19 February 2007

A Slight Misunderstanding


It is always unsettling to be in Africa. In Europe, I can disappear into a crowd of homeless. Here, I am exposed, my movements remembered for days by villagers amused to see a white man making his way through their country. Slogging through the humidity one also carries the burden not only of the past but also the present. It would be too easy to blame the stain of slavery and imperialism on our forefathers’ hands, for I often wonder if our generation is any better. The leash is still present, only invisible. Oh, to be sure we no longer sally our troops from a fort or keep warships in their ports, but let them make their own toilet paper? Let them refine their own oil? Let them roast their own coffee? Ha!

Julius Caesar led his army to Africa. While leaving the boat, he fell His superstitious troops feared a bad omen.. On his knees, Caesar clutched the ground and cried out, “Africa, I seize thee!”

I found Nwargo holed up in a ruin on the banks of Lake Buyo. Nwargo seemed confused when I lifted him into the air with a hug exclaiming, “Nwargo, I seize thee!”

Nwargo’s eyebrows came together, “Did they follow you?”

My heart sank as I realized I had compromised his position.

Nwargo’s stern eyes pierced my ego. “Boigny’s men. They are following you?”

I told him I hadn’t noticed anything unusual. Although I spoke the truth, there was no reconciliation. Disappointed at my carelessness, he turned his head to towards the lake. “Tell me my friend, what brings you here?”

“Sarge told me you were in danger.”

He wheeled. “What?”

Each word fell from my lips more slowly as if not to speak them would prevent our situation from becoming more hopeless. “Sarge told me you were in danger. He wanted me to give you this.” As if in a nightmare, I produced the unopened package from the hydrant in Berlin, terrified by the thought of what might lie within.

I looked up from the package to see a rather nasty knife in Nwargo’s hand. He did not smile. “Open it.”

“Nwargo…” I implored.

“Open it!”

I surrendered to despair. If Nwargo struck, then so be it. I opened the package. A GPS tracking device. My hands shook. My knees gave way. I could not breathe, nor did I want to. Let Nwargo kill me. Let me die by his honest hand. But Nwargo instead picked up the device and inspected it.

“This is very bad.”

I lay on the floor, stunned. “Sarge wanted me to bring this package to you.”

Nwargo squatted with his back to the wall. His lips were pursed. “Sarge would not do this, I do not think.”

“They know where we are.”

“They will not come until night.” He kicked my boot. “You have until then to overcome despair.”

“Can we cross the lake?”

“My friend, it is maybe 10 kilometers or more and we have no boat. There are crocodiles. If you like, save time and go to the crocodiles now.”

As dusk settled, the mosquitoes threatened to blot out the rising moon. There was no movement on the perimeter. We waited.

Nwargo told me of this place, an old French trading post, his activities here, and of his wives. He was, as usual, cheerful in the face of uncertainty. His whispers and the fifty caliber machine gun that he had brought with him to this former trading post offered me great reassurance that we would be alright.

They were well-trained. Shadows moving among shadows using the limited cover provided by the terrain. We waited and let them approach. Nwargo fired a flair into the air as the first of the slithering made it to the post. The tracer rounds from the fifty caliber danced to their targets. For a brief moment, I thought of catching lightning bugs on warm summer evenings. I love tracer rounds.

Fire erupted from the bush surrounding the perimeter, bringing me back to the present peril. An amplified French voice shouted to hold fire. “Please, Corporal let us discuss the hopeless nature of your position.” I replied with a salvo into the bush, and they responded with mortar fire. Nwargo smiled, “Crocodile food,” set the charges in the post, and clapped me on the shoulder. A tremendous force slammed me into the wall. Dust filled my eyes and lungs. An unseen hand grabbed my collar and started dragging my convulsing body towards the lake. Another mortar hit the post and sent us both sprawling. Nwargo grimaced and motioned to his leg trapped under a fallen beam. A third mortar hit the post. My ears rang. Nwargo struggled to keep his eyes open. “Keep breathing” I whispered into his ear before I disappeared into the brush with his rifle.

Fire once. Change position. The flairs and burning post illuminated the field of fire. Three fell before they realized we were not finished.

They fired into the brush. Mortars fell randomly. I had unsettled them. Through the scope I scanned the perimeter. A flash from a mussel guided my aim.

The amplified voice boomed out, “Please Corporal, this is ridiculous. Let us discus things like civilized men. We want your Nwargo.” I continued to creep through the perimeter. They no longer tried to cross over to the smoldering post.

No one fired. I crept through the jungle.

“Corporal, you are a reasonable man. We will let you live. Give us Nwargo and walk away.”

I edged closer.

“Corporal, Canada is far away. Nwargo cannot be worth this trouble.”

I spotted a mortar team. They peered out towards the fort, unaware I observed them. A voice over their radio issued commands. Their surprise was short-lived. I took the radio into my hand, “Canada protects Nwargo.”

“Ah, Corporal, good evening. I am afraid you are mistaken. Only you are protecting Nwargo. Give him to us, will you not?”

Dropping the radio, I quickly blended back into the jungle. Moments later, the mortar fire began focusing on the position of the fallen mortar team.

I used the explosions to cover my rapid advance.

The voice revealed himself, “My friend, there is no need to sacrifice yourself.” I saw him with the megaphone in his hand. A difficult angle to the shot. “You carried the GPS to him. Now give him to us.” My shot took him in the left shoulder. The soldiers with him lost their discipline and began firing randomly into the jungle. The voice sprayed blood as he tried to shout commands. After two more died, their moral broke and they began to break away.

It was quiet. I waited. The voice slumped forward. I rushed back to Nwargo. His breathing was fast and shallow. I moved him to a more comfortable place and did what I could using an old medic kit. In the morning, Nwargo’s eyes struggled open. He forced a smile. I smiled back, “We will feed the crocodiles another day my friend. Rest now.”

I did not recognize the soldier with the French accent. I have his hands and his papers. Nwargo needs medical attention. There are many questions and I hesitate to send anything to HQ. Nwargo I can trust… for now, at least.

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