January 12, 2016
Jody waved goodbye to us as Bob bumped the Peugeot over a shallow ditch onto the dirt street that led to A-2, the two-lane macadam highway would take us upcountry from Lomé. Jody’s work as Peace Corps Director for Togo kept her in Lomé. During my 1978 visit to Togo, Bob was eager to show me the U.S.- funded model housing development he was managing. He also promised to show me a spectacular waterfall just across the border in Ghana as well as the desert city of Ouagadougou, the capitol of Upper Volta, a poor country since renamed Burkina Faso.
Bob brushed aside Jody’s concerns about safety after the recent coup in Upper Volta and invited their children, David and Kirstin, aged 9 and 7, to join us on this journey. The kids’ nearly white blonde hair confused the Togolese, particularly those upcountry who had seen few Europeans and Americans. “Les petits vieux.?” they asked. French for “little, old ones?”
Jody had packed books and games for the kids and two coolers with sandwiches, raisins, cookies, and croissants all sealed in Tupperware containers. Jugs of water were wedged between our duffel bags since there would be few sources of potable water on our trip. Dysentery would be bad enough, but contaminated food and water could infect us with life-threatening bacteria. Bananas, avocados, and other fruit wrapped in its own skin were the only food we would purchase on the trip.
We left the palm trees of Lomé behind as the Peugeot climbed into thickly forested hills. After a lunch stop at a petrol station with concrete picnic tables and pungent outhouses, we arrived at a large construction site. Dust swirled across an expanse of denuded land bordered by tall trees thick with undergrowth. A roadbed had been gouged out of the graded land and beside it, crews were mixing cement in large, shallow tubs for nearby house foundations. I was surprised to see a conventional U. S. subdivision emerging upcountry in Africa.
“I need to talk to the construction foreman for a minute, “ Bob said as he pulled up behind a truck trailer with the rear doors flared open to reveal a makeshift office. The kids and I walked closer to watch the men, backs bent, bodies glistening, stirring wet, gray cement and heaving it into piles that would be raked flat to make foundations. The laborers’ repetitive, mechanical movements were mesmerizing.
Bob joined us and told David and Kirstin that they could get a snack in the car, and they raced ahead to choose something from the cooler in the car. Bob said, “There’s been some trouble in Ouagadougou.”
“What kind of trouble?” I asked.
“Last month, some colonel launched a coup. Now he’s back. The army drove him and his rebels into the mountains, but they regrouped and are marching on the capitol. This happens regularly. We’ll be OK,” said Bob with a dismissive wave of his hand.
The kids became engrossed in a game of Parcheesi in the back seat, and Bob complained about the incompetent Togolese officials assigned to his development that was funded by U.S. taxpayers. The construction manager asked him for money for private school tuition for his children – a thinly veiled bribe. Bob said there was nothing in his budget, and then the project even slower than usual. He struggled to press the officials with his limited command of French.
As we rounded a curve, we saw a Land Rover and a delivery truck ahead on the side of the road. Bob eased our station wagon to a stop behind the Land Rover. A red-haired man held a home movie camera at the ready. Several other men stood in front of the truck peering intently at the thick foliage beside the road ahead of them.
“Let me find out what’s going on here,” he said as he stepped out. The children and I watched him speak to the man with the camera, who shot Bob a quick glance and responded as he peered forward. Bob turned and waved for us to join him. David and Kirstin walked slowly behind me. Bob squatted and whispered to them loud enough for me to hear that there were elephants in the woods.
“They won’t hurt us,” Bob assured the kids. I was assured, too. He continued, “They just want to cross the road to be with the rest of their herd. Be real quiet.” David held my hand and Kirstin leaned against Bob with one arm wrapped around his leg.
The birds called and responded to each other. After standing still as a statue for several minutes, David tapped his dad on the arm. Bob signaled silence and David scowled. Then three car lengths in front of us, leaves rustled and small branches broke as a massive gray form pushed through the trees, exposing his large head, swinging trunk, yellowed tusks, and huge ears. The movie camera whirred noisily and cameras clicked. The elephant’s head moved slowly from side to side while its ears flapped steadily. David squeezed my hand.
Unperturbed by us Lilliputians, the elephant stepped quickly onto the road and tromped across to the forest. Two smaller adult elephants and a young one ambled close behind. “Neat, really neat,” exclaimed David as others in our roadside group hailed our good fortune. Kirstin asserted,” I saw them, too, Daddy!” The kids competed to describe the first time they saw elephants in the wild while we drove between walls of vegetation that crowded the road.
As the shadows grew darker, Bob turned off the highway and parked the Peugeot at a white stucco house, the home of Bob’s friend Gerhard. A tall, thin man with an unruly black beard and a toothy smile came out to meet us. He greeted Bob and the kids warmly, introduced himself to me, and led us through his large vegetable garden protected by a net mounted on poles like a circus tent and then into his house. In a few minutes, Gerhard put a huge pot of stew with peanuts, tomatoes, and greens in the center of his plank table and extracted a thick loaf of dark bread from an oven. At dinner, David and Kirstin related their sighting of the elephants, and Gerhard caught up on Jody and mutual friends in Lomé.
When Bob returned from tucking the kids into bunk beds, Gerhard said, “I spoke to some guys from Ouagadougou on the short wave today. They say the rebels are skirmishing with government troops on the outskirts of town.”
Bob nodded and said “I spoke to the U.S. consul l before we left, and he said the army was firmly in control. I’m not worried about the rebels, but let me know what your guys say tomorrow,” said Bob.
“We’re going to Wli Falls across the border in Ghana tomorrow. Maybe we’ll see some more elephants.”
Bob said good night, and Gerhard and I sat up drinking beer as he told me how he backpacked across the Sahara ten years before, built his house with clay bricks he baked himself, and lived on a stipend from a Lutheran charity to assist local farmers with modern agricultural practices. His Togolese wife and employees lived in a nearby village.
i had planned to send Susan a report on my progress in equatorial Africa, but the beer and fatigue did not prepare me for letter writing. I was soon asleep.
In the morning, Gerhard gave us sandwiches and a basket of guava for lunch and promised to have dinner ready before sundown when we returned from Ghana. After two hours of driving, Bob called out, “There’s the falls,” pointing toward a thin silver stream on a distant mountainside framed by trees crowding the road. David and Kirstin crouched to see the top of the falls through the windshield.
A roadside sign signaled that we were entering Ghana. The falls appeared, disappeared behind the foliage, and reappeared as the road twisted. We parked in a small lot, grabbed the backpacks with our lunch, and set out on a wide path through the forest.
We first heard a persistent hiss that became louder and deeper as we moved through the tunnel of greenery. It became a steady roar when we emerged from beneath the tree canopy and stared at the thundering water cascading from a height of more than 100 feet into a small lake. Spray spread from the plunging stream and droplets suffused the air as in a thick but transparent fog. We were motionless as we stared at the spectacle before us
Several shaggy, white tourists were in the water near the impact of the waterfall. “Let’s get in,” said Bob to David and Kirstin. “Keep your tennis shoes and shorts on. The rocks might be sharp.” The kids nodded solemnly. We all waded into the cool water holding hands. As we approached the place where the falling water crashed into the lake, cool air flowed strongly and steadily toward us. We craned our necks toward the source of the falling water. For several minutes, we absorbed a confluence of sensations never to be forgotten.
“Wow! I can’t wait until to tell Mom about this,“ said David. Kirstin asked, “Is it the biggest in the whole world?”
“You can tell everyone you’ve seen the biggest waterfall in West Africa,” said Bob.
The kids napped on the drive back to Gerhard’s. As he promised, dinner was warming on the stove when we returned. The kids gushed about the falls and the elephants and got excited all over again. After dinner, Gerhard and I sat on the porch as the forest came alive with the call and response of insects and animals that I dared not imagine.
“I reached my friends in Ouagadougou on the short wave today. The markets are open and everything’s normal in the city, but the fighting continues north of the city. Usually the rebels attack and pull back to the mountains,” said Gerhard. When Bob joined us, Gerhard said, “The rebels may be mounting a serious attack this time. They take hostages, and U. S. citizens would be high value hostages. The rebels might settle for a cash ransom, but they might demand political concessions from the government. Money would not be a problem, but the government would resist anything else.”
Bob shrugged, and said the offensive happens every winter before planting season. Bob asked if the new bridge over the Upper Volta River had been completed and asked when we should be on the road to reach Ouagadougou by sundown.
We did not get on the road as early as planned. It was not until noon when we crossed the river on the old bridge and stopped for the lunch Gerhard had packed. The woods became thinner and gave way to high desert. The river flowed wide but shallow between the brown, parched banks. David won several games of Chinese checkers – much to Kirstin’s frustration.
The sun dropped below the horizon rapidly as it does near the equator, and stars began to appear in the cloudless sky. The desert was dark and the only illumination was the beams from our headlights.
“Uh Oh!” said Bob just loud enough for me to hear. “This could be trouble.” An army truck with flashers blinking blocked the road. One of the two soldiers in fatigues raised one hand palm-forward and held a machine gun at his side with the other hand.
“I hope they’re government soldiers and not rebels. Could be either,” said Bob as he slowly opened his car door and stepped out with his hands raised. The kids were watching their dad intently. I assured them that everything was OK.
As Bob walked back to the car followed closely by the soldier, the truck’s headlights were switched on and made us shield our eyes. Evenly Bob said “Let’s get out of the car so they can see what we have in the car.” He opened all the doors. We moved to the shoulder of the road as one soldier stood by us and the other pawed through our duffel bags, coolers and the water jugs.
The soldier near us craned his neck to see what his buddy was finding in the car. Ammo belts were draped across his chest and a pistol was holstered on his hip. His uniform was two sizes too big. When the headlights illuminated his face, I recognized that he was a teenager, maybe not 15. We were totally at his mercy on this dark road in the African desert.
His search completed, the soldier cradled in his arms the fruit and sandwiches and nodded toward the truck with his head. They backed the truck off the road and motioned for us to proceed. Bob exhaled audibly. My heart rate slowed. The truck let us pass and its flashers faded in our rear view mirrors. David and Kirstin were quiet.
As we approached the capitol, buildings with lighted windows and flashing neon signs appeared along the road. Bob threaded through the streets crowded with donkey-drawn wagons, hand carts, buses with people riding on the bumper, trucks with loads piled high, , and cars. All drivers attempted to claim the right-of-way by short blasts of their horns. Our Peugeot crept through the congested streets and past a large market square.
With a sigh of relief, Bob turned the car onto a narrow street near the market and parked. “We made it! There’s the house. Wait in the car until we’re sure he’s there.” In response to Bob’s knock, Wells Jonson, the Peace Corps Director for Upper Volta, opened his door and we all rushed into his quarters. As introductions were made, his cook put dinner on the table. Wells put a Mozart record on his turntable, lit candles, and arranged flowers.
Outside motorbikes whined and roared, people laughed and shouted, and the loud, steady drone of city sounds competed with Mozart’s concerto. After dinner, David and Kirstin played a noisy game of Yatzee.
The city noises ceased. The kids noticed and halted their game. The only sound was classical music. Bob and I looked at each other. Wells laughed, and said “The 9 pm curfew has begun.”
“That’s amazing. It was like flipping a switch. If anyone is on the street after 9, do they shoot to kill?” I asked.
“No, it’s very simple and humane, too,” said Wells with a chuckle. “Everyone caught on the streets after curfew is loaded into a half-ton truck and taken 20 miles into the desert. They have to spend the night walking back. As you can tell, it’s marvelously effective.” I told Bob that if we left anything in the car, I was not going to retrieve it until morning.
Wells passed along what he learned from the American ambassador about the rebels latest attack. He said some villagers had been taken hostages north of the city by rebels. “I think you need to be on the road as early as possible tomorrow. It’s really not safe here. Jody must be worried to death,” said Wells.
“Yeah. She’s probably heard rumors about the rebel offensive. How can I get word to her? Do you have access to a short wave radio?” asked Bob.
“No, but the ambassador has some satellite phone connections to the embassy in Lomé. I can get word to Jody to let her know that you’re OK and headed back, but you should leave soon after dawn. Compose a message and I’ll get it sent in the morning.”
Before dawn, we loaded the Peugeot, put the kids in the back seat in their pajamas, thanked Wells, and headed south. The sun rose over the desert, and before noon we passed a modest sign marking the border with Togo with a couple of picnic tables. We relaxed over a leisurely lunch with the food the soldier could not carry. After lunch, David and Kirstin were absorbed in a game of jacks, and Bob stretched out on a bench for a short nap in the sun.
I had seen U. S. foreign aid at work, elephants in the woods, a splendid waterfall, and the desert capitol Ouagadougou. A great trip, one I could tell my grandchildren about someday.
On the following day, I would fly home. I looked forward to a weekend with my kids, Tracy and Scott, and I took inventory of the projects that awaited me in the office. I also needed to replace my unreliable car and find a larger apartment. But Susan’s bright smile and easy laughter appeared and reappeared in my thoughts. Birmingham would be my first destination in the new year. I began composing another letter. I would say something sweet in the last paragraph. Maybe even sign it “Love, Michael.” Maybe.