Since 1979 the writer Philip Graham and his wife, the cultural anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, have lived off and on in small villages among the Beng people of the West African country of Côte d’Ivoire, which they first chronicled in the award-winning Parallel Worlds. Now a second volume of their memoir, Braided Worlds (University of Chicago Press), has just been published. Through interweaving narratives, Gottlieb and Graham recount unexpected dramas of cultural contact, including a religious leader’s declaration that the authors’ six-year-old son Nathaniel was the reincarnation of a revered ancestor, Graham’s late father being accepted into the Beng afterlife, and the deepening and increasingly dangerous madness of a villager.
The following excerpt, from one of Philip’s sections in Braided Worlds, takes place on the first evening of their third extended stay among the Beng, this time with their young son.
The royalties from Braided Worlds are dedicated to the Beng people.
The Adventures of Tintin
Under a quickly darkening sky we ate our first village dinner at the wooden table that Alma and I had donated to Amenan’s compound eight years ago—and that we apparently now had on loan for the remainder of the summer. Nathaniel picked bravely at the meal of rice and dried fish with a thin tomato sauce, and I wondered what must be going on in his head, with the myriad details of this new world bombarding him from all sides: the constant chatter in the competing soundscapes of two unfamiliar languages, Beng and French; the scads of people entering, lingering, and leaving the compound; the unfettered wanderings of sheep, goats and chickens; the crowds of whispering children that hovered near him, eager to touch his skin, his hair, and yet afraid to do so.
I’d forgotten how fast the sun sinks itself near the equator—soon a few kerosene lamps lit Amenan’s compound. I’d also forgotten to unpack our own lantern, which remained buried somewhere among the boxes of gear in our mud brick house.
“Hey, kiddo, want to help me find that lamp?” I asked Nathaniel, guessing he’d jump at the chance of a break from the circle of curious eyes.
“I know where it is,” he said, and I didn’t doubt him. My mechanically inclined son had eyed it with interest when we bought it in an Abidjan market, and I’d promised that when the time came I would show him how the thing worked. Nathaniel trailed after me into the house, holding a flashlight, and he lifted the lantern from a box in the corner.
“See?” he said, grinning in triumph.
Back at the table, Nathaniel trained the flashlight as I took the lantern apart, explaining as I went along. “If you pull at this top part here, you can ease out the glass —I think it’s called a glass chimney—and then you can get to the wick here at the bottom, and light it with a match.”
Nathaniel wore his serious face, nodding as I spoke, as if I were a real authority, an uncommon position for me, since even at six my son had already found his position in the family as the handyman. Back in Illinois, he’d spend hours paging through the pictures of a do-it-yourself home repair manual.
“Okay, but that’s not really the bottom. See, if I unscrew the base, you can see it’s hollow—that’s where we put the kerosene in.”
Kerosene. I’d forgotten all about that.
Alma caught my frown and said, “I’ll check to see if Amenan can lend us some for tonight.” Off she went, and I filled the pause with more patter. “Here, you can see how the end of the wick dangles down into the base. It soaks up the kerosene, so that when we light the wick on top the flame keeps going. That’s why we’ll have to keep filling up the base with the stuff every week or so. Okay, now why don’t you put the pieces back together, to see how it’s done. Then you can take them apart again.”
Nathaniel set to work with his usual concentration, and Kofi came by with a plastic bidon sloshing inside with kerosene. “Ah, look at him, the little man is already in charge.”
Half-suppressing a prideful smile, Nathaniel watched as Kofi filled the lantern’s basin. I screwed the lid back on, ready to strike a match, but stopped. The wick needed time to absorb the kerosene, otherwise it would burn to a crisp, and that little spectacle would certainly undermine my temporary expertise.
“We’ll have to wait a bit,” I said to Nathaniel’s disappointed face, “the wick is still dry.”
Just then Amenan’s daughter Esi arrived with a plastic pail steaming with hot water. Something else I’d forgotten: bath time, ritually observed by the Beng each morning and evening. I turned to Alma. “Why don’t you go first,” I suggested, “while Nathaniel and I wait for that wick to moisten up? He and I can wash later.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, but it really wasn’t a question. After this long day, pouring cups of hot water over her head from that pail in the new bathhouse would be a welcome treat.
As Alma gathered a towel, soap and shampoo, Nathaniel gave me a very specific look—half-plaintive, half-insistent—which meant he was ready for some bedtime reading. For the past few months, bedtime reading meant Tintin.
I’d been working my way through the twenty-odd books in the series with him since February, almost immediately after he’d made it clear, with his “Can’t we just look into the window of Africa?” comment, that he had no idea what he was in for. I’d searched through the children’s section of our local bookstore for something, anything that might prepare him for an Africa much larger than a storefront. Then I came upon a revolving metal rack filled with Tintin books.
I’d never read these books when I was younger, barely knew what they were about, but as I paged through one of the adventures, I felt I might have hit the mother lode. Tintin was this little Belgian-French fellow, much older than Nathaniel but exuding enough of a childlike air to be in the ballpark for my son to identify with. From what I could see from cover after cover of the books in the series, Tintin traveled from Scotland to Tibet, the Middle East to the Andes, even to the moon.
And inside those covers, what narrow escapes! Tintin—a young journalist adventurer—survived arson and ball lightning, car chases, explosions large and small, poison darts, kidnappings—what wasn’t thrown at him from page to page? And through it all Tintin prevailed, nothing seemed to faze his unflappable bravery. This, I’d hoped, might help prepare Nathaniel for his summer in Africa, give him a role model who shrugged off any trouble and kept moving forward. So I bought three in the series—optimistically more than one, but pessimistically not the whole shebang.
Nathaniel loved the books and all the main characters—Tintin and his dog Snowy, Captain Haddock and his creative cursing, the stone-deaf Professor Calculus, and the incompetent gumshoes Thompson and Thompson. As I pointed at the word balloons to let him know where we were on the page, Nathaniel followed the movement from panel to panel with such intensity that I suspected he was teaching himself how to read. We’d go through each book at least three times before he let me continue to the next. Soon enough, though, I grew leery of the colonialist assumptions and dodgy ethnic stereotypes of some of these books, many of them written in the 1930s and ‘40s. The possible take-away was more complex than I’d imagined, but what could I do, now that Nathaniel was already hooked on these adventures? And so I periodically paused and entertained my six-year-old son with a political critique.
Here we were in the Africa that I’d tried to prepare him for, and still we hadn’t finished the Tintin series. With only a few more to go, I had to admit I wanted our reading ritual to linger as much as Nathaniel did. I took out our current adventure, The Secret of the Unicorn, and settled into the sloping angle of a palm rib chair, my son snuggled on my lap with a flashlight, and to the pulse of insect multitudes in the surrounding forest, we began to read.
I’d guessed that there wouldn’t be much privacy as I began to read to Nathaniel from where we’d left off (always hard to know where to stop, because in Tintin books, even the cliffhangers had cliffhangers), but I wasn’t quite prepared for the reaction in the compound. A circle surrounded us—predictably enough—but an incredulous murmur began to rise as well, and I realized that the sight of a father reading a book to his son presented the villagers with an alien tableau. At first I had a hard time concentrating, and my imitation of Snowy’s barking—Wooah! Wooah!—only served to draw a larger crowd. I could feel Nathaniel rustle on my lap, unsettled by this curious, noisy audience.
Then André arrived, our host from our first weeks in a Beng village, back in 1979. Aside from flecks of gray hair, André looked the same as I remembered. I rose to meet his easy, open grin, and when we finished the ritual greetings, I offered him a chair, then introduced him to Nathaniel, who stood beside me and clutched at my hand. I understood. Tonight, of all nights, he needed me to read to him, and for as long as he liked. I sat back down in that chair, picked up the book, and resumed reading.
I knew this was rude, and what I was doing upset all Beng custom—adults came before children, always and forever. And how could I do this to André, a friend who’d given me one of my first lessons in Beng morality? Our first week living in his compound, I’d been startled by a spider, a huge thing with an alarming leg span until I flattened it. As I flung it away to the edge of the courtyard with a cardboard scoop, André asked if it had bitten me. When I said No, he told me that among the Beng, only insects with “bad characters”—those that bit or stung people—were fair game. “Otherwise,” he’d said, in a noncommittal voice, “we leave them alone.” This short, polite chastening had also been a gentle mentoring, and taught me much about the Beng.
Fourteen years later I still felt grateful, but now was not the time for cultural conformity—my son needed me. I continued reading, my eyes trained on the page, unwilling to look up and see what I feared would be André’s puzzled, perhaps even reproachful gaze. Yet I knew him to be an attentive father; perhaps he would understand. Soon I heard him whispering in an aggrieved voice to someone in the circle, “What are they doing?”
“Ngo séwé chalo” — They’re looking at paper — came a hushed reply, the Beng phrase for reading. And that was that. André settled in for the duration, waiting for me to come to my senses and behave properly.
Meanwhile, Tintin was in a terrible fix, chloroformed and stashed in a wooden crate that two thugs had stowed in a car trunk before driving off to who knows where. Snowy, faithfully chasing the car, soon fell miles behind on the road. I had a difficult time appreciating Tintin’s latest dilemma, stuck in the middle of one myself. At the other end of the compound, Alma lingered at her pail bath in the new bathhouse, and enjoying her moment of privacy and the warm water in the cool night air, but I really wanted her to come out so she could greet André and get me off the hook. Instead, her happy distant splashing was drowned out by André’s silence across from me.
Tintin woke up in some sort of basement reinforced by pillars, and as he searched for an escape route, nearby voices startled him. I paused, having read to the end of the double page. In the past, I’d sometimes peek ahead, say in a sorrowful voice, “And then, that was the end of poor Tintin,” and shut the book. “Daaaad,” Nathaniel would complain, and punch me in the arm. I decided to skip my usual joke tonight. Reading to a child while a visiting adult cooled his heels was scandal enough, but the sight of a child striking his father—however innocently—would more than compound the cultural gulf that was widening moment by moment.
By this time Tintin had fashioned a battering ram to break a hole in the brick wall, just in time to flee from two unsavory and trigger-happy fellows, and now I was deep into sound effects, my “Bang bang! Dong! Boom! Bang bang! Crack!” inspiring many surrounding murmurs. Finally, I heard the wooden door to the bathhouse creak open, and I called out in as cheerful a voice as possible, “Hey, honey, c’mere, André’s come to visit us!”
As the slap of Alma’s flip-flops drew closer, I turned the page.
I opened my eyes to the dawn’s light, stretched out on the hard dirt floor instead of lying on one of the two beautifully crafted bed frames in the second room. We’d spent an unpleasant night on the cold ground, awakened every so often by whatever crawling thing came our way. Later in the morning I’d drive to Bouaké with Kofi, to buy mattresses in the market.
Already, the satisfying thumps of pestles pounding into wooden mortars echoed in the air—our first village morning of many mornings to come. Alma stirred beside me, and Nathaniel stretched awkwardly among the pagnes of his makeshift bed on the floor, dreaming who knows what dream, when an unnerving screech shot through the air.
“My god, what’s that?” Alma said.
“I have no idea,” I replied, dragging myself up from the hard floor. I opened our door and looked out at the courtyard and the shocked faces of Amenan’s family. On the edge of the compound a rhythmic pulse of unhappiness blared from our car.
Ben’s car had an alarm? Why hadn’t he told us? I grabbed the keys, ready to put an end to this, and fiddled with the ignition, but starting the car didn’t end the noise. I turned the key this way, that way. Maybe all the rattling on the dirt road yesterday had loosened the car alarm thingy, but just where was that thingy?
When I opened the door to get out and poke around the engine, the alarm stopped. Ah, fine, I fixed it, somehow. I shut the door and the siren screamed again. By now the usual curious crowd gathered around the car while Kofi helped me mess around a bit more among the engine’s mysteries. Since the Beng believe spirits are behind most confounding troubles, who knew what explanations were already being considered. Truth to tell, I could easily imagine an invisible presence punishing me for last night’s breach of Beng social etiquette.
None of my poking about the engine and its hose-like and wire-ish thingamajigs produced any solution, and I cursed my cozy middle-class American ignorance of basic mechanics. I wasn’t going to solve this, and the car alarm would eventually run down the battery. Our only chance was to drive to the closest town, M’Bahiakro, at the other end of those interminable miles of dirt road, where any number of talented mechanics should be happy to take on the challenge.
So Kofi and I were forced to get an early start on our trip to Bouaké. Nathaniel clambered into the car with us—this was too good an adventure to pass up—while Alma stayed behind, eager to begin her first full day of fieldwork in the village. Down we drove, a four-wheel caterwauling headache, and—just like yesterday’s trip up to the village—too many of the road’s golden memories of years past returned to me: two cracked chassis, three shattered windshields, and more flattened tires than I cared to recount. My main unease with this road, though, came from that time I took a nasty tumble off a bike and the villagers claimed that not only were spirits responsible, but they were still possibly gunning for me. The Beng belief in spirits was so central to their worldview that, whenever I lived among them, at times I couldn’t help but feel the tug of it too. I had been, after all, raised as a Catholic, believing in the invisible companionship of my guardian angel.
As we continued to rattle down the road, I found myself able to summon some sympathy for this pampered city car, whose baying might be simply registering shock at the job we were asking it to do for the next few months. “I know, I know,” I whispered to the dashboard, with a glance at Kofi to make sure he wasn’t listening, “the road here is tough—hey, life here is tough. Can’t you just suck it up?” But I was also pissed: that damn alarm was screeching out our arrival to any interested spirits who may not have forgotten me. “So you didn’t like the road on the drive up yesterday?” I asked, sotto voce, “Well, you’re getting a bellyful of it now, aren’t you?”
I steered us past one intensely curious village after another, each one with a small line gathered by the edge of the road, apparently in anticipation of discovering the source of those mysterious, approaching wails, which turned out to be us. I stared straight ahead, wishing I could invoke invisibility, but in the backseat Nathaniel offered a friendly wave hello. He was clearly enjoying the excitement of this noisy, rattling ride as I avoided holes and rained-out gullies cutting through the dirt road. Remembering Tintin’s kidnapping and the car chase from last night’s installment of adventure, I realized that this little disaster must have a ring of familiarity for my son, an echo of fictional escapades I’d been reading to him for months. Ah, I thought, as we entered a stretch of road darkened by the thick canopy of trees on either side, Time and money well spent.
Kofi remained uncharacteristically quiet as we drove, though I suspected not as a response to the car’s wailing. Late last night Alma had whispered to me an extra bit from Amenan’s treasure trove of gossip that concerned her husband. Kofi had disappeared to his home country of Ghana for a couple years, leaving no word of his exact whereabouts. He’d only returned recently, and Amenan and the rest of the family hadn’t yet forgiven him. Perhaps, staring out the window, he contemplated the unspoken terms of his probation.
By the time we rolled into M’Bahiakro, the car alarm’s grating howl was almost an old friend. Kofi rolled down the car window and asked where we could find a mechanic, helpful arms pointed here and there, and eventually we found a sandy corner at the edge of town, with a tin-roofed shack on one side, on the other a towering tree and a pyramid of old tires that climbed halfway up its trunk. A few mechanics worked on cars beneath the shade of the tree while any number of skinny teenage boys—the usual collection of hopeful apprentices—ran errands. Within seconds they surrounded the car. No need to explain why we were there.
With the hood popped open and many eyes more knowledgeable than mine peering into the engine block, I stood back, glad to be relieved of responsibility for fixing this mess, and noticed Nathaniel climbing the pile of tires. This bit of exploring was another benefit of the Tintin books, I thought, once again proud of my parental acumen.
His scrambling up—nearly to the top already—looked like such fun that some younger part of me was tempted to follow him.
One of the apprentices tugged on my arm and spoke rapidly in Baulé, a language I didn’t understand. He seemed upset, so I glanced around, a way of asking for translation help, and another young man said, in French, “Monsieur, those tires collect rainwater. Snakes can be found there.”
Immediately I called out, “Nathaniel, come down from those tires. Now.” Though I tried to control the edge of anxiety in my voice, my face felt stiff with fear.
“Why?” he asked, usually a question I encouraged, but not now. If I mentioned snakes, he might freeze at the thought of moving in any direction, so I made up something fast. “Those tires belong to the mechanics,” I shouted above the car’s alarm, its wail now sounding entirely appropriate, “and they’re off-limits, sorry. C’mon down.” I walked to the edge of the pyramid, my arms raised, so that after a few steps he’d be able to jump to me.
Any six-year-old understands the concept of coveting possessions, so with a sigh Nathaniel edged down toward me, I kept my arms extended and held my breath, and within seconds he was on the ground, being hugged fiercely for no apparent reason. His face took on a look of lofty indulgence at the inexplicable ways of adults.
Minutes later the head mechanic explained how he was going to disconnect the alarm and did I want this done permanently? Yes, yes, I thought, as far as I was concerned he could take it out and use it to bash in the heads of snakes, keep it, keep the damn thing, I certainly don’t ever again want a repeat of this disaster, but all I said was, “Oui, merci, monsieur.”
He went to work. I hovered near the car, as if some of the mechanic’s expertise might transfer to me by osmosis, but mainly I worried about what I’d wrought by reading so many adventures to my son. The process of Tintin-ification that had taken hold of him was a perfect example of the Law of Unintended Consequences: I’d enlarged Nathaniel’s capacity for excitement, but now a certain pulling back seemed to be called for. I watched my son’s careful gaze following the mechanic’s busy work until the alarm’s yowl was finally squelched.