In a letter home to her Mother, Dinesen wrote, Farah is standing here behind my chair engaging me in conversation whenever I put down my pen. When Bror is away we always have very pleasant evenings together; he tells me all the news from Somali circles. This friendship, this sharing of information, suggests to me the necessity of Farah in her life. By sharing news of Somali circles we know he was sharing news with Somali circles about Dinesen.
Habra worked as a similar go-between for me. Most every evening when I got home from school I would grab my short-wave radio and head to my hammock. As I swung and listened to news of the world, Habra sat close by in his chair, laughing when I laughed at the radio and asking me occasionally to translate what the BBC announcer was saying.
One evening Habra asked me about my afternoon visit to the grade school in the village. I told him yes, that I had been there to visit my friend Eugenie, a second grade teacher. When the students saw me they all screamed and scrambled for the windows on the opposite side of the room. This was strange behavior, something theyd never done before, but I chalked it up to simple kid squirreliness.
Apparently it wasnt so simple. Before he arrived at the house that night Habra stopped by a bil-bil circle and shared a calabash of beer with friends. There he learned of my visit to the grade school and also why the children fled at the sight of me. Rumor was I was doing some side work for Save the Children, helping them go from village to village and administering necessary vaccinations to children. However, my shots carried the AIDS virus. I was a child killer. Habra said he laughed when he heard this and informed everyone I loved children, pointing to my work at the lycee. Word of my innocence spread quickly in the small village and by the end of the following week, when I popped in on Eugenies class the children stayed in their seats and smiled at me, some of them giggling shyly. Thank you, Habra.
In a letter to her brother, Thomas, shortly before she left Africa for good, Dinesen wrote, Whatever comes to pass, please will you remember that Farah has been my best friend out here? She worried about his fate, his livelihood, his happiness. She worried about her people losing their land. Who would take care of everyone in her absence?
While I had no land battles to take part in, I did want to do my small part in helping Habras future, so a few months before I left I bought him a bicycle and on the back he attached a mini market of sorts in a wooden box. As he rode through the village you could call him over and purchase batteries, mosquito coils, cigarettes, toilet paper, bubble gum a rolling 7-11. When he arrived at the house after his day as storekeeper, wed count his money together and hed say, Its been a good day, whether he made 200 or 2000 francs.
A few nights before I departed we sat on the porch and talked about our two years together. We laughed at the early days when he accidentally set the backyard on fire and I ran to the road screaming for help. We laughed at my squeamishness when he offered me roasted grasshoppers for the first time. (I ended up loving them). We laughed at our shared inability to master the French language. He forever more confident in his native Tupuri, me more assured and happy in English. When I mentioned Id like to take the dog, Homer, back to the states he said, Absolutely not, hes just as much mine as he is yours. It was the only time he objected to something I suggested. The dog stayed in Africa.
When I told Habra I could not have imagined my life in Cameroon without him, he told me I had made his heart happy and my presence had changed him for the better. We shared a bowl of popcorn and split a beer, saying very little after that, for once declarations of affection are made, it seems unfortunate when superfluous chatter follows.
Why did Dinesen wait so long to devote extended writing attention to Farah? Id like to think she wanted to get it just right and present a portrait of a true gentleman and friend. Or maybe she was surprised Farah remained with her across the geographical distance and space of three decades. Ultimately the presentation is fragmented, merely a series of anecdotes. I remember this time and then one day this happened . . . Very similar to what Im presenting today. I believed the distance and time would provide a cohesive essay. Instead Im faced with the task of not only weaving these fragments together in an artful fashion, but also making the reader, the audience, care. In my first graduate writing class in the fall of 1991, only two months after I returned from Africa, I made every effort to write about Habra. Two or three paragraphs into the attempt, Id dissolve into tears. I was all emotion, missing Africa, missing Habra.
Six months after my return I received word from the Volunteer who replaced me and she said Habra had fallen into heavy drinking, quit selling his back-of-the-bike necessities and often arrived to work late. This news saddened me, but news from my front wasnt too different. The reverse culture shock I experienced found me teary in cereal aisles at the grocery store and closing various bars after my shift at a local factory. Since Habra could neither read nor write, I relied on the new Volunteer and the Methodist missionaries to send my greetings to Habra and to send me news of him. The Volunteer left after only a year of service and the missionaries moved to another part of the country. Habra and I lost touch.
I heard the Peace Corps abandoned my village post after some 20 years of service to the area. What is Habra doing? Who is living in the house now? And does Habra ever think of me?
Dinesen says, The introduction into my life of another race, essentially different from mine, in Africa became to me a mysterious expansion of my world. My own voice and song in life there had a second set to it and grew fuller and richer in the duet.
Is it melodramatic to say Habra was instrumental in giving me my voice of Africa? One of the first Habra stories I ever scribbled in my journal was titled "Man on the Moon." One night when we were sitting on the porch he pointed out the full moon and began talking about his crops. I made small talk about how Im ever amazed that man has visited the moon and Habra laughed, asking me where Id heard such a crazy thing. Then he asked questions. What type of car did they take there? Did they wear helmets for protection? Is the air different up there than down here?
By the end of our discussion there was such a pained expression on his face I could hardly look at him. But I did look at him and I continued to look for the next two years because I realized that night, as Dinesen did with Farah somewhere along the way, that Habra was my best friend out there.
Mary Beth Simmons currently teaches writing at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. She holds the MFA from the University of Iowa's Program in Nonfiction Writing. She may be reached at email@example.com