by Tom Weller
Driving through bandit country.
As we all waited for the rains and watched food stores dwindle, tales of roadway bandits flourished in Beinamar, the Chadian village where I lived and worked as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1993 to 1995. Friends kept pulling me aside. They grasped my hand as they delivered warnings: don’t ride your bike to neighboring villages alone, be careful walking through Beinamar at night, wait to travel to the city, sit still for now, the trucks are not safe. Details were always scarce when I’d question what prompted these concerns.
“Someone was attacked.”
“On the main road”
“Very near here.”
I’d offer a rebuttal: “But I’ve never had any problems, just a few angry dogs. I just chase those away with a stick.”
Always, I’d get a reply both simple and emphatic: “The roads are not safe now,” or “We must be very careful” or “Don’t travel.”
Dents creased its front fenders, and the open hood revealed scraps of shower sandals and plastic bags used as replacement engine parts. But we had seen worse. And we didn’t have any other options. And the owner offered us two seats in the cab. Sold. It cost more to ride in the cab of the market trucks that served as Chad’s primary public transportation—trucks called bush taxis by Peace Corps volunteers—but it beat scrambling into the bed of the battered Landcruiser pickups to balance atop boxes of sugar and tea and cooking oil and batteries stacked to the height of the cab. Squeezing two people into the passenger seat of the cab still offered more space than I ever got sharing the bed of a bush taxi with twenty to thirty other passengers. Warnings and worries be damned. Gilbert and I were hitting the road, in style.
I needed to get to Moundou, Chad’s second largest city, to access my bank account. Gilbert, my Chadian counterpart and surrogate father, needed to check on relatives in Moundou. I had made the trip many times before, the road sixty twisting miles of red clay and sand punctuated with potholes the size of ponds and truck-swallowing ruts. Sometimes the trip took five or six hours; sometimes it took more than a day, the duration of the journey largely dependent on how often and how thoroughly the bush taxi broke down. But today’s trip seemed full of promise, maybe charmed. I had a good seat, I had Gilbert’s company, and a crowd already milled around the truck, an omen that the truck owner would soon have his quota of passengers and we’d quickly be on our way. Gilbert and I decided to wait in a nearby tea shack while the owner completed his preparations.
We sat under the straw awning of Abakar’s tea shack, sipping syrupy-sweet tea and eating fried dough, and watched the owner zip around his truck, his movements hornet-like, erratic and menacing, as he supervised two teenage boys loading the truck. And we waited and watched as weaving lines of children paraded down the road toward school, clouds of dust blooming around their bare feet, and we waited and watched as the truck owner hustled for more passengers, and we waited and watched until the sun reached its zenith and the few people milling around the street loped off in search of shade, a comfortable spot to nap away the hottest hours of the day. And we kept on waiting and watching until the sun began to sink below the horizon and chickens wandering the road leapt toward low-hanging branches, places to roost.
In the grey of dusk, the truck owner finally signaled us to board. I’d never heard of a truck leaving Beinamar at night. Neither had any of the other passengers. A debate rippled through the crowd. Some argued leaving now was brilliant, a way to avoid bandits, who would never expect a truck on the road at night. Others worried that alert bandits would hear our truck coming and use the cover of darkness to their benefit.
As Gilbert sat next to me in the cab, explaining the debate humming around us, I worried more about the ruts in the road than I did about bandits. The ruts I knew. They were real, concrete. I had seen the ruts, felt them. Talk of roadside bandits conjured for me only cartoon images of men in black stocking caps and Lone Ranger masks. I imagined them scampering away from the scenes of their crimes gripping bulging sacks marked with large green dollar signs while a Benny Hill soundtrack played in the background.
The bush-taxi driver and another man approached the cab. While the driver slid behind the wheel, his companion opened the passenger-side door, directed me to lean forward, and reached one arm into a storage compartment behind my seat. I expected him to pull out a wrench or a pair of pliers, something to give the engine a final tweak before we rumbled into the darkness. Instead, he pulled out a dull and dirty automatic rifle, a weapon that would have looked at home in World War II museum. Gilbert glanced at me, his eyebrows raised. Rifle in hand, the man closed the cab door, moved away from my window. I heard him climbing into the bed of the truck. Another first for me, an openly armed bush taxi.
“Did you see that?” Gilbert asked, his voice low and even, probably an effort to look cool in front of the driver.
“Yes,” I said.
The Benny Hill music had vanished from my head.
I really missed that Benny Hill music.
The bush taxi rolled and swayed underneath me. Gilbert and I crashed shoulder to shoulder with every one of the driver’s frequent jerks on the steering wheel. The headlights cast a dim yellow glow that illuminated about eight square feet in front of the truck. Outside of that box of light only darkness existed, the snaking border between the road and the bush erased, overwhelmed by night. Every few seconds the headlights produced a revelation our driver had to react to: dip coming up, wild-eyed dog, giant chuckhole, can’t go straight, that’s not the road. After only twenty miles or so the truck owner and must have decided to play the odds. Maybe the chances of encountering bandits would go up if we traveled during the day, but the constant bouncing, swerving, and nearly tipping made disaster seem a certainty if we continued through the darkness. The truck stopped for the night in a small village on the side of the road. Gilbert had a cousin living there who let the two of us sleep on the dirt floor of his mud hut. That night I loved that dirt floor, for the way it held me, steady and constant, and promised not to spring any surprises.
Daylight improved the bush taxi’s performance. Thin trees and tall dry grasses whipped past my open window. A breeze, warm like breath, blew in my face. Gilbert and I discussed plans for our evening in the city. We both wanted to go out for chicken, and I wanted cold beer, a luxury not available in Beinamar. The road got rougher as we got closer to Moundou, but we were making good time.
As we came around a curve and entered the outskirts of a village, circular mud huts appeared on either side of the road. With their steep straw roofs they resembled giant mushrooms. I had been on the road between Beinamar and Moundou enough to recognize the huts, and, though I had never seen him before, I also recognized the man who stood in the middle of the road holding an automatic rifle. Despite his lack of a black mask, this, I felt certain, was a bush-taxi bandit, flesh and blood, concrete. Except for his weapon, he could have been one of the many middle-aged subsistence farmers in Beinamar. He wore second-hand western clothes, dark slacks and a plaid brown shirt, stained by fieldwork. He leaned, tired, resigned, against an empty white pickup that blocked the road. He waved for us to stop with one hand. With the other he cradled his gun across his chest. I felt our driver downshift. I looked toward Gilbert. He stared straight ahead. All of the warnings I had heard from friends in Beinamar came rushing back to me, a kind of Greek chorus. The roads are not safe. Don’t travel. The roads are not safe. We must be very careful. Don’t travel.
We came to a stop, the truck’s tires crunching against the red-clay road. Our driver bounced out of the cab and approached the armed man. They exchanged multiple handshakes, a typical Chadian greeting. Questions mingled with the chorus of warnings in my head. What happened to the man with the gun in the bed of our truck? Was he still back there? Where was his gun? Where was the barrel pointed right now? The stranger in the road slung his gun back over his shoulder, silencing the voices of my Beinamar friends. See, I wanted to say to the chorus in my head, he’s armed, but friendly. No problem. He continued to talk to our driver.
I leaned my head slightly out the window to hear the two men’s conversation, but couldn’t make sense of their Arabic. Gilbert explained to me that bandits had attacked the man with the gun. It was then that I noticed the quiet. Generally, when a truck I rode in stopped anywhere near a village, a swirling crowd of children appeared to check out the unusual white man. But this tiny village stood completely empty. Gilbert explained that the people had taken to the bush to escape the bandits by hiding among the tall grasses and thick shrubs surrounding the village proper. After conferring for a few more minutes, our driver marched back toward our truck and climbed behind the wheel. He looked at me. His eyes appeared to be lit from within.
Our driver stomped on the gas and our truck jumped forward with a roar. The stranger had climbed into his truck. We passed him, and then he screeched right up behind us. We flew through the tiny village. I watched old ladies, bundles of pots and tools balanced on their heads, running into the bush. Vegetation obscured their legs. They looked like torsos bobbing across a tan-green sea.
I heard the first shot as we careened around a rut. The gunner in the back of our truck had let loose. Pop . . .pop, pop. Every few seconds he fired another round or two. Gilbert and I slouched down in our seats, ducked our heads below the windshield. The gunner continued to fire. Pop, pop. I turned toward Gilbert. His eyes were as big as half dollars.
“What is he shooting at?” I asked.
A sly smile crept across Gilbert’s face. “He’s shooting into the tall grass along the road. The bandits must be hiding there. When they fire back, we’ll know right where they are.”
“They want the bandits to shoot?”
“Yes, they’ll reveal themselves when they shoot at our truck, at the man with the gun.”
“Or when they shoot at our driver,” I said.
We both squirmed and twisted, desperate to get lower in our seats.
Hunched down in that speeding bush taxi waiting for the sound of return fire, that’s what I expected I’d remember most vividly from these moments, the sounds, the high whine of two racing truck engines, the pop, pop of the automatic rifle in the back of our truck, the silence of return fire that never appeared. But, instead, looking back on it now, I am most struck by the tapestry of contradictions that make up these moments. Robbing people who have almost nothing to steal. Fleeing into untamed wilderness because it offers more security than home. Random gunfire as a way to enhance safety. The Peace Corps volunteer riding in the truck with guns blazing. They way that even as I listened to the shots cutting through the air, I heard echoes of a Benny Hill soundtrack in my head; the way moments can feel both dangerous and ridiculous. The way that in a foreign culture, where much is unclear, impossible to understand, the essential qualities of life can present themselves more sharply. And the pop, pop. I still remember the pop, pop, and the way it filled my and Gilbert’s stories for months after that, and the way our laughter, as insistent as church bells, always followed our pop-pops.
Tom Weller is the Bad Trip Silver Winner in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards..
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