Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Ferry at Déhané

(I'm posting this for the students that I can't get to because of the snow.)

I was twenty-two years old and life was a treasure chest waiting to be opened. My impression throughout my Peace Corps training in 1967 was that, like me, all the other volunteers had the key to that chest. We were young and smart and brave, with open minds and open hearts. I don’t remember any backbiting or negative comments among us, just a lot of admiration and tolerance in sufficient doses. Forty years later that sounds terribly naive, but at the time it seemed wonderfully right for a group of young people flying across the ocean to share their optimism and hope with African villagers.

We spent a day in Amsterdam, a kind of parenthesis between America and Africa. I visited the city with one of the boys, Mike Wilson, who had an umbrella and was wonderfully polite and patient. We went to the zoo and were so exhausted (now we know enough to talk about jet lag but then I’m not sure we even knew that there was an explanation for being so tired) that we napped on a bench in the zoo. I can’t remember which animals we saw, but I do remember the stench in parts of it. We saw houseboats on a canal and typical Dutch houses and lots of trees. We wanted to visit Rembrandt’s house and had trouble getting directions. Since neither of us spoke Dutch, we kept trying our French and my little bit of German, but the people we asked all spoke English. It seems to me that we did find the house and saw some wonderful paintings and then found ourselves in a strange neighborhood. Mike assured me it was the red-light district. He recognized the museum guide and ran after her to ask for directions. As you would expect, she tried to ignore him and walked faster and I was afraid for a moment that he was going to try to catch her with the hook on his umbrella, but she finally stopped, listened to him, and kindly gave us directions to the airport bus, which we reached in time. A lot of our friends had spent most of the day in a Heineken beer factory and were very merry.

Then there was a long night flight, a brief stopover in Ghana and then Nigeria where I saw African girls with their hair in spiky braids for the first time. I thought they looked like a lot of Medusas, not at all flattering, not knowing then how practical it was. We were a bit nervous, at least I was, because there were soldiers armed with machine guns all around, because of the war in Biafra.

We climbed into another, smaller plane and were soon flying over the tropical forest. I remember being struck by the odd shapes of the trees and realizing that they weren’t oaks and maples, that I didn’t know the names of any of them. Somehow the nameless trees brought it home to me that I was arriving in a completely different world, that the fact that its inhabitants spoke French rather than English was one of the minor differences I would be confronted with.
We landed in Yaoundé. I found myself in a long line behind a beautiful woman wearing a brightly colored traditional dress and a gold ring in her nose. Looking back, I realize that she was probably a Fulani, but then I didn’t know enough to fit a name to her. I was amazed to see that well-to-do women who could afford airplane tickets and gold jewelry would choose to wear traditional clothes. The African students we had met dressed like American students and I had assumed that all educated Africans had adopted Western dress styles. Another assumption that would not survive was that having money and being educated were the same thing. (My parents had always insisted that a good education would guarantee a good job and/or a rich husband. Hopefully both!)

Today the hotels in Yaoundé are anonymous chains. When you open your eyes you could be in Berlin or Quincy, Illinois or Hong Kong. Back in 1967 our hotel looked like the setting of a Humphrey Bogart film. We were welcomed by a fat, heavily made-up French woman and her husband who left little trace in my memory. I remember that we were amazed by the crowded supper table, set for a formal, five-course meal with a soup plate on top of two dinner plates, a glass for water and a glass for wine and rows and rows of silverware. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was intimidated by all the elegance. I hadn’t expected to be on my best formal manners for my first meal in Africa. Not for the last time, I wondered who was bringing civilization to who. The waiters were in uniform and wore white gloves.

I don’t remember much about our stay in Yaoundé. Meetings, a lecture by the doctor who told us we didn’t have to use soap every time we took a shower, since we would be taking showers several times a day just to cool off. Surely he must have given us some warnings about sex, etc., but I don’t remember any. I do remember Roger, the assistant director, telling us that we were safer on the streets of Yaoundé than at home. We went to some kind of reception with French volunteers and hors d’œuvres au caviar. And we went to the market where I bought a mosquito net, following the doctor’s advice.

Then one morning I found myself in a Land Rover with Andrew, an English speaking driver who worked for the Peace Corps, Will Smalzer, Franny and Steve Hawthorne. The driver was to take us to our posts, Franny to Edéa, which didn’t look too far on the map, Will to Ybassi, me to Kribi and Steve to Ebolowa. I was excited. Our adventure was about to begin.

My first shock came when we reached the outskirts of the city and the paved road abruptly stopped. I had seen the map. We were on one of the country’s main arteries and it was a dirt road. I remembered the Cameroonian students saying one of the things they envied Americans was the roads. Now I understood.

I stared at the villages we passed, trying to decode their bare yards and gorgeous flowers, the cement tombstones with clothes laid out on them to dry, the goats and the little babies with bare bottoms. We recognized banana trees and to our amazement there were poinsettias in full flower in almost every village. It would have been just as incongruous to see Santa in jockey shorts and an undershirt sitting under a mango tree, drinking palm wine.

After an hour or two of rough, muddy roads, we came to a stop. It took us a while to grasp what the problem was. We were at the top of a long slope, a long muddy slope with a mammy wagon stuck in the middle. At the bottom cars were backed up, waiting to try their luck. There was a group of men pushing at the stuck bus with little success. There were a lot of discussions going on in French that was too rapid for me to follow. Our driver got out and looked things over and it soon became apparent that some of the other drivers were asking him to do something and his refusals became more and more categorical. He came back and got in the car, while an excited group of men continued to plead with him. Andrew explained that they wanted him to use the Land Rover’s four-wheel drive to pull the mammy wagon that was blocking the road up the hill. He felt that it would put too much of a strain on his vehicle and didn’t want to answer to the Peace Corps office for any damage.

So we waited. And waited. And waited. It was my first lesson in African patience, in waiting for something to happen, in waiting for a situation to evolve, in waiting for someone to change their mind, in accepting that there was nothing I could do, no inventive American solution to a problem that would eventually stop being a problem, if we waited long enough.

Sitting in the car, I was witness to a conversation that would stay with me from that day on. There was now a long line of cars waiting behind us, and from one of them came a « Monsieur », a Cameroonian government official who traveled through the jungle dressed as if he had an appointment with the President, flashy black and white check suit, tie and shiny black patent leather shoes. It was amusing to watch him pick his way from grass patch to grass patch, trying to keep his magnificent shoes out of the mud. After observing the situation, he began talking to the village men who had gathered to watch the show. He was from West Cameroon and spoke to them in pidgin English which I was able to follow. He told them that they were responsible for the mess, that as good citizens they should keep up the road, cut down the trees that kept the sun from drying the red clay after a rain and put rocks and stones in the pot holes. That if every village kept up its part of the road, Cameroon would have wonderful roads and people could travel from one end to another without all these delays and damage to their cars and the country would prosper. To which the villagers replied that keeping up the roads was the government’s job, that that was what they paid taxes for. That if there was enough money for bureaucrats like him to travel in shiny Mercedes with chauffeurs, there ought to be enough money to keep up the roads.

After a while a group of men came to talk to Andrew, our driver. He got very angry. They tried to talk to Steve, figuring that he was the boss, but Steve made it clear that it was the driver’s decision. He was the one who would be held responsible for any damage to the car. The discussion went on for some time and at one point the driver left the car. When he came back, he had decided to try to pull the mammy wagon out of the hole it was bogged down in. Now, I wonder if his reluctance had been overcome by money changing hands, but then the idea never occurred to me. Steve, Willy, Franny and I got out of the car and watched the men attach a long cable to the two vehicles. It wasn’t easy and took a lot of shifting gears and loud accelerations, but eventually the mammy wagon shuddered, lurched and bumped forward. It got stuck again, once or twice, but the Land Rover tugged and it came free again and finally reached the top of the hill. But while we had been following its struggle, another mammy wagon that had been waiting at the bottom of the hill seized its chance and rushed at the steep, slippery hillside.

Of course it got stuck in the hole the other vehicle had just left, and we were back at square one. Andrew was furious. He told us that he had known it would happen, that he wasn’t going to spend the rest of the day pulling cars out of the mud. So of course he refused to be hooked to the second mammy wagon, and the long, angry arguments started over again.

But it was obvious that the only way we were going to be able to continue our journey was to pull out the second mammy wagon. Which we eventually did and before the Land Rover could be unhooked, a third driver from the bottom of the hill started up. He slipped and slid, but managed to keep moving and reached the top without our assistance, loudly cheered by the spectators. I don’t remember exactly how many cars we had to pull out of the mud, but the driver had us back in the car with him, and at the first opportunity we started down, bumping through the mud holes and squeezing by the line of cars waiting to go up, until we were back on firmer ground that had not been turned into an enormous bog by the rain.

It was early morning when we left Yaoundé and early afternoon when we reached Edéa. I can’t remember much about Franny’s town. A little villa with a pretty garden where the director of the school lived ? They may have been Swiss. Anyway, we didn’t stay long because we still had to get Will to his post. The road after Edéa, to our relief, was paved. It was the main road between Douala and Edéa. But we soon had to turn off for Yabassi and once more we were bouncing over a deeply rutted, muddy red clay road. The driver couldn’t be sure of his way. There were several crossings and no sign posts. We stopped in front of a hut to ask about the road and the people there said the road was very bad and a lot of cars got stuck, but we might be able to get through with our four-wheel drive. That there was another road that wasn’t on the map, a road made by the lumber company, and it was in much better condition, but there were a lot of crossings and if you didn’t know the road, you could get lost. We seemed to have a choice between getting stuck and getting lost. It was beginning to get dark and Andrew didn’t like either choice.

There was quite a bit of discussion and we were sent on to another hut where there was a school boy wanting a ride back to his school in Ybassi. He knew the road, so we took him aboard as our guide and set out into the deep forest. It was soon completely night, and I couldn’t understand how the little boy could tell one tree from another. He didn’t always seem very affirmative, but we eventually reached the ferry crossing which would have taken us to Yabassi. But the ferry shut down at sunset, so there was no way to get to the other side that night.
So our guide took us to the little mission school that he attended. The Cameroonian priest who ran the school was very kind but embarrassed. It was a poor mission; guests were hosted by the mother mission across the river in Ybassi. He had no beds for us and nothing he thought we could or would eat. Our driver slept on the couch in his living-room, one of the boys went to sleep with the students in a very rustic dormitory and the other boy and I were given a storeroom each, full of odds and ends, and there was actually a spare bed in my room with a frightful looking mattress and no sheets. I slept wrapped up in the mosquito net which I had bought in Yaoundé. Scratchy but clean.

In the morning our host had nothing to offer us for breakfast except bowls of hot water and some bananas. We all had red insect bites from bedbugs, except for the driver. We wondered if they just didn’t show up on his skin.

We were at the ferry crossing bright and early and went across as soon as the ferry arrived from the other side. Then we went to the school where Will was to teach and met his director, a very elegant man who spoke beautiful French. I thought it was a pretty town, on hills that gave breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside.

Shortly after our arrival a man began following us, speaking excitedly in rapid French that was much better than mine. The school director told us to ignore the mad man. He followed us from the school, carrying on a impressive and dramatic monologue that none of us could follow. He followed us all the way back to the river shore and the ferry. My last memory of Will was seeing him standing on the shore, looking a bit forlorn, waving good-bye while the madman continued his excited speech, with gestures and intonations that would have suited a great Shakespearian actor.

We drove back to Edéa, then took the road to Kribi. The driver said it would take about three hours. Once again the pavement stopped and we were bouncing over dirt roads. There were occasional mud holes, but nothing our four-wheel drive couldn’t handle. I was beginning to get anxious at the idea that in just a few hours I’d be seeing my post, Kribi, where I would spend the next two years of my life. Little did I know that it would take us three days to get there and that I’d spend seventeen years in the little town on the beach.

We had driven for about an hour when we came to a little market village. There were a dozen or more huts, adobe structures with mostly palm thatched roofs, a loud sound system playing African music and over a hundred people who seemed to be having a good time. It was market day and people were buying and selling all kinds of things in little booths and shops Some of the sellers had nothing to display their wares but a woven mat spread on the ground. In Africa buying and selling requires a lot of discussion, the louder the better. The bartering was never angry or bitter; it seemed to involve a lot of laughter. That was my first sight of Déhané, a tiny village that is not even on the main road to Kribi.

We were in Déhané because the bridge across the Nyong river had collapsed and was being rebuilt. For several months the traffic between Edéa and Kribi was rerouted through Déhané, where there was a ferry crossing. It was a small ferry that could only take one motor vehicle at a time, so we found ourselves at the end of a long line of cars and trucks waiting to go across. Once again we had a chance to practice that great African virtue, patience.

It was late in the afternoon when our turn finally came. Andrew drove the Landrover down a muddy bank, over an unstable construction of rough planks and up onto the ferry, which didn’t look anything like the pretty little ferry across the Mississippi at my home town, Canton, Missouri. It was little more than a wooden raft floating on barrels with a large outboard motor bolted on one end.

There was a large man with a kind of captain’s hat who gave orders in a loud voice and workmen threw off the ropes that had held us to the bank and pushed off from the shore with long poles. There was a lot of confusion because while we were the only car on the ferry, it was crowded with foot passengers who had paid to cross the river. People, some of whom smelled strongly of Beaufort beer, were talking and laughing all around us and it was a while before we realized that the ferry was not heading for the landing across the river, but seemed to be moving downstream. Not being too clear about where upstream and downstream were, I thought that maybe it was heading for a current that would carry us to the landing. Then the crowd around us grew quiet and watched the captain and one of his men taking turns yanking the cord to the starter. Which didn’t start. And then we could feel the raft hit a current and begin moving faster. Downstream and further and further from the landing.

Steve had been talking to people and had learned that since there didn’t seem to be any hope of getting the motor started, they were sending a canoe to the village to bring back a spare motor.

The river we were floating on wasn’t as broad as the Mississippi, but it was wide enough, lined with enormous trees. After a while the current shifted and carried us towards a high bank. A small man stripped to his shorts while the workmen tied a rope around his waist. He jumped into the river and swam to the shore where he was able to tie the rope around a palm tree, stopping our journey downstream.

Canoes came from the village to get our fellow passengers. They left us and went on their way with just a slight delay in their journey. We, on the other hand, had to stay on the ferry. With our Landrover.

Much later another canoe brought the spare motor and the captain and his crew, with a lot of yelling and shouting in French and Bassa, unhooked one motor and installed the other. We sat in the Landrover to be out of their way. The swimmer dived into the river, untied the rope, and swam back. Were there crocodiles in the river? Yes, of course.

Again they waited until the ferry raft had drifted away from the shore before they lowered the motor into the river and tried to start it. And once again it didn’t start and we were drifting merrily downstream. The captain was livid with anger and shouting furiously at his men. We had gone around a bend or two and the village of Déhané and the landing on the other side of the river that we had expected to reach in a few minutes were long out of sight. Steve told me that one of the “sailors” was so drunk that he’d dropped the starting key into the river. I never knew whether that was what had really happened or whether Steve was pulling my leg. He could understand what they were saying better than I could. My one attempt to communicate was to ask if there were waterfalls between us and the ocean. My question made everyone laugh, but no one answered me.

As we floated along I thought of my mother who often seemed to have an uncanny ability to know what I was up to. I imagined what she would think if she could see me now, floating through the African jungle down a crocodile-infested river on a raft that no one could steer. And I burst out laughing.

Eventually we again drifted close enough to send our brave swimmer to the shore with a rope and he anchored us to another sturdy tree. Steve learned that we were about 5 kilometers from the village and there was no other spare motor. By then it was getting dark and our first idea was that we would have to spend the night in the Landrover on the stranded ferry. Then canoes came from the village saying we could stay there. I think Steve tried to find out if it would be feasible to unload the Landrover and try to drive back to the village. Besides the fact that getting the car off the ferry was a risky operation in itself, there was no road once we were on land. I insisted on asking about a road, or track, or path, because I would have gladly walked five kilometers rather than go back to the village in what appeared to be rather flimsy and unstable canoes. But the people on the ferry insisted that the forest around us was impenetrable. In the movies they show people hacking their way through the jungle with machetes, but I had no luck convincing Steve that we could try. I suspect he was looking forward to the canoe ride.

Andrew, our driver, was from West Cameroon, a mountainous region where there are no large rivers, just streams that you can jump across. He wasn’t any happier than I was about getting into a canoe. I voted to stay in the car for the night, but the mosquitoes, (we were on a river, remember?) outvoted me. With a lot of helping hands, I found myself in a narrow wooden dugout, clutching the sides with a death grip, and we were soon heading for the village upriver.

When we landed, a big, muscular man who had been sitting behind me offered to carry me ashore. I could tell that he was being teased by his friends, but it certainly seemed safer and drier than trying to get out of a wobbly canoe and wade ashore. So I put an arm around his neck and he carried me to dry land. Steve had rolled up his pants and strode to the beach carrying his shoes.

He told me that the driver had a place to stay and that the village chief was going to put us up. We went to a wooden shack that had a shop in the front room. Behind the counter there was a narrow hall with four plank doors. We were shown to a small room with a kerosene lamp. I can’t remember us being offered supper. We had a conversation with the women of the family. I was still finding it hard to understand their accent and relied on Steve to do the talking. He explained to me that one of the chief’s wives was moving out to give us her room. They assumed we were a couple, but if I had insisted on having my own room we would have forced another wife to leave. So we said nothing and found ourselves in a very tiny room with a decent double bed and a mosquito net. Steve was a perfect gentleman and accepted that we’d both sleep with our clothes on.

The next morning we woke up with the rest of the village. There were chickens crowing, children playing, a pig or two squealing and loud conversations that seemed to be going on just behind the headboard. When we got out and around, we saw that there was a tiny alley just behind our room, but in the morning the entire village seemed to go through there. And I had the impression that everyone in the village was deaf, judging by the loudness of their discussions.

We spent that first morning walking around the village, which didn’t take long. We bought bananas and coconuts to eat, and some kind of crackers. A girl named Agathe decided she was responsible for us and was very helpful. She found some eggs and made us an omelette. The jungle came right up to the edge of the village and I would have liked to do some exploring but Agathe told me there was nothing to see there and I certainly wasn’t brave enough to venture into it alone.

Agathe and everyone we asked thought the repaired motor would be back sometime in the afternoon. Since then I’ve learned that many Africans think it rude to answer a question with something you don’t want to hear. Evening came and the motors were not back and we prepared to spend out second night in Déhané. We hadn’t had a regular meal all day, though we weren’t really hungry, having snacked and eaten lots of oranges and bananas and coconuts. Andrew said that he would fix supper for us. He had found some canned meat, something like Spam, in a little shop and fried it, then served it with rice and tomato sauce. We watched him cook in a little shed behind the chief’s house, the outdoor kitchen, which is a very sensible place for the kitchen in a hot climate. The women sat around and giggled. Andrew explained that they thought it funny to see a man cooking. I was very grateful he made the effort and thought his fried Spam was delicious.

The next morning it was raining, so there was little we could do but sit in our room and read. I started in on the complete works of Jane Austen. I had read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility before and knew that I would never get tired of reading them. So the complete works seemed like a good book to have in an isolated post where it wouldn’t be easy to get new books in English. It turned out to be one of the best investments I ever made. It was a fat black book, with tiny print and tissue thin pages. I read it from cover to cover, many times. It was my fool-proof cure for depression. Whenever life seemed cruel, I took refuge in the polite and cultivated world of Jane Austen, where everything always turned out for the best in the end.

Agathe came to keep us company and I showed her pictures of my family and my home. She thought I had a wonderfully well-organized family. I was the oldest of eight children, four boys and four girls. According to Agathe, since there was a sister to bring a dowry for every boy, all my brothers would be able to marry.

We were sitting on the bed and I had my legs stretched out in front of me. Agathe seemed worried about something and asked me bluntly why I didn’t have any hair on my legs. I explained that I shaved it off. She was horrified and told me I should stop. She thought my shaved legs looked horrible, like a plucked chicken. And she shuddered with disgust. I didn’t take her advice, but I could kind of see her point.

We learned that in his father’s absence, the chief’s son had invited us to lunch. I was impressed and put on my prettiest dress to honor the invitation. We ate in a small room with a dirt floor sitting around a plank table. The chief’s son was younger than we were, but quite at ease. I don’t remember everything we ate. Some kind of meat, beef I think, in a sauce. Our host explained that there wasn’t any chili pepper in it, which I would guess meant that it was pretty bland and tasteless to him. Little girls brought in the dishes. Beside each plate were what looked like green sausages tied up with string. He showed us how to get to the manioc that was wrapped up in banana leaves. The manioc was chewy and cream colored and tasted like what I’d imagine banana leaves tasted like. I had been taught to eat what was put in front of me, and I bravely chewed and chewed and chewed, and swallowed between gags. I ended up living in Cameroon for seventeen years, and I never learned to like manioc, which is a staple in all the villages where there is no bread. Many Cameroonians have explained to me that in other tribes, the women didn’t make good manioc, that only their own wives or their mothers knew how to make delicious manioc. I still think there is no finer proof of love than to find your wife's manioc delicious.

I had to admire Steve, who finished all his manioc and seemed to enjoy it. After eating three sticks, I couldn’t force any more down and tried to explain that I was full and had eaten too much. My host insisted and I was afraid of offending him, so, in the interests of better international relations, I managed to get one more down. Then the little girls brought in dessert, a vanilla pudding called Mont Blanc that is sold in cans all over Cameroon. I was relieved to find something sweet enough to take away the taste of manioc.

When we were alone, I asked Steve how he had been able to eat that horrible stuff. He laughed and showed me his jean pockets, stuffed full of chewed manioc. Whenever our host was looking the other way, he’d slipped a mouthful into his pockets. I was very indignant that he’d appeared so polite, with a healthy appetite to honor our host’s dinner, whereas I was the one that had actually eaten it. From then on, I was convinced that a great career in international politics lay in Steve’s future.

We were not all that surprised when we were told that the motors we had been expecting any minute would not be there until the next day. More and more travelers were coming to the village, waiting to be able to cross. Those with their own cars and a little money usually turned back to stay in Edéa, where there were better accommodations. The mammy-wagon drivers, however, refused to go back. Their passengers had already paid and they weren’t about to give any refunds. On the other side of the river there were several mammy-wagons in the same situation. Their passengers crossed over on canoes to buy food and the tiny village was bustling. Steve was always out and about, talking to people and getting the latest news while I had long discussions with Agathe, who still hoped to convince me to stop shaving my legs. Steve came back to tell me he had met the principal of my school and took me to meet him.

He was a small, handsome young man with a dainty wife and a tiny 3 year old girl who was as cute as a bug. I don’t remember his name, but the little girl was called Laure. She was dressed like a princess in a starchy pink cotton dress with lots of well-ironed ruffles. Only now do I realize what an accomplishment that was in a muddy village in the middle of the jungle. I may be confusing later visions of Laure, but that’s the impression that stays with me. They were nice, friendly people, and had known a girl Peace Corps Volunteer in their last post. They had lots of good advice for me. (As a matter of fact, in a way the wife had something to do with me eventually marrying François Dubois. When I first came to Kribi, I accepted invitations to go out from several men who were friendly and didn’t seem to want any more than some pleasant company. There was a Greek, a fellow teacher, a bureaucrat and François Dubois. I thought that by being seen with several men, I’d made it clear that I wasn’t serious about any of them. My director’s wife came to visit me one day and explained to me that this wasn’t America. If I was seen with just one man, everyone would assume I was sleeping with him. But if I was seen with several men, everyone in town would assume I was sleeping with all of them. And if I refused all invitations and stayed home by myself all the time, they’d assume my lovers were married men who visited at night. So the best way to protect my “reputation” was to choose one regular “friend” and say no to all the others.)

That evening a rumor spread through the village of Déhané that one of the mammy-wagons on the other side of the river was going to return to Kribi. Steve found me a ride in a canoe and I got in the bus, with my suitcase up on the roof. But the driver was having none of it. He refused to budge, in spite of all the pleas of the passengers who were already installed. I think the problem was that they had already paid someone else for their trip to Kribi and weren’t prepared to pay him, considering that he had been paid by the people he was supposed to have taken to Edéa. There were long negotiations that became a noisy argument. Then the driver ordered his “motor-boys” up on the roof and had them unload all the baggage. I got out to see what was happening to my suitcase. It came down and then some of the passengers who were insisting on the return trip started grabbing the luggage and tossing it up to allies who had climbed up on the roof of the bus. I watched my suitcase go back up and after a while come down again. Then it went back up, and the motor-boys, making no headway at unloading the baggage, finally gave up. The passengers returned to their places in the bus as night fell. I was sitting on the aisle on a hard bench that had been intended for two persons and held three. As it got dark, the river’s mosquitoes started in on us. I tried to sleep, as most of my fellow passengers were doing, but soon realized that in such cramped quarters there was little chance of napping while I was being devoured by mosquitoes. I couldn’t help thinking of Steve, who had stayed in the village with Andrew and had the comfortable bed and its mosquito net all to himself.

I wasn’t the only one having trouble sleeping. Around ten o’clock the driver was snoring loudly, and some of the passengers started saying that there was no hope of his ever changing his mind; they were going back to the village. Without giving it a lot of thought, I decided to go with them. I managed to recover my suitcase and was helped into a canoe that took me back across the river. I explained to Steve that I’d go back in the morning to see if the situation had developed. Then I crawled under the mosquito net and finally got to sleep, grateful for its protection.

In the morning, we learned that the remaining passengers had convinced the driver to leave around two o’clock in the morning. If I had stuck it out, I would already be in Kribi. Steve said nothing, but I was convinced that he would have shown more fortitude and stayed with the bus until it left.

Later in the morning we had good news. The ferry’s motors had been repaired and were ready to be installed.

So, once again we were treated to a canoe ride across the river. I was starting to enjoy the rides, imagining myself as Katherine Hepburn in “The African Queen.” I was probably just as dirty and my hair was certainly just as straggly. I had a small pocket mirror, but it only showed part of my face at a time, and most of my clothes had at one point or another been splashed with mud. We were standing ankle deep in the stuff now, watching the ferry come slowly upriver with our Landrover on it. It was raining and someone took pity on me and loaned me an umbrella. I must have looked rather forlorn because several of the workers who were carrying stones to make a new landing came up me and offered me an orange or a piece of coconut, so I had a healthy breakfast.

They had to make a new landing because a huge truck was parked on the old one and the driver had locked his truck and gone away (to visit a woman friend some said), sure he would be the first one across once the ferry was running again. So the men from the village found big stones and carried them on their heads to make a landing for the Landrover beside the old one.

Once there were enough stones to allow the car to come off the ferry, Andrew got in and tried to start the engine. He discovered that the battery was dead. The guard who had stayed with it all the time had used the lights until there was no more battery.

The solution was to use cables to jump the battery, but the only car with a compatible battery was way down the waiting line of cars and trucks. So trees had to be cut down and more stones had to be carried and laid down so that the other Landrover could be brought up to us. All this took a lot of time, but no one was rushing about or shouting. They seemed as patient as the softly falling rain, serenely convinced that sooner or later everything would be arranged and life would go on as before. I admired their patience, realizing that I could learn from them.

Finally the other Landrover was brought up from the end of the line, cables were attached and our vehicle started with a triumphant roar. The villagers and travelers whose hard work had made this possible laughed and clapped their hands. We had to jump into the Landrover, because once the motor had started it couldn’t be stopped until the battery was recharged. We waved good-bye to our rescuers and within minutes we were bouncing over the ruts of a red clay road through the jungle.

Almost three hours later the forest suddenly dropped away, like a curtain being drawn aside, and we beheld a breathtaking view of the ocean, blue in the sunlight with a white sand beach and tall coconut trees. This was my first glimpse of Kribi, where I would live much longer than the two years I was planning on.

The school was on a high hill that sloped down to the beach, tall, majestic coconut trees stood like sentinels on its wide lawn. The director and his wife, who had taken the bus that had left in the night, were already settled in. They gave us refreshments and then he took us to the Prefet’s house to introduce me and to find out where I would be lodged.

Steve and Andrew stayed to see me to my temporary home, the Prefet’s guest house, and then went on to Ebolowa. I was later told that they arrived without any further adventures.

The Prefet didn’t quite know what to do with me, so he invited me to the big party he was giving that evening to celebrate Cameroon’s independence. I gratefully accepted because I was very hungry and for the moment wasn’t equipped to do any cooking. When I opened my suitcase and tried to find something suitable for the invitation, I discovered that my choice was limited to the one dress that didn’t have mud from Déhané on it, a deep purple print. I washed my hair, but then realized that the guest house didn’t have a mirror. I decided that the best thing to do was to hide my hair under a headscarf and the only headscarf I had that was clean was bright red. Without a mirror, I didn’t dare try to put on lipstick or make-up. I must have been very hungry to make my first public appearance in Kribi dressed as I was.

So that’s the end of this story and the beginning of another, because that night I met François Dubois, who thought, because of my unstylish clothes and lack of make-up, that I must be a nun. Forty years later, he’s still trying to figure me out.

1 comment:

joelle said...

I think you should write all your life in Cameroon. At least for us to know you a little bit more ;)