We lived in West Africa once on the edge of the bush near ground central to the 2014 Ebola epidemic.
It in an area also near where Charles Taylor used to entertain himself by cutting the hands off kids who he felt were sympathetic to his enemies. Who captured the leader of another gang and killed him by stringing him up a tree with wires tied around his thumbs and then slit the bottom of his feet, so that he slowly bled to death…. screaming until he was too weak.
Taylor sitting in the shade nearby smiling.
Towards town from our compound was the family of Brits mentioned in Rants # 121, then a few more miles down the road, was a missionary compound that provided medical care to the region.
On the other side of our compound from the Brits and the missionaries was a large tribe of Bossa. One of the largest in West Africa.
Picture Brenda took of some Bossa kids next to our compound
When we moved in we did not know what this was goin’ to mean to us. We were to eventually find that the Bossas – by reputation – were not industrious, or honest like we understood honesty. They were not monogamous – a Bossa woman could have 10 or 12 children and not know for sure the father of any. They did not farm or herd cattle – had no known tribal skills – and were not trusted by the Lebanese who ran the local economy in this part of West Africa.
A long-time merchant once told me that no shop owner in the area would hire a Bossa; the local held thought was that they would steal… every single one of them… but before they stole everything they could put in their pockets or in their stomachs, they would screw things up. They didn’t think like others. There were paths in their minds that led nowhere or that went places and got lost.
Which meant if one was sent out, say, to sweep the back yard, 1) he’d sweep the trash under the family car, and then 2) sell the broom for a dime to someone walking by the backyard and 3) come into the house and say he was tired and needed to go home… so he could spend his dime. But it was never that thought-out, though; they weren’t manipulative or subtle, they just bad to the bone. Not God’s best work.
We didn’t know that initially. No one told us. We had to find out about our neighbors first hand by the people Brenda hired to work in our house.
But first, you must be asking yourself, why in the infinite wisdom of the Central Intelligence Agency was one of its case officers with his wife and two young children sent to the edge of the bush in west Africa to live a life, well, on the edge? Why?
Well it was for operational reasons, but that another story. Has nothing to do with this one.
The first day we were in country, I went into the embassy to meet the Ambassador and the rest of the Embassy staff.
Brenda, after seeing me off, went out to the gate where Bossa men had gathered waiting to interview for jobs working in the house… as cooks, and houseboys and gardeners.
She had had experiences in hiring house help in our previous postings to Thailand, Laos and Taiwan and knew what she wanted.
She was not anyone’s fool standing there on the inside of the front gate… with the embassy guard at her side… who had temporarily been assigned to our house, pending our employment of our own guards.
Brenda started at one side, talking with the people there, and as she worked her way across the crowd, people came streaming out of the nearby village and tried to get her attention. The Bassa spoke in guttural English, often leaving off the last syllable of a word. Some slurred what they were saying and were hard to understand. They called her “Missy” and made reference to me as “bossman.”
Finished goin’ from one side of the gate to the other, she went back again, finally selecting a cook named Sam, a guard name Moses, a houseboy and two guards.
Finished she let the people she had hired inside the gate and told the rest of the people to go home.
As she wrote down the names and particulars of those she had just hired, she noticed that one man remained on the other side of the gate. In his early thirties, broad shouldered, he was standing there holding his hat and when Brenda made eye contact, he said in a very deep voice, “Missy, I notic’ you didn’ hir’ a drive’. I’m ‘da bes’ drive’ in the villag’, as’anyon’. Yo goin’ nee’ a drive’ ‘caus’ like sometime’ you fixin’ meal’ an’ yo nee’ somethi’, like bread, yo just say, John’ go get me some bread, an’ I go to town and get yo’ bread. Sometim’ yo wan’ me to take yo kids to schoo’ I take ‘em to schoo’. Missy I good. Yo can depen’ on John.”
That’s the way Brenda remembers the conversation. Compelling and interesting. He made a good point that she might need a driver, so she hired him. At $10 a week and he was very happy for that. Brenda said our car would be coming in in about a month. He was to help around the house until it arrived.
Our cook Sam, with the inside and outside dogs, sitting inside our compound in front of the main house
For me, after I checked in at the US Embassy I drove around town and into every section of the capital. I met foreign diplomats friendly to the US and those not so friendly – the Russians and the Chinese. I met prominent locals – in gov’t and business – and the international Chamber of Commerce. Met merchants and trademens.
Getting settled in.
Meanwhile Brenda continued to settle in at the house. She found that the Bossa house help she had just employed was greatly different from the house help she hired previously in Asia. Here they required close supervision. For example, part of the deal was to provide rice and fish for their lunch and dinner. So she bought a supply of fish and rice for the workers and put it in a room near the garage, saying it was all they were going to get for two weeks. Two days later Sam came in and said they needed more “ri’ and fi’s’”, and she asked why and he said, what she bought was all gone. She went to the room and sure enough, no more rice and fish. It was impossible to determine who had taken more than their share. So she bought more and warned them that this time she wasn’t joking, that was all they were going to get for two weeks… and two days later Sam came up and said there was no more fish and rice and again it was impossible to find out who had eaten it all, so she said she wasn’t buying anymore. Which lasted for a couple of days, until the boys slowed their work down because they said they were weak from not eating. Thereafter Brenda kept the room under lock and key divvying out the food at each meal to each person.
John, the driver, made a powerful impression on me. He was the dumbest person I had ever met.
There were many African I worked with who had been to college in the US and I greatly enjoyed talking with them. Plus there were Americanized FSN (Foreign Service Nationals) at the embassy and local shop owners who I dealt with. I did not operate in a vacuum, I was fully involved with West Africans of all stripes. Many I liked right away and found that we had common interests.
Then there was John.
A couple of weeks after he was hired, John came up to Brenda and said he couldn’t work much that day – Brenda was using him mostly for yard work and to do some heavy lifting inside the house. She asked why and he said his “rocks” hurt. She asked, “Your what hurts?” and he pointed to his crotch and she said, yes she understood, that he didn’t have to do any lifting that day.
Before leaving the states we had ordered a brand new car. It went to the merchant ship almost directly from the factory. Our car arrived on schedule although it took more than a week to clear customs. Embassy drivers drove it to our house with other personal items sent by sea freight.
When John saw the car, he was struck numb. He couldn’t move, his mouth dropped and his eye popped. A brand new Pontiac Bonneville, it was indeed a handsome car.
Brenda signed for it and thanked the Embassy people for bringing it out. It had less than 300 miles on the odometer and the interior still had the new car smell.
Outside John was walking around the car, his mouth still open, running his fingers over the body. When Brenda drove it into the garage, John watched and then stood off some distance looking at it, rubbing his “rocks.”
I told Brenda that night there was no way John was going to drive that car. No way. And certainly he wasn’t going to drive the kids to school. Brenda could use him until she got completely settled and then she had to let him go.
One Sunday, a couple weeks after we got the car, I was asleep on the couch in the living room, a paperback book on my chest, when I heard someone breathing nearby.
John was standing by the couch, holding his hat.
“Bossman,” he said, “Yo’ don’ had ma’ car here now tw’ weeks an’ Missy she hire’ me ta be da drive’ and I ain’ driven’ ma’ car yet. ‘t all.”
I may have had too much to drink the night before because there was a thumping in my head, which were like African drums signaling danger, but I ignored the warning.
“John,” I said, “I’m not so sure how well you can drive this car of ours, ‘cause it’s state of the art, you know. Can you drive a power steering car, John.”
“Bossman, I sur’ can.”
“OK John, I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to take that car out from the garage and I’m going to get it going on that drive way around the house, and then I’m going to let you drive it, just around the house, to see how well you can, you know, drive power steering. All right?”
I just knew he wasn’t going to do well, which would be step one in letting him go, or so I told people later. I don’t think I gave the plan serious thought. It was those drums. Thump, Thump, Thump. My head really, really hurt.
So we went out through the kitchen, where Sam the cook was hanging out. He followed us outside as I backed the car out of garage right beside where I parked my Embassy car. It was aimed down the driveway which circled the house inside the wall. I motioned John inside, behind the wheel.
Sam got in the back.
In the front I was thigh to thigh with John, who was sweating.
“Ok, now listen, I’m going to put the transmission in drive, but I don’t want you to put your foot on the accelerator yet. I want you to drive around the house with your feet flat on the floor, just going with the car in Drive. You understand?”
Thump, Boom, Thump, Boom, Thump, Boom, goes my head. The pounding sounding louder it seemed, maybe as the drum tried to get my attention.
“Yea bossman, I understan’.”
So sitting in the middle of the front seat, hard up against John behind the wheel, I reached up and pulled the automatic stick from park to drive, and the car began to inch slowly forward. Our son, Joe, outside with the dog, was walking along looking in first at me and then John who had a fierce hold on the steering wheel, staring straight ahead.
The car edged off the driveway unto the grass and John jerked it back and it ran into the hedges on the other side and John jerked it back and up ahead was the turn down beside the house and John made a big circle out into the grass to make the turn and we’re going down by the house now, Joe and the dog are left behind in the front yard, we’re going 5, then 8 then 10 miles an hour. John is talking with Sam in the back, his hands gripping the steering wheel. He’s sweating. We drift towards the house then out on the grass. We’re going 15 miles an hour now and the yard drops away and John starts to make the turn into the back yard and he’s way out in the grass and it is so very apparent to me that he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing and although I’m sitting right beside him and can grab control of the steering wheel at any moment, I am becoming fearful. We’re in the middle of the turn now. The drums are beating louder and I said to John, “John, this ain’t working out. Let’s stop. Put your foot on the brakes.”
And John reaches his big right foot up – I can feel it because we’re sitting there thigh to thigh – and he slams down on the accelerator.
We were going 15 miles an hour one second, the next, 60 heading straight for the house.
The car ran up the 20 or so stairs to the back porch, teetered a moment and fell off to the side, upside down.
Mim had seen it all. She was inside the house but was looking out the window when we started that turn into the back yard. She saw the car lunge toward the house, up the stairs and then disappear upside down.
She went into the bedroom where Brenda was reading and told her, “The car just turned over outside.”
“What???” Brenda was outside in a moment’s time, standing at the rear of the upside down car. The engine had turned off, but the wheels were still turning. No sounds. No Jim. No Sam. No John.
It looked dead. The engine was off, the wheels were in the air, still slowly turning. No sounds. No Jim. No Sam. No John.
Brenda grabbed the rear bumper, she didn’t know what else to do, and tried to turn the car back up right. When, there by the driver’s side, the window was slowly being lowered, or since the car was upside down, being raised, and John crawled out, and then I crawled out. Then Sam.
Less than two weeks in country. Around 500 miles on our brand new Pontiac Bonneville… it’s upside down in our backyard. In Africa.
We didn’t fire John right away. Oh eventually we did, but what I said there at the scene of the accident was that he was going to work for us at $7 a week – taking $3 a week out of his salary – until he paid for the damage.
We hauled the car to the best body shop in West Africa.
Took nine months to fix.
This picture was taken just prior to our efforts to turn the car back on its tires. So as to lessen the damage to the sides of the car, we took every mattress in the house to cushion the roll over.