I am once again reminded of why I'm here. The path meanders through the mud brick huts of Béré. The clouds are splayed across the huge Tchadian sky like someone took a huge white paintbrush and made a few bold strokes across the deep blue canvas of the evening sky. Behind me walks a pretty red-headed Danish nurse with a train of over twenty African children each vying to either hold her hand or hold the hand of one who's holding her hand. In front of me is the hut of Lazare, the hospital's janitor, which has no roof. He stands up from behind a woven grass matt wall where he has been meditating facing the setting sun. The sun appears to be setting backwards as its top half is covered by a huge cumulus cloud while it's lower half stretches to almost touch the horizon. Above the cloud the filtered sunbeams stream out in hazy rose-colored rays. There is no noise except the chattering of children in Nangjere. I feel a hand in mine. It's a one-armed boy who loves to just hang out at our porch and look in the window to watch us eat or whatever. I've been teaching him a few English phrases which he loves to repeat.
"What's up, dude?" I say.
"Nothing, bruddah..." he replies with a toothy grin.
A three-year old girl with a very dirty worn shirt about 10 times to big hanging loosely over a swollen belly comes up munching a green mango skin and all. She starts louding repeating "Lapia, lapia" over and over as she tries to give me a sideways "five" with her open palm. She laughs when I start repeating "Lapia" with her.
There is a group of boys, the sons of some of the nurses who always love to just hang out around the house. I always speak to them in English but they love it. I grab them and throw them together to the ground as we wrestle and they squeal in joy covered with dust. One of Lona's sons usually runs around naked (except in church) and always just stares up at you and insists that I am all his. He gets jealous if I let someone else sit on my lap besides him.
As I was saying, Sarah and I were on the path through Béré back towards the hospital. We'd just come from the entertainment of the month in our "city" of 60,000 inhabitants...a soccer match with a visiting team from "far away". The field is a lumpy patch of hard packed dirt with a small line carved out around and tattered flags on sticks planted at the corners to mark its boundaries. The goal posts are so twisted that once I was sure there would've been a goal if they'd used straight wood to make them. The field is actually better delineated by the crowd pressing just up to the playing field about 5-10 people deep without benches or stands or anything. To make sure the boundaries are respected several gendarmes in varying types of army uniforms patrol the boundaries. One carries an old automobile fan belt which he swings in the general direction of anyone close to the line as he yells for the crowd to back up. One actually hits a young boy with a canvas army canteen belt. They are helped by a local in Arab robes and turban sporting Oakley-type shades, a cigarette loosely in his mouth and bunch of straw that he weilds as a weapon. He almost caused a fight amongst the players when he got in the way of a throw-in from out of bounds (the player accidentally hit him in the head with the ball bouncing out of bounds again).
For entertainment, a ghetto blaster belts out Nigerian tunes with classic African rhythms while a dude straight from "Solid Gold" wearing tight bell-bottoms and a brown corderouy shirt jitterbugs in the corner of the field when he's not "helping" the gendarmes keep order. I think he's actually the pastor's son but I'm not sure. An old man with missing and rotten teeth who looks vaguely familiar comes up calling out "Docteur, lapia".
"Lona muga" I reply.
"Lapia, kubang" he responds while vigorously shaking my hand.
"Lapia" I repeat as I've just reached the extent of my Nangjere.
Most have been drinking. I make sure to stay close to Sarah and her friend, Julie. As the only white people in the audience we are also part of the entertainment. Sometimes I wish I could just blend in but like it or not I'll always be a celebrity here. Kids crowd around as an old Nangjere Grandma continually makes commentary on the soccer match. Sarah is a child magnet...I'm glad as it takes some of the attention from me. I may be tall and blond but her very fair skin and wild curly long red hair outdoes me in the "notice me" factor...especially here.
We've been sleeping outside. It's too hot indoors as the tin roofs and cement block walls just hold the heat in. On Sarah's porch I've rigged a rope to sling my mosquito net from while she has had someone make a framework of rebar that she ties her's to. We've been blessed with a very slow week at the hospital. While hippo bites, cattle gorings, falls from mango trees, getting crushed by ox carts, knifings and such are exciting it's been nice just to have a few cases of malaria and some infections to deal with lately. Also, Dr. Claver has been away which means the TV hasn't been running with people around all the time. We also haven't had any foreign visitors here this week so overall it's been quiet. God seems to know just when I need a break.
So, Sarah and I have been sleeping outside. One night something happened that made me feel like a teenager all over again. She had just shared with me some very personal things. She was at a vulnerable point. She was afraid. I wanted to show her that nothing she'd said had changed the way I feel about her. I said, "give me your hand" and she slipped it under her mosquito net and into mine. Then I prayed for her. Afterwards, I just let my hand stay there. She didn't pull away. I felt the same adolescent thrill I hadn't felt in a long time as she slowly caressed my fingers. We lay there in silence enjoying the moment. The stars were out in full force. The moon was a crescent right above Venus just like the symbol of Islam. A cool wind was blowing away the heat of the day. The pigs and goats even respected the moment as there were no gruntings or bleatings in the background. I felt suddenly as if a huge load that had tried to crush me had been lifted and I felt I could sink through the mattress and slip into a sleep that would last for days while at the same time my heart thrilled to her simple touch...
This place, Béré, continues to be such a strange and wonderous and mystifying and unforgettable mix of agony and ecstacy and is truly the experience of a lifetime...