THE WHOLE IDEA WAS to plant trees. Of all the ambiguous callings in life, the dreams that feel silly to say out loud, the careers that ask you to leave your soul behind if it’s too big to fit in a carry-on bag, I figured planting trees in Africa seemed like a pretty sure bet. I’m all for helping clothe a denuding planet, giving good soil something to hold onto. And besides, there’s nothing quite like shade and a ripe mango.
I sat at the edge of a circle of village women and tried to figure out how to talk trees in my infantile Moba. My French was not terribly impressive, either. Nanoum, my homologue, my main collaborator, damn him, had arranged this meeting for the pre-coffee hours and my brain was still on hold. Let alone suffering a small touch of stage fright.
Nanoum had the floor; he was talking about me. I smiled and nodded at the ladies, comprehension eluding me. Nanoum switched into his arm-swinging, breathless French for my benefit, “She came here, all the way from America, to work with you, the Black Togolese. She’s the expert on agriculture, on soil chemistry, on Agroforestry. Listen to her and learn better ways. Do not shame us with your ignorance and laziness.”
Then he nodded at me to get up and I stood there for a moment, mouth open and empty in front of these women. My entire Moba dissolved into the single joke I’d heard about a guy who went around asking people in the village if they ate cats. No doubt a classic in Moba humor, it didn’t seem likely to save me from the wreckage of Nanoum’s good intentions. “Black Togolese”? I wanted the concrete floor to open and drop me into some hidden escape hatch. The latrine would have sufficed.
Nanoum, I could only presume, meant well. But he had tics. He bounced and twitched, his eyes gleamed too pale and too wild. When we approached, the people in town backed away, recalling chores waiting for them elsewhere. While other Togolese were quiet, Nanoum chattered out agricultural fancies like a river of black ants spilling from his mouth. Legend had it that those gentle ants who stormed great black ribbons across the sand brought prayers sweetened with honey to the sage men of the Otherworld. Nanoum’s words carried prayers, but they fell on the wrong ears. He spoke to us but we were not sage and we were not dead and his words were not so sweet.
The morning I first met him, I opened my front door to an old man in farmer’s rags fidgeting on my wide concrete porch. The porch served as a communal oven of sorts and I’d often found it strewn with surprises: roasting peanuts, drying chilis, chickens, children. But nothing topped the rusty bike and a fretful old man who hollered out, “I am Nanoum, your homologue!”
I was a surprise for him as well. He tried to be polite for a moment or two. Then finally he blurted, “I see you unfortunately are a woman.”