LETTER TO A STRANGER:
TO THE INESCAPABLE TEACHER
BY ERICA CAVANAGH
You were the person I couldn't stop seeing in Parakou. It was your hometown. I’d be riding on the back of a zemi and think I saw you in your blue button-down passing around the corner on your red scooter. I saw you at marché buying new shoes, and by the rond-point, where a woman sold wagasi cheese, my hand jerking up to wave at you.
Did I say I would write when I left? If I did and failed, I am sorry. I failed to find a French translation of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea for you. I kept wanting to send you that. From our talks on the veranda, I thought you might like it, but my bookstore in the U.S. said they couldn’t get one. They say the Internet is more “connected” now. It’s supposed to be easier to find things, and people, too. Still, when I had the chance, I didn’t try hard enough to find what I wanted to find for you.
“Eureka! I found you!” you used to say, playing on the sound of my name.
You were my teacher. For 10 weeks, you helped train me and 14 fellow Americans for life in Benin. For 10 years, I’ve taught Americans too. I hope we thanked you; I hope I thanked you.
I think about our talks on the Gounons’ veranda often. I see your legs hanging over the concrete railing, your thin ankles below the hem of your pants, and your broad shoulders leaning in. I hear your laugh. I hear you speaking to me under your breath.
When I returned to Benin for the first time in 2002 and saw the Gounons, they asked if I knew you were dead. I did. I’d gotten the news in a mass email, which seemed wrong, but that’s how it goes now. The Gounons remembered how respectful you were when you visited me during that short time I lived with them in ’97, how you’d always go around back and say hello to Maman before coming around to the front again to join me and the children, who were always playing some game in the shade.
In the beginning, I thought you were coming over to help me improve my French. We’d talk about the books we knew in common, like L’Enfant Noir, L’Étranger, and Candide. Neither of us cared for L’Étranger much, though I liked Sartre’s plays and tried to tell you their names, but didn’t know the French translations for No Exit or The Respectful Prostitute. Sometimes my side of the conversation was like playing the game “I’m Thinking of a Word…,” my mind reaching for the French that had yet to become a part of me. You often spoke with your hands, the top of your index finger bent inward from a machine accident when you were a boy.
I confessed I had not joined the Peace Corps because I thought I could fix anything; I had come to Benin to make friends—to watch, listen, care, and learn something different. You had a 12-year-old daughter. Or was she 10? It seemed too personal to ask. We joked a lot instead. I can still hear you quoting from Candide: “Oh, but we live in the best of all possible worlds!”—making it the punch line of our conversations about the despotic bureaucrats who stole donations from Beninese clinics, the American media spectacle and wasted millions over Bill Clinton’s indiscretions, the Ogoni villages burned so Shell Oil could take Nigerian land and drill.
I think you were 32 then. You had a deep-throated, sincere laugh. Sometimes, when you looked at me, your eyes were so full of intent I could feel it right in my sternum and had to look off toward the neighboring maize field, the leafy stalks bathing in dusky light.
“I want to know you,” you said to me once, and the heat rose up my spine. “I want to see you,” you said, in case I had missed your first statement. “Do you understand?” I did understand, but pretended I didn’t get it. I felt so wound up around you I didn’t know what to do but wait it out until the end of training, when I would be shipped to a faraway village and rarely see you. I haven’t known how to explain this, only that I needed to get to know you more slowly; I needed to know the language better and not be so new to Benin.
No one is guarded or unguarded for no reason. There is a game in the United States called tag, and this game teaches you that a touch can freeze you and another kind of touch can unfreeze you. Where I come from, girls are sometimes treated like a game, like that time two boys I knew pulled me away from a party, where music was playing, and I was dancing. You’re going to like this; this’ll be fun, they kept saying, gripping my arm, and then they pinned me to the ground. That taught me not to trust myself or anyone else.
Remember the time you were walking me home and a storm was coming? The heavy heat was pressing down just as the sky boomed and darkened, thunderheads amassing on the horizon. Then the wind picked up and the clouds rolled in fast, the rain rushing toward us like a swift-footed army—which is when we looked at each other and without saying anything, took off running toward the Gounon house. We’d almost reached the gate when the deluge hit and soused us instantly. The front door was locked; we knocked and knocked, but the rain was so loud that no one answered. I only had a key for my bedroom, a room separate from the rest of the house. I wasn’t thinking I shouldn’t be alone in my room with a man, I was thinking we needed shelter.
We dripped on the concrete floor, taking turns with my one towel as we tried to dry off. The room was small and spare. A desk, a wooden chair, and a mattress on the floor were the only furnishings, remember? And my mosquito net hanging over the bed as rain throttled the roof so completely it was thrilling. But we sat, you on the chair and I on the edge of the mattress, looking up at you and trying to seem so casual as you looked at me plaintively and turned shy suddenly, looking away at your hands.
Toward the end of training, when you started teaching us Bariba, your mother tongue, I sensed I would miss your voice and your hands. I remember you teaching us the word for God, gusuno, and the many Bariba blessings that begin with that word. You taught us God, despite your doubts that one even existed.
When I am away from Benin, I miss the sounds. Do you miss the sounds? When I came back, I stayed for two months and had to write down all the sounds, as if I could keep them. The first night I arrived, I heard a storm in the distance and thought about goh yiru, the Bariba celebration for the dead, how every night during the monthlong celebration, calabashes are played, huge calabashes in lantern light played by the open hands of old women. The gift offered up to the dead is sound, so sound is what I must give you now:
I’m surrounded by mosquito netting on a full-frame bed. The swollen
air knows the rain is coming. Taxi motos buzz by, and then the heavier,
trundling sound of four-wheeled vehicles on uneven roads. The curtains,
made from someone’s old sheets, waft, three panels of them, blousing off
of the glass-louvered windows like softly rappelling breath. The ceiling fan
whirrs, but I’m turning it off so I can hear the storm coming. …And it does
come: the throw and toss and sway of wind in the palm trees, and how the
palm leaves, hitting each other, sound like the spray of dashing waves.
In the distance, thunder growls like a waking giant, and in the darkness, lights flash.
That rainy season I learned another Bariba blessing: A kà nim n dosi, Idrissou. May you dream in water.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erica Cavanagh is writing a memoir about her years in Benin. Her non-fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Gastronomica, and elsewhere. Ask Erica about the place she felt most out of her depth: Yémasõ, Benin. How she describes her “stranger,” in six words or less? “Missed.”
Image adapted from Neville Nel