I won’t pretend that living in a Francophone sub-Saharan African country like Burkina Faso was some romantic T. E. Lawrence kind of thing to do, because it wasn’t. And it certainly wasn’t Karen Blixen’s lush green Kenya, portrayed in her book, Out of Africa. I mean, gritty red dust blown in from desert Harmattan winds constantly sprinkled our refrigerator shelves like glitter on Christmas ornaments. How romantic is that?
Even though we lived in the capital city of 700,000 people, maze-like unpaved streets and red-mud brick buildings lend an aura of a rural village to this metropolis. There, women garb themselves in vibrant and symbolic yellow and red and blue and green batik-cloth robes. Street markets blossom everywhere the dusty flattened earth will support them. Smoke and pollution from thousands of charcoal cooking fires and thousands of overloaded and under-maintained mopeds daily saturate the scorching 96º F air. Lined on either side with towering modern street lamps, each topped with a foul-smelling vulture waiting for something to die, a lone paved two-lane boulevard pushes outward to the edge of the city, where it suddenly just stops. Beyond that lies the endless bush, as expatriates call the hazy emptiness extending on until the horizon and the sky become one.
This is a place where it seems like God took a vacation during the planning stage and forgot to come back to finish things. This is a place where a healthy person could be wholly alive one day, but the next day dead and buried in a shallow sandy hole, the only memorial being a thin coating of heavy rocks on top of the grave. To keep the scavenging dogs from eating the remains, you know. Death strikes hard and fast here. Only the strong survive.
I know this about death in that place, because of Michel, our cook/houseboy.*
Michel was a survivor. You could tell that right away from the ritual Mossi tribal scars that elbowed on either side of his dark-brown nearsighted eyes. His moped, held together with twine and boasting a homemade cardboard seat, coughed black oil fumes, but still took him where he needed to go. While the fabric of his clothes thinned out daily from being washed and pounded on rocks in a trickling muddy ditch, never did I see him wearing a dirty shirt to work.
To support his young wife and their five children, Michel labored as a cook for years for expatriate Americans; in fact, in an odd touch of synchronicity, he cooked for a high-school classmate of mine posted to the U.S. Embassy a few years before we arrived. Another amazing thing was that Michel’s birthday was the same as mine, March 15, although I liked to remind him that he had five years on me! So Michel’s presence hollowed out a place in my somewhat jaded and hard heart.
But Michel was also one of those frenziedly intense people whom you feel sometimes that it might just be an act of kindness to tie them to a chair and keep knives away from them, so they won’t accidentally hurt themselves. When he squeezed oranges on marketing days, juice flew everywhere, coating him, me, floors, walls, and countertops with a thin sticky layer of sweetness. And when Michel dusted anything, well, the sound of his energetic attacks on the dust reverberated throughout the whole house.
Of his cooking, the less said the better. One memorable meal featured popcorn and a can of mushrooms simply opened and dumped into a bowl. But that’s another story entirely.
He was no Kamante, in other words.**
The day after Michel somehow slammed his right index finger — perhaps in the heavy barred exterior door of my kitchen — he came to me complaining about pain and swelling. Distractedly, listening but without deep attention, I took the easy way out: I handed him some money and ordered him to go to see a doctor, my kind of doctor, one who would order X-rays and anti-inflammatory drugs and a bill large enough to cause a heart attack. Several hours later he returned with a small dirty cloth bandage covering his injured finger. When I asked him what the doctor said, Michel proudly told me that a native healer lanced his finger and squeezed the “water” out of it.
A little while later, I noticed Michel washing the floors. He no longer wore the dirty bandage on his finger. And he was not wearing a rubber glove to protect his now-open wound, a shallow slice about two-inches long, running from just above the first knuckle and ending just below the second. Filthy black water splashed in the bucket every time he rinsed the cleaning rag. Alarmed by visions of severe infection, I insisted that he stop working immediately and wash his wound with soap and water. I then smeared on some antibiotic ointment and bandaged his finger again, this time with gauze and tape and all the medical paraphernalia that we Westerners take for granted.
In spite of all this, and a lighter work schedule with no washing or other cleaning or cooking, within a few days’ time Michel became very ill from the wound inflicted by the native healer. On the morning that Michel stood outside my kitchen door, hunched over like a dying plant, visibly shaking and almost delirious with fever, I knew that I could no longer evade my responsibility; I had to find some serious medical attention for Michel. I WAS his keeper, like it or not.
*Every ex-pat family, or nearly so, hired local help because a) it was expected of you as it provided for the livelihoods of many people other than the employee and b) you could manage better in the local culture.
**Kamante Gatura, Karen Blixen’s cook, wrote a book about his experiences in Blixen’s household, Longing for Darkness.
© 2010 C. Bertelsen