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Sierra Leone RPCV John Nagamichi Cho writes about Mistah Lee
Sierra Leone RPCV John Nagamichi Cho writes about Mistah Lee
Lee runs the rough blade of his cutlass across the ruddy, smooth skin of the guinea mango; the chipped edge catches, piercing the epidermis, slicing out cleanly a thick, convex piece, the sticky, acrid juice flowing through his holding hand. He sets aside the seed-exposed main body, cups the independent piece in his hand and scores the almost translucent meat into a grid-like pattern with the blunt blade-tip, criss-cross, criss-cross, I wonder if this seed would take hold back home. He inverts the convexity into a concavity, the skin turned inside-out, the flesh now exposed in bite-size rectangular chunks as if they grew that way--discrete, logical, vulnerable. He bites into the slippery morsels, heedless of the mildly caustic syrup that trickles down his jaw, throat, bare chest. A gust blows across the veranda where he is sitting, streaking the juice across his abdomen. The dim outline of the Fouta Djalon mountains on the horizon is rapidly being shrouded by the black-as-coal-smoke tropical cumulonimbus clouds, thunderheads roiling over the top, silent lightning flashes backlighting random sections. Lee flings the still inside-out skin, now bereft of all flesh, frisbee-style, out toward the rice field. It soars amazingly far, its particular geometry creating an airfoil, cutting across the strong wind, landing in a tangle of cassava plants. He is proud of this small discovery--he wonders if the ancient Africans had little flying toys for their amusement. When Saidu comes for the evening water he will ask him if he knows this trick.
The temperature and light is decreased drastically as if night had fallen prematurely. Watching vainly for signs of goosebumps on his body, Lee quickly finishes the remainder of the mango and fetches and places a bucket under the spout coming down from a corner of the roof. The wind is falling off. The first of the raindrops are announcing their arrival on the zinc pan roof; scattered rim shots soon give way to a continuum of a thousand snare drums beating, beating.
As Lee continues to bask in the relative cool of the deflected mist he notices a bucket bobbing up from the bramble bushes that lead down to the swamp. The expected head then appears beneath the bucket, then the upper body of a woman. She is walking briskly and smoothly, spinal column perfectly vertical, arms at the sides, the bucket swaying slightly to and fro but stably as if it were just a decorative hat one put on nonchalantly. As the path from the swamp to the village passed next to his house, following custom, Lee had to greet everyone who went by. Sometimes he would duck inside his house when he spotted a group of old women coming in from their farms--they spoke neither Krio nor English and Lee was somewhat embarrassed and frustrated by his continuing inability to learn Limba past the few basic phrases. They still derived a great deal of amusement from the mangled speech of this whiteman, this grown man who preferred to wear shorts and who did not have a wife to cook meals for him.
The full figure of the woman is now visible, the lower half wrapped by a lappa, the torso plastered by a drenched T-shirt, the inscription on which is faded and indecipherable from this distance. It is clear now that she is a young woman, her well-defined breasts yet undrooped by the rigor of the child-rearing years. As she approaches his house her face remains obscured by the shadow of the bucket, an anonymous figure within the isolating walls of the deluge.
Lee prepares himself for a greeting, but the girl--she looks even younger now--keeps moving up the path, head unturned by his existence, in unbroken rhythm as if entranced. He can make out the words on the T-shirt: "Go climb the mountain." He recognizes it and realizes that she has it on backwards--the phrase should be on the back, not the front. Acting upon some newly intransigent impulse he calls out to her.
"Eh, sistah. You no de greet me?"
She turns her head slowly toward him, the extra moment of the bucket resisting sudden rotation.
With a little start he realizes that he knows this girl, then after a short delay his mind assembles her identity: Fatmata Jalloh, pupil in Form II. Not an outstanding student, somewhat lethargic, but socially well-adjusted. She is particularly at a loss in his math class, but this doesn't seem to weigh upon her mind, and as she looks at him now he feels no heat of resentment, no opacity of shame in her eyes. She stares at him, not moving, not saying anything further. Lee's unsettling impulse falters for a moment but makes him continue.
"Come here, Fatu."
He switches to schoolhouse English and invests his words with the authority of a teacher giving instruction. Wordlessly she comes to him on the veranda; she stays standing just outside the cover of the roof, the bucket on her head catching the thicker curtain that falls from the edge.
"Put the bucket down and come under."
Keeping her back straight she bends down on one knee then lowers the bucket from her head. Water sloshes close to the rim; under its surface are the tight knots of washed and wrung garments. She stands on the concrete floor of the porch, stares at the amorphous puddles of water growing around her bare feet. Lee is squatting on a foot-high, woven raffia stool, watching her static expression; he has seen this face many times before: the bank teller in town eating a bean sandwich and sipping her lukewarm bottle of Vimto with unbelievable languor, eyes in the general direction of the mildewy Krio sign painted on the wall, "KEEP YOU KOPOH NAR BARCLAYS," while waiting customers--"businessmen," market women, civil servants, farmers--stand sweating in the crowded lobby, warding off with a "shilling" the occasional beggar that wanders in, but each one mirroring the same mask of negation, an anti-expression, that the teller wears signalling that time is suspended, that no transactions are to take place at that moment; it is somehow like the Taoist's "uncarved block" and the mu on which Zen practitioners meditate; and yet it is an effortless state and one from which the subject can abruptly explode into violent laughter in response to a neighbor's ribald joke. Whenever he confronts this wall (as he perceives it), Lee feels desperately alone. As he gazes up at Fatu, he feels an extension of the same strange impulse that made him call out to her; for no reason that he could fathom his heart is racing. In a mock stern voice he says, "You know you should greet everyone you meet, especially your own teacher."
"Yes, Mistah Lee."
God, what an asshole I'm being, yet it is only with the next words that come out of his mouth that he understands why his pulse is pounding in his stomach: "Fatu, let we go siddohn small."
Fatmata Jalloh, daughter of a Fula entrepreneur who had wandered south of the colonial border as a young man to start the first bread bakery in Kukuna and a Limba mother who sold palm oil at the market, Fatu, at age fourteen, a responsible member of the Bundu society, a good Moslem who said her prayers then went to a Catholic secondary school where, uniformed in a bright azure schooldress, she learned the skills necessary to be a fine, modern African woman: English, History, Home Ec., P. E., Agric., Bible, Maths, Geography, Forensics, and Religious Knowledge; she, who had inherited the café au lait complexion and the petite, angular features of the Fula, raised her eyes at Lee, who was now standing, and giggled. It is, however, a momentary outburst. She quickly falls back to her previous state, eyes now staring past the dried mango stains cutting diagonally across Lee's smooth chest.
Lightning strikes strobelight the squall-induced murk, thunder arriving almost simulaneously as soft kicks in the gut. The proposition somehow being articulated by someone he barely recognized, the border crossing completed, Lee now feels compelled, without choice, to explore the new moral territory that has been handed to him. His perceptions continue to operate displaced: he watches as his hand reaches out to take Fatu's arm, but force is not necessary, they move together inside. He sees their journey in snapshots, each lightning stroke exposing two portraits: Fatu's tin bracelet flashing bridal-white and its dark image on the wall, glimpse of a shadowy shackle. He reaches under his bed for the Peace Corps medical kit through which he fumbles for a vestige of insensible sensibility; then under the mosquito net they go, hands quickly denuding body of wet things.
After a while it becomes clear that Fatu does not have any idea of what is going on but is very aware of the idea of it. Little gasps of pain and disjointed giggles; odd rushes of sadism and alienation. The bed convulses in rhythm, its creaking cutting more and more through the dying rain. Mosquitos can be heard riding their high-pitched notes, a cluster chord in variable tuning, swarming along the folds of the netting, bouncing their hungry bellies against the flexuous lattice. Sweat streams down from his armpits, over the hip bones onto her pinned thighs; she is otherwise perfectly dry, the effects of the rain evaporated by her body heat; her skin silken, hairless, and absolutely blemishless save for the Bundu scars on her cheek and upper pudendum. Sunlight is already beginning to break through the departing clouds; the open window, guarded by two vertical "thief" bars, admits a sudden light that projects the warped square grid pattern of the mosquito netting on the supine body of Fatmata, malleable coordinates that shift with each jolt, the smooth landscape of her body defined geometrically and arbitrarily moment by moment. As her eyes come into focus she turns her head away from the brightness, her slender neck revealing perfect, taut sinews. The bed noise is alarmingly conspicuous without the rain, and soon people will be walking about again. For Lee privacy is still a precious commodity, but it only seems to come to him in small increments here in Kukuna.
* * *
Holiday...holiday...it would be so nice. Saidu loved to feel the squish of wet laterite between his toes as he dragged his feet along the puddles in the rutted path. He sang the refrain from the Madonna song over and over--he couldn't remember the verses--in a soft, accurate voice that remarkably resembled the original. She was not bad, but Michael Jackson was still his hero; every other page of his Geography notebook was filled with lyrics of My-Kell's hits from "Rock with You" to "Beat It" in a stylized, florid handwriting using black and red ball-point pens. One entire page was devoted to a sketch of the map of Mississippi, U.S.A., with a miniature figure of the Moonwalker gliding across the city of JACKSON, prominently marked in red and black ink. Saidu had discovered the home of his idol, not in Geography class, but on the map of America that Bruce Lee had on his bedroom wall. His discovery was confirmed by Mr. Lee himself: "Oh yeah. The town was named after him." He was, however, deeply disappointed when he learned that Bruce had no cassettes of Michael Jackson; in fact, that had been the first question that he had asked in class after Bruce had introduced himself as their new maths teacher from the United States (everyone was surprised; they had assumed he was Chinese). Of course, when they learned his name it became obvious who he really was: Mr. Lee? Bruce Lee, of course! There was no denying it--he looked just like he did on screen except a bit thinner. It didn't matter that Mr. Lee never admitted the fact--he was only concealing his identity until those evil men with their chained and flying weapons descended upon Kukuna in search of the Dragon. Then we'll see who's who. Saidu "Golden Fox" Momoh and the Kung Fu King will defend this village to the death! Ai-yaa! Golden Fox delivered a flying kick to the malevolent trunk of a flamboyant tree. Hitching up the tan polyester shorts that were always threatening to fall off the underside of his distended belly, Saidu suddenly paused to listen closely: some strange noises were coming from the back of Bruce's house that was now in full view. Quietly he stepped closer to the building. He couldn't hear anything now. Could it be... But not sensing any aura of danger he decided to call out, "M-mistah Lee! Mistah Lee, I have come for di watah!"
After a momentary silence during which Saidu's gaze darted around for quick cover from flying knives, an answer came from the bedroom window, "Saidu, didn't you notice the big rain? I've got a whole bucketful from the roof."
"A... Of course." Actually, Saidu knew perfectly well that Lee wouldn't want water from the swamp today; he had hoped to listen to Lee's radio for a while--it was the best one in all of Kukuna.
"Perhaps you have clothes for washing?"
"Look Saidu, I'm very busy right now. I'll see you later, okay?"
That sounded pretty final. "A-all right. A de go fohs."
Saidu walked around to the front of the house just to make sure that the evil intruders were not hiding from his view. In one corner sat a bucket that was filled to the brim with clear rainwater. There was another bucket on the porch full of washed clothes. This is not Bruce Lee's... Mystified, he wandered back along the path to the village as quiet voices emanated from the bedroom window. A girl's voice? Breaking out in a wide grin, suppressing the indomitable laughter that was about to issue from his throat, Saidu tore along the driest parts of the path, one hand holding up a corner of his shorts, dollops of red clay flying up from the heels spattering his naked backside.
* * *
In the weedy courtyard of Kukuna Secondary School stand the restless pupils in serendipitous columns of Forms I through V, pretending attentiveness to the oratorial noises of Mr. Benson Tarawalie, whose homily this morning is about the parable of the workers in the vineyard.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day...
Benson is known as Benyai (literally "bent eye") among the students due to his walleye. Unlike many of the other teachers at Catholic-run K.S.S., he is in fact a Christian and he truly looked forward to and meticulously planned for his turn in the daily assembly duties. Today's talk is one of his favorites, one that he has given many times: the worker hired at the eleventh hour is paid the same money as one that had worked all day; the industrious one complains to the employer but is admonished for not recognizing the generosity of the owner. Benyai is beginning to mix up his aphorisms here for dramatic effect:
"Worry not what your neighbor has, ah, that is, do not let your left hand know what the right is doing. Keep your eyes ever on the Almighty, for the last shall be first, and the first shall be last..."
Knowing smiles light up the faces of those that have been made to stand apart at the rear of the assemblage for arriving late to school, yes, sah, the last shall be first indeed, but recalling the caning that will be inflicted upon them after the meeting, they sober up, picking their noses in gloomy contemplation. Benyai is crossing himself, the students following in lackadaisical imitation, at the conclusion of the Lord's Prayer, and now Mr. Abdul Kalokoh, a.k.a. Butterfly, takes the podium in his trademark ronko shirt, the trailing sleeves flapping like wings as he directs the mandatory rendition of the national anthem.
High we exa-alt thee, realm of the freeee
Great is the lo-ove we have for theeee...
As soon as the final words, the name of that beloved nation, are sung, the children scatter in a raucous pandemonium more or less toward their respective classrooms. The latecomers, attempting to blend into the chaos, are caught by an alert Benyai and the mammoth presence of the indubitable Mrs. Turay, wife of the principal, Mr. B. G. A. ("Be Gone Again") Turay who, true to his nickname, is once again absent from school--no doubt on account of his "business"; his wife, on the other hand, never misses a single day of Education, relishing her role as a propagator of the flame of Progress, holding herself up as a model of the Enlightened Woman. The apprehended are corralled into the staff lounge where the boys will be flogged by the man, the girls by the woman.
"Six!" declares Benyai as the children drop their jaws in the ritual of incredulity that never succeeds in reducing the sentence.
"B-but, sah, last time was only four st--"
"Momoh! I see that you are volunteering to go first, not so?" Benyai pulls him over to the center of the room and takes up the cane. Saidu slowly bends over to grasp his ankles. Benyai pokes him gingerly with the tip of the stick to check for signs of "secret security," then swishes the switch a few times for good effect.
"Wai!" pwhack! The cry of anticipated pain escapes Saidu's lips a split-second before impact.
"Don't forget to count your blessings, young man!"
"Yes, sah. One. Wai!" spakk!
Lee is sitting in a corner preparing his lesson plan, nearly oblivious to the staccato dialogue of corporal punishment that opens each school day. Initially he had been repelled by this form of discipline, not only by the violence but by the dogmatic attitude that perpetuated it: The African child learns only by the cane. Then he noticed that no matter how loudly the child screamed in apparent anguish during the beating, he usually emerged from the staff room without a trace of pain on his face. It was as if the "punishment" was simply a guise for a much older rite of power, an acting out of roles to preserve the hierarchy, where the real cost to be paid had depreciated through formalization, much as the affordable kola nut served as the proper tribute in meeting with a paramount chief. It is therefore not surprising that the men like to argue over the restriction of same-sex flogging that was a mutated colonial legacy of the British.
"Eh, Mrs. Turay. Why not take over for Benson? He done tire-o," Butterfly, rolling his bulging eyes behind the steel-rim glasses, tries to stoke the old debate again.
Mrs. Turay, breaking her stick on the upturned palms of an unfortunate girl, gives the oft-quoted reply, "Only a man can make a man out of a boy; only a woman can make a woman out of a girl. A girl is too weak to take a man's flogging, and a boy would scarcely itch from a woman's hand." At this exchange between the hulking woman and the spindly, ephemeral figure of Butterfly, Lee could barely contain his mirth.
"Wetin du you de laugh so, Lee? I know you Americans don't approve of this flogging business. But you see, you don't understand the African child--dem no go get sense pas you beat am fine. Noto so, Benson?"
Benyai, who really did look tired now, explained, "It is a matter of respect, Mr. Lee. These children will not respect the black man unless they are made to feel it in their bones."
Lee understood, but disagreed with, the unspoken implication that the children respected him for his whiteness--he didn't feel any more respected than the other teachers. He tried to introduce more realism into their idea of Americans. "Many American parents do flog their kids; it's just not done in school anymore."
"But, I say. Do you think it is morally wrong?"
"I just think it's ineffective as a disciplinary measure."
Benyai shakes his head. "Ah. You do not understand..."
"Noooo, Benson. I think say, Lee sabi di African way-o." Butterfly shoots a meaningful smirk at Lee. Lee smiles back, momentarily losing the familiar sense of detachment, his perspective now that of an actor looking out from the stage, secure in the camaraderie of his fellow thespians. Word had spread quickly about the whiteman and Fatu Jalloh, and Lee had been relieved to notice these glances of complicit approval, which came not only from the men but also from the market women who joked more easily with him, advising him to buy more of their food so that he would become more stout, which was their taste in men. He feels more comfortable, at home, as if he had turned more African, his skin darkened by absorption of the moment.
Suddenly Lee's eyes focus on a face peering in at him through a window. It is Saidu--he is trying to get his attention in a frantic pantomime of comic despair. Unseen by the others who have their backs to the window, he crosses his eyes and distorts his face in an inaccurate but cute/cruel caricature of Benyai. He flashes a bright, bright smile at Lee and vanishes from that backlit rectangular frame.
* * *
Fatu sits in a padded lounge chair too large for her, the glossy jade of her fake-satin dress lurching in the vast vinyl sea of magenta. Her hair is planted in impeccable rows, a gold ring in each earlobe, fingernails manicured a violent pink, and feet encased in plastic shoes of matching and equally undeniable color. A redundancy of glittery bangles clutters her thin forearms, jangling softly with the disconsolate, brushing motion her hands are making in mid-air. She has successfully fulfilled the esthetics of the "bluff" through the fortuitous whim of the whiteman (although she let it be known to her breathless friends that she had seduced him), all for the price of this love thing that, though it hurt at first, wasn't so bad after all. In fact, there were moments as she lay beneath his hungry weight when she felt a measure of recognition--this need, this wordless urgency that this man had was something she could hold and understand; outside of this physical context, she had no comprehension of him; it was not the language--the words that came out of his mouth made sense to her, but the source from which they came was as dark and forbidding as the bush at night: she sensed no need there, and she did not know if it was merely hidden or was nonexistent; sometimes this scared her. She knew that he was only here for two years, then it would be back to America, a land that, despite all the bad things that he had told her, was still a place of inestimable wealth and luxury, where everybody owned a car and a machine called a Microwave that cooked your meal in a turn of the head without fire or smoke. It was to this place that all the children dreamed of going some day, where getting rich was only a matter of working hard. Even some of the adults (especially the teachers) were taken by the émigré vision--Benyai, for one, was known to have applied to some twenty different universities in America, ostensibly to study agricultural economics, one of which accepted him but without the necessary financial aid that was almost never given to foreign students. Fatu believed that if Lee loved her he would take her home with him. She had even begun saying this to her friends with a conviction that entrenched itself further with every repetition of the litany that surpassed hope: I am going to America, I am going to America... Thus it was with an almost unsustainable despair that she was handed the definitive proof against his love: the end-of-term report card with the number "37" under the heading "Maths," the indelible red ink of the numerals signifying FAIL to those parents who could not read.
"Mistah Lee, you do not love me," Fatu complains sadly to her shoes.
"Stop saying that, Fatu. I've already told you it's a matter of academic integrity; it has nothing to do with how I feel about you." Lee appears to be absorbed in a book with a black-and-white cover that reads "NIGHTWOOD Djuna Barnes"; he replies without looking up, his eyebrows lowered in concentration.
"But it was only three more points for a Pass..."
The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a "picture" forever arranged is, for the contemplative mind, the chiefest danger...a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory... Such a woman is the infected carrier of the past: before her the structure of our head and jaws ache we feel that we could eat her, she who is eaten death returning, for only then do we put our face close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers. Lee feels uncomfortable with the book, its visceral imagery leaving a wake of turbulent doubt, an almost religious guilt that activates his calming, defensive instinct: This Barnes woman is nuts; he closes the book and puts it down.
"Look, Fatu. I had no idea that you took your grades so seriously. What I mean is...you're passing more than enough subjects to be promoted to Form III, so don't worry about it. It doesn't matter, okay?"
"I am shamed..."
"Come on, Fatu. Are you worried about your friends? Dem de humbug you? Well, look youself; you look fine, you get fine dress for wear, you no gladi for dat?"
Pensively, Fatu studies the cracks in the cement floor. "Carry me na America."
Shit. I don't want to deal with this. "I've told you many times you won't like it there. You'd be a complete stranger, no family, nobody to speak your language to, school would be much harder... I swear to God, people are so unhappy there, you should see how many people kill themselves or go crazy." He knows it is no use--he is speaking in half-truths, or perhaps it is a personal truth that he would rather not think about, the answer to what his friends and family had asked repeatedly, Why are you going?, the question that had only receded with time and distance, lost in the ambiguity of a culture that did not force a mirror upon his memory and motives. Now once again this girl is forcing him to confront himself, to evaluate his position in some reference frame, and this angers him, which takes him by surprise--it is the implosive anger of a self-contained animal that, at the poke of a child's stick, recoils violently into itself, foaming slowly from its curled lips. He looks away, out the window, through which distant mountains are visible in the hazy atmosphere.
Fatu gets up dolorously from her chair. "I'm going now."
Lee does not turn to watch her walk out. His face is locked in an absence of expression, his own kind of mask, inscrutable in its "racial memory." Women walking to the fields call out towards his house in greeting. He remains still, listening to the fading chatter, holding his breath as if he were taking a break from time, a temporary respite from his role in this African village.
* * *
It is a moonless night, dark as the inside of a tree trunk, the air vibrating with the croaking of the swamp frogs and the background hum of insects. The house occults the ancient starlights of an entire sector of the sky, forming a silhouette, a black void inside which nothing would seem to exist. Yet on closer inspection we begin to recognize features in that emptiness: outlines of a short figure against a window--it appears to be manipulating some long, thin object that reflects a hint of what little ambient light there is. The motions are excruciatingly slow and silent as if to match the progress of the stars across the night sky. This goes on for some time before we suddenly realize that there is a larger figure moving almost as slowly and silently along an adjacent wall of the house, the line of perception between the two cut off by the corner formed by the walls. Finally the larger figure reaches the corner and lifts up a small object that he is holding in one hand. In one swift movement he rounds the corner, points the object at the smaller figure, and with a click spotlights the thief who is caught in the act of "fishing" through the window. The harsh, white beam of the flashlight shines upon a wide-mouthed face of a young boy, a trembling hand shielding the eyes, the other hand still holding the evidence of his guilt.
At the sound of Lee's strangely distorted yell, Saidu drops the bamboo pole and breaks out blindly into the field. Lee follows without thinking, the tender soles of his feet bearing down on sharp pebbles and clumps of bramble, the flashlight beam swinging wildly into the night. At some point Lee acknowledges that his feet are bleeding and that they must be in a lot of pain, but he is gaining rapidly and running lightly as if he had discarded heavy choices along the way. It is in a small patch of cassava plants that he catches up and drives Saidu to the ground. Pulling the boy up from the earth, Lee unleashes an open-handed blow to his face that momentarily seems to levitate his light body, which then arcs a graceful trajectory across the stars, landing softly in a conspiracy of cassava leaves, face up, bloated belly toward the sky. As he raises his head to ascertain his survival, he stares in horror at the spector of Lee's face, improbably illuminated by the dropped flashlight, a sudden full moon that floats with its features frozen in an ugliness for which the boy has no words, no concept: it is judgment in its purest form, unheated by emotion, uncolored by self-awareness. As spasms of shivering rack Saidu in light of that pale, cold glare, it dawns on him the great mistake that he had been making all along: This is not Bruce Lee, no, it's not him at all...