47˚ East 18˚ South 4
The first thing I notice is the barrenness. Back at the hotel, the white sandy beach contrasts with the lush planting nearer the buildings, the neat pathways, the picturesque thatched villas, all carefully designed to look natural. I look around; this is the real natural – the same white sand, but pockmarked here and there with a tide line of washed up detritus – bottles, rusty tin cans. Further up, away from the water, crudely made fishing nets are spread out to dry, and a child’s discarded plastic sandshoe lies waiting to be reclaimed by its owner.
The beach slopes gently upwards – there isn’t a soul in sight until we reach the top of the sand dune; then suddenly, there’s the village and It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s large, and well spaced out – there’s quite a distance from one thatched shack to another. One or two zebu – the thin big-horned oxen, amble slowly and silently along the wide pale-coloured paths. The sand underfoot must deaden all sound; even the chickens are silent as they peck in the dust. Little groups of people stand outside, sheltering from the baking heat in the shade of the roofs. Children in various states of undress sit quietly in little groups. It’s as if they are all ghosts, standing, watching us silently as we pick our way past them, following the manager. There’s no colour here. It’s all bleached white sand and mismatched sticks of what looks like driftwood nailed together to form very basic fences. No smoke, no fires, no chatter, no laughter, no music. It feels very alien.
The silence is contagious; even the Frenchwomen have stopped rattling their bangles. We follow the manager, stopping briefly at a rickety wooden construction, which has a plaque bearing the name of a French charity and a surprisingly recent date, given its tumbledown state - It’s some kind of well to bring fresh water to the village. I’m not sure if something that broken looking can actually still be working.
It isn’t until we’re led into the schoolroom that our party seems to come alive again. The desks are spread with things to buy – embroidered tablecloths and napkins, scarves and sarongs in brightly coloured prints. The women from the boat plunge in and start rifling through the neatly folded things. I hang back - although it’s shady in the room, it’s crowded, hot and airless. I sit down on a bench and look at the chalk handwriting on the blackboard.
A little boy wanders past. He’s wearing a David Beckham t-shirt and nothing else. It reminds me of an article I read once, about how the clothes we put in the recycling bins in England often end up being resold in African markets. One of the elderly Frenchmen from our party reaches out and grabs the boy, quite roughly, pulling him to the bench next to mine where he’s sitting. The child looks bewildered as the man lifts him onto his lap. All the while, the man’s chatting to his companion; he just holds onto the boy at first, and then he begins touching the child, stroking his arms, speaking so softly that I can only catch one or two words. I feel cold suddenly. I’ve seen this once before at my sons’ primary school. There is always another explanation – always an excuse – maybe he likes children – some people can be touchy feely with them – but you know – you always know when it’s more than that. It’s a feeling you get.
I’d know what to do in England, but I don’t here. I look across at the local women behind the tables; they are busy counting out money, wrapping up purchases. I look back; the man has his hands on the boy’s legs now, stroking them. The boy is passive, sitting still. I can’t tell if he’s frightened – his expression is totally blank. Then the man feels in the pockets of his shorts and brings out some notes. He opens the child’s fist, places the money in it, then closes it again. The child looks at his hand as if it doesn’t belong to him. The man continues to run his hands over the boy. He is so close to me that I can see the hairs, bleached white by the sun, and the veins and age spots on his fingers.
I feel sick but I don’t know what to do, so I do nothing and hate myself for it. The man is in his seventies at least. This used to be a French colony. I wonder if in his younger days he worked here; maybe this was how he amused himself then. Perhaps he’s reviving old memories? Then I think, “these people are so poor; who am I to complain?” I remember last summer when we went to New York, and Al gave my sons envelopes stuffed with dollars – two thousand each, for spending money.
Suddenly it seems even hotter, and I feel as if I can’t breathe at all. I go outside – anywhere is better than here, and throw up in the shade of a tamarind tree. When there’s nothing left inside me, I stay crouching there, feeling awful. There’s a faint rustling sound and I look up. One of the local women, is standing there, watching me. She’s beautiful - I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite so beautiful before. She could be any age at all – it’s hard to tell. She’s very slim, and the brightly coloured cloth that’s wrapped around her accentuates the gracefulness of her figure. We look at each other for a minute or two. Then I apologise, and she shakes her head solemnly, as if to say it’s nothing.
“Ca va mieux maintenant?” Her French is faultless.
I look back at her, get up slowly, and try to smile;
“Oui, ca va mieux, merci.”
She nods at me, and walks slowly away. I am not really feeling better at all, but I walk down to the beach to wait for the others. There’s nothing else I can do.