A Writer Writes

Petit a Petit

    by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996–98)

    SOME DAYS THE BUGS — not to mention the ubiquitous dirt and paralyzing heat — really, really bugged me. These bugs were like no other bugs I’d ever known. They were more than brazen pests; they were terrorists and tormentors. They knew the power of their numbers. They knew, despite their diminutive individual size, that they could do-in seemingly superior human beings.
         Just one hungry mosquito’s bite in the night could bring with it potentially deadly malaria. (Fortunately, we PCVs were supplied with costly prophylactics to help prevent such an outcome.) One bott fly could lay her eggs in your wet laundry, and those eggs could burrow — like living, breathing, growing boils — into your skin. One foo-roo, smaller than a pinhead, could give you a mysterious, debilitating arbovirus. Another, day-biting mosquito, could take you down with dengue fever, for which no treatment exists.
         But even beyond the health threats they posed, these ever-present legions of tropical insects were just plain monumentally infuriating to me. When my hands were too busy to swat them, for example, such as when I was kneading bread or digging in my nascent garden, the bugs would take the most advantage. Big, black flies would saunter across the lenses of my eyeglasses, blurring my vision. Other, smaller, bugs would crawl up my nose. Still more would fly into my ears, demonically jangling my nerves with their high-pitched whine. Foo-roos ate at my ankles, wrists, neck — wherever some sweet skin was exposed to them — leaving red, itchy welts that I scratched until they bled and then soon became infected.
         Perhaps because I refused to cover myself from scalp to foot with it — or put it, godforbid, inside my ears — commercial insect repellant was next to useless to me. Like most modern remedial products on the international market, store-bought repellants clearly weren’t designed with Africa in mind. Perhaps the Africans were inured to the bugs’ annoyance. Or maybe their skin was not as thin as mine. Or, perhaps, they had their own, time-tested, traditional remedes that repelled insects fairly successfully; if so, they remained a well-kept secret to me. Consequently, there were days when — and I couldn’t even admit this weakness to my maman Leora — privately, within the confines of my own solitary existence there, the bugs got me down.

    AND NOT ONLY THAT. My inability to communicate with the local people in French was even more disheartening to me. To learn to speak fluent French at last — after nearly thirty-five years (since high school) of false starts and unsuccessful attempts through dry textbooks, tedious cassette tapes, and brief trips to Paris — had been a major motivating factor in my decision to join the Peace Corps and serve in a Francophone African country in the first place.
         I had learned to speak culinary French when I changed careers ten years before. After my mother died, I used some of the inheritance she left me to attend a summer course at La Varenne, a well-known cooking school then in Paris, as the first step in becoming a food professional in New York. My mother had been a wonderful cook, and I, as the eldest daughter, her helper and disciple, had learned how to cook at her knee. I saw that my cooking had made her happy during the two years cancer cells slowly destroyed her brain and ultimately took her life, so I knew she would approve of this risky career change, this potentially gratifying use of her gift.
         To recover from my mother’s cancer — as well as from a broken wedding engagement to a colleague whom I’d mistakenly believed was Mr. Right — I took a leave of absence from my stressful job as a writer-editor in New York and stayed with a friend in Paris that summer. As my heart gradually healed, I fell in love with all things French — especially the sense of style and timeless beauty, the respectful love and appreciation for true food, and the supremely symphonic language.

         I vowed to my Parisian friend, Marie-Laure (with whom I spoke English because she was an English teacher at the time and enjoyed the chance to practice her English with me), I would surprise her by speaking French with her one day. “Learn French!” then became my adamant New Year’s resolution every subsequent year, but Marie-Laure would often tease me in letters: “I think you start with Chapter One from the same French grammar book every New Year’s Day and give up on it before February arrives.”
         I am nothing if not stubborn. I was determined to learn to speak French, one way or the other, if it was the last thing I did — which is why “Learn to speak French well” was near the top of my list of things to do before I died. But here, in Francophone Gabon, on the ground, at my post, my inability to converse intelligently in French was a daily source of embarrassment and personal disappointment for me. I felt like a small child speaking baby talk. I felt stupid (and good for nothing). It made me want to (and I often did), in the privacy of my own home, cry.
         I could read and write in French (especially with a fat dictionary nearby). I could speak some French — slowly, painstakingly, word-by-well-accented-word — within a finite vocabulary. I just couldn’t carry on real, live, animated, back-and-forth conversations with other human beings in the town where I’d been sent to live and work for two years.
         I could ask polite questions, such as, How are you? — Ca va? — or inquire cheerily, What’s new? — Quelles nouvelles? But if the answer I received was longer than short, which it usually was among Africans, for whom the social niceties of elaborate greetings are enormously important, I probably couldn’t understand what they were saying.
         I would hear sounds that seemed like French coming out of people’s mouths in long, fast-moving, seamless streams; but I couldn’t discern individual words. To my ear, there were no breaks at all, no telling where one word ended and another began. And the accents — so vital to this musical language — seemed to me to be everywhere but where they belonged. It was, I thought, like learning to speak English in Jamaica.
         Sometimes I rationalized: Everyone here is at least bilingual. French is a second, if not third, language for all of us. In this town of over twenty different ethnicities, each with its own first language. French — taught only in school, where few people had spent much time — as the common denominator of communication, was bound to suffer.

    MY TOWN, centrally located Lastoursville, was a crossroads town that attracted people from outlying villages as well as entrepreneurs and adventurers from other African countries. For those Gabonese who dreamed of dressing for success and working in air-conditioned offices, there was nowhere to go but the capital, Libreville, ten hours away by train. But for those with more modest, or realistic, employment goals, Lastoursville and the surrounding area offered a few opportunities.
         People from local tribes, such as the Banjabi, Baduma, and Bakota, might find work at the hospital, the post office, or the regional high school situated in Lastoursville. Men from other Gabonese tribes, from further away, such as the Bateki, Bapunu, or Fang, might be found working in the forestry camps just outside of Lastoursville.
         Refugees and immigrants, both legal and illegal, from other African countries came to sparsely populated Gabon with their trades and specialties as well as their hopes of a better life. Muslim West Africans, from Senegal, Mali, and Chad, for example, set up shop in Lastoursville as small-scale commercants. Nigerians were barbers; Ghanaians, tailors; Congolese, painters; Sao Tomeans, builders, Beninois, auto mechanics; Camerounians, restaurateurs.
         Lebanese men left their wives and children back home in Lebanon to run the largest grocery stores in Lastoursville, where they sold tinned goods that were past their expiration date and other items that were clearly seconds — all at first-rate prices. Frenchmen, who seldom showed their rugged, tanned-white faces in town, managed the chantiers, or logging camps, along the nearby train line. There were only two white women in town — both American, both in their fifties — Bev, a Christian Alliance missionary who was often on the road on business, and me.
         French, then, became the common link among all of Lastoursville’s disparate people. It wasn’t textbook French or the symphonic French I’d dreamed of speaking one day, but it was serviceable French. It helped to keep the peace. It made it possible for people to communicate using commonly understood words instead of with the swoosh of a fast-moving machete or the thud of a bullet in the chest.

    WHAT THE CITIZENRY of Lastoursville lacked in French language accuracy, though, they made up for in speed.
         “Lentement, s’il vous plait,” I would beg, smiling sheepishly to cover up the tears of frustration welling in my eyes. I’d press a flat hand down into thin air, as if applying brakes. Please speak more slowly.
         And invariably the African would say to me, kindly, knowingly, empathetically, “Ah, oui, ‘Petit a petit l’oiseau fait son nid.’”
         Yes, I thought, nodding agreeably, “little by little the bird builds his nest. But for me the clock is ticking; I only have two years here. I’m a New Yorker, which means impatient. I have so much to do, and so little time. How can I teach and learn — or even belong — without words?”
         Time and again, when I tried to have an exchange with someone and he or she could see my difficulties finding le mot juste or following their half of the conversation, the person would try to soothe and comfort me. It was as if he or she were saying in English, There, there. It’ll be all right. You’ll get it. You’ll do fine . . .. Instead, what they said in French was, “Ah, oui, ‘Petit a Petit’ . . ..
         And I’d jump in and complete the saying, to let the person know I knew it. But did I? This maxim was repeated so often to me it became like a tinselly advertising slogan: empty words.

    APART FROM MY WALKS to the marche every morning and my visits there with maman Leora — who spoke French to me slowly and clearly, like a mother to a young child — I didn’t do much socializing. How could I socialize without words?
         Instead, I spent my first weeks transforming my dream house into a homey nest that would be clean and welcoming and safe from intruders — specifically, the hateful bugs. Alone, with a bucket and brushes, I scrubbed and painted. By hand, I sewed curtains and covered cheap foam pillows with bright African fabrics. I designed an L-shaped sofa for the living room that a local carpenter built for me for the equivalent of $40. I made a coffee table from a flat, discarded door, supported by five-gallon paint tins, and spread delicious-looking issues of Gourmet magazine on the top of it. Bev, the missionary, whom I’d befriended and with whom I could speak beloved English, loaned me a folding table and plastic chairs for my dining room. I bought a small stove-oven combination, made in Eastern Europe, from one of the local Lebanese merchants with some of my Peace Corps allowance, so I could bake bread. I arranged for window screens to be installed, to keep the loathsome bugs forever out of my house.

    MY WORK AT THE HOSPITAL was due to begin soon. One morning, at the makeshift desk I’d set up in the front bedroom, on the small, portable Smith-Corona typewriter I’d brought with me from New York, I prepared a two-page, single-spaced, typewritten memorandum in French outlining the community health projects I had in mind and the subjects I hoped to teach at the hospital’s mother-infant clinic. The memo was addressed to the hospital’s head, Dr. Christophe Djimet, Medecin Chef, Centre Medical de Lastoursville; from me, Agent de Sante, Corps de la Paix. The lecture subjects I listed included nutrition, breastfeeding, weaning, family planning, hygiene, diarrheal diseases, insect-borne diseases, vaccinations, STD/AIDS, cooking, gardening, composting, recycling, and more. I had high hopes and big dreams. Now all I needed to do was learn how to communicate in French.
         It had become my morning ritual, since moving into this house on the hill, to rise before dawn. I made a tea tray and brought it into this front room, where I would pray for strength for the day, write in my journal, write letters to friends, study French, watch the sun yawningly rise from behind the mist-shrouded mountains in the distance, and listen to the nearby birds sing. The songbirds in the big palm tree outside this front window — yellow birds, called Village Weavers, because they were bold enough to live in towns — seemed to me to be the happiest creatures alive. For them, every day was a feast day, because of the abundance of bugs. The bugs that I detested made these birds fat and happy and gave them their joyous songs to sing. How could I, then, go on wishing the insects’ extinction? Where would my mornings be without the birdsong?
         As I sat at my Smith-Corona by the window, typing the memo to Dr. Djimet and worrying how I would achieve all my lofty goals, I looked out for inspiration at the yellow birds, gleefully singing and seemingly dancing in the air as they worked in the palm tree. I took the time to watch them. My own nest was nearing completion. My work at the clinic wouldn’t start for a week or more. For the first time in my life, it seemed, I had time to sit back and observe birds. In my twenty years in New York City I was always in a rush, always stressed. The only birds I ever noticed there were the citified, opportunistic pigeons, who never sang. Or if they did, they never sang to me.
         I watched one Village Weaver use her beak to tear thin palm fronds into thinner strips and then weave them, patiently, methodically, painstakingly into her ingenious, elongated, capsule-like nest. She was indefatigable. She didn’t quit. And she seemed so happy in her work — singing full-heartedly the whole time.
         Dozens of nests just like hers hung from the palm tree like Christmas ornaments. These nests, with their openings underneath, I’d noticed, miraculously, stayed put — despite the lashing rains and gale-like winds of the rainy season that had just begun. These nests were built to last. What little architectural wonders, I thought. And what skill and tenacity it took to weave them!
         “Ah, oui! ‘Petit a petit l’oiseau fait son nid’ indeed,” I told myself. “I must learn from these patient, wise, observant Africans how to take a lesson from the birds.”

    Bonnie Lee Black is the author of the creative nonfiction book Somewhere Child (Viking Press, NY, 1981), and is hard at work on her second book, How to Cook a Crocodile, a memoir about her recent experiences in Africa. An honors graduate (BA, Lit./Writing) of Columbia University, she has been a professional writer and editor for more than 25 years and an educator (in the U.S. and overseas) for over 15 years. She now lives in Dixon, New Mexico and teaches English at UNM-Taos, and is a freelance book editor for RPCVs and other writers.