An African Story I’ve Never Told

The sweat of Africa. Only those who have been in a mud hut understand. It is simply hot, or the most deadly combination of all, it is both hot and humid, like in the rain forests of Ivory Coast. The goal is to sleep with not one piece of skin on your body touching another, which , of course, as you can imagine, might be more difficult than you think. When sleeping, an arm is never permitted to rest on the skin down the whole side of your body, that is deadly; the arm is extended away from the body, or raised up over your head to keep the armpits open too. Anywhere on your body where two pieces of skin touch together (for example- the skin on the back of your leg from a bent knee) a pool of moisture soon forms, soon it begins leaking out between the two skins either as heavy beads of sweat or a full trickle bursting out of the skin pocket in a stream of liquid. The perspiration provides no relief, there is no cooling sensation from the evaporation at all. The air is so dense and heavy laden with moisture already that one doubts there really is any cooling evaporation occurring at all. The evaporation process has halted.

I was reading Moritz Thomsen, and he wrote.

“The traveler has two choices in these rooms; he can close the window and suffocate, or he can leave it open to the crying babies, the swooping mosquitoes and the certainty of contracting malaria. During the night I try both routes, Many times.” – Moritz Thomsen. The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey On Two Rivers

This immediately triggered a memory from 1995. Something I had experienced in Ivory Coast, West Africa, about 220km into the interior of the country, on the Eastern border region, in Kossonukro. I have never told the story.

Kossonukro was an Abron village located down a dead end path another 19km south of the village of Bettié, which itself is 98km south from Abengourou, where I lived. Kossonukro was made up of Abron migrants from northeastern Ivory Coast who settled in the heart of the Agni region. They settled into what soon became a Classified (Protected) Forest.

I was a newly arrived greenhorn to Ivory Coast in 1995 when I was first introduced to this village. I was with my coworker, a fellow Canadian, and incidentally an old college buddy of sorts too who recruited us to work in West Africa. We became like blood brothers, and have been ever since. We lived a village rotation schedule of six weekends out sleeping in the villages in mud huts, with the seventh weekend home. This was my routine for all five years. My friend and I saw the best and worst of Africa during these bush stays. We spent many a night belly laughing long into the night in some very remote places. Other times we were talking all night trying to figure out what was going on in this village, or with a certain thing we witnessed while there.

I will admit, it was an incredible opportunity and adventure for a young man in his late twenties. However, it was also a grueling pace, as we were in the villages several other days though the mid-week as well. My wife and I both had a heavy load. But we would not change a thing. We lived a life that gave us stories to tell.

Kossonukro was the most beautiful village I had ever been to in Ivory Coast, though the work there soon came to an end within a few years of my arrival. The Abron were farming cocoa in the protected forest, and the authorities told them they could stay as long as they no longer expanded their cocoa plantations. It was an ongoing struggle, as older trees become less productive with age, you have to plant new ones to remain profitable. So really it was a slow bleeding on the existence of this village. They would eventually have to leave, as they would no longer be able to sustain themselves.

However, after constant threats and warnings over the years the industrious Abron continued to cut down the rain forest trees to expand, so the government came in and burned down their cocoa trees. The village people, for the most part, packed up and went to their native home over night, especially the young men we were working with. The village went Poof! Imagine a disappearing village!

There was no future for the young men to build a plantation of their won, so they went back north. The older folks remained and tried to scratch a living from yams manioc and gardens . We never had a reason to go back from that day forward, as the people we worked with just disappeared, and we never saw a single one of them again. We had no idea which Abron villages they went to in the North. That was a very sad day for me.

Kossonukro was located on top of a small mountain right next to the Komoué (Comoué) river. It is visible on Google Maps the first village south of Bettié following the river.

From the west side of this tiny village, which is where we stayed and taught. one is high up over the Komoué river. I mean so high up I have never descended to the river, as it would have been a brutal walk back up in the heat and humidity. On the other side of the river one was overlooking the top of the rain forest canopy well below you, one could see over the rain forest for miles and miles.

I showered in a shower with grass walls chest high, and as I scrubbed with a bar of soap and a bucket of water, I was overlooking the rain forest from the edge of the mountain as I dumped cups of cool water over my sweltering body to rinse the soap and grime away. The view was breathtaking. I fell in love the first weekend I was there.

That first trip our host men ushered us into our tiny mud rooms with a window so small it was more like a hatch than a window. It was so dark inside that even with the small hatch open I needed my flashlight to see. One must quickly learn the art of stringing the four corners of a mosquito net, which locals never seem to have or use. As I made my bed (We bring plastic to put down for bed bugs and our own sheets and a pillow) I set about stringing up my bug net.

The Abron man with me, as is a hosts responsibility, was helping where he could. He kind of laughed when I showed ignorance about how I might hang the big net. He had no clue what to do with the net either. His words were, “There are no mosquitoes here.”

Though it was true, that I had seen not even one mosquito at this point, I knew better, or was warned better.

One soon learns how to use a corner of a chair – if their is one, the wood in the roof, – if you can reach it and the roof is not smooth mud (Which was the case here), a stick, your own travel case, a cooking pot in the corner. You use your ingenuity and whatever is available to get it suspended, sometimes with only an inch of clearance above your face, but that is enough to do the job, though admittedly, incredibly stifling. Fortunately, my room had one rusty nail driven into the mud wall high up in one corner of the room. That one nail helped me so much, though the other three corners took time to figure out, being able to suspend even one corner up high made it so much easier to work around suspending the net.

Once the task was accomplished, to a dripping sweat in the small sweat box, my host immediately shuts the window when we leave. I was the guest, so said nothing. I later learned that many Abron people feel unsafe with the window open, that bush spirits and river genies could harass you at night if the window is open. Animists, they were. Best to shut the window up tight.

Of course, I immediately opened the window when I returned that evening to sleep, but it made no discernible difference whatsoever at any time through the night. I slept very little, as sweat ran down my skin most of the night. I was miserable all night long. But that did not take my thankfulness away for all that I saw and experienced through the days in the village.

Jumping ahead about a year and a half to late 1996, or early 1997, on a Saturday. I had arrived in Kossonukro much later than I normally would have. This prevented me from preparing my room in the daylight. Instead, I had to instantly attend meetings, and whip into my evening duties, like give my presentations under the light of only a few kerosene lamps. It had been a long hard ride out on a bush road, and I recall that we finished up very late in the evening, closer to midnight. I was worn out, in a way only an expat westerner understands.

I returned to my room, quickly swooshed off my host so he too could get some rest, and began to make up my bed etc.

Unfortunately, that one nail in the mud wall, that one nail found in only one corner of the sweat box, that one nail I had come to rely on for a year and a half to suspend my net up high in one corner, at least, was no longer there. Without which I could not figure out any other way to make a bug net work in that room. The roof and walls where smooth mud, and the room had nothing else in it but a small bed. I had no tools to improvise with. None! I panicked. I searched the floor for that nail, I searched under the bed, but I could not find it. The empty nail hole was there taunting me.

By this time, as you suspected, I was dripping in sweat in my Boubou, so I finally just gave up. Remembering the words of my host almost two years earlier who said there were no mosquitoes here. I went to bed pulling a thin sheet over me, covering my head too, in the absence of the bug net. How hot was I from having to have a sheet over me too? Don’t ask. I had debated if I should just drape the net over top of my body anyway, but what good would that do? I sweated and suffered. About 2:00AM , as usual, the temperatures begin to cool a little, and with my exhaustion also kicking in I finally passed out to never wake again until the morning, without a bug net.

In the morning, someone had kindly supplied me with a bucket of bathing water that I found in front of my hut door. I carried the bucket of water to the outside shower with a view. I reveled in the cool cups of water I poured over my head and body to wash the nights sweat and grime from my body. Uniquely, this village had my shower, and a communal open pit toilet for the men in one corner of the village, and the women on the opposite corner. (A long trench pit with two logs over it from end to end. You sit on them and let it drop between the two logs into the pit. 5 or 6 men are there at a time often. This style of washroom was uncommon in our Agni region, It was something brought down by the Abron from the North. The Agni had an outhouse for each family) on the most scenic site in the village, high on the mountain edge, overlooking both the river, and the rain forest canopy far below on the opposite side of the river. It is here they made a men’s shit pit, and my shower stall was about 100 yards from there, behind my sleeping hut.

I dressed, then packed my bag, all the while thinking that the mosquitoes were not bad at all as I had not seen even one before I slept, nor after I awoke. I was lucky.

I did my last teaching session and about mid afternoon I began the three and a half hour journey out of the bush.

As I drove along the bush road, the more I was jostled around in the drivers seat by that rhythmic sway combined with the incessant jolting of my body from left to right as you go into, and out of, pothole after pothole (In rainy season the road is one pothole to another, not a road at all.), the more my back rubbed back and forth in my shirt as it pressed firmly and hotly against the seat back, the mosquito bites I thought I had avoided without a bug net where being slowly inflamed by the friction. As the first few insect bites emerged, the rubbing back and forth was at the same time both an irritant to make more bites flair up, while at the same time it seemed to be a relief as the bites got scratched with each swaying motion of my body. Soon the continuous potholes where not causing enough scratching, and for the last two hours I found I was wiggling my back to help scratch even more. My back was itchy right down to my underwear line, in every spot imaginable. Truth is I thought I had a rash, I was thinking scabies or something, as it is common there., and I’d get it on my hands often enough over the years.

When I arrived home I announced to my wife that I needed a shower right away, as my itchy back is driving me crazy. Out loud I wondered to her if I had gotten some kind of rash. I had not really thought this could be mosquito bites, as it seemed to be spread everywhere on my back. I rapidly pulled off my shirt to hit the sower and my wives jaw dropped when she inspected it. In a deep voice that expressed alarm, “Oh my, what happened to you?” She informed me of the mosquito welts. I explained how I could not put my net up, and got a few mosquito bites.

She said, “Andy, you don’t have a few mosquito bites, your back it peppered with hundreds and hundreds of bites. You look like you have the measles. You better make sure you take your malaria prophylaxes on time.”

I took off my pants and my legs even had bites, though not as serious. I guess with the sheet, Boubou, and underwear, they could not penetrate the depth of three materials so my butt and hips were fine. But my back and legs, under only two layers, had welts. The legs, thankfully, were not so badly attacked.

Amazingly, I did not get malaria at that time, that would happen another year down the road. But that is a story for another day.

Moritz Thomsen, I know the sweat box you speak of. Thank you for sparking this memory of Kossonukro, in Ivory Coast

Rarely have I ever slept in a village without this sweaty misery. I returned from the bush exhausted every time.

Yet, I am thankful for every sweat drop I got to shed at night in French West Africa, for it meant I got to know incredible people and have unbelievable village experiences.

Love To Hear From You

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