THE WHITE MAN'S GRAVEYARD
chapter 7 (1)
Alex opened the motorcycle to over a hundred kilometres an hour on the straight endless highway, stretching like a tight ribbon toward the mountains. The schools had finally closed for April break and it was scorching, the middle of the hot season. He'd partied in Bama with Jeannie and her VSO friend Diedre from Gashua, at the two newly posted Americans' house-brothers, Cyril and Bill Davidson.
Cyril, Alex suspected was gay -- he'd danced with the boys at the Horizontal Hotel bar, though local males always did that, but his wife never joined him in Africa. Cyril'd said something about his friend getting free tickets all over the world. That crew was all heading for Cameroon by taxi. Alex had seen them off at the motorpark. Anyway, he'd felt like a fifth wheel and he had the motorcycle and wanted to see the north. He had no plans, just to head through the northern states, make a circle back to Kano and up along the railway tracks home. Ten days was a long time to be on the road, but he'd spent two in comfort with them in Bama.
Alex saw the highway sign pointing down toward the Yanguari Game Reserve. It crossed his mind to head there since everyone had talked about it. It was one of the places you had to go so he took the turn off and sped out of the gravel road into the Reserve.
At the office, he rented accommodation, a tiny mud hut with a thatched roof, village style for the tourists, but they had cement floors and doors and taps and beds in them, for only fifteen naira a night. He parked the machine beside it, took his pack in and got out of the sun. There was no water in the faucet but it was cool inside and he brought in the small plastic jug, washed his face, and drank what was left.
In the evening he ate at the restaurant. An expat was travelling with the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, probably Yoruba. She had muscled thighs and arms, long hair in dread-locks and wore cut-off blue jean shorts. Life was not so bad here for some people. Alex went into the small museum in an adjacent building and drank juice on the patio, watching a family of baboons, down over the bank, their antics entertaining a small crowd of tourists.
He got up at daybreak, bought a ticket for one of the sight-seeing trucks and when the one-tons pulled in, Alex scrambled up over the side into one and managed to wedge into a place at the front overlooking the cab. He had been told you had to run for them if you wanted a good place on the sides to take pictures from. The truck bounced over the dirt roads, along a river where crocodiles lay like logs in the water, passing water buffalo, and came upon a herd of elephants.
They stopped the truck then. Alex became jittery, worried they'd charge the truck, so he rushed, snapping several quick photos in succession, just before they stampeded into the bush across the road.
Then there were wart-hogs, wild boar, ugly dangerous creatures, and rhinos in the swampy bog. Alex thought it strange to see all these animals in one area, like the old Africa, and it was good they had a large game reserve. There was too high a population for animals to survive outside and there was still some poaching going on the fringe, he was told.
They returned to base camp. Alex followed the signs down to the swimming place where a sulfur spring came out of the rocks. Trees canopied overhead like umbrellas, enclosing this bit of paradise. They'd built cement walls along the deepest part of the spring, so it was just like a swimming pool. Baboons kept their distance from the thirty or so people, over half expatriates, who had gathered there.
Alex was swimming upstream when he saw her on the cement ledge, giggling with her friends. He felt his hormones automatically signal the attraction. She had the most beautiful smile. The four girls were Asian. They got in the water and swam to a rock. They were having a good time and Alex talked with them, all teachers from Bauchi State. The one he liked, Lita, swam with him downstream until branches blocked the way and he became afraid of snakes there and so they swam back to the deep pool together. He took a picture of the girls, all sitting on the rock, and said he'd send it to them. When they went to go up the bank, to leave for Kano they said, Lita lingered, gathering her things. She did not want to go immediately, she said, but her sister was driving.
Alex knew he could get nowhere with her while they were in a group. The Filipinoa were like that. They were hard to separate.
The Indians had chaperones, their brothers usually. The Filipinas, he'd been told by Zak who'd been in Maiduguri ten years now, gave 10 percent and wanted you to marry them. Alex threw caution to the wind. He'd been stuck in Ngami and he was in paradise, head over heels in love with this young Asian beauty.
Alex suggested he might see her in Kano, or even come to their town. She told him they were at the school there and wouldn't mind one of the pictures. She finally broke away from the magnet drawing them together.
Alex watched her catch up to her companions walking up the bank. He would check their town on the map and definitely travel there. He knew where she lived. Now, he had somewhere to go.
He waited a day. Then he drove three hundred kilometres to Lita's town in Bauchi State. He went straight to the school, which looked abandoned, and asked one staff member where the Filipinas lived. Alex swung into their driveway and knocked at to the house, where one middle-aged Filipina teacher, talking from the other side of the front barred glass door, informed him Lita and the others were not expected back from Kano yet.
He got back on the bike and drove on out of the school, got a room at "The One Great Shakespeare Hotel." He ate a peppered bowl of joloff rice and had to put up with loud music from cracked speakers all night. Girls worked the neon-lit dance floor, from which the rooms led off, but he declined. Alex did not feel very safe and was surprised the Honda was still outside in the morning.
On the horizon, Alex could make out the purplish hills where the highway would lead into Gongola State. A full day’s drive, more than four hundred kilometres, would put him into Mubi. Once, he had to stop while cattle were being driven across the highway. "Just like Nevada two hundred years ago," he thought. The sound of the machine going flat out and the wind in his ears, were the only sounds he heard across the flat deserted landscape. By eleven o'clock, it was so hot he had to stop and let his tires cool down, find a smidgen of shade under a baobab tree.
It was past two o'clock by the time he finally reached Mubi, near the market. Flies sought the moisture in the corners of children's eyes. People lounged in the shade of neem trees back of kiosks. In the heat of the afternoon, movement had been sapped from the town. He parked by a store and stood under an overhanging galvanized tin shade, thankful to get in off the deadly inferno of the barren road.
His face was hot, wind-burned, and his whole body felt degrees warmer than normal. He was burning up. He should have known better, should have sought some shade in the afternoon, even a bush or rock to keep out of the sun.
Alex stood outside the kiosk, repeatedly gulping packets of juice. His skin was hot, dehydrated, and the sun squelched his fluids. He had to keep pouring anything down, semi-cold cokes and juice which made his stomach churn but his body sucked the liquids in like a sponge. And it was better than drinking the water they sold. He didn't need dysentery to top it off. He'd looked down the well. It was nearly dry and murky. He had been on the road all day and it would definitely be very last time he ever travelled past noon.
A young man, who'd just purchased a tin of NIDO milk powder at the kiosk, struck up a conversation. He had gone to a Teacher's College where a Canadian had taught him. "Don't mind my people calling you Bature," he said. "You Canadians helped us out a lot." The man, Hussein, said he was now teaching in a primary school in a small village not far away and had come in to try to cash his voucher. "Kano State is in a bad way. Civil servants have not been paid in four months. Allah was with me today for I was able to get one month's salary advance from the Local Government. If you will drive me to my home on your machine, I will like to invite you to stay in my house tonight."
Alex agreed. He did not know where any Government Rest Houses were and the last night in that cheap hotel had been a nightmare. There had been no fan, just a mosquito net full of holes a plane could have flown through. Then he'd had to worry all night about the bike. And there'd been no toilet, just a hole in the floor. But what had he expected for ten naira? Hussein's offer sounded inviting.
Hussein asked him to drop at the market while he bought maize and rice and some fresh greens and peppers which his family hadn't had since the end of rainy season.
Hussein's home was not far from the central mosque, past an outdoor cinema, beyond the market in a section of town comprised of mud-brick compounds and narrow lanes. He parked the Honda under a tree. It would be safe in this community.
All the children gathered while Hussein slaughtered a goat, repeating the sacred verses and bleeding it from the throat. His wives set to work preparing the stew of rice and various vegetables to form the peppery sauce, to simmering the meat for the next few hours. Hussein sliced some thin strips and sprinkled them with pepper and put them on sharpened sticks to charcoal-bake like shishkabob.
There was a festive mood in the compound that night. Hussein was called out of the greeting room at the entrance of the enclosed clay wall of the compound to welcome one of his neighbours. Then he'd send for one of his meat sticks and stand outside and share the delicacy, along with friendly conversation with the person. According to custom, males weren't allowed in the compound and we sat there on a mat. Adamu and Musa, his two sons, listened to Hussein's entire repertoire of Kanuri riddles and legends. One elderly man came and played a talking drum, beating it with a curved stick and his fingers. Up and down the street people walked or bicycled with firewood on their heads. Some stopped for a greeting. Several gathered on wooden tables with soap as things for sale were lit by bush lamps, Arabic songs rhythmically drifted from cassette decks. The street came alive like Champs d'Elysee in the cool of the night.