It had rained all night, a tropical deluge that turned the country roads to brick-red slush. Within an hour, the windshield of our Chevy Blazer was so covered with mud splashes that the driver had to stop to wipe off the murk. Then he and Allan Wyse stood, splay-legged, and watered the front right hubcap. Ami and I found a clump of thorn bushes, chased away the grazing goats, and squatted down, side by side and unselfconscious. She was wearing her bush travel outfit, a tee shirt, a colorful long wrap cloth the Africans call a pagne, and sandals. I had on a cotton shirt and slacks and, mindful of the coming visit to the snake-cult, heavy leather hiking boots. I tucked my slacks into my boot-tops to keep the pee from splashing on my cuffs. Taking a whiz in the bush, I reflected, was one more disadvantage for women in Africa. The guys, long since finished, awaited us, backs politely turned.
We encountered three police checkpoints along the road. When they saw our diplomatic license plates, they waved us through, but the rest of the passing cars and trucks were stopped and searched. I saw one trucker hand a banknote out the window. He went through without stopping. At the roadside, the gendarmes searched energetically through vegetable carts. Just past the lively market town of Anawa, Allan Wyse pointed to a smaller track turning right. "I think it's here. This is the road I came from Kerga on."
We turned right and bounced along the track through miles of oil-palm plantations and small villages. It was morning in Africa, and women were hard at work in their gardens, weeding and hoeing. Many had babies tied to their backs. A few barefoot children in tidy khaki uniforms were hurrying into a palm-thatched schoolhouse. They stopped and waved to us.
"Where are all the men?" I asked Ami. But I was thinking: Lazy bums, leaving their women to do all the heavy work.
"Men from this area work in the city, or they drive cross-country trucks," Ami said. "I'm sure you've heard that the SIDA, what you call 'AIDS,' a lot of the men have trapped it. Many of them are too sick to work. Soon many of the women will have it too. The government is doing a health campaign, but the people of this region are animists. When they are sick they think it's because the spirits are angry with them. We Muslims are clean and we listen to the doctors. That's why..."
"I remember this school," Allan interrupted. "Kerga's just ahead, I think."
In a few minutes we splashed into the little town. I didn't know how to find the Revolutionary Council of the Village of Kerga, but I figured they'd know how to find me. I climbed out, with Ami, and told the driver to park in front of the village market. I glanced around at the ground, and then up into the branches of the trees. I was looking, nervously, for snakes. I took my walkie-talkie radio and hooked it onto my purse strap, giving the other one to Allan. We synchronized channels and I told him to stay in the car, but try to keep us in sight.
I glanced around to see if there were any police, but could see none. I did, however, notice a white Land Rover parked in front of a tin-roofed building whose sign proclaimed it to be the local dispensary. The Land Rover had a caduceus in red on the front door, and the words, "International Medical Volunteer Corps." Getting out of it was the tall, bearded white man I'd seen near the flagpole the day before. He was walking into the dispensary with a big canvas satchel. Still curious about him, I turned to follow him into the clinic. However, at that minute I realized Ami and I were surrounded by villagers. They were mostly big, stout women, and they began bustling us along with their baskets and bundles, leading us into a maze of mud and straw houses. Allan and the driver followed as far as they could. Then I radioed and told him to wait, and go with the driver for the police if he did not hear from me in exactly one hour.
The village ladies brought us to what looked like a schoolhouse. It was made of cinderblock and corrugated tin, had a crudely painted blackboard and rows of rough benches and tables. We were asked, politely, in broken French, to sit. The room was decorated with pictures the kids had drawn with charcoal. Some of the pictures depicted snakes.
We waited a while in the close, steamy heat of the schoolhouse. Then a group of men came in, some old, some young, about eight of them. They were followed in by what I guessed was a fetish priest, dressed in an outfit made of snake skins. One of the skins was still inhabited, and the snake writhed...