On the Plane Back to Paris
At this point it should come as no surprise if I say that I am having the experience of a Black American man in Africa. It's just that I could never have guessed exactly what that was going to be. Something happened the other day that I recognized as being both remarkable, and poignantly understandable in those terms.
The first thing I noticed when I woke up the day after our drive back from the country was that I did not feel quite right. True it was hot and I was sweaty but something else was happening to my body. The problem was that, I am so seldom sick that I didn't recognize the symptoms of a common cold. Instead I immediately began to think that, despite flooding my skin with insect repellant and consistently sleeping under netting, I may have caught malaria from the two mosquitoes that bit me while we were away from the city.
Alan was up early and told me that he had decided to move to Goree Island for the next two days so he was busily preparing his things. He took a moment to thank me sincerely for doing his washing and I could tell that we had entered a new state of our friendship: It would never be exactly what it had been, but there was a deep warmth and respect that mirrored the need for some distance between us. Both of us knew this, and both of us have perfectly played our roles since then. He did in fact pack up and leave, after saying a premature goodbye to Alioune who arrived at 9:30.
I, on the other hand, was left to think through the implications of really having a serious disease. What could I do? I looked up the nearest health services but then I realized that I first needed to be sure that something was really wrong with me. I remembered that there was a pharmacy right across the street from the hotel so I slowly made my way over there, bought a digital thermometer that was just like the one I have at home.... except that this one reads out in centigrade!
When I got back to the hotel, stuck it in my mouth and got the number 36.6 I had no idea how to interpret that. But this was only one of many things I had to do now that Alan was gone and I was alone with Alioune. First I had to change rooms because I no longer needed to pay for a double. When I went down to the front desk I asked if they had a table for converting centigrade to Fahrenheit they honestly couldn't make out what I wanted. I realized that the internet was my only hope and besides I had another chore I needed to do. Badou had asked me to go to the American Consulate and get information that could help him come to the United States to work. I was definitely not up to that, but a trip to the cyber cafe seemed within my energy potential so, with Alioune by my side, off we went. My first stop was to the restaurant where they were surprised to see me alone for the first time. Then at the computer terminal I instantly found a site with a neat Java script for temperature conversions and discovered that 98.6 f equals 37c. I still felt sick but at least I couldn't have malaria without a fever. Remembering Badou's coughing child, I put my mind to rest and went surfing for his information.
I decided then that I really wanted to be alone so I sent Alioune home, something that disturbed him but felt right to do.
I then got back to the hotel and discovered that the new room they had moved me to had no connection for a phone jack. When I pointed this out they instantly agreed to let me back into our same room on the fifth floor, but only charge me for a single. This suited me just fine and I expended the last of my energy to get myself moved in and settled down for a long, boring round of sickness. I didn't even have the energy to type although I had much that I wanted to tell my journal. The day moved slowly into night with me reading all about US immigration policy and then the poignant thing happened that made very clear to me how I differ from other men in Africa. The phone rang and it was Alioune's beautiful sister asking in her fragmented English if she could come over... right then in the night. I said that of course she could, wondering what could possibly be that important. Sending Alioune home couldn't have hurt him that much but what else could it be?
I showered and put on a clean shirt just in time to hear her knock on the door. When I opened it I knew instantly that she was not there to talk about Alioune.
When I had met Penda before at the simple home they share with their mother and family I knew that she was an attractive woman. But nothing prepared me for the impact of seeing her dressed in a transparent top, tight pants and made up beautifully. Luckily I had the presence of mind not to say "Wow!" because that is the one word that Americans have inherited from Wolof slaves. If I had said that, she would have heard "Yes, I want that". Not the message I wanted to give her.
I let her in and she immediately sat on the floor besides my bed and seemed incredibly warm, but also very embarrassed at what she needed to do. I'm sure that she liked me, and may even have been attracted to me in a distant way, but I was from America and she knew in her heart that she needed to get there somehow. I sat there, sniffling and taking in the delicacy of what we were sharing. I made a point of holding my hands so she could see my new silver ring, and very gently asked her how I could help her. There was actually a deep intimacy to that moment. It was dark and quiet outside and we were alone in that room and caring for each other's needs... but things could not be simple no matter how sincerely we wanted them to be.
In frustration with the language barrier she asked for a pen and paper and when I handed her my journal she wrote these words," I need some paper. For example an immigration or .. (and this next word is not clear but it definitely ends in gement") certificate".
I was deeply moved and I quickly reached for the pile of immigration papers I had right there on the desk. I showed her that I understood what she wanted. That to get to the United States she either needed a job... or a husband. It was hard to communicate, but actually she could sense who I was. After all, she had let me take her younger brother away on a 9 day trip into Africa. She understood that there was nothing easy for me to do. She understood.
We sat quietly for a few minutes in that room and I asked her what was her dream. She wrote the words "terminal" and "student" in the book and then asked me why I was not married. She seemed to instantly understand the words "divorce" and "four years" and nodded quietly. She asked me if I had any children and when I told her no, she lowered her head for a minute, and then got up to leave.
We were both very touched by all of this and I didn't see her again until the following evening when I went with Alioune to the hospital to visit her their mother who had fallen down the rough stair to their home. I took flowers and Penda took my arm and lead me to the little garden area to talk.
She was just as shy and sweet this time but also clearly sad. Was her mother that badly hurt I asked. "No", but she told me that she had just gotten a bill for the hospital expenses and they came to 150,000 cfa which I calculated to be about $204. I sat there in that moment, once again feeling the range of experiences that fit this trip so well: Black, and a man in Africa, but not a Black African man for so many reasons. But I also felt a continuation of my efforts to take in the one thing I know I want from this experience: the strong feeling of brotherhood and generosity that I have seen so often, in Podor and from Badou....
Penda filled the silence by saying that the hospital had told her that she needed to pay at least half of the bill that evening. "OK" I said with a smile. "I can help you". She smiled back but it was for one last time, her sad, inward and slightly embarrassed smile. I counted out the money and gave it to her and she touched my arm to lead me out to the cashier. She made a point of showing me the bill and pointing to the numbers at the bottom. I smiled again and told her that I understood and went out to look at the clouds that looked to me like a huge smile.
That was the end of my last full day in Africa. Alan returned this morning full of good will and stories about his stay on the island. Alioune and Badou were with us and of course Assane showed up to collect his running shoes from me. We all shared a last meal at Marie-Claire's restaurant. She seemed sad to know that we were leaving but she contained her feelings within the whole of the sadness she seems to carry behind her eyes. Abraham came in and sang us one last medley of his same songs but louder this time, and he improvised our names into the words of an opera. Alan and I were both deeply moved.
Back at the hotel we gathered our things. Badou had gone back to work taking with him a new email address that Alan set up for him. Alioune followed us all the way to the airport in the cab and was very quiet as I paid the driver to take him home. He had the new soccer ball I had bought him that afternoon and I don't know what else he was feeling. Alan and I proceeded to negotiate our way back through the odd maze of security and inefficiency that is African airport reality but, after waiting for hours in the unairconditioned terminal; and once we made it on the plane, waiting 2 hours for some reason in the hot plane, we finally took off and here I am, right at this minute flying over some French city.
The moon is a bright, silver, tilted crescent that of course reminds me of a smile; and a blue ribbon of French dawn lit the sky beneath it I tried many times to reach Susannah from the airport but she was not at home. I know she is not at our new house because the floors have been refinished and we can't walk on them until after Monday; or maybe not even then. We plan to hide out at her place, privately becoming reacquainted with each other's bodies and souls at her house after she picks me up at Oakland International Airport tomorrow when I get in at 7:10pm.
Most of Africa is behind me now. I have been there and now am moving back into this world that is first for me, but not the only one anymore.