A Rainbow in Koussountou
Dressing for the day, Jennifer bent to pull a clean pair of underwear from a basket on her bedroom floor. Woven from the grasses of Sub-Saharan Africa, the basket gave off scents of earth and savanna. Jennifer luxuriated in the aroma … but, then, something was off.
The folds and creases she had lovingly tucked into place were disturbed. The disorder was subtle but apparent to her sensitive eye. Back home in Tenafly, she had packed these satiny underthings, which were a small, private luxury she could indulge while doing the serious world-changing she was engaged in as a Peace Corps volunteer. The underwear disturbance was slight, but she did not think she was imagining the disarray. And where was the lacy red pair?
She made a mental note to ask Adija, a girl—really, a young woman—whom she had engaged to help her settle into this strange place. Or, more precisely, Adija had attached herself to Jennifer and insisted she needed her help. They met in training— stâge in French, a language they both spoke to communicate but which was native to neither. Adija had been hired as kitchen help for the training, to pat cornmeal and pound yams into patties, and serve them with a spicy blend of spinach, tomatoes and okra. The 43 stâgaires, or newly arrived American volunteers, were training together in Benin for three months before they dispersed to their assigned villages as volunteer teachers, social workers, construction bosses and agricultural advisers.
Wherever Jennifer was, people seemed to gather. With a navy-blue kerchief holding her tawny hair, she mingled with village women, listening and repeating words in their dialect. She adopted the simple pagne wrapped skirt of the local people well before the other volunteers, many of whom continued to dress in jeans they had brought from home. She studied practical skills she hoped to bring to her assigned village: firing clay pots, digging composting toilets, vaccinating livestock and planting tree saplings.
The male volunteers, almost to a man, hesitated to approach such an unassailable creature. But later, after she was gone, some eight men confessed they had been in love with her. The women who loved her didn’t say so out loud. This was an earlier time, before people were open about such things. But their love, too, was understood.
Adija watched Jennifer closely. Among the volunteers, Adija was searching for a soft heart. She had lived her 15 years in the mud brick shacks of West Africa, but she had also seen airplanes fly overhead. In two years, the volunteers would be returning to their homes in America. Adija dreamed of joining them.
One morning during stâge, Adija approached two of her fellow kitchen helpers with a plan. They had just finished cleaning up after breakfast, and Bonna and Yoon were resting on the steps.
“Akpounando,” Adija greeted them in Bariba, a language of northern Benin. “Do you not think the yovos should style their hair?”
Bonna and Yoon agreed. Most of the yovo women—white women—allowed their hair to hang straight. The girls of Benin, the Béninoise, fashioned their hair in a maze of braids, cornrows, Bantu knots and twists. With a comb and a handful of tiny rubber bands, the girls approached two volunteers digesting their breakfast in a shady spot.
“Bonjour, Mesdemoiselles,” Adija began. “May we comb your hair?”
The volunteers were eager to form bonds with the people of Benin. They were delighted by the girls’ friendly approach. Soon, Bonna, Yoon and Adija were sectioning the white women’s hair, tying it up, and braiding it.
“Ça glisse!” the Béninoise girls giggled. They were amazed by the smooth texture. Styling this hair was going to be more difficult than they had imagined. However, they persisted. Soon, the activity and merriment attracted more of the women stâgaires to the steps. Jennifer was among them, and Adija immediately appeared at her side.
“May I work on your hair?” she inquired. Jennifer graciously agreed.
The two fell into a kind of dance as they chatted back and forth. Adija asked about Jennifer’s home in New Jersey, what her family was like, where she hoped to be assigned in Benin after stâge. Adija painted a picture of her own home, the village of Koussountou: a pretty, hilly spot upcountry where they grew subsistence crops like peanuts, corn, yams and manioc.
Jennifer was intrigued. As Adija gently stroked and braided Jennifer’s hair, she asked about the conditions in Koussountou. Was there a school? Did they get enough water to drink and to wash?
“It’s not very grand. Koussountou is quite poor,” Adija explained. “There are two men who own vehicles, but very many must walk a long way to the fields and a long way home again.”
Jennifer imagined her fuel-efficient cookstoves improving life in Koussountou.
Toward the end of stâge, the Peace Corps directors asked the volunteers to state their preferences regarding where they would live and work for the next two years of service. Jennifer named the village as her first choice. She received the assignment, and before long, Jennifer and Adija found themselves together in Koussountou.
Back home, Adija’s life was more circumscribed. Among the 300 or so villagers, there were only a handful to whom Adija could not draw a straight line of kinship: her mother and her siblings; their spouses and their babies; her father’s junior wives and their families – on and on in a widening circle. In this place, there were many more watchful eyes than she’d found in service in the stâgaires’ kitchen. Adija had foreseen this adjustment, and she composed herself. She began studying to place out of Troisième, the grade she was repeating after failing the previous year’s exam. She took pains to drop the weight she’d put on during her rich summer life at stâge. Pagnes were forgiving garments, but the local population not so much.
Jennifer arrived in a Peace Corps van that paused just long enough to drop her at her new home, before ferrying other volunteers to their respective villages. Her house was a large, one-story concrete structure with metal bars on the windows. Arriving in the afternoon, she had just enough daylight to drape some sheets over the straw-filled mattress, hang a mosquito net and fashion a rudimentary water filtration system: two large plastic buckets stacked on top of one another, with a porous chalk plug connecting them to filter out invisible parasites. Jennifer fell into bed that first night en brusse – in the bush – exhausted. If she felt a surge of loneliness, of utter terror at finding herself the only Westerner for miles, she brushed those feelings aside. She blew out the flame of her kerosene lamp and tucked a flashlight beside her in bed, in case she needed to get up during the night. The noble work she’d dreamed of doing would begin when she woke.
Even as she felt alone, Jennifer did not long for home. Her mind was lit by an idea, and this post was her opportunity to put it into practice. Her family was not religious, but they possessed holy books, propped on shelves. Jennifer had pored over these, curled up in the bottom of her closet to read by the light of the bare overhead bulb, and she had encountered the philosophy of tikkun olam. The rabbinic teaching obligates good people to work for the protection of the poor or those who are otherwise at a disadvantage. Tikkun olam had inspired a restlessness in Jennifer. During an orientation program in college, she learned about the Peace Corps and its mission to uplift poor communities abroad. She was sold.
Shortly after dawn, Jennifer woke to the scent of wood fires and the sound of children’s voices. A dozen African faces were crammed against the bars of her bedroom windows, jostling for a glimpse of the yovo.
“Bonjour,” she managed, to the glee of the giggling youngsters. She stepped out of her net-tented bed and ducked into the bathroom, which had a blessedly high window out of human reach. What to do about her audience?
She heard a voice shooing them from the yard. Then a clapping at the entrance – what served for a door knock in this village, where most homes were doorless mud huts. Adija appeared on the doorstep. A familiar face.
“Oh, I’m so happy to see you,” Jennifer said. “Did you tell the children to leave?”
“They are rude,” Adija said. “I said they must not bother you.”
Adija surveyed the interior of Jennifer’s home. Two rooms to the right were empty.
“You need someone to help you,” Adija said. “I can buy food and cook. I can wash your clothes.”
Jennifer didn’t know how to respond. Her family had never had “help.” The difference in their races made her uneasy, recalling the history of Black African enslavement in America and the marches for civil rights. On the other hand, Jennifer knew from stâge that Peace Corps volunteers employed local people in various roles. They reasoned they were giving people jobs. Jennifer thought perhaps she could get used to the idea of having a helper, and it might benefit the girl as well. She asked Adija about money.
“No, no, I could not take your money,” Adija said. “I could sleep here, and study. My home is noisy. Perhaps here?” She gestured toward an empty room.
Jennifer thought, What could be the harm? And so, it was arranged. Adija laid a straw mat, two blankets and a pillow on the bare floor. She brought her own kerosene lamp and composition notebooks. Adija shopped at the open-air market and cooked over a wood fire, while Jennifer went to work.
On paper, her assignment was as an agricultural volunteer in charge of managing reforestation projects. Jennifer intended to approach school officials, women’s groups and leaders of community organizations to speak to them about the need to plant fast-growing Moringa saplings to replace the trees they were chopping down. Most of the population cooked with wood “stoves,” which were often nothing more than a metal pot atop a few bricks. The fires would burn all day, and women and girls were forced to trek further and further to gather wood as the forests became depleted. Jennifer planned to attack the problem from another end, as well: teaching a few volunteers from each village how to make fuel-efficient stoves from scrap metal, clay pots, bricks and sand.
Her first weeks in Koussountou consisted of driving out to remote villages on a small motor scooter the Peace Corps had provided and meeting the chefs du villages. Each locale, no matter how tiny, had a chief – a practice Jennifer found slightly comical. She honored the stilted tradition and introduced herself to each group of village denizens as they came out to greet her.
At the end of one long day’s excursions, Jennifer was in her house, relaxing and writing a letter. She had showered off the orange clay dust that her tires had stirred up and that had coated her skin and clothing. From a cushioned chair in her bedroom, she heard a crash in the great room at the center of the house. She and Adija emerged from their bedrooms simultaneously.
“It’s a bat! Un chauve souris!” Adija shrieked. “I will get it!”
As Jennifer cowered and covered her head, Adija ran to the kitchen and grabbed a length of nylon rope. She doubled it to fashion a make-shift whip and began swinging at the bat as it flew near the ceiling.
“Ah!” Adija shouted, laughing, as she whipped the rope at the bat. Jennifer could not decide whether Adija was trying to kill the creature or shoo it out the door.
“Ahh! Ahh!” Adija again shouted, wielding her rope whip. The whip connected, the bat stalled, then it flew higher. Adija yelped with laughter.
Finally, the creature happened on the front doorway and flew to freedom.
Adija bent over, out of breath and still laughing about the chase.
“Were you trying to kill it or chase it away?” Jennifer stammered, still in shock.
Adija didn’t answer. She continued laughing and breathing hard.
The days passed companionably. Jennifer pursued Béninois partners in several area villages to plant saplings and build cookstoves. Adija attended class, cooked dinner and scrubbed their laundry by hand in enormous metal tubs. Jennifer noted that, after a few rounds of laundering, her clothes were tending toward a pink-orange, washed-out hue.
She was pondering this when she noticed the missing underwear. That evening in the yard, as Adija squatted on a small wood stool by the cookstove, Jennifer approached her. The scent of cornmeal and okra sauce rose from the pot. Jennifer had spent the day with some local women, building stoves like this one: mud bricks at the base to contain the wood fire and its heat. She was dirty and spent.
“Adija, hello. Have you seen the red underwear that was in my room? It’s missing. Perhaps it’s with the laundry?”
Adjia turned sharply and looked Jennifer in the eye. “You have so many beautiful things,” she said. “Surely, you won’t miss that.”
Jennifer was taken aback. She hadn’t expected Adija to say she had taken them. But here she was admitting as much.
“Those are mine. You shouldn’t take my things without permission.”
Adija stood to her full height; she was a head shorter than Jennifer. Her muscular body stiffened with defiance.
“I told you that I liked those,” she said. It was a custom in Benin that when a person complimented another’s clothing, jewelry or other belongings, the wearer would hand it over. Make a gift of it. It was a custom that had its origins in inoculating envy.
Jennifer knew about the custom, but she also knew there was no strict obligation to honor it. Certainly, the custom didn’t say the admirer was entitled to come and take the object. Jennifer was outraged.
“You can-not go into my room and take my things! This is wrong. Do you understand right from wrong?”
Adija grew furious. Who was this ungrateful white woman to begrudge her a simple underthing? Jennifer had so many—a rainbow of satin and lace.
Rashly, Adija smacked the bowl of okra stew with the back of her hand. It toppled and splashed into the dirt. Adija ran toward her mother’s hut, tears staining her smoke-covered face. Jennifer watched her go. She settled for peanut butter and jelly for supper. In spite of her exhaustion, she could not sleep. She ran through the arguments again in her mind, and each time came to the same conclusion: Adija was more than wrong. She was in danger of learning all the wrong lessons for a girl of 15.
The next day, returning home, Jennifer saw that Adija’s belongings were gone from the home. This dramatic departure reinforced Jennifer’s concern about Adija’s character. She decided to share the incident with the girl’s parents.
In the morning, Jennifer skipped her usual round of check-ins with village projects and sought out Adija’s mother. She lived in a family compound—a walled enclosure of huts and brick homes. At the center of the compound was a stone-floor gazebo, where men would carve meat from occasional slaughtered animals. Adija’s mother, Izegbe, was propped on a stool at her home’s entrance, nursing an infant.
“Madame,” Jennifer began. She proceeded with the extended series of courtesies she had learned in Bariba. How had her day been? How was her family? How were the people of her village?
Jennifer launched into her story about Adija’s theft. The woman stopped her with a dismissive wave. “I am not concerned with that. That is a matter for Adija’s father.”
Izegbe did not know where to find him. Jennifer decided to try the local “bar”—a one-room concrete structure near the town’s center that served warm bottled soft drinks. Men often gathered on the shaded benches outside. They told Jennifer that Ehioze, Adija’s father, would be in town the following day for market day, the one day a week when traveling merchants set out beans, rice and other goods for sale.
On market day, Jennifer saw him among the men at the bar. He was smartly dressed in a loose, embroidered tunic shirt and matching pants. Jennifer strode toward the group, and several sat up straighter.
“May I speak with you?” she said to Ehioze. He motioned that she should continue. Jennifer had wanted a private word, but she could see by his lolling posture that he was not getting up.
She related the story of the theft. Ehioze remained motionless. When she had finished, he looked into her eyes and nodded his dismissal. Then he turned back to his orange Fanta.
Days later, Jennifer was in bed, under the mosquito netting, when she heard clapping at her entryway. Alone now in the home, she scurried to throw on a pagne to greet the visitor. A young man stood in the doorway. When she asked what he wanted, he said she was invited to a gathering in the village center.
“My chef requests that you come, Mademoiselle. It is very important.”
In a few minutes, hurriedly dressed, Jennifer was striding along the sloping incline to the village center. The center consisted of an expanse of dusty ground surrounded by several small buildings—the bar, a school—partially shaded by an enormous baobab tree. A crowd was gathered, and heads turned as she approached. She moved toward the center of the circle and saw several dignitaries lined up along one side, sitting in folding chairs. The dignitaries, six men, were all dressed in white. Ehioze was among them.
Seeing Jennifer, one of the men spoke a command to someone behind him. Adija emerged, her hands tied in front of her, a sturdy man holding her arm on either side. The men—village elders, the chief, or chef—made up a judicial council. They had ordained that Adjia be beaten for her theft. A third sturdy man followed behind Adija and her guards, rawhide strap in hand.
Grasping what was about to happen, Jennifer moved toward Ehioze to plead with him to stop it.
“Sir, Monsieur, s’il vous plaît …” she began, her throat tightening. “I did not mean …”
He did not look her in the eye. He held up a pitiless hand. Council assistants blocked Jennifer’s path.
Jennifer stood rigid, eyes cast to the hardpan ground, and the beating commenced. Her face and body burned with outrage and shame. She was the cause of this – but it had never been her intention. She had meant to inform the parents, to allow them to counsel their child, to teach her. What cruel lesson was this? What barbarism? This exotic culture, with its courtly greeting rituals and reverence for its ancestors, hid a danger that Jennifer had not even guessed at.
The man with the rawhide strap lashed it across Adija’s back as two other men held her arms. She flinched but didn’t cry out. She was stiff with rage. Her shoulder muscles clenched, and her face was a stony mask.
Adija was fully clothed, and her punisher did not use a stick. These were mercies decreed by the dignitaries. The intent was less to wound than to humiliate.
In a few minutes, the beating had ended. The crowd began to disperse, anticipating their midday meal. Jennifer slumped toward home, weary and defeated. Tomorrow, she had plans to build cookstoves again with people who had suddenly become strange to her. She was beginning to doubt all she thought she knew about this country.
In bed that night, under her mosquito netting, Jennifer listened to the soothing night sounds. Crickets and cicadas hummed. An occasional baboon squabbled. Amidst this night song, she heard what sounded like the scuffing of a sandal. Then another footfall. Jennifer sat straight up in bed. “Who’s there?” she called out. “Qui est là?”
In another moment, a hand reached in and jerked her from her tented mattress. Two teenage boys began to push her around. She ducked and covered her head, crying out for them to stop. For a moment, Jennifer mentally detached; she seemed to be looking down on the scene from a distance. These could have been teenagers from the Black neighborhoods back home, she observed, but for the sinewy muscles that Africa had sculpted into their physiques. Jennifer had begun to discern African from American by those mesomorphic frames.
As Jennifer cowered in a corner of the kitchen, protected on one side by the small refrigerator, the boys decided that their intimidation work was accomplished and turned to go. Jennifer saw this and hoisted herself up. She stepped forward and grabbed one by the arm. She wanted to ask, “Who are you? Why?” The boy swung widely to shake her off, and she fell back, hitting the floor. This time, she stayed down, shaken and sobbing.
The next day, the village crier moved through Koussountou, calling out to report that the yovo woman had been roughed up in her home. Authorities were searching for her assailants. Adija already knew this. Her friends had told her they’d left Jennifer in a heap in her kitchen. They were long gone, across the border into Nigeria.
Nursing her bruises as she rested in her mother’s hut, Adija thought of an airplane tracing its thin contrail across the sky. She thought of America. She was astonished that Jennifer had alerted her father to the underwear theft, bringing the full force of Beninois patriarchy down on Adija’s head. Her public beating had not been a surprise after that. She had returned beating for beating through her friends … and now? Adija wondered if the Peace Corps would take her again for another summer as a kitchen assistant. She would meet a new American, perhaps. Begin again. Contain her desires to acquire the yovos’ things.
Jennifer lay on the kitchen floor for hours. Her sweat cooled and her tears dried. In the morning, she hired a workman to install wooden shutters on her windows that locked from the inside. He added a second lock to her door. Jennifer stashed the keys in the pack she kept with her.
On her next trip into town, she shopped at the outdoor market and selected a package of plain cotton briefs, like the local women. Handing over her coins, she pulled a package from her pack and asked the vendor to take these and sell them if he wished. Her rainbow colors and lace. She mounted her scooter, thought about a cookstove construction group that was making little progress, and motored off.