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A Dancer In the Dust

Thomas H. Cook

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  What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.

  John Ruskin

  The Crown of Wild Olives

  The crimes of evil are well known to history. It is the crimes of goodness that go largely unrecorded.

  Martine Aubert

  Open Letter to Foreign Friends

  For Susan Terner and Justine Cook,

  with the overflowing measure of my love

  Part I

  Rupala, 10:13 A.M.

  The circle of life is often a noose. But it isn’t that particular risk I consider as my plane banks to the left and begins its descent toward Rupala. It is Martine I remember, along with the fact that, on any given day, the right thing can seem so wrong and the wrong thing so right that we easily become lost, to use Poe’s exquisite phrase, in a wilderness of error.

  And surely among those errors, I have learned, there is none deeper, nor more fraught with peril, than to believe that your world, your values, your sense of comfort and achievement, should be someone else’s, too. Such is the grave understanding of things that came to Martine early, but came to me too late.

  The airport at Rupala is a swirling bazaar of noises and smells, all of which are amplified by the sub-Saharan heat inside the terminal. Wires dangle like black snakes from the ceiling just as they had years before, when I’d first arrived in this country, carrying my bubbling good intentions as if they were bottles of champagne. In fact, the only thing that has changed since my last visit is that the enormous paintings of Abbo Mafumi, the Lion of God and Emperor of All Peoples, have been taken down, leaving ghostly rectangular outlines on the cracked and peeling walls where they’d once hung. Abbo had been Mafumi’s birth name, but since its lowly meaning of “condiment” had not befitted Lubanda’s Supreme Commander and Ruler for Life, he’d changed it to Balondemu, “Chosen One,” before the final assault on the capital. After that, he’d ruled the country as the lead character in a grisly operatic farce, adorning himself in plumed hats and bloodred togas, a mock Lubandan Caesar who’d ridden a chariot onto the soccer field, where he’d started the game by throwing a spear into a warthog tethered to a metal stake. Such buffoonery is laughable only if you are not a victim of it, of course, but Lubanda for the previous twenty years had been very much a victim of Mafumi’s moronic clownishness.

  But Mafumi is now dead, and Lubanda has a new president. For that reason change seems possible. It is with a full understanding of the nature of that change that I’ve returned here, bearing my gift of hope.

  “What is your business in Lubanda?” the passport agent asks when I reach his booth. His eyes are on my passport, but he has not opened it. I have seen this purposeful lethargy before. Trapped in his sweltering booth, he can keep me waiting in the same unbearable heat, and by his indifference to my comfort and presumed urgency he can carry out a petty act of self-assertion. I have experienced this crudely orchestrated inconvenience a thousand times on my many trips to the world’s mendicant nations, and so I recognize it as the sole pathetic power of the supplicant and the dependent, the beggar’s hatred for the one who drops a coin into his hand.

  “I’m here to help Lubanda,” I tell him frankly.

  Such an assertion means nothing to him, but he doesn’t care that it is meaningless. He is long accustomed to people unlikely to divulge the true nature of their business. I am just the latest member of that familiar crowd, another foreigner who has come either to take something from or impose something upon his country. At worst, I am after his homeland’s gold or diamonds or rare animal skins. At best I will insist that his children learn a language steeped in foreign arts and sciences, and judge them by their ability to do so. This thought returns me once again to Martine, particularly to her belief that a people’s inner life could be nurtured only by its own waters, and is the product of millennia, not the object of an alien surge.

  The airport agent finally opens my passport, sees my name, and is immediately animated. Without doubt he has been told to expect me, to expedite every procedure, welcome me with eager eyes and a big smile.

  “Ah, Mr. Campbell, sir,” he says with exaggerated warmth. “Welcome to Lubanda.” He stamps my passport with a newfound briskness. “There are people waiting for you,” he adds, “through that door.”

  The freshly painted door has been stenciled with the letters “Diplomatic Entrance.” It is an ordinary door that has been tarted up for my benefit. Two uniformed men stand on either side of it and both snap to attention as I approach. The uniforms are green, the berets black with a bit of gold piping. The men themselves are probably the not-yet-replaced members of the recently deceased Emperor’s private security force, Mafumi’s version of a Praetorian Guard. It is possible that they will not be replaced at all, because under the new president there is to be a spirit of reconciliation. A recent amendment to the country’s constitution has enshined this in law, and as a result, Mafumi’s bodyguard has not been disarmed, a situation I deem very risky for the new president of Lubanda.

  “Mr. Campbell?” one of the faux Praetorians says.

  I nod.

  “This way, sir.”

  A late-model Mercedes idles in front of the terminal, another holdover from the Emperor, one of the seventy luxury cars he is reported to have owned. The driver, dressed in a white shirt, black pants, black tie, opens the door for me.

  “Good morning, sir.” He smiles cheerfully. “The air-conditioning will feel good. It is hot in Lubanda.”

  The drive to the palace takes me through the usual throng, a sea, as they say, of humanity. Everyone is either out in the open or sprawling beneath whatever manner of shelter or shade can be found or improvised. I notice an old man in the ragged remnants of what had once been flowing orange robes. He is squatting beside an enormous mound of car bumpers, doors, windshield frames, and the like. Here, surely, is one of the last of the Lutusi, the nomads of the savanna who’d once roamed freely, their erect figures walking slowly with their staffs, herding their animals before them. Until now, I had never seen a Lutusi in Rupala and so, as my car moves past, I look at him more closely, note the anxiousness in his eyes, the way he searches the crowd of children who have gathered by the long-defunct railway station.

  “Rupala is overrun with orphans,” my driver tells me.

  “Yes, I can see that,” I answer, then turn from the old man and stare straight ahead, into a country whose chief industry is salvage and whose capital city seems built of scavenged materials: cardboard, plywood, corrugated iron, flaps of cloths, shards of glass, snaking coils of copper, the shoddy remains of countless earlier importations, a largesse that had once flowed into Rupala, and that now gives it the sense of a project earnestly begun and then abruptly abandoned.

  We arrive at the palace, with its great gate. It had once been topped with a menacing sculpture of crossed machetes, the symbol of Mafumi’s ironfisted rule, but this naked display of merciless power has been taken down by the new president.

  “Welcome, Mr. Campbell,” a man in neat civilian dress tells me when I step out of the car. He introduces himself, then says, “Come with me, please.”

  I am escorted up the wide, carefully swept stairs. Everything has been spruced up, every surface polished. I am aware that in other countries temporary walls, usually of plywood or sheets of corrugated tin, have often been built to hide the slums from such passing dignitaries as myself. At other times, more extreme measures have been taken. When such people came to Addis Ababa
, for example, Haile Selassie would order the city’s beggars rounded up, herded into trucks, and driven out into the desert. If the dignitaries were to stay two days, they would be driven the distance of a two-day trudge back to the capital. If the dignitaries were staying three days, then the distance would be a three-day walk. Many, of course, could not survive the trek back to the capital, but the desert is wide and the vultures are efficient, and so their sunbaked corpses would quickly disappear. The dignitaries would not have known any of this, of course, which had been the point of Martine’s having related this grim bit of Ethiopian history on one or another of the many evenings I spent with her.

  Oh, Martine, I think, as I tighten my fingers around the handle of the briefcase I have brought with me to Rupala, I have come at last to help the country whose risks you’d known too well.

  “Welcome to Lubanda.”

  The man who says this wears a gray suit, white shirt, narrow black tie. He smiles warmly, but the bulge beneath his shoulder indicates a readiness for trouble.

  “Thank you,” I reply.

  We are standing in the marble foyer of the Imperial—now the Presidential—Palace. Overhead, the recently adopted Lubandan flag hangs from the second-floor gallery, and a bust of George Washington has been placed in a small alcove to my right, its base swaddled in an American flag. Years before, at Lubanda’s independence, and under the leadership of its first president, a considerable effort had been made to help Lubanda. Aid workers from the United States and other donor nations had poured into the country, starting all manner of projects. Mafumi’s shamelesly racist, psychopathic rule had put a stop to all that, the result being that an economy and infrastructure almost entirely dependent upon aid had collapsed at its abrupt withdrawal.

  “So,” the man says as he sweeps his arm toward the gracefully curving stairs, “Shall we?”

  As we move up the stairs I consider the heart-stopping risk I carry in the briefcase that dangles from my hand, the as-yet-untested strategy I have brought to Lubanda, and which, after much painful thought and experience, I feel to be its best hope for the future.

  At the top of the stairs, I am directed to the right, where I see large twin doors, beautifully carved with various jungle scenes. There are lions, rhinos, giraffes, and the like. Several of these animals (polar bears, for example, and giant sea turtles) cannot actually be found in Lubanda, since, after all, it lies below the Sahara and has no coastline. But fantasy always trumped reality in Mafumi’s fevered mind, so why shouldn’t the doors that lead to his office do the same?

  “This way, sir.”

  Now I am moving down the corridor toward those doors.

  On the way, I think of Isak Dinesen and Olive Schreiner, women who worked African farms just as Martine had. But unlike Martine, they’d written books and then returned to their native lands, Dinesen permanently to Denmark, Schreiner back to England for long periods. Neither in mind nor heart had they ever truly left Europe, so that when they dreamed, it was of that continent’s carefully pruned gardens or wide boulevards. My error had been in believing that Martine’s dream had been the same as theirs.

  We are now nearing those fantastically carved doors, so that I can see the unreal jungle romance they portray in more detail, wooden versions of a harmonious vision Henri Rousseau made famous, idyllic jungle scenes painted by a man, as Martine once pointed out, who never left France.

  Soon those great doors will open to me and my task will come that much closer to its end. At some point the new president will receive me. We will chat cordially, in voices each finds amiable and familiar. Then I will open my briefcase and present him with my offer of hope for Lubanda, and with that offering, render my last tribute to Martine. With that act, and after only three months, my mission will come to an end in a way far different from the way it began, with the snap of a briefcase latch rather than the jangle of a phone.

  New York City, Three Months Earlier



  My tone was wary because for a professional risk assessment and management consultant calls are never welcome, since they are usually from people terrified that they have made the wrong choice and now must face the consequences. The simple, contradictory fact of life is this: human beings, victims, as they sometimes are, of sudden misfortune, easily lured into misadventure, and in all things bound by time, nonetheless dream of certainty even as they roll the dice.

  “It’s Bill Hammond. It’s been a long time, Ray.”

  The tenor of his voice was considerably more somber than I remembered, and coming from so far in the past, it had the alarming effect of a board cracking beneath me.

  “It has, indeed,” I said.

  Bill had never been one to come slowly to his point, so I added, “What’s on your mind?”

  “A murder.”


  The word itself is unnerving. Like bankruptcy or default, it suggests a hard road ahead for the simple reason that a line that should have been avoided at all cost has instead been crossed. For that reason, I felt that simultaneous sense of tightening and emptying that accompanies any mention of an act whose consequences, though surely serious, remain for the moment unclear.

  “It’s someone from the old days,” Bill added. “When you lived in Tumasi.”

  Tumasi was the name given to the vast savanna that stretched east to west across central Lubanda, as well as the village that rested near its center and served as its primary market. I’d lived in the village there for almost a year, but I hadn’t heard its name spoken in a very long time. Even so, I’d often thought of the place, along with the winding red dirt road that connected it to the capital in Rupala. I had driven down that road in joy and sorrow, and once with a mind animated by a purpose I never should have had, and whose result was far different and more serious than I’d been able to predict.

  “Seso Alaya,” Bill said.

  Seso would have been a middle-aged man now, I calculated, but I recalled him as a youth of eighteen, thin, wiry, his smooth skin so black that in high sun it had given off a blue sheen. He’d had the keen eye of a boy who’d lived by his wits. Early on I’d noticed that everything he looked at, he immediately sized up in the starkly unforgiving way of the wild: Do I eat it or does it eat me? Those supported by family money or social guarantees do not feel the insistent pinch of this particular kind of fear. Come what may, in boom or bust, they will not go hungry or without shelter. But for those who must support themselves or fall to ruin, deep worry is a life companion. Seso was of this latter estate. For him a job was not just a job; it was a lifeboat in a storm-tossed sea, and for that very good reason he had gone about his service to me with determined care, shining shoes that would only track through dust, heating stones to warm my bed on those few chill nights, rising immediately when I approached him, his keen eye to these tasks and gestures not at all slavish, but rather, a manly attempt to survive in a country where survival of any kind was not guaranteed. To think it otherwise, as Martine had once observed, was but one of the many errors into which foreigners like me, people who had come to help Lubanda, inevitably fell not because we did not know the people we wished to aid, but because we could not know the depths of both good or evil in their hearts. We could and did romanticize them, as Martine once pointed out, and we could and did cut them all kinds of slack, which, she said, was just another form of abuse. But we could not know them.

  “You went back to Lubanda some years ago, didn’t you, Ray?” Bill asked.

  “Ten years ago,” I told him.

  It had taken nearly two days to make it halfway to Tumasi, where in a seizure of spiritual cowardice, I’d turned back toward Rupala. There’d been the expected ruts and washouts that bedeviled Lubandan travel, but to these inconveniences there’d been added thirteen separate roadway stops, all of them manned by khat-chewing thugs, often armed with nail-spiked clubs, or pangas, the country’s ubiquitous tool, a wide-bladed, wooden-handled machete, light and easily wielded, but st
ill heavy enough to lop off a man’s head or a child’s arm.

  During my last journey up Tumasi Road, the thugs, usually paramilitary gangs armed by Mafumi’s Revolutionary Army of Lubanda, had called their stops “border inspections,” but the only border was a chain stretched across the road, motionless as a puff adder, until a vehicle neared. Then, two “customs inspectors” would lift the chain waist high and wait, either grim-faced or with sinister smiles, as the car approached.

  “That’s dangerous travel, Ray,” Bill said. “Why’d you go back?”

  “To visit the scene of the crime,” I answered flatly. “I thought it might be good for my soul.”

  “I see,” Bill said quietly. He was clearly reluctant to venture further into the moral minefield of this subject. “Anyway, it was dangerous in Lubanda when you made that trip.”

  Indeed it had been dangerous, though I’d had only one tense moment on the road. It had occurred at one of those thirteen criminal customs stops. This time a couple of burning tires had been dragged into the road, and there’d been ten or so “inspectors” whose ages had ranged from early to late teens, years when simmering maleness easily boils into sudden, annihilating violence.

  “Where you from, bwana?” the Kalashnikov-wielding leader of this band asked me as he peered about the interior of the Jeep I’d rented in the capital.

  The malignant glimmer in his eyes made it clear that the “bwana” was meant as mockery. In Ethiopia it might have been farangi and in Kenya it might have been mukiwa, but universally it meant you were the pale-faced enemy, the destroyer of some idealized precolonial paradise that had never in the least existed. By this reckoning, you and you alone were responsible for the derelict world whose mad contortions were now so extreme they could only be addressed by swinging clubs and hacking pangas.

  “New York,” I answered.