After two months of living in a Zairian village, Sam Tootle awoke one morning ready to look for his bride. The sound of mamas pounding dried manioc in wooden mortars with giant pestles thumped throughout the village and pulled Sam out of his dark hut. He inched through the village, stopping at the edges of countless parcels to watch the mamas raise their long pestles with two hands, rock forward, then crash them into the mortars, as he imagined women in Africa had done for centuries. Seeing this deep history delighted Sam, and added more meaning to his volunteer work in Zaire. Sam thought this motion was so primal, so native, so wild, and it fed a visceral pang in his gut that stirred the feeling he had first felt in eleventh grade when he watched African women in a National Geographic film, and which riveted his eyes to the women pounding manioc.
Word got out that the mundele was roaming the village. Tata Mukali had had his eye on him since Sam had arrived two months before. He put on a clean shirt, made sure his big feet were clean, and chewed on the end of a soft stick to brush his teeth. His daughter Pama was pounding away with her mother, and when Mama Dinga heard the door open and saw her husband hurry out of the house, his long legs flying forward, she said, “Where are you going this early looking so good?”
Tata Mukali waved her off and scurried away, snaking around dozens of mud huts, kicking chickens and goats along the way, and looking for any sign of the wandering mundele.
A hoard of children were ahead. As he neared, he saw the mundele watching a woman, a girl really, rocking back and forth pounding manioc and sweating in the tropical heat. “Oh!” Tata Mukali said to himself and started to sprint.
The girl thrust her hips to raise the big piece of wood, and her short father had his arm around Sam.
“Monsieur,” Tata Mukali began, breathing fast, “I…am—”
“Excusez-moi, Tata Mukali, but I was talking with the monsieur,” the short man said.
The two locals began to banter, but Sam didn’t pay attention to any of it; the girl pounded and rocked and pounded, thrusting the wood with such downward force—it was so primal, so sensual.
The girl’s father started to lead Sam toward his hut, but Tata Mukali stepped forward and yanked on Sam’s arm and said, “I have the girl for you.”
Sam adjusted his glasses, and his little eyes widened. “You do?”
“Yes, I do,” Tata Mukali said, nodding and grinning with his eyes closed.
“Don’t listen to him Monsieur,” the short man said. “You can have my daughter right now.” He grabbed Sam’s arm and pointed at the girl. “Look at her.”
Tata Mukali stepped in front of Sam, blocked his view, and said, “My daughter is more beautiful.”
“She is?” Sam asked.
The short man shoved Tata Mukali and said, “You thief, stop trying to steal him from me. Shame on you.”
“Shut up, you pygmy,” Tata Mukali said, leaning forward and making the other man flinch.
“Come see her,” Tata Mukali said and led Sam away.
Sam walked with his hands in his pockets. Tata Mukali towered over him and flopped a long arm over a shoulder. The crowd followed them.
“How old is your daughter?”
“Really?” Sam began to think about the essence of a seventeen-year-old girl—on the border between adolescence and adulthood, inexperienced and curious about the ways of the world and with all that tight, smooth skin covering a firm, strong body. Between academic years at Calvin College, Sam had returned home in May to Olivia, North Dakota to work on the family hog farm. He’d park across from Olivia High to watch older high school girls, the ones who held themselves like women though they were still girls. He knew that he could not pursue one of them. But that was in the States, a place whose culture didn’t understand the natural connection between a man and a 17-year-old. He knew that things were different in Africa.
The Mukali mud hut was up ahead. Tata Mukal noticed Sam looking down at the ground, thinking. Sam couldn’t get his mind off the essence of a seventeen-year-old girl.
“Monsieur, I know that you probably wish that she were fifteen, or even fourteen, but you must know that she has never left my sight. She is pure.” Sam still stared at the ground, picturing his thick hands on a seventeen-year-old back, hot and sweaty after pounding manioc.
Tata Mukali glanced at him again, saw that same look on his face, and began to panic. “Monsieur, I cannot lower the years of my daughter, but I can lower the amount that you will need to pay me.”
Pay? Sam thought.
“Look at her,” Tata Mukali said, pointing toward Pama fifty meters away, pounding manioc, lifting, thrusting, then grinding the wood into the deep mortar. “She is in her prime.” Sam was stunned to see a female that embodied his image of an African native girl. She was right there, so close. He quickly turned back and fixed a stare on Tata Mukali.
“You will need to give me palm wine once a month for three months and—”
“How much does palm wine cost?”
“Twenty five Zaires a calabash.”
Sam thought, 100 Zaires = 1 U.S dollar, so roughly 25 cents a calabash. Cheap.
“The first time you bring me palm wine, you will need to bring three chickens. A chicken costs 100 Zaires.”
So $3 total for the chickens + .25 cents = $3.25. Still cheap.
“The second time you bring palm wine, you must bring a goat, which costs 2,000 Zaires.”
2,000 Zaires = $20. Very good.
Sam nodded. Tata Mukali patted Sam on the back and said, “And the third time you bring me palm wine, you must bring a cow—5,000 Zaires—and you must give me 5,000 Zaires.
Okay, so $100 + $20 + $3=$123 + .75 for the palm wine totals $123.75. He couldn’t believe the bargain. Sam looked down and shook his head.
“Is my price too high, monsieur?”
“Is that how much you want?”
“If the cow and 5,000 Zaires is too much, how about the cow and 3,000 Zaires? Yes, 3,000 Zaires is better.”
$123.75 - $20 = $103.75!
“Monsieur, I know it is a lot of money, but—”
“That will be fine,” Sam said, and they shook hands.
Tata Mukali smiled big, wrapped his arm around Sam, and said “Good, now let’s go meet my daughter.”
During the time Sam had been at post, he’d written a letter home each month. He’d always written home—from summer Scout camps and from college. He thought it showed his loyalty toward his parents and older brother, even though they weren’t letter-writers and hadn’t understood why Sam wanted to go to Africa.
In his first letter, he wrote that his village consisted of mud-stick houses sitting on rock-hard earth, and that it had few palm trees because it was very dry there; it hadn’t rained in many months, and villagers feared a draught. But the lack of rain meant very little malaria. He wrote that his hut wasn’t far from the village well and was nothing more than one main room with a table in the center and a bed in the corner. Though his place had glassless windows that looked out at sandy savannah, he shared that there was no reason to open the shutters because he didn’t want others knowing what he had.
He devoted his second letter to his animal-husbandry work—that he’d built a demonstration rabbit hutch and pig corral and that the village men had requested his help in building their own. He shared that though he was busy working with villagers throughout the day, the work couldn’t compare with that on the family hog farm. At home he either worked alone or with his dad and brother, who initially called him “useless,” and then “useless college boy,” and finally “useless college grad.” Villagers thanked Sam generously and paid him with praise and foo foo lunches, which built his confidence, but Sam didn’t include this information in his letter, knowing that his father would view him as a braggart. Nor did he write immediately after becoming engaged.
After agreeing on a price, Sam and Tata Mukali walked toward the family hut, and Sam couldn’t take his eyes off of the pounding Pama. She watched him. He and Tata Mukali neared the family yard when Mama Dinga walked out of the hut holding a large pot for the manioc flour. She walked toward Pama unaware of Sam and her husband. Wearing shorts, Bulu, the fourteen-year-old son, crutched out of the hut behind her, swinging his twisted leg and bulbous foot, which flopped forward, sometimes knocking against the carved wooden crutch. Sam’s mouth dropped. He stared at the tall boy, thinking back to his childhood, when he’d stare at his polio-stricken grandfather struggling to hobble with his cane, the same grandfather who’d keep Sam at a distance by telling him, “If you get too close, you’ll have a leg like mine.” Then he’d pull up his pant to show Sam his shriveled leg, which looked much like Bulu’s. But the boy’s foot hooked inward and had a dead, bloody toenail on the big toe that made Sam’s stomach turn.
Tata Mukali didn’t know why Sam had stopped. He saw Sam staring at Bulu and ran toward his son waving his arms, screaming, “Get inside! Get! Get!”
Bulu dropped his crutch and started to hop on his good leg toward the door until Mama Dinga ran over and said, “Don’t yell at him, Mukali. What’s wrong with you?” Then she saw Sam, and she stopped Bulu and swatted Tata Mukali, who embarrassingly looked at Sam and said, “Just one moment, monsieur, while we get organized.”
Sam nodded and looked back and forth from Bulu’s leg to Pama’s sweat-covered body as his feelings of fright and fantasy clashed. But Sam’s lust temporarily pushed aside his polio and blood phobias, as he focused on the 17-year-old, who snuck in a little smile and kept rocking and pounding and grinding, tugging on his desire for a native girl.
Mama Dinga saw Sam groping her daughter with his eyes, and she ran to Pama, grabbed her arm and yanked her toward the house. The pestle got caught on the lip, and the wood lunged forward and hit the ground, shooting out white manioc flour. Sam let out an excited sigh, and Pama looked back with alarm, but Mama Dinga didn’t; she kept pulling Pama toward the house, but before they reached the door, Tata Mukali grabbed Pama’s other arm and stopped them.
“Dinga, let go of her. The girl must stay outside with me. I’m doing this for her.”
Mama Dinga let go and marched toward Sam waving the big pot at him. “If you think you’re going to get my daughter—”
Sam adjusted his glasses, raised his hands in the air, and took a couple steps backward. Before Mama Dinga reached him, Tata Mukali grabbed the pot, stepped in front of her, and said, “Enough.”
“Are you blind, Mukali? He looks at Pama like she’s the first girl he’s ever seen.” She shook her head. “My God, do you want him to give palm wine and make your daughter a marked woman? You’ll ruin her.”
“What do you know?” he said, waving her off.
“Have you forgotten about Kalaki’s daughter? That smooth talker—Dongo was his name—gave palm wine then disappeared to Kinshasa. You don’t see any man looking at her now, do you? What are you thinking, Mukali?” she said and slapped him upside the head before walking into the hut with Pama, who turned back to look at Sam before going inside.
“Excusez-moi, monsieur. I will fix things, and we will talk tomorrow,” Tata Mukali said.
Tata Mukali went inside, and through the wide cracks in the hut’s mud walls and thin thatch roof, Sam heard him say, “Dinga, it’s Pama’s way to riches. Don’t you want your daughter to have a good life?”
Sam smiled and walked away confidently.
The next day Mama Dinga knocked on Sam’s door long before the mamas started pounding manioc. Sam jumped out of bed and opened the door. The entire family was standing there.
“We have to talk,” Mama Dinga said, walking right in. The others followed, and when Bulu crutched in, his bad leg flopping around, Sam walked to the other side of the room.
“I’m sorry that we’re here so early, monsieur,” Tata Mukali said, “but she insisted.”
“That’s right,” Mama Dinga said. “Mukali made me agree to this marriage, so now I have to cook for you. I don’t want to because I don’t like you and those eyes of yours—they’re like a village rat’s—but I’ll cook enough for you, too, and Pama will help you, and Bulu will clean your house every day when you’re eating lunch at our house.”
Sam looked at Bulu, who looked at Sam flatly and sighed. A rooster crowed from afar, and others crowed too.
“He’s crippled, but he can still work,” Mama Dinga said.
Sam adjusted his glasses. “Can’t Pama do that?”
“Yes, but Bulu will,” she said, nodding once.
Sam wasn’t going to argue with his future mother-in-law, and Mama Dinga wasn’t going to let a strange man hungry for her only daughter get everything he wanted. She walked away shaking her head and thinking to herself. She had to hold on to something, it was bad enough that she’d lost her to that Sam. What kind of man goes by Sam? What is a Sam? And Tootle—sounds like a bad cough. One sick child was bad enough, no need for another, and one from a place with people like him, ones you can’t trust. Ones that look at girls like freshly slaughtered beef.
Sam brought Pama to his closed-up mud hut to teach her how to fold his 38-inch-waist Levis with the 30-inch inseam. The two stood next to the table. He liked a crease down the middle, so he made her practice lining up the seams. He stood close, watching her, and adjusting his sturdy wire-framed glasses, frequently looking at Pama’s petite hips tightly sealed in her batik wrap and at her breasts poking out from her t-shirt. Sam adjusted his glasses, glanced at Pama’s soft short hair and high cheek bones, and felt proud and excited, as he had since watching the film in high school. She worked and frequently looked up at him and smiled.
He’d always wanted to see such a native woman but didn’t have any luck in Olivia, North Dakota or at college. Sam knew that because hardly anyone from North Dakota ever applied to the Peace Corps, he’d be able to choose Africa, and he did. Those first two months in the village, when most PCVs’ nerves make them throw up, Sam strategically studied the daughters of his livestock farmer. But none of them fit the image in his head. She had to be just right. No wrinkles. Firm breasts. No dresses; she had to wear a native batik sarong that was clean. Her teeth had to be white and not filed. After two months, he realized that he had to more aggressive, had to search her out. Pama was perfect.
“Good,” Sam said after she finished folding his third pair of jeans. “Now fold all these two more times. Then I’ll show you how to fold my shirts.”
“Is this how I’ll fold your clothes when we get to America?” she asked with a tender smile.
“It is,” Sam said and squeezed her hand.
He went to his dresser and pulled out a stack of white t-shirts that read “Calvin College” or “CC,” the school he had eagerly told others was his alma mater, something he would make sure Pama would someday be proud of when she understood the concept of fine education.
Pama finished her task and turned toward Sam. He peeled a shirt off the stack. “There’s a perfect way to fold shirts so that they—”
There was a bang at the door, wood hitting wood.
Sam looked at his watch, irritated. He didn’t like to be interrupted. He knew he should have handled things differently with his future mother-in-law. Another sharp knock shook the door, and Sam’s neck reddened. He had ignored the first knock to watch Pama fold his shirts and look up at him with a fawning smile; it reminded him of watching his mother fold his father’s t-shirts. He’d sent a third letter almost a month before; they must have received it. Sam wondered about his parents’ reaction to his engagement.
There was another knock at the door. Sam sighed, took two steps, opened the door and walked back to the table.
Bulu was leaning on his crutch. He hobbled inside, his shriveled up left leg flopping forward as he crutched. The crutch dug into the hard dirt floor and left divots that Sam hated to fill every day after lunch. Bulu carried a palm frond in his free hand and started to sweep the dirt floor.
Pama picked up the clothes and glided over to Sam’s bed in the corner of the room and set the down the clothes. Sam moved aside to let Pama place the three wooden chairs on the table. He kept his distance from Bulu before he and Pama left.
Sam walked the fifty meters to eat his foo foo lunch in the shade of the family’s hut while Pama went to fetch rationed water from the low well. Mama Dinga didn’t interact with Sam, and it bothered him. He’d built the family a double level rabbit hutch that was the best in the village, as well as a large corral, and stocked them with rabbits and pigs. Tata Mukali thanked him profusely, and Pama had wiped his brow as he worked, but Mama Dinga had never acknowledged Sam’s work, and it continued to bother him.
Like every day over the past month, while Sam and Pama were gone, Bulu explored Sam’s dresser. He turned pages of books that he didn’t know were literary classics, looked underneath all the t-shirts and jeans, pulled out the same pictures of Sam standing with three other people who looked like him—his parents and older brother. In the photo the family is standing next to a truck with huge hogs in the background. Bulu had told his mother about this picture, and she had remarked, “They are all fat like him? And they have an auto and so many pigs? They are very rich. Maybe your father is right. But keep looking through his things; he may be hiding something.” Bulu had kept looking, but every day he found the same things. He thought the small brush Sam used for his teeth needless—Why use a brush when a stick can do the same thing? Sam’s white shirts showed his stupidity—white is hard to clean and uses too much soap. And Sam’s small red knife seemed worthless—What can that blade cut? But when it came to Sam’s big socks, even though they were white, Bulu became envious: only the rich can afford socks. Some villagers wore shoes to funerals, but nobody had socks. The first time Bulu had seen Sam, he noticed his socks and wondered what they felt like. He thought having one on his bad foot would feel nice, especially when it bashed against the crutch. So he would slip one on after Sam and Pama left, and knew when to put it away before they returned because the kids next door always said, “Hey mundele!” long before Sam reached his hut. That day Bulu found nothing new, and he understood that there wasn’t anything new to find, but he liked wearing a sock every day, so he easily went along with his mother’s demands.
During that first month of the engagement, Sam had given the first palm wine. He expected a celebration, but when he arrived with the proper goods, Tata Mukali set the chickens down to roam around their new home, and he and Sam sat in the shade and drank. “The others are away,” he said. “We need our male time.”
Tata Mukali talked about growing up under Belgian rule, and learning how to make furniture, and about living in an area that hardly saw rain, and he liked that Sam listened and asked him questions about his life, but he was most pleased that his future son-in-law could drink.
Sam’s father and brother would share a twelve-pack after a long day of work, and Sam would maybe drink a beer to cool off, but the few times in college that he’d filled his thick body with alcohol, he hardly felt it. Tata Mukali wanted to see him sloppy drunk so that Sam would lose his cool nature, but it never happened even though they both drank the same amount. Tata Mukali slurred through his last story before leaning back on his elbows and passing out, reminding Sam of his drunken father in his Lazy-Boy, a nightly sight he never got used to. Sam threw him over his shoulder and carried him inside, Tata Mukali’s long arms nearly dragging on the ground. Sam put him in his bed and walked home happy because he was one step closer to realizing his bridal fantasy.
While passing through Sam’s village, Angie, The Assistant Peace Corps Director, dropped off his mail—one aerogram from home. He quickly ducked inside and opened the letter.
Father and I were very surprised by your news. We thought you were there to help those people, not marry one of them. If you love Palm Tree then I will accept her. There aren’t any colored people around here, so we’re not sure she will like Olivia.
Dr. Cromwell gave you the polio vaccine when you were a baby. You took the first shot fine, but when you got the booster a couple years later, you saw a drop of blood on your arm and fainted.
The hogs are doing fine. None have froze and the price of pork looks good. Your brother’s taken over the sow pens, which is fine with dad because his back…