North to Burkina

The ancient Volkswagen van departed not at an appointed hour, but when the vehicle was full. I sat upright, leaning forward, squirming in place, in the second row of seats. I had boarded after a Tuareg man who was swathed in yards and yards of dark blue fabric as insulation against the heat. His white turban wound around his head and across his face so only his dark eyes appeared from behind the fabric. He spit on a whet stone, then pulled from his sleeve a curved dagger the length of his forearm.

Was this the Tuareg way of acknowledging a woman? Unclean as we are. Maybe it was a warning. The coastal region I’d just left hadn’t been Muslim, but traveling north I’d surely encounter women with bodies fully covered, mosques, and Tuareg warriors like this daggerman.

The driver’s assistant threw bags of belongings to the roof and more passengers climbed aboard. The last to arrive was a healthy and large woman, in orange and purple cloth, carrying a baby. She stood outside the van and blew her nose on the ground by bending over, pressing the right nostril shut and propelling out what was in the left. Then repeating, pressing on the left. The driver directed the woman to sit next to me. On my right, a child nursed. On my left, a warrior sharpened his dagger. The four of us sat on a seat that had seemed a good fit for two.

Parfait! Perfect! Said the driver. Allons! Let’s go!

I hadn’t noticed that the van was missing its sliding side door. Our driver laced a rope back and forth a couple of times through rust holes where hinges and a latch should have been, then his assistant pulled the rope taut and tied it in a slipknot. The driver added oil to the engine and slammed the rear hatch, then jumped into his seat. Twelve of us inside. And, like that, we took off from central Togo for parts north.

The VW rumbled along the rutted road, past clusters of mud- and cement-brick homes, their small, square windows shuttered in corrugated aluminum. Close to the road were tiny gardens, goats tied to palm trees, boys with sticks and bicycle tire rims, girls with mothers drawing water, hand over hand, from deep wells.

The tropical greens and oranges – the rainbow that was Lomé – had faded, like the driver’s transistor radio, into more muted tones. I’d tied back my hair and covered my head with a red bandanna, hoping to avoid a rat’s nest from the wind. I wore sunglasses against bugs and bits of vegetation flying into my eyes. I watched as we bounced past villages and children who ran from their games toward us, waving wildly. Surely they had run after dozens of cars and knew they were not going to catch up, but they ran with arms like wings.

One severe lurch. We bounced and screamed. A deep pothole had yanked off a wheel. The front end of the bus sparked and scraped over the asphalt.

Merde! The driver yelled.

We were doing no more than 30 miles an hour. All of us turned our heads to watch the tire wobble into the brush. The driver managed to pull to the side of the road but the van was top-heavy and we followed the tire, creaking and rolling over in slow-motion, like an orca performing a pirouette.

I was smothered in blue Tuareg yardage and lay on top of the mother and her baby who was shrieking. Men yelled instructions, each different from the other. No one was injured. So, top layer of human beings first, one at a time we climbed out, up through the driver’s door.

From the top of the van, which now faced the side, the Muslims in the group untied their rugs to pray. The rest of us were on our knees, too, but not in prayer. We combed the bushes for the lug nut that had held the tire to the wheel. Why not use a couple of lug nuts from another wheel? Because each tire was fastened by one single lousy lug nut.

The search might have gone faster had we moved together in some order, searched methodically, but no, not in west Africa. We all covered one another’s knee prints for close to an hour. I only wanted to avoid snakes, and to find the small nugget of metal before sundown.

The driver jumped up, Moi, je suis l’homme! He’d found the nut.

We righted the van and the men passed the nut, discussing which bolt had the best threads, then, blessed be Allah, they reattached the tire, the driver popped the clutch and charged up the shoulder back onto the road.

The driver’s assistant, riding shotgun, pulled from the glove compartment six votive candles, stuck the soft heat-melted wax to the dashboard, and used his Bic to light the wicks.

I leaned forward to ask, Why the candles?

For other cars to see us.

The van had no lights.

We stopped once for fuel in total darkness. No lantern by the road, no signs, but our driver knew where to turn off. He waved out his window, Bon soir, Joseph! He gunned the engine. Petrol!

Mon ami, ça va? Joseph came running.

The driver and Joseph slapped backs. They smoked cigarettes and poured bottle after bottle of gasoline into the tank until it overflowed. The Tuareg man slept on my lap. The baby’s diaper wafted rank in the heat. I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours. My legs were asleep and my butt was throbbing. I reminded myself that I’d chosen to be there and had options that those around me did not. I knew only a few people who could tell stories like these, firsthand, and now I was one of them.

I put my doubts in cold storage, and, that morning in Fada, baked in the warmth of the African sun.

About the author

Rachel Hoffman is a semi-recluse who, during an earlier incarnation, published a dozen articles in academic journals and one short story in Left Bank.…

Read the full bio

Issue 06 · August 2009

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