slips and gave them to you, “Please come by the Embassy so that we can talk.” You gathered all the pink slips of ‘While You Were Out’ messages, and stacked them into little piles next to your computer.
In the evening, you mentioned to your husband that the psychiatrist had called you. “I mean, shouldn’t he be worrying about you?” You said. “You’re the one who was taken away at gunpoint.”
“Maybe he just wants to make sure you’re OK,” he said. “He came by my office in order to review the events with me. So, I talked with him. It wasn’t a big deal.”
“Well, I think he ought to worry about folks with real issues. And, leave me alone.”
The next morning, the psychiatrist was sitting in the otherwise empty waiting area outside your office. In acknowledgment that your cat and mouse game had ended, you sighed and ushered him into your office. His voice filled the silence in the room for what seemed like a very long time. Suddenly, you burst into tears.
The frightened little girl inside of you who felt everything depended on her juggling the balls and keeping them all in the air, stopped juggling. The balls clattered to the ground. Nothing happened. You continued to cry and the world did not end.
What a horrific experience. And what a rich experience. I love the ‘who are your people’ aspect of this story. I recently read “Homegoing;” your piece reminded me of that novel.