Ça fait deux jours.
If you have spent any significant length of time in Burkina Faso, it’s likely that you’ve come across this phrase – translated literally as, more or less, “It’s been two days.” Any encounter with a long-lost acquaintance, an old friend – or, in my case, the white guy who used to buy your apples before finding someone’s better apples – will begin with, “Ça fait deux jours!” This is invariably accompanied by an exclamation – an emphatic “Eh!”, not unlike the sound you would make as the family physician probes your throat with a tongue depressor, and a cry that often sounds like one of great pain or dismay. Reader, do not misinterpret that cry! These chance reunions, which seem to spite the bad fortune and inexplicable calamities that plague most African lives with striking frequency, are a cause for great happiness and hand-clasping and head-butting. More often than not your acquaintance will take a dramatic step back before commencing with the clasping of hands and butting of heads – a chance to appraise you from top to bottom, as if to say, “Who is this ghost from the distant past who has emerged through the mists of memory to greet me thusly?”
I interrogated a man once with the hope of discovering this useful expression’s provenance – useful, in the sense that I disappear with startling frequency from people’s lives in Ouagadougou, and so am constantly remarking upon the two days it’s been since our paths crossed last. If you have seen someone yesterday, the man explained, then it has only been one day since you last met. But if it was before yesterday…well, ça fait deux jours. He stood there with an expression of complete self-satisfaction on his face. This explanation was brilliant in its tautological simplicity. In America, after all, we might remark that it “felt like only yesterday” that two old friends met. Why not the day before yesterday, then?
Often I will greet someone after a long time apart with, “Ça fait trois jours!” You will not find a Burkinabé alive who fails to find this remarkably funny. Three days! Who had ever heard of such a thing!
To the regular readers of this blog, then, I say, with sincere and humble apologies: Ça fait deux jours. Life, as so often happens in the blogosphere, has gotten in the way of my best intentions; my writing – or, at least, my blogging – has suffered as a result. This is not to say I have spent these deux jours idly without you. After much hand-wringing, hair-pulling and self-flagellation, the finishing touches were finally put on my Harper’s story last month; it’s likely to appear on a newsstand near you sometime in the next week. This has brought me no small number of soundly slept nights, though the final verdict on my first magazine feature can perhaps best be described as death by paper cut: 10,000 little nicks and slices which seem harmless individually, but which, when taken together, have the capacity to bleed you dry.
It’s hard to say I’m disappointed with the story that dominated the past three months of my life, but the depression I felt upon its completion felt deeper – more fine-tuned, more specific – than the post-partum kind. What I had hoped would be the high point of my young career – a chance to flex my narrative muscle on one of American letters’ grandest stages – felt more like a war of stylistic attrition. With each successive edit, with each cut and compromise, the story seemed less and less my own. In the end, I’m not entirely sure I can boast about the story I wrote for Harper’s; I can, however, honestly say that there’s a story in Harper’s with my name attached to it.
Fortunately, there was a paycheck with my name attached to it, too. After the existential struggles and literary angst of the writing itself, this very banal reward – likely to be blown long before I screw my first editorial assistant on the strength of my Harper’s byline – has proven to be surprisingly satisfactory. It’s been a very long time since my bank balance had a comma in it; that comma thrills me. For the first time since I set foot on African soil nearly four years ago, the future – the immediate future, and whatever follows closely on its heels – doesn’t look all that terrifying. It almost looks a little bit rosy.
Pragmatist that I am, I’ve proceeded to go on what passes for a bender in my life of otherwise monastic restraint. I have eaten often and well these past few weeks, realizing in the mean time that you really do just need to trust the French guy at the table when it comes to ordering the wine. I have finally come around to the charms of French girls: they are, indeed, charming. I have had some very long nights in some very disreputable clubs, and have also discovered a heretofore unknown species of African wildlife: the German cougar. No, readers, these past deux jours have not been entirely wasted. After some difficult months, Ouagadougou has finally worked its way – wholly, unabashedly – into my affections.
It goes without saying, then, that I’m getting ready to leave it all behind. Much of my balls-out celebratory mood these past few weeks has owed less to an upwardly mobile bank balance than relief at my imminent departure. Having fought my way through the language barrier, the unending days of withering heat (115 degrees? really?), long spells of loneliness and depression, a lingering heat rash, and an encounter between the ceiling fan and my (now bandaged) hand that’s just too ridiculous to explain, I realized that Francophone West Africa and me just weren’t meant to be. And so after a farewell tour that will, with any luck, take me to Accra by way of Abidjan, I’ll be on my way back to South Africa – where, after another farewell tour, I’ll be collecting the odds, ends and assorted books I left behind, and decamping to Zanzibar for the foreseeable future.
On the surface, whether or not to bunk down in a tropical paradise for six months or more might not seem like the most difficult decision to make. (“What’s that? More fellatio? I couldn’t possibly!”) But I’ve entertained a number of entertaining possibilities on how best to blow my Harper’s payload in the months ahead: overlanding it from Casablanca to Cape Town, perhaps, or screwing my way across the former Soviet bloc. Both are no doubt worthy pursuits in their own right, but something would be missing in the end. What’s largely been a life of constant traveling for most of the past six years has, in one narrow sense, run its course. It’s time to hang up my backpack and get down to some serious writing. While this blog – a labor of love, often more labor than love – has been its own reward, it’s hardly enough to fulfill my literary pretensi–er, ambitions. If I’m going to write a book about my travels – my raison d’être for at least the past three years – I suspect now’s as good a time as any to do it. It would be a fitting punctuation mark at the end of this long, shambling, blessedly unexpected African chapter of my life, before getting down to the uncertain business of writing the next chapter.
The rains have finally arrived in Ouagadougou – not the torrential rains forecast daily by the sidewalk meteorologists, but enough to break the heat now and then, to bring the temperature down a few degrees at night. You can feel it in the air: the sudden changing of the seasons.