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A Dancer In the Dust, Page 2

Thomas H. Cook

His grin revealed teeth sharpened to a point. The Wagogo in Tanzania did this, and the Congolese pygmies; others too, perhaps, but I’d never seen it in Lubanda, and so I assumed it to be some new badge of terror, man merged with crocodile.

  “You see Lion King, bwana?” he asked.

  From a few feet away, a knot of boy-men laughed and the skinniest of them slapped his panga against what had clearly once been a much larger man’s boots.

  “No,” I answered.

  “Where you going, bwana?”

  “Up Tumasi Road,” I answered.

  “How far up?”

  “To the end.”

  He looked surprised, and a little suspicious. “There’s nothing up Tumasi Road,” he said.

  “There once was,” I told him.

  This was true, for Tumasi had once been a thriving village, its market stocked with locally grown produce. I’d seen mounds of sweet potatoes and jars of honey, along with stalls selling various local grains and cured meats and pots fashioned from the local clay. There’d been wooden carvings for sale, and kindling gathered from the savanna, and everywhere, stacks of cassava. Such had been Tumasi from time immemorial, its fundamental needs met by fundamental means.

  “It is a long drive to Tumasi, bwana,” the man said. “Bad road. Hard on the body.” He pronounced bad “bahd,” and body was “buddy.” He nodded toward a pile of pillows and blankets, some of which were stained with various body fluids. “We sell cheap. Make you more comfortable for the bad road.”

  I shook my head. “No, thanks.”

  “You sure, bwana?”

  He wore desert-camouflage pants and a bright tie-dyed T-shirt of the kind you might have bought on Venice Beach thirty years before. His cap said “Red Sox,” and as he watched me, he took out a long cigarette holder, inserted a hand-wrapped cigarette taken from a crumpled Gauloises box and lit it. “Many bad people on the way to Tumasi.” He waved out the match and tossed it to the side. “Maybe you like a paper for safe passage.” He grinned. “I give you special price.”

  “I don’t need a paper from you,” I told him stiffly, because I knew there would be no end to this extortion once the first advantage had been gained. “I already have safe passage.”

  The man laughed as if I’d made a bad joke. “Oh, yeah? Who give you that?”

  “The Emperor of All Peoples,” I said.

  To call Mafumi by so exalted a title was, in itself, one of Lubanda’s grim jokes. He’d been nothing more than a warlord who’d built a largely tribal army across an artificial border drawn by a British bureaucrat, then invaded on the pretext that President Dasai was in league with “the old colonialists,” determined to bind Lubandans once again in those mythic chains. He’d beaten this drum so loudly it had drowned out Dasai’s gentlemanly defense, and for that reason it had taken Mafumi little more than two years to march on Rupala, take the capital, then do what he liked with the rest of the country, which had been mostly to terrorize it.

  I had never met the Lion of God, of course, and certainly he’d not given me clearance to drive up Tumasi Road. For that reason, using his name was a risk whose consequences I’d considered, and which, for a few seconds, as the guard grinned at me with his crocodile teeth, I’d feared a bad idea. But by then I was in too deep, and so I doubled the bluff.

  “Here, I’ll show you,” I said, then reached for the backpack on the seat beside me, where I’d placed an official-looking paper, complete with a starburst seal. It was only a car warranty, but few people in Lubanda could read, and so the risk was rather slight that it wouldn’t buttress my claim of an Imperial safe passage.

  “Hmm,” the man said as he gazed at the paper. He moved his lips in imitation of reading, but this movement didn’t match the words on the page, so I knew he was illiterate. When he finished this charade, he handed the paper back to me.

  “So, may I go?” I asked.

  He looked at me sternly, but the air was out of him, the midday sun was growing hotter, his mushy chew of khat was losing its kick, and nothing was coming of this customs inspection. So it was time to end it, as I could see—end it and wait for the next car, in anticipation that no paper would be produced that might call into question the little kingdom of this boy-man’s fanged blockade.

  He flipped a few flakes of ash from his cigarette. “Go.”

  With that, he banged the stock of his rifle on the bumper of the Jeep, a signal for the burning tires to be dragged out of my path.

  I pressed down on the accelerator and moved ahead slowly, resolutely, with my head up, but not arrogantly, only a man on his way. The skinny soldier in the big boots stepped out from among the others and sighted me down the chipped blade of his panga, laughing as he faked repeated chops and then, even more pointedly, drew it slowly across his neck.

  “As I recall, you told me that you didn’t make it all the way down the road to Tumasi.”

  Now it was Bill who was asking me questions, his voice thin and metallic over the phone line, but strong enough to pull me out of Lubanda and return me to the present.

  “That’s right,” I answered. “I found it too disturbing.”

  Instead, I’d stopped the car and stared ahead, my gaze fixed on the red road that lay before me. As my soul emptied, I’d turned back toward Rupala.

  “What a sad country,” Bill said starkly.

  “Not always,” I said.

  Bill seemed hardly to hear me. “Jesus, it was just horrible what happened to Dasai,” he said. “And Gessee, too.”

  I recalled photographs I’d seen of their bodies, Dasai’s hung like a side of beef, Gessee’s slumped against a post, clip after clip having been emptied into it, the tire around his neck still burning.

  “Mafumi watched it all,” Bill added softly.

  In these same photographs, the Emperor of All Peoples could be seen peering down at these murderous orgies from a balcony overlooking Independence Square, a rogue who had not yet achieved his near-legendary status as Lubanda’s malevolently farcical dictator. Soon after, he’d become the chief instrument of terror throughout the country. He’d also been quite ingenious in his methods. An Amnesty International report had made a good deal of the fact that he’d had vents dug from the Security Police’s basement torture chambers to street level so that the cries of those belowground could clearly be heard by anyone passing by. One scream, he was reported to have said, can shut a thousand mouths.

  “But now Mafumi, too, is gone,” Bill said.

  With that reference to recent changes in Lubanda, I returned to the actual content of his call. “So, tell me, what do you know about Seso’s murder?”

  “At the moment, it’s pretty much a blank,” Bill said. “He just turned up dead, you might say.”

  “Turned up where?”

  “Here in New York,” Bill answered.

  “I presume you don’t know what he was doing here? How he was making his living, for example.”

  “Correct,” Bill said.

  “So it’s possible his murder was purely random,” I said.

  “Oh, come on, Ray,” Bill said. “I mean, what would be the chances of that?”

  “Around one in two hundred and fifty thousand,” I answered in the matter-of-fact voice of a seasoned risk assessor. “That’s admittedly a very low risk, but random killings do occur.”

  “Seso’s murder wasn’t random,” Bill told me firmly. “That’s the one thing I’m sure of.”

  “Why are you sure of it?”

  “Because he was tortured,” Bill answered. “On his feet. With bars. What’s the word?”

  “Bastiado,” I said.

  “Right. So can you meet me tomorrow, Ray?” Bill asked. “I need a… risk assessment.”

  His request suddenly sounded more urgent, something important clearly at stake.

  “All right,” I said.

  “The Harvard Club, nine A.M.?”


  “Thanks, Ray. See you then.”

  The click of Bill�
�s phone as he hung up was loud and oddly jarring, like a pistol shot.

  A murder, I thought, and suddenly felt somewhat like Fowler, the jaded British journalist, when he learns that Alden Pyle’s body has been found floating in the Saigon River. The Quiet American had been one of the books I’d read on that first plane ride to Lubanda, and I’d so reveled in its exotic atmosphere that its warning about the risks of inexperience, of entering, even with the best of intentions, a country one knows nothing about, had drowned in the waters of my youth and naïveté.

  Those risks had long ago made themselves clear, however, and so for a moment, I went back over the conversation I’d just had with Bill. It was a habit of mine, going over things again and again, putting one piece of data with another. Risk assessment is mostly connecting the proverbial dots.

  Someone from the old days, I heard Bill say again. When you lived in Tumasi.

  The old days, when I’d been young and fiercely determined to do good, and nothing, least of all my soul, had seemed at risk.

  I thought of my first meeting with Seso, how I’d found him standing alone in a small, airless room not far from the capital, the way he’d introduced himself very formally as “Mr. Seso Alaya.” He’d stood extremely straight, and though the collar of his shirt had been frayed and his pants too short, he’d had the dignity the great explorer Richard Burton had found in those who’d served him in India, made yet nobler, as he’d said, by their raggedness.

  Seso informed me that he’d been assigned to be my translator and general assistant, and with that he’d reached for my bag, which I’d refused to give him because to do so would suggest that I was his master; and I’d come to help the Lubandan people, not to rule them. Seso had read this gesture for what it was, and smiled. “It is my job to be of service,” he told me. “I am not ashamed to work.”

  Thus had ended the first exchange I’d had with Seso. After it, he’d taken my bag and followed me to the white Land Cruiser that was to be at my disposal for as long as I remained in Lubanda. We’d driven to Tumasi that same day, out of Rupala and up a road that took us past those storied scenes of Africa, small townships, then the villages of the bush, and from there across that broad savanna the Lutusi had immemorially roamed, and to which I believed myself to be bringing my earnest gift of hope.


  There are three principal factors in risk assessment, I reminded myself not long after ending my conversation with Bill Hammond: the amount of the loss, the likelihood of incurring it, and in the event of loss, the subsequent possibility of either full or partial recovery. The first two may not be equally weighted, however. For example, the amount of loss might be very great but the likelihood of incurring it very slight. Or it may be that the loss is slight but the likelihood of incurring it is quite high. In all risk assessment there are only two invariables: that loss is possible, and that some things, once lost—innocence, for example, and sometimes hope—are irrecoverable.

  For a few minutes after receiving Bill Hammond’s call, I spent some time pondering the considerably less ominous risk of meeting him the next morning. He clearly had some request to make of me, but I reasonably assumed that it was one I could grant or refuse. Either way, there was little risk that my life would change. The odd thing was that Bill’s call had returned me to Lubanda in a way that lingered through the night, so that I again recalled myself as the young man who, some twenty years before, had arrived in the sedate capital of a languid country whose arid central region had for a long time remained pretty much undisturbed.

  At that time, Lubanda’s president was a Western-educated intellectual whose idea of social organization and economic development had been a form of pastoral anarchism, derived, as he freely admitted, from the lessons he’d learned from utopian novels, and which he called Village Harmony. His name was Kojo Dasai, and he was round and huggable, with a huge smile and one of those rich chuckles that immediately put everyone at ease. He’d encouraged his fellow Lubandans to call him “Baba,” which means “Father,” but Bill Hammond had early dubbed him “Black Santa,” and indeed, President Dasai had remained quite jolly, chuckling softly almost to the day he’d been hung upside down by Mafumi’s renegade soldiers, stripped of his signature bright yellow dashiki, and hacked to death in Independence Square.

  A gruesome video of his murder could still be bought on the streets of the capital when I’d last visited it. In it, the first flag of Lubanda waved at the far end of the square, a huge sunflower against a background of light blue, the design chosen by President Dasai. The flag had later been hauled down, trampled, spat and pissed upon. It was this filthy, reeking bit of cloth in which the president’s body, or what was left of it, had been wrapped, placed on a cement slab, doused with gasoline, and burned. The sound of his sizzling fat had been clearly audible on the video, and it was this detail, according to the hand-lettered sign in the shop that sold the tape, that “made it juicy.”

  Unlike Dasai’s murder, Seso’s death had not made news. But in fact, little having to do with either Lubanda or Lubandans had made news after that particularly savage assassination, the sole exception to this general indifference having been the slaughter of the animals held in the national zoo.

  I’d long been back in the States, a graduate student at Wharton Business School, successfully studying the risks inherent in almost everything, when I’d heard of it. And although Mafumi’s renegades had repeatedly demonstrated their love of brutality, nothing could have prepared me for the footage by then available on the Internet.

  A year after Lubanda’s independence, a wealthy London matron named Charlotte Hastings had decided that what this newly minted nation needed was a national zoo, and so, at her own considerable expense, she’d had one built.

  It was small by Western standards, but it housed a collection of deer, goats, a few lions and other big cats, two elephants, and four or five giraffes, along with a small aviary and a pool of snoozing crocodiles.

  A few days after President Dasai’s death, Mafumi had declared a “White-Out”—twenty-four hours of celebratory destruction that included the ripping down of “white” advertisements and the looting and torching of “white” buildings and residences. Its culminating act was to be the demolition of Charlotte Hastings’ “white zoo.”

  A mob of about two hundred had carried it out, mostly with pangas, but also with knobkerries, which had proven particularly effective on the birds of the zoo’s tightly enclosed aviary. In the films, these airborne clubs could be seen hurtling toward the panicked birds, knocking them from the limbs to which they’d fled. As for the crocs, they’d been roped and cut to ribbons, mostly by teenagers using box cutters. A few of the larger and more dangerous animals had simply been riddled with automatic weapons fire, but the smaller ones had suffered a far more painful and protracted death, their legs hacked off, after which, mere groaning torsos, they’d been slashed and clubbed to death while the zoo’s liberators danced the toyi-toyi around them, the women ululating in a strange, bloodcurdling ecstasy as the pangas rose and fell, sending droplets of blood raining down upon the crowd.

  These were horrid images of the madness that had befallen Lubanda in the years following my brief stay there. Bill had once said that the road that led from loving Lubanda to hating it was short and straight, and in a sense, I realized as I thought of Seso and opened myself to a dark cavalcade of memories, it was a road I’d taken to its cold dead end.

  At precisely that moment, I also came to understand that Bill’s call had sounded in me like a fire bell in the night. Something of that distant, tragic year still floated inside me, insistent, accusatory, reminding me that a grave error is like a rogue star, eternally polluting the vastness with its smoldering trail of miasmic wrong, crashing into this or drawing that into its unforgiving gravity, but always moving, on and on into the vulnerable and unsuspecting expanse.

  As if fixed in a mental circuit I could not escape, I went back to that first day, when I’d gotten off the plane and b
een whisked to an orientation meeting where I was treated to a brief history of Lubanda under French, German, and at last British rule, then directed to a room whose door had been fitted with a neatly hand-lettered sign that said “Tumasi,” surrounded by a circle of paper sunflowers.

  I waited in that room for almost ten minutes before a slightly overweight, curly-headed young man entered, thrust out his hand, and introduced himself as Bill Hammond. He’d worked in the Peace Corps before coming to Lubanda, he told me, and had expected to be in the country for only a couple of years. But to his surprise, he’d “developed a crush” on the place, and so had signed on with an NGO called Hope for Lubanda.

  “And you?” he asked. “What’s your story?”

  “There’s not much to tell,” I admitted. “I’m from a small town in the Midwest. I went to the University of Wisconsin. After that, I moved to New York and got a job teaching.”

  “Let me guess, a ghetto school?”

  I nodded.

  “So you’re the type who, in the sixties, would have been down South working in voter registration drives, that sort of thing.”

  “I suppose so.”

  “English major?”

  “With a concentration in the classics,” I said. “Mostly Greek theater and the Greek myths.”

  Bill handed me a large envelope. “You’ll find a few orientation pamphlets in there. Most of it is routine stuff, but you should make yourself very familiar with the Lubandan Constitution, because when you meet government officials, it impresses them if you’ve taken the trouble to learn its provisions and amendments. It’s a show of respect.”

  I smiled. “I’ll commit it to memory.”

  Bill glanced toward the window, where, just beyond the outskirts of the city, the Lubandan vastness spread out and out, all its mountains and its plains, the twining river that circled the capital, the great savanna over which the nomads roamed.

  “It’s strange how the die is cast, Ray,” he said. “The fact that if rhinoceroses could have been domesticated, the Africans might have ridden them to Calais.” He looked at me and smiled. “They’d have been Sherman tanks against those puny little European horses.” His smile turned down slightly, a movement that betrayed his darker line of thought. “Tumasi is in the middle of the bush. Mostly nomads wandering around. There are only a few farms up that way. Strictly subsistence.” He plopped down in one of the metal chairs, swung his arm over the other, the posture of an amiable traveling salesman. “So, is this your first time in Lubanda?” he asked.