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“I don’t take alcohol,” said Katinde. “The toxins make me feel lightheaded.”
Barry felt a little lightheaded, himself, from the citronella, from the situation. He was starting to feel paranoid about Katinde’s eyes in the sky.
Katinde fell quiet while Barry drank. After Barry put down his empty cup, Katinde said, “So you want to build peace. To do that you want to know why we are fighting.”
Barry nodded. This interview was not going according to plan. He had a feeling it would continue not going according to plan. Katinde talked quietly, hardly moving his lips, his hand cradling his face as he sat on his haunches on the floor. There were long pauses between sentences, in the middle of sentences. The pitch of his voice went up and down, but always soft, almost gentle. Now that Barry’s eyes were fully adjusted, he could see details. There were intricate patterns scarred into Katinde’s face. Tribal markings were common in this country. But Barry had never seen such complex patterns of deep and shallow scars in a man’s face before. Fractal, concentric swirls and angles, almost symmetrical, but not quite.
“We have mutilated. We have raped. We have forced children to do terrible things to their own mothers, their own siblings.”
“I have heard the stories,” said Barry. His mouth was dry.
“My God, the world is a terrible place. You want to understand all of this so that you can stop it from happening.”
Barry wondered how badly he wanted to stop it from happening. It seemed kind of presumptuous, when Katinde put it that way. He wanted it to stop happening, no doubt about that. But to be personally responsible for stopping it? He wondered if Katinde was making fun of him.
Katinde closed his eyes and fell into a long silence, the longest yet. Barry stared at the dust particles hanging in a shaft of light by the shuttered window.
Finally, Katinde looked up. He opened his palm and said, “Barry, you already know all the reasons. We both know very well the contents of your report. You will write about the exploitation and cooptation of the people by foreigners and companies and governments. About how the federal, state, and local governments are unknown to us except as foreign entities that occasionally act upon the people, sometimes for good, sometimes for evil. About the crisis of leadership up and down the hierarchy of traditional systems of governance. About how the youth have been betrayed by the traditional system and neglected by the modern one. About how all this all takes place in a context of group-based fear and hatred between ethnic groups. Surely you will also write about the drive for survival in a place where livelihoods have been destroyed by foreign companies who pull our soul out of the ground and sell it abroad so that people can communicate with one another on their mobile phones, sending SMS, twitter messages, YouTube videos, Facebook status updates. They pull our soul from the ground and then it is mixed with the soul of the world. These are all things that you already know. And you have come here for some good quotations so as to lend your report some heft and credibility.”
Katinde shifted his weight and reached for the calabash. He poured another cup for Barry. Then he took a small reddish cola nut from a saucer and broke it. He handed one segment to Barry. “Don’t worry. I’ll give you your quotations,” Katinde said. He put the other segment in his own mouth. Barry chewed. It was very bitter. As he chewed and swallowed, the edges and contours of things were sharpened.
“To be clear,” Katinde said, “in the same way that people treat culture as if it is a thing with a boundary and an essence, most people also reify the so-called individual. They believe that consciousness emanates from a central point in a man’s mind. So they are horrified that I, Sam Katinde, raped and mutilated and killed so many innocent people. What they do not choose to understand is that when I cut the lips off a child, they too are also cutting off those lips. And it horrifies me perhaps even more than it horrifies you.
“Let me explain. Isn’t it obvious, for example, that there is no single point at which a fetus becomes a person, distinct from his mother’s body? Not at conception. Not at the second trimester. Not at birth. Not on his eighth birthday. Not even at the point when his mother dies. There are vigorous debates on this subject, but in our hearts we all know the answer. It is obvious. The fetus, the child, the man is always a part of his mother’s body, a part of her soul. We are a single organism in constant flux. The distance between what I call me and what you call you is merely a question of degree and vector. Taking it from another angle: even within what I call myself there is a system of impulses and drives, both intersecting and parallel. If you separate my left brain hemisphere from my right brain hemisphere and both are functioning independent of each other, which one of them is me? Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I am the vine and you are the branches.’ This was not an imperative. This was a statement of fact. God is not a person, just as I am not a person. When I rape and kill, you rape and kill. God also rapes and kills. And it horrifies us all.” A bead of sweat rolled down Katinde’s scarred face. He looked at Barry. His eyes were bloodshot, thin, red veins spider-webbed across the whites of his eyes.
Abruptly, he stood up. He walked to the window and threw open the shutters. “Oka,” he said. “Come.” He shut the window. Then he paced back and forth. Barry did not move.
The door opened. Oka stood in the doorway surrounded by a halo of light.
“You have been a good wife to me,” said Katinde. “Now you will go with this man.”
They rode in the canoe together. The young man with the distended stomach steered the canoe through the mangrove jungle, turning this way and that, one river branched into another branch into another, like the pattern scarred into Katinde’s face. Barry didn’t know what to say. He sure didn’t know what to write down in his report. They wanted it verbatim. But Heavens to Murgatroid, did they really want to read that shit? The man was fucking crazy. He leaned over and trailed his fingers in the water. He stared at his refracted fingers splitting the water the entire rest of the way home to Ismara.
The canoe rocked from side to side as he stepped out into the knee-deep water. He held the canoe steady while Oka stepped out, too.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked her.
She didn’t say anything.
“Where’s your family?”
She still didn’t say anything.
“I guess I should take you to the chief’s compound,” he said.
“I’ll go with you.”
“To the chief’s compound then.”
“No. With you.”
Years passed. Eventually the rebellion died down. All but a few core fighters and conscripts came out of the bush. People who had been displaced returned to their ancestral lands. There was still the occasional skirmish or abduction, but life began to return to a kind of normalcy. Roads were built. Houses sprung up. When people began to believe that the security might hold, businesses began to return. Barry watched all this from his small hut on the outskirts of town. He sat in his wicker chair, smoking cigarettes, watching other people moving forward with their lives. Oka stayed with him.
That old hackneyed White Man’s Burden narrative sure had a sick appeal. That was how Barry started out. But after failing as a missionary, failing in the private sector, and then failing as a development worker, that protagonist role didn’t pan out. So he tried out another trope: Africa as backdrop for a white guy’s self-discovery. Well, shit. What’s wrong with discovery? Except for that it didn’t amount to much at the end of the day. Sitting on his wicker chair under the mango tree. Chewing on palm nuts. Chewing on cola nuts. Chewing on ground nuts. He sat there wondering about God. If consciousness as linked to identity was illusion, then God must not know Barry. Maybe God was not a person, and maybe Barry was not known by God. Maybe Barry was not a person to be known. Big orange-headed lizards with black bodies and orange tails bobbed their heads up and down in the sun. It was nice, though, watching other people moving forward with their lives. It was nice that Oka chose not to move on with hers.
Then he saw himself on TV and the whole miserable applecart was upset, just like that.
Reporters started calling. Katinde’s face was splashed on every channel. Geraldo Rivera and Rush Limbaugh talked and talked about Katinde, expressing loud opinions with all due righteous bombast. The CNN effect had its effect. Christiane Amanpour reported that a team of U.S. Special Forces was deployed in support of an African Union mission to smoke him out dead or alive.
The Paramount Chief came to visit Barry one afternoon. Barry was sitting, as usual, under the mango tree.
“You’re looking agitated, chief,” said Barry. Barry opened a small plastic cooler next to him and reached in the ice water for a bottle of beer. “Here, have a beer,” he said, and tossed it to the chief. The chief sat down on a chair and took a long drink from his beer. Then he took a deep breath.
“I am the Paramount Chief in this region, correct?”
“That is correct, sir,” said Barry. “You have the hat and the stick.”
“I do have the hat. Look, it is on my own head.”
“And the stick. It sits across your lap, even now.”
“Ah, so it does.”
“So I must be the Paramount Chief.”
“You must and you are.”