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Nine Hills to Nambonkaha
Two Years in the Heart of an African Village
By Sarah Erdman
Picador Copyright © 2003 Sarah Erdman
All rights reserved.
A single lantern filled the room with flickering light, throwing Fanta's shadow toward the door. The glow bronzed her tight cheekbone, her deflated breast, her moving stomach. There was not a cushion in sight, not a sheet, not a bar of soap, not a bucket of water. There was just the hard mud floor to support this woman struggling through labor. I could only think of the blinding fluorescence of the American delivery ward: the blankets, pink or blue, the menu of painkillers, doctors in white coats, white gloves, the hard white hospital light. How much different it was here in the hushed, dark tension of the hut.
From the start of my two years as a health worker in rural Côte d'Ivoire, I'd known that trust would be vital to my work. But that meant a certain degree of assimilation, which is not always easy — especially for an educated Western woman living in a tiny, traditional, West African village on the cusp of change.
The early days were rife with small talk and polite misunderstandings. I wanted so much to get past it all, to connect on a deeper level with the people I was supposed to be helping. The waiting was hard. But that night, about two months after I arrived in the village of Nambonkaha, it became apparent that the villagers were just as eager to bring me into the fold.
I was tinkering with dusty cans of food, trying to summon the creativity to make dinner, when a breathless man appeared at the screen door.
"Come!" he said, his eyes wild. "My wife's stomach hurts."
"What's wrong? Is she throwing up?"
"No!" he cried. "A baby is coming out!"
I knew nothing about childbirth. "Why have you come for me?" I asked, steadying the rising panic in my voice. I'd been dispelling myths of my medical expertise ever since I'd arrived. He answered, in his tattered French, "My wife — she said to find you." Suddenly my ignorance just seemed an excuse: the fear on his face persuaded me. I strapped on my headlamp, grabbed my Birthing for Midwives manual, and followed him into the night.
The man led me to a courtyard not far from my own, then pointed to a dimly lit doorway. "Pei ba," he told me in Niarafolo, the local language. They're there. And then he was swallowed into the shadows. Low voices came from inside the hut — creaking, scratchy ones — and my pulse slowed as I listened. Tonight this birth would not depend on me. The elders were there. For centuries, the village has relied on its grandmothers, its vieilles, to deliver its babies. One of the old women, a friend who sold salt at the village market, beckoned me from the doorway. "Come look," she said.
My neighbor Fanta sat naked on the dirt floor. She seemed so calm despite all the women pacing around her. The salt seller stood straight, arms akimbo, a presence far greater than her four and a half feet warranted. Her jaw rotated in slow circles around a cheekful of snuff. I could tell right away she knew I had not seen this before. The other old women scrambled to find me a stool, urged me to sit. I couldn't yet speak Niarafolo well enough to say much. I had learned many phrases, but none applied to childbirth. We communicated with hands and eyebrows.
Crouched on the stool, I opened my book to find the right page, but there were hundreds of pages about childbirth, and Fanta's labor wouldn't slow for me to catch up. Pain crumpled her face in waves. I had only known Fanta as a pregnant woman, but that night, as the baby shifted downward, her scrawniness was suddenly apparent. A shoulder jutted out grotesquely above her hip and I realized I could trace the baby's progress through her thin flesh. I riffled through the pages of my trusty manual, but instead of answers, I found a whole catalog of causes for panic. The salt seller rasped orders to the others, chomping vigorously on her tobacco, shaking her head.
One woman grabbed Fanta's belly from behind and rocked it vigorously, as if she could shake out the baby. Suddenly there was blood pooling on the floor. So much blood! Fanta's teeth flashed in a grimace, and then she clamped her lips together. She seemed so strong, but I was scared — this might be the end of Fanta, and I, the ostensibly trained one, was a helpless spectator. My teeth carved up the inside of my lip; I watched anxiously, feeling useless. The bloody prelude gave way to a pale patch of skull, visible just under the bright pink scar where Fanta had been circumcised.
The swollen head emerged slowly, and then the neck — noosed with a blue umbilical cord. I turned back to my book, trying frantically to find this particular complication. After the tense and sluggish delivery of the head, the rest of the baby slid right out, flopping against a cloth on the ground. I was used to scenes of babies smacked and screaming seconds out of the womb. This one lay still, translucent and whiter than me. The hut filled with our breathing. The salt seller poured water on his chest in a thin stream to check his reflexes. Nothing. Fanta lay on her back, staring at the ceiling.
Without speaking, the women simultaneously picked up the rusted tin basins they'd been sitting on and started hammering them with spoons and fists. The metallic din smashed our dark silence; it suffocated the room with noise. The sound was violent, unbearable — it seemed to explode in my head. But the women banged on, louder and louder, as if the world's noisiness were reason enough for the baby to stay.
The child's chest barely moved. I flipped through the manual, squinting against the clatter, embarrassed not to have found any answers.
And then, amid all the ruckus, the tiny thing gurgled and flickered a hand. That's all it took. The old women's voices returned, their faces crinkled into smiles.
I had just watched a miracle, but the others didn't seem to notice. Fanta didn't look flushed with excitement, didn't reach out her hands to hold him first. The atmosphere turned curiously businesslike. The vieilles cut the cord with a razor blade, sprinkled some dust on it to stanch the bleeding, and stuck him in a basin of dark red bark water. Fanta crouched over, the placenta slipped out, and she slid it directly into a clay pot. According to tradition, she alone must bury it in a secret place outside the courtyard. She would also be expected to laugh and sing as she buried it, or the child would be sickly. If a sorcerer got hold of the placenta, he or she would have complete power over the baby's mortality.
An old woman scooped the tiny boy out of the water and tossed him in the air three times, muttering prayers as he fell back into her hands. Then the child was wrapped up and passed straight to me for inspection. I tried to hand him to Fanta to start nursing, but all the women shook their heads. "Yirma wo ba." She doesn't have milk, only water, they said sadly, as if she were defective. Strange that they regarded this normal delay in milk production as the result of something Fanta's body had done wrong. How could I explain the virtues of colostrum in Niarafolo? I said, "The water is good!" They cocked their heads, smiling quizzically, and kept passing the baby.
The salt seller held him for just a second, then handed him off. "Allons partir," she ordered gruffly, and so we left. But some boundary had been crossed: they had let me in. I trailed the salt seller's small, strong figure walking briskly under a bowl of glittery stars.
People ask me now, "What was Africa like?" I tell them that the place I came to know is laughing yet troubled, strong yet crippled, and dancing. Africa was like nothing I had known before, until I knew it better. But to really explain it, I have to start from the beginning.CHAPTER 2
Shadows slide across the table, shrouding my dinner in darkness. Something resembling a tiny shark is floating in my sauce, but I can barely see it. The girls, the mothers, the children are clustered in the dust of the courtyard below, eating on low stools. But I am white, and something of a trophy just now. My place is on the balcony, seated at a rickety table covered with flowered plastic, overlooking the family. The girls and mothers below eat fast, lips smacking between words. Lachaud's jaw moves in slow, powerful circles. He sits next to me, silent, a bit fierce. This morning, he was the one sent to greet me at the welcoming ceremony, when my fellow Peace Corps trainees and I sat sweating and dazed amid throngs of grinning Africans. Later he brought me into this courtyard to introduce the rest of the family that will be mine for three months while I learn to be a health worker in rural West Africa. Lachaud, it turns out, doesn't live here. Still, he seems to have a kind of authority.
He says nothing for minutes, and then, "Il faut manger!" You must eat! I look down. The dull bulb on the wall sheds light on Lachaud's plate, but mine is drenched in darkness in the shape of my own head and shoulders. I know it's foutou on my plate — they pounded boiled plantains all afternoon. Mama No. 2 sat low next to the mortar, thudding rough paste into shiny globes.
I stab my fork at the lump of black submerged in the bowl of okra sauce. The head surfaces, its eyes blank and white, its teeth still gnashing its tail. I want to be good, to slurp up this meal with gusto and ask Mama No. 2 for seconds. That might make my strangeness less glaring. "Il faut manger," repeats Lachaud, glowering faintly. My fork trawls the murky sauce, and I swallow what emerges with my eyes shut.
Two tall girls appear in the darkness below and call out a greeting. Lachaud's teenage sisters are twins with long thin braids, identically smooth, strong faces, and the same mischievous eyes. They scamper up the stairs and hover behind me. Sandrine glances at the remnants of the monster in the sauce, but it is Sylvie who grabs my shoulder and relieves my culinary torture. "Come!" she says. "Let's go for a walk." I abandon that fish in a flash.
There is one paved street in the village of Abenké, a pocked ribbon of asphalt that splits the community down the middle. But the earth on either side of Abenké's street has washed away, and the village around it seems to be sinking. Orange light pools under streetlamps that run the length of the village; the intervals are dark. I walk up and down the road, a moving centerpiece in an assembly of so-called siblings. Fingers wander in my hair, brush my shoulders, my elbows, my hands. My teenage "sisters," Sopi and Rosine, lead the way, laughing a little too loudly. Around our little nucleus swirls a kinetic pack of children in rags. We pass boys collected by a stereo whining reggae, a tailor spinning out stitches by lamplight.
A voice calls out my name. "C'est Lachaud," says one of the twins. Saturday night and he's pacing the street, too. My entourage goes orange under a streetlight, then falls black a few steps on; orange, and then black again. We pass Lachaud for the second time a few minutes later. I say, "Ça va bien, Lachaud?" even though I asked just minutes before. Everyone has told me to never skip a greeting. His smile has loosened. Somewhere down these black alleys there must be a moonshine maker.
When I finally head home near ten, reeling from the whirling crowds of staring, dusty children, I feel flattened by so much strangeness. We pass Lachaud on the way. He's bleary-eyed and slumped against a wall, wearing only white shorts.
I wake up the next morning in my turquoise-painted room to the whispers of a silhouetted head against my window. I know it's Sopi. She is fifteen maybe, an imp, a joker. Stubby braids sprout all over her head, and her face balances on a wide, unfaltering smile. I love her already. "She's still asleep!" Sopi croaks. She coughs and clears her throat, then finds some reason to yell to her sister far across the courtyard. It works. I'm up and laughing already, and it seems some of the foreignness has rubbed off with sleep and daylight.
My giant duffel bag has erupted across the room. It occurs to me that there is too much stuff — dozens of batteries, flashlights, cassettes, books, pens, herbal medicines. I brought tennis shoes, two pairs of sandals, and Birkenstocks, when clearly all anyone wears is flip-flops. Although I've stocked up on amenities, maybe all I really need is in me.
My parents are in the Foreign Service; I grew up on the move. Being a foreigner does not faze me. Coping with cultural differences is something I've done since childhood. Before leaving the States in January of 1998, I pored through every book I could find about Côte d'Ivoire and learned that the country has sixty-four ethnicities, strong animistic traditions, and the most political stability in West Africa. I came confidently. I thought I was prepared. But already I am humbled and astonished by what I've found.
My room is on the lower floor of a worn-down two-story house, built by the father of my host family — the vieux — during his heyday. A long, narrow balcony looks out at the fields and the courtyard below. The dark staircase between the floors has nearly catapulted me into the courtyard several times already; the steps are drastically uneven, as if each one has been collected from a different flight. The house speaks softly of former success: the large, vacant salon gathers dust. The bedrooms, except for mine and the vieux's, remain sealed behind doors that don't quite fit their frames. Life happens outside. The women and children sleep on plastic mats to escape the heat. Cooking takes place on low fires in the courtyard. Washing — of dishes, clothes, and babies — is done in basins in the dirt.
I come out into the sunlight to the smiles and clucks of all the courtyard women, whom Sopi immediately introduces as either sisters or mothers. I'm stymied. "All the same family?" She giggles and nods. Is she trying to trick me? Sopi's older sister Hélène grabs my bucket, new and pink in this dusty courtyard, and hops up on the well platform to pull water for my bath. She wears a pagne, or sarong, of faded dark red; her shoulders sweep out of it, smooth and rippling with fine strength. Hélène may be nineteen, but it seems to depend on whom you ask. She has given her flashing eyes and her dimples to a three-year-old daughter, Eloise, who hides behind her mother's knees in my presence.
I step up on the well beside Hélène. Already it is clear that I am considered weak and somehow superior to manual labor — misconceptions to be dashed before long, I hope. The last thing I want is for them to serve me, though it almost seems they want to. When I take the rope and fill the bucket, slashing my shirt with wet dirt in the process, the whole courtyard erupts in laughter. Rule No. 1 becomes quickly apparent: Laugh first.
The N'Guessans' latrine becomes, within hours, my favorite spot, the only place outside where I'm confident of my solitude. The bathing section is made of baked clay, draped with vines and roofed far above by the edges of a giant mango tree. It is lovely purely by accident. Hélène says I must bathe twice a day, and I wouldn't dream of arguing with her. My first bucket bath is like skinny-dipping — splashed cold water in the sun's slow burn, the smell of wet clay. I dry off in minutes just standing there. At night it must be even better, when the water is warmed over the fire, the air is soft, and the ceiling is a million shimmering stars.
While I'm dawdling in the latrine, the twins show up, boisterous already. I emerge in my Western garb and they rush up, a bundle of rioting colors in their arms. "You have to try on these!" they pant. "Comme une femme africaine!" In all the excitement, we leave my own clothes on. Over my pants goes a narrow skirt that binds my knees and reduces my walking to the mince of a geisha. A bodice fits snugly over my shirt and leaves my shoulders swimming. The neckline is low and lined with ruffles; the short sleeves are entities of their own: giant wads of padding puff out level with my ears. The girls pull out a long warped mirror, and I note in my reflection that my outfit is made from the "cellulaire" fabric that seems all the rage: mud-green background patterned with giant orange cell phones, symbols of modernity just out of reach.
The sun is racing to the top of the sky. February is the onset of the hot season. I am wearing two whole outfits and nearly suffocating when they bring out the pièce de résistance: a thick, black velvet cloth traced with sparkling gold designs. "This goes around your waist," says Sandrine, who, when asked what purpose it serves, can't think of a good one. With an everyday pagne, you can tie on a baby or bundle up your purchases at the market. But this one is too nice for all that. The girls step back and grin into their fists. I am wearing a complet, a three-piece pagne, the traditional costume of West African women. They're mighty pleased with their handiwork.
Excerpted from Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman. Copyright © 2003 Sarah Erdman. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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