The End of Black Shark . . . ? (Part III of III)

Mama Joyce reappeared briefly, just long enough to ask for one of us to come with her into the other room.  A bit apprehensive as to the purpose of this next door foray, or the state of affairs over there, no one was very willing to step forward.  I’m not sure how, but Diego was the chosen one (in more ways than one).  He got up and left the table, with the rest of us remaining to ponder why getting Mama Joyce to tell Black Shark to stop following us was just as complicated as us getting Black Shark to stop following us.  Diego was gone a good amount of time, leading to a gradual increase in awkward tension.  He returned simply to say “well you guys aren’t going to believe this . . . “

Oh jesus!  He means Mama Joyce killed Black Shark I thought! (sounds like a possible pay-per-view match up, though I’m not really sure what the parameters would be – i.e. is it an aquatic fight, or does Black Shark make it out to land?).  Mama Joyce was a large lady and she must’ve beaten this 14 year old adolescent with such rage that she wilted under the pressure.  If only she had been a couple years older, or a couple notches less obsessive, she’d still be around today.  Or more pertinently, if we had just taken care of our own problems ourselves.  This one would prolly haunt us for a while, the time we not so inadvertently got one of our own fleeting shark members killed.  What ever happened to the code, ‘strength in unity, chaos in disorder.’  Did that mean anything anymore?  Did it ever?  Was everyone wondering just as much as I was why I couldn’t stop chanting it repeatedly?  Were the malaria pills really affecting me that much??  The situation was tragicomic, or more likely just tragic.  Diego spoke more.

“She [Black Shark] says she saw us in Tokeh yesterday [our beach location about a 2 hour drive from Freetown] and followed us here.”  An astonished silence followed.  “What??”  Diego went on, “She saw us in Tokeh yesterday, and wanted to hang out, so she came to Freetown to look for us and happened to be successful.”  What on earth was Diego talking about, was this one of his practical jokes he was so (in)famous for?  But he persisted, merely clarifying that he was simply reporting to us her story.

Apparently, according to what was translated by Mama Joyce after her conversation with the girl (some Leonean local language to English), then relayed to us by Diego (Queen’s English to a dirty form of Spanglish), and then translated in my mind (Pidgin Esperanto to Modern Classical Esperanto), and keeping in mind that Mama Joyce wasn’t a native speaker of Leonean tongues just to mess with the translation process even further, the girl claimed to be from the village of Tokeh.  Furthermore, she claimed to have seen us at the village of Tokeh.  Despite her obsessive nature, she apparently never made so much as a gesture towards us whilst in her hometown, though that could be fitting with her taciturn personality.  Her possible presence in Tokeh during our stay, unlike her presence in Freetown, was utterly inconspicuous (i.e. I didn’t see no bare backs there), and thus could not be plausibly confirmed or denied.  She went on to say that she saw us leaving and got sad because she wanted to be friends (typical reaction whenever we leave places).  She figured when we hopped in a bush taxi that we were heading back to Freetown.  Having no money herself, she couldn’t also join our public transport, but was still determined to meet her oblivious new friends again (us).  Thus she started walking, making the 50km or so trek to Freetown on foot, unaware if we were actually going there, or how she would be able to find us once she got there.

Destiny was on her side though, twice.  She walked through the night and made it to Freetown the next morning.  She wasn’t sure where to go, but found herself in the East End Market (seemingly everyone who gets lost in Freetown winds up there, all roads lead to the open stretch of filth that is the East End Market.  In fact my cracked-out applesauce-drenched GPS took me there just the other day, on my way home from my night shift as a self-appointed messiah/Burger King station manager).  It was there that she, despite all odds, ran into her newfound friends again.  Rather than make her presence known after an arduous overnight hike just to see us, that wouldn’t be fitting of her style, she rather immersed herself into our little group subtly, avoiding awkward re-introduction procedures, and followed us for the next few hours.  She never said anything because she was scared our reaction to this newfound and permanent friendship wouldn’t be as mutually electrifying as she hoped, but in general she stressed that she really only wanted us to be her friends.  Oh yea, and she would like to go to school but can’t afford it, so was hoping her freshly acquired friendship would pay immediate dividends towards such means.

That sounded like a tall tale if I ever heard one (quite possibly I never have though, I don’t really ever listen when other people speak).  Diego had told Mama Joyce that we couldn’t help her, and she should return home.  Somehow after that Mama Joyce did the impossible and actually got rid of her (I fully expected Black Shark to be waiting for us outside somewhere the whole time, but surprisingly she wasn’t.  Perhaps she decided to start the long walk of shame back to Tokeh while there was still some sunlight out).  The story seemed too outrageous to believe, there was just simply no way.  But as we all shared our thoughts on the ridiculous events that had just transpired, we jointly wondered aloud that, if she was making all this up, how did she know we had been in Tokeh yesterday?  Maybe she overheard one of us mention it, someone proffered.  A slight chance, but as a group rule, we never talk about what happened in Tokeh (as the saying goes, ‘what happens in Tokeh, stays in your inner intensinal track for the next 14 months’).  If she was indeed from Tokeh could she really have walked here on a whim and actually found us again?  She was young enough to believe that such ideas could make sense to her.  Someone else mentioned they thought someone was a bit off with her, mentally (that person however, was prolly a racist).  She was also so young that keeping up a consistent lie like that without cracking, revealing nothing but the stone-faced expression we had grown so accustomed to hanging around, would be an impressive task indeed.

Mama Joyce, with all her veteran Sierra Leonean experience, thought the whole thing was odd, but only a bit.  “It’s all quite possible,” she asserted, disclosing that she herself was a believer.  She left us alone to prepare our meal, as we were still contemplating in bewilderment.  It seemed too insane to be true, but also impossible to make up.  If she was making it up, why had she been following us this whole time, without uttering a single word?  Did she still want us to pay her school fees, and if so how long was she planning on waiting for the right moment to bring it up?  What on earth had she really been thinking, or expecting, regardless of her story?  Nothing seemed to make sense about the whole situation, and in fact nothing truly did, not then, not now.  But I have to admit I was leaning towards the believer side, as I reasoned her story was just slightly more possible than her deciding to follow us today with the insider knowledge that we had been in a random small village 50km away yesterday.  She was a stalker in the making of the highest caliber, it was oddly impressive really.  We just assumed we would see her again around Freetown, hanging outside the market or whatnot.  Perhaps even on our next stop, in our next country, or at the next aquatic wedding we officiate, who knew?  The tale of Black Shark, and her persistence in gaining membership to our exclusive club, surely couldn’t fade away that easily after all she had already done.  In fact, I fully expect her to have stalked some other white guys so hard that they paid her school fees allowing her to do nothing more than google the term “Black+Shark” all day to come across this riveting travelogue, and wonder what might have been.  Black Shark, if you’re reading this, I assume you already know where I am and that’s you peering into the window behind me.

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Black Shark (Part II of III, prolly)

We were used to kids following us around, so enthralled by the actions of the “white guy,” (a word synonymous with foreigner, even with my somewhat browned complexion all I ever heard in Burkina was ‘le blanc’ [aka in local language = Tubabu]).  I had joked often during my service that the greatest show for kids in Africa would’ve been of the reality variety, displaying in 30 minutes segments, white guys sitting outside their house reading.  No matter how often I did that in my village over the course of two years, kids were always captivated enough to come watch for endless periods of time.  So actually walking around and looking at things was all the more fascinating and tended to attract the youngins.  However this girl was older than that average age, she looked about 15-16 instead of 6-8.  Also most of the kids followed for a while, but eventually grew bored when they realized our lives were no less mundane than their own.  This girl had been with us since the East End Market until now – we had crossed the entire city of Freetown basically in the past few hours, this wasn’t just ambling around some little village.  She must’ve been quite interested, but the most odd thing of all was that she made no attempt whatsoever at interaction.  In fact she had no reactions to speak of at all, she was barely even looking at us most of the time, just walking alongside.  Usually kids were running around saying “hey white people, give me a present,” or “tubabu, the Russians beat you to the moon,” and giggling away in the background.  That, or slowing down then speeding up when we weren’t looking.  It was always clear they were enthralled by us, and part of their rush was getting us to recognize the fact and maybe even interact with them.  This girl didn’t play that game, her facial expression remained the stoic emotionless stone glare it had been the entire time.

We began to discuss amongst ourselves, what did ‘Black Shark’ want and how we were going to get rid of her?  She had followed us into a couple shops by this point, not even waiting outside for us to emerge like most little kids tended to do.  I speculated she just wanted to be seen with a bunch of white folks, which sadly enough can sometimes be considered an accomplishment in itself.  The girls (Megan and Jaime) thought she was interested in one of us (typical jealous girl reaction with the introduction of a new female shark member).   Bobby thought she was the only other Redskins fan in Africa and came to commiserate, while Diego wanted to know if her tailor also made men’s shirts (in a similar, back-revealing style).  None of our answers seemed appropriate enough to explain her persistence, but more important was how would we get rid of her?  It was prolly going to be a tough sell, she had followed us quite a bit by this point.  Little kids you could always yell at and scare away; I doubted that time-tested strategy would bear fruit in this instance.   We walked along for a while longer, not so discreetly discussing the situation and our possible courses of action right in front of her.  I think one of the girls tried to talk to her, but didn’t get much further than exchanging a ‘hello.’

She had been around long enough at this point, I figured we might as hold an official ceremony and sacrifice an anti-semitic giraffe to officially initiate her as our 6th group member (aka Black Shark).   That was one possible reaction, but due to a global shortage of anti-semitic giraffes in 2007 (there were tons of semitic ones however), it did not pass group majority vote.  We kept on walking, unsure of what to really do, and she kept on following, ostensibly unsure of what she wanted.  Eventually Diego, perhaps as fed up by her stalking as by own our inertia on the bold action taking front, turned to her, asked what she wanted, and told her to leave us alone.  She paused, but didn’t say anything, or even react much at all.  It was probably that she only spoke a local language and not much English.  She slowed down for a bit as I’m sure Diego’s gestures were telling enough, but continued stalking and soon enough was right back where she started, smack dab in the middle of our group.

 By now we kind of just figured, like all the little kids, she’ll eventually get bored and go off on her own – though nothing in the recent history of this situation would indicate such an outcome.  We were hoping I guess, because there wasn’t much else to do besides occasionally telling her to go away.  We had been walking for a while and were starting to get hungry.  If we sat down at a restaurant she wouldn’t follow us in we figured.  She might wait outside for us, but the line of thinking went that she’d get bored or fed up that we weren’t treating her as well, and leave on her own accord (perfect way to avoid actually doing something).  We were in the downtown harbor area of Freetown, near good ol’ Mama Joyce’s House of Curry.  Might as well stop in and say hi to our old friend.  As we entered the restaurant Black Shark followed us up the stairs.  Diego again turned around and said “No, no.”  She stopped, we continued, and sat down without.  She had kind of left, maybe she was waiting for us outside, but at least she had listened and not come into the restaurant.  We considered the matter to be essentially done and starting discussing the peculiarities of it amongst ourselves.

Mama Joyce came in and greeted us.  We ordered some food, sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed the harbor view from the second floor of Mama Joyce’s prime waterfront location.  Less than 10 minutes later Mama Joyce came in and asked if we wanted anything for our friend.  Confused, we asked her what she was talking about.  She wanted to know if we were going to order any food for the young girl waiting for us in the other room.  She was still there!  She hadn’t even left the restaurant but was waiting for us next door!  This was beginning to reach a creepy, stalker level; something had to be done right now.  As is typical in difficult situations in West Africa, it was fairly easy to outsource our response, using a third party as they would say, to avoid direct confrontation.  We explained the whole situation to Mama Joyce, who had a look of astonishment in her eyes.  “I thought you fine young gentlemen wouldn’t be parading down the street with a 14 year old girl dressed like this,” implying that her following us in the manner she was dressed gave the appearance that we were up to various uncouth activities with the young local Leonean women.  That thought hadn’t even crossed our minds (though I can’t really speak for everyone), but I guess that is what it could’ve looked like from the outside.  Mama Joyce, with the distinct style of an older mother subscribing to the tough love approach, told us she’d deal with the little one, to our relieved expressions.   I relaxed a bit, sensing the beginning of the end of Black Shark’s short tenure with us.  But it was about to get weirder before it got any normaler.

We heard a lot yelling emanating from the room next door, along with what sounded like occasional slap.  We collectively started to wonder if Mama Joyce’s house of tough love was perhaps a wee bit too tough.  Better than to get involved though when it looked like a punishment was too harsh, a lesson we had learned quickly during our time in village.  If a kid gets in trouble, he suffers for it around here.  They are well whipped into shape, using a variety of methods ranging from large sticks to direct head slaps to old fashioned spankings.  While the methods may seem harsh from a Western perspective, Africans have their own ways of punishing children (as most cultures in the world do I would imagine), and who be it for me to stick my nose in their business (even though as a ‘business’ volunteer that was technically my job).  It is a bit hypocritical telling a mother on her 7th child that’s she doing it all wrong, given all my experience in child rearing (I have grown sea monkeys before though and they did need to be whipped in line on occasion).  By the end of my service very few punishments seemed overly harsh to me, in fact I had fallen more into the camp of ‘kids get what they deserve.’  Punish them hard now and later on you can punish them hard again, so the saying goes I believe.  Hell, I even chased after kids with sticks to attempt beating them every now and again when they pissed me off, and I didn’t own 11 of them (I’m glad they could outrun me, my minatory poses were purely bluffs in nature).  At any rate, we had all gotten used to the usually severe penalties on misbehavior around these parts.  However this was one of the first times in two year that I felt a twinge of compassion (literally).  This young girl really didn’t do anything outright naughty.  It was more a bit odd that she had followed us for so long.  But she never said anything, never once bothered us.  To get beat for that, and knowing that we led her directly into that beating, was a bit uncomforting on the conscious.  I felt for you Black Shark, I truly did.

to be continued . . .

A decidedly non-Mama Joyce Sierra Leonean meal

The Quiet Persistence of Black Shark (Part I)

After a 2 year stint in a Burkina Faso village with the Peace Corps, I traveled around with four good fellow volunteer friends.  We adopted the moniker ‘Shark Force 5’ and ran roughshod over 8 West African countries in a 10 week span.  Enough entertaining stories occurred to fill up a book (and indeed that is the goal), but today I am focusing on our return to Freetown, Sierra Leone after spending some time at a pristine but shady Lebanese beach house (a story for another time), and the surprising emergence of Black Shark (it’s not racist because it’s a proper noun!).

 Part I:

During the crowded Where’s Waldo type scenes that make up the East End Market in Freetown, one girl surprisingly stood out amongst the mob.  She seemed young, but what was most striking was her attire.  Unlike the average female Sierra Leonean in this daily market who tended to be wearing local clothing or old t-shirts covering the majority of their tops (unless of course they were breast-feeding, then it was all hanging out), she was wearing a small pink tank top with only a thin, string line tying together the two sides across her back.  Basically her entire back was being flaunted about.  I say this not in any sort of perverted manner (mostly) but because it made her distinctly noticeable, in this mass crowd of people.  This was a first, in Burkina you would get many tank top wearing girls, often with much cleavage or more protruding, but to see an entire bare back down to the waist, well that was something I simply hadn’t come across (unless of course it was just your typical shirtless 42 year old mother of 19 doing laundry by the river, a picturesque scene if there ever was one).  Regardless of the distinct first impression this young girl made, our frame of mind was more focused on finishing this Waldo page before running into Odlaw (if you get that reference you are my hero).  She was nothing more than an afterthought once we exited the somewhat organized mayhem that was the East End Market maze for hopefully the last time.

Wheeere's Bobby? Stuck in some good ol' East End madness

We continued on a random walking tour of Freetown, ambling our way across the entire city, stopping off to check out various interesting things here or there.  The brunt of our day consisted of such activities.  It was maybe an hour or so after departing the market when I noticed another bare back.  Maybe Sierra Leoneans had a totally different sense of dress (we had come across more shirtless women in the villages here than any place before – someone had a detailed tracker going . . . ).  Considering this country, though still dominant, wasn’t nearly as strongly Muslim as our previous jaunts (Guinea, Mali), that was distinctly possible.  But this tank top was also pink and in the same style.  Maybe that was just the ‘in’ attire all these crazy post-war Leonean kids were rocking these days.  Yet it soon became clear that this was the same young lady.   How curious I remarked silently.  To myself.  What were the odds of running into a person who had been in the market with us, when we were all the way on the other side of town now?  Thinking no more than that, we continued on our self-designed tour.  She however, seemed to be on the exact same tour.  Even more curious since she didn’t look like much of a tourist, and our route was indeed quite impromptu; it was highly unlikely that her rash touring decisions coincided with ours at every turn.   I was thinking that something was strange here, not least of which was my obsession with Where’s Waldo.  No one had mentioned anything, but I believe we were all starting to sense the same thing around the same time; it was a gradual but inevitable realization.  Our paths were coinciding way too much for this to be purely coincidental – this girl was unmistakably following us.

to be continued  .  .  .

Ronald Reagan Gave Me Cavities (Part II)

After getting the first round of three treatments to fix my 8 cavities I had almost forgotten to show my dentist my toothpaste on the way out.  I proudly presented it him, only to receive an “ah see, here’s your problem,” in return.  What could be my problem I wondered, everyone on that box was so damn happy, thus I should be too.  “This is not tooth paste, this is tooth whitening cream.”  I was as dumbstruck as I had been before. “What?” I murmured out again, this dentist must’ve thought I was the worst English teacher in the world, only capable of monosyllabic responses.  “This is a bottle to whiten your teeth, this is not toothpaste.  There is no fluoride; it doesn’t clean your teeth.”   I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  That would mean I hadn’t properly brushed my teeth in 3 months!  No wonder I have 8 friggin cavities!  Who cares how little candy I ate, kim chee was destroying my teeth!  And at the same time they had been getting whiter, so cosmetically they even looked decent!

Still in shock I had the dentist write down the word toothpaste in Korean.  I then went to a pharmacy on the way home, showed him the paper, did the requisite acting to overcome language issues, and bought whatever bottle he gave me.  I did the whole process again at another place just to be certain.  And a third for good measure in the 10 minute walk back to my house (Koreans sure do like their pharmacies).  For all my thoughts about how easy life had been in Korea and how well I had adjusted, I couldn’t even complete a simple task like making sure I came home with toothpaste instead of whitening cream.  At least I had gone to the dentist now, before my teeth started falling out in at school in front of the kids!

I blame Ronald Reagan , somewhat in jest but not really for my situation, because his policies supporting the Muhajideen in Afghanistan in opposition to the Soviet Union invasion spawned a radical Islamist network that eventually turned its head on its former backers, and sets its sights on attacking the infidel West.  Without the radicalization of millions of young Muslim youth, which occurred for numerous other reasons as well (though the Afghanistan situation hardened the movement and gave them battle experience, helping use this prestige to indoctrinate the next generation of fighters), some young Britons would have been unlikely to possess the desire to try to take down 7 passenger aircrafts, or at least the creative thinking and technical know-how to do it.  In turn we would all still be able to bring liquids over 3 oz on planes, and my Costco toothpaste would have made it safely to South Korea with me.  In turn my foolish attempts to buy replacement supplies without outside help would not have resulted in me using tooth whitening cream for 3 months as a poor toothpaste substitute.  Thus Ronald Reagan, you gave me cavities.  8 to be exact.

Ronald Reagan Gave Me Cavities (Part I)

My most recent trip to this dentist this week reminded me of my last dental visit in South Korea in 2008, and the complicated shenanigans that ensued.  Needless to say, I always buy travel sized toothpaste now.

“You have 8 cavities,” he stated matter of factly.  I stared at him astounded.  He had been speaking relatively good English this entire time, but I assumed he never learned his numbers.  I managed to stagger out a “what??”  He repeated, “you have 8 cavities, many problems in your mouth.”  I was flabbergasted.  “But . . . but I don’t even eat candy,” I stammered,  “How is this even possible?”  “Well you should brush your teeth,” he began, before giving me a condensed lecture about how Koreans brush their teeth after every meal and that many even carry toothbrushes with them.

After talking with my English speaking Korean dentist a while (already a miracle to find in my small town), he asked me to bring in the toothpaste I was using the next time we met.  I readily agreed, pouncing on the idea of demonstrating my half used bottle as proof that I do indeed occasionally brush my teeth.

Korean Pine Tree Toothpaste (something I never thought I would desperately desire at some point in my life)

I had been in South Korea nearly 3 months by this point and had adjusted fairly well.  However my teeth apparently had not.  As soon as I got home I rummaged through my 4 foot x 4 foot bathroom/shower/toilet area to find my toothpaste and put it in my bag, ensuring I would not forgot for tomorrow’s dental appointment.  Buying toothpaste was actually one of the first things I had to do this in land, as the Cost-co sized Colgate my parents had procured for me was promptly taken out of my carry-on bag at airport security on the way over.  This was part of the recent changes in airport travel thanks to an unsuccessful shoe bomber, and having lived in West Africa for the two years prior, I hadn’t really kept up with the changes.  Thus my toothpaste, contact lens solution, and shaving cream were all deducted from my baggage’s total weight.  At least it gave me reason to explore my town initially.

I had found a supermarket located in the basement of an apartment complex near me, and bought the required items.  Given my recent stint in the Peace Corps I assumed I could do anything on my own, and eschewed asking my Korean co-teacher for help in the process.  The toothpaste package was strikingly green, covered with pictures of happy (South) Koreans and their white teeth.  It was so shiny, even if I didn’t need toothpaste I probably would’ve bought it.  I soon found out the minty taste did not match appearance, but then again after eating kim chee all day my tastebuds were dying a slow and painful death anyways.

Fast forward to three months and one day later, and I’m carrying that beloved bottle with me to the dentist office afterschool.  I am still highly annoyed that something in Korea has turned my generally good dental record upside down, but was relieved to hear that all those numerous fillings would require a total of $60 of work, thanks to the Korean national health insurance plan I was a part of ($60!!).  The private clinic I had gone to earlier was demanded $2,000. I liked my teeth but not really that much.

to be continued  .  .  .