Africa, Beer, Cameroon, Chad, Gregory "Gromo" Alex, Humor, Nonfiction, Peace Corps
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.
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.
That 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.