By Michael H. Kew
LUMPY PILLOW, BAD SLEEP in the empty three-story hotel on a hill. It overlooks a town and its harbor, once used to ship timber from now-deforested Mali.
My gut shakes, result of last night’s langouste feast with Solibra Bock beers in the hotel’s restaurant, where Walid and I were the sole diners. This morning, the little town is abuzz—birds, honking cars, sawing, hammering, rap music, lumber being stacked, wind, people talking, kids yelling. The sky is sunny with some clouds; there is, of course, the smell of burning trash. Muezzin creeps into the airspace. Shanty clusters are stacked up the hill, little square boxes of white and brown smooshed unevenly aside one another, with sparse relief patches of green trees. Atop the main hill are the larger, richer homes. Many people walking—where are they going?
The Atlantic shimmers in the heat, the low, hazy skyline a silhouette of immense jungle stretching eastward to infinity. Down on the steep beach, fishermen push their wooden canoes into the backwashed shorepound near a brown rivermouth that has a right-hander mushing off of it. Last night, over the beers and lobster, Walid told me it can get good, “but many big fish.”
Near noon, he knocks on my door.
“We go. Waves should be okay.”
In town we stop at a stall for an unrefrigerated bottle of orange Fanta, which soothes my belly. The midday sun is searing, the track to the remote fishing village bumpy and overgrown, unsigned and obscure. Not obscure is the onshore wind, trashing the mushy, lumpy righthanders smashing off pinkish granite rocks that cradle a small cove, featuring a small fleet of fishing pirogues.
The wave here is a summertime favorite among Walid and his friends; they drive from Abidjan to surf and relax with bearded, cheerful Jules, a part-time bodyboarder who lives full-time with his family in a shack overlooking the cove, 200 yards west of the main village. The extent of Jules’s English is “Yes I,” something normally said by dreadlocked rastafarians.
We shake hands.
“Je suis heureux de vous rencontrer, Jules.” (I’m happy to meet you.)
He laughs in that crackly, deep-voiced, African-smoker way. He’s happy. Walid brought cigarettes.
I survey the scene while Jules hacks a couple of coconuts open for us. Burning leaves scent the air, while on the small pocket beach fronting the wave, men hammer on a new pirogue. Aside from going to sea, the boat will never leave this village.
Drinking from the coconuts at Jules’s shaded plastic outdoor table, while the wind eases, rustling palm fronds above us, Walid describes a great outside interest to develop the beach touristically. He suggests this would essentially corrupt and dull the shine of the place, so he’s taking charge, donating money, helping Jules to establish a surf camp, which today is nothing but two flimsy rooms with sand floors but no beds, toilets, or running water.
“If we don’t help Jules, in two or three years, here is finished. Hotel, you know? Place like this no change because of the war, but war is finished. Development now, you know?”
“So you think that, because the war is over, people are going to want to come here?”
“Yes! Many guy want this spot. Many opportunistic. Not now, but five years, 10 years, they come. So we preparing. It’s not good to have l’étranger (strangers) to come here and take this place. Good for local person, long time life live here. I live here many war, many population, no problem.”
An orange/white/green (Ivorian flag colors) pirogue with Dieu Merci (“Thank God”) painted on its bow sails around the headland, soon beached with its bounty of fish that look like big sardines. The whole village reacts—naked boys, giggling girls, women in colorful dresses and men in ripped soccer jerseys. (In rural Africa, attire fashion often contrasts between those preferring traditional [colorful sarongs, wraps, headdresses] versus western [straightened hair, counterfeited designer clothing]).
As if in a tug-of-war with the canoe, men chant and grunt as they drag it from the bluey-brown shorebreak and onto the sand, past the tideline. Commotion and haggling about who gets what and how much. A group of small boys clown for my camera. Three small girls cry and yell at each other; their moms yell at each other. Many goats and chickens, some dogs but no barking. One man divvies the fish, filling large stainless steel bowls and white plastic buckets (I Love Africa on one) into which the women pour seawater before carrying them to the village.
Back at Jules’s, Walid rolls a joint while I wax my 5’4” Lovelace quad fish. The day fades but the tide has dropped and new swell has arrived. Long lulls.
Appearing from the village is Édouard, the village’s surfer, tall and shy, in prime physical shape but smoking a cigarette. Underarm is a thrashed, yellow, too-small (for him) 6’0” AXL thruster from Anglet, France. Walid gifted it 15 years ago, when Édouard was a boy. He speaks no English, so we communicate with hand gestures and facial expressions during the short walk to the slippery jumping-off spot on the nose of the point.
Backdrop: steep pink crescent beach, dense palm forest, colorful pirogues, sagging shacks in the square of village. A scene of purity, devoid of commerce or overcrowding, an innocence of subsistence owed to isolation, its absence of pavement, proximity to wilderness.
The ocean is cool, murky. Despite whitecaps behind the point, the waves are smooth and playful, the good ones running for a while, past a large washrock, ending in shorepound at the edge of the village, where young boys clap and cheer.
The sets pulse; Édouard and I trade. No talking. His surfing is economic and smooth despite his anorexic board. At one interlude, he stands on the headland and hoots, pointing to sea at the approach of a rogue set. Nice one. Paddling back out, a turtle surfaces to my left. (Walid, later: “Shark like turtle. Turtle like surfer. Ha! But here, many food for the shark.”)
During the session, fishermen in four pirogues row around the point and weave through the lineup before beaching in front of the awaiting folks, eager to see the day’s catch. Following this afternoon ritual, the women return to the village, buckets and bowls of fish atop their heads, followed by exhausted men, walking slowly with Yamaha outboards on their shoulders; the youths carry buoys, green nets, gas tanks. Each night, nothing but wet hulls are left on the beach.
Gone since dawn, a blue pirogue slides into view. Four figures: two men frantically rowing; one man frantically bailing; a teenage boy lazily steering. The arrival causes a stir. Three men leap from the point to help the sinking pirogue, which surfs a wave sideways. Returning to the beach with their empty buckets and stainless steel bowls, women wait for fish; the men building the new pirogue seem to notice nothing.
The sun drops and daylight dims. Villagers—Édouard included—return to their homes, most to stoke fires and embrace ambient darkness, the thunder of shorebreak filling the night. Tomorrow will be a repeat of today and yesterday, last week, last year. Because in the village, so somnolent and marginalized and self-sufficient, a world outside does not exist. Yet nothing but the outside can ever change it.