My Nephews and Nieces Will Boast with Pride

Michael Coolen

As I leaned out a broken window of an ancient bus, soaking up the sights and smells of the landscape as we careened down a washboard road in West Africa, I whispered to myself, “My nephews and nieces will boast with pride that this was the place where Uncle Mike died.”

Just three days earlier, July 2nd, 1973, my wife, Virginia and I had been in Philadelphia joining other Peace Corps volunteers gathering for a few days of orientation meetings prior to flying to The Republic of the Gambia, West Africa (hereafter referred to simply as Gambia.) Our orientation included many events, from fingerprinting to a very sobering discussion of the various diseases and deadly creatures we might encounter there. Ebola would not surface until two years later, but Gambia was the home of snail fever, tuberculosis, schistosomiasis, elephantiasis, river blindness, polio, smallpox, hepatitis A and E, meningococcal meningitis, hookworm, and rabies. It also had nine of the deadliest snakes in the world, including the green mamba, some pit vipers, and a cobra or two.

We were assured that we would most definitely contract Falciparum Malaria, the deadliest kind of malaria in the world; far worse than that wimpy Asian kind that Brit colonialists and tourists whine about. Falciparum Malaria kills about a million people in Africa every year. It’s such a deadly disease that a statue of the mosquito was erected farther down the African coast thanking the mosquito for killing so many European invaders. “It could have been much worse,” is inscribed on the statue.

To combat and control the symptoms of malaria, we were urged never to forget to take a once a weekly dose of Aralen (Chloroquine), a symptom suppressant medication. One still has malaria but suffers few if any symptoms. At the end of that session, we all took our first dose to make sure nobody was allergic to it, because the side effects of Aralen included difficulty breathing, hearing loss, ringing in the ears, blurred vision, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, lightening of the skin, swelling of the lips or tongue, rashes, itching, disorientation, and fever. I think there were several more, but I forgot the rest.  In any event, none of the volunteers had bad reactions to the Aralen, nor were any of us fazed by the list of life-threatening critters and diseases. Everybody remained committed to going to Africa.

We flew out of Philadelphia on a chartered Boeing 707 filled with PCVs bound for several African countries. There was enough excitement, alcohol, and rowdiness during the eight-hour flight to qualify as an air born rodeo. At one point, someone yelled that he could see a cruise ship out his window. All but a couple of passengers rushed to that side of the plane to look. If I’d had any money I would have gone out and immediately bought stock in Boeing, because the plane handled the sudden weight reallocation beautifully (though I thought I heard one of the pilot’s yell “What the hell?” inside the cockpit).

After we landed, we learned that our connecting flight out of Dakar did not/could not/should not/dare not/would not arrive. So, Peace Corps Gambia hired a bus to take us to Banjul, a 9-hour journey instead of a 25-minute flight on British Caledonian Airways. When the bus arrived to pick us up, my first thought was that it looked a lot like it had been built in the 1940s and at some point been abandoned by the side of the road. There were holes in the fenders, doors, floor; it had several broken windows. I also noticed a lot of leather pouches hanging from the rearview mirror, so I asked Jill, one of the local veteran volunteers what they were.

“Oh,” she responded. “Those are jujus. The driver went to an Islamic holy man who wrote sacred verses from the Koran on pieces of paper and wrapped them in leather packets. They guarantee the safety of the bus and its passengers.”

Jill paused for a moment before continuing. A poker-playing professional had nothing on the blank look Jill gave me.

“Or,” she continued,” the jujus guarantee the quick and painless death of the passengers in case of an accident.”

I couldn’t tell if she was speaking from tragic experience or blowing smoke up my multi-cultural naiveté. She’s lying about the jujus, I thought.

“You’re lying,” I replied.

At that moment, the bus engine roared to a start, soon settling into a kind of serial tubercular cough.

“Hop aboard, rookie,” Jill said, pointing to a door that remained open the entire trip. “The safest place to sit is close to the door,” she continued. “I hope you don’t find out why.” She then sauntered onto the bus and sat down next to the door.

Three hours after the bus arrived to take us to Gambia, it shuddered to a start, and we took off in a cloud of hope and dread.

Just eight months earlier in December of 1972, I had been a graduate student at the University of Washington majoring in Ethnomusicology (the anthropology of music).

Over a period of two years, I had studied African music, dance, storytelling, and drumming from visiting African musicians. As a result, I had come to love African culture, food, and music, and I planned to do doctoral research on some aspect of African music. My preference was to study traditional marimba music in Mozambique.

I was employed as a graduate assistant in the Archives of Ethnic Music and Dance when one of my professors told me that the Peace Corps was looking for an ethnomusicologist to work at the cultural archives of the Republic of Gambia in West Africa (aka Gambian cultural archives). Rod was an expert on the traditional musicians, historians, and genealogists of Gambia known as “griots” (GREE-ohs). He had written his dissertation on the kora, a 21-string harp-lute played there.

When Rod told me about the Gambia position, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Gambia was not only over four thousand miles away from Mozambique, but I had no idea what research I might undertake there. Still, this was a tremendous opportunity to realize my dream of living and working in Africa on someone else’s dime. Fortunately, Rod came up with a great idea.

“You can do doctoral research on the xalam,” he said (the x is the letter for the uvular fricative, pronounced like the “ch” in Bach). The xalam is a small, guitar-like instrument in Gambia, and it is considered one of the prototypes for the banjo in the United States.

Since I was already playing fiddle in a bluegrass band (when I wasn’t acting as a ticket taker and bouncer), the idea of researching the origin of the banjo sounded intriguing, as well as other cultural connections between West Africa and colonial America.

“You could work in the Cultural Archives there and do field research on your own time,” Rod continued. He was willing to write me a strong recommendation for the Peace Corps position, having been a PCV himself a few years earlier.

I applied for the position and convinced my girlfriend, Virginia, to apply also.

I was excited to live and work in Africa, and Virginia was beginning a graduate program in primate studies at the UW, and she saw an opportunity to undertake research on the troupe of Red Colobus Monkeys at the Abuko Game Reserve outside the capital. So, we were both excited when we were accepted into the Peace Corps in May. To the sound of bluegrass banjo, fiddle, and guitar we got married at a friend’s home in late June, hopped the plane to Philadelphia the next day, and now found ourselves careening down the laterite clay roads years of abuse and no maintenance had converted into bone-rattling washboards.

The bus driver, who was fortunately blind in only one eye, was driving as fast as the bus would go. This was necessary not only to help ‘surf” along the top of the washboard ruts in the road, but it also guaranteed the instantaneous death of everyone on board in case of an accident.

I realized that if the bus was going slower when it crashed, some of us might survive for a while, and there was no medical help within an 8-hour flight. I pictured myself dying in agony waiting for help that would never come. I wouldn’t want my nephews and nieces to suffer emotional damage from memories of me by the side of the road, screaming while hyenas ate me alive, though my loving nephews and nieces would milk it for all it was worth back in Seattle.

“Maybe she wasn’t lying,” I mumbled to myself. “I hope those jujus work.”

The scenery out the window included baobab trees with branches filled with dozens of vultures that seemed to be looking down at my bus. I began to worry that the vultures knew something about this bus that I didn’t. I began looking for avian sabotage, wondering if maybe the vultures had dropped a dead gazelle on the road ahead in order to cause a wreck. Vultures are ugly but very resourceful.

Looking out past the vultures, I saw people waving at the bus from the doors of their huts with the traditional cone-shaped roofs. There was a red haze in the air, caused by the iron-rich laterite dust thrown up the bus rocketed down the washboard. Joy and fear and wonder and excitement and the unknown all rattled along in my brain in time with the rattling of the bus. I still couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the idea that I was in Africa. I was more excited than afraid, perhaps because I was still safe on a bus traveling faster than mosquitoes and hyenas and snails and snakes and crocodiles, et al.  But it was more than just the transient safety of an unsafe bus. I felt…free. And this sense of freedom calmed me.

As I looked out the window, I recalled the short but wonderful poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. For me, it had always been the perfect response to the hubris of anyone seeking fame and some ever-lasting legacy. All that was left of the legacy of Ozymandias, king of kings, was “the long and level sands stretch[ing] far away.” Nerd that I was, it also amused me, as the bus traversed the African bush, to recall that Shelley’s middle name means “bush.”

Late that afternoon, we finally skidded into the ferry landing at Barra, where the ferry crossed at the mouth of the Gambia River to Banjul, the capital. I jumped out of the bus and ran towards a local restroom…well, concrete hut that advertised itself as a restroom…and I immediately began re-considering if I really wanted to walk in my flip-flops through a two-inch thick muck of feces and urine to get to what appeared to be an overflowing toilet. After I described the bathroom facilities to Virginia, she suggested we wait until we’d crossed the river.

“Easy for you to say,” I grumbled. “You have a stainless-steel bladder.”

Including the time spent adrift when the ferry’s engine cut out (a common event), my bladder arrived at the Atlantic Hotel ninety minutes later. As Virginia and I settled into our room on that first night, we learned the importance of netting designed to discourage mosquitoes big enough to stand flat foot and look a crow in the eye.

I found myself reviewing how the bus trip had taken me forward into Africa and backward in time. Self-delusion vanishes quickly in an Africa that is just too big, immediate, and overwhelming with challenge and promise. I found myself thinking differently about life, about my research, realizing that my plans for a glorious prize-winning dissertation were dimming in importance.

My little academic pretensions were meaningless compared to the scope of Africa. My realization that I was insignificant was a kind of liberation. Whether I completed my research or not, I felt readier than ever to do my research. I knew the results were relatively unimportant, except to me. I had begun one of the greatest adventures of my life, and I realized with great calm and a sense of great freedom that the process of the adventures to come was far more important than my survival of those adventures.

“My nephews and nieces will boast with pride that this was the place where Uncle Mike died,” I whispered before I went to sleep, knowing I was ready for whatever came next.

What came next was two weeks of orientation, language training, three prophylactic rabies shots, personal health care suggestions (including writing out a will if you happen to suffer appendicitis if you are “in the bush”), and cultural sensitivity training that included a bus trip up-country.

And then, my work began.


About the Author

Michael Coolen is a pianist, composer, actor, performance artist, and writer living in Oregon. In addition to three Fulbright Fellowships and four National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, he has won awards from the Oregon Poetry Association and the Oregon Writers Colony. His essay “Let Me Tell You How My Father Died” was awarded first prize in the 2017 national “Ageless Authors” competition. He has been published in dozens of journals and online publications. He is also a published composer, with works performed around the world, including at Carnegie Hall, New England Conservatory of Music, Museum of Modern Art, and the Christie Gallery.