In 2010, I was posted with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. The country had, my research told me, been a French colony until achieving independence in 1960, after which it had been governed by a series of autocratic rulers; and it had been in a state of unrest since the mid 1990s. I read, variously, that the Central African Republic was the world’s poorest country, the second most dangerous country in Africa (after Somalia), and the least written-about country in the world.
After accepting the job, I told friends and family that I was going to the Central African Republic. Most of them had never heard of it.
In 2010, most of CAR was under rebel control, and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army was wreaking havoc in rural villages. Bangui, however, was quiet. Most of its inhabitants lived in shacks built of mud or dried grass, and downtown was a jumble of decaying concrete structures, mostly built before independence or in the era of the self-styled Emperor Bokassa, who ruled the country in the sixties and seventies. The few new buildings in town had been built with Chinese money.
Not long after I arrived, I bought a book of photos of Bangui from a boy on the street. The pictures were black and white and had been taken fifty years earlier. Next to the reality of the city in 2010, they looked like images of the future. In the photos, the buildings were new and had a modern sheen. Now the same buildings were crumbling, and in many cases abandoned; paint had flaked off the walls, and whole sections of tiles were missing from the roofs, leaving the interiors exposed to the tropical rains.
I found a house to rent near the UNHCR office. It was large and airy, and had barred windows for security. There was a terrace in front, where I drank local coffee on weekend mornings, and gin and tonics in the evenings. The garden was bursting with tropical flowers – lurid red hibiscus and delicate pink and white frangipani. Guards in brown uniforms were stationed in a small hut at the front of the house, to protect me. The UN would not give security clearance to my living quarters without them.
It was a five-month posting. My main assignment was to help resettle a group of Sudanese refugees. Their village in Darfur had been burned to the ground by Janjaweed, and they had fled across the CAR border; now, their makeshift camp was under attack from Central African rebels. They had run away from one kind of hell only to find themselves in another. After spending my first couple of months in Bangui interviewing refugees and preparing for the mission, I flew on a tiny UN plane to the camp and spent twelve days at the camp, interviewing six families per day. Back in Bangui, I wrote up the cases of the refugees I’d interviewed, arguing that they could not remain in the camp, trying to persuade another country – the Netherlands, we hoped – to take them in.
Two months before I was due to finish my posting, my husband Judah joined me. Judah’s mother had recently developed hip problems and, to her dismay, needed to use a walking stick. In spite of her condition, she still swam a thousand meters and used an exercise bike for forty minutes every day, but the stick, she said, would mean she was an old lady. She would no longer be the person she had been her whole life.
I had an idea: we could have a walking stick made for her in Bangui: an ebony cane, hand-carved to her own design. This cane would not be a symbol of age and invalidism but instead a glamorous and exotic objet d’art, custom-made for her in Africa. The idea seemed to cheer her slightly, and she emailed the image she wanted to be incorporated into the cane’s design: a sculpture of a mermaid from a museum in New York. The mermaid was a representation of an African water-spirit, Mami Wata. Her hair was drawn up in a knot; her breasts were bare, defiant. Her tail flipped up, the fin to her back. Her belly stuck out proudly. Her lip was curled in a knowing smile.
We called our usual taxi driver, Emil, and asked him to bring us to a craft shop called Be Afrik’Art. It was late June: a month before we were due to leave the country. The radio in Emil’s car was tuned to a World Cup match from South Africa, and Emil tapped the steering wheel urgently as he followed the action. Since few homes in Bangui had TVs, or even electricity, a large screen had been erected in the main square, and crowds gathered to watch matches, especially those featuring teams from West Africa. From our house, a mile or so from the square, we could hear the cheers from people watching. I watched the matches on the street and in cafes in Bangui, comforted somehow to know that my family and friends in the countries where I had watched the previous world cups – Uganda, France, Scotland, Israel, Ireland – were watching too: cheering, sighing and swearing at the same time.
Now, en route to the craft shop, the taxi drove slowly: the rains had turned the red clay of the earth to mud, and eroded potholes. The flame trees – flamboyants – were in bloom, their orange flowers vivid against the deep blue of the sky. We passed what was referred to locally as the ‘Chinese hotel’, because it was being built by Chinese workers; though it was funded, apparently, by the Libyan government. It would be, I had been told on the day of my arrival, the first luxury hotel in the Central African Republic. There was an old Sofitel on a rocky outcrop on the Ubangi, the river that divides CAR from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Sofitel had, it seemed, been elegant once, but now it was decrepit, an eyesore. Otherwise, there were a few small local hotels with mismatched furniture and erratic power. Their prices were extortionate. They hosted the occasional newly arrived NGO worker and, as far as I could see, almost no one else. When I had first arrived, I’d spent three weeks in one of these hotels while looking for a house, and for most of that time I’d been the hotel’s only guest. The waiters in the hotel knew the food (fried capitaine fish and plantain) and the drink (gin and the local bitter lemon soda) I preferred, so that soon I no longer needed to specify my order. I spent my thirty-fifth birthday in the hotel’s restaurant alone, eating, and watching a football match on the boxy TV in the corner. The internet was down, as it almost always was, limiting my ability to communicate with friends. I struck up conversations with waiters instead, about football, or how much I liked the fish – the capitaine, caught in the Ubangi. The Chinese hotel, I was told, would not be like these hotels. It would be of ‘international standards,’ and even have a swimming pool. I measured my time in Bangui by the progress of its construction. When I arrived, the foundations had been laid and trucks of bricks were being driven in. Day by day it developed, upwards, outwards, sprawling over a large compound. Ornately carved pillars appeared. It grew staggeringly fast, marking my days with new suites, my weeks with whole new wings. The government buildings near it were, by contrast, slowly crumbling.
We pulled up at the crafts shop on Avenue de l’Indépendence, pushed open the taxi’s rickety doors, and got out. Emil waited in the car. The match had ended. He turned down the volume of the radio completely and, creaking his seat back, prepared to doze.
The handwritten sign on the front of the shop sloped downward slightly, from left to right. ‘Be Afrik’Art’ meant ‘Art from the Heart of Africa’, or ‘Central African Art’, in the local language, Sango. I had been told that the shop was owned by two white European women, the wives of diplomats. It was the only shop in Bangui that sold local crafts. An artisanal market closer to town sold artefacts that were marketed as Central African, but which were more often imported from Senegal or Cameroon. The shop was small, and always staffed by a young local woman called Sandrine. Judah and I stopped by often, and had bought handmade boxes, jewellery, paintings: things we had no idea how to transport home. We had bought a tablecloth for a table with ten settings, though our table at home in the US seated only four. The tablecloth had been made, Sandrine had told us, in a women’s centre run by nuns. Embroidered on the white cloth were ten butterflies, of different species and colours, spaced around the edge of the cloth to designate the place settings. There were ten large cloth napkins too, each one decorated with an embroidered butterfly to correspond with a place setting. It was beautiful, and utterly impractical.
Sandrine stood and greeted us as we stepped in. There were no other customers. Judah and I examined objects on the main display table and on ledges along the walls. There were small ebony boxes, the lids inlaid with broken pieces of ostrich shell. A long rectangular box, also ebony, sat beside them. Its lid was embedded with brown and white feather quills, and lifted up to a reveal a long top level divided to store necklaces, perhaps, or pens. Below this level were four little drawers, the right size to hold earrings or stamps. The handles on the drawers were identical: tiny, perfectly made. We wandered over to a stand holding paintings, propped against the entry wall. There was a series of watercolours that we hadn’t seen there before. They depicted scenes from life in Bangui: the market, the airport, the bus station. They contained an astonishing level of detail. The airport scene showed passengers disembarking from a plane. An African man, wearing sunglasses and full tribal dress, carried a new holdall bearing the World Cup South Africa logo. A white man – a UN type – held a development conference briefcase. In the corner of the bus station watercolour, a large woman shooed away two young boys selling perforated strips of phone credit.
A sculpture in the corner of the room caught my eye. It was an old-fashioned airplane, carved from ebony, striped through in black and brown, and mounted on a pedestal. The blades of the propellers were tiny, each one carved individually and slotted in. It was perfect. I didn’t understand how anyone could make such a thing out of wood, how the proportions could be so right. On a tiny white sticker on the underside of the plinth was a name: ‘Thomas.’
I turned to Sandrine. ‘Is this the name of the sculptor? Thomas?’ I pointed to the sticker.
She replied, ‘Yes.’
I looked at Judah, guessing that he was thinking the same thing. He smiled and nodded.
Sandrine arranged for Thomas to meet us in the shop the following Wednesday, just before closing time; and when we returned to the shop for the appointment, he was already there, waiting for us. His smile was warm, his handshake strong. I pulled a piece of paper from my bag and unfolded it. It was a grainy printout of the image of Mami Wata. Thomas slipped his glasses out from his upper shirt pocket and took the paper. He peered at it.
‘We’d like a cane made,’ I told him, ‘a walking stick – with this mermaid incorporated near the top.’
Thomas nodded, his expression thoughtful. He looked around, then lifted a cane from a side-table in the shop and held it up. He held his thumb and forefinger apart a few inches from the top and said, ‘The mermaid should be about here?’
He turned the paper over. ‘Can I write on this?’
He pulled a yellow Bic pen from his back trouser pocket and scribbled something down. ‘And lower on the cane, here,’ he traced his forefinger along the lower length of the cane he had lifted, into which had been carved a long, coiled snake, ‘would you like anything else?’
I shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Perhaps fish?’
He nodded and made a note. ‘I can have it ready the Saturday after next.’
I counted out loud: that was three days before we were due to leave the country – Judah for Paris, and then Dublin; me for Dakar, via Nairobi, for my UNHCR debriefing.
Judah and I were at the Rock Pool when Thomas called. The Rock Pool was the seventies-era outdoor pool where the few expats who were posted in Bangui – diplomatic, UN and NGO staff – congregated at the weekends. The French Foreign Legion hung out there too, identifiable by their shaved heads and the army-issue bags that lay strewn across their sunloungers while they swam. The tiles of the pool were cracked, and the legs of the sunloungers were often broken. The power would go off regularly, and it was often necessary to shower and change in the dark, groping around for a bottle of shampoo that had rolled away or underwear that had dropped to the floor. But there was nowhere else to hang out, no other public pool we could use.
Thomas’s voice was cheerful. He told us that the stick was ready and one of his assistants had dropped it in to the shop. I thanked him and told him we’d pick it up later in the day.
There were other customers at the shop when we returned: some French people, a Lebanese couple and their children. Sandrine greeted us with a wave. We walked to the desk and smiled expectantly. She raised her eyebrows. I waited, but she didn’t speak. I said, ‘The cane? Thomas said it was dropped in yesterday. We’ve come to pick it up.’
Sandrine’s pupils widened and she raised her hand to her mouth. ‘That was your cane?’
I stared at her. ‘The cane Thomas was making for us. The one with the mermaid.’
She slid back on her chair. ‘But I didn’t know it was yours.’
I opened my mouth but didn’t speak.
‘I put it out on display. A man bought it this morning.’
I shook my head. ‘But – it’s not possible. You were there when we ordered the cane – you knew it was for us.’
She lifted her hand to her forehead. ‘Ah yes, I remember. But – I didn’t know it was this one. The man who dropped it in yesterday, he didn’t say.’ She pushed her hair back from her head. ‘I thought it was for general sale.’
I shook my head, then looked up. ‘Who bought it?’
‘A Chinese man.’
I waited for more details but there were none. ‘Can you find him?’
Sandrine shook her head. ‘I don’t know anything else about him.’
We were leaving in three days: surely not enough time to have another cane made. I thought of Judah’s mother, her disappointment, her being forced to keep using an ‘old lady’ cane.
‘Did the man leave his number?’
Sandrine brought her hand to the table: ‘Yes.’ She turned the pages of the notebook slowly then stared, frowning at one: ‘It’s one digit too short.’
She showed the open page to me. ‘Dr Jing’ was written in capital letters, with a seven-digit number below. She reached for her mobile phone. ‘I can try it,’ she said, not trying to conceal the doubt in her voice. The number didn’t work.
I looked around. A small queue had formed behind us. ‘Do you know anything else about him?’ I asked desperately.
Sandrine looked at the paper with the number and shook her head.
Seeing the queue, a white woman who had been arranging ornaments on a table came to the desk and, in a French accent, asked Sandrine if everything was alright. Sandrine raised her hand then let it drop. I turned to the woman, guessing she was the shop’s owner.
‘We ordered a cane. From a sculptor called Thomas. He had it dropped off here for us, but’ – I looked to Sandrine – ‘it was sold this morning.’
Sandrine spoke up. ‘I didn’t know it was for her.’
‘But you were there when we ordered it!’ I sucked in my breath.
The white woman shook her head. ‘Sandrine, you made a mistake, and now you must resolve it.’
Sandrine nodded, looking to the desk. I was suddenly overcome by shame, seeing her embarrassed, humiliated by her boss.
‘Do you know anything about the customer?’ the white woman continued. ‘Can we find him and ask him to sell the cane back?’
Sandrine stared at the notebook. ‘He gave his name as “Dr Jing”.’
‘Well then,’ the white woman suggested, ‘maybe he’s a doctor at the Chinese hospital. You need to send someone there – ask Antoine. Tell him to look for Dr Jing – or get his phone number – and explain to him what’s happened. Ask politely if we can buy the cane back.’
Sandrine nodded, looking disconsolate.
The white woman turned to us. ‘I’m so sorry. Let me take your number and we’ll call you as soon as we find your cane.’
The heat in the taxi was overwhelming. Emil passed me the handle to lower the window. The handle had long come off, leaving a ragged hole in the vinyl that exposed the inner workings of the door: pieces of jagged metal, an uncurled spring. I said, ‘We need to go to a sculptor’s workshop. I’ll call the sculptor and pass him to you to give you directions.’
Thomas answered the phone after a few rings. He responded to the news of our catastrophe with cheerful calm. ‘We’ll make another cane for you in less than three days, no problem,’ he assured me. ‘I even took a picture of the one we made for you.’
I passed the phone to Emil, and he spoke to Thomas in Sango. He returned the phone and said, ‘I already know the place. Thomas is a well-known sculptor here. The workshop used to be his brother’s: Thomas took it over when his brother died.’
He turned the key in the ignition, and we pulled away from the shop.
The window handle wasn’t the only thing in the car that was broken. There were no seatbelts, and the windscreen was cracked. The suspension was gone and the car hung low with our weight.
I rested my head against the window. The roads in this part of Bangui were wide, conceived as boulevards in the Parisian style. The boulevards, though, remained purely notional, and there were only ever two lanes of traffic on roads wide enough to hold six. There was enough room, always, to make giant loops around the potholes.
We drove onto a road with a small cluster of government buildings. One, which had apparently once housed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was known locally as the Mushroom. The huge, round brown roof was thatched, but full of holes. The building beneath it – a dirty cream, and round like the roof – looked exactly like a fat mushroom stem.
We drove through the large triangular arch that straddled one of the main roads. Painted across the triangle was the slogan:
Centrafrique notre pays
l’interêt national d’abord!
The Central African Republic our country
national interest first!
The motto ‘Feed Clothe Shelter Care for Instruct’ was engraved on a plinth supporting a bust of Barthélémy Boganda, the first prime minister of the autonomous CAR, who had died in a plane crash shortly before formal independence was achieved. Another pillar, accompanied by a statue of a man in short sleeves, and a clock, bore the legend ‘Work: The Only Path to Development’.
I thought about Dr Jing. What was he doing here? Was he really working in the hospital? Perhaps he was a doctor of engineering, overseeing some construction project.
We turned onto a smaller dirt road, lined with small mud-brick houses. Boys chasing tyres with sticks stopped to watch, opened-mouth, as we passed. Girls balancing jerry-cans on their heads cleared the road to make room for the car. Toddlers standing in front of houses waved and then, suddenly shy, giggled and ran away.
We slowed as the roads became narrower, muddier, more potholed. Finally, we approached an open veranda, a tin roof erected on poles, with ten or twelve men working at a table under it. We pulled to a stop. The men looked up for a moment then returned to their work. They were seated on broad upturned logs, chipping at large sculptures on the ground in front of them, or shaving small carvings over the table. Emil recognized Thomas, and clasped his hand. They exchanged greetings in Sango, still clutching hands, laughing. Then Thomas turned to us, his smile broad, and grasped our hands. ‘The boy has already gone to collect the block of ebony for the cane. It will be ready in two days – I give you my word.’
We followed Thomas as he led us into his workshop at the back of the compound. It was a small concrete structure, lined on three sides with makeshift shelves. The shelves were crowded with carvings: tiny African animals, busts of women adorned with tribal jewellery, graceful figurines. Some were new and polished; some were coated in a fine layer of dust. Four cushioned chairs were arranged around a low table in the centre of the room. The patterned covers of the cushions had burst at the seams, exposing square slabs of sponge. We sat down. On the table was a graph-paper notebook, open to a page filled with lists of numbers. Beside it was a large brown Casio calculator with orange buttons. Thomas reached into his pocket and pulled out a small digital camera. He pressed a button and it beeped, the screen lighting up. He clicked through the images then passed the camera to me. The screen was small and scratched. He pulled a little trigger to zoom in. It was a photograph of the mermaid cane he had made.
I looked up at him. ‘I’m not sure if I really want to see it,’ I said.
Thomas raised his hands, palms open. ‘You have my word.’
I peered at the picture. It was perfect. The mermaid was an exact replica of the photo I’d shown him, and the lower sections were carved elegantly into a fish pattern. I passed the camera to Judah, who examined the picture then passed the camera to Emil. I turned to Thomas. ‘Is there time to make the new cane as beautiful as this one?’
He nodded, his expression serious. ‘The power is off now, but I’ll switch the generator on, and work at it all night. Tomorrow night too, if necessary. I’ll start this evening when the boy has returned with the wood.’
I thanked him and he waved the thanks away: ‘It’s no problem.’
I gestured to the shelves. ‘Did you make all this?’
He looked around. ‘Some of it is mine, but not all. The men you saw outside – they are all part of the workshop. Some of these sculptures are theirs.’
‘How did you start the workshop?’ I asked.
Thomas said, ‘My brother started it. When he died in the 1980s, I took over.’
I looked at him. He didn’t seem older than his early forties. His brother must have died young. ‘And the other workers?’
‘I expanded the workshop. There is very little work here, so I decided to train boys in the village who had nothing to do. Most worked hard, learned the skills and stayed on. Two left to start their own workshops, and we trained new boys to take their place.’ He dropped his hands to his lap and stood up. ‘Feel free to look at everything here.’
We walked around, picking up sculptures, examining tiny elephants and delicate, spindly giraffes.
‘Do you export your work?’ Judah asked, as I blew dust from a sculpture of a woman cradling a child.
Thomas shook his head. ‘It’s too complicated. The tax we’re charged when the work leaves the country – it’s too much.’ He exhaled deeply. ‘Taxes and bribes.’
There was a sound of approaching footsteps, a squelching on the muddy ground. We looked up. A Chinese man walked in, followed by one of the boys we’d seen outside. He was wearing a white cotton shirt and loose beige trousers – the uniform of the expatriate businessman in Africa. The boy behind him spoke quickly to Thomas in Sango, then dashed off, his flip-flops splattering mud outside as he ran. The Chinese man made his way to the biggest sculpture in the room, a carving of a man carrying another man on his shoulders that was about ten feet tall.
Had Be Afrik’art managed to reach Dr Jing? Perhaps they had explained our plight and he was gracious enough to seek us out to return the cane? Or maybe the shop had not reached him, and he had just come to seek out more of Thomas’s work.
Judah was examining a small hand-carved car that wasn’t quite finished but had been consigned to the shelf and shrouded in a thick layer of dust. Thomas had sat down and was tapping figures from the graph book into the calculator. The Chinese man was peering at the giant sculpture, examining it from all angles. I walked up to him. He turned to look at me.
‘You’re not,’ I asked him in French, ‘Dr Jing, by chance?’ Vous n’êtes pas, par hazard, Docteur Jing? As I spoke the words, the question seemed oddly familiar. I stepped back. What did it sound like? The realization hit me suddenly and I flushed. Dr Jing, I presume?
The Chinese man stared at me. I began again, ‘Dr Jing?’ and smiled hopefully.
The Chinese man frowned in incomprehension. ‘What?’
I changed tack. ‘Did you buy a cane today?’
He shook his head. ‘What?’
‘A cane,’ I persisted, but doubtfully now. ‘From Be Afrik’Art? This morning?’
The Chinese man shook his head, his expression bewildered. ‘No – I think you want someone else. No.’ He regarded me, mystified, for a moment, shook his head again, and returned to inspecting the giant two-man sculpture.
I walked over to Judah. ‘That man isn’t Dr Jing.’
Judah looked up at me, then over to the Chinese man. ‘No?’
I shook my head. ‘It’s just – it’s quite a coincidence, don’t you think?’
Judah squinted. ‘That we were looking for a Chinese man, and one came to the shop?’
I turned to Thomas. ‘Who was that man?’
He looked to the door. ‘The man that just left?’
‘Just a customer. He came to see what we had.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘We thought maybe he was, you know …’ I paused, waiting for Thomas to realize and complete what I was saying, but he looked blank. ‘You know, Dr Jing.’
Thomas brought his hand to his chin. ‘The man who bought the cane? Ah.’ A look of realization crept over his face. ‘The Chinese man. I don’t know. That man’ – he gestured to the door – ‘I’ve never seen him before. I don’t know if it’s the same man.’
I nodded, looking away. ‘I know. It was just a thought.’
When we’d finished looking around the workshop, I spoke to Thomas one last time. ‘You’re sure the cane can be ready in two days? And will be as nice as the first one?’
He smiled and raised his hands. ‘I gave you my word!’
I nodded. ‘I know. I’m sorry. It’s just – it was so intricate. What time shall we come back on Tuesday?’
He thought for a moment. ‘Can you come in the evening? Five o’clock?’
We agreed, shaking his hand, apologizing for the debacle, and left.
The drive home brought us past the two sports stadiums: the old one and the new one. The old one had been seemingly been built with French money for Emperor Bokassa in the 1970s. Only the crumbling exoskeleton of the stadium still stood, a dismal shell. The new, Chinese, stadium was a dazzling white oval with huge panels of glass. Juxtaposed against the shacks and rotting concrete of the rest of the city, it seemed a sci-fi structure, a spaceship. We’d heard that the radio facilities inside the stadium were filled with hi-tech equipment labelled only in Chinese. It was said that one Central African had been taught to read it, on the basis that he could explain it to everyone else.
A couple of months earlier, on a visit to Congo, we’d been driving outside Kinshasa when the road turned from dirt to a long smooth stretch of asphalt. I leaned forward. ‘Who constructed this road?’ I asked the driver.
‘The Chinese,’ he said. ‘They are building everything.’
‘Is that a good thing?’
‘Yes. The Chinese build hospitals, government buildings, roads, mines. Things we need but don’t have the capacity to do ourselves. And the French – the Europeans’ – he laughed harshly – ‘we would still be waiting on them to start. They do almost nothing for us now. The Chinese – they make no demands, they just get things done.’
In Kinshasa, we had visited a large open-air crafts market, the marché des voleurs, or thieves’ market. No one seemed to know if the market’s name referred to a rampancy of thieves operating there, or to the fact that everything for sale had been stolen. The stalls were stacked high with chiefs’ masks and fetishes from the Congolese interior, stamps bearing the image of the former president, Mobutu, in his leopard-skin hat, and Belgian-era banknotes.
A man had called me to his stall. ‘Real ivory! Jewellery! Ornaments!’
I stared at the table. It was laid out with ivory sculptures, boxes, combs, necklaces, bangles.
‘It’s real ivory?’ I asked the stallholder.
He nodded. ‘All of it. Lift something! Feel it! You’ll see.’
I lifted a necklace of cream disks between my thumb and forefinger. It was milky-smooth.
‘I will give you a very good price.’
‘But it’s real ivory?’
The man nodded enthusiastically.
‘But that’s illegal where I live. Even if I wanted it, I couldn’t bring it home with me.’
‘Ah, yes,’ the man acknowledged. ‘Ivory is illegal. You couldn’t take it home.’
‘It’s all ivory?’ I asked, waiting for him to tell me that some of it was in fact bone.
He nodded cheerfully. ‘All of it! There is nothing here you can buy.’
I surveyed the intricately carved chess pieces and figurines. I pointed to a large sculpted bust. ‘How much is that?’
‘$15,000,’ he answered nonchalantly. It wasn’t the biggest piece on the table.
‘But,’ I asked him, ‘if ivory is illegal in the West, then who buys it? What local person could spend $15,000 on an ivory bust?’
The man answered brightly, ‘The Chinese.’
The Chinese! I thought now. No scruples – just like Dr Jing.
Then I remembered that Dr Jing hadn’t actually done anything wrong.
When we got home, I called the owner of Be Afrik’Art to ask if she’d been able to track down Dr Jing. There was no reply. I sent a text message. Still nothing. I tried calling again an hour later, and an hour after that. She didn’t answer. Was she avoiding my call? Why hadn’t she phoned me when she said that she would? Was she too embarrassed about the whole thing? Or perhaps she had never intended to try to track down Dr Jing, and had only said that to get me out of the store? Perhaps, I thought, I should go to the Chinese hospital myself. I imagined tracking down Dr Jing there, and pictured us amongst feverish patients, scrambling over the cane.
Two days later, we pulled up at Thomas’s workshop. The men looked up and, seeing that it was us again, gave a cursory nod and returned to their work. Emil pushed his car seat back with a creak and closed his eyes.
In the back workshop, we found Thomas polishing a small sculpture. He stood when he saw us, smiled and stretched out his hand. He leaned out the door, called to one of the boys outside, and the boy ran to the stall by the road and brought us back frosty bottles of the local lemon soda. We sipped on them as Thomas left to find the cane. ‘One of the men in front is just polishing it,’ he told us.
He returned a few minutes later with the cane in his hand. He placed it on the table. I put down the bottle and picked up the cane. It was beautiful. Mami Wata had been carved into the top. Her expression was as knowing and defiant as it was in the picture. Her tail was finely criss-crossed. The fish were tiny and delicate. I said to Thomas, ‘It’s incredible. I can’t believe you were able to make it in time.’
He said, ‘But I gave you my word.’ His slightly raised inflection betrayed a trace of hurt. I felt ashamed suddenly that I hadn’t believed in him.
We paid Thomas the price he had requested, fifty dollars, knowing that in the US or Europe such a piece – exquisitely made from ebony to a custom design – would cost easily ten times that. We told Thomas of the market we thought he could have in the West, of how much more he could charge. We asked for an email address so we could relay further orders to him. He didn’t have an email account, he said, but after asking around amongst the men outside, brought us the address of someone else who did. I folded the paper with the email address on it carefully and placed it in my wallet. I tried not to admit to myself that I would probably never use it.
We drove home through the city, past the two stadiums, the sixties-era concrete blocks with the huge palms growing between them, the houses rising out of the forest, the scattered mud-brick huts. Some kind of mosaic was being laid out at the front of the Chinese hotel, and the driveway was being paved. On a hill stood tall letters, roughly in the style of the Hollywood sign:
I turned the cane over in my hand. The carving was graceful, the ebony smooth and cold. The detail was exquisite, the mermaid an exact replica of the image of the defiant Mami Wata. We would package it carefully, in layers of newspaper and bubble wrap, so that Judah could carry it as hand luggage, on one of the twice-weekly Air France flights out of the country.
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