"The Darling": On the road

"The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know." Love and radical politics collide in the second of four installments from Russell Banks' riveting new novel.

By Russell Banks
Published October 15, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)
main article image

The road, up to now a shaded tunnel through the crowding green jungle, had opened on both sides to the geometrically laid out orchards of a rubber plantation -- row after row of tall, high-branched rubber trees protected against wandering cattle and human beings by barbed wire fencing. At each tree a man in tattered shirt and loose pants stood tapping latex into a white plastic tub, as if collecting his winnings from a casino slot machine.

"Firestone," Woodrow said. He sucked his lips for a moment and stared out the window. "Everybody from here and people from far away works for them now. Good money, best they can get." He paused and examined his carefully manicured fingernails." But the people, they got to buy food now, instead of growing it. Even rice. A big problem," he said, his brow furrowed with worry. "Big-big problem."


Woodrow's politics, like those of most educated Liberians, were conflicted. He was all in favor of President Tolbert's so-called Open Door policy of making it cheap and easy for foreign, especially U.S., companies to acquire monopolistic, long-term leases to vast tracts of land and ownership of everything on and under it, avoiding taxes and tariffs, unions, and regulations on wages and working conditions. But he was aware of the price being paid by the natives.

"It's the fastest way to civilize the tribal people," he went on, switching back to town talk. "And this country is mostly tribal people, you know. The foreign companies build schools for the children of the workers and make bush hospitals and company stores for them, so the workers will leave their villages and live close to the plantation." He paused. "And they help our balance of payments. Something the Peace Corps does not do," he said, smiling. "And it brings hard currency into the economy."

Right, mainly in the form of bribes, I thought, but did not say -- payoffs and misdirected foreign-aid funds siphoned into the pockets and secret bank accounts of President Tolbert and his inner circle of ministers and bureaucrats. Nothing trickling down to Woodrow Sundiata, however, whose Ministry of Public Health had little to offer the representatives of foreign corporations and governments and no power to restrict their field operations. Once the necessary under-the-counter payments were distributed in Monrovia, the companies were free to loot whatever they wanted from the land -- rubber, citrus, rice, cocoa, and in recent years a small but growing quantity of diamonds. With Liberian government collusion and assistance, they rounded up and, on contract, hired tribal people and made them into indentured workers, paying them a dollar a day to help extract the raw materials, and then processed what they'd taken and sold it abroad at a colossal profit. Sometimes they shipped and sold it right next door -- rice to Guinea, flour to Sierra Leone, powdered milk to Ctte d'Ivoire. They even peddled Liberia-grown crops back to the Liberians themselves, dumping foodstuffs at inflated prices for credit or cash on the Lebanese and Indian traders in Monrovia, who in turn marked up and distributed the goods to every small shop and market in the land.


This troubled Woodrow and depressed him. He explained that his father, Duma, who owned many farms, on instructions from the village headman had leased the land under his control to a Norwegian company that insisted he plant nothing but rice on it. In the evenings, Duma's four wives cooked rice that had been grown and harvested on Duma's land, carried in bulk by truck to Monrovia, shipped to Nigeria for bagging, and sent straight back to Monrovia, where it was purchased for cash at the village shop in Fuama by Duma's wives at a triply inflated price.

"The people eat poorly now, much worse than in the past. It's a bad system," he 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. The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know. And America we know. England and so on, them we know, too. China and Russia, them we don't know. So we live with the system we've got. Besides, communism, socialism, no matter how I might like some of their ideas, in the end they're no good for anybody. At least capitalism is good for some of us. Right?"

"Right," I said, and nothing more.


We rumbled along the rutted dirt road through scattered crossroads towns and small villages and after a while wound slowly up to a more populous highland district. Now I saw large numbers of ordinary Liberians everywhere -- the tribal people, poor people, men, women, and children bent over hand-tilled rows in their small burned-over fields. Also great numbers of people who seemed to have no work -- knots of idle boys and men sitting in the shade of a tree as if waiting for a boss in a truck who would never come and crowds streaming alongside the road aimlessly, it seemed, as if having just departed from a sporting event.

We passed an old man and woman holding hands, both blind, tapping their way with sticks, abruptly stopped in their path by a sleeping black pig. They stood and poked at the pig with their sticks, trying to determine what was blocking them. A plaintive-faced boy, machete in hand, watched over a row of fresh coconuts for sale on the ground. Leaning against the front of a bamboo roadhouse -- above the open door, a scrawled tin sign, Champion Sam's -- a pair of teenaged girls in unbuttoned jean jackets, miniskirts, and plastic spike-heeled shoes flashed us with their long black legs and tobacco-colored cleavage. In the middle of a field adjacent to the roadhouse, a tall, thin, shirtless man stood, wiped his brow with the back of his hand, lay his hoe on his bony shoulder, and watched his toddler sons, little more than babies, lug a burlap sack of seed across the field towards him.


I gazed on the Liberians as we drove swiftly past them, poor people eking out their day-to-day livings and enduring terrible hardships and humiliation in the process, and all of a sudden, with no warning or buildup, I felt a powerful urge to ask Satterthwaite to stop the car. Let me out of this air-conditioned chariot, let me be one of them, not one of you! Let me walk unnoticed with them along this dusty road to the market and not ride smoothly over it. Let me mingle out there with the men, women, and children whose backbreaking labor and suffering are used to pay for this German car and its driver, to pay for the power and privilege of the man beside me, my future husband, also to pay entirely for me, for my safe, secure, undeserved life!

My eyes filled, and I was breathing hard. And even though it caught me by surprise, it was an old impulse, one all too sadly familiar to me, this desire to separate myself in the dance of life from the people who had brought me and become one instead with the people excluded from the dance, the people who set up the chairs, served the food and drinks, provided the entertainment, and cleaned up afterwards. I knew the desire was illicit. It wasn't rooted in compassion or altruism; it wasn't even political.

In a voice louder and bolder than I intended, I called to Satterthwaite, "Stop the car! Please!"


"What's the matter?" Woodrow asked. "Are you ill?"

Satterthwaite brought the car to a halt in the middle of the road. In the tangled brush next to the car, a goat looked at me through the window glass. It was an ordinary red-haired goat with large, fly-clustered yellow eyes, a scrawny female with a swollen udder and a thin piece of rope trailing from her neck into the dense, thorny bushes behind it.

"No! I just ... I need to get out of the car," I said and opened the door and stepped outside, face to face with the goat. A bulky wave of cooked air broke over me, nearly knocking me down. I shut the door and took several unsteady steps away from the car and toward the goat, which seemed suddenly afraid, backing away, wide eyed.


A gang of naked and half-naked children appeared out of nowhere, round-bellied babies and boys and girls, some on the edge of adolescence, the girls with rosebud breasts, the boys with man-sized hands and narrow shoulders and spindly arms, all of them barefoot, their legs covered with road dust, sores, old scars, their noses and eyes running. They extended the pale palms of their hands to me and murmured, "Gimme dash, miss, gimme dash, miss, gimme dash." I heard Woodrow behind me shout at them through the open window of the car in a language I didn't understand, Kpelle, I supposed, and the children backed off a ways and gazed at me in silence.

Except for the buzzing of the flies, all the noise of the world seemed to have been banished, and after a few seconds even the flies went silent. There was only the heat, the impossible heat. And the face of the goat staring wide eyed through the heat at me as if I had no other wish than to kill it and had all the power to do so. And me staring back. Somehow that broken-down, used-up animal's pathetically scared gaze had turned for one brief moment into the central reality of my world, erasing everything that surrounded it, shutting out everything that had preceded it, memories even, blotting out Woodrow's presence and Satterthwaite's, and erasing my reasons for being there today. It wasn't a symbol of the world that surrounded me; it was the world itself, as if I'd suddenly been made incapable of perceiving anything else. I'm describing this moment from memory, obviously, many years afterwards, but while inside that moment I had no memories to associate with it and thus had no correct understanding of it and no context for it. I'm not sure I understand today what happened alongside the road to Fuama that day, except that afterwards I was a subtly changed person, and Africa no longer frightened me.

I approached the goat, put my arms around her neck, and drew her to me and held her tightly against my breast. Strangely, the animal didn't resist or pull away; she gave herself over to my embrace.

Sounds began to penetrate the silence, first the buzzing of the flies, then the children, murmuring again, "Gimme dash, gimme dash," and Woodrow saying, "Come now, Hannah, come back inside the car." I felt his hands on my shoulders. Slowly, I let go of the goat and stood away from her and allowed Woodrow to help me back into the car. Before he joined me there, Woodrow tossed a handful of coins into the air in the direction of the children, sending them scrambling after the money. The goat had disappeared, swallowed by the bush. People, most of them adults standing on both sides of the road, watched us impassively, as if we had merely slowed in our passage through their village but had not stopped.


"All right, Satterthwaite, drive on now," Woodrow said and closed the window on the universe. "We have a long ways to go yet." Without turning, he said to me, "From now on, my dear, when dealing with the tribal people, you'll have to stay close to me and follow my example and my instructions. Understood?"

"Yes, I understand. I'll do that," I said. "It's a promise."

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.

MORE FROM Russell Banks

Related Topics ------------------------------------------