Welcome to Classical Girl’s Africa page! Here you’ll [eventually] find all sorts of information about Gabon, Central Africa, as it’s portrayed in my forthcoming novel, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa. Curious about where towns like Makokou, Bitam and Lambaréné — all depicted in the novel — are located in relation to Gabon’s capital city of Libreville? Here you go! Curious how to pronounce words like Makokou (hint: accent is on the first syllable and not the second) and phrases like “case de passage” (kaz de pa SAAGH)? A glossary and pronunciation guide are forthcoming.
Pub date for A Dancer’s Guide to Africa is October 2, 2018, so as the date approaches, I’ll be adding more articles below, about Gabon and its culture. Advance reader copies of A Dancer’s Guide to Africa will become available on Aug 2nd, via NetGalley. Not a member but interested in reading an e-copy in exchange for an honest review? Touch base with me through the “contact me” tab above.
For now, here’s the novel’s opening scene..
The first thing I noticed was the AK-47, cradled in the arms of the Gabonese military checkpoint guard. That, and the fact that the man looked angry. He sprang to attention as our dust-caked van rolled to a stop, clutching his rifle close, arms at rigid angles. A steel bar, supported by two rusting oil drums, stretched across the unpaved road, preventing us from passing without his permission. Since my arrival in Gabon seventy-two hours prior, part of a group of twenty-six trainees, I’d discovered military checkpoints were common in Africa. At the first one, outside the Gabonese capital of Libreville, the guard had waved us through without rising from his seat. At the second, a soldier was sleeping in a chair tipped against a cinder-block building. Only the noise of our honking had awakened him. But this third official took his job seriously.
Inside the Peace Corps van, I glanced around to see if anyone else noticed the danger we were in. No one was looking. Animated chatter filled the overheated van. “Um, excuse me?” I called out over the din, my voice abnormally high. “Someone with a big gun out there looks very angry.” My seatmate and fellow English-teaching trainee, Carmen, leaned over me to peer out.
“Whoa,” she murmured, “he kind of does. Cool!”
Her fascination shouldn’t have surprised me. Carmen seemed to embrace the gritty, the provocative, evidenced by her multiple piercings, dark spikey hair, heavy eyeliner and combat boots. Although we were the same age, twenty-two, I would have given her a wide berth back home. Here, she’d become my closest friend.
Together we watched the guard draw closer. His eyes glowed with a fanatic’s fervor, as if he were drunk on his own power. Or simply drunk. The authorities here bore little resemblance to the clean-cut police officers back in Omaha who patrolled the suburban neighborhoods, stopping me in my dented Ford Pinto to politely inquire whether I was aware of how fast I’d been driving. That world seemed very far away.
Our van driver, a short, wiry Gabonese man, stepped out of the vehicle and waved official-looking papers at the guard. By the determined shake of the guard’s head after he’d perused them, it clearly wasn’t enough.
The two began a heated discussion. When the driver held up a finger and disappeared back into the van, the guard scowled, tightening his grip on his weapon. Restlessly he scanned the van windows and caught my worried gaze. And held it.
I am going to die. The thought rose in me, pure and clairvoyant.
I pulled away from the window in terror. “He’s staring at me!”
“What are you talking about?” Carmen peered closer out the window.
“No, stop.” I yanked her arm. “I don’t want him to look this way.”
“Fiona. He wasn’t looking at you. He was looking at the group of us.”
“No, he wasn’t,” I insisted. “He was looking for someone to single out.”
Someone to pull from the bus and shoot. The thought, however irrational, made my gut clench in fear.
Carmen studied me quizzically. “You know, they say taking your weekly dose of Aralen gives you weird-assed dreams. Even violent dreams. You didn’t just take your Aralen, did you?”
“No! And are you saying you don’t find this angry military guy with a gun more than a little scary?”
“I do not. I mean, I would if it were just him and me on an empty road at night. But we’re a van full of Peace Corps volunteers and trainees. How sweetly innocent is that? This is Gabon, not Angola. And besides, do you see anyone else in this van getting anxious?”
I glanced around to see if anyone else was bothered by the danger. Conversations had continued without pause. Aside from the occasional idle glance out the window, no one was paying the drama any attention.
“No, I don’t,” I admitted.
Our van driver returned to the checkpoint guard. He said something that made the guard relax his grip on the rifle. He opened one hand and accepted the two packs of cigarettes our driver offered him. Pocketing them, he gestured to a structure adjacent to his building, and the two of them strolled toward it.
“You know, I’m not sure who won,” Carmen said.
I released the breath I’d been holding. “At least he didn’t shoot off his gun.”
Another uniformed guard crunched over to our van. “Descendez,descendez,” he called out in a bored voice.
Carmen and I exchanged worried glances. The volunteers in the van rose, grumbling and stretching.
“What’s going on?” Daniel, another English-teaching trainee, asked, frozen halfway between sitting and standing.
One of the volunteers shrugged. “Checkpoints….”
This wasn’t part of the plan and that concerned me. We were supposed to arrive at our training site in Lambaréné by mid-afternoon. We’d already stopped once for a flat tire and another time for a steamy, bug-infested half-hour, the reason never made clear. No one else seemed bothered by all these delays. Or worried. I could only fret to myself as we descended from the Peace Corps van into the staggering humidity, squinting at the overhead sunlight. Away from the city, deep inside the country’s interior, the whine of insects was a noisy symphony of clicks, buzzes and drones. Jungly trees crowded the landscape, broken only by the red-dirt road and clearing. A group of children, wearing an assortment of ragged thrift-store castoffs, shrieked at our sudden appearance and ran from us. The rifle-toting soldier and our driver had disappeared.
“But what’s the problem?” I quavered, trudging behind the others over to a mud-and-wattle shack set up next to the checkpoint station. “How long will we be here?”
“Who knows?” a volunteer named Rich replied. “Long enough to have a Regab.” He entered the shack and we followed like ducks. In the dim room, lit by sunlight filtering through cracks, Rich pointed to a table where our driver was sitting, relaxed in conversation with the guard. Both clutched wine-sized green bottles of beer. Regab.
Look for A Dancer’s Guide to Africa in stores on Oct 2, 2018!