*sigh* I am such a putz. Instead of working on my closing scenes for this story, I sat down and watched the first episode of the first season of The Amazing Race. (CURSE YOU NETFLIX!) It's got all these...these...cool extras and...
Okay, I missed the first two seasons of TAR back in the day, but it's now my appointment TV. Us armchair travelers have needs, too, you know.
Of course, I'm completely stunned at how different TAR1 looks compared to, say TAR7. There's definitely a lot less coddling of the racers here. It's amazing just how much the racers were left to their own devices way back when.
Personally, I'm looking forward to the infamous "Guido Edit" that I've heard so much about in the final episode of this season. From what I understand, the logisitcal nightmare of that highlighted a huge problem. It resulted in the nefarious bunching that sometimes plagues the race so you don't have production strung out half-way across the globe.
But TAR1 is totally awesome to look at and...yay! From NYC to Zambia for the first leg. Now that's how you raaaaaaaace.
So it isn't that I'm ignoring comments, it's just that...it's TAR, damnit!
For the Scatterlings and Orphanages Africander Fiction Challenge (hoping to catch up on my reading for that soon!) from ludditerobot .
My heart thudded in my chest. The import was clear. Radar was to watch me if Alexandrienne was otherwise occupied. Neither one of them was here to serve as my guides; they were here to serve as my guards. The nature of my onward travel into the country’s interior had suddenly taken on a sinister air.
“We wait for you in the restaurant,” Alexandrienne sniffed at me. “Hurry if you want food. We have to reach the bush taxi before it is full.”
She then barked something at the boy in that odd dialect. The boy got to his feet, gave me an apologetic shrug, and scampered after the Slayer as she regally swept out of my room.
Not wishing to earn the ire of Alexandrienne, I made shorter work of my shower than I wished. Breakfast was such a hurried affair that I didn’t have the opportunity to truly admire the setting. The dining room jutted out over the River Niger and the green surroundings served to calm my nervous stomach enough that I could eat my repast of eggs and toast.
Following the tense breakfast, Alexandrienne retrieved hers and Radar’s backpacks from the concierge and quickly settled accounts with the hotel. At first I was surprised that they were willing to accept her use of the credit card, but she explained to me that she and Mr. Harris had more than once stayed at the hotel when they had to catch an early international flight out of Senou. One of the people behind the counter had recognized her and knew she had the authority to sign off on the bill.
I resisted the urge to ask if Mr. Harris allowed her a room of her own and whether they used the hotel facilities for more than just sleeping.
Please forgive me my past suspicious thoughts, dear reader. You must keep in mind, Mr. Harris was at the time only in his early 20s, and I judged Alexandrienne to be 17 or so. While I would not call her something so delicate as pretty, she was, and still is, a strikingly handsome woman. As I was already half-convinced that Mr. Harris was building a cult around himself, it didn’t seem out of bounds to me that he’d also make use of the female bodies under his thumb.
We took a private taxi to the center of the city where we found several bush taxis that were heading to Djenné. Alexandrienne, with Radar and myself trailing helplessly behind her, scurried from one brightly decorated conveyance to the next. I was able to determine that she was negotiating our fare with the drivers. I suspect she was arguing that we deserved a group rate, as she kept waving to include Radar and myself and pointing at the empty seats they had yet to fill. When she got a price that she was willing to accept, she pulled the requisite CFAs out of her backpack and paid the driver.
I suspiciously poked my head into the chosen van’s interior. I noted that there were already three people inside and that the seats did not look at all comfortable. The morning was already warming to an uncomfortable degree and I had hoped that our transportation would be air-conditioned. However, the occupants had already rolled down all the windows, so I suspected that I was in for a hot ride. I was about to climb in when a hand grabbed me and hauled me back onto the sidewalk. I turned to complain that as my fare had been paid, I had every right to get inside, but was instead faced with Alexandrienne’s unhappy face.
“You put that,” she pointed at my backpack, “on the roof.”
“Absolutely not,” I protested. “I have sensitive materials and valuable items in here.”
The driver chose that moment to shove my luggage onto the roof and start lashing it in place. I noticed he wasn’t being gentle about it.
“No,” I stressed again. “My backpack stays with me.”
Alexandrienne’s expression darkened. “It will be crowded. That will make it more crowded. Take out what you need. Put the rest on the roof.”
“Only if you do it,” I said triumphantly.
Alexandrienne pointed at hers and Radar’s backpacks on the ground and she held up a plastic bag, “I put what I need in this.”
“I don’t have a plastic bag to hold my things,” I pointed out. “I need to keep some of the items in this pack with me.”
Alexandrienne snorted with frustration. “I have extra bag. Come.” She turned around and said something in French to the driver that caused him to laugh before she went to her backpack. I didn’t have much choice but to comply. I suspected that Alexandrienne would refuse to let me on the bush taxi until I relinquished my hold on my things.
I cringed when I saw that she had used plastic twisty ties to create homemade locks for the myriad zippers on her backpack. While I doubted this extra precaution would deter a determined thief, it would certainly be enough to make her backpack more trouble than it was worth to one with limited time on his hands. She undid one of the ties, opened her pack, and pulled out a full plastic bag. She emptied its contents on the ground before handing it to me.
“Your backpack isn’t water-repellent?” I asked smugly.
Alexandrienne paused in her task of transferring the items on the ground to the other plastic bags in her pack and looked at me with brows crunched low. She obviously didn’t understand what I had said.
“Your backpack isn’t thick enough to keep out the rain,” I clarified.
She rewarded me with a smug grin of her own as she pointed at my pack. “If it rains, nothing will stay dry. That,” she made a ‘pffffft’ sound, “will not keep anything dry. It is the end of rainy season. Very wet where we are going. Wet enough for rice, so it will maybe rain. If it rains, it will rain very hard. Everything in that will get very wet.”
I looked helplessly at my backpack. I wasn’t sure if she was exaggerating, but the memory of last night’s rain as I traveled to the hotel was enough to convince me that if she was telling tall tales, it was only by a slight degree.
“Bags frustrate quick fingers, also” she added as she finished arranging the items in her backpack to her satisfaction. “Maybe they manage to get in, but too many bags to search. Maybe I have hidden a trap inside, also. Not worth the risk if they don’t want to be caught. They give up and leave me alone. Then they instead maybe search your bag.” She looked up with a grin. “I should know. You should listen to me.”
Alexandrienne was enjoying my discomfort far more than was proper. “I don’t suppose you have more of those ties?” I asked.
She shook her head and again frowned.
I pointed at the twisty ties on her backpack. “These. Do you have more of these?”
“No,” she grinned as she turned over her backpack to the driver.
I suspected that was a lie, but it would do me no good to challenge her. Instead, I kneeled on the ground with a sigh and began the business of transferring the laptop, files on Mr. Harris, an energy bar, and a bottle of water I purchased for an exorbitant price back at the hotel into my borrowed plastic bag.
The ride was every bit as miserable as I predicted. We left a half-hour late. At the time I thought such a delay was unconscionable, but I had yet to learn about the wonders of public transport in Mali. The bush taxi was full enough that we were crowded hip-to-thigh on the seats, which at least drove home why Alexandrienne was so insistent that I bring only what I absolutely needed into the van with me.
The van was air conditioned, but the air conditioner wheezed mightily under the stress of keeping the overstuffed cabin cool. The windows remained open, which meant that the van’s cooling system not only had to battle the heat generated by our bodies, but also the heavy air outside. Thank heavens the road was paved. As it was, I felt every bump and pebble through the thin upholstery as the van’s overworked and abused suspension system strove mightily to absorb the worst of it.
Pedestrians walking the sandy shoulders would occasionally turn to wave at us as we passed, provided they weren’t carrying anything. I noticed that the women invariably carried things on their heads, with the items precariously balanced as they traversed the rough terrain with nothing more than flip-flops on their feet and without so much as a hint of a stumble. Most of the women were dressed like Alexandrienne, which to my eyes gave them their air of tropical birds as they gracefully conducted their mysterious errands. The men’s dress ranged far more widely. Some were dressed in thoroughly modern clothes like Radar. Others wore loose-flowing robes that struck me as perfect attire for keeping the sun off their skin while offering plenty of room for capturing whatever errant breeze might brave the heavy air.
Alexandrienne seemed to be in a talkative mood, despite the fact that we had gotten off on the wrong foot. She explained that many of the people in the bush taxi were going to Djenné for the weekly Monday market. Most of them were heading out the day before because they worked there and had family in the town that could put them up overnight. The Slayer freely added that outside of the Sunday and Monday market traffic, public transport traveling direct between Bamako and Djenné tended to drop to a relative trickle. I thought this very odd; since I got the impression that the island town enjoyed steady tourist traffic.
“I thought Djenné was easily accessible to transportation,” I said suspiciously. After all, Mr. Harris had claimed that such accessibility was the reason for choosing the location he did.
This statement seemed to surprise Alexandrienne. “It is,” she said. “You can get there by pinasse or bush taxi. There are often buses also, but I and Monsieur ’Arris have not much liked them. They always break down or they are too hot. They are not very comfortable. And you have to get off and find a bush taxi to take you into Djenné all the way. It is a waste of time. Also, there are many roads, so if you have a private car, it is not a problem leaving or coming back whenever you wis—I mean, want.” She lowered her voice and said, “Monsieur ’Arris says never to say the ‘wish’ word. He says it is bad to say it out loud. He says we should not even think the word so we forget to say it.”
I resisted the urge to snort at this last statement. Mr. Harris no doubt had intimate knowledge of the tragedy that could result from something so dangerous as a wish thoughtlessly uttered.
As to the Djenné market itself, I got the impression from her that it was quite something to see. “Anything you want, anything,” she stressed, “you find it. The market is big. It is all over.”
I somehow doubted that any market located in the middle of nowhere could hold a candle to Harvey Nicks, but I thought it impolite to say so.
Alexandrienne, meanwhile, kept nodding with a dreamy smile. It was comforting to see. She, like young women the world over, liked nothing better than to wax up the credit card and go shopping. “You can buy anything you want or need before we go to the village.”
I sat bolt upright when I realized what she had said. “Village? What village?”
My reaction took her aback. “Our village.”
“Does this village have a name?” I demanded.
“Muso Kulusitigi.” Alexandrienne said this with care, which meant that the words did not come from one of the languages she could speak.
A woman behind her corrected her pronunciation.
“Merci,” Alexandrienne said to the woman. She added for my benefit, “I think she is Bambara, so she is right.”
“What does it mean?” I asked.
Alexandrinne shrugged. “It is an idea, not words. It means, ummm, a woman who is a man?” She looked at me helplessly as she watched my reaction. “No. Maybe I mean, ‘woman without fear?’ Closer. I think. I know!” She brightened. “A woman who can take care of herself without a man to help her.” She nodded. “Yes. I think all of those.”
“Let me guess,” I said, “Mr. Harris’s idea. He was indulging in his penchant for giving places and people new names.”
She grinned, rolled her eyes, and shook her head with affectionate exasperation. “Monsieur ’Arris cannot help himself, I think. He was going to call it Tomboutou, but then he found out Tomboutou was real and not so far away. He was very sad when he had to choose another name. Muso Kulusitigi,” this time her pronunciation was much closer to that of the Bambara woman’s, “is a good name, but I like the other name better.”
“And what name was that?” I asked.
I exploded into giggles.
“Is East Cupcake a bad name?” she asked.
The question, coupled with the look of confusion on Alexandrienne’s face, only served to ratchet my giggles up to half-hysterical laughter. Once I calmed down, I found that I simply didn’t have the heart to explain the joke to her.
The hubbub of the city and its crowded surrounding towns eventually gave way to open landscape that alternated between grassy fields, farmlands, grazing animals, and small way stations beholden to the road traffic for their existence. The landscape was lush, thanks to the now-dying rainy season. For some odd reason, this did and did not surprise me. I had expected to see the stereotypical African jungle, which this most assuredly was not. After seeing the thoroughly modern capital city, however, reality struck me as a far more fitting environment than the one that existed in my imagination.
When farmland was in evidence, I could see people in the distance working the fields and recalled that Mr. Harris had claimed that some of those people just might be slaves.
When I asked Alexandrienne about it, she merely shrugged and said that it was possible. She had seen heavy slave anklets for sale in the Djenné market, but had been led to believe that they were for slaves who worked the fields in the northeast of the country where the land was drier and the farming conditions more difficult.
“There are no slaves in this area, then,” I asked. I wanted to be very sure that Alexandrienne was contradicting Mr. Harris’s story that the trade in human trafficking was significant enough to prevent him from sending the Slayers he found off to Devon via Senou International.
“I don’t think so close to Bamako. Maybe somewhere else. Hard to say,” Alexandrienne said with yet another shrug. “No one admits it here. No one admits it anywhere. It is always a village many kilometers away that has slaves, but there are never any slaves in the village you are in. The Bambara point fingers at the Fulani. The Fulani point fingers at the Songhai. The Songhai point fingers at the Touareg. The Touareg point fingers at the Bambara. Maybe none of them have slaves and guess that someone else has slaves when they are asked. No one would ask about it if it was not true, they think, so they say, ‘Go look here.’ Or maybe they are all guilty and blame someone else before you can look at them too much. Who knows?”
On the one hand, I was surprised that Alexandrienne had a thoughtful reply to my inquiry. On the other, I was disappointed that she didn’t give me a clear yes or no answer. She obviously didn’t put much stock in the rumors, but there was enough doubt that I could understand why Mr. Harris might be legitimately cautious about shipping Slayers out of Mali en masse. Her answer also supported Mr. Harris’s contention that he had no notion that it might be an issue until it was too late.
At least one thing held unshakably true to Mr. Harris’s claims. Although the ride was uncomfortable, the road was paved and this was indeed farming country.
After several uncomfortable hours, we stopped in Segou for a quick lunch from a food stall and a much-needed toilet break. It was there that I came face-to-face with the Malian idea of “toilets,” which involved a hole in the floor and a distressing lack of toilet paper. I took one look and scampered back to the van to fetch Alexandrienne. It took some doing to explain my predicament, mostly because she couldn’t quite catch why I was having a difficult time with my first real Malian water closet.
Once she figured it out, however, she strove mightily to control her giggles. She wasn’t entirely successful on the score. However, that didn’t stop her from offering the following sage advice: “You squat. You wipe with your left hand. Then you wash.”
I believe my response at the time was much more wordy, but after a lifetime of dealing with American idiosyncrasies, nothing sums up my reaction better than, “Hell, no.”
I dove into my plastic bag, opened Mr. Wyndham-Pryce’s file on Mr. Harris, and carefully selected only those documents that were duplicates of those in Mr. Giles’s files. Thus armed with my makeshift toilet paper, I marched forward to brave my first encounter with the native toilet facilities.
I will not discuss the gory details. I will only say this much: photocopy paper is not absorbent, it does not get you clean, and it scratches.
Suffice to say, my failed experiment illustrated that although Alexandrienne’s advice affronted my delicate sensibilities on proper toileting, it was sadly the only thing I could have done under the circumstances. I only thank heavens that this particular toilet had running water, albeit cold water, and soap. Had I actually come face to face with the usual hole in the ground, pail of befouled water, and soggy melted soap, I would’ve positively fainted dead away.
When I emerged from my horrifying experience, Alexandrienne was waiting for me. She thrust a meat kabob wrapped in greasy brown paper into my hand and told me to eat, since we were still several hours away from Djenné at this point.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Pepper, onion, tomato, goat,” was her reply between chews.
I stared at the charcoaled meat in horror.
“Do you want chicken? Or fish?” she asked, between more chews.
“I would’ve much preferred chicken, yes,” I said.
She swallowed and shouted something to Radar in the odd barking dialect. He sped off, and soon returned bearing a chicken kabob. I gratefully traded my lunch for the new one. Radar grinned and nodded at me before he began tearing into the goat kabob like a ravenous wolf.
“That is his fourth,” Alexandrienne nodded as finished the last of her lunch. “He will have a stomachache by the time we get to the hotel in Djenné.”
Radar paused to stick out his tongue at her. Again, I wasn’t sure if it was because he understood her — he had not given any sign that he spoke any English at all — or if he was reacting to the scolding tone in her voice.
Alexandrienne barked at him in their shared dialect and then shoed him away.
“Am I to understand that we are not going directly to the village?” I asked.
She frowned at me.
“You mentioned that we would be overnighting in Djenné,” I pointed out. “And I suddenly recall you mentioning something about us going to the market tomorrow.”
She shook her head a moment as if she were puzzling over something. “Over-night-ing,” she repeated. Then her face brightened. “Yes! We are staying at Tapama. The market is tomorrow. You should go. You buy what you need before we go to the village.”
“I would much rather go directly to your village than hang about a market,” I said dryly.
“You do not have a choice,” Alexandrienne said mildly. “Monsieur ’Arris and Sister Ig will buy supplies for the week. If you decide to shop, or decide not to shop, it does not matter. We must stay until they are done.”
“Sister Ig?” I asked.
“Teacher. For the school,” Alexandrienne said.
“You have formal school? And you have a civilian teaching in it? A nun?” I asked.
Alexandrienne frowned at me in that manner I was quickly learning meant that she didn’t quite understand what I had said.
“You have someone who isn’t a Slayer or a Watcher in your village,” I expanded.
Her frown deepened in confusion. “We have many people who aren’t Slayers.”
She ticked off on her fingers, “Sister Ig is the teacher at the school. Grand-mere Touré, she is boss of the kitchen and she has a garden also. Dr. Mboto, he is the doctor at the health clinic. There is Nurse Reilly who helps Dr. Mboto. Monsieur ’Arris started calling her Nurse Ratchet when he had to stay in the clinic after he ate bad camel. But don’t call her Nurse Ratchet because she does not like it when you do. She makes a face like this,” Alexandrienne scrunched her face in an exaggerated manner to illustrate her point. “Only Monsieur ’Arris can call her Nurse Ratchet, but she still makes a face at him if she is in a bad mood. One Slayer has her husband and boy. Some of the children from the other villages come to our school. Farmers come and help Grand-mere Touré with her garden sometimes. They are around a lot now because it is growing season. I think that is everyone who is not a Slayer. Only Monsieur ’Arris is a Watcher. And now you.”
My knees felt weak. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, in Mr. Harris’s communiqués that indicated he had recruited outsiders to staff an operating health clinic, school, and field kitchen. “Where did he get all these people?” I choked out. “I mean, the teacher, the doctor, the nurse, and the cook.”
Alexandrienne ticked off on her fingers again. “Grand-mere Touré comes from one of the other villages after she watched Monsieur ’Arris set fire to rice when we were visiting her village. It was accident, but Monsieur ’Arris is not a cook.” She winced. “No. That is wrong. Elephants are better cooks. She felt sorry for him, but she was more afraid we,” she waved at herself so it was clear that she was talking about herself and the other Slayers, “would get sick from his cooking. Some of us could cook a little, but not so good as her. We were very happy when she bossed Monsieur ’Arris into taking her.” Alexandrienne started giggling uncontrollably. “She talked and talked at him, even though he didn’t understand her and her French is very little. But she would not let him rest. She followed him when he went to wash, even. Then she threatened to sing about his bitte if he didn’t say yes.”
I was incredulous. “Are you seriously suggesting that Mr. Harris agreed to take this Grandmother Touré because she threatened to sing a song about him?”
Alexandrienne started coughing because she was giggling so hard. When she finally calmed down, she explained, “She saw him with no clothes while he washed. He was very unhappy.” She was off and giggling again.
Bitte meant naughty bits, then. “You must be joking,” I commented sourly. “Of all the mad reasons to—”
“I think he would have done anything to stop her. And she can cook very good, so it was a good trade.” Alexandrinne still wore her wide smile. “I wanted to hear the song, but they made promises. So no song.”
I just bet she would have loved to hear a rude song about Mr. Harris’s naughty bits, I thought. However, I had no desire to continue any further down this path. I thought it best if I found out about the other civilians in Mr. Harris’s little village. “What about the others? The ones who aren’t Slayers?” I asked.
“Dr. Mboto is from Tanzania. Nurse Reilly is Dr. Mboto’s girlfriend. I think they are going to get married, but he has not asked her yet. Sister Ig is an aid worker we met in Kenya after Monsieur ’Arris bought a fish to send to his friend in London.” She shook her head with amused exasperation. “He can be very strange.”
“Who? Sister Ig? Dr. Mboto? Nurse Ratchet? I mean, Nurse Reilly?”
“Monsieur ’Arris,” she corrected. “A fish! I tell you why he bought a fish when we were in Kenya. Monsieur ’Arris said his friend in London needed a friend who would listen to him talk and talk and talk and not want to hit him for talking so much. So, Monsieur ’Arris buys a fish because he said a smart dog or a smart cat would run away from his friend. But he did say the fish might try to escape and take its chances.” She grinned. “I don’t think Monsieur ’Arris likes his friend very much.”
“Well, that explains that, then,” I mumbled.
She looked askance at me.
“You might say Mr. Harris’s very annoying friend is simply dying to come visit,” I said.
“You know this?” she asked with interest.
“I’ve met the annoying friend and have seen the fish,” I said.
“Is he as bad as that?” she asked.
“I’m not entirely certain,” I admitted.
“What is his name?” she asked curiously. She immediately winced. “No. No answer. It was rude to ask.”
“No it isn’t,” I assured her. “His name is—”
“No,” she interrupted. “It is a rule. You do not ask someone about what happened before,” she waved a hand behind her. “If they want to tell you, they will tell you, but you do not ask.”
This gave me such pause that I had to make sure I heard properly. “So, in your village, it is considered rude to ask anyone about their life before they become part of the village?”
Alexandrienne nodded solemnly at this, as if it were the most sacred commandment in her religious beliefs.
“But you only asked for the name of Mr. Harris’s friend, whom you already know about,” I pointed out. “You’re not actually asking me to share any stories about Mr. Harris’s past.”
“If Monsieur ’Arris wished to tell me the name of his friend, he would tell me,” she insisted.
A horrid thought occurred to me. Much as I didn’t want to have my suspicions confirmed, I thought it best to cast the net. “Well someone in your village must know everyone’s life story.”
She thrust her chest out. “I know many, because I am always there when we find people. But I don’t tell, because it is from before. If they want to tell, they can tell. Not me. I don’t tell and I don’t ask.”
“But you don’t know everything about everyone, do you?” I pressed.
She shook her head.
“So, for them to be there, for them to live with you, someone has to know who they were before and someone has to know their secrets,” I pointed out. “Someone like, say, Mr. Harris?”
“Of course Monsieur ’Arris knows all,” Alexandrienne sounded positively affronted at the notion that Mr. Harris might not know everything he needed to know and then some. “He is the reason why we are here.”
My heart sank. Mr. Harris was sounding more and more like the spider at the center of a web that lured young Slayers into his trap. By forbidding them to ask questions, he had effectively made them all dependent on him if they wished to know anything about their fellow inmates. As for the civilians in the camp, Grandmother Touré obviously excepted, who knows what he held over their heads to keep them in his service. It must be quite something, especially since I knew that Mr. Harris had not requisitioned funds to pay for their services. At best, they were being paid a token sum out of whatever money he could con out of the Council for the work they did in his “village.”
As we were called to board the bush taxi, my troubled mind kept nibbling at ever-darker speculations about the nature of Mr. Harris’s hold over his people.