In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa

In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa

by Daniel Bergner

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312422929
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 10/01/2004
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 616,176
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.52(d)

About the Author

The author of Moments of Favor and God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Rendempiton in Louisiana's Angola Prison, Daniel Bergner has written for Harper's, Talk, and The New York Times Magazine. He lives with his family in New York City.

Read an Excerpt





Copyright © 2003

Daniel Bergner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-374-26653-0

Chapter One

There is a place where the bend in a path-just that,
a slight curve in a narrow strip of mud-can 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 sheerthickness
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 something-haplessly, like going after jungle butterflies
with a catcher's mitt-before 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 has
brought, 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 spread-gleaming, listless-into 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 to
build 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 children-Matthew who
was thirteen, Sarah who was almost ten, Aaron who had just
turned six-tried 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 trees-real 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, so
that "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 vipers-species 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 amputation-slept
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, sacrifices-colonial coins, chicken's blood-to
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 the
worst 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

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.

Chapter Two

Lamin Jusu Jarka took my arm in his metal claw. He
forced me down, doubled me over, pinned my forearm
to the long, exposed root of the mango tree. This was later
in the war, after the fighting had reached Freetown. He wanted
me to know what had happened in his suburb.

As he held me in this way, his country had just been named
by the United Nations, for the third year in a row, as the worst on
earth. Education and economy and health care all play their
parts in such a ranking. The fact that Sierra Leone was being ravaged
by what was perhaps the most horrific civil war on a continent
of civil war, and that it had been ravaged already for almost
a decade, didn't help in any category. Its citizens had a life expectancy
of thirty-seven years.

This was the nation I kept traveling to.


Copyright © 2003 by Daniel Bergner.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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