With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I was struggling to open a can of powdered milk with a pocketknife when Kombate clapped his hands outside the window of my house and called, “Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle!”
I’d tried repeatedly to convince him to use my name, Gina. Mademoiselle was a holdover from the days when Togo was a French colony. I went to the window and pushed open the tin shutter. It banged against the cement-block wall.
“Come with me to see the judgment,” Kombate said. “A villager has eaten the crocodile.”
“The crocodile?” I asked. “The one that lives in the pond — the sacred crocodile?”
“Oui, oui, Mademoiselle. Come, I saved you a rock under the mango tree.”
Kombate lurched along, leaning heavily on his good leg. The other, shriveled and paralyzed since childhood, dragged behind him like a heavy tail. His lame foot often got caught in roots or between rocks, and I had to bend over several times along the way to disentangle it. The soil, newly softened by rain, yielded to my steps. With granaries low, the villagers were eager to nudge seeds into the doughlike dirt. Meals were already limited to one a day.
Kombate stopped abruptly and cocked his head. A low-pitched sound vibrated up through our feet. In villages like Pana, drums, not newspapers, delivered the news. “Let’s hurry,” he said, and set off again, his gait pitching even more wildly.
We passed the baobab tree, whose thick, knobby trunk bubbled up from the earth like lava. We passed the villagers’ compounds, circles of huts surrounded by smooth, round walls of cocoa-colored mud. The huts faced inward on an open court where cooking fires would usually smoke. This morning, however, the fires were out. Empty dishes and bowls from the night before lay scattered on the ground. The morning wind shook the thatched roofs, and tin bowls that had been left out spun round and round or clattered against the hut walls. Skinny dogs tucked their tails in and ran from the invisible threat.
When we arrived at the great mango tree, a large crowd had gathered beneath it. The tree’s wide, dense canopy screened out the morning sun. Walking into its cool shade was like entering a room. Men sat in front, hoes slung over their bony brown shoulders, clothes torn and faded. Women sat in back. On the way to my seat, I nodded hello to my neighbor Bibabe, whose left breast was hanging out of a hole in her T-shirt.
“Tchamba!” people called to me in greeting. Tchamba meant “big man,” an honorary title given to me because I had a motorcycle. No other woman in the village had transportation other than her feet; even a man would be lucky to own a broken-down bicycle. Occasionally, a rich city relative would arrive on a moped. On account of my motorcycle, the villagers let me sit not only in front with the men, but on one of the rocks reserved for the chief’s special advisors, men so old their kneecaps sagged. The man next to me had fluorescent blue rings encircling his pupils, an indication that he was going blind. He nodded in my direction, and I hated to notice how his swollen testicles drooped out of his shorts.
Kombate made me slide over so he could sit on a corner of my rock. The village had appointed him my translator. I leaned over and whispered into Kombate’s ear, “Tell me, why is the crocodile sacred?”
“You don’t know?”
“No. How am I supposed to know these things?”
Kombate had learned the alphabet, the French and English languages, and European geography from a Catholic priest, and therefore thought whites knew everything.
“Alors, Gina, écoutez-moi,” Kombate said, and he told me this story:
“It was during the worst drought ever that an old man came to Pana and asked for shelter. A villager invited him into his house and took care of him. The drought got worse, and the old man watched as the villager counted out the last grains of millet to feed his family. That night the old man sat in the moonlight and thought about what he could do for the villager. As he began to stroke his beard, water poured from it.
“There was so much water that a pond formed. Overjoyed, the old man walked right into the water, but he couldn’t swim and began to flounder. To keep from drowning, he changed shape: his beard hardened into a snout, his arms and legs shortened, his skin toughened, and he grew a tail. The old man has lived in our pond as a crocodile ever since, and it has never gone dry.”
“And someone just ate the crocodile?” I asked in disbelief.
“All of it that he could,” Kombate said, and clicked his tongue in disgust.
At sunrise several months before, I had seen the crocodile. I was walking by the pond when the top of its snout, speckled like a poppy-seed bun, emerged and glided toward the shore, where a goat was drinking. I threw a stone to scare the goat, but the crocodile was too quick. A bone cracked; the bleating stopped. With its jaws around the goat’s head, the crocodile dragged its prey into deeper water, thrashing and twisting its armored tail. The goat’s head tore loose, and the body bobbed in the pink, frothy water. The crocodile pointed its jaws upward and, with a joyful snap, swallowed the head whole.
Kombate nudged my side and pointed to a man bowing to the ground in front of the crowd, his head in his hands, his back bare, his sides striped with ribs. Inch-deep cracks, from years of walking barefoot, split the young man’s heels. “That’s Warja, the guilty one,” Kombate said.
The drums grew louder, beating what sounded like two rhythms at once: One was heavy and desperate, like the running feet of a frightened man. The other was delicate and quick, as if the shimmering, ghostly feet of the village ancestors were following him. When it seemed as though the drumming could not become any louder or more frantic, the chief appeared. He wore a blue robe embroidered with intricate circles that spiraled into larger and larger patterns. The Moba no longer embroidered robes like this; now they wove plain striped robes to sell to tourists. As young men waved tree branches over him, the chief sat down in a bamboo chair with a bull skin thrown over it. The bull skin represented the chief’s masculinity, or palu, a divine force to the Moba. I remembered how when I, a woman, had broken ground for the new school, the chief had offered me boiled goat testicles, a traditional source of palu.
The chief clapped; the drumming stopped.
“Lemani!” the chief shouted.
“Lafia!” the crowd cried back.
Pointing his cane at Warja, the chief told him to come forward. The young man crawled. The chief slapped his leg impatiently, then hit Warja on the shoulder with his cane.
Warja touched his forehead to the chief’s feet.
The chief asked for his plea.
The young man admitted to killing the crocodile.
Why? the chief asked.
Because I was hungry, the young man answered.
The chief got up and struck the ground wildly with his cane. Are you hungry? he asked his advisors. They nodded their heads: yes, they were hungry, too.
The chief spoke at length, and Kombate translated for me: “He says that Warja is not the only hungry man. Soon the granaries will be empty. There will be nothing to put in the sauce but leaves from the trees. He says that every year at this time we have known famine. Do we die? No, we feel hungry, but we live. We plant our fields. We are harvesters.”
Murmurs of approval from the crowd punctuated the chief’s speech. Then a man broke from the front row and stood by Warja. His chest was bare, too, and his torn khaki shorts hung low on his hipbones. “Warja’s father,” Kombate whispered.
The chief sat down and leaned back on the bull skin, and the father began to speak.
“He says Warja works his fields,” Kombate translated. “Each morning Warja passes the pond where the sacred crocodile lives. When the sacred crocodile gets hungry, he goes into the village at night and takes a chicken, a goat, sometimes even a child. Hunger is hunger. Last night, Warja goes to the pond and kills the crocodile. He pounds his hoe into the crocodile’s head. He is so hungry, what does he have left to lose? A man must have meat for strength, to work the fields.”
The chief rose angrily and hit the father several times on the shoulders with his cane. What is sacred is sacred! he shouted. The crowd shifted and murmured. The men nodded to one another: the chief had spoken with palu.
The chief raised his hand for silence, then turned to Warja. The young man’s shoulders were mildly muscled, his head closely shaven, his shins caked with mud. I could imagine him digging the hoe into the crocodile’s head as easily as he would break a clump of dirt in the fields.
The chief leaned over and pushed Warja’s forehead back until the young man looked up at him. Then the chief said: The dog corrects her young by biting them, but she does not bite them to the bone.
And with that, the chief threw Warja’s head to one side and left, his blue robe billowing behind him. The drums started pounding. The crowd dispersed, and I lost sight of Warja in it.
“Kombate, where is Warja?”
“Probably going to the fields, to plant. The rains are here.”
“But he’s guilty, right?”
“Yes, he was judged.”
“But isn’t he going to be punished?”
Kombate laughed. “There is no jail in the village.”
“But it was a sacred crocodile,” I said.
“Ah, I see. We Africans know nothing.” Kombate sighed, then leaned in close. “You white people would know what to do.”
That night, my neighbor Bibabe invited me to dinner. I was surprised because I knew no one had any extra food this time of year. When I arrived after dark, smoke and sparks were rising from Bibabe’s compound. I saw her silhouetted by the fire, pushing a stick of firewood into place. She turned to me and bowed slightly, offering her wrist rather than her hands, because they were smudged with soot. I pressed her hot, wet arm. Sweat glistened on her forehead; her smile showed more gaps than teeth.
I sat down on the ground near the fire. The warm, swept earth felt like skin. Bibabe’s young daughter, Marie, scooted up to me so that her elbow touched my hip. Two packages wrapped in green leaves rested on her lap. She nudged me and pointed to the packages. “Nant, nant,” she said.
Bibabe unwound the leaves. Inside were chunks of raw meat, pink and orange and the deep red of innards. Marie leaned against me, and I put her on my lap.
Just then, old Yenteme, another neighbor, ran into the compound and began singing and dancing around us, her thin breasts flapping like dog ears. She twirled and twisted, and with each gyration the loose skin of her belly rippled. The orange scarf tied around her head fell off, and she picked it up and showed me that inside was another package wrapped in leaves. “Nant nyobig,” she said: crocodile meat. She threw her head back and shrieked with laughter, her tongue wagging as if she could taste happiness in the air.
After Yenteme left, Marie danced around the fire, mimicking her, and we laughed. Bibabe threw the meat into the pot, where it sizzled. I pointed to the meat and asked, in broken Moba, if it had come from Warja.
Bibabe nodded. The meat was a gift from the guilty man. I leaned on my hands, feeling the tiny bumps in the ground. I let my head fall back and stretched the tender, weary muscles in my neck. The sky was a midnight blue dome above us, the stars hanging close and abundant.
When the crocodile meat and millet were done, Bibabe, Marie, and I took turns pouring water over each other’s hands to wash them. Then the three of us dipped our fingers into the bowl of millet, pulling out warm gobs and shaping them into balls. I pushed one into my mouth, and my tongue immediately recognized the grainy taste, more texture than flavor, as salt was expensive in Pana. I dipped a second ball of millet into a sauce made of dried okra and red pepper. It was as elastic as mozzarella and left strings stretching from my hand to the bowl. I licked the excess that oozed down my fingers.
Then Bibabe opened my sticky hand and closed it around a warm piece of meat. She smiled, the fire’s glow tinting her few teeth orange. I smiled back and bit into the meat, which was spongy and tender like liver. The air still smelled of smoky flesh, not just from Bibabe’s little fire but from all the fires of the village, where every household was partaking of Warja’s feast.