Critical Life lessons Learned About The Locals By Sinking A Subaru In A Mud Hole In Ivory Coast, West Africa

“Travel is the saddest of pleasures, it gave me eyes” (Paul Theroux. Picture Palace)

I was as green as one gets, having arrived in Ivory Coast, West Africa only a few months earlier, in September 1995. But early on, that mud-hole incident taught me critically important Ivorian life lessons. Lessons we needed to learn to stick it out in Côte D’Ivoire. Lessons that give us courage to live and work in Africa to this very day.

From those first days, until I left five years later, we spent almost every weekend in the bush from Saturday to Sunday, often times we left on Friday too. It was fun, with lots of stories and adventures,  but the schedule was grueling at times.

Only three or four weeks after our arrival in Abengourou, my co-worker and friend, Milton Clark, had a village weekend trip to  Bébou booked. Bébou is an Agni village about 50 Km drive in the bush, South of Abengourou.   I was to make the two day trip into the bush with him, so we packed up our village boxes and loaded the car.  Milton tossed me the keys to the ancient 4*4 Subaru Station Wagon and said, “You Drive”.  I was reluctant to navigate the rough narrow bush road, but Milton seemed to think that I needed to get used to driving here sooner rather than later. Unknown to us in Abengourou, it had rained heavily in the bush the few days before.

Bébou is situated only a few kilometers from the  Komoé (Comoé) River on it’s West. A narrow but important 800 km river in Eastern Ivory Coast, with is origins north, in Burkina Faso. On the eastern side of Bébou there is also a smaller but active tributary called the Mazan River. There was an ancient cement and rock bridge across the Mazan, which now had huge holes that can  drop your wheel in to the axle. In dry season the locals wedge six inch thick boards into the holes to seal them. Only problem is that after a rain the bridge is under water. I have driven across with a foot or more of fast moving water. It’s dangerous to cross because  the high water washes out the boards filling the huge holes, and theoretically one could wash the vehicle sideways off the bridge in the swift current,  if you are floating too much.  I have often seen this bridge covered to a depth of eight feet. The good news is that in my later years  a new  bridge was built and raise much higher, so it was passable at all times.

If it rained heavily like this, we would have to take another route to get to Bébou, one that by-passed the Mazan River crossing altogether.  It was not a road, really a path through the “Forêt Classé”, a small protected forest, one of dozens in the Agni territory.  This one was often refereed to as “Ekkie’s Garden”. I will tell that story in another post.

Anyway, Milton directed me down the small paths as I drove. We soon came to a water hole, one that was not very wide, but it looked deep to me. I stopped the 1983 four wheel drive “Sue The Subaru” station wagon (We had crappy vehicles for our job) and looked the situation over.

I said, “That looks very deep to me Milton.” Milton advised that I go in slowly so I would not splash water on the wires and distributer cap (That stalls the gas motor) and we will be fine. So I pulled into the water hole, the nose quickly pointed downward at a very steep angle, and the car died in the middle of the water hole. The muddy red water slowly rose inside the car to about an inch over the bucket seats. I was horrified.

We got out in hip deep water, dried off the the wires got the car started, and pulled out of the water hole in four wheel drive. On the other side I opened the doors to let the water spill out of the car. But our feet were still in five inches of water on the floor. We bailed what we could, but we needed to get moving. We did not want to get stuck out in the middle of the Deserted forest at dark.

We finally arrived at the village, and went about setting up our mosquito nets and beds for the night, and then began work on the car. We pulled out all the floor carpets, and then the drain plugs to drain the floor,. We pulled buckets of water from the well and began to wash the mud out of the car and carpets. What a mess. We had things draped everywhere to dry. We spent a soggy exhausting weekend in Bébou, doing our thing.

Sue was neither my nor Milton’s car. It belonged to our co-workers Lew & Vida Cass who were back in Canada at the time on some short home leave. We had to call Lew and confess, and he simply laughed commenting that he had done the same thing many times himself. At the time, all three families working together in Abengourou had nothing but junk rigging to drive as we served.

We drove back home sitting on those soggy bucket seats. Our village friends refused to let us return alone after our first ordeal. So three of them piled into the back seat and drove with us until we reached the paved road, just in case we needed a push or something on the bad sections. Then those poor guys got out on the road, and had to wait for some public bush transport  to show up to get back to Bébou. We gave them the money for the transport and a meal of course. But we knew they might get a ride the first 35 km Kilometers or so, on the larger more traveled bush road. However, at this time of day, they more than likely would end up walking the last 15-18 km from that bush junction, to get home well into the night. The next time we saw those men we asked, and they informed us that this is exactly what happened. Those poor guys. I remember Thomas, and Benié (Ben-E-Ya), but not the third guy with us from Bébou that day.

First, this bush trip made me realize that working in a rain forest is going to have it’s challenges, and it certainly did.

Secondly, this day also taught me another critical lesson early on. A lesson I needed to receive, to help me stay, to survive here in Ivory Coast, to keep me here and fight the urge to run home to Canada.

“What was that other critical lesson?”, you ask. That these local Agni men, whom I barely knew at the time, though Milton did, had our backs. As bad as those rascals are some times (trust me the Agni can be bad rascals to work with sometimes), they were looking out for us in their own way. As frustrated, and sometimes as scared as I was at times, running around in the bush.  I knew these guys had our back, somehow, in their own way. I trusted them for what it was. Was it naif? Was it real, or just an illusion? Thankfully, it never got tested in big ways, but it did in many small ways, and held.  This trust in the locals, misplaced or not, is what enables me to move forward even today, in Mali, eighteen years later.  These kind of memories are precious.

Please, do not consider me too Niaf….

“…. he (Moritz Thomsen) would rather say something truthfully in a clumsy way then lie elegantly.” (Paul Theroux. In Forward of, The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey On Two Rivers, By Moritz Thomsen )

….. as if I think all the African people just loved me, and love Canadians. Bull Crap! I know full well that some locals love us, and some people hate us, and most are simply indifferent. A rare local, I’m convinced,  would take what I had by force, rob me blind, kick me out, and done so, if they though they could actually get away with doing it. There is a great deal of resentment toward the westerner in some West African people. You can taste it, and see it in their looks. You figure this out after a few years. Some locals simply despise you, and resent your presence.

The trust I am speaking about is in those few select people with whom you share critical relationships with, like family.

When Lew and Vida Cass where preparing to return to North America, after over forty years serving all over the world, Lew suffering from Terminal Cancer (he passed about 5 months later in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Vida then moved back to her home in Prince Edward Island, Canada), they sold that 1983 4*4 Subaru Wagon to me.

Sue served me well. I had to spend many days in the garage in town tuning up little things for up coming trips to the bush. However, I never once broke down in the bush with it… not even once. She always got me in and out, after a combined 15 years of slogging bush roads for several owners, roads that most normal western workers used 4*4 trucks to drive on. But we three Families, The Casses, Clarks and Rayners, were poor. Our working budgets were never big, but we got the job done.  Thankfully in 1998 we bought  Nissy the Nissan. A new four door small pickup truck. It did not have 4*4 because we could not scrape the extra 3 million CFA in our work budget. Nissy also got us in an out every time also.  We put on four times the village miles of most other western workers in the region,  worked deeper in the bush too. Yet, after five years of rain forest driving, not a single break down in the bush for me personally. 

After I took ownership of the Subaru, but before Lew and Vida Cass left the field, (late 1997 I think) I stripped every interior part out of that car, down to bare mettle, so that I could drop it off to the body work guy, to fix up all the rust holes showing up in the floors. Before depositing it, I drove over to Lew and Vida’s sitting on top of two cement cinder bricks. Vida snapped a picture of me in that stripped down car, sitting on the Bricks… and I have that picture as a memory to this day.

You know, I think we all had to be a little bit crazy back then. You had to be a little crazy to work in Ivory Coast in that region, at that time, I think. But we liked those Abengourou region folks, and something broke in our hearts for them.

“You can’t move in too close to poverty, get too involved in it, without becoming dangerously wounded yourself.”(Moritz Thomsen Living Poor)

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