Gristle

Stephanie Bane

 

I’d never heard of Chad when I joined the Peace Corps in 1993. When I got the assignment, I went to a travel agency to locate the country on a world map. The internet was just getting started—I couldn’t yet google Chad and instantly see it, there below Libya, half-consumed by the Sahara desert. A Travel Advisory had been issued by the US State Department, warning Americans of an unstable security situation there. I noted the contradiction between the government warning and my assignment, but chose, mostly, not to think about it.

My feminist friends objected to the assignment because Muslim women in northern Chad wore the burqa. This was something I told them, as I learned it. None of them knew anything about Chad either. They said I shouldn’t go because of the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in Africa. We were English Lit majors and knew about genital mutilation because we’d read Alice Walker’s novel on the subject, “Possessing the Secret of Joy.” I was urged to refuse the post in Chad as a statement against the oppression of women—as though my continued presence in a coffee shop in Cleveland Heights, fantasizing about adventure and holding forth among the like-minded on issues I knew nothing about, would be a punishment to anyone but myself.

My poor terrified mother never raised a single objection, though she questioned me closely about the decision.

“Why?” she asked, for perhaps the third or fourth time, during the marathon packing effort that preceded my departure. My reasons weren’t going to be different this time, she just wanted to hear them again: adventure, learning, service.

“You’re the one who told me to travel,” I finally said, impatient. “Before I settle down and get married.”

“That’s true,” she said.

“And you didn’t tell me that once. You’ve said it, like, once a week, for my entire life.”

There was a long pause while she absorbed this. “I didn’t think you were listening.”

My post was Doba, a small city in the south of the country. Doba was a truck-stop town, a dusty way station on a long, slow road from the capital city N’Djamena to Bangui in the C.A.R. Along with a gregarious blonde named Laurie, I’d be teaching introductory English at the local secondary school, to students in the American equivalent of 6th and 7th grade.

Bakura and Tajaye, two experienced Chadian teachers, taught English to the upper grade levels. They came to the house Laurie and I shared a few days before class started, to welcome us to town and invite us out for a drink. Tajaye was a small man, and even on that first casual afternoon he was neat as a pin, formal. He wore a dusky blue two-piece suit, referred to in Chad, in French, as a complet. It was impossibly well-pressed, a match for his perfect posture. He looked ready to teach a class or attend church. Bakura, on the other hand, looked ready to knock off work and have a beer, even though he hadn’t been working. It was hard to pinpoint why, exactly—he was well dressed. My first handshake with him was awkward; his right hand was badly scarred from a burn, and only his index finger and thumb extended outward. The remaining three fingers were folded, immovable, against his palm. I grasped his hand and shook it, as though I didn’t notice.

We walked across the city to a bar owned by Nigerians, as a way of celebrating the commonality of speaking English. Both Tajaye and Bakura spoke it well. Tajaye spoke the King’s English, his accent prim to American ears but his grammar correct and his comprehension high. Bakura spoke American English with complete command. He had a strong grasp of the colloquial—he understood even rapid, slangy remarks and could respond in kind, with only a slight accent. I was surprised to learn he’d never spent time in the States.

We ordered grilled meat from a vendor outside the bar, and, while we waited for it, the two men filled Laurie and me in on the situation at school. Teachers had been striking on and off throughout Chad for the past two years because the government hadn’t been paying their salaries. But the Superintendent in Doba was a high-ranking member of MPS, the political party of President Idriss Déby, so teachers here were paid more regularly than their counterparts in other places.

The situation was tolerable for now, they said, but it was far from reliable. Both men were married and fathers of young children. The Chadian government posted teachers wherever they were needed, so Bakura and Tajaye, who hadn’t grown up in Doba, were outside the local system for sharing land, and physically removed from family and community that would help them when paychecks didn’t come.

When the food arrived, Tajaye paused briefly to say a prayer of thanks under his breath. I wondered, as we waited, how hard it was for Bakura to eat with just the thumb and forefinger on his right hand. There’s a prohibition in Chad on using your left hand at the table. It’s health related; the left hand is used for cleaning up after going to the bathroom. It’s a country with no silverware, no toilet paper, and a limited amount of soap. If someone puts his left hand into the food, no one else will eat it. I tried not to watch him as we started eating. Quickly, I realized he was having no trouble at all. I forgot about it, until he brought it up himself toward the end of the meal.

“I got this injury when I was nine,” he said, holding the damaged hand at the wrist with his healthy, muscular left hand. “I fell into the fire where my mom was cooking.”

“Oh, my!” My normal response would have been “Oh, my God!” or “Holy shit!” but Tajaye’s prim demeanor and obvious religious observance made me unnaturally quaint.

“How awful,” Laurie said gently. Laurie was more at ease in almost every social situation than I was.

“It wasn’t really an accident,” he said. “My older brother pushed me in.”

“Damn,” I said, no longer quaint. Tajaye was silent. Presumably he’d heard this story before. Bakura held out his right hand, palm up, so we could see the injury clearly. The skin was shiny in places from the burn, but otherwise the three folded fingers looked perfectly normal.

“They bandaged my hand with my fingers in this position,” he said. “They never let me open my hand, until it was healed, for fear of infection.”

“No antibiotic,” Tajaye murmured, in case Laurie and I didn’t grasp the necessity of this treatment.

Bakura nodded. “My fingers and my palm grew together. Now I can’t move them.” We nodded along with him, to show we understood.

Laurie and I shared a spacious house near the high school, one of several identical houses belonging to teachers and administrators. A Chadian man named André was our sentinel; he slept on the back porch at night. He wasn’t the only sentinel in the neighborhood; other foreign development workers had them, as did wealthy Chadians. André didn’t speak a word of English, and managed only an occasional sentence in French. He was ancient, but unmistakably powerful. His thin arms looked like cables of steel. Under his bedroll, he kept a Chadian-style machete shaped like the capital letter F, the handle extended in a long straight line, attached to which were two vicious blades, one long and one short.

At first André’s presence made Laurie and me uncomfortable. Peace Corps is about assimilation into your host country, and nothing says “I don’t trust you” like a machete-wielding guard spending every night on your back porch. But he’d been employed by the Peace Corps for years on and off, as the program withdrew and came back in response to civil unrest, most recently three years before, when President Déby overthrew Hissène Habré in a coup. André essentially came with the house and supported a large extended family on the money he earned guarding it. We didn’t want to be the people who fired him. Over time, as we got to know the city of Doba better, we got over our embarrassment about employing him.

Laurie and I continued to get to know Bakura. We’d cross the city to the Nigerian bar, and spend the afternoon speaking English with each other and the people who owned the bar. For us, it was a relief; a rest for weary brains tired of slogging along in French. Bakura loved to exercise his perfect grasp of English, speaking to us in his slangy, fast American.

He’d been to University, but in spite of his obviously superior language ability and excellent grades, he hadn’t been able to pursue an advanced degree or study abroad. Those opportunities most often went to people in the same ethnic group as the ruling party, to which Bakura did not belong. When his schooling was over he was sent to Doba to teach, and went about perfecting his language skills by partying with Peace Corps volunteers. That was when Habré was still president.

Bakura didn’t talk about Habré. During his reign, 40,000 people were killed and 200,000 tortured. Like all dictators, he targeted people in the intellectual class, and during training I’d heard accounts of teachers being pulled from classrooms and murdered right on school grounds. Déby was considered mild in comparison. I’d heard one man say, without irony, that Déby was a good president because you could criticize him and he wouldn’t kill you. But as the Superintendent of the Doba high school was in Déby’s party, none of my fellow teachers talked politics, ever.

One afternoon Bakura showed us photos taken years before, there in the Nigerian Bar. He looked impossibly young, out on the dance floor with two American guys and a number of happy looking Chadian women. They all looked healthy and wealthy. The bar itself looked fantastic, with strings of lights and sturdy furniture, fresh paint on walls covered with vibrant murals. Now the furniture was scrap, the white paint was dirty, and the murals, renderings of African fables and an homage to Bob Marley, were peeling and tired.

“We had so much fun,” Bakura said, lamenting. Looking at the photos was obviously bittersweet. “Back then, we always got paid.”

Tajaye didn’t join us often at the bar, and I sensed he disapproved of Bakura doing so, though he never said. Instead he became our French tutor, coming over weekly to help us improve our grammar. Chadian custom dictated that women not invite men inside the house. Tajaye was the only exception we made to this rule—he was our teacher, and it felt disrespectful to contain him to the porch. We asked if he’d be comfortable teaching us at our kitchen table, and although he understood there was nothing hidden in the invitation, he was a devoted married man and discussed it with his wife first to be sure it didn’t make her uncomfortable.

Laurie and I settled into a routine. It was a lonely one—all of our colleagues were men with families and, aside from Bakura, none of them were interested in spending time with two American girls. They didn’t even introduce us to their wives, many of whom didn’t speak French, and all of whom were occupied with raising children. Laurie and I sometimes asked Bakura to bring his wife along when we went to the bar, but he never did.

Halfway through the year, teachers began striking for lack of payment in cities and towns all over Chad. School remained in session in Doba—the affiliation of the Superintendent with MPS made my colleagues uneasy about open protest. At the same time there was an increase in the number of government soldiers in the city, and they weren’t getting paid either. The new arrivals were rangy, thin, disheveled. They looked like they’d been living hard. They carried their weapons casually—AK47s slung over their backs like gym bags. Nobody knew why the soldiers were gathering; we guessed that Doba was a staging point for some future military action.

Late one morning, a Peace Corps truck showed up in Doba. Laurie saw it from the yard, turning toward us from the main road. It was the truck driven by Patrick, the volunteer who lived in the neighboring city of Moundou. Surely they wouldn’t send another volunteer to evacuate us if the problem was military? We speculated like mad for the few minutes it took for the truck to reach the house.

The problem wasn’t military at all. My mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, Patrick said. Her surgery was the next day; Peace Corps wanted me at their case de passage in Moundou, which had a phone, so I could receive a call from my sister when it was over.

While Patrick went to speak to the Superintendent about my absence from post, I packed in a rush. I felt frantic, but I pushed the feeling down. I wouldn’t have more information for over 24 hours.

Matt, the volunteer I was dating, joined me in Moundou for the wait. We drank chilly orange Fanta and beer at a local bar. When I felt I couldn’t bear another moment of consciousness, we went to bed. Soon after, I woke up suddenly, in pain, as though I were being viciously stung. We turned on the light—red welts had appeared over my entire body.

The next day, Patrick and Matt and I pulled all the mattresses in the house out into the sun, in case bedbugs were the cause of my hives. By then I realized they were probably the result of stress alone, but it gave us something to do while we waited for the phone call. Benadryl dulled my anxiety, but I was still jittery when I finally heard from my sister.

My mother had a complete mastectomy of her right breast, and several lymph nodes were removed for biopsy. There appeared to be lymph node involvement, meaning the cancer had spread. It was likely that she would start chemotherapy after a short period of time.

I went back to Doba a day or two later. I’d wait to make a decision about leaving Chad until after the biopsy, when we had all the information.

Tajaye was late for our French lesson one Saturday afternoon. He was typically punctual, a unique characteristic in a place where most people tell time by the sun, and we were worried. When he finally got to the house he was agitated.

“I was held up at gunpoint today!” he exclaimed.

“What?”

“A machine gun. A soldier with a machine gun demanded all my money! He knew I was a teacher and had just been paid!”

“My God! What did you do?”

“I told him he couldn’t have all of it.”

“What?” Laurie and I both yelled.

“I told him my family and I had been going hungry too. He said he wanted enough for food and cigarettes. So I gave him two thousand francs. He wasn’t happy but he let me keep the rest of it.”

“Tajaye, that’s crazy.”

“I was scared. But I didn’t think he’d shoot me.”

He still looked scared. He was animated and his hands were trembling as he smoothed and patted his always-impeccable suit. He was only now coming down from the adrenalin rush.

“The Lord was watching over me,” he said.

“He must have been.” Laurie and I both stared at him, agape.

“That’s why I’m late. After it happened I had to go home and tell my wife.”

“Of course.”

“What did she say? Was she mad at you?”

“No.” He smiled for a moment, a private, married smile. I could see his wife had been impressed.

“You could have been murdered.”

“He was hungry. They’ve been in the bush a long time. ”

We sat at the table and tried to turn our attention to the French lesson. It was futile. We talked about the ongoing military build-up. More soldiers were arriving in Doba every day. They were sleeping in the abandoned Coton-Tchad warehouse. They had very little money and incidents like what happened to Tajaye were growing common.

“We’re both going to the US in August,” Laurie said, finally changing the subject.

“Really?” Tajaye asked. “To stay? You find Chad too dangerous?”

“No, just for vacation.”

“My mother’s having some health problems,” I added. “I want to see her.”

“I’ve always wanted to fly,” Tajaye said. “Can you get me a picture of the inside of the plane?”

When I got off the plane in the US that August, my mother was waiting at the bottom of the ramp. She was thinner. Her salt and pepper hair was solid white; during the chemotherapy only the black hair had fallen out. Most alarmingly, she was missing her right breast. The scars from her surgery were still too raw for her to tolerate a prosthetic, and she was a double D. The absence of one breast was glaring, unmissable. But she was as well dressed as always, wearing a silk turquoise shirt and white pants, silver jewelry and her customary red lipstick. I will never be able to wipe that image from my head, though I remember almost nothing else from the trip.

She cried a little when she saw me. I didn’t, though I wanted to. I felt I had to pretend for her sake that the difference in her wasn’t scary, that everything was surely going to be fine.

I ate a lot, because I could. Steak and summer tomatoes and peaches, and chocolate any way I could get it. The constant question, looming over every conversation, was whether or not I should end my service in Chad, but my mother and I spoke about it only briefly. She didn’t want me to quit, and I didn’t want to either. It seemed important to behave as though the cancer wasn’t an immediate death sentence. So I found myself back in Chad at the end of the summer, waiting for the school year to begin.

When I returned, Laurie was in the capital helping with Model School, the training all teachers went through before being sent to post.

I didn’t want to return to Doba alone, even for a few weeks. I was anxious about the military build-up, and dreading the pervasive loneliness I felt there. I made every excuse I could think of to linger in Moundou, a neighboring city where new water/sanitation volunteers were being trained. Eventually, though, I had to return.

I’d only been back in Doba a few hours when Bakura stopped by to welcome me. It was late in the afternoon, and we decided to go to the Nigerian Bar. Laurie hadn’t returned yet, so it was just the two of us, the first time I’d been alone with Bakura. We ordered beer and grilled meat. The interior of the bar was an open courtyard, surrounded on all sides by a portico. We sat in the shade and ate and drank. Fresh back from the US, I was picky again. I ate all the lean meat and put the gristle aside. I asked Bakura how his family was doing.

“We’re okay,” he said. “There was some famine in Gouna-Gaya. My wife’s family was affected. But everything is fine now.”

“Famine?” I asked, confused.

“Famine,” he said again. “There wasn’t much rain last year. Food supplies were low before the crops came in. But everyone’s okay. It’s all fine now.”

I looked down at the uneaten gristle on my plate. Regional famine was not uncommon in Chad. Rain is scarce and unevenly distributed in the Sahel.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

“Yes, yes, it’s unfortunate. But everything’s fine now, really.” His tone was light and dismissive, his facial expression blank.

“How is your mother in America?” he asked.

I picked up a piece of gristle and put it in my mouth. I intended to eat it all, as though it were my favorite part of the meal and I’d been saving it for last. My mother wasn’t well, far from it. Her chemotherapy was brutal, but it wasn’t famine.

“She’s fine,” I said. “Just fine.”
We ate and drank the rest of the afternoon. Bakura had been paid, it seemed. He ordered beer after beer. He wouldn’t let me pay for his drinks, and even offered to pay for mine. I didn’t let him. As always, we drank real beer, Gala, made at the Heineken plant in Moundou that had been abandoned by the Germans during the war. It was delicious and expensive. No bili-bili, cheap Chadian grain alcohol, for us. The famine was apparently completely dismissed from his mind.

At dusk we decided to go. Better to be out of the market before dark. Bakura walked me to my door. We were arguing about something congenially, who knows what. It could have been anything—except politics. His English remained perfect, it didn’t matter how drunk he got. He loved to debate in English. We disturbed the neighbors for a few minutes. Then he left, and I turned to enter through the gate of the straw fence that surrounded my house.

There were two men standing there, young men, 19 or 20. I froze. Immediately, one of them slapped me hard across the face. I staggered back into the fence. The second one, shorter, moved closer to block me from running away. I screamed, loud. The tall one slapped me again, and then a third time, but with less force.

At that moment André came running from the back of the house, brandishing his vicious looking F-knife. The two men fled and he took off after them. Bakura heard the commotion and came running back, only seconds behind André. He was alarmed, ready to fight.

“What happened?” he demanded.

“They hit me!”

“Who hit you?”

“I don’t know.”

Bakura stayed with me until André came back. He hadn’t caught them, but he’d given them a good scare. He chuckled in satisfaction, stroking his F-knife like a pet. The three of us talked for a few moments, Bakura translating André’s Ngambay for me. I started to cry. I was drunk, tired, and upset. We were still standing on the front porch; they would never enter my house, even under circumstances like this. To them it would be tantamount to another assault. I suddenly felt sick. I sent Bakura away hurriedly, while André retired to the back porch. I went inside and vomited hot beer into the sour, roach-filled toilet. It was dark; I hadn’t even taken the time to light a lantern. I was sweating and embarrassed.

Shortly after that I decided to return to Moundou to wait for Laurie. Even with André present all night, I was nervous living in our house alone. I hadn’t been in Moundou long when I heard from her. Overcome by an attack of reason, she’d decided to return to the States for good.

I didn’t even have to think about it—I asked Peace Corps to assign me to another post. Living in Doba by myself would be completely untenable. I wanted to live with a Chadian family in a rural village, instead of knocking around like a ghost in a city occupied by an ungoverned and underfed military force.

Peace Corps granted my request, and I was to start the school year in another town. I only had to return to Doba one more time, to break down housekeeping.

I hadn’t been back long when Bakura and Tajaye stopped by, and asked me to spend one last afternoon with them. They didn’t want to go to the bar, and I was surprised. Instead, we went to Tajaye’s house, and sat in the shade of a tree in his yard, under the unusually watchful eye of his wife.

Talking to them about it, leaving Doba felt like a betrayal, not a relief. “I’m sorry,” I said. “This city is just a little mean. I don’t feel safe living here alone, without Laurie.”

“It’s all my fault,” said Bakura.

“How could that be?” I said. “Of course it isn’t.”

“No, I mean it; it’s really my fault.”

For just a moment, this got on my nerves. I felt bad enough, and I wanted to let the subject drop.

“It’s not your fault, Bakura,” I said. “It’s the military build-up.”

I hadn’t intended to say that. They couldn’t leave. They were Chadian, trapped, even though they had as little to do with the military build-up as I did.

“It’s not even the military,” I said, lying. “But this is a tough city, and I’m a woman living alone. And after that night outside my house….” I was so absorbed in my own guilt that at first I didn’t take in what Bakura said next.

“It is because of me, Stephanie,” he said sadly. “Those boys, they did that for my wife.”

“That’s not the only reason I’m leaving,” I said quickly, dismissively. But I was stunned. I didn’t acknowledge what he’d said. “Please don’t feel badly, Bakura,” I said. “This is not because of you.”

I could hardly take it in. I’d helped my friend forget his disappointments for a few hours—but without meaning to, I’d jeopardized the well-being of a Chadian woman and her children, to the point that she felt she had to have me attacked. For this, I had left my mother.

I pulled out the camera and took photos. I told Bakura and Tajaye I’d visit Doba sometime in the next year. I told them I’d send them copies of the pictures. Of course, I didn’t. At the time, disappearing seemed like the right thing to do.

I finished my service in a smaller, friendlier town, and then came home. Shortly after my return, I learned that my mother’s cancer had metastasized throughout her body. I was grateful to be able to live with her until her death a year-and-a-half later.

That was over 20 years ago. I think about Chad every day, but I’m afraid to go back. I have dreams in which I must return, in which I’m endlessly packing a bag with rubber bands and paper clips, the flotsam of a desk drawer. A heavy-handed dream-metaphor for being unprepared.

As I write this I hear the unspoken I-told-you-so’s of my college friends, and the unearned cynicism of people whose worldview is based on a Graham Greene novel grates. I’m not afraid to go back because I might make another mistake. I’m not afraid of the soldiers and the civil unrest, even now that Islamic militants have a presence in Chad. I’m afraid because life spans are short there. Bakura is probably dead. I don’t want to know if he died without ever having his adventure, without spending time in an English speaking country. Instead, I imagine him here, in a bar, tasting all our pretentious craft beer. He’s having so much fun.

 

stephanie_bane_authorStephanie Bane received her MFA from the Pacific University low-residency program, where she completed a memoir, “Thirst,” about the time she spent in Chad.  Excerpts from the memoir have appeared in Brevity, Ascent, and an anthology of Peace Corps stories, “One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo.” She has also written about social media for authors in Creative Nonfiction.