Every Saturday morning the ones living in containers flocked out from their metallic rectangular homes to see what the service van had brought for them. The van was always pristine, a bright magnet attracting everyone who had sent out an order or a wish list. It brought medicines, canned products with foreign labels and outlandish taste, Christmas presents from abroad, six months too late or too early, news from without as magazines, newspapers, and gossip. It was the fragile reed that supplied most development aid workers, especially the new ones, with breaths from their homelands.
Minina didn’t care for the shiny imported stuff. She was jumping up and down, waiting for another car. Mr Blue’s green pick up would appear with the service van, bringing her something from his work in the jungle. A little anecdote covered the object like gold wrapping paper. Untying the bow of her present was putting the left foot on a tyre, gripping the rail and swinging the right leg up onto the load bed.
“Papá, papa, where is it? Is it this box? This one?”
“No, look, it’s in here, it’s this white bucket. Don’t touch it! Let me take it down.” The bow is untied and the ribbons loosen and fall apart.
“Wait, wait, I’ll lift the lid… gentle now. Look now. What is it?”
“Oooohh papá I’ve never seen this one! It’s huge! So long!! And look, look, there’s also two chicks!”
“It’s the longest one that has ever come near me so of course I had to bring it. I said, Minina must see this one! I was sitting having a break, drinking my beer, and I thought a branch moved. What do you do when you think something moves?”
“You stop what you’re doing, look carefully, and if it’s dangerous and too near, hit it with your stick!”
“And where is your stick?”
“First, you always look for a good, long, strong stick. Then you keep your hand on the stick. Stick to your stick!” Bursts of giggles.
“That’s right, Minina, that’s what you do. Stick to your stick! I had mine with me, this one here. So I looked carefully, I saw it was dangerous, and it was too near so PUFF!! I hit it with my stick. Charlie helped me because he said a machete is better. Then I said, ‘don’t cut it, don’t cut it, Minina must see how long it is, she must learn what is out here.’ Charlie helped me put it in the bucket and I didn’t open it again. I think the two chicks were its last meal.”
Minina gazed at the inside of the bucket. There was really no end to the gifts that came from where her father worked. But also, there was an end to good luck. One day he would not think something moved. Or something would be faster or stronger than the stick in his hands.
White people lived in ‘containers’. Nowadays they are called trailers, and they are put into parks. People who mouth the compound noun ‘trailer park’ nestle in their head the idea that they are superior to those inhabiting the corrugated metal walls, and harbour a warm feeling of thankfulness that they didn’t have to share that fate. That is now. But that was not then and there.
Containers had toilets, running water, mini fridges, and air conditioning. Most importantly, they were hermetically sealed against snakes, tsetse flies, malaria mosquitos, the odd wildcat night predator. Inhabitants slept in them coolly, peacefully. But the security containers offered was limited. It excluded wild elephant behaviour. If it came to a stampede in the camp then elephants would enjoy the liberty of destroying metal and mud houses alike. The equality of death and wounds would be fraternally shared between foreign employers and local employees in the aftermath.
The containers were set up on stilts and formed a perfect circle, their main entrances facing each other. Some eyed the camp as a bright, white sun. The long, neatly built road lengths were rays eradiating deep into the unknown jungle. Beacons surrounded by huts, grey clouds of tukuls, countless, some big, some small. The sun’s light disappeared into a dark green sky of rainforest, the shadowy visions of guerrilla Congo fighters obfuscated by a canopy of dying villages.
A horrid seamonster, others would think, a malignant barbarous round head with tentacles reaching out in green, healthy waters. Engulfing the virgin forests, eating the holy white Nile cocodrile, devouring innocent little children, and exhausting the cheap labour of their fathers.
When the velvety night falls, the local workers disappear into the tukuls with their families, confident the kerosene lights will keep snakes away. At the first dusk, their employers have already emerged freshly bathed from their homes. The workers can see their cleanliness before they can smell them. Their light blond hair ripples and flies in the cool night breeze, no longer weighed down by the red dust and sweat. They smile to each other and reach bottles around. Everybody is ready for the first toast and the first cold drink that will initiate their second, more important shift of the day, socializing around the campfire. Expensive insect repellent sprays are passed around; everyone has an opinion on every brand. A little girl plays under the table with her new pet, a baby monkey her father brought her today. She coaxes the tiny creature, and creates a loving fuss around the small animal as it clings lethargically to a table leg.
The drinks flow, the voices become louder, the bottles open faster, and white cheeks start glowing bright red. Maybe it is their white skin flushing blood red with alcohol and sunburn. Maybe it is the red earth that has stuck to their pores, and then sunk deep, and deeper into their dermis. They can’t shower and lather it away now, because soon it will cross the hypodermis and penetrate into their bloodflow. It will stay there forever.
Somebody brings out a world receiver, shimmy, shimmy ko-ko-bop, shimmy shimmy bop, so their bodies soon start to shake and contort in ways the workers find amusing. Over the fence down by the first line of tukuls, eye sets peer at the ecstatic dancers. Laughing children, jeering teenagers mocking and acting out what they see happening by the campfire.
The only woman in the group with brown skin and blue-black tresses has no flushed cheeks. She kneels by the table. “But it’s still early mamá!” The girl reluctantly stands up and wipes the red dust from her knees. She pats the baby monkey good night. As they leave, her mother tugs at her outstretched arm a little harder so they can get into the container faster. The shadows of the dancers flicker up and down, there are no arms, heads or legs anymore because they have begun melting together. Mother and daughter enter Mr Blue’s container while he locks and bolts the door. Outside, no one can hear the world receiver anymore because the first bottles have started to shatter, and the first fists have begun flying.
Next morning, the baby monkey is dead.
“Now what do we do?”
“It doesn’t matter what we do, we must get all the ice we can. At least something cold.” Some curt, hurried shouts. Exclamations are first thrown about in several languages, then translated into English with heavy accents. Today the camp is loud, there’s a cacophony with melodious undertones of fear. The service van is there but it has lost its magnetic attraction. It stands alone, abandoned by its usual loving flock because right now, no one is interested in all the cans of spam it carries, the expensive marmalade, packets of refined sugar, special canned sardines in tomatoes, and the newest issues of Der Spiegel and Stern, from six weeks ago.
Instead, the magnetic allure emanates from the green pick up. All the people leave their homes, inhabitants of containers and tukuls side by side, crowding around the load bed.
She’s winding her way through the forest of legs because no one, not even her mother, is paying her any attention.
“Papá, papa, where is it? This? Is it this?”
Mr Blue’s brow has deep furrows, he can’t stop patting his forehead dry because patting cannot stop the steady flow of sweat dripping into his eyes. He pants from the recent physical exertion, but his light blue, almost grey eyes are very much wide-awake as he gives commanding orders.
He is not the boss of the camp, only the foreman, but he’s been here the longest, much, much longer than all of them put together, and he knows they have all the wrong ideas of what to do. The actual boss is standing statue still by the pickup, staring white-faced and wide-eyed at the cream coloured canvas on the load bed. They are both standing side by side but every logic, thought and action they have is no longer in sync because each head is in a different continent. Mr Blue knows he is trying to understand, and to discern what belongs where under the big, crackling wrinkles of the canvas. Mr Blue also knows that he himself has been here so long that he and his boss only have in common the same passport and language. In fact, the only difference between Mr Blue and the tukul inhabitants is that he still remembers how it was to think like the container people.
“Let me see! I want to see!” Jumping up and down by the pickup rails. “Is this for me? Oh papa, it’s soooo big!!”
Hissing silently another order: “Get her out of here. Sofort.”
He can’t control spitting out the last word in the language of his childhood. She looks confused and angrily at him, mostly because he is fixing everyone he talks to with a stare, but hasn’t even glanced down at her. Today there are no smiles and ribbons, and the big huge gift can be unwrapped by everyone but her. But it seems no one dares to unwrap it. Like the big gift, there is also a big story, but nobody is telling it because everybody knows it already, just by looking at the canvas.
She is biting her lip sourly and disappears into the background, her slow walk an indication that she’s determined to sulk for days to come. Mr Blue forgets her instantly and repeats his orders for ice. Some container inhabitants realize this is their reality, now, too, and that the jungle is not a passive backdrop for their future anecdotes. Because they feel small, far away, and lost, they suddenly turn into diligent little working ants.
Besides a sun and a sea monster, now we also see a process of nature in a beautiful geometric figure. Each container has an ant line leading to a creamy center. Big ants, the local, yellow moromoro form perfectly organized paths between the green pickup and their mini fridges. They scuttle neatly and quickly back and forth, carrying their precious belongings once delivered by their service van back outside. Frozen packs of food, ice, cool packs, and ice cream pile up on the cream canvas as the moromoros diligently carry food along their lines, and the creamy center grows and grows with expensive provisions.
Mr Blue sighs and shakes his head before opening the driver’s door. “No hospital. For what? Some don’t have electricity. I think taking them to an embassy is OK. Any embassy. It’s the best. Bring me some gas canisters, I’ll need more fuel. Yes sure, I’ll stop everywhere I can and ask for more ice.”
Someone has a question. “No,” Mr Blue answers, half inside the car. “I don’t know. We don’t know them. I hope we found everything. Italian, I think.” He gets into the car and slams the door shut. “Tell Minina I’m sorry. Next time.” He looks wearily out the windshield at the days of journey ahead of him.
Kenna Lee Edler grew up in East and West Africa after emigrating from Honduras. She holds two MA degrees (in Latin American, and English studies) from the University of Cologne, Germany. Kenna Lee’s first print publication is in the first issue of Funicular Magazine. Her photographs have appeared in Riggwelter. She is a reader for Tilde and can be followed on Twitter @KennaLeeEdler.
Disclaimer: This is a work of creative nonfiction. The events are portrayed to the best of Kenna Lee Edler’s memory. While the story is true, some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved. This is also, in part, a work of fiction, in that in some cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people, and exact descriptions of certain things, so had to fill in gaps as best she could. The author has retold them in a way that evokes the feeling and meaning of what was said and in all instances, the essence of the dialogue is accurate.