"The Darling": Into the bush

A white American woman involved with the Weather Underground flees the country and finds refuge -- and an unlikely romance -- in 1970s Liberia.


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Russell Banks
October 13, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

Woodrow wasn't exactly sure, but he thought that altogether he had forty-two brothers and sisters. Maybe more.

My mouth dropped. Woodrow smiled. An old joke. But that was counting all his father's children by his four wives, he said, still smiling. From his father's first wife, he farther explained, there were only five children, of which he, Woodrow, was the youngest, which is why he had been allowed to attend missionary school and from there enroll in a preparatory school here in town, in Monrovia, and then, on a church-sponsored scholarship, travel to the United States, where he had studied business at Gordon College, a Baptist school in Beverly, Massachusetts, only a few miles from Emerson, the town where I had grown up. Woodrow's older brother, Jonathan, and his three sisters had stayed in the village, because of their responsibilities to the family. Woodrow had met his responsibilities to the family by finding jobs for about twenty of his half-siblings and cousins so far, in the government of President William Tolbert and in the True Whig party, of which he was a national officer, as were all cabinet ministers and sub-ministers. He was able to do this, he said proudly, because his mother and grandmother were Americos, descended directly from the African-American founders of the Republic of Liberia, and not full-blooded Kpelle like his father and grandfather, who were headmen descended from headmen.

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Woodrow's family pride was much greater than mine. It colored his every reference to them, and I envied him that pride. I admired it. I wanted it for myself. "Woodrow," I said, as he reached across me to open the car door, "would you like to stay with me tonight?"

I had startled him. He blinked, frozen in mid-reach. I'd startled myself as well. Where had that come from? I hadn't once, all evening long, thought of sleeping with him. I'd enjoyed attracting him and was aware that the attention I'd received from the big men at the head table had aroused Woodrow, but making love with him? Now? It had not crossed my mind. This was not usually the case -- for no other reason than because he was an African, I actually thought Woodrow sexually unusual, let's say, and wondered almost constantly what he would be like in bed. Tender or rough? Gentle and generous, or harshly demanding? Knowledgeable of a woman's body or, like almost every man I had slept with so far, woefully ignorant of it?

He was a small man, small hands and feet, small ears. I liked small men.

"Well, yes, of course," he said. "Of course. Yes, I would like to stay with you tonight. But, no. No." Then, regaining his balance, "It's not the right time, Hannah darling. Not yet. I don't mean to seem a prude, you understand. Or to suggest that you're not desirable to me. Quite the opposite. No, it's just -- "

"I am really embarrassed," I said, interrupting. "I guess ... well, I thought that was what was on your mind."

He laughed, affecting the big African man's deep, dark laugh. "Always! Always! But first things first. As you Americans say. Hannah, I want you to meet my people. Then ... then we will be free to follow our desires." He chuckled the Englishman's chuckle.

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"Is that customary?" I asked him. "Do you usually have your family meet a woman before you sleep with her? Am I being too frank, Woodrow?"

"No, not at all, not at all. Not too frank at all. It's only the American way of speaking, isn't it? I like the American way of speaking, even in a woman. But in answer to your question, you are the first woman I have invited to meet my people. Remember, I'm inviting you to meet them, not inviting them to meet you. I'm my own man, Hannah, not theirs. This meeting is for you. For you and for me. Not them."

He pressed the door handle, and Satterthwaite opened it wide for me to exit. Woodrow kissed my hand, as had become his custom by then, and smiled sweetly, and I stepped from the car. "When you have met my people, then we can sit down and decide what we will do next. Together. Goodnight, Hannah," he said.

"Goodnight," I said. "I'm sorry, Woodrow, if I misunderstood." I felt almost bawdy, what my mother used to call "cheap." I turned away before he could respond, and made for my cabin. The car pulled out onto the road. Halfway across the compound I stopped and watched its taillights fade and disappear and then stood for a long, lingering moment in thick darkness, letting a flurry of images of slow, comforting sex with Woodrow and marriage to him and bearing his children and settling into a permanent life in Africa flutter randomly down, obliterating neat, orderly thoughts of tomorrow and the next day and the next, the mundane details of my daily routine. I was bored by the thoughts of tomorrow and my ongoing days, one by one by one -- but, oh, the images of a permanent life in Africa, though they frightened me, they were exciting and made my skin prickle. They signified a future! I hadn't had a vision of an actual, believable future in a long time, not for years.

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A wedge of shadow darted past my ear. A bat. In the distance a dog barked once and went silent, as if kicked. There was a rustling noise coming from the Quonset hut at the rear of the compound, and I started quickly for my cabin. Before I reached the porch steps, a single chimp had begun to pant and hoot, and in seconds another had joined in, then more, and by the time I opened the door of the cabin, the chimps, all of them, were howling and banging against the bars of their cages.

Woodrow arrived at the compound early the following Saturday, chauffeured in the ministry car by the faithful and ever watchful Satterthwaite. He hadn't answered my question the night before about what to wear, and I was shy about asking him again, but figured I'd better dress like a proper white lady -- a pale yellow cotton sundress, a floppy, broad-brimmed hat, and sensible, low-heeled shoes, purchased in town the day before. Which turned out to be correct. My usual daytime uniform of jeans, tee shirt, and sneakers would not have cut it. It troubled me slightly that, bit by bit, week by week, my African wardrobe was coming to resemble my mother's collection of resort wear.

Woodrow's outfit that day resembled nothing from my father's closet, however. He wore a starched, white guayabera shirt, pale blue Bermuda shorts, brown British shoes and knee socks, and a new pair of round tortoiseshell eyeglasses. Beside him on the seat an old-fashioned pith helmet lay at the ready. Evidently, when a government sub-minister goes to his village, he does not want to be mistaken for a villager. I got in back and kissed him on the cheek. "You look like a missionary, Woodrow," I said and smiled: Just teasing, honey. He frowned. I kissed him again.

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"You don't approve?" he said. His frown became a scowl.

"No, I like the look. Especially the eyeglasses. I mean, you seem very ... official. For a family visit, that is."

"Yes, well, in a sense I suppose this visit is somewhat official."

The car sped along the road, splashing through steaming puddles of water. It had rained earlier, and sunlight flashed like strobes off the overhanging, bright green foliage and fronds. We were headed north from the compound, which was located east of the harbor on the inland edge of Monrovia. I hadn't been out this way before. My travels in Liberia so far had been strictly limited to the immediate neighborhood of the plasma lab and to the commercial area downtown and west of the city out to the beaches and hotels beyond, where I'd gone solely in Woodrow's company. Due to the attention I attracted, especially from other white people, and my residual underground paranoia -- which I clung to in spite of Woodrow's assurance that there was no possibility of my being arrested by the Americans or anyone else -- I was still wary of traveling about the country on my own.

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Pavement turned to gravel, and the brightly painted, air-conditioned homes of the affluent Monrovians, with their close-cropped lawns and iron-spike fences and the occasional security guard on patrol, gave way to one-room roadside shops and small, rectangular, daub-and-wattle cabins, many with zinc or thatched roofs. Manicured lawns and flower gardens were replaced by vegetable patches and burned-over fields ready for planting and long stretches of dense brush, then solid, continuous jungle. Soon the road was red dirt, and there were fewer and fewer vehicles: Chinese bicycles wobbling under two and three riders, handcarts pushed by shirtless boys, and now and then a crowded rattle-trap of a van or mud-spattered pickup headed for the city.

A crippled yellow dog -- Satterthwaite refused to slow for it or adjust speed or direction an iota -- heroically dragged its hindquarters across the road just in time to avoid being hit. People walked alongside the road, mostly women and girls with babies strapped on their backs and heavy loads of garden crops balanced on their heads. They watched us blow past and, expressionless, as if the Mercedes were weather, turned away from the wake of dusty wind that followed and resumed trudging towards Monrovia and the weekend market there.

"My father's name is Duma," Woodrow said. "Duma Sundiata. He's the headman of his quarter in the village. Not head of the village its ownself, which has a chief, a paramount chief, above the headmen. So some people like to say my father Duma a small-small man." His voice had dropped a register, and he had slipped into rapid-fire Liberian English, usually with me a sign of easy intimacy. But today he sounded anxious. "But he's abi-namu," he said. "That means he's a direct descendant of the Kpelle ancestors, and he has many farms and many children, so even the paramount chief of the village thinks very well of him and invites him to the most important palavers."

"Palavers?"

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"For settling disputes and such amongst the peoples. The village name is Fuama. Fuama is very small, very isolated. Small-small. Only a village. Fuama is about fifty miles from here, three and a half, maybe four hours."

I couldn't tell if he was worried more about the impression I would make on his people or the impression his people would make on me, so I said nothing. Reassuring Woodrow was not my strong suit then. He was still too much a mystery to me.

"My father, Duma, he comin' to receive us," he continued. "But him want to present us to the chief and to the other headmen, prob'ly. Same for my mother, Adina, and the other headmen wives. Alla them know why we comin' out," he added.

"Oh. They do? Why exactly are we coming, Woodrow?"

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He turned to me, eyebrows raised above his glasses, surprised by my question. "Well, it's to tell them of our plans, Hannah darling," he said, his low-voiced Liberian-English turning subtly British again, almost a patrician drawl.

"Plans?"

"Our plans to marry. So they won't be surprised and have hurt feelings when they find out about it later. Since we won't be able to do it in Fuama, and certainly not in the traditional way," he said.

"I don't know why not. I can handle that. I might even prefer a traditional wedding," I said. "But, look, Woodrow, you haven't actually proposed marriage to me. Not formally, I mean." I tacked on a small laugh. Keep it light.

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"Ah!" he said, as if suddenly remembering. He smiled gently, but his nose and forehead and upper lip were shiny with sweat, as if the conversation were becoming a wee bit uncomfortable. "Yes, well. Yes, I assumed, after our talk the other night -- "

"No, no, that's okay, I assumed it, too," I said, interrupting. "I didn't expect you to get down on one knee and ask for my hand, and you can't very well go to my father and ask his permission. No, it's okay. I knew what you were saying. And I agree. I mean, I accept your proposal. Consider it accepted." I didn't want to make him say what he seemed reluctant or maybe unable to say, but at the same time I wondered what else had I missed all these weeks we'd been together? What other exchanges had I agreed to, other offers accepted?

"Tell me what you mean," I said. "That we won't be able to do it in Fuama in the traditional way."

"Well, you ... you're a foreigner. And there are certain important conditions that a Kpelle girl, that any native girl, has to meet."

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"Conditions?"

"A certain type of education and experience. And it's ... it's rather too late for you. It would be too late even if you weren't a foreigner, because a woman learns it as a child, as a young girl. She learns it from her family and her people. She learns it from the older women, and in a special way that's not known to men. We males, we learn other things." He was silent for a moment, and his face was shut, as if he were trying to remember the words of an old song. "We ... the people, they have societies for this," he said with slight embarrassment. The societies for the girls and women were called Sande, he explained, and Poro for the men, secret, highly ritualistic associations, a bit like American college sororities and fraternities, I gathered, except that the Sande and the Poro were ancient and engaged the entire community in their rites and governance. They had strict rules and harsh punishments for violators of the rules; they had officers and emblems of office, secret signs and words, and elaborate regalia and ceremonies that the ancestors had established long before the Europeans arrived. Sande and Poro connected the living to the dead, the physical world to the spiritual world, girls to women and boys to men and men and women to each other, and through rite, secret knowledge, and shared belief they organized and facilitated a person's transition from one state of being to another.

"But that's not a problem," Woodrow assured me. "Your being a foreigner and all. Not for me, certainly, because, as you know, I'm a modern man. One of the twi, as the people call us. No, no, we'll get married in town, in Monrovia, in a proper church way," he declared. "We'll have a Christian marriage. It will be fine and good, you'll see. The president may even come and celebrate with us. He sometimes does that, President Tolbert."

"Yes," I said. "That would be nice."

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Coming Thursday: "The people eat poorly now, much worse than in the past. It's a bad system," Woodrow pronounced. "But we got nothing else available. Except communism, socialism, whatever you want to call it. And we're not stupid, we see what happens when you try that. We see what happens to African countries when they get big socialistic ideas. At least capitalism is good for some of us. Right?"


Russell Banks

Russell Banks is the author of "Cloudsplitter," "Rule of the Bone," "The Sweet Hereafter" and other novels, short stories and poetry. He has won numerous awards and prizes for his work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, the O. Henry and Best American Short Story Award, the John Dos Passos Award and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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