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In the Land of Magic Soldiers
There is a place where the bend in a pathjust that, a slight curve in a narrow strip of mudcan produce an ache, a longing, a bending of the heart. Within the jungle on either side stand the cotton trees. Twelve stories high, their monstrous trunks fan out toward the earth in giant buttresses, forming the walls of strange rooms. To step inside those chambers, to have the massive growths enclose you, to lean with your feet on the spongy ground and your back to the cool damp bark, with almost all the sounds of the world absorbed by the misty air and the immensity of wood, is to exist in some other atmosphere, some softer medium, some fluid capable of sustaining you between this world and another.
And maybe it is only the nearness of those magical trees that causes the longing on the path. Or maybe it is the way the rainy-season light, filtering through the haze between storms, flickers off the undergrowth at the path's edge, making the leaves flash dimly like coins dropped into water, bright objects of little value sinking painfully out of reach. Or maybe it is the sheer thickness of all that greenery, the entire earth a depthless pillow to fall into. But I think it is also, up ahead, the minimal bend itself, leading the path so suddenly out of sight amidst the lush terrain, that puts a crimp in the chest, as though the heart has tried to close around somethinghaplessly, like going after jungle butterflies with a catcher's mittbefore it is snatched away.
This is where that spot is found: just beyond the village of Foria, in the country of Sierra Leone, in West Africa. On the rim of the continent's western bulge, the country is a tiny shape engulfed by the tiny shapes of Guinea and Liberia. It is so obscure that you may never have heard of it; if you have, you likely know it as the place of lost hands. That is the small fame its war hasbrought, and as the war burned closer to Foria, as it burned within a few miles, the Kortenhovens put off leaving. They came from Grand Rapids, Michigan. But this had been their home for fourteen years.
To reach there they had flown across the Atlantic, flown to the capital, Freetown. In that city on the coast, on the streets above the estuary that spreadgleaming, listlessinto the ocean, the elaborate colonial architecture, the pale stone and wrought-iron rails, stood beside stark office buildings of smooth concrete. It had been nearly two decades since the end of British rule. Freetown could appear a functional place, half quaint, half modern. The airlines had been willing to land there, then.
From the capital the family drove inland. The road cracked and caved and disappeared. Branches hooked across the windshield and wrapped around the hood; the family couldn't see five feet into the forest that crushed inward from either side. Even in a four-wheel-drive, to cross most of the miniature country, to travel a distance less than the span of Massachusetts, took fourteen hours. Boulders blocked the route and bridges didn't exist. To make their way across the creeks they built their own bridges, roping together logs with vines.
They were white. And they were missionaries. But they meant to bring basic health care and safe water as well as Christianity; they felt that the gospel's call to "preach good news to the poor" referred at least as much to reducing poverty on earth as to uplifting the poor in spirit. "You can't spiritualize that passage," Paul, the father, tall, sturdy, and bearded, believed. "You can't just go around telling people Jesus loves you, so everything' ll be hunky-dory if you have faith in Him. You can't just tell people this world is not my home. The gospel means action as well as words. The biblical mandate is to treat the whole person, not to divide things into the spiritual and the material. I want tobuild water systems so little kids will stop shitting themselves to death."
"Lord," he wrote in a booklet of prayers, published by his church back in the States, "Lord, give me a heart that breaks."
Paul and Mary's three skinny blond childrenMatthew who was thirteen, Sarah who was almost ten, Aaron who had just turned sixtried the vines for swinging, Sarah's ponytail and long, loose skirt floating through the heavy air, when their parents stopped to rest on that first drive up. And they played at the rubber treesreal rubber trees, Sarah thought, cutting at the bark with a Swiss Army knife, expecting to fashion rubber bands and Superballs from whatever substance emerged. She had to settle for white sap. It was Christmas, 1980. When the family arrived in Foria, the cotton trees were shedding their delicate fiber. Above the huts of mud and thatch, and the few squat houses of cement and corrugated metal, the white fluff drifted down through the heat, coating the ground like a layer of snow.
The Kortenhovens' denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinist sect based in Grand Rapids, had dispatched ahead of them a sort of roving missionary advance man to help choose a village, to meet with village leaders and negotiate for an unused house where the family would live, to set a metal roof upon it. Their church was sending, too, a few other missionaries into the region around Foria, the most remote in Sierra Leone, and one other couple to Foria itself. Quickly, the advance man left, out from that epicenter of isolation, and gradually the other missionaries would follow him away. But even at the start, there were only a handful of Westerners spread over the territory of the Kuronko. Unable to communicate with the people they now lived among, the Kortenhovens struggled to learn the tribal language, Paul and Mary hiring Samba Koroma for their teacher, Samba the rare villager who'd managed to get several years of schooling at a Catholic mission in a distant town, who knew a bit of English, who spoke at high-speed in all his five languages, sothat "Ah foh tungh doni doni""say it again very slowly"was the first Kuronko sentence Paul learned. For months Aaron could learn nothing. Friendship, at the age of six, seemed to end forever. He could talk with no village child. "I hate Africa!" he screamed constantly through the house, high voice holding endless depths of helplessness and grief. "I hate rice! I hate cement! Why don't we have carpet on the floor? I want to go home to America! I hate Africa! I want to go home! I want to go home! I hate rice! Please, why can't we go home?" And at night, with the kerosene lanterns blown out, they all listened to the termites, tk-tk-tch, tk-tk-tch, devouring the door frames and the flimsy wooden substructure supporting their concrete walls.
Was there only an ocean between the country they had come to and the country they had left? Living beyond electricity, beyond phones, beyond mail seemed the least of it. When Aaron got sick that first year, when Mary pushed gently at his right side and the pain was sharp, she figured appendicitis. She and Paul rushed him to the closest hospital, five hours away. There the Seventh Day Adventist doctors cared for a colony of lepers. After he was diagnosed with hepatitis, Aaron recuperated among the patients whose nerves had been claimed by leprosy's bacteria, whose eyelids could no longer blink, whose flesh had turned necrotic, whose hands were crabbed, whose toes had fallen away, whose feet had eroded to twisted fins.
Back in Foria, school was Mary in tears, leaning over Aaron's shirtless bony shoulder, trying to teach him to read despite his dyslexia. Matthew and Sarah studied by way of a University of Nebraska correspondence course. They sent off their tests, their papers, whenever anyone journeyed to Freetown. From there the schoolwork made its way to the States, and made it back to Foria months later.
And while the termites feasted on the house, cobras and puff adders, mambas and Gabon vipersspecies whose bite, if it didn't kill, could leave a leg, especially a child's leg, quickly black with gangrene and treatable by nothing except amputationslept by the bathroom drain and slid across the paths. Malaria was rampant, and the drug that fought it gave Aaron hallucinations. Rabies infected the dogs the family took care of for a villager. Elephantiasis was endemic. Lassa fever, with its Ebola-like hemorrhaging, lurked near. They had come to a land of plagues.
Then one night, to make the ocean between countries seem all but infinite, a bush devil danced outside the Kortenhovens' windows. Opposite their house, the village planned to build new huts; a patch of forest needed to be cleared, and before this could begin, devils needed to be purged. They surely lingered amidst those trees, cotton trees and others with trunks so terribly thick and horribly tall, the natural homes of evil spirits when they rose to visit the surface of the earth. For the Kuronko, there was only the magic of peril, not solace, in those fantastic growths, and to step between the buttresses of the cotton trees, to be enfolded by those gargantuan wings, was not to feel ensconced but to guarantee misfortune, disfigurement, sickness, death. The specially sanctified might enter those chambers to leave offerings, sacrificescolonial coins, chicken's bloodto stave off general disaster. Otherwise the alcoves, so otherworldly, were best avoided. The beings of the underworld felt too at home there.
In a society that was, with only the most scattered exceptions, preliterate, in a territory so besieged by illness that one-third of all children died before the age of five, in a place without any modern sense of science or medicine, in a land so overwhelmed by nature, devils were behind every calamity. Their "witchguns" perpetually cocked, they could shoot anyone with ammunition of hardship. When hunters passed through certain sections of forest, groves favored by the spirits, they never called one another's names, for fear the devils might identify them for later harm. And when the village chief wished to make room for more huts, he first checked the trees for malevolent forces; to cut the trunks before capturing them would be to risk a frenzy of retribution. The entire village could be annihilated.
A bush devil was another figure, not a devil but evil's counterpart, a close cousin to all malign beings, an antidote dangerous in itself, a man inhabited by occult powers that enabled him to do good. Face covered in cloth and body in raffia, he danced with his entourage of spirit-men, danced for hours and hours near the Kortenhovens' house, through the stand of trees; seed-rattlers shook and the kondeh gave its cadence and feet stomped rhythmically like a cavalry of hoofbeats, making the ground vibrate. The family was warned to stay inside. All the villagers did the same, kept their shutters closed. Then came the blast of a horn, a tremendous shriek. A devil had been trapped in the forest. With an anguished cry it had surrendered and been expunged.
The woods began to fall. The chopping went on through the next day, stopping only when the cloth face and raffia body returned, suspicious that more evil hid within the trees. Again the villagers ran for their homes, fleeing the exorcism; again the screeching horn, the horrendous cry. Another spirit had been seized. The cutting resumed. A few minutes later, Samba, the language teacher, came by the house. To him, a man of rare education, Mary said, "We heard the horn."
"That was not a horn," Samba taught her. "It was a devil."
That had been the beginning. The end had begun when Joseph Sesay, a Sierra Leonean who had worked for the mission for more than a decade, a self-taught agriculturalist trying to increase the yield of local rice farms and palm groves, ventured south to see how close the war had come. There were rumors that it was near, that the rebels who'd been fighting for three years in the country's southeast had surged north, abruptly bringing their terror, their impaling of civilians and incinerating of villages, into the region around Foria. And the Kortenhovens knew that the Revolutionary United Front wasn't playing by the racial rules that often lend whites a level of immunity in theworst third-world situations. In the southeast, an American working for the Red Cross had been taken hostage. An Irish priest and a Dutch missionary couple with their three-year-old daughter had been killed. Yet in Foria, among black and white, there was fear without extreme panic, isolation blurring the war's reality, and Joseph volunteered to ride his mission Honda toward Bendugu, twenty miles away, to find out what was truly happening. It was dusk when he left, midnight when he returned, the great drum sounding its three slow beats followed by staccato patter, the signal that news had arrived and that the villagers should assemble. They crowded around the Kortenhovens veranda, and Joseph told what he had done and seen.
The settlements past Alikalia had been all but deserted, and outside Bendugu he had left his motorbike, stolen quietly along a footpath, climbed a tree. In the distance scattered homes were just starting to erupt in kerosene flames. But closer by, maybe a hundred yards off, he noticed something strange: specks of red and pink light, variably still and swooping, not far above the ground.
Later he would learn what the rebels did: stuck candy wrappers on the ends of their flashlights, so they could distinguish the beams of their comrades from those of any civilians racing to find family or belongings before trying to escape. But for the moment he understood so little, only saw the start of conflagration and the inexplicable dancing of colored lights.
Copyright © 2003 by Daniel Bergner