MY OWN LITTLE GHOST STORY

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My mother had a sixth grade education. She was a southern girl raised on a farm in the South Carolina low country. My Uncle George, her brother, died in The Battle of The Bulge. He was my grandmother’s youngest and the apple of her eye. My grandmother was dying from a brain tumor when my mother was pregnant with me, her first child. She told my mother that I was a boy and made her promise to name me George. Mom also said that my grandmother’s ghost visited her the night after she died.

Mom had many superstitions and odd beliefs. She believed that sea shells were bad luck, and that eating a banana after drinking a coke was certain death. Of course I tested that one out. I swear that she never had an inkling that there was anything sexual about this, but she believed the coachwhip snake, a long black snake, would hide in fields and wait for a woman to pass by. Then it would rise up, make a perfect construction worker like wolf whistle. When the woman looked at it, presumably a white woman, it would hypnotize her. Then it would crawl up to her, wrap around her, and squeeze her to death.

I have a brother one year younger and a much younger sister. Our parents loved us and sacrificed a great deal for us, but both were severely flawed, and the family unit deteriorated as the years went by. Mom suffered from ever worsening bipolar depression and dad had an ever worsening drinking problem. If anything mom was overprotective of us when we were young and her mental condition less pronounced. Dad was from Missouri, a child of the great depression, which intelligence aside limited a poor farm boy like him to an eighth grade education. He worked hard all his life at a dirty job, a welder in a naval shipyard. I liked the members of his Missouri family. However from age ten on we lived in the south, and mom’s family always seemed disdainful, almost hostile to us kids. I don’t think they cared for dad, and somehow that extended to us. Often my brother and I were treated like cheap labor. I was a bright kid with good grades, my brother valedictorian of his class, but my Greek uncle by marriage told us on several occasions that we should quit school and get a job washing dishes. When Uncle Jim lay dying, my brother and I had to sit death watch in the hospital in the wee hours.

Eventually our family disintegrated entirely when dad’s alcoholism finally cost him his job. My brother and I were in college, and due to scholarships, government loans and grants, and some work, we were able to get by on our own, if barely. My younger sister went to Missouri to live with her godparents, a wonderful childless couple who eventually adopted her. Perhaps the greatest thing my mother ever did for any of her children was befriend Lee and Nina back when we lived in Missouri and make them my sister’s godparents. I think they were the only non-related friends my parents ever had, and maintaining that friendship would have been impossible had we not moved away to South Carolina. Whether it was divine intervention or just lucky circumstance, I was grateful that she was taken care of. When things fell apart, mom followed my sister up there to Missouri. By that time her mental conditon had made her impossible to live with, and she would have fought institutionalization tooth and nail. Her family would have crucified us as well. As the oldest I experienced a great deal of guilt and anxiety about her, but there just wasn’t much I could do. I keep telling myself that.

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A year or two later mom died. We brought the body back down to Charleston. I was working at the time, fresh out of college during a recession, just getting by. My brother stayed with me in a big house I shared with friends. My sister stayed with the family of another friend of mine. Mom’s family blamed us of course. I don’t think they ever acknowledged her mental condition. Even toward the end she could hold things together to some degree for an hour or two when a sister visited. Still it was there if you looked, but family doesn’t always look. I coordinated the arrangements with them but otherwise we didn’t have any face to face contact until the day of the funeral. My main concern was shielding my siblings as much as possible. As expected they were pretty cold toward us, barely civil, but we got through it.

That night I slept downstairs on the couch, having given my brother my room. I felt drained from the whole experience, sad but relieved that the ordeal was over. Sometime in the night I felt something land on my stomach. I sat up. I suspected that the cat had jumped down from the couch back, but I couldn’t find the cat. I went back to sleep. Sometime later I opened my eyes, and by the light from the street side window, I saw a key on a string twirling around above my head. I quickly closed my eyes. I told myself that understandably I had taken things harder than I thought. So I opened my eyes again and now the key was twirling faster and closer. I was scared. I closed my eyes. I took a few minutes to screw up my courage before I opened them again. Thank God the twirling key was gone. I sat up and took some deep breaths. I lay back down and had just closed my eyes, when I felt two hands touch me firmly three times top to bottom like a body search. At that point I jumped up and started yelling. Lights came on and people rushed down. I think all I said to them was that something strange was going on. That was the end of it. The next morning I noticed a key on a string hanging on the inside of the nearby window frame. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that it was all a dream due to extreme stress, combined with my childhood memories of mom’s superstitious tales. All I can say is that looking back I acted quite rationally in that dream, if indeed it was a dream.

THE WISE FROG DOESN’T PLAY IN HOT WATER

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As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chad working on a USAID funded project, I’d spent a good bit of time in the USAID office in N’Djamena. Also we mixed a lot socially. One of the senior USAID guys and maybe the best of the breed, Ed Costello, had been to my house for pig roasts, and I had been to his house to watch recordings of football games. So my interview with him near the end of my three years of service went smoothly. At the end he said that they probably had something for me lined up. He smiled, “But George, don’t go out and buy a cadillac yet.” So as soon as I was a free man again, I was hired on a short term personal services contract to figure out where the money they’d spent on a big multi-donor agriculture project had actually gone. Apparently they didn’t have a clue, or at least they pretended not to have one. I suspected that it was a bureaucratic hot potato thing. That project was a complicated mess and way too far gone to rectify. The folks back in Foggy Bottom must have demanded accountability or closure or something, and nobody wanted to have their names attached to that final ugly post-mortem report.

Since the project was potentially career tarnishing, the responsibility for supervising it had drifted down to the least common denominator, Stephen (don’t remember his real name). Stephen was the youngest and least experienced USAID direct hire employee in Chad. Let’s define that further to just one of the least experienced human beings anywhere period. He had spent some years as a monk in India (I think). I believe he even mentioned having taken a vow of silence for awhile. He was a likeable guy, academically smart, who exuded pleasantness and calmness and blissful ignorance about all things Chadian. Unfortunately he had become infamous in Foreign Service circles when he’d had some special honey shipped to him through the diplomatic pouch. A jar had broken, and from one stop to another the package had leaked the sticky stuff. Apparently the pouch had made several stops along the way to Chad, each one generating an angry cable. The ambassador was not amused. The point here is that sending Stephen up to the project site in remote Bol would have just been cruel. So they hired me, a rough and tumble well driller with language skills who knew his way around up there.

I spent a few weeks in the USAID office going over all the project files and learning to navigate my way through that bureaucratic sea. If that sounds like an exorbitant amount of time, then you have no idea how much paper a USAID project can generate in four years or so. USAID might be the preeminent bureaucracy in the entire US Government. If not it’s a contender. Until Jack Anderson wrote about it, they had an actual official job title: The Administrative Assistant to The Assistant Administrator for Administration, United States Agency for International Development. I mean when an agency’s “handbook” surpasses twenty-five volumes, that pretty much tells the story. We wells vols used to goof on USAID. When we wrote the subsequently approved two million dollar extension to our current project, we stated in it that once approved the first thing we needed to do was to go out and take a PISS (a pre-installation site survey).

A word about the Ag project. The polders are finger-shaped valleys at the edges of Lake Chad. Lake Chad has no observable outlets but it remains fresh water. It floods in the winter months when the accumulated water from earlier rains much farther south finally reach it via the Chari River. The river pours fresh water into the lake, and the higher salt content stagnent water is pushed to the fringes, flooding the polders. When the lake recedes again, shallow pools are left in the polders to evaporate during the dry season. There are also other ways the lake sheds salt, like natron formation and harvesting, that are not relevant here. Since the water table in the polders is near the surface, pumping up fresh water and flooding them to desalinate them if needed is not a big deal. Then build a little earthen damn across the usually narrow entrance to keep the lake from flooding it again, and you have a very fertile easily irrigated little valley. Traditionally when irrigation in Chad’s hot dry climate built the salt content of the soil back up, the locals would break down the damn and flood the polders again. The polders have been used for local agriculture for thousands of years, however up to that point never on a grand mechanized scale.

When that huge multi-donor project was conceived, in most years for a few months the open water reached Bol during the fall and winter, and then barges could navigate the lake and river between N’Djamena and Bol. So the idea was to grow wheat on a large scale and send it by barge down to N’Djamena to be processed and turned into delicious baguettes. Seemed like a great idea. Then the great Sahelian drought of the early to mid seventies hit just as the project was getting underway. The open water no longer came within miles of Bol, and never has since, even in wetter years. Lake Chad shrank. And tropical vegetation soon filled the void. Given the significant infrastructure investment and the lure of the fertile polders, they looked for solutions. For years at great effort and expense they kept a channel open through miles of vegetation, but the barge thing never panned out. So they decided to grow vegetables in the polders and ship them by truck over sand pistes (just tracks in the sand) and rough roads. Vegetables sold to expats at the project store in N’Djamena generated cash. Useful stuff cash.

In the beginning of Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra Expedition, he writes of his trip from N’Djamena to Bol to study the papyrus boats on Lake Chad as a great harrowing adventure, fraught with danger. I found his hyperbole amusing. At one point I almost fell out of my seat laughing as he described his acute anxiety at being surrounded by “swarthy bedouins.” He was talking about Kanembous. In N’Djamena the street vendors carrying bright colored towels and scarfs on their heads who insistently tried to sell you cigarettes and heart-shaped sunglasses were Kanembous. Also Kanembou ladies were renowned for friendliness. En brousse I found them to be generous, hospitable, and quick to laugh, but stubborn at times. Once a bunch of young Kanembou men piled into the bed of my pickup and refused to budge until I drove them to a not too distant village for a wedding. A fellow wells vol compared them to the Hekawi Indian tribe in the TV show F-Troop. Honestly I never for one moment felt threatened by Kanembous, annoyed at times, but never threatened. I’m sure they found me annoying at times too. Anyway a trip to Bol was just a day at the office for me, albeit a long dirty one. I must have made that trip thirty/forty times. Still and all, it was difficult enough that I knew it couldn’t make economic sense to ship perishable vegetables that way.

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Other than some cement and construction materials which went into the project infrastructure in the early days, the USAID part of the project consisted of underwriting the costs of improving and maintaining roads in and around the polders. The Chadian governing agency, the World Bank and the UN were really the major players. So it was my job to find out if the USAID money had gone and was still going where it was supposed to go. USAID did ask me to try and find out exactly what their construction materials had been used for. However, short of any authority to access the files of the other project participants, that was a fool’s errand, water under the bridge, and I ignored it. Within two days up in Bol I had confirmed what I’d suspected from the files, that the USAID polder road maintenance funds were financing nearly all of the operating costs of transporting vegetables to N’Djamena by truck, including fuel, vehicle repairs, even driver salaries. I stayed up in Bol for two weeks anyway. I had friends up there, fresh vegetables aplenty, and as long as you had shelter from the mosquito swarms coming off the lake at night, Bol wasn’t a bad place. I was in no hurry, earning some real money was nice.

One of my friends, Mike Bouchard, was a PCV mechanic in Bol working on the ag project, and whatever else they asked him to do. He was the youngest vol in Chad, and very unusual for Peace Corps didn’t have a college degree. Apparently he had been in college and had been questioning if it was really the thing for him at that time, sitting around in a dorm with some buddies (maybe drinking, maybe stoned, I don’t remember him telling me that part), when they saw a Peace Corps recruiting ad on TV that enigmatically asked if the glass they were showing was half full or half empty, call this number to find out. He called. The recruiter never answered the question, but she did ask Mike if he had any skills. Mike figured that electric guitar probably didn’t count, so he answered with his other main skill. “Well, I’m a diesel mechanic.” There was a pause. “Hold on, let me get your information.”

Once during what passed for the rainy season up there, when Mike had been in Bol over a year, I stopped the landrover on top of a dune, and we looked out over an expanse of small dunes sparsely covered in light green cram cram grass. Cram cram is a burr grass, and where even cram cram no longer grows is considered by some botanists as the demarcation of the true desert. If we gazed at the most distant dunes, they appeared to be totally covered in a light green fuzz, but closer you could clearly see the sand beneath. Mike turned to me: “It kind of reminds me of the Shenandoah Valley.” After I took that in, I replied, “You know Mike, perhaps you should consider going home for a visit.”

Mike worked with David Girven, one of the true Chad legends. David had been a Chad vol back in the early days when Peace Corps did fun things, like teach new vols the wrong language and dump them without a structured job in isolated villages. Psychovacs were not uncommon in those days. David had stayed on in Chad working for the Chadian Government agency running the ag project as a mechanic. He fixed everything that needed fixing, and invented things like a plowing shield to put on the bow of the boat that cleared the papyrus blocking the channel to open water. He had a Chadian family, lived in a humble mud brick compound, and was bigger than life, a Chadian Jeremiah Johnson, liked and respected by Chadians all over that region. He was a humble, compassionate, and generous man.

Since a good portion of Bol used our wells, we vols were up there fairly frequently. Many a night we’d camped out in David’s compound, huddled under our mosquito nets. You didn’t walk around much in Bol at night. The massed whining of mosquitos coming in off the lake at sunset compared to a big jet preparing for takeoff. One night David stood outside the nets and held out his bare arm until no skin was visible, just mosquitos. David was not loquacious by nature, but it was a real treat when we could coax one of the old stories out of him.

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So after a couple of weeks I went back to N’Djamena, spent another couple weeks in the USAID office slugging through the bureaucracy, and then turned in my final report. I was still being paid to hang around while people digested my report, in case they had any questions. The initial reactions had been favorable, and I had hopes USAID would find something else for me to do. At that moment all hell broke loose in N’Djamena. It was a civil war, fighting in the streets, a total breakdown in order. Leaving the war stories to be told separately, after several days when the fighting had diminished enough to risk it, I made my way out to the airport. All non-essential personnel were being evacuated to Yaounde, Cameroon, and from there to the states. Baggage was limited to two suitcases per person. Apparently some of the “essential” personnel decided that my language and practical skills could come in handy, so I was asked to stay on and help with logistics, first and foremost the loose packing of abandoned homes. I accepted. Continue reading

MAGAWA THE EVIL SORCERER (AN ORIGINAL AFRICAN FABLE)

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When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chad I always had my ear out for myths, legends, and good stories. There was a Chadian tribe, name pronounced as bah-nah-nah (real spelling Banana believe it or not), that was always being accused of sorcery and shapeshifting. Many countries African and otherwise have one group that they blame for all the negative things that happen. It was claimed that their sorcerers would change into elephants at harvest to steal grain, and you could identify them by the red eyes of the elephant. Once in chatting with some UN or World Bank Ag people (I forget), they said that there might be a basis for that myth. Given the peculiar nature of an elephant’s digestive system, and assuming it was filled almost 100 percent with grain, some fermentation might be possible. Therefore during the harvest season theoretically an elephant could get drunk because of all the internally stored grain, and subsequently hung over with blood shot eyes. Highly doubtful but fun speculation. Anyway that is the seed of inspiration for this story.

There was a time long ago when supernatural beings were present on the earth more than they are today. Although frowned upon by the greater powers back in the home office, as human beings emerged contact between them happened all too frequently. Those immortals performed varied tasks. Some were elemental forces of fire and earth and wind and water, who moved continents, raised mountains and volcanic islands, and steered the currents of the great oceans. Others were the guardians of fish and birds and grasslands and forests and wild beasts, permitting those creatures to progress and develop at a measured pace according to a Grand Design of which they themselves had no ultimate knowledge. They had jobs to do, but where it all led was not in their purview. Some people called these entities spirits or elementals or angels or demons. One of the old words for those deemed benign was “eudaemon” — literally “good demon,” which later people translated as “angel.” Classfying them as good or bad, angel or demon, was often a result of how their individual actions affected the beholders. An earthquake is destructive but not evil, although the elemental causing it would most likely be labeled a demon by the people in a destroyed village.

However powerful, they were not immune to many of the same temptations faced by man. One of the great sins was having carnal relations with humans. A far worse sin was having children with humans. That almost always involved a male angel/demon and a human female, since the female immortals, though certainly not above lust, could prevent conception. It took a singularly rare act of definance for a female immortal to intentionally conceive a child. Perhaps because they were the progeny of two very different creatures, the children of a union between an immortal and human were always sterile. Their original name was Nephilim, and although they were not immortal and could be killed, they lived far longer and possessed powers far greater than ordinary people. Rare was the Nephilim who could resist the temptations such longevity and power entailed. No doubt they were the source of many of the legends of nightmare creatures like vampires and werewolves. Some of the famous conquerors of ancient history may well have been Nephilim. Fortunately there were never many of them living at any one time. Also in an era when great kings and conquerors often fought at the front leading their warriors, the more ambitious of them tended to lead risky lives. Nevertheless, if not for their sterility, there is little doubt that their descendents would have ruled the world. Apparently that was not part of the Grand Design.

Magawa was a Nephilim, the son of Chuila, the guardian spirit of the large wild animals of Africa. Over the countless years Chuila had become more and more drawn to the predators, especially the larger cats. In time he became cruel and arrogant and greedy and lustful. The big cats lusted mostly for blood, where he lusted for other things as well. One evening in the guise of a lion he spied a beautiful young woman, Miralu, bathing in a pond. Without thought he changed into a man, pounced on her, and raped her. Magawa was the result of that rape. The Grand Design of The Creator included a covenant guaranteeing Free Will to all the mortal creatures on earth. However since Chuila was immortal, he was subject to swift certain judgement for his horrible transgression. Chuila was walled away from the earth and imprisoned in the dark cold void between the stars for as near to forever as to make no never mind.

Miralu was never quite right after her rape. Although she tried, she couldn’t force herself to feel the love and affection of a normal mother toward her child. Listless and sad, she died when Magawa was just a boy. Magawa grew apace in strength and cunning, inheriting some of the powers of his father, including the ability to shapeshift into animal form. As a boy he had only a slight reddish tint to his eyes, but as he aged and the evil within him grew as well, his eyes became the color of blood. He would have been considered handsome if not for those eyes. Increasingly he was shunned by everyone, including the young women he desired. Nevertheless his powers enabled him to become wealthy. Eventually he lived apart in a grand house in a large compound guarded by fierce animals. At times he would change into a lion or leopard to kill his enemies and to abduct women in the night, women who would never return to their villages. During the harvest season he would become an elephant in order to steal grain that he would carry home in his large stomach, which could hold undigested for many hours around twenty-five gallons of grain. The people always knew that the elephant stealing their grain was Magawa because of its blood red eyes. Thus he became known and feared as an evil sorcerer.

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Harmattan was a wind elemental whose domain in the north of Africa was mostly desert. In the winter he blew cold dry air, often filled with fine dust, far southward to peopled lands. Those dust storms irritated eyes, throats and lungs and caused illness. In the desert he could whip up a quick sandstorm that could scour the skin of men and animals. In the summer when moister air moved up from rains far to the south, he would toss it high and create thunderstorms that he would push westward into the sea to strenghten as they moved across the warm waters and sometimes became hurricanes that devastated distant lands. Harmattan was not beloved, but he was not evil. Although there were times when he enjoyed flexing his powers to excess, causing great destruction to lands and peoples and pushing his barren domain ever southward. He did this because he had no empathy with living things. However gradually over the long years he began to delight in the flight of birds. He loved the way they played in his winds. One species of bird became especially precious to him. We might even call them pets. However because the birds ate grain, and there was little of that in the desert, they often flew south to find food. For the first time Harmattan experienced loneliness when his pets left him, and for the first time he experienced happiness when they returned.

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Cramcrami was the guardian of the vast savannahs of Africa. She loved all things grass, even the little burr grass that thinly blanketed the dunes on the borders of the true desert during the rainy season, only to die completely away in the hot dry months. It is said that grass and grain have the same mother, and for all intents and purposes that mother was Cramcrami. She came into contact with humans early on when nomadic women first gathered the seeds of wild grasses. She helped when humans began to settle and farm. She sang long over the grasses favored by humans, and her powers increased the size of the grains and the yield per plant. Cramcrami was gentle by nature and lacked the physical strength of elementals like Harmattan, although still quite strong by human standards. Nonetheless she was in fact one of the most powerful entities on earth, for in addition to grasses, grains, and herbs, she also had great influence over bushes and small trees. Most importantly, she was thoughtful and did nothing without considering the consequences, which distinguished her from most of the other supernatural entities on earth at that time, and was a kind of power in and of itself. She was called by many different names in many places. She was credited for giving olive trees and fig trees and many berries and fruit to mankind. She  Continue reading

LILOMBO AND NKUMBA (A TRADITIONAL CONGOLESE FABLE)

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Folks this one requires a little introduction. I did not write this. I exercised a light editorial touch, preserved the source material for almost thirty years, arranged for the translation, supplied the Congolese artwork, and put it all together. However real credit goes to the original Congolese story tellers, Pere Paul Lepoutre who assembled and transcribed these stories into written Lingala, and then published them, thus saving them from oblivion, as well as to Stan Hotalen who translated the story from what he described as esoteric King James Lingala. Stan has spent most of his life in the Congo, with some years stateside for college, grad studies and work experience in the middle. He has traversed the Congo teaching the Bible, health programs and community development. I had no luck trying to translate the stories. Lingala dictionaries and the online translation services could only translate about forty percent of the words. Modern street Lingala is very different. I appealed for help on the RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) Facebook page. Someone pointed me toward Stan and Stan toward me. Thanks. So those guys deserve the credit. Enjoy!

Lilombo and Nkumba lived in the same village. One year during the rainy season, they went hunting with some friends from their village. An animal got caught in Nkumba’s trap. Nkumba cast his spear killing the animal, and then yelled, “Clap your hands! Clap your hands!” But his fiends didn’t hear him because Nkumba had a weak voice. Lilombo happened to be standing next to Nkumba and he yelled loudly, “Clap your hands! Clap your hands! Clap your hands for me, Lilombo!” Everyone heard him and they said to themselves, “Lilombo has killed an animal!” When it was time to divide things up, they gave Lilombo the heart of the animal because he was the one who killed it. When Nkumba saw that he was angry and said, “The heart is mine because I am the one who killed it.” But Lilombo replied, “Whose voice did all of you hear?”  All of their friends answered, “We heard only Lilombo’s voice.” So they gave the heart to him.

The next time the men went hunting, Lilombo used the same strategy and stayed close to Nkumba. Nkumba again killed an animal and cried out, “Clap your hands! Clap your hands!”  His friends heard nothing. So Lilombo yelled again in his very strong and loud voice and everyone heard him. They came together and again divided up the animal, and again they gave the heart to Lilombo. Each time they hunted Lilombo did the same thing to Nkumba.

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Nkumba became depressed and frustrated. “What can I do to resolve this problem?” he wondered. “Every animal that I kill, Lilombo ends up getting credit for it.” When they went out hunting again, Nkumba saw an animal moving nearby. He threw his spear, but this time he missed. The spear flew past the animal, striking and killing another hunter who had been stalking it. Thinking quickly, Nkumba called out, “Clap your hands! Clap your hands!” When Lilombo heard Nkumba he did as he always did and yelled loudly,  “Clap your hands! Clap your hands! Clap for me Lilombo.” All of the other hunters said among themselves, “Oh! Lilombo has again killed an animal!” They went to see and divide up the animal, however what they found dead on the ground was a human. Everyone was shocked and began to cry out, “Brothers! Lilombo has killed a man!” Lilombo responded and said, “What are you talking about? I didn’t kill him. It was Nkumba who killed him!”  However Nkumba denied it and played dumb.
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The two of them began to fight, until the other hunters broke it up and took them before the Mokonzi (the village chief) to be judged. Lilombo spoke first: “Mokonzi, every animal that people thought I killed was really killed by Nkumba. I just outsmarted him. He is the one who killed that man, not me.” Then Nkumba responded, “Mokonzi ask the other hunters whose voice they heard claiming credit for the kill?” All the others answered, “We only heard Lilombo. From the start of the hunt until the end we never heard Nkumba’s voice.” Then the Mokonzi decided the matter and pronounced his punishment on Lilombo: that Lilombo should pay a large sum of money to the family of the dead man. When Lilombo couldn’t come up with the money, the Mokonzi ruled: “Since you don’t have the money, it is just and fair that you become a slave to the family of the dead man.” From that day on Lilombo remained a slave. Eventually he lost all of his hair because of the hard work and shame of slavery, and now he lives in the village of slaves down by the water.
The moral: One way or the other, in the end theft and deception don’t go unpunished.

IDRIS AND THE RIVER PEOPLE

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This story takes place sometime in the nineteen twenties. It is about a young fisherman named Idris who lived in a village on the east bank of the Chari River between the city of Fort Lamy a little ways to the south and Lake Chad much farther to the north. A member of the Bagirmi tribe, his family was poor because his father had lost an arm. They depended on Idris who was an excellent fisherman. His best friend Moussa came from a wealthier family. In fact Moussa’s family was distantly related to Sultan Moustapha of the Bagirmi Tribe. Most days, especially in the dry season when the river was shallow everywhere but in the very center, Idriss and Moussa would go out on the river in a fine pirogue that belonged to Moussa’s father Aboubakar and try to net or spear fish in the shallows. Aboubakar spent his days tending his herds of cattle and goats and riding his handsome horse. Idris’s family owned an old leaky pirouge that he used only in Moussa’s absence, for fear of it sinking. Their prize catch was the large capitaine (a.k.a. Nile perch) so highly valued by nasaras (white people, mostly French), who lived in Fort Lamy. One large capitaine would sell for enough money to feed a family for a week, maybe two.

It had been the Bagirmi Tribe that had appealed to the French for help against the Arabic slave raiders. We sometimes think of slave raiders as small gangs of outlaws, but in those days some commanded what amounted to small armies. In fact in Idris’s day many of the older Bagirmi women had plugs in their lips intended to make them unattractive to the raiders. Idris was happy that girls no longer had to do that. A few years before Idris was born, a combined and badly outnumbered but better armed French and Bagirmi force had defeated Rabah, the last and greatest of the slave raiders, at Kousseri, a small town on the Cameroonian side of the river across from the eventual Chadian capital city of Fort Lamy, named after the commanding French officer who had died heroically in that battle. Many years later it would be renamed N’Djamena following Chad’s independence from France. Idris’s father had lost his arm at Kousseri, and from then on could only fish with line from the river bank. In addition to his father’s arm, the price of that victory had been that the French settled in to govern that vast area known as The Chad, the last significant area in Africa to be colonized. And now the Bagirmi were less than they once were, just one of many tribes, but they no longer had to worry about slavers. Whether things were better or worse under the French was something the old men argued about over millet beer.

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Fishing on the Chari was dangerous. Hippos would sometimes overturn pirogues and kill fishermen. Drowning when the river was flooding was always a danger, for very few people knew how to swim. It is easy to learn to swim in a nice swimming pool or a safe little lake or pond, but not so easy in swift rivers or in ponds infested with poisonous snakes. And once in a while a large crocodile would slip down the river from the endless reeds on Lake Chad or the seasonal swamps and ponds on the west side of the river in Cameroon. In fact the west bank of the river was a favorite place to fish. Lines on paper drawn by nasaras didn’t mean much to the Bagirmi. Also Idris and Moussa were always on the lookout for the river people, not that they saw them often. In fact Idris had seen one only twice in his life. The river people looked something like nasaras, with their pale skin and long flowing blonde hair. They also had angled emerald-colored eyes, many small pointed teeth, gills, narrow heads, and webbed hands and feet. That they were seen so rarely was thought to be due to the magical powers that some thought they possessed. No nasara had ever seen one, at least as far as anyone knew. They doubted that the river people existed at all, believing them to be folk legends. But then no nasaras spent days on end searching the river for fish. Seeing one of the river people was considered to be an omen of some sort, whether good or bad was a matter of debate, probably because hippo attacks sometimes followed sightings. Some thought that the hippos were like cattle to the river people.

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Now Idris thought more deeply about the river people and things in general than Moussa and the other young men in his village. Except for their long blonde hair everything about the river people seemed designed for swift movement in water. That bothered him, so one day he asked Hussein about it, the wisest old man he knew. Hussein said he didn’t know for sure, but the hair could just be vanity. He’d seen many a strutting bird and preening animal, so why not river people? However he then asked Idris to think about how few times river people had been spotted. Hussein smiled and said that with the sun shining down and his hair fanning out above him as he sat on the sandy river bottom, a river person might be pretty hard to see. Also since the river wasn’t deep all year long, often Idris had wondered where the river people lived. Moussa’s father believed that they lived in cavelike villages under the banks of the river, although no one had ever seen such a village. Others said that they lived under the reed mats floating in Lake Chad and only came down on occasion, which is what the members of the Kanembou Tribe around Lake Chad claimed, but then the Kamembous were known for telling tall tales. Anyway no one knew for certain, not even old Hussein.

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One day while Idris and Moussa were fishing, a giant crocodile broke the surface holding a struggling river man in its jaws. Moussa wanted to paddle away, but Idris stood up and threw a spear that pierced the crocodile’s eye. The crocodile released the river man and disappeared beneath the water. Although bleeding violet blood from several wounds, the river man stared at Idris, as if memorizing his features, then he’d nodded once and rolled beneath the water. When the villagers heard the story, they were amazed. No one knew whether it meant good fortune or ill fortune for Idris, but everybody agreed that it had to mean something.

Now it so happened that all the sultan’s daughters had been married off one by one, save for his youngest, a gazelle-eyed beauty named Aisha. Whenever Idris and Moussa encountered Aisha, Idris thought her shy smile drifted his way more than Moussa’s, but perhaps that was wishful thinking. For each daughter in turn the sultan had held a contest to determine the lucky young groom. The first had been a horse race. The second had been the longest crocodile skin. And the third had been a hunt for meat for the bridal feast. A renowned hunter had brought in a magnificent antelope cheval, but the prize had gone to a handsome younger man who had brought in a warthog. Turned out that the Sultan just loved roasted warthog. Who knew? That night at the feast, although his portion was small and not choice, Idris discovered that roasted warthog really is delicious. Later he watched as the daughter in question gave a quick sly wink to her husband to be. For Aisha’s contest the Sultan had decided on the largest capitaine. The suitors were given one week with prizes measured every evening. That gave Idris hope, for everyone knew he was the best fisherman for many miles around. Briefly he wondered if maybe Aisha had had something to do with that.

Over the first five days of the contest Idris and Moussa fished together as usual. Both had caught capitaine, but Idris had caught the largest. It was part of the contest ritual to gut and clean the fish in the late afternoon with all the villagers present. On the sixth morning Idris discovered that Moussa had taken his pirogue out earlier by himself. So Idris took his old pirogue out that day. He didn’t catch anything. In fact Moussa had left in the middle of the night and paddled the ten miles or so against the north flowing current all the way to Fort Lamy. There in the fish market he had spent all his money to purchase the largest capitaine he could find, one larger than the one Idris had caught earlier. He thought Aisha was a fine looking girl, but really for him it was all about marrying the sultan’s daughter. Paddling back with the current was much easier. When he presented the fish there were murmurs because the fish had already been gutted and cleaned. Moussa explained that he had caught the fish early in the morning and was afraid it would spoil laying ungutted in the pirogue all day. Idris was suspicious, but he had no proof.

He decided to go out by himself the next and final day of the contest, his old pirogue notwithstanding. He no longer trusted his friend. He fished vainly all that day and began to despair when suddenly the water around the boat began to roil. That frightened him because that often happened just before a hippo attack. But soon the water on both sides of the pirogue filled with river people. That was frightening too, but there was little he could do about it, so he sat quietly. The river people on one side grabbed the pirogue and held it steady, while the river people on the other side hoisted up and dumped over into the center of the pirogue the largest capitaine that Idris had ever seen, maybe that anybody had ever seen. The fish was so heavy that the pirogue sank down until only a couple inches remained above the water line. It would later measure out at just under six foot and three hundred and sixty pounds. And it was beautiful with silver scintillating scales blue tinged in places and black eyes surrounded by bright yellow eye walls. When he looked back up all but one of the river people had disappeared. Of course it was the one whose life he had saved. The river man smiled. That was a pretty scary too with all those little pointed teeth, but a smile is a smile for all that. Idris smiled back and this time the river man nodded his thanks. Then he turned gracefully and slipped beneath the water.

When Idris returned oh so carefully in his pirogue, he became the toast of the village. The sultan himself came down to gut the fish, quite an honor. Idriss heard some old men mutter that it was the biggest capitaine anyone had caught since the days of their great great grandfathers, which made him smile. In his experience when it came to fish stories, great great grandfathers, great grandfathers, grandfathers, and old men in general were not exactly wedded to the truth. When the sultan sliced the fish’s belly open, a large emerald fell out. After some oohing and ahhing, the sultan announced that much of the money from its sale would be used as a dowry for Aisha. He bought them a plot of land on a hill overlooking the river, with a nice mud brick house that had a real tin roof, and he gave Idris a fine new pirogue. The land behind the house was flat and fertile so Aisha could grow spices and hot peppers and gumbo and ground nuts among other things. In the years that followed, Idris and Aisha had four healthy children. Surprisingly they all had green eyes and just the tiniest bit of webbing between their toes and fingers. They loved the water and were all fine fishermen and fisherwomen. His two girls were strong limbed and fished as well as the two boys. As for Moussa, from that day on he had no luck fishing. He became a herder like his father.

Moral: You know, every great once in a while, just to keep the universe honest, a good deed really does go unpunished.

THE LEOPARD, THE TORTOISE, AND THE GAZELLE (AN ORIGINAL AFRICAN FABLE)

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In Africa a long long time ago there were places where people had yet to come and animals ruled supreme. In one such place the chief of all the animals, the mokonsi, was the leopard. Some other animals were bigger and stronger like the elephants and hippos and crocodiles, but the animals considered the leopard the most dangerous and didn’t want to get on his bad side. No one feared the peaceful elephants, and the hippos and crocodiles were only dangerous in or near rivers and lakes. The leopard could climb trees, and see at night better than most of the other animals, moving quickly and quietly through the trees, and he was strong with long teeth and flashing claws. So the leopard ruled the deep forest.

Now the leopard was not content just to be the mokonsi of the deep forest. He claimed to rule the vast grassy plains on the borders of the forest as well. Most of the animals there, the antelopes, warthogs, jackals, and even the big strong buffalos feared the leopard and accepted him as the mokonsi. All but the gazelle and his wife. The gazelles were so fast and nimble that the leopard could never catch them, although he often tried to sneak up on them in the night. The female gazelle grew tired of being stalked by the leopard, so she decided to ask her old friend the tortoise for help.

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This was no ordinary tortoise. She was called the mother of all tortoises because she was the eldest of all the tortoises living in the entire world. She was hundreds and hundreds of years old and her shell was as big as a very large house and even had bushes and grassses growing on top of it. Animals often walked right by her thinking she was just another hill. All the animals respected her for her wisdom, and some even claimed that she had secret magical powers. In fact she possessed no magic, if by that you mean something supernatural, but her shell did contain wonders, wonders called books and scrolls. Long ago the tortoises had learned to chew and pound reeds to make paper, and they’d learned to read and wright in tortoise fashion. Now their loosely bound books made with crude paper weren’t as fancy as our modern books, but it is what is written inside a book that counts. In fact the inside of her shell was really an enormous library containing all the tortoise wisdom of the ages, which was a lot because they live so long, are very observent, and do a lot of thinking in their quiet shells. It was considered an honor, almost a holy pilgrimage, for elderly tortoises to make the long slow journey to give her the book they had assembled over the course of their lives.

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All that aside, to the lady gazelle the tortoise was just an old and treasured friend who lived nearby, and a very wise one. She told the tortoise about their problem and asked for her advice. Her friend replied that she would think about it and to come back in a week. During that week the tortoise read a lot and thought about the problem, paying special attention to the section of her library labeled psychology. When she had a plan that she thought would work, she told the gazelle what to do.

A few days later the leopard came slinking around and asked the lady gazelle where her husband was. While staying out of leaping range, she told him the tortoise was using her magic to send her husband up to the gods to ask them to kill the leopard. The leopard was furious and took off at a run to find the tortoise. As soon as he left the male gazelle came out of hiding and they both raced off and got there well before the leopard. When the leopard arrived he saw the head of the male gazelle on the ground covered in blood and the tortoise holding a bloody axe in her mouth.

“Is he dead?” The leopard asked.

“No,” she replied after setting down the axe. “This is how I use my magic to send someone to the gods to appeal for help. He wants to replace you as mokonsi.  I’ve done this countless times through the years. He will be fully restored shortly.”

The leopard padded around huffing and puffing. “Then you must do the same for me so that they can hear my side.”

The tortoise obliged. The lady gazelle came out of hiding and dug her husband out of the dirt and washed off the red berry juice. They thanked the tortoise. And for awhile peace reigned over the forest and the grassy plains. But sooner or later another mokonsi always comes along.

Moral: While the distant gods are often deaf to our appeals, the axes here on earth are rather sharp.

THE DOGS BARK BUT THE CARAVAN MOVES ON (INTERESTING CHARACTERS I’VE KNOWN — USAID BOSSES)

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I first came into contact with John Lundgren when I was a PCV well driller. Our project was funded by and required a good bit of contact with USAID. In addition living in N’Djamena there was a great deal of interaction in general between PCVs and embassy/USAID personnel, far more than most places I’ve lived and worked. It was the mid-seventies and things were decidedly less uptight than now. Characters abounded, people were allowed to be a touch eccentric. And John, the USAID Director, was a five star character. Everybody knew he was a nudist. Usually he drove to work without a shirt on and put it on in his parking space. Once in later years when I knew him better, I asked him what he thought about going to his new post as AID Affairs Officer in Djibouti. He replied, “Maybe I can find a beach where I can walk around naked.” Also in later years a female consultant friend told me she had stayed at John’s house once for a few days. She’d known about his nudist proclivities, but it hadn’t bothered her. He wasn’t going to walk around naked in front of her. John had class. But one night she went down for some water and surprised John as he was getting something out of the frig. The refrigerator door was between them. They chatted a few minutes until she realized he was getting cold.

imageJohn had a pronounced theatrical streak. He never seemed to be off stage, but he was a likable guy. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body and he was loyal to his people. Somehow he was contacted by a guy named Pruitt from the University of Tennessee (I think). I don’t remember if he was a professor, PhD student or what. Anyway, from his ivory tower in Knoxville this guy had developed an elaborate and unbelievable project proposal to stop the spread of the Sahara. He wanted to build dykes along three to four hundred kilometers of the Logone river to keep it from its annual flooding, thus greatly increasing the water flow into Lake Chad and doubling its size. He postulated that that would greatly increase humidity and rainfall in a large area of the Sahel — a dubious assumption, there are desert islands. Also that annual flooding that he wanted to stop allowed for extensive rice cultivation. The funniest part was that he estimated the labor costs using the labor production and cost stats of the Chinese coolies who had worked on the transcontinental railroads in the nineteenth century. Everybody laughed at the project except John. Of course he knew it was total pie in the sky, but the grand scale of it appealed to him. Twice this poor fellow flew out to Chad convinced that John was pushing to get his project approved. If anybody mentioned the project in the USAID Office when John wasn’t around, a chorus of “Pruitt…Screw it!” was sure to follow.

John was the AID Affairs Officer for Togo and Benin, two small narrow adjacent countries, when I worked in Cotonou, Benin with a colleague, Sarah, on a potable water project. I worked on the technical side and she handled the health side. John’s office was in Lome, Togo which was a only a few hours drive from Cotonou. About a year into the project relations between the US and Benin deteriorated and the project was suspended. Benin’s UN Ambassador shouting “Vive Peurto Rico Libre!” in front of the General Assembly didn’t help matters. When a drunk American diplomat drove into and became “lost” inside a large military camp (at least that was the embassy line), things went south fast. Sceptics at heart, the Benin Government was in no hurry to release him. The resulting standoff threatened to become a major diplomatic incident, so the embassy ordered Sarah and me, the only non Peace Corps Americans without diplomatic passports, to leave for Lome immediately to avoid potential complications like house arrest. Since officially the project was suspended and not canceled, John kept us on the payroll for months until we could land other jobs. He caught considerable grief from USAID Washington, but refused to budge. I was and am grateful to him for that. However it made for a very crowded little USAID Office in Lome. John had a spacious office, but everybody else was crowded into small spaces. When John went on vacation, and without his approval, his deputy immediately called in a crew and created another office. Upon his return John wasn’t happy. They’d sawn his stage in half.

In order to relieve some of the crowding, I proposed to John that I take my project’s little 404 Peugeot pickup and make technical visits (cough cough) to some other wells projects in West Africa. John approved it with no qualms. I don’t believe any other professional bureaucrat in the world would have, but John danced to a different tune. Given the turmoil in Africa today, the idea of  an American driving by himself across three countries more or less on a lark seems incredible, but in 1982 I never gave a thought to my safety. I mean the road was paved the whole way, albeit a bit rough in spots. To someone used  to driving on sand tracks up and over dunes, that seemed like a piece of cake. I drove north all the way through Togo to Ougadougou, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) where I thought I could get a visa for neighboring Mali. I couldn’t. Relations between the two countries weren’t good. I did purchase a couple of nice Ougadougou bronzes.

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I planned to meet my buddy Mark in Bamako where he was coming through on business. The USAID Director there, David Wilson and his wonderful wife Tatsie, old friends, had invited us anytime. Tatsie was a serious vegetarian. I once asked her if she ate fish. She replied, “I don’t eat any of my friends.” Dave had replaced John in Chad and had been the USAID Director during the civil disturbances when I was working on a USAID contract. He personally asked me to come back to Chad during an interim of nearly a year when things had calmed down some, before renewed fighting closed everything down for years. It’s an odd thing, but even intelligent people can become accustomed to abnormal conditions and totally lose perspective. During that false hope interim period in Chad we desperately tried to get the foreign assistance train back on track, convincing ourselves, all evidence to the contrary, that conditions had improved sufficiently.

At one point we went so far as to invite a UN and World Bank delegation to Chad to see about starting back up a multi-donor road building project. There were only a few of us at USAID Chad at that time, a skeleton crew, so I was unofficially handling the project management side of that and several other dormant projects, unheard of for a contract employee and against USAID regs — hence unofficial. They  arrived and we went to the USAID conference room and sat around the big table. As we were making our presentation, a few distance shots could be heard, a common occurrence. Then the shots got louder and nearer. I noticed some flinching. Finally an AK47 went into rapid fire just outside the building. I looked down the long empty table to Dave and shrugged. Our distinguished visitors were all under it.

FAN - Force Armee Populare FAN - Force Armee du Nord

FAP – Force Armee Populare FAN – Force Armee du Nord

It so happened that a couple, old Chad PCV friends, were living close to the Mali border, working on a water/health project. So I continued west across Upper Volta until I reached Scotty and Charlotte’s place. I asked around about the border and was told that there was only a little offset border station a few kilometers inside Mali where you were supposed to present credentials, but it was all pretty sleepy. The USAID logo on the side of a vehicle had proven useful to me in the past, so I decided to chance it. I blew right past the border station, no problem. I had some time to kill so I stayed in Mopti a few days and visited the Dogon country. The cliff houses were fascinating. On the way down to Bamako I took the ferry over the great Niger and visited the ancient city of Djenne with its truely stunning architecture.

I had a fun time in Bamako. One of the highlights of the trip was a party at the Ambassador’s Residence to which Dave and Tatsie insisted we accompany them. The US Ambassador was new, unusually young (maybe early forties), single, liked to dance, and not bad looking either. Unsurprisingly there were quite a few attractive women there. On more than one occasion Mark had stated that his greatest fantasy was to be in bed with a French woman and have her say “Ooh la la!” That night he spent some time chatting with an attractive French lady. He had a big smile on his face the next day. That round trip was some 1,600 miles across the heart of North Africa.

Recently I learned that John is an actor now, usually playing odd old men in music videos and strange cult movies, but lately branching out to more mainstream parts. He looks great for his age.

ONE DAY HONEY, THE NEXT DAY ONIONS (GREGORY “GROMO” ALEX’S STORY)

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Gromo died young as the result of a fall at his home. I believe he was fighting cancer at the time. He was a truly great man, awarded for valor by the UNDP for his heroic efforts to save lives during the horrors of Rwanda. I wrote this story long before his passing and without any knowledge of his time in Rwanda. It reflects a happier time. The Chadian Arabic proverb translated for the title is: “Yom assal, wa yom basal.”

Gromo came to Chad as a Peace Corps Volunteer almost two years after I did. He was a big muscular English teacher, reminding me of Mongo in Blazing Saddles, not that he lacked intelligence, but rather he exuded an aura of placid strength. It was impossible not to like Gromo. Chadians loved him, especially children. He couldn’t go anywhere without attracting a flock of kids. For reasons known only to him, he chose to make Princess his girlfriend. Princess was the name we vols gave her, one of those contrary nicknames like calling a huge man Tiny. We knew all the street ladies, some better than others. Remember this was the mid seventies, before AIDS, or at least before anybody knew about it. Most of them had come to N’Djamena as runaway brides who couldn’t stand being married to a much older man, or a cruel one. Or they had failed to produce children in the allotted time frame. In Chad it was never the man’s fault. In general they weren’t callous hardened prostitutes. One older vol advised us to think of them as old-fashioned New England town tarts. That said they looked to establish a longterm relationship with a rich man. And to them all white men were rich, even Peace Corps Vols. They weren’t above using a trick or two to accomplish that task. A few volunteers had been surprised by eleven month pregnancies.

Most of the street ladies were delicate boned and lightish colored, from the northern Islamic tribes. Many had tribal scars, but these tended to be shallow scars on the upper jaw or under the eyes, more decoration than disfigurement. A smattering had blue tattooed lips, permanently appearing to be wearing smeared blue lipstick. The tribal scars didn’t bother me, but I admit to finding the tattooed lips a bit off putting. Princess was a big southern Chadian woman, not fat, but strong, big-hipped and very black. She was no wilting flower. I remember sitting at an outside table at a bar one night. None of the tables were far from the caniveau (concrete open sewer) that ran alongside the road. That perfume was part of a night out in N’Djamena. I heard a commotion and looked several tables away where Princess shouted at a French soldier. Suddenly she picked up a twenty-two ounce beer bottle and hit him over the head. Then she hoisted the stunned soldier on her shoulders and tossed him in the caniveau.

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As a rule Chadian women were proud, jealous, quick to anger, and not adverse to violence. Nasaras (white people or sometimes foreigners in general) were strange creatures from a mysterious culture. Like most women they wanted to gauge the worth of their relationships. A friend of mine’s girlfriend made him so angry he smashed a favorite piece of furniture, which delighted her. He must have valued her highly. Another male vol invited a female vol to dinner, thinking nothing of it. When his Chadian wife found out a woman was coming, she broke every dish in the house one by one. Nobody was coming to dinner at that house. One night in the same bar where I witnessed Princess conk the soldier, Joe, another vol, publicly admonished his girlfriend because he had given her a scarf and her female Chadian friend was wearing it, not her. The girlfriend jumped across the table and bit into his well worn Levi’s thigh high. He tried to pry her loose, but she kept at it as blood began to run down his pants. Finally he punched her hard. That worked.

Sitting and drinking with Gromo and Princess at another outside bar one late afternoon, I noticed a fly in my beer glass. In the states I would have tossed the beer, but not a poor PCV. I fished the fly out. I was feeling magnanimous. “Fly on little buddy and live.” But I really should have known, you can’t fly with beer suds on your wings. Suddenly Princess stood up and walked to a table with four legionnaires. Soon she was laughing and flirting. Being the more experienced vol, I explained to Gromo how this was going to play out. She would keep at it until he walked away, in which case she would know he didn’t value her highly. Or he could intervene and probably get the crap beaten out of him. Four French Foreign Legionnaires were more than a match even for Gromo. Further I explained that I was leaving. I had no intention of fighting legionnaires over Princess. I left. Gromo took a beating. Princess was happy. Eventually Gromo went so far as to take her to the states. Not long after he attended a party a bit roughed up from a recent fight with her.

I finished my Peace Corps service in December of 1978 and immediately went to work for USAID/Chad on contract. Just two months later in February of 79 civil war broke out in N’Djamena. I was asked to stay on and help with administrative tasks. After a few days of fighting, when the firing had slowed enough to permit movement, all Peace Corps Vols and non-essential personnel were evacuated to Yaounde, Cameroon. Since I stayed on in N’Djamena, I heard the rest of the story from my Peace Corps buddy Mark. After experiencing that ordeal and being suddenly uprooted, the vols were in a fey mood. Their lives had been turned upside down. The afternoon after their arrival in Yaounde, they gathered at some welcoming function at the Ambassador’s Residence. Unfortunately the pool was under repair and dry. After who knows how many beers, somebody dared Gromo to dive in anyway. He did. He didn’t kill himself, but he bloodied his head badly.

imageThat same night in the bar district of Yaounde, Gromo sported a bloody swath of bandages and suffered a severe headache. There was a disturbance in the street. A large long-horned steer had escaped its owner and was running free trailing a rope. A crowd of laughing and shouting people chased it. This was tremendous entertainment. Gromo stepped into the street directly in front of the steer. The steer stopped. For a minute or two there was a High Noon style face off. Then Gromo reached forward and grabbed both horns. His arm muscles bulged as he held the steer. Then the steer lowered its head and flipped him up and over the steer’s back. He somersaulted in the air, landing on his back behind the steer. Thankfully part of the fall was broken by the crowd. However, his heroics allowed the owner to grab the rope and control the steer. The crowd hoisted Gromo on their shoulders and paraded him up and down the street – the conquering hero. For reward a taxi driver offered to take him anywhere he wanted to go for free. Instead Gromo asked if he could just ride around with the taxi driver all night while he picked up fares. And that’s what he did.

YOU CAN’T FLY WITH BEER SUDS ON YOUR WINGS

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Arriving in Chad was a shock that I enjoyed experiencing and subsequently observing in others. Chad defied anticipation. One night shortly after my arrival, my nascent French being close to useless in a common Chadian bar, I asked an older vol how to order beer in Chadian Arabic. He called the bar maid over and with a smile said: “Jiba lena Gala hamsa.” (Bring us five beers.) I figured the joke out, but used the entire phrase anyway the first time I walked into a bar by myself. Normally I am not superstitious, but for some reason I felt ordering the five beers would be auspicious. I made some friends that night.

At one point Peace Corps Chad’s doctor was a brand new, wet behind the ears, young for a doctor fellow stationed in Yaounde, Cameroon. He covered several countries, and on his first trip up to Chad he gave us an extensive lecture on the importance of boiling drinking water. In case worse came to worse and we had to drink bad water, he made sure we knew how to dissolve an iodine tablet in a gallon of water. We were all old hands by that time and had difficulty hiding our amusement. On his next trip up one of the wells vols interrupted him. “Doc, I just want to thank you. The other day I drank some of the dirtiest water you ever saw, but just like you said I swallowed a couple of those iodine pills and I feel great.”

Once I took our Chadian workers out with me to the airport to greet the new wells vols. I told them that “water, chicken, shoehorn,” was a traditional American greeting. I failed to convince them. They had spent years drilling wells with vols and were familiar enough with the words “water” and especially “chicken” to be suspicious. “Shoehorn” by itself might have worked. Mark and Doug were two of the new vols. After they completed their on the job incountry training, they moved into the house formerly occupied by another vol, Dague. Dague had given the old guardian (watchman) a radio. The old fellow would sit on his straw mat and listen to the radio all day, only turning it off for his five times a day prayers. That had earned him the nickname of Mr. Radio. Mr. Radio only spoke Chadian Arabic, and Doug and Mark were still learning French. Therefore communication between them was challenging. One day the new vols were feeling especially homesick for some American food. Mark had brought a large can of peaches in heavy syrup with him from the U.S., and they dug into it with gusto. It was a hot day, and they couldn’t quite finish the can. There was one peach left. They decided to give it to Mr. Radio. Mr. Radio had taken his shirt off and was readying to wash himself in preparation for prayers. They showed him the can with the peach in it. He looked at them blankly. “Yum, yum, yum,” Mark chanted. Still no reaction from Mr. Radio. Doug tried his hand at communication. He thrust the can toward the old man, while rubbing his stomach with the other hand and chanting, “Yum, yum, yum.” Mr. Radio looked toward the heavens beseeching Allah for guidance. Then he reached inside the can, grabbed the dripping peach, and mashed it into his stomach.

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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 to arc upward and finally drop 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 of my situation, 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.

Shortly after that party civil war broke out in Chad and all volunteers were evacuated. 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.

MY CONTINUING WILDLIFE ADVENTURES IN CAMEROON AND BENIN

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Waza National Park is located between Maroua and N’Djamena on the main road. It is a large gamepark and has a wide variety of wildlife. During my time in northern Cameroon I found the hotel at Waza a pleasant place to stay. It is nestled in a group of rock buttes just across the road from and facing the park. Since it was in Joel’s territory, sometimes I helped him out by providing transportation. However because Waza was usually a convenient stopover after I had driven someone to or from N’Djamena or Maroua. More often than not I was there by myself.

While staying at the hotel for a couple of days enjoying the park and the hotel, I perused some park literature that mentioned a colony of hyrax living on top of the big butte behind the hotel. I had never seen hyrax. They looked cute from pictures, a bit like guinea pigs. I went out to take a look at the butte. I wasn’t a pick and rope climber, but I was in good shape. A shallow fissure ran almost all the way up, petering out maybe four feet from the top. It looked to be a tough scramble but doable. Other than taking a lot of energy the climb wasn’t bad. The only tricky part was at the very top where the edge bulged out more than I’d anticipated. I had to dangle my feet in the air a few seconds before I pulled myself up and over. However even if I had fallen at that point I would have dropped back into the shallow crevice, maybe spraining an ankle but not risking death.

The butte was rather flat on top until it began a gentle decline to my right, perhaps offering an easier descent than straight down the face. In the middle of my end of the plateau in a jumble of boulders a hyrax stood guard at a small entrance. Seeing me he made a half barking half piping sound and ruffled his fur causing a strange little off color tuft of fur to rise up in the middle of his back. Make no mistake rock hyrax are cute critters. I suppose tree hyrax are too but I never saw one of those. Don’t ask me but the experts say that the animal most closely related to hyrax is the elephant. They also say that any rabbits mentioned in the Bible were actually hyrax. European translators weren’t familiar with hyrax, and the descriptions more or less fit rabbits. Makes you wonder what else could have been mistranslated. At first there was a mad scramble of hyrax seeking shelter from the intruder. I settled myself on a boulder at some distance and waited patiently. I needed the rest. Eventually a few brave souls ventured out again so I could observe them, but they didn’t stray far from safety.

While sitting there a troop of baboons wandered by, including a mommy with a baby on her back. They headed down the decline to my right. For inexplicable reasons, perhaps a suppressed death wish, I decided to follow them at a distance. Baboons are incredibly strong animals and can be very aggressive. Jurassic Park dinosaur petting nonsense aside, any strong wild animal is dangerous regardless of whether they are interested in eating you or not. More people in Africa are killed by buffalos than lions. Suddenly the baboons stopped and huddled. Then while the main troop continued on, two young males turned and faced me, not advancing, just holding their ground. Message received five by five. I decided to go back and observe the hyrax.

I was thirsty. It was time to leave, my dreams of finding an easier path down thwarted lest I risk running into the baboons, wisely concluding that further interaction should be avoided. It was about here that I realized I had made a rookie climbing mistake by not making note of precisely where I came up. I couldn’t see the beginning of the fissure from up top because of the edge’s outward bulge. I mean I knew the general area, but that wasn’t good enough to risk dangling myself out over a cliff. An intelligent person would have brought some rope. I didn’t qualify. I looked around. A bit further down a thin rocky outcrop jutted out precariously, resembling a diving platform. Carefully I worked my way out to the very end of it where I could see my crevice. I wished I had skipped breakfast. I marked the exact spot I needed to descend from and presently dropped a couple of feet into the crevice without twisting an ankle. The rest was perfunctory.

During that same period in Cameroon I briefly visited Benoue National Park, a giant gamepark just south of Garoua. Garoua was a bit south of my usual purview, but due to the Chad disturbances there was a temporary logistical office there manned by embassy personnel. The next large city south, NGoundare, was the northern terminus of the railway. I had to make a few trips to Garoua. The park ran along the Benoue River, a major tributary of the Niger River. The park area was so huge that it encompassed some villages, whereas in more manageable Waza they had moved villages to just outside the park. As one might assume, poaching was a problem. Nevertheless I remember large herds of waterbuck, western hartebeest, and buffalo.

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That was my first encounter with tsetse flies. Damn they hurt. A single bite hurts about like a horsefly bite, but more needle like. Of course horseflies don’t swarm or leave big itchy red welts, and tsetse fly bites can penetrate normal clothing. Sleeping sickness aside, no wonder the presence of tsetse flies inhibits animal husbandry. In Chad we had bot flies. They lay eggs on moist clothing. If you wear the tainted clothing without killing the eggs first, an ugly boil with a worm inside forms on your skin. Very few people had clothes dryers in Chad. Ironing everything including underwear and socks solved the problem. The common people used irons filled with coals.

Speaking of dastardly insects, I was stung by scorpions a couple times — no big deal, a kind of take a benadryl thing. Perhaps Chad’s scorpions were less poisonous than some others. My great adventure with African bees and termites was covered in another story. Perhaps my worst personal experience with African insects was getting bitten or stung (not sure) on the knee by a spider one night when I was out in the great beyond drilling wells. The wound developed an odd transparent skin window with something dark deep down there. It hurt like hell. After two days I could barely walk. The nearest doctor worthy of the name was two days away mostly on pistes (tire tracks in the sand). Therefore I thrust a big needle into a fire and pushed it inches down into my knee until I managed to get everything out. Goliath beetles are worthy of mention. They are huge winged beetles attracted to light. En brousse we could hear one heading for our flashlights and lanterns from a distance. The sound they made flying reminded me of a helicopter, stopping and starting, getting closer and closer. When it neared we would douse the lights until it headed off elsewhere. We called them flying turtles. It was no fun to run into one on a mobylette.

I have one other tsetse fly story. Honestly my memory on this one is rather vague except for the core story which I remember pretty well. It might have occurred in either Benin or Togo, as the three of us were together in both countries one soon after the other. Logically I’m going with Benin, since we all worked on the same project there. I was the USAID contract project manager in Benin for a multi-donor potable water/health project. Sarah was my colleague on the health side, and Agma was a health consultant. The three of us went up to northern Benin on project related business. I have a fleeting memory of staying at the house of some vols in the town of Nikki. As always when the work was done I wanted to visit the nearest gamepark, or in this case I believe it was a lesser category of protected area, a forest reserve or nature preserve, something in that ballpark. Agma passed on the reserve. She had grown somewhat fatigued with my habit of stopping vehicles to look at birds, thus lengthening the journey. Somehow I managed to drag Sarah along. It didn’t take long for me to get the truck stuck. I had a talent for that. We were both gathering sticks when tsetse flies attacked. I received a bite or two, but they loved Sarah. By the time we made it out, she had a fine collection of itchy red welts, some in interesting places. Being a southern gentleman, when we got back to where we were staying I offered to powder her backside. She demurred. Actually in colorful language she told me to take a hike, or something roughly equivalent. Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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My memory is clearer about this next story. Agma and I and a visiting young lady acquaintance of Agma’s drove up to Natitingou in northwestern Benin and stayed at the Tata Somba Hotel. That region is famous for the fairyland like Tata Somba houses, and the hotel was designed with that architecture in mind. It also had a great pool. Agma did her health stuff. I met my Benin project director and the UN project manager, M. Bouton, along with local officials, and we set out to visit some spring sites for possible inclusion in the project. I insisted on driving my little project pickup. They had a sedan and a chauffeur. I liked to control my own transportation whenever possible. I’d had some close calls in Africa, most often at night where a big truck had broken down and parked in one lane of a two lane road. West African roads rarely had decent shoulders. Without street lights, and maybe with an oncoming vehicle’s lights in your eyes, you would see the dark looming shape of the truck too late to do anything but swerve off the road or into the other lane. Off the road was a near certain crash with no medical help nearby. So you usually tried the oncoming lane. If you were lucky, it would be clear long enough for you to pass the truck. If not you died. I’d been lucky twice. I made it a rule never to drive at night on rural African roads. We spent a long day climbing hills and looking at springs. We were about an hour from Natitingou as sunset neared. Men in groups get macho disease. They wanted to drive to one more site. I refused. I told them my reasons and drove back to the hotel. I still arrived after dark. I ruffled a few feathers, but they got over it.

When the work was over I wanted to visit the not too distant Pendjari National Park, often touted as one of the best in West Africa. Our hotel had glossy brochures on the front desk trumpeting a nice hotel right in the middle of the park. Agma passed on the park, but she asked me to take her companion along. Fine. The young lady was over from England to visit her intended. I got the impression that everything wasn’t all orange blossoms with that. She was young, but I had no idea how young. I thought mid-twenties. She was on plump side, polite but aloof, wore makeup even out in the African bush, and dressed in a style I would describe as British matron. Later I found out that she was much younger than I’d thought, eighteen or nineteen I think. I’ve never been good at guessing the ages of European women. Had I known, I would have had to think long and hard about taking her with me.

It took an hour and a half to get to the park entrance, and, with stops along the way to watch animals, another two hours to reach the hotel. We arrived just at dusk to find that the hotel had burned down years before. I should have verified things, but it never occurred to me that my hotel in Natitingou would be passing out brochures to a burned out hotel. Maybe they had boxes of them leftover and just thought they were pretty. Sometimes Africa wins. Fortunately I usually pack some camping equipment when I go upcountry. As I wasn’t about to drive three and a half hours at night, most of it through a gamepark on a dirt road, I found a room mostly intact, no roof or door but it had four sturdy walls. I cleaned it up some and set up mats, sleeping bags, and tall tent-like mosquito nets for both of us. It was hot, so I put her by the door to catch the breeze and myself in the far corner. The young lady later told people that she had been half convinced that I had planned all this just so I could ravish her in the night, and she had been certain that I’d placed her by the door so that a lion would take her first. I’d camped out in gameparks with far less shelter than four solid walls. I did park the pickup close to the door, but I wanted to leave some space for air. As for the ravishing, she was somebody’s fiance, and I wasn’t the least bit attracted to her. Even if I had been, at most I would have tossed her a few compliments to see if she was interested. Uninvited pouncing was not in my repertoire.

imageI slept soundly. I suppose I’m bragging here, but my ability to sleep in odd places and strange conditions was legendary. I once slept curled up inside a large truck tire hanging off the back of the truck on a rough road. We all have our little talents. I wish I still had that one. She didn’t sleep at all, listening to animal sounds all night long. I wanted to get a very early start. Before dawn the next morning when I offered her some sardines and crackers for breakfast, she told me she’d thought that I had set her up as lion bait. She said it half humorously, so I wouldn’t take offense. She didn’t mention the ravishing part. I laughed. I asked her why she didn’t ask to switch places with me or sleep in the truck. Then I explained how rare it was to see lions in West African gameparks. I told her to get in the truck and try to nap while I loaded everything. Dawn was just touching the eastern sky when I got in the truck, started the motor, and turned on the headlights. A lioness passed right in front of us, just a few yards from where we’d slept. You know, all my life I’d heard the phrase if looks could kill. Up to that moment I had never really experienced it.