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Christmas – short story

Africa, 1993…

Our 1950’s gas-guzzling military ambulance, which dragged us from south of France to Togo, ran out of fuel on the way down to the coast. We stopped in small village deep in the jungle, a remote border post to Ghana.

“Gas station is dry my friend, maybe after Christmas.” None of us realized it was actually December 24th, having roamed in Africa since summer, disoriented. A large African man in military outfit, flanked with an AK47, greeted us “Ah vous etes francais, je suis General Manbutti, come to my office so we can check your documents”. Manbutti had blood injected eyes, a confidence bordering arrogance of someone who is in full control and has nothing to loose. 3 of us were probably smaller altogether than him alone.
We walked down a small track, between small huts and crossing steams of trash, sometimes hopping from rock to rock. Night was falling and villagers were starting to cook. Heavy smoke was chasing mosquitos away. We passed by a few huts serving as bars were music was building up the ambiance. Prostitutes were making-up.

We sensed, as we were walking down towards a brick house, that Manbutti was deciding what to do with us. Our truck was valuable, we had some cash, no-one on earth knew we were here,… and it was Christmas. “Come on, enter” he invited as we entered a brick house, lit by oil lamps. We sat across his bare desk. He looked at the 3 of us for a few long seconds, his hands joined, indexes on his lips, and asked “what are you coming here for? The border is closed and Ghana guards shoot when someone tries to cross it. You want women? You want drugs? Weapons?” To buy time and relax atmosphere, I took out French cigarettes and offered him and his guards, and we smoked. “We are just traveling, visiting your country, going to Lome”. He smiled and reached in his drawer and took out a bottle of red-label Johnny Walker and fetched glasses, and we started to drink. He reached again to the drawer and pulled out a photo “See my son here, he is in the army like me.” he said “I want him to study in France one day”. It was impossible to see the details on the photo…. 5 or 6 guys standing I recall, but we made a point to flatter him about such a strong and brave son.

There was no air in that office and the heat and smoke were getting suffocating, and alcohol was numbing us to the point were anything could happen we would not care. We were trapped anyways…. where to run? We were getting at peace with ourselves and started to laugh, joke. “So, how many wives do you have?” my friend asked..”Oh I have maaaany, and they are strong, fat and make good baby” he said, eyes wide open and raising his thumbs up “but they want too much money”. That last remark worried us a bit…. The man was living above his means, and maybe he was sixing us as an opportunity to afford another set of wives…

“Ok, lets go eat now” and we all left, walking towards what seemed to be an open-air market during daytime, with some food stands and tables, deem lights. “nyama nyama nyama” (meat, meat, meat) was shouting a grandma…we sat and ate chicken in rice, covered with a sauce so spicy it would pierce holes your belly… but it felt good, waking us up from the drowsiness of the heat and whiskey.

We downed a few large Flag beers while joking. Surrounding were starting to getting blurry… my 2 friends were very drunk talking to everyone, until kids offered to smoke ganja, oblivious to the fact we were sitting with someone who had power over our lives. Kids came back and discretely told us to follow them. “We are going to see the women now, so see you soon” I told General. “hahah les francais, je vous attends, depechez vous apres on va a votre camion” I wait for you, hurry up after we go to your truck.

We walked to a area of the market covered with wood, the kids drew pipes and started smoking. Standing there in circle and in silence, our face only lighten up by the fire in the pipes circulating among us, under moonlight coming though the ceiling. They must have been 10 years to 12 old, and were looking as scared as we were. I negotiated with them a few litters of motorbike gasoline to get us out of here before dawn.

Back on the road, I emptied coke bottles in the tank while my friends were still hanging out with the kids. I saw the general’s silhouette walking up from the village, along with 2 of his man. His pace resembled that of an elephant, slow, balancing, determined. “Alors les francais, les femmes c’etait bien?” How was it with the women, he said? I pretended coming back to the truck to get cigarettes before going to the bar. “Alons-y alors” lets go then! Back on the same path towards the loud music.
There was a pool table, eroded by time and rains, more men with eyes infused with alcohol and ganja, staring at us then laughing. An old woman, probably crazy, was dancing around waiving her arms like a chicken would do, and came towards us and continued to dance around us almost ceremonially. She must have greeted the first mozungo (foreigners) arriving in this area long ago.  Music was spewing out from broken speakers, lights were dangling around, warm beers were pouring, women sat down and took us over.

I was feeling very sick. Every now and then, during few seconds of rationality, I was looking around for my friends. General was nearly unconscious, his flabby face flat on the table, which was good news. His 2 guys were still there too, women sitting on their laps, but one of my friends was missing. I walked to the bordering forest to through up and pee (at the same time), trying to regain some senses. I called his name but nothing… “Craw! Craw” was his surname. He was a professional cook, with a passion for travel, left his job to endeavor in Africa’s veins. His parents were left perplexed at his decision and tried their best to keep him, offering him to pay his rent in a new apartment near his job. The appeal of drums and the magic of this land took over reason.

I returned to the bar where music seemed even louder now, and dragged my friend off a cluster of busty, long legged women. “On va chercher mon ami” I told the generals’s guards who did not seem to care, and we left to the truck. We could take off before dawn, but not without Craw, and the truck seemed like the best place to wait. My friend passed out immediately, I sat at the driver seat, leaning on the steering wheel, looking out for my friend and ready to drive. But only silhouettes were passing by, under a dim moonlight.

Bells woke me up… bells from the church celebrating Christmas. I climbed down the truck and walked to the church like a zombie, almost hypnotized by the bells, drawn by the shelter a church offered. The priest was dressed like the pope, or was it my intoxicated brain exaggerating the spectacle? Small figurines were illustrating Jesus’s birth, they were all African, even Jesus. I was transparent, every one of the dozens villagers were only interested by the priest’s sermon. I wished my friends where there and realized Craw had not returned. I ran out to the truck to wake up Covi and resume the search. We walked back towards the bar. Floor was littered with bottles and chairs, only the crazy dancing old woman was there, slowly sweeping the floor like she probably did it for the past 60 years, smiling us with the few teeth she had left.

She pointed to the forest and we guessed it was to show us where our friend was. We ran down a narrow path, walking over logs and crossing streams, leading to a cluster of huts. No one there, just a few chickens, clothes drying, a fire heating food. We shyly peeked inside the fist hut, empty, quickly moved to the second, where to our relief, Craw was laying down on a foam mattress, half naked. On the walls were suggestive beer commercial posters, and the only piece of furniture in the hut was a small table with piles of clothes. Floor was covered with paper, plastic, beer bottles, and after looking closer, condom wrappers. “wake up, lets go, come one” we shake him of his deep intoxicated dreams, dragged him out. He could not walk; we carried him up the path as fast as possible to the truck. “Lets get the hell out of here before the general wakes up, we will fuel in the next village”. I heard a woman behind us “attends patron mon amour, attends” Wait, boss, my love, wait, she was calling, “et mon cadeau” and my gift? Covi raised his dangling head with a smile and turned back…she was now behind us standing with hands on her waist tightly wrapped in a colorful sarong, slanted head, with the most charming smile and dimples which probably got Covi in her arms last night. We were extremely short in cash, and this was not something we planned….”come to the truck, I have present for you” I said, buying time. We cursed Covi on the way back, although so glad his disappearance was just a love escapade.

As we arrived at the truck I saw General and his guys waiting for us. He seemed impatient “Ah, les francais, je vous attendais, i was waiting for you, where have you been?” he shouted with his eyes nearly repulsed. And immediately after he pointed to the truck door with his kalash and said “open the truck!”. We looked at each other… then I moved to open wide the back doors. Bunk seats on each side with storage bins under, various small closets on the top. General came closer, walking like an emperor, using his machine gun as a walking stick. “what’s inside this? and that? open!” It was actually good news that he was only looking for goods rather than seize the truck altogether, so I entered the truck and opened the least attractive bins… clothes, spare parts, tools. His eyes suddenly came accross the red cross sign painted on one of the bins. “And that, what is it? Medicine?” His eyes were wide open, smiling of relief rather than greed. “Yes, and I am a doctor”. This was the magic word. General and his guards lined up behind the truck. Crow’s girl-friend joined the line. “My leg is hurting, my stomach hurts, look at my skin,…” each of them awaited my diagnosis like the villagers awaited the priest’s blessing earlier at church. I picked some medicine at my best guess and gave each detailed instructions, acting as professionally and compassionately as possible, silently laying out the next steps of our exit strategy.

We climbed the truck, cranked it started and drove out slowly. Once on our way, the fear diffused, we looked at each other and cracked up laughing loud like we never did before.