Adam and I arrived in the city of Mankono the last month of 1421—though we did not actually use the Islamic calendar. For us, it was the beginning of March 2001. We had traveled to Mankono for a celebration associated with whips, the festival of the Doh. Young men braid the whips in their villages and pour into Mankono from all over the region. They face off in the streets throughout the day; Mankono’s atmosphere grows agitated and, by dusk, raw. Then, the region’s eleven sacred masks appear. Drumming precedes the masks so that throughout the city the masks eventually slip into crowds that have gathered around drummers. As a mask makes its presence known, space opens in front of the drums. Each mask dances its story, then parades its entourage to another part of the city, dances its story again, moves to another quartier—until dawn when the drums cease. Adam and I were always looking for celebrations.
That March the country was still feverish with January’s failed coup. Côte d’Ivoire, the story goes, had enjoyed stability, unlike its unruly neighbors, Liberia and Sierra Leone, in the forty years since independence from colonial rule. And Côte d’Ivoire had prospered, unlike neighboring Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso. Though roughly the area of New Mexico, Côte d’Ivoire exported 40 percent of the world’s cocoa before the country’s sociopolitical stability faltered. The first president had ruled thirty-three years until his death in 1993. He had personally financed the largest church in the world, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, in the town-become-city of his birth. Main roads in the country were paved and electricity in the cities was dependable. Presidential successors were less universally supported. And on Christmas Eve 1999, the military deposed President Bédié, who, it seems, no one was sad to see go. The General who assumed charge pushed elections back through 2000, the constitutional court eliminated many presidential candidates by revising the rules of eligibility, and the country continued to spasm with revolt.
Adam and I were serving in the Peace Corps, but our affiliation with the administrative headquarters, located in the south, in the de jure capital of Abidjan, loosened in the first nine months we had been in our sites. Five months after we had arrived to our villages, violence escalated, prompting the consolidation of all volunteers for potential evacuation. Adam and I got caught in the northern city of Korhogo, where the party headquarters of the leading northern candidate, Alassane Ouattara, was located. Ouattara had been declared ineligible because the court considered the documents proving his parents were Ivorian to be questionable. For many, it was a confirmation of the court’s intention to politically exclude the north, and to contest citizenship for members of northern ethnic groups. A series of protests led to fighting around the country. We spent eleven hours on dirt roads in a badjan before arriving to Korhogo for a visit, and as the sound of marchers approached the café where Adam and I were breakfasting, the proprietor slammed shut the metal shop-front, and everyone bolted out the back. A fire started in a ditch along the road near the central mosque.
We walked to the cultural arts museum at the outskirts of Korohogo and waited. But by afternoon smoke from burning tire-barricades blotted out the main streets. As steel-blue troop carriers rolled in and gunfire snapped we fled alongside women from the market, men on motorcycles, hastily-loaded pousse-pousses, and empty taxis. We convinced a taxi driver to stop and, for an extravagant fee, to drop us at a Baptist mission outside of the city. A boy along the road clanged a rock off a troop carrier. The carrier stomped to a halt and four blue uniformed soldiers jumped over the tailgate. They began to pursue the boy into a cornfield until one fired a canister of tear gas. The white smoke hissed up between the stalks.
At the mission with volunteers who’d arrived from around the Korohogo region, we watched CNN’s coverage. In Abidjan, supporters of Ouattara’s Rally of the Republicans and Laurent Gbagbo’s Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire clashed with iron bars, machetes, and nail-studded clubs. State security forces killed and allowed the killing of Ivorians from northern ethnic groups. State security forces stood guard while the mosque in the Yopougon district was burned. The bodies of fifty-seven young men, shot to death, were found in a forest near Abidjan. Eighteen bodies were found floating in the Ébrié Lagoon. CNN reported retaliations in other parts of the country. News from outside of Abidjan, however, was mostly speculative, and nothing from as far north as Korhogo was available. Investigations would estimate that 165 people died in Abidjan during those three days, and testimonies detailed sexual violence and torture by the gendarmes, police, and Presidential Guard. We eventually returned to Abidjan, and after a ten-day stint with Peace Corps administrators and American embassy staff in the capital, we were allowed to return to our villages. About half of 130 volunteers resigned.
I do not know why others stayed, but when I think now about why I stayed it had little to do with what might happen in Côte d’Ivoire. Leaving, I would not have completed a service requirement implicitly handed down through my father. Thirty years a veteran after Vietnam, he learned that he was rated at a 100 percent disability level for Post-Traumatic Stress. And his father, a B-17 bomber pilot in World War Two, suffered a crash that killed most of his crew. Thrown through the glass cockpit, my grandfather crawled with his broken back from the flaming wreckage. After a stint in a field hospital, he was supplied with morphine and ordered to return to combat missions. My grandfather had many surgeries for his back over the years and treated memories to gin and tonic; he was both credit union manager and, in his words, town drunk. Fatalistic early on, distrustful of touch, I had inherited many of their affects. I rested with my hands clenched, and preferred a crisis pace. Everything seems very clear—the choices are obvious—in a crisis. And, besides, whatever happens in that heightened immediacy warrants grace afterwards. It was a pace meant to ward off the despair that I expected, the void and depression that loom, when I fold my hands against details like these. My father and grandfather didn’t talk much about their wars. I was charged instead with finding an experience that would justify the inheritances already received, some way I could understand their silences. My dad’s brother, too young for Vietnam, had served in the Peace Corps in Botswana. And so went I, by no decision of my own, placed in Africa also.
I was twenty-five and, to say it, Western. It was easy to make death hypothetical. Since my arrival nine months earlier I had encountered its possibility several times—the first time I traveled on one of the asphalt roads beyond my village, in fact. In an overloaded and top-heavy badjan, the driver finally getting to a paved road hurtled top-speed down a long hill and the front tire blew out. My body, crammed against a window space, filled with the vision of being shredded on the asphalt. As the ride tipped, the driver jerked the badjan upright and slowed to the shoulder. Adam and I joined the other passengers and squatted in scrub shade. I understood my father a little. Truly, my well-being was not in my control. The next month, a schoolteacher in my village scuttled his chair shouting, “Attention! Attention!” as a green mamba shot between my feet. I’d scooted my chair back against the wall of my house, adjusting to the shade which had drifted. Leading to March, I had begun to be invited to the week-long funeral ceremonies in my village.
Adam’s friend Sinali had been telling us for weeks about the Doh. How some guys braid rocks or glass shards into their whips, sometimes slivers of tin. The first rule I learned about the fête is that taking pictures, recording of any kind, is punishable by death. I would have taken that more symbolically in another year, more sure I could play my Anglo card, invoke the specter of far-reaching imperialism, get beaten, perhaps, and be left with a story for posterity. Such a specter inflamed resentments though this year, and Adam and I had done our best to strip ourselves of that Western veneer since arriving in-country.
Nobody talked much about the ceremony of the Doh in my village. The celebration originated with an ethnic group called the Koyaka to the west, and I lived with the Gouro, a sizeable, widely recognized ethnic group in the center of the country. By contrast, the Koyaka are quite discreet. They are described by the Musée Barbier-Mueller in Switzerland, promoting its 2010 publication of The Sacred, The Secret, On the Wan, Mona and Koyaka of Côte d’Ivoire:
How many African peoples, small in number, remain “forgotten” today, even though the countries where they live are themselves well known? That is the case in Côte d’Ivoire, which has more than sixty ethnic groups and sixty languages. And how many arts are neglected as a result, despite having influenced those of their more powerful neighbours? Such are the Wan, the Mona and the Koyaka, who live almost side by side in a few dozen villages of west central Côte d’Ivoire, and about whom the West knows almost nothing. …. [T]hese three peoples live in a relatively remote region reached only by difficult dirt roads, and their art is in large part invisible to the traveller passing through the country, who has little chance of seeing dances with the masks (most of them barred to women, both African and Western). Then, too, the statues are concealed in the backs of houses. But the West’s ignorance… is primarily the result of the cult of secrecy that has allowed them [the Wan, Mona and Koyaka] to withstand many conquests over the centuries and to preserve their artistic independence.
The village Adam lived in, Kounahiri, is sixty kilometers southeast of Mankono and has a small Wan population. I lived thirty kilometers south of Adam. Kounahiri was a rural crossroads and provided direct transportation to Mankono twice a day. Adam and I visited Mankono regularly, meeting with other volunteers to collaborate on girls’ education projects and AIDS sensibilisations. The line that unofficially divided the République du Nord from the government and port cities in the south ran just below Mankono. Kounahiri sat along that line. Adam had sent me a note with the driver of the bread truck who traveled daily up through our villages and back: The Doh is in two days. Leave the big wooden penis and the condoms and get here.
I traveled to Kounahiri the morning after receiving Adam’s note. Kounahiri was crowded with young men preparing for the Doh. Adam and I sat with Sinali in a maquis behind Sinali’s tailor’s shop and took shots of the local moonshine, koutoutkou. Plastic tables and chairs dotted the dirt yard, which was surrounded by cinderblock walls, which men like Sinali appreciated. With a Muslim family he could not be too careful about drinking. He was a strong guy, but if his father heard that he had been drinking, Sinali would have been sober for a while.
“I made you a whip,” Sinali said to Adam. Sinali laid it on the table then explained a few more rules that we already knew. Unless you have a whip, you cannot be whipped. Women have to go in at dusk—they cannot see the masks. Adam snatched the whip. “Dude, you fuckers are gonna wish you had a picture of me.” Adam spoke a basic French. Like me, he had known hardly any French before arriving. Now we spoke mostly in village idioms, Adam more proficiently. Sinali loved learning English. “Dude”—I answered to that from Sinali more than to my name. Sinali smiled as Adam turned the whip over in his hand. The whip was woven out of bamboo fibers. Little strips of hide fell around the handle like a protective tassel. The badjan we had been waiting for steered into the center of town honking.
The next day, from the rooftop of the only two-story building in Mankono that was not a mosque, Adam and I watched young men unload from badjans. The men were lit by mixtures of coffee grounds, koutoukou and capfuls of gasoline. Somewhere down in the streets Sinali was stoned, like many others. Le ganja was harvested from the nearby fields of a village nicknamed La Colombie, a far-flung reminder of America’s War on Drugs.
Punching out his cigarette on the rooftop’s short wall, Balhas scoffed. “Ils sont sauvages.” Balhas owned this building and ran the hardware store on the ground floor. Beyond the city’s new and uninhabited marketplace structure, dust-clouds rose. Streets vanished amidst bands of young men. Along the paved street below us, where the actual market set itself up, a group of young men jostled through stacks of wares and the women laughed, retreating. One began re-matching flip-flops on her tarp quickly. Another woman collected her plastic water basins from the sewer channel and screamed after two boys who should not be in such trouble!
On the other side of Balhas, Adam looked large. He was a head taller, and muscled. He had once taught self-defense classes to women, and the toenails on both big toes, always visible in his flip-flops, were gnarled from being heel-smashed. Adam had a tattoo the read BREW TOWN across his left pec, and it showed through his faded pink, short sleeve button-up. Anything with a collar was nicer than what I would have been wearing. I surmise I was considered pretty villageois, even by friends in my village. Adam was not as slovenly. Nor was Balhas.
Balhas was stocky, and looked like he might have to shave twice a day. He was thirty-four, but his hair had grayed a lot. I would not have guessed he was as young as I discovered him to be. More than anything, Balhas exuded an agitation that made him seem older. There was acerbity in his laughter. Balhas had left Lebanon at his family’s insistence. He was an historian, and a member of Hizbollah, and his ardency, I think, had begun to feel dangerous. Of his family he spoke only of his sister. Balhas had befriended many Peace Corps volunteers, whose educations contextualized life here in a way that matched his own view even as he thought that our lives in the villages were ridiculous. Adam and I had come into his shop early on and introduced ourselves.
The Lebanese make up sixty percent of the economy in Côte d’Ivoire, a former volunteer engaged to a Lebanese man told me just after I had arrived. The Lebanese own these kinds of businesses—hardware stores and shops that sell imports beyond the basic village supplies. Balhas’s store was stocked with cement, rebar, shovels, and sieves, but also with soda and school supplies, packages of biscuit, canned tomato paste, sardines, tubs of margarine. Les Libanais had these shops in cities all over the country, just as Mauritanians filled a similar niche in villages around the region—rice, oil, razors, toothbrushes and Pectos, the cough drop candies. Networks of family and friends sited villages, rotated between one another’s shops, and returned periodically to Mauritania, sending replacements. I suspect Balhas had been guided to Mankono by a similar process. I had, in fact, visited the hardware store of one of Balhas’s “relatives” upon his recommendation in a town ninety kilometers further west of Mankono. I met another who stayed at Balhas’s on a return from Liberia—a middle-man in the diamond trade, I suspected. He had a cell phone and showed Adam pictures of a naked African girlfriend.
Through an ancestral convergence the festival of the Doh had come to be celebrated during Tabaski, which is one of Islam’s most important holidays. Balhas explained that in Arabic Tabaski is called Eid al-Adha’. It is a celebration of the mercy of God, of how God sent the angel Gabriel to Abraham and spared Isaac. The Feast of Sacrifice occurs approximately seventy days after Ramadan. Prior to the announcement of Tabaski’s dates, trains from Burkina Faso pull car after car packed with sheep for markets in northern Côte d’Ivoire. “If one can afford it,” Balhas said, “his family sacrifices a sheep. Even here the children will get meat.” He stood with his arms crossed. “Though these are not real Muslims. And,” he assured Adam, “these whips have nothing to do with Tabaski.”
“Where is Oussam?” Adam asked, peering over the short wall to the store’s entrance. Oussam was Balhas’s cousin, a thin man, about my age, with teeth tipped yellow by cigarettes. He lived with Balhas and helped with the shop.
"In Abidjan getting supplies,” Balhas answered.
“Like women,” Adam countered, which Balhas “could neither support nor deny,” as Adam would have said. Oussam was often gone for supplies. Living in Balhas’s home, he maintained a low-key presence. He had a casualness, though, that suggested his life was not as politically intent as Balhas’s, his Muslim practice as devout, nor his separation from Ivorians as thorough. Oussam shared little about himself, probably knowing how poorly secrets get kept in Mankono.
In the region’s ethnic language, Dioula, the word “kono” stands for the idea of containment. When used imperatively “kono” means “wait.” “Man” is a negation. There are two versions of how Mankono got its name. The first holds that when the French came, they asked a man to tell them the name of the town. His response was, essentially, “wait, I don’t speak French.” Man kono…and then he ran off. The second predates that.
Before the French arrived in the 1840s, Sudanic empires formed and dispersed along the Niger River for more than a thousand years. They were centers of Islamic learning. The empire of Ghana lasted nine hundred years, collapsing in the thirteenth century; the Mali empire survived the fourteenth century then gave rise to the Songhai empire, which lasted until the end of the sixteenth century. When the empire of Mali crumbled, as Europe was emerging from its Dark Ages, a portion of the Malinke population spread south. These people settled in the region now known as Guinea. They were often Muslim traders, called dioula, a word that meant “trader.” However, as the Malinke merged with the local animist populations, many began to farm and raise livestock.
Samori Touré, a resistance fighter, grew up in a settlement like this. His father no longer prayed but Samori began his career in the traditional way. He learned the trade routes as well as the resources and customs of the surrounding populations, and early on he converted to Islam. In 1850, when his mother was captured and enslaved, he labored, as tradition demanded, seven years, seven months and seven days in the army of his mother’s captors. He returned with his mother and became a soldier for life.
By the time the French encountered Samori’s army it could manufacture repeating rifles, copied from European models. Samori had created a vast state, the third largest empire in Western Sudan. While everything was subordinate to the army, Samori wanted a woman with items of commerce to be able to travel safely. As his territory expanded, however, so did the practice of slave trading, and by the 1880s slavery was prevalent. Samori’s arrival in a region meant that the eldest sons of the heads of villages would be conscripted. As he marched through the Mankono area, some people fled. The tunnels where they hid are still known. Of course, other people waited. Again, waiting/not waiting. This is the second version of Mankono’s name.
A voice carried to the rooftop through a fuzz of magnification. It dissolved, then others rose, magnified along the city’s outskirts. Another round of voices ululated more clearly. The muezzins’ calls-to-prayer spiraled their way toward the three of us, until from the minaret northeast of us, in the center of the city, Allahu Akbar sang clearly. The mosques filled as the old men strode solemnly in their shiny boubous and white taper-toed slippers. In mosque courtyards, the men performed ablutions. They poured water from plastic teapots onto their fingers, washing around the face three times, behind the ears, the head, then the hands, three times, and then the feet. Squatting, they balanced on one foot at a time. They blew to clear their noses and spit to clean their mouths.
Sheep for Tabaski had been sacrificed. Early that morning, children had no doubt untethered the sheep from the mango trees in the courtyards, the sheep bleating as they were tugged then tied at the legs then laid on their sides on the ground, heads facing Mecca. The knife would have been hidden and a prayer uttered as their throats were cut. After evening prayer, when the men returned from the mosques, the drums of the Doh would begin. And they would last into the following day. The Feast of the Sacrifice would last one day longer.
“Have you ever gone down,” I asked Balhas, “to watch them dance the masks? The Doh is supposed to be this region’s best dancers.”
“Never,” he snorted, adding that he had to go pray. He crossed the roof to the stairs. We followed shortly and descended to Balhas’s living level on the second floor. I knocked and the Ivorian who tended the house answered the door, then returned to the kitchen. Most of the table was set. Adam and I watched Al-Jazeera for a minute, then switched to CNN for sports.
Aside from satellite television, Balhas’s house featured other viewing pleasures. I should mention that staring was about all that I did anymore. Once I focused on something it was like turning the lock on a magician’s box, his trick coffin, which released all of its walls revealing its secret escapes; the box itself collapsed into a single flattened dimension. That’s where I was. Watching dogs get stuck in a threesome, two co-mounting the third, yelping, dragged in front of empty market stalls. In the garbage pile the one duck hesitantly pecking behind the chickens. The crazy kid wandering, drooling, filling a powdered milk tin with scraps—not really a kid by age, but child-sized. He moaned or smiled until a squeal when cobs were suddenly pelting him, and the absolute terror as the women in the market chased him from the road. Then, seeing the women and the waiting passengers laughing, back to beaming ecstatically.
In Balhas’s house, on the entry-side wall of the main room, the dining and television room, there was the wall-sized mural of Mr. Ruholla Khomeini’s face colorfully accomplished by a former Peace Corps volunteer. There were also many framed pictures of the Hizbollah Secretary General, Sayyed Hassam Nasrallah, a young, heavily bearded figure with big glasses. Balhas was disgusted when I first asked who the guy in the pictures was. He grabbed a newspaper off of the coffee table and pointed at a picture. “But do you know who this is?”
“Sure. Ariel Sharon.” Balhas almost spit.
“Of course you know him but not these photos.” He lit into his evidentiary line of questioning. “Do you know at all about the invasion in 1982? Do you know the Sabra and Shitila massacre? A genocide, yet here Sharon, one who was personally responsible, is now elected prime minister.” Balhas would have been fifteen during the massacre. I would have been six.
There were also some Arabic phrases with blood dripping from a few words painted on a wall that I never asked about. Sam, the Ivorian, set chicken on the table. Balhas came out from his prayers and we sat at the table. I wondered out loud why Balhas wasn’t eating sheep, it being Tabaski after all.
“We should find Sinali,” Adam suggested. By which he meant we should walk the strip of street-food vendors, standing out as only two whites can, and give Sinali a chance to spot us.
I agreed. “His munchies must be intolerable by now.”
We cut through the alley behind Balhas’s shop. Shouts continued to spike up from different parts of the city. A group of young men came running around the corner. As with most encounters, Sinali had told us, these engagements honored status. To whip an elder would be a serious mistake. In most sober social moments, we would have been recognized like elders—we often worked on projects with the chiefs, school principals, and sous-préfets. Adam was holding his whip and continued forward unhesitatingly as the group of young men amassed in front of us.
A man breakfasting at a kiosk that morning had told me that the whips chase evil spirits out. But it is unclear how whips became involved with the Doh. A friend in the region told me that, historically, when Muslim herders arrived for Tabaski, the sound of their whips preceded them. I heard, also, that originally during the Doh slaves got to whip their masters; the slaves couldn’t take aggression out on a master, but once a year this exchange provided a token of kindness. Maybe these explanations are all true.
After the Malinke followed trade routes south, and as the Koyaka coalesced, a slave class and a noble class emerged. Nobles were those who had voluntarily migrated to the region or were living on the site of a village when it became a formal settlement. Slaves were war captives, or people sold or offered as slaves by their own tribes. This slave class was installed in the outskirts of the settlement as a shield. As a testimony of allegiance and to present New Year greetings, drummers and masks were sent once a year to nobles. Conceivably, the slaves would also have herded sheep to exchange or to gift. And as the ceremony was one of affirming relationships, is it possible that the slaves were able to whip their masters? The Koyaka say that the Doh celebrates values that strengthen community cohesion. At every festival a fortnight of peace is decreed; a week before and after the fête all forms of belligerence are strictly prohibited. Perhaps those “forms of belligerence” are the evil spirits summoned, then given flight by the whips.
The young men considered us as we approached, then turned and ran in the direction they had just come from—the first drums! Adam and I tore off after the young men. We followed the drumbeats toward a cloud of dust hovering in the southeast of the city.
The Harmattan winds had just passed. At the end of the dry season villages were hazy with smoke as the fields burned clear. The first rainy season, a light one, would arrive and these men running ahead would be planting yams and cotton—though many had surely left their villages for work in cities as pound-it-to-fit mechanics or as vendors at intersections selling belts, umbrellas, clocks, batteries, q-tips, rabbits. Or perhaps they had made it into factories. The men carried the unrecompensed work in the fields and the thrust of violence in the cities here to the Doh. Here whipping a brother or a neighbor became a form of restraint, considering how little had been restrained over the last year.
Adam snapped his own forearm as he readied to enter the fray. I did not have a whip. Adam and I approached the square and could see that the drummers were playing, but no mask. A shirtless man who had charcoaled the rims of his eyes whipped Adam in the calf. Others laughed as Adam leapt and yelped. We walked to the periphery and he inspected the welt. Already men were passed out in the brush around the square. Adam had wanted to participate in the whipping—to whip and to be whipped—but now that the gangs of young men were congregating into an indistinguishable mass, un-allied by smaller fights, it was hard to know what might happen if Adam stirred a confrontation. We pushed our way into the crowd that was congealing around the drummers. It was too tight for whips. We’d look for Sinali the next morning.
Dark, and the women were hidden in their residences. Drums thumped and around the city eleven masks began their sorties. Whips were set aside or hooked to belts, just one more of the adornments—with beaks or bells—that hung from many of the men. Our group huddled around the drums. We made a wobbly nucleus. After dancing its story the mask led us on our first transit. A retinue of inflamed men staggered down the street. Perhaps others chose an affiliation more deliberately, but I did not know the properties of the different masks. I did not know any of their magic or stories. I did not know which mask to look for where. Of the eleven masks, one is a sun called Tere and another is a rock or clay home-place called Gbakourou. The others represent animals. I think that many of the men did not know any more than I knew. Adam and I followed an animal mask, though I could not say what kind of animal.
Occasionally we would pass another mask and the mobs would blend, then disentangle and form again around the drummers—outside the bakery, in a schoolyard, in front of the Mayor office. Adam and I stuck with our animal mask even as we heard the drumming of other masks pass in nearby streets. Eventually I did not watch the mask. I did not understand its story the second time or the third time or the fifth time it was danced. I had begun to commune with the drums. They were a constant pulse. Drummers hurried rhythms, one over another, then isolated them, and then again in company, beats crosshatching a surface that held its tension for a moment, then drained as advances skittered. I think no one was watching the mask any longer. Or that the mask no longer separated itself from the mob.
I imagine the dust as it sifted through the curtains and into the houses along the streets. Adam and I lifted our feet. We pounded the air with our hands. I remember that the drummers circled us and briefly we were in a group of men at the heart of the mob. Turning away from each other. One foot outward. A man entered my space, his breath scorched with alcohol. My joints and grooves, my sway—he felt his way, how did I move? My body ducked into his empty spaces and he filled in. He traced my intrusions until he knew how I anticipated. And then the space collapsed. The mask appeared up the street and the crowd followed. We were near the grand mosque. Its minaret scattered a soft perimeter of light.
After daylight, after the drums ceased, after food and sobering, Adam, Sinali and I stood sweating in the heat at the edge of a public square. From amongst the crowd, we watched the dignitaries of the region’s great families greet the masks. The dignitaries issued a customary reprimand for the behavior of the day before and there was a bonfire of whips. Then the drummers drummed again, and the masks danced one after another. In the bright, early afternoon, the notables gave gifts folded in traditional mud cloths. The gifts are typically cash, I understand.
A tenuous calm persisted through 2001 and into 2002. The northern part of the country had quietly armed and organized. Rumors suggested that Muammar Qaddafi had supplied weapons, or that they had been provided through Al Qaeda’s burgeoning Maghreb network. In September 2002 the northern force would push quickly south, their progress stopped at the outskirts of Abidjan and the main ports by the French military. Embassies would evacuate non-nationals, and the Peace Corps ended its tenure in the country. Then a civil war broke out, which soon stalled into a north-south schism. Long-delayed elections in 2011 would provoke another burst of violence, called the second civil war, before establishing Alassane Ouattara as president. Just before the first war brought everything to the surface, I left. Adam had gone a month before me.
He and Sinali and I returned to the Doh earlier that year, 2002. Maybe I just knew what to expect, but that year the young men who threatened us seemed gaudy, strutting around, kids behind them acting like bandits. The rupture had already happened. People gave way politely that year as the mob danced. Maybe many of the previous year’s celebrants were absent, recruited to the northern military. The year before, when a man slid his finger across his throat because I had no cell phone to relinquish, I was scared—not abstractly, viscerally.
That next year, in 2002, the man who danced into the maquis where we were drinking koutoukou, his entourage singing of him as “Osama bin Laden” while he danced mockingly toward our table, just seemed ridiculous. Drunk and in white spandex, a dirty white shirt, a loosely wrapped turban, whip tied around his waist.
“Tell your government who cannot find one man, here I am.” Adam, Sinali and I paused our conversation as he lingered at our table. I worried only that he would commence with the tired overtures: “take my daughter when you return so she can be your wife (who will cook you the vrai African cuisine?)”; “give me your address pour faire une correspondance.” I held the whip I’d crafted in my village. The braid was coming undone from the handle, cordage too light at its tip to really snap. I handed it coiled to the bin Laden impersonator and he squinted at me, out of skepticism or inebriation. He took the whip. He sprang to attention, pivoted, and hollered at his entourage. Then shuffled them to a table across the maquis.
Todd Fredson is the author of the poetry collection, The Crucifix-Blocks, which won the 2011 Patricia Bibby First Book Award. His poems, essays and nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Interim, Matter: A Journal of Political Poetry and Commentary, Poetry International and other journals and anthologies. Fredson is currently at work on a translation project that considers ethnic politics in contemporary Ivorian poetry. He is a doctoral candidate in the Creative Writing and Literature program at the University of Southern California.