THURSDAY: African Awakening


Copyright is held by the author.

I STARTLED awake from dreaming about Gerry as our Air France commuter crunched onto the tarmac in Marseille. The runway was a mirage of blurry waves under the Côte d’Azur sun. I was 27 in October 1985, disillusioned with academia and keen to test-drive myself in the “real” world. Maybe I was a little in love too, but I really wanted to be passionately in love and thought we were nearly there. The feminist in me would never chase a man halfway around the world. Unless, the right adventure promised the perfect escape.

The jet whined and taxied off the runway toward our gate. Seatbelts unclicked and passengers jockeyed for position in line as fuel smells infused the cabin. I stood up. A tall man flicked the overhead bin open, noticed my stature, and passed me my backpack with a courteous smile. I glanced at my watch. It was afternoon here, though morning on my Montreal setting. I’d bid a tender goodbye to my parents at Dorval airport where they had dropped Gerry off a year before. At least they had a favourable first impression of him.

Gerry was due to arrive in 10 minutes. I wedged my foot between passengers murmuring in the plane’s aisle while we waited to disembark. The line up inched forward, and the tall man let me go first. I smiled at him as a middle-aged woman with a large green sequinned purse tramped my foot as she pushed in front of me. I rolled my eyes and then remembered I was on the verge of a new beginning.

“Welcome to Marseille,” boomed the flight attendant as I descended the staircase from the exit.

I stepped onto French soil and hurried to find Gerry’s gate. My skin tingled in anticipation of our reunion. After handing my immigration form with destination “MRS” for Marseille to the customs official, I rushed along the hallway towards International Arrivals.

Gerry fell into my life as roommate-cum-bedmate when we were students at UBC and my last boyfriend moved away. I liked that he was part hippie, wished he were more gentleman, and noted his areas of potential growth. He’d travelled Africa and Asia, and his rational talk of community work soothed my nausea from ads showing starving children. A civil engineering degree was his ticket to making a difference in Africa, and living there was one of my unspoken desires. He left for Togo, West Africa, to build roads with CUSO, a Canadian NGO, after we’d been together for a year and I was halfway through my Master’s in chemistry. We schemed how I could join him when I finished.

I wanted to contribute to the world too. A PhD at Cambridge tempted me, but the way my supervisor embraced and kissed me made me rethink the offer. I’d sacrificed ancient dreams of medicine, doubting I’d fit in or make the cut, and abandoned teenage nomad fantasies of Jewish-girl-cum-lama, popping babies on every continent. At the fork in the road between PhD and Africa, academia paled in comparison to the serendipitous opportunity for adventure. Still, no matter how successful I appeared to others, I teetered without my academic hat. Gerry could show me the world and protect me. He landed me a CUSO contract to teach chemistry at a Togolese high school. Africa invited me to explore something new, but first, we decided to meet and vacation in France.

I approached the Arrivals platform with a knot forming in my belly. I smoothed the new dress I’d sewn, coincidentally white for the occasion, and arranged myself close to the stairs, straining to find my guy. My mother said I’d know when I got there. Given the letters, packages and phone calls exchanged over the past year, Marseille would be the place where we collapsed into each other’s arms, kissed like in the movies and burbled “I love you’s” through tears. My heart jumped when he finally materialized atop the flight. Six feet with sweaty T-shirt, khaki shorts, steely blue eyes and short tawny beard; there was my Indiana Jones. He looked right at me. I smiled. He looked away, then descended the stairs looking around. My heart dropped.

“Gerry!” I called as he hit the landing. He hesitated, approached, then gave me a small hug. “How are you, are you okay? You looked right at me and didn’t recognize me!” I said, my throat tight.

“I’m not feeling good, think I got malaria,” he said leaning back against the wall. He slid down, squatted, and hunched over, gripping his forehead. “I think I have a fever.”

I knew from Gerry’s letters that malaria could strike anytime. “Do you have any chloroquine?”

“I already popped the loading dose.” He looked up at me, face flushed and shiny, eyes glazed. We collected my bags and headed downtown in the oppressive heat and humidity.

We checked into a cheap hotel on a dingy street of noisy pensions with iron window grids and street vendors selling fish patties, sausages, and cigarettes. Sweaty and
sticky, we squeezed into the tiny elevator cage with our luggage, creaking slowly past the floors. Shouts from rowdy patrons exploded around us like firecrackers.

Finally in our room, Gerry moved with stealth, his eyes burning holes in me, until he gently enfolded my damp body. We kissed, slowly at first. It felt wonderful to be in his arms and awaken the memory of his kisses. There was no talk. I thought he might want to rest but he slid a hand inside the back of my dress and in a moment, our mouths groped, and we pawed and seized each other. He stripped off my dress, mouthed my breasts, and pressed his hot body against me. I pulled off his shirt, unzipped him and handled him, crotch smell rising up, then pushed him away to see him. I couldn’t slow my breathing or cool my burning bottom. He picked me up, pinned me on the bed, impaled me, and I gasped with the fullness and impact. My head banged against the headboard again and again. I grabbed the bed rail overhead, unable to stop yelping. Exploding with sensation, my mind short-circuited. Our racket augmented the pension’s raucous atmosphere, and I didn’t care. We fit right in. We had a steamy night of little sleep.

Morning came, all blue sky and brilliant sunshine, and we lunched at a terrace bistro on a cliff overlooking Marseille. The waiter served me wine crooning “les yeux comme gazelle!” and Gerry, feeling better, popped chloroquine and admitted he didn’t like my dress.

“It looks like a towel,” he said. I nodded, thinking my terry cloth creation was clever and cute, and again forgave him for missing, this time the dress.

Ten days later, we landed at dawn in Lomé, Togo. The airport was a trailer set on a flat grey landscape with a thin strip of smudged sunrise at the horizon. We disembarked into thick humid dust.

“Early harmattan.” Gerry looked northward. “Such a disappointing ‘breeze’ from the Sahara masquerading as fog. What’s good here is the beer: German style, comes in big mother bottles, and almost as good as Canadian!” He shot me a smile. I liked having a personal tour guide.

On my first morning in Africa, we took breakfast in our hotel’s courtyard. Rattan furniture set among palm trees and ferns was swathed by bougainvillea blooming across the walls, and imbued with an intoxicating hint of frangipani. I was enchanted with this tropical garden paradise. Gerry ordered petit déjeuner deluxe rather than the usual continental coffee and bread.

“This is a special occasion,” he said, smiling. A large colourful uncaged parrot squawked.

On our way to the market, we walked through a shaded alley where artists sold ebony, teak and brass sculptures, paintings, and antelope leather goods. I ogled but bought nothing. Gerry guided us into a hidden passage, showed me his strategic meeting place at the corner of rue du 2 février and rue de Kouromé, and there we waited.

Through the cacophony of the market melee, a tall woman moving with long sure strides emerged. Her wild silver hair, Roma nose and regal presence stood out. In a moment she faced me, focused a deep blue gaze on me, clasped my hand firmly and declared, “You must be Joyce. I understand you’ve just finished your master’s degree. I wouldn’t have expected anything less. Welcome to Togo.”

With a twinkle in her eye, her smile was warm and measured. I felt my mouth move and heard my voice say something like “Thank you, yes, please, yes, a pleasure, how do you do.”

Gerry chatted briefly with our director, Brigit, while I stood mute, trying not to stare.

“If you survive as a couple in Africa, you can survive anything.” Bridget’s small smile somehow drew me in. Then, in a flash, she disappeared towards the luxurious Hotel du 2 fevrier, where Gerry said she could be found as a regular poolside bikini for lunch and siesta. Though my knees quivered, I was intrigued by Brigit’s charisma.

We strolled to the beach. Huge waves crashed onto shore and wind blustered over sandy detritus where men were playing soccer. Within moments I recoiled from a moist stench of cesspit.

“It’s also a public latrine,” Gerry said. He pointed to a woman standing, skirt hiked up, back arched, hand to crotch, and a stream of yellow fluid falling from her. In town, men marked any corner. Ocean swimmers risked the undertow’s pull and every year people drowned, their bodies washing up in Liberia.

Later we drove to the “Chicken Lady’s” for the best bird in town. Driving along the beach we cranked up the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (for my love).” At a rare traffic-light stop, a pedestrian couldn’t help twitch to the music, his face finally melting into a smile as he burst into spontaneous dance and missed his crossing.

Days later, Koffee, our BMW chauffeur, collected us for the drive to Atakpamé, our home. Smoking along the Route Nationale, we passed many tootling ‘taxi brousses’, intercity minivans crammed with sweaty commuters toting chickens and children, with goats and cheap seats on the roof, and names like Esperance (Hope) painted on the rear. I poked Gerry.

“Look, there’s a whole convoy of women with huge basins of water on their heads, and some piggybacking babies too!” I was awed. Likely they’d been walking for hours and had several more to go. Gerry dozed while I perched wide-eyed.

Roadside shanties condensed into what I figured were Atakpamé’s outskirts. We slowed to a crawl, wading through a sea of children, goats, and chickens. The car wrestled over rocks and boulders as people ambled alongside like it was another pedestrian and children pressed their faces against the windows, curious. Gerry asked Koffee for a market stop. I stepped out, instantly swarmed by hordes of lively impish children jumping and pawing me, a visible minority, gleefully chanting ad nauseam “Yovo! Yovo! Bon Soir! Ça va bien? Merci!” (Stranger, stranger, good evening, how are you, thank you!) I came to both love and loathe the attention this song bestowed over the next two years.

Up a bumpy hill we zigzagged and I wondered why Koffee chose this difficult route when we were far from the spacious and beautiful town of Atakpamé I’d read about in Gerry’s letters. The car stopped.

Voilà! We’re here!” Gerry jumped out of the car. “I picked this one myself. It has a really nice deck and a great view of the valley. Don’t worry, I checked — no scorpions!” He grinned.

Our house was a white plaster box half-buried in vines. Gerry struggled with the key until the thick wooden door creaked open revealing stark walls, filthy floor, and empty kitchen hiding French doors and a deck overgrown with greenery. A large centipede presided in the kitchen sink surrounded by mud-smeared countertops. I felt tired. I wanted to sleep. Dusk fell. Gerry flicked on the bare bulb in our bedroom ceiling. I looked at the blank walls, vacant room, clots of dirt, dust, and mud, opaque cobwebs like hammocks with trapped bugs and busy spiders. We lay in our dank bed. The lumpy pillows exuded faint mould. So far, nothing had happened the way I’d expected. I tried to be patient but found myself trembling, my breath caught in my throat, my face twisted.

“The spiders! It’s so dirty! I can’t live like this!” I stammered, then sobbed into the covers. Gerry drew me close in his arms.

“We’ll get it cleaned up, don’t worry,” his voice was soft and reassuring. “We’ll clean it up tomorrow, I promise.”

I closed my eyes and started to relax, believing him. For the time being, the dream upstaged the doubt.