Africa came through the open window and Rhoda once again felt hard, red dirt beneath hard, bare feet. She was no longer in a Provencal kitchen, her oven preheating, bowls and knives and cutting boards at her back. Instead she was running, ecstatic, from a dark sky that cast its bolts in drumbeats across the eastern horizon. Running amidst a flock of children, tens of them, maybe fifty or more, all the children of the village, smiles and songs lingering on their lips. Some children carried wooden spoons, others pots and pans. One child, taller than the rest, ran with a large, real drum of wood and hide and metal, its deer-leather strap encompassing her thin body, the drum bouncing lightly against her flank.
With each hut the children passed, the group dispersed in ones and twos and threes. Rhoda reached the banana palm outside her mother’s house just before the storm broke. She smelled the rich, corn fragrance of ugali on smoke rising from a thatch chimney. She realized she was hungry and rushed inside.
Africa was beautiful.
That was twenty years ago. She looked now at her son, one of very few people in La Roquette with a sub-Saharan complexion. She observed him from above, from the second-floor cuisine, her ebony face peeking out from between centuries-old vermillion shutters. Philippe played with a small group of Arab children, all boys, racing from one stack of rubbish to another, searching through empty boxes and frayed garments and stale baguettes for the treasure that would become the day’s entertainment: An old stereo, ripe for dissection; a stack of last year’s school books, their pages to be carefully torn out and folded into paper airplanes; a toy plastic gun; or once, on a morning touched by Allah, a nearly complete petanque set, with only one steel ball missing.
The boys now huddled around the trash three doors down and caddy-corner. Philippe’s obsidian hair and deeper skin tones stood out, ever-so-slightly. But from a distance, these were differences only a mother could detect. To a stranger, he was as much a part of La Roquette, the historic peasant-and-immigrant quarter of Arles, as any other eleven-year old. He spoke fluent French, and, by his mother’s decision, not a word of Kikamba or Swahili. From one story up, it seemed to Rhoda that her son almost fit in with the tan Arab children. Almost.
Rhoda was the reason that Philippe would always stand out. Philippe’s father was pure, white French, from Avignon by birth. Sent to Uganda in the early 1990’s as a UN peace-keeper, he was unprepared for what was to come. Assigned to an area of “ethnic conflict,” he saw the worst legacies of colonialism: piles of severed hands, taken in payment for misdeeds ranging from infidelity to stealing a bag of rice; boys with heroin needles taped permanently to their temples, boys handed guns and given injections, boys ordered to shoot friends while the drug pumped through their veins, boys who could not distinguish killing from chemical high; butchered villages, where the only living things that remained were pigs and vultures feeding on human offal.
Africa was unspeakable.
Following his tour of duty, the young soldier took an indefinite leave of absence from the military. He traveled among the tribes of eastern Uganda with little more than a rucksack, a bank card and a worn copy of Nietzsche, bookmark parked perpetually at ”Abenddammerung.” He arrived in Rhoda’s village and hung about for several weeks, enough time to survey possibilities and politics. On a warm August afternoon, he approached a medium-sized hut, a large jug of corn liquor dangling ostentatiously from his left hand. “Jambo,” he said to the proprietor, who sat outside on a wooden chair. Then, raising the jug, “Like a drink?”
Even after the jug was half-empty, Rhoda’s father was demanding a price that was much higher than the going rate for an average-looking girl. For a Kamba to marry outside of her tribe was unacceptable; for her to marry a white man would have normally been unthinkable. But Rhoda was the second daughter of her father’s third wife. The men laughed and haggled. Finally, with eyeballs and chairs tipping unsteadily, they settled on a price of one-hundred and fifty cattle, with twenty additional cows to be withheld until Philippe’s father could verify that an operation had not been performed. It took a long time for Rhoda’s father to understand the terms of this last request, and he never understood its meaning. Rhoda herself eventually understood, when, after more than half a decade in Arles, her husband invited her to his bedroom. A few years later, Philippe was born.
Rhoda assimilated. In keeping with the customs of local Muslim women, she seldom went outside, and when she did, she kept well covered. But Arles, with its layers of stone and history, was so different from Africa that she could not help being awed when she ventured from her house on market mornings, or on the days of religious festivals, or on bull-fighting holidays, when the Courses de Camargue filled the narrow streets leading to the ancient amphitheatre with pedestrian revelry. She prepared ugali at her husband’s request, but she preferred cooking pave de taureau, paella, ratatouille. She acquired broken French from her husband, her son and a small television set.
Africa was far away. Stories from the continent rarely appeared on TV. Her set never broadcast a weather report that predicted draught and dust for months on end. French news programs did not mention UN food-drop sites, with their stacks of mildewing white rice on one side of tall barbed wire and gaunt black faces on the other. No cooking shows reveled in the indulgent flavors of matumbo, char-grilled goat intestines made all the tastier because their appearance marked a recent slaughter and the arrival of a period of plenty. Had she no memory of machetes and warlords, of petty thieves with missing arms, Rhoda would not have understood the meaning of the question, “Short sleeves or long sleeves?”
After such a question, her small television set could hold no drama. She kept the noise from the set bubbling in the background as she cooked. The swallowed French “R’s,” the nasal “N’s”and “M’s,” the talk of greve and retrait and Sarkozy kept her company as she chopped and simmered and tasted. But she was most alone when she saw other black faces on TV. American rappers, hip-hoppers, R&B singers. They sang of pain—the pains of love, the pains of artistry, the pains of being different—but she knew that the people on TV had not felt real pain. Rhoda had smelled the stench of the hands. She had known their former owners. They did not sing.
By now it would be different. Everyone in her village would have access to a cell phone. There would be a small television set in the butcher’s shop where the crackly radio had been. There would be more cars, more frequent white faces, copies of People Magazine on tables next to emptied bowls of rice. Clitoredectomies would be performed by a doctor in a sterile clinic, instead of in the old way. The school would have several computers soon, and students would no longer learn how to right-click from a book, without ever having seen or touched a mouse pad. Next year, the fiber-optic cable that carried the Internet would arrive. The world was once again on its way to Africa.
Africa, by now, was less than a memory but more than a dream.
From between red shutters, Rhoda smiled a worried smile in the direction of her son. Then she returned to her whisk and a fresh bowl of crepe batter. As she stirred, she wondered. About Africa, by now.