THE WHOLE IDEA WAS to plant trees. Of all the ambiguous callings in life, the dreams that feel silly to say out loud, the careers that ask you to leave your soul behind if it’s too big to fit in a carry-on bag, I figured planting trees in Africa seemed like a pretty sure bet. I’m all for helping clothe a denuding planet, giving good soil something to hold onto. And besides, there’s nothing quite like shade and a ripe mango.
I sat at the edge of a circle of village women and tried to figure out how to talk trees in my infantile Moba. My French was not terribly impressive, either. Nanoum, my homologue, my main collaborator, damn him, had arranged this meeting for the pre-coffee hours and my brain was still on hold. Let alone suffering a small touch of stage fright.
Nanoum had the floor; he was talking about me. I smiled and nodded at the ladies, comprehension eluding me. Nanoum switched into his arm-swinging, breathless French for my benefit, “She came here, all the way from America, to work with you, the Black Togolese. She’s the expert on agriculture, on soil chemistry, on Agroforestry. Listen to her and learn better ways. Do not shame us with your ignorance and laziness.”
Then he nodded at me to get up and I stood there for a moment, mouth open and empty in front of these women. My entire Moba dissolved into the single joke I’d heard about a guy who went around asking people in the village if they ate cats. No doubt a classic in Moba humor, it didn’t seem likely to save me from the wreckage of Nanoum’s good intentions. “Black Togolese”? I wanted the concrete floor to open and drop me into some hidden escape hatch. The latrine would have sufficed.
Nanoum, I could only presume, meant well. But he had tics. He bounced and twitched, his eyes gleamed too pale and too wild. When we approached, the people in town backed away, recalling chores waiting for them elsewhere. While other Togolese were quiet, Nanoum chattered out agricultural fancies like a river of black ants spilling from his mouth. Legend had it that those gentle ants who stormed great black ribbons across the sand brought prayers sweetened with honey to the sage men of the Otherworld. Nanoum’s words carried prayers, but they fell on the wrong ears. He spoke to us but we were not sage and we were not dead and his words were not so sweet.
The morning I first met him, I opened my front door to an old man in farmer’s rags fidgeting on my wide concrete porch. The porch served as a communal oven of sorts and I’d often found it strewn with surprises: roasting peanuts, drying chilis, chickens, children. But nothing topped the rusty bike and a fretful old man who hollered out, “I am Nanoum, your homologue!”
I was a surprise for him as well. He tried to be polite for a moment or two. Then finally he blurted, “I see you unfortunately are a woman.”
We made attempts to work together, but in truth I was glad the old guy lived several kilometers away. I had my village and he had his. He kept inviting me to visit and I kept making excuses. But my paychecks arrived monthly in my account at the marble-countered bank in the region’s capital, an hour’s bike ride north on the one tarmac road, the gudron. Which passed directly through the center of Nanoum’s village. If I wanted my mail, money, or anything resembling coffee, I was going to have to visit him. We finally set a date: I would find him in his village on the next market day.
Marche day in Nanoum’s village came and the women of mine had bananas on their heads. They moved gently along the side of the gudron, burdened by as much weight as I, on my lightweight modern bike, was free. We stared at each other for a moment, women in different lives moving up the same road. Then my pedal scraped the edge of the road and blue sky looped around me. As did my bike, its green paint doing a rainbow over my head, then landing on me, hard, down among the trodden mud off the side of the gudron.
The women hurried over in the wake of my colossal wipeout and peered down at me and tried to take me to their homes. The bike worked fine; it was the first thing I checked. It was askew but I could ride it. But could I?
I was a mess. From the toe of one sandaled foot, split open down the middle, up through one knee, elbow and shoulder, my blood was gummy with dirt and I’d knocked my helmeted head hard against the pavement.
The banana ladies clustered with concern and I contemplated rolling my bike home to patch things up before I continued towards the city, but Nanoum was in the marche waiting for me, and further up the road, the Peace Corps maison: clean, filtered water, sterile bandages and mail from home. I got on my bike and pedaled somewhat shakily north.
Aching and dizzy, just a few kilometers on, I wobbled to the edge of Nanoum’s marche. Young boys led me back through the circus tents to the tchokpa stand Nanoum favored. He sat on a log in the busy alcoholic shade, the mud floor wet with sloshed millet beer offerings to the ancestors.
“Come! You’ve come!” Nanoum sounded surprised. For once I’d exceeded expectations and caught him unguarded, without his peevish agendas and tics.
I took a calabash in my scraped hands and spilled some out. I drank too; I felt like I needed the sustenance of bubbly warm alcohol in my body, some fluid to fill in the bits that were busy leaking out.
His friends came around as we sat there in the shade too thick for anyone to really see how muddy and hurt I was. Nanoum’s joy was catching: his pride in his home, the way he showed me off to them, like I’d come not from the next village over but from half the world away to visit him, on this particular tchokpa log, this particular, peculiar old man. I don’t know if Nanoum’s village friends thought he was as insane as my villagers did, but somehow here it didn’t matter. He’d been born in this village. He might have been crazy, but he was their crazy fool. Inside their affection for him, home, Nanoum lost a layer of his anxieties; like I wasn’t the only one there minus some skin, exposed.
Nanoum asked me to come by his house, to see his fields. By then the bruises and the flies had caught up to me and I was itching to get to the city. But more than his village, Nanoum’s farm was his home. It was our trade: he wouldn’t fuss about my refusal to wash my wounds in his unfiltered water and I would pay my respects to his fields.
The millet bowed around me, tall and redheaded and bountiful. Nanoum’s fields cupped the crest of a soft hill above the village, and stretched far beyond his earthen house. Most Togolese lived close to other homes, preferring to walk to their fields rather than to their neighbors, but Nanoum’s home sat apart from people, nestled among his plants, under the arms of a big mango as lush as a wild tree.
Nanoum reached his hands up into a low-slung portion of mango leaves like he was shaking hands, touching the palm of a friend. “I grafted early-bearing fruits on this side.” We followed the fat trunk around and he reached higher, to where the branches were denser. “This portion I grafted with a mid-season variety. Then the late here, as well. Since the grafting had succeeded.”
And we stood there under the canopy of a tree that had grown, since its grafting, tall enough to shade a house. A tree he’d cut and scarred and encouraged to heal at least as long ago as I was born. An ever-bearing tree, whose fruits ripened around the tree like the rolling of the Earth around the sun. And I saw him there, hands in the dark green leaves and knew then that he was the true expert from another country, another planet even. A prophet whose words had gone so long unheeded that the ants and honey had made him funny in the head. Desperate for someone to give a damn, to stop and learn about the ways he’d woven his hands into the green and what wisdom had ripened in them. He’d even consent to present me a woman as his cover, his partner, his homologue. He’d pretend I was the one with the brains and the expertise if one of his countrymen would just listen to the things, the impossible things, he could teach them.
I couldn’t stay. I had to take what light was left in the day and ride on to the city. We both seemed a little shaky, stale, drunk in the dwindling sunlight. Nanoum walked me to the edge of the millet, where a dirt path led down off the hill. We could see the village from there and the gudron pulling out of it, away to the north. Behind us I could still just see his home beneath the growing shade of the mango tree a tree so improbable, so precious it must have been grafted by a fool. Or perhaps a very wise man.
Alison Coluccio was an agroforestry PCV in Togo and is a research technician who has studied the genetics of flowers, particularly of corn, arabidopsis and potatoes, at labs in New York and Guanajuato, Mexico. Currently she works on yeast genetics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and lives on Long Island with her husband and daughter. She is at work on a novel inspired by the lives of three women she met in Togo.