It’s hot outside, the air still and heavy. I walk into the little bar at the small, localish hotel where I’m staying. It’s late morning after a late night out with my local co-workers in a small yet lively town in the interior of a country in Africa. Coffee in one hand, I’m in search of a big bottle of water to take back to my room. I hear… White woman…. I know you want to talk the white woman… She’s saying it loud on purpose to get my attention.
I turn around. They are sitting in the lounge area. She has a round face, large round eyes, dark skin and long braids. He is skinny, balding, his white skin weathered and freckled. She’s wearing a loose green and yellow patterned traditional dress. He’s in jeans and a t-shirt. They are both nice looking. I smile – this is the kind of town where it’s not out of the ordinary for people to strike up conversations with each other.
As I’m focusing in on the two of them, my local colleague raises her head over the sofa back at the booth next to them to say good morning. I hadn’t seen her as I came in. She’s there enjoying the air-conditioning.
I step back from the bar to greet everyone, forgetting about the water. Come, come, sit, the woman says, motioning her hands to the lounge seat next to her. He want to talk you. The man is smiling, nodding. I motion for my colleague to join us. The table has a few empty beer bottles on it and a very full ashtray. Dolly Parton is streaming out of the speaker above us.
They want to know where I’m from and what I’m doing there. My spoken French is barely passable. Their English is slightly better than passable. We explain ourselves in a mix of both.
I say I work for a development organization.To develop what? they ask. I don’t even know how to answer. Sometimes I’m not so sure we are developing anything, really. I’m having a crisis of purpose lately. My co-worker steps in to save the day. She explains our work. They kind of get it, but not really.
I am a professional hunter, he says. I am here with my wife.
If I am really your wife, she interjects.
He continues…. I have been in the bush for 8 months. You are the first white woman I’m seeing for so long time. There are no white woman here. Why are you here?
Yes she interjects; he is very excited. He really want to see a white woman. He’s been in the bush for so long time without seeing one. He’s only with black people like me. He want to talk you very much. I’m sorry my English is not so good. You see even he, he never talk English but he is so happy to see a white woman. He is talking so much English. You see him? Yes, so happy to see a white woman.
I try to figure out their relationship. Why is she joking about being his wife?
They light cigarette after cigarette. They order another round of beers and invite us to drink with them. We decline — beer right after coffee without food seems like a bad idea, especially after a night of plentiful African Guinness and whiskey.
The people here, the white people, they don’t talk to him, she says. They are his own people but they don’t like him.
They don’t like me because I live in the bush. I’m born in Africa, he says, I have more than 40 years and I lived only 11 years in France. My father was also in Africa — more than 40 years.
She tells about an embassy party where they were ignored. She says she drank beers and then asked them ‘why you don’t talk my husband? You don’t like that he is living with me? You don’t like that he is in the bush with people like me? You don’t like blacks?’ She drank their free alcohol and ate their food. She drank beers for him. She drank for their 2 children who are French citizens. She drank for herself. They did not ask us to come back.
I’ve never met a hunter. I’ve only seen fat, red-cheeked Afrikaaners and safari-geared Americans on planes and made assumptions that they were aggressive, blood thirsty, giant-portions-of-meat-eating, racist colonizers. It’s strange to talk with someone who identifies as a hunter, to feel my assumptions shifting and not matching up.
My colleague asks what they do with the animals that they kill. He says their clients hunt for sport. They take home their trophies — sometimes horns, sometimes cranium, sometimes the entire head and chest for mounting, sometimes the whole body for the taxidermist.
We eat the rest. We eat every kind of meat, the woman tells us.
She even eats her cousin, the man says. Baboons. She pinches the hair on his arm. The baboon is your cousin, not mine.
He lists the animals they hunt off on his fingers — elephants, lions, leopards, water buffalo, different kinds of antelope. Animals that I thought were not to be hunted. Animals I can’t imagine ever wanting to kill. He says endangered animals don’t exist and that extinction is a plot by the people at the WWF. There are many many lions in Africa. The WWF just wants to make money. This story that the animals are disappearing is for television, for Europeans and Americans.
The woman tells us that like him, she is also a foreigner. She is not native to this country. She and the man met in another country where he lived for several years.
I ask if they left because of conflict in that country. Bah, he says, the conflict is also for television. On television the conflict is a big thing, you see it and you think it’s so bad. In the bush we don’t see it. We have a happy life in the bush. There you are just living every day. The next day you wake up and do it again. You are just hunting, eating, drinking beer and fucking every day. People don’t have any worries.
Me, she says, I don’t worry anybody can come to bother me in the bush. It’s like a game for me. I’m not afraid. Because in my country… in my country, she says… . She holds out one arm in front of her and puts the other index finger to her forehead. The rebels. They came. We were going away, we were leaving but they stop us. The corners of her smile bob up and down. Her eyes turn red and fill with tears that spill over down her cheeks.
Kalashnikovs, he says, nodding at her, dragging on his cigarette, taking another sip of beer, getting up to go to the bathroom.
I put my hands like this, up. I went to my knees. I tell them… I told them they are free to take everything. But they stay like this. She puts the imaginary Kalashnikov to her head again. She apologizes over and over for crying. She wipes the tears away with the flat of her hand but they keep falling. Her smile is a grimace. Above our heads, Dolly Parton launches into Jolene.
For me it is hard. We were three sisters. They… she puts her fists to her hips and makes a thrusting motion. They do this very hard. She tries to smile again. Sorry. Sorry.
You know when the war finished, they kill so many rebels. They put the bodies in the river. They told people don’t drink the water in the river. But me, I drink. I want to drink. I want to drink them. I want to take a knife to kill them but I can’t. So I drink. I want to cut them. I want to cut it off. To put it here, here in their mouth. But I can’t. I can’t. So I drink the water to know that they are finished. Me, I drink them.
He comes back from the bathroom. She blinks the moment away and smiles at him, pats him gently on the knee. They order more beers. The conversation comes back from the very dark place. She says he loves her because he stays with her through everything. He supports her. When he sees women he likes, he tells her and she looks the woman over too and agrees, or not.
Like you, she says, he has been so long without seeing a white woman. You see him, you see his body? He is like this, he is like a fish on sand. She flops her hand around on the sofa palm up, palm down, palm up, palm down, uncontrollably. He is talking so much, you see he doesn’t let you speak. He want to tell you his whole story. Here he doesn’t see white women. The white people here they don’t talk him.
He talks about hunting, his anti-poacher and his hunting chief. They are like his brothers. There is no hierarchy. They hunt together, they eat together, they celebrate together. In the bush life is simple, people are happy. We are happy, he says. Me and my wife.
If I am really your wife, she says.
They tell us we should go to the bush with them. You will like it, they say. It’s very nice. They ask for my cell phone number but I don’t have my work number memorized. They invite us to lunch but we decline. My colleague is tired of the “white people food’ the hotel serves and wants to go to a place around the corner. I can tell she is not so impressed with these people either and wants to get away from them, back to her comfort zone. I’m feeling sticky and sweaty. I tell them I’ll go to shower and on the way out to lunch, I’ll stop in and give them my phone number so we can see about going to their place later in the week.
You are leaving? she asks. Have we disappointed you?
No, no, I just want to bathe, I say. She laughs at me. Why?
I’m sweaty, I tell her. I’m not dressed. Look, I’m wearing my pajamas under my skirt. I only came down for coffee. She eyes me a bit differently. Oh, she says. Me, I want to see the change when you return.
I feel self-conscious now but I go to shower anyway.
I come back and they look me up and down. They comment on my clothing. My freckles. My shoes. They say I am beautiful. He looks happy. She drags on her cigarette and swigs her beer. She says his body is too excited. He is a fish out of water. She makes the flopping motion with her hand again. She doesn’t look so happy.
I’ve written down my name and number on a scrap of paper. I’m intrigued by the idea of going to ‘the bush’ with them. They are so much more interesting than my job at the moment. I can tell my local colleague is not interested at all. She doesn’t trust them. She likes things that are above-board. Things that are straight forward and familiar and respectable. Things that she knows.
We go Thursday he says. My driver will bring you. You come to see the animals. How can you come so far and you are only working, without seeing animals? There you will see them very close. It’s very nice.
Yes, come, she says. It’s beautiful. You will like it. We are so happy there.
My colleague says we need to leave to go to lunch. She says we will be in touch with them later on, but I can already tell she will make sure it never happens.
I give the woman the piece of paper with my name and number. She looks at it. She asks my name again. She raises her eyebrows and laughs. In my language, this means… She makes a circle with her hands and rests them on her thighs, in front of her groin. It is the meaning for this. For clitoris.
He laughs, takes a drag from his cigarette and another sip of beer. They look at each other. That is good, he says, nodding. That is good for me. I spend so long without seeing a white woman.