When I agreed to accompany George Templeton into jungle a thousand miles west of Nairobi, I did not imagine that I would meet a girl who would change my life. The job was presented simply as a week’s gig helping Templeton fly a plane to a mission station called Bololo. Since my teaching job had ended for the year and I was idle, I was glad to sign on.
Ordinarily George travelled with his wife. But she had come to Africa to watch animals, not to inspect mission stations. George, however, wanted something from Africa that was more than counting lions and giraffes. But I’m not sure he knew what that something was.
He seemed to have everything: pots of money, a beautiful wife (though maybe not a beautiful marriage; I sensed there was maybe not much intimacy), phenomenal houses in Santa Barbara, at the Smoketree Ranch in Palm Springs, and on Vancouver Island. After graduating from Yale in the ‘50s he went to the Northwest Territories of Canada as a bush pilot. There he built an airline that had been recently bought by Air Canada. Now he was a multi-millionaire. But the thing he had lived for – his airline – had been taken from him. He still had a questing spirit and a desire to do things that counted.
The Central African Mission had a string of twelve stations in the old Equateur Province of what was then Mobutu’s Congo. It also had a long shopping list of equipment needs. George found a used Cessna for sale, checked it over carefully and took it up. During a week of game-viewing, he decided to donate the plane to the mission. He would fly out there, visit stations in a CAM vehicle he could leave in Kisangani, and then hop a plane back to Nairobi.
Mrs. Templeton did not want George to fly long distances over Africa alone. That prospect didn’t bother him. But he agreed that in the Congo it was not wise to drive very far alone; no telling who might commandeer the vehicle. So it was decided that he would take a companion along. The companion turned out to be me.
I had been teaching at a secondary school in Nanyuki and had signed a contract to teach a second year. So I had a few weeks to kill. George heard about me and sought me out. I gave him references. He invited me to dinner at the Norfolk Hotel. While we were having after-dinner coffee, I excused myself, ostensibly to take a leak, but actually to give them time to discuss me. When I returned, I had passed muster with Mrs. Templeton. George offered me the opportunity, agreeing to pick up all the expenses and offering a small salary, and I signed on.
We flew west-southwest for three days. The farther we flew, away from his wife, from telephones and FAX connections to the world, the more relaxed George became. I asked about his bush-piloting days in Canada and he told me story after story as we sat above the green landscape passing below.
The third day we found Bololo station: church, school, hospital, homes with wide screened porches, all roofed in corrugated metal. We buzzed the place. As we circled back, you could see people, black and white, running toward the landing strip. We were greeted like heroes. People I never did meet embraced me. They used Christian phrases and born-again jargon that I did not fully understand. They clustered around the new-to-them plane, touching it with a gentleness that made it seem alive.
Behind this cluster of greeters stood a remarkably beautiful girl with dark hair, fair skin and blue eyes that observed everything. She smiled at me and waved. I waved back and wondered what she was doing in the remotest reaches of the jungle.
We were taken off to get settled in the station guesthouse and have some lunch. Nothing was scheduled for the afternoon. George wanted to look around the station. I begged off saying I’d take a swim in the Tshuapa.
Walking down to the beach I was aware of African children appearing out of nowhere to watch me. It was as if I had dropped in from outer space. The kids stared at me, but when I asked their names, only the bravest did not scurry off.
I laid out a towel, put my sandals and tee shirt beside it and waded into the water. Lovely and cool. Most refreshing on a humid afternoon. I swam out to the center of the river, found its current lazy, flopped over on my back, and watched the great whipped cream puffs of clouds float across the sky.
Returning to shore, I saw a missionary woman and some kids on the beach. She turned out to be the girl I’d waved to earlier. As I left the water, I said hello.
“I heard someone was swimming here,” the girl said. “I couldn’t figure out who that would be.”
“I’m Nate,” I said. “Didn’t we wave at each other back there?”
“We did,” she agreed.
We exchanged a smile and I sat on my towel. She was wearing a super-modest swimsuit I’d never seen in an age of bikinis. Thinking I ought to find out exactly what we had here, I asked, “Are these your kids?”
“Oh, no. I’m babysitting,” she said. I was pleased to hear that. “This here’s Tyler. And Mamie.”
I greeted the kids. They were playing with a pail and rubber balls. They examined me without speaking. “I saw some monkeys over there,” I told Tyler. “Did you see them?” The boy stared at me.
“I guess monkeys aren’t special if you live here.” I said to the girl.
“Mr. Templeton’s from America,” she said. “Is that where you’re from?”
I explained that I was living in Kenya. She said she hoped to go there some day. I told her that if she came while I was still there, I’d be glad to show her around. Just then the boy threw his rubber ball into the river.
“Careful, Ty,” warned the girl. “That could float away.” She waded into the water to fetch the ball. That gave me a chance to check her out. Nice legs. Attractive body. She got the ball and turned back in time to see me eyeballing her. She blushed.
“You do nice things for that bathing suit,” I said.
“I bet the last person you saw in this kind of suit was Esther Williams.”
“She looked good in a bathing suit and so do you.”
“I bet you don’t even know who Esther Williams was.”
“Didn’t she play Mary Poppins?”
Tyler threw the ball into the river again. I fetched it this time.
“How do you know Esther Williams?” I asked.
“You wouldn’t believe the old movies we see out here.”
“You’re very pretty,” I told her. Why waste time? She blushed again. “I didn’t expect to find pretty on a mission station.” I handed her the ball. She gave it to the kid. “You live here?” I asked.
“I’m sorta here for the summer. I go to school—“
Mamie threw mud on my towel.
“Oh, gee,” the girl said. “I guess these kids wanta get home for their naps.” She started to assemble their gear.
When she started back to the houses, I walked with her. She asked about Kenya and I told her about teaching there. She seemed interested in knowing about places beyond Bololo. I took it she’d spent most of her life there.
Once she got the kids settled, I suggested she could give me a tour of the station. She hesitated a moment, then said she couldn’t leave her charges. However, she’d walked me to the guesthouse. When we got there, I had the strangest desire to kiss her. I hadn’t kissed an American girl in over a year. I suggested, “Could we have a cup of coffee somewhere?”
“We don’t drink much coffee here,” she said. Then she added, “There’s a ‘do’ tonight at the Assembly Hall. Why don’t you come? The whole station will be there.”
“Okay. I’ll see you there.” I watched her go off, realizing I hadn’t asked her name. “Nate-boy,” I said to myself, “you’re out of practice.”
That evening at the Assembly Hall there was a large gathering of missionaries and African brethren to celebrate the plane and George Templeton who gave the handsome gift. Also there was soon to be a wedding on the station. A missionary doctor whose wife had recently died, leaving him with small children, was marrying the only daughter of a missionary family.
When cake and Kool-Aid were about to be served, the bridal couple was introduced. The doctor stepped forward, grinning foolishly in the midst of the crowd. A round of applause called for the bride-to-be. Finally the girl I’d talked to at the river appeared. She did not really stand with the doctor and I assumed she was an attendant, waiting for the bride to join them. Then – whoa! – it struck me. She was the bride! No wonder she declined to give me a tour of the station.
The doctor reached out his hand, lightly cupped her elbow, and pulled her beside him. She had been relaxed with me, but now she seemed awkward. While everyone clapped and whistled, the girl stared at the floor. She and the doctor did not appear to have much rapport. Probably with reason. Tall, balding, nearly forty, and with metal-rimmed glasses, the doctor seemed that odd combination, a cold fish in a warm climate. His name was Dave Roberts. He called her Elizabeth; she called him “Dr. Dave.”
A cake was brought out. I noticed that when he took her hand to cut it together, his touch was gentle. I felt that he was both clearly pleased with what Providence had sent his way and that he meant to be good to her. His exterior was obviously not the best way to judge him. Even so, she stood beside him as if he were her schoolmaster, not her husband-to-be.
When I went up to get some cake, I congratulated Elizabeth. I said, “I guess I won’t have a chance to show you Kenya.”
“You coming to my wedding?” she asked.
“Wish I could,” I teased. “I’d like to kiss the bride. But we’re leaving that morning.”
Embarrassed, she said, “Enjoy the cake.”
Fresh water supplies were tight at Bololo; everyone bathed in the river. At first light I slipped down to it, shucked off my shorts, dipped myself into the water naked, and soaped my body. Africans appeared out of nowhere to watch. It turned out that you weren’t supposed to wash in the buff. The missionaries bathed in swimsuits.
Shorts on again, I started back across the landing strip, my entourage of watchers following. I noticed Elizabeth walking toward our guesthouse, carrying a tray; on it sat two cups and a teapot cloaked in a cozy. As I approached, our eyes met. She smiled. I returned the smile, feeling more naked than I expected to. She waited for me.
“Olecko, mondeli,” she called. I frowned and came up to her. “‘Olecko’ means ‘Are you there?’ in Lonkundo,” she explained. “‘Mondeli’ means ‘stranger.’ You answer, ‘Olecko.’” She watched me, waiting for me to answer.
“Olecko,” I said.
“That means, ‘I am here. Are you there?’ And I say, ‘Oh.’ Which means, ‘I am here.’” Then she asked, “Did you bathe in the river? I haven’t had a shower since I was in the States.”
“When was that?”
“Real long ago.” She handed me the tea tray. “This will help you and George wake up.”
“Do you want to go to the States?” I asked.
Her eyes betrayed her eagerness to see a world that would be as strange to her as her world was to me.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“Twenty-three,” I said. “And you?”
“Guess,” she commanded.
“Twenty, maybe?” She shook her head and seemed pleased to have fooled me. “Eighteen?”
When I kept looking at her, she explained, “Doctor Dave needs help with his kids.” I said nothing. She added, “Mutimba who I grew up with has two babies already.”
“How did his wife die?” I asked.
“Childbirth.” She added, “He wants me to replace the child they lost.”
We looked at each other a long moment. I wanted to kiss her again. “I’m sure you’ll have lovely babies,” I said. I pushed on into the guesthouse.
I set the tray down in the parlor and knocked on George’s door. “Tea!” I called. I went to my room to throw on a tee shirt and fresh shorts. When I returned to the parlor, George had poured tea for both of us. I said, “That girl they’re marrying off to the doctor is only seventeen.”
George replied, “That’s what I heard. Girls ripen early in the tropics.”
We had breakfast outside the house of the station administrator along with Dave Roberts and his kids and Elizabeth who was tending them again. Before we finished, the doctor excused himself to go off to his surgery. He operated in the mornings, he explained, while it was still cool.
I walked back to the house with Elizabeth and the kids. Elizabeth left them with a Congolese woman who was there, one of the brethren, and offered me the tour of the station we hadn’t had the day before. As we walked, she asked if I’d been to Europe (yes), how many countries had I visited (six) and which was my favorite (France).
“You saw Paris,” she said. “I’d love to see Paris.”
“I’m sure you’ll go there sometime.”
“Don’t I wish!” She sighed. “I guess I’ll be at Bololo the rest of my life.”
We finished our station tour at the plane. She approached it as if it were alive and placed her hand on the wing as if to pet it. “Want to sit on the wing?”
“Can it hold me?”
“You saw me cross it when we arrived.” She nodded that she had. “Here. Let me hoist you.”
I put my hands on her ribs just above her hips and lifted her up onto the wing. She sat, surprised and pleased with herself. “Now you walk across the wing and inspect the cockpit.” She scrambled to her feet and, walking in a gingerly way, stepped across the wing to gaze inside the cockpit. When she returned to get down, she sat on the wing again. I took her under her arms and let her body fall across mine on the way to the ground. I enjoyed that, body on body. It made for a curious moment, the third time I felt like kissing her. To prove I wasn’t going to break any rules with Dave Roberts’ fiancée, I said, “Maybe Dave can take you up in the plane one day.”
Late that afternoon Dave drove over to Bololo State Post and invited George and me along. At the State Post the Territorial Administrator had liquor on his breath. Since the mission needed to maintain good relations with this man, Dave invited him to the wedding the next day. He made a joke about marriage and wished Dave well.
We walked down the road to a one-room store and bought bottles of lukewarm beer. To drink it, we sat on stools under a canopy of banana fronds. “My fellow missionaries scold me for drinking this,” Dave said. “I do it because there’s so much we forbid Africans to do. They mustn’t dance because we think that excites their lusts. Mustn’t be idle. Mustn’t go naked. I don’t think beer will send ‘em to hell.”
After a time George asked, “If you had a modern surgery, would your work be a lot easier here?” Was he contemplating donating a modern surgery to the station, perhaps with the help of well-heeled contacts interested in Africa?
Dave stared at his bottle of beer, studying how to answer. Finally he said, “We don’t really need a modern surgery.”
“What do you need?” George asked.
“Patience.” Dave smiled ruefully. “If we were a modern country, maybe we could use a modern surgery.” After a moment he said, “Today the Congo’s sinking back into a way of life no better than when the first explorers came through. Leprosy’s on the rise again.
“Tomorrow when you visit Mondombe,” Dave went on, “you’ll be on dirt roads that were once so smooth you could rip along at sixty miles an hour. Not now. You’ll pass plantations that used to send produce to markets on the rivers,” he said. “Not anymore. Boats don’t ply the rivers like they used to. Schedule? Why bother? Why stop at plantations that don’t bribe the crews? If properly processed, raw rubber lasts indefinitely. But African-run plantations don’t process it properly. The foreign-owned ones have all been driven out. So rubber decays at the roadside. You’ll smell it. The stench carries for miles. The same is true for palm nuts. They rot.”
Dave shrugged tiredly and tried to smile. “Our clean water’s uncertain. So’s our electricity. Our gasoline. We don’t eat much fresh food. Sometimes my wife used to cry at night.” He paused. After a moment he said, “If this were a modern country, my wife would not have died. I wouldn’t be marrying a teenager tomorrow who’s willing to risk her future with a man almost three times her age.”
“Why do you stay?” George asked.
“Because my doctoring matters. I handle it easily now. After ten years out here I know the language and the customs. I like the people.” Dave finished his beer and pushed the bottle away. “And maybe I stay, because no hospital in the States wants a doctor who is absolutely first-class in jungle conditions doing procedures that haven’t been done Stateside in thirty years.”
There was a silence. George and I glanced over at Dave. He was staring at his hands. Out of the blue he said, “There was a report of cannibalism here last week at State Post.”
George and I exchanged a surprised look.
“Half a dozen women ate a six- or seven-year-old child.”
For a moment no one spoke.
Then I asked, “That sort of thing really happens?”
Dave nodded. “We get inquiries now and then from people looking for a missing child. Or a young adult. They take them, too.”
“I’ve heard of ritual cannibalism,” George said.
“There’s that,” Dave replied, “but this is meat-hunger. Something we never think of. But Africans think about it all the time.”
I had never heard of such things in Kenya and wanted to get away. I stood, gathered the beer bottles, and took them back to the little store where we’d bought them. I thought of Elizabeth. My hands felt her ribs in my grasp again. She longed to see the world. It seemed a terrible thing to me that the next day she was marrying this strange, good man in order to take care of his motherless kids and give him others. It seemed to me that in a way the missionaries were eating their own children. It wasn’t just the Africans who were cannibals.
As Dave drove us back to Bololo, George took a nap in the rear seat. We moved along without speaking. George’s light snoring made the only sound. Finally Dave said, “You must think it strange, don’t you, that I’m marrying a girl who’s even too young for you?”
“I guess girls get married young out here,” I replied.
“It was Lucas Jenkins’ idea,” Dave said. Jenkins was Elizabeth’s father. “But I’m still trying to get used to the idea that my wife is dead, not just on a trip somewhere.”
I glanced over at Dave. He was staring at the road. It occurred to me that he needed someone to talk to in order to hear how the idea of his marrying Elizabeth sounded when it was put into words. Neither of us spoke for a while.
“That administrator you met, he’s also the local chief,” Dave said. “He went to Lucas and asked for Elizabeth. Did it in the old-fashioned way. Led a delegation of elders. They offered bridewealth, the whole thing. He wanted Elizabeth for his oldest son. About your age. Likely to take over the chieftaincy.”
Dave shook his head.
“Jenkins was flabbergasted. He thought his daughter was still playing with dolls.”
I laughed. So did Dave.
“The chief’s son’s not a bad kid. Went to our school. He’s not a Christian, but he agreed to be baptized.”
Dave slowed . “This raises interesting problems for us,” he said. “We talk about all being brothers in Christ. But we have a color bar. Lucas Jenkins can preach Christian brotherhood. But he sure won’t let some black savage marry his daughter. No way!”
“What does Elizabeth think about getting married?”
“I don’t know that anyone’s asked her. She was supposed to finish high school at Pakima Station, then go off to Bible college somewhere.”
“What made Jenkins come to you?”
“Bad options. It was unthinkable that Elizabeth should go off to live in a hut somewhere with her African husband. How would you like your daughter bare-breasted and in a breechclout pounding manioc in a mortar?”
I nodded, taking his point.
“The Jenkinses couldn’t send Elizabeth home to finish high school. There were no relatives for her to stay with and no money to send her to boarding school.”
“Why couldn’t she just stay here?”
“Lucas was afraid the chief might harm her in some way. Kidnap her. Maybe worse. Such things happen.”
“Couldn’t the Mission Society help place her in a school in the States?”
“The truth is: Lucas didn’t want her in the States. We’ve got a little island of our own creating out here. If Elizabeth leaves our island with an African husband, she faces the degradation and reversion to savagery that’s all around us. If she leaves our island for the States, she faces the corruption of America’s irreligious, sex-crazed, immediate-gratification society we all fear.”
“When you put it that way, not an easy choice.”
“No one thinks this is a paradise. It’s just better than the other alternatives.”
“Are you and Elizabeth friends?”
“The truth is: I hardly know her.” After a moment he continued, “It looks good on paper, I suppose. My kids have a mother. I have a companion. I don’t have to leave our little island. And the Africans see that Lucas Jenkins had other plans for Elizabeth.”
“You ‘don’t have to leave’? You wouldn’t have stayed out here unmarried? It just doesn’t work for the kids?”
“Society rules. No unmarried male missionaries in the field.”
“The body needs it satisfactions. We’re not saints. I can tell you in confidence, since my wife died, I’ve seen African women who looked pretty good to me.”
“We’re not talking intellectual companionship here.”
He smiled shyly.
“Maybe marrying Elizabeth works out pretty well then,” I suggested.
Dave shrugged. “I don’t know that Ruthie has talked to her about what married life involves. I guess her paL Mutimba has. We’ll just take it slow. Eventually bodies do attract. That’s why marriages work. You toil together, have children, get past challenges. After a while you find you love someone. Love comes slowly, but it comes.”
That evening after dinner the Bololo missionaries gathered for a jungle-style wedding rehearsal. George and I arrived in time to watch Reverend Jenkins, who would preside at his daughter’s wedding, tell Elizabeth and Dave and their two attendants how to manage the exchange of rings. Thanks to a radio net linking CAM stations missionaries all along the Tshuapa “attended” the rehearsal. They chatted back and forth, gossiping, talking shop and offering the couple congratulations.
When Jenkins invited Dave to kiss the bride, someone shouted into the net, “He’s gonna kiss her now!” People laughed. Elizabeth stiffened. Dave hesitated, then pecked her as if kissing his daughter. Laughter, whistles, applause. People on the net asked, “Did he give her a good one? Is she gonna want more where that came from?” Elizaberth grimaced. Refreshments were brought out: Kool-Aid and cookies that Dave’s children and she had made that afternoon.
By this time I rather liked Dave. Strangely, I hoped he was good at sex. He was an admirable person. If he were also an accomplished lover, why shouldn’t Elizabeth fall in love with him? I hoped she’d be happy. If she were, it would be because she had no idea of the possibilities that lay in the wide world beyond Bololo.
George offered the couple a toast in Kool-Aid. Dave and Elizabeth stood side by side, not yet well enough acquainted to touch. While George spoke, Elizabeth kept glancing at me, sometimes with a help-me look. I found that disconcerting: how could I help? When he returned to the States, George promised, he would send as a gift the entire Disney Video Library. The missionaries cheered; it was the perfect gift for their island. George quaffed his Kool-Aid, kissed the bride, and left. “We hit the road at first light,” he reminded me.
I looked back at Elizabeth. Our eyes met. I wanted very much to kiss her. But I didn’t trust myself in front of a room full of religionists trained in detecting lust. So I clasped my hands above my head, signalled thumbs up to both her and Dave, and left the house without looking back.
Once in bed, I couldn’t sleep. George began to snore. I crawled out from under the mosquito net and went to close his door. He did not stir.
Later I woke, sensing that someone had entered the room. I did not move, only opened my eyes. A figure came beside my bed, stared at me, then crouched. “Olecko,” it whispered.
I tried to remember the response, but I couldn’t. My heart was beating so fast and I had such a hard-on that it was pointless to think.
“Can I come in?” She pulled the mosquito net out from under the mattress, slid beneath it, and slithered up onto the bed. She wore an old-time missionary outfit, a loose dress that reached to her ankles. By contrast I was naked. I was lying without covers, wearing only boxers, boxers that looked more and more like a tent. I sat up, crossed my legs and arms before me and moved to the far end of the bed.
“What’re you doing here?”
“You didn’t say goodbye. Why not?”
“I waved. We smiled at each other.”
“That’s not the same as goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” I said. “There.”
She looked at me as much as that was possible across the darkness. She reached out and touched my face. “Why didn’t you say goodbye? You were supposed to kiss the bride.”
“I didn’t want to kiss you,” I said.
“I don’t believe that.” Her hand moved across my cheek.
Very softly I said, “Shhh. George is in the next room.”
“Why didn’t you want to kiss me? I know you’ve been watching me. I’ve felt your eyes on me.” Her fingertips touched my eye sockets.
Feeling her touch, remembering her beauty, I fumbled for words. “I was afraid to kiss you.”
“Why?” she asked.
I took her hands in mine and kissed them. “There. I kissed the bride.”
“Why were you afraid to kiss me?”
“Because I couldn’t kiss you the way I wanted.”
“Kiss me that way.. Right now.”
I put her hands in her lap and released them. “I can’t even see your face,” I said.
Suddenly she rose on her knees, put her arms over her head and pulled off the dress. “Show me how to do this,” she said. She crawled toward me. “I don’t even know Doctor Dave. I don’t want him to be the first man to do this with me.”
I looked at her through the darkness. She was beautiful. Naked except for panties. I was wondering… Could I? If she had just not taken off that nightgown.
“We’re supposed to be together,” she said.
Several times I had wanted to kiss her; I wanted to kiss her now. “Yes, I feel that, too,” I said. Very tentatively I touched her breast. We looked at each other across the darkness. She moved closer. I thought of her body against mine when I helped her off the plane. I remembered Dave observing that bodies need their satisfactions. I wanted her. And she wanted me. She was very young. Still… What to do?