One day in Togo, West Africa, I returned home to find a group of village women gathered around my house. The house was roofless. Its corrugated lid lay thirty feet away. Inside, I found everything heaped in a pile at the center of the room. Even the most fragile things, like the glass chimney of my hurricane lamp, remained intact.
My friend and colleague, Sebou, arrived as soon as he heard that I was home. He acted as my interpreter. The village women spoke over one another, competing to talk about a mighty wind. They said they’d watched it spin down from a nearby hill. They saw it swirl in through an open window. Then the roof popped off like a champagne cork.
Having exhausted all comment, the group dispersed. I stood puzzling over the improbable pile of items stacked in the middle of the room. I wondered if the village had gotten together and taken the roof off themselves.
Sebou laughed when I told him what I was thinking. He said it was crazy, first because why would the village do that? And second, he said, if they’d done it, did I really think they’d be able to keep the secret for as long as they already had? I agreed that, knowing them, it seemed unlikely.
He then told me two more things. First, there would be no end of speculation about why this had happened. The whole village would want to figure out what I had done to deserve my house blowing down. They would want to identify the person whose spirit-guide had exacted this revenge. Second, I couldn’t sit back and shrug this off because there were things I had to do. He said he wasn’t sure what those specific things were yet, but he’d speak with the village elders and figure it out. They would know exactly what to do.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me roll the tape back first.
My Peace Corps boss dropped me, along with my new mattress, in Kpagouda during the summer of ’78. After a few minutes, an old man walked up and introduced himself. “Monsieur Robert,” he said in French, stiffening his posture in a Legionnaire salute. The village chief had asked him to wait for an anasar – white man – and to show him to a house. On the way there he asked where I was from. When I said ‘I’m an American’, he looked startled. “So you’ve been to the moon?” he asked.
A short distance later, he pointed to a house. Before I could walk through the door, someone shouted, “You’re not wanted here. Go away.” The open hostility surprised me, as did the fact the words were in English.
The speaker turned out to be another Peace Corps volunteer, Evan, who had arrived the previous day. He’d been promised he would be the only volunteer in town. He said he had no intention of sharing a house. I told him I’d find alternative lodging as soon as I could.
The next morning, I set off to have a look around. Within a few minutes I’d reached the point at which the short line of straw-roofed huts ended. Beyond that was only the vast African plain. The very last of the dwellings caught my eye because it alone had a tin roof where all the rest were straw. It also had flat walls with squared corners where all the rest were round.
Despite the lovely vista across the street, the square building was an ugly smudge in an untended yard. The windows stood empty and open, bracketed by weary wooden panels drooping from rusted hinges. The front door, like the roofing, consisted of a thin sheet of corrugated tin. A dime-sized Chinese lock held the door in place. The building was so clearly abandoned that I didn’t hesitate to put my foot to the door.
That afternoon, I reported to my new job at the local agricultural extension office. The guy I spoke to asked me where I was staying. I mentioned the issue with Evan at the first house. I told him I’d found alternative accommodations and described the place on the edge of town. I asked Sebou, my new Ag extension counterpart, if he thought there’d be any problem with my taking it. When he realized which house I was talking about, his eyes widened in surprise. “You can’t stay there,” he said, with a firm shake of his head. “That is not a good house.”
“But it is fine for me,” I assured him.
“No. I’m telling you it is not a good house.” I pushed it further, asking if anyone would stop me if I hauled my stuff down there and just moved in. He ignored the question and stuck to his reply. Despite his counsel, I moved in the same day. It took me several months to appreciate his point of view.
The problems arose so gradually I hardly notice them. It didn’t seem all that strange that there would be scorpions inhabiting an abandoned house. It freaked me out the time one fell on me from out of nowhere like some biblical pestilence. But then I realized it wasn’t delivered from on high. It had just fallen from where it been crawling along an exposed roof beam. And I’d managed to crush it before it had a chance to sting.
My ten year old neighbor, Kodjo, was my self-appointed houseboy. He maintained a ‘scorpion kill list’ in hash marks he chalked across one wall. He embellished it with a cartoon of himself holding a flip-flop above an enormous scorpion. I got a kick out of watching the tally grow. It didn’t even strike me as odd when, thirty days in, the tally exceeded the number of nights I’d stayed in the house.
Besides Kodjo, another young man named Mobi-ja was around a lot. In fact, he’d actually moved in. He was from a village about thirty miles away but he’d earned a coveted high school slot. Ours was the closest school around. I agreed to give him room and board in exchange for his doing all my chores. It was a good arrangement – for me at least. He did everything. He bought my meat at the market and carried my water from the stream.
But back to house problems. I wasn’t there when they found the snake. Kodjo killed it, though not my ten-year old neighbor. Kodjo from the Peace Corps office. ‘Kodjo’ is the local language word for Monday, as in ‘Our Man Monday’. It was also the day on which both the ‘local’ and the Peace Corps Kodjo were born. Peace Corps Kodjo drove up and discovered the snake on my doorstep one afternoon before I’d gotten back from work. When I got home, I found both Kodjo and the dead snake on the stoop. “It’s a Kiese,” he said, looking as if he feared it would come back to life. “It came out of that hole beside the door. You’re lucky it didn’t get you inside. It has a neurotoxin that paralyses your heart. It kills in minutes.” He shook his head and remembered the business that brought him to my house. “I have some bad news,” he said. “Can we talk inside?