Yesterday I decided to pull myself – to force myself – from the morass of self-doubt and -loathing that is my fancy pants African film story. This was easier said than done. One of the nasty side-effects of three-plus years as an itinerant freelancer, belt-cinching from paycheck to paycheck, is that I don’t really get the concept of “down-time.” I mean, sure, I get it in the abstract: down-time is when bald, middle-aged Frenchman drink cold-beaded bottles of Flag with their 18-year-old escorts by the pool at the Hotel Independance. It’s hard to disagree with this on principal; it looks like everyone’s having such fun. The Frenchman chortle. The Burkinabé girls flash their marvelous, toothy smiles. Would that I could take up one of the girls in gaudy heels who scoots up to me on her motorbike at night, offering a massage! Who doesn’t love massages? What’s the harm in taking it easy?
I left the hotel in high spirits. There was a slight breeze stirring – enough of a respite from the crippling, 110-degree heat to make the day seem downright temperate. My backpack – and the portable I usually tote inside it – were both back at Chez Moi. I had a bottle of water and a damn good book – Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun – and a mandate to Take It Easy that I would inflict upon myself by whatever brutal, alcohol-induced means necessary. It was a Sunday, after all. Everyone needs a breather.
Lunch was a bowl of riz sauce I ate hunched over in a neighborhood maquis, sweaty forearms stuck to my shorts. Afternoons in the maquis – usually my first meal of the day – I eat like a longshoreman. Afterward I called my friend Issaka, a taxi driver I’d inherited during FESPACO from Marion Berger – the French programmer of the Tarifa African film festival – who had herself inherited him from the great Egyptian documentarian, Jihan el-Tahri. Issaka was happy to be passed around between us. He is a good-humored, gregarious, relentlessly punctual man who always arrives in his little green Peugeot, sunglasses donned, a single woolen glove warming his right hand.
Issaka was born in Cote d’Ivoire and has a fiancée in France, who he is planning to join later this year. On our first afternoon together he wanted my advice on whether or not to finish his degree in biology in Ouagadougou. When he got to France, couldn’t he find work as a driver, or some sort of casual laborer? I disagreed. He wasn’t one of the young, desperate fortune-seekers who set off on perilous seaborne journeys each day from Senegal, Morocco or Mauritania. He was educated and had a loving Frenchwoman waiting for him; he would be arriving not illegally by sea in a rickety fishing boat, but with a passport by Royal Air Maroc, via Casablanca. He should be joining the professional classes, I said, riding the Metro, reading Le Monde over cafés au lait and croissants on Saturday mornings in Montmarte. (Imagining, maybe, my own hypothetical French life.) Why set the bar so low? What would his fiancée want for him? Issaka nodded, yes, yes, taking it all in. He seemed unperturbed by the seismic upheaval that awaited him in just a few months’ time. He talked to his fiancée on the phone every week. They made plans. He was reading How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, hoping to win friends and influence people when he arrived in Paris in June.
He arrived, on the dot as always, and took me into town. The streets were listless with Sunday-afternoon traffic – no doubt the Burkinabés were at the weddings and funerals of distant relations, filling the air with song and ululations. The white people were nowhere to be found. I made a pass through the American Rec Center, its foosball table looking forlorn in its solitude. Nearby I had coffee at the Café de Vienne. It had turned into a beautiful afternoon, the wind stirring the treetops and sending the flowers tumbling onto the pavement. How much of my African life is tied to memories of bougainvillea? Close my eyes and I see a riot of blossoms spilling over the high walls in Lamu, or shaking with the rainy-season winds in Goma, or laying a carpet of pink and white and orange petals across the sand on Lake Malawi. It is an invasive species, as foreign to Africa as whites; but like whites, you will find it everywhere.
Even as I sat with my book, though, the old restlessness was creeping in. Thoughts on African cinema – thoughts which have dominated my waking hours for the past month – started to stir. The story was a beautiful mess. Had I said enough about funding? About distribution? Would it all make sense to someone without a background in African film? Had I said enough about the films themselves?
The day’s limitless horizon drew closer; suddenly, the afternoon had grown claustrophobic. Why had I left the house without my laptop, anyway? I paid my bill and hoped to walk off my worries – a trick I’ve employed so many times before. On the street a young man passed me, a dozen pairs of blue jeans and trousers slung across his shoulder. He was holding a pair of khaki slacks up high, as if in offering. Who could say what potential client might come traipsing out the door of the Café de Vienne, looking for a pair of pants? The street was hot, now that I’d left the shade of the café’s porch behind. I could feel the sun pressing on my face and neck, the color deepening, my arms browning like a chicken in a skillet.
There is nothing like the loneliness of a Sunday afternoon in a foreign city. I had hoped my melancholy of the past week could be shaken off by a couple of hours with a good book, but instead my anxieties seemed to multiply: the struggles with my story, with my French, the old cares about money, the news from New York of a dear, dying friend. Nothing seemed to be going right, though I had expected this month – the spectacular good fortune of this story – to be some sort of celebration or coronation: the crowning achievement that would justify all these years of confusion and disappointment and frustration and solitude.
Africa has not been easy, though in some ways – in many ways – I could not have chosen a better life for myself than the one I’ve had. I’d come here nearly four years ago to write, and write I have: my career more or less started when I took my first steps on African terra firma. But I was reminded, too, of a few lines of Hemingway’s from The Sun Also Rises, which I picked up again last week: “Going to another country doesn’t make any difference….You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”
Tired, bummed, dragging my feet and cradling a little metaphorical cup of sorrow to my chest, I walked up and down along the length of Avenue Kwame Nkrumah. A young man, an artist, with little flippers for arms, shuffled up to me and asked if I wanted to buy a postcard or a batik. Then another, tall and emaciated, holding out a little gecko sculpture, hoping for some small sale: he hadn’t eaten in two days. The sun scoured the pavement; my heart felt drained. I had given up so much of my life for this?
I kept walking, for three hours I walked under the terrible heat of the sun, hoping, maybe, for some sort of rebirth by fire. It was the words that plagued me – the words I couldn’t find to write my story, the words I couldn’t find, in French, to draw me into the world around me. Ouagadougou had, in those first few days, charmed me with its weaving bicycles and mopeds, its kiosques and maquis, its colorful, dusty tumult. But in the month since I arrived, I hadn’t gotten anywhere. My days were slavishly devoted to writing. For all the progress I’d made with my French, I couldn’t simply walk into a bar, pull up a stool, and bullshit with the guy sitting next to me.
On the street a young man called out to me. His name was Suleiman; he was sitting on a bench, a narrow plank of splintered wood, with three of his friends, huddled in the few scraps of shade they could find. He asked me how long I’d been in Burkina, and how long I would be staying – these much-asked questions, at least, I could handle. We stood there for five minutes, grappling, fighting our way through a conversation that we both seemed determined, for our own reasons, to have. Suleiman gestured to a sign on the wall behind us: it read Entrepreneurs du Monde, a French NGO, he said, doing something I couldn’t entirely understand. He asked if I wanted to go inside – was it his office? His uncle’s? A friend’s? I had no idea, but we went inside the office, where a young Frenchman, much bemused, was sitting behind a desk. We shook hands, and I wasted no time in switching to English. Just what did Entrepreneurs du Monde do, anyway? I asked. They were a microcredit organization, he said; they provided microloans to small businesses in the developing world. Suleiman, feeling left out, handed me a sachet of something – whether water purification pills, or oral rehydration salts, or some sort of fertilizer, I couldn’t really say. Theo, the Frenchman, explained that each sachet cost CFA 550 – more than a single US buck. We both agreed that this was an extraordinary price for your average Burkinabé to pay for whatever it was they were selling. Theo said they were working on a program to reduce the costs, and I wished him luck with that. We shook hands amiably, and then me and Suleiman went back outside. It felt like something had blossomed inside my chest, that I had taken it and nurtured it into being. It felt like some small battle had been won.
Suleiman gave me his number. He said to call sometime if I wanted to take a Nescafe with him.
I told him I would like that, I really would.