Grilled croaker fish tasted good with beer—the sweetness, the charcoal, the carbonation in his throat. Barry broke a flake of meat off with his fingertips and put it in his mouth. He chewed. He swallowed. He broke off another piece, licking the pepper off his lips. He zoned, staring at the soccer game on the TV in the corner, occasionally focusing enough to catch the score, then going blank again. Mosquitoes buzzed around his ankles.
The electricity went off for a moment.
Oka sat down next to Barry in the dark. “Oyibo,” she said.
“When will you stop calling me that?” Barry said, even though he knew she didn’t mean it that way.
She put her hand on his arm. “How bodi?” she said. He didn’t answer her. “How you dey?” she pressed.
“Fine,” he said. “I’m fine.” He scratched his bearded cheek with his index finger.
Barry had been a missionary. Then he worked as a contractor for a mining company. Then he worked for a small NGO. But now he didn’t do any of those things. When his mother died of leukemia, back in Illinois, she left him $72,000.89. After the funeral, he took that money and flew to West Africa with six pairs of pants, ten boxer shorts, three t-shirts, hired a small boat and moved out to the creeks. Upon arriving in Ismara, he laid a concrete foundation, put up four walls, a corrugated aluminum roof, and settled in. Eventually the money would probably run out. But as long as he didn’t go into town too much or get real sick, it would last a good, long while.
Abruptly, the power came back. Soukous music resumed on the radio. The TV flickered on and off. Then when it came on all the way, Barry saw a still-shot of himself on the television screen. “…the hell?” he said.
He remembered that picture, vaguely. It was taken at a fundraiser in Washington years before, sponsored by some multinational, where everybody got dolled up and mingled with politicians and celebrities under high ceilings and chandeliers. Barry was in the background of the picture, visibly tipsy with a glass of wine in his hand, eyeing a tray of canapés. In the foreground, Senator Rivkin shook hands with the famous West African rapper, Big Wahala. Big Wahala’s real name was Godfrey, and he was from the same local government area where Barry lived now. Godfrey had been a child soldier during the height of the insecurity, but escaped from the grips of the sociopathic warlord who terrorized the region, and made his way through the bush to a refugee camp across the border. There, he started writing down lyrics and performing for whoever would listen. After he was discovered by Shakira he instantly became an international sensation, hitting all the major cities—Cape Town, Milan, Buenos Aires.
The song that made him famous was about his escape from the bush: This boat won’t float and I’m trying to breathe air/just shiverin’ in the river and I have blood in my hair/the guy with the eye in the sky just won’t leave me alone/he knows what what’s in my mind and I’m thinking about home. Then Shakira came in on the chorus and the two of them strode across the stage harmonizing to a backdrop of marimba and bass guitar. When they sang about home, she rocked her pelvis slowly, one hand on her belly, the other behind her head.
Big Wahala was at this event in Washington to receive some humanitarian award.
The still-shot was only up for half a second. It was part of a montage of a whole bunch of pictures and short clips of white people talking earnestly about the plight of child soldiers in the region and the necessity of the global community to focus like a laser on bringing Sam Katinde, the warlord, to justice once and for all. There was a bunch of merchandise you could buy that would spread the message, bracelets, headbands, and yard signs. There was a YouTube video you could send to all your friends at once with a single click of a mouse. Already, over 100 million people had watched the video. It was on the front page of every newspaper. School children from Hartford, Connecticut to Santa Fe, New Mexico were all talking about it in their social studies classes. Apparently the whole world knew all about the town of Ismara now.
The soccer game came back on. “That was strange,” said Oka.
“Strange all right,” said Barry.
“Try not to think about it,” Oka said. “Look, Arsenal is leading.”
A roar went up among the villagers as Robey heel-kicked the ball to Nasser who chipped it across the center and Plymoth headed it clean into the top right corner for the goal. Chelsea’s defense didn’t have a chance.
Walking back to the house, Barry kicked at a small rock with the bottom of his flip-flop. Oka made a tisk noise in her cheek and reached for his hand. She held his fingers lightly. They walked past the water pump and Taylor George’s plantation. A goat bleated sickly in the darkness. The smells of woodsmoke and vegetation were familiar and comforting. Clusters and constellations of stars dusted the sky between the dark silhouettes of canopy.
“Don’t worry, my love,” she said in a husky voice. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Truth was, he wasn’t that worried yet. It was weird, to be sure. But he wasn’t that worried, really.
Barry was almost asleep, lying naked with Oka under the mosquito net, when his Otis Redding ringtone sang out. He grabbed his phone and punched the green button.
“Barry Lazarus? This is Marty Shepherd from the Post. Can I talk to you about Sam Katinde?”
“Do you have any idea what time it is?” Barry asked. When you’re in a video that 100 million people watch, even for a half a second, people like Marty were bound to come calling from different time zones.
“Just a few questions,” said Marty Shepherd from the Post.
“Katinde? He’s an asshole with a gun,” said Barry and hung up the phone and turned it all the way off.
A couple assholes with a gun can cause a lot of grief. Back when he worked for the mining company, he was sitting under a tree with an Australian engineer named Kiwi and a Nigerian geologist named Fonyo. Sitting there—that’s all they were doing. Just having a drink. It was very much against company protocol for them to be out there, drinking in the village, but they didn’t like being cooped up behind the razor wire and the fifteen-foot walls. They didn’t like tennis. They didn’t want to go for another dip in the pool.
“One more calabash!” Kiwi yelled to the girl with one leg. She was pretty good on her crutches, balancing the calabash on her head as she brought it out. She put her crutches to the side, leaned against the table for support and lowered the calabash to the rickety table under the tree where Barry, Kiwi, and Fonyo sat, grinning ear to ear. Barry peered into the white viscous liquid. “Yep,” he said. “It’s ready to drink.” He picked out a dead bee and showed it to Fonyo.
“That is how you know,” Fonyo said, “Just as I said.” Barry put the bee back in the palm wine and dipped the metal cup and drank it down.
“You’re a palm wine gourmet, Fonyo,” Kiwi said.
“Yes I am. In fact I have my own plantation. Did you know? My wife, she says to me, cut those trees and put plantains, yams, or cassava. But I say, no, I am a palm wine gourmet. How can I deny my passion? When I explained like that, she agreed very heartily. She is very supportive of my passions.”
Barry crushed a bee between his teeth. It added a little bitterness to the flavor.
Kiwi pointed his handgun at a knobby looking soursop fruit the size of a football, hanging from a tree across the compound. “Do you cut down the tree and drain it completely or do you tap it while it is still living?” he said.
“If there is a marriage or a death celebration, I chop down many trees. Otherwise I let them drip and collect the palm wine in calabashes,” Fonyo replied.
It may have been an accident. But Kiwi squeezed the trigger and missed the soursop. The bullet crashed through the branches.
The girl’s mother came running out of the hut and yelled a lot of angry words in the local language, which they didn’t understand.
“I think she is enraged that you missed the soursop,” Fonyo said.
“Well for God’s sake, I had better try again,” said Kiwi.
“But that soursop is so far away,” said Fonyo. “If you miss one more time, she may come and smack our heads with a calabash. I’m already developing a headache as it is. Better not to try and shoot it again, I think.”
Kiwi apologized to the woman. “Sorry, ma’am. It was a bloomin’ accident, it was. Putting it away now, Sheila. Snapping the holster shut now, see?”
The lady spat her disgust and went back inside.
At another table, several men were laughing and giving them the thumbs-up: Sam Katinde’s boys. You could tell because of their age range and how they acted. Those guys were members of a local group with the intentionally scary name of Mokele Mbembe. They thought Barry, Kiwi, and Fonyo were great yuksters.
Guys like that were the reason Kiwi brought his gun in the first place. And he wanted them to know he had one—to establish a little parity, mutually assured destruction and all that, so everyone could drink their palm wine in peace.
In solidarity with Kiwi, one of the M&M boys pointed his weapon in the direction of the soursop fruit and let loose a volley of gunfire. Then they laughed very hard and gave more thumbs-ups.
Fonyo, Barry, and Kiwi looked at each other deadpanned. “Those guys have no discipline,” said Fonyo.