January is in its final days. Harmattan winds have been blowing through the mornings for the past six weeks. As the mid-morning light brings with it dust-laden breezes, I pour in a second liter of petrol to the cobalt blue tank of Kwame’s knock-off, 70’s era Honda CB. The tank holds at least 2.4 gallons, or nine liters. Osman sells me four liters at 5,000Le each from the chicken wire wrapped cage. His storage space looks more like an oversized stool than a petrol stand. Each pink-tinted liter, all a vaguely different shade than the previous one, gurgles out from the 1.5liter water bottle it was stored in.
Village boys gather around Mille and I as we prepare to leave. She stands off the back left of the bike, facing the delta that makes up the entrance of Mapaki. Her H&M denim shorts carry dust from the dry season roads. She wears a heather-grey tank top. Her soft, peach-tanned skin holds a mist in the sun. The air is cooler than normal for this time of morning. I hand off the last liter of petrol to Osman and pay him. The cap for the tank is placed on; it’s keyhole no longer functioning. On the stubby, chrome rack above the taillight I double-check my black Manhattan Portage courier bag. Inside we’ve packed wedges of Laughing Cow cheese, crackers, and bread and cheese sandwiches; bananas are there for our potassium. My Nikon N80 bounces next to a transparent grey Nalgene water bottle covered in stickers.
I pull the FDMCO around in a U-turn, clicking down one gear, and entering first. Unlike traditional motorcycles, its gear system is all down or all up. The top is neutral. In first gear, I keep the rpms steady as Mille mounts the back. We haven’t a plan, and no functioning odometer. I calculate we can get at least 100 kilometers on the poor quality petrol. Colleagues from the school and children gather around as I roll us out of the village. We head northeast towards Limba country. From the veranda of his timeworn, chipped, yellow and green concrete veranda, Paramount-Chief Kebombo meets with his headmen and village elders. They wave while we pass in slow retreat. I yell, “Se ne kane so,” over the low-whine of first gear. See you back.
Mille laughs as we turn left at the dog-legged curve closing out the village. “You’re like a little boy now.” I smile back over my left shoulder. In brown flip-flops, Stussy shorts, a Pushead Metallica shirt, and backwards black and white mesh hat, I switch the FDMCO back to neutral for the hill. Out and through the country we catch open spaces revealing the long, rolling, grass and planting-heap dotted hills that only Africa can create. At the lower depths of road we slow for narrow sections, still washed out and unrepaired from the last of the rainy season storms in October. Deep, rutted channels are cut into the steeper sections of road where the rain found its natural path of least resistance. We talk over the FDMCO’s steady, puttering whine. The rice swamps are dry now. Dry, and cracked like the skin of an elephant. Once rich humus soil looks like flakes of cow dung.
Women and children balance tools, baskets, and cooking items on their heads. Before we approach they fade into the tall, ocher powder covered grass. “Walle-Walle,” we shout to one another. Hello, hello! From a hill, smoke is seen rising above the mango trees, still waiting to bloom. The road flattens out. Less than a dozen mudbrick and thatch homes line either side of the road. At the water pump students brook their clothes for tomorrow’s classes. Excited cries of “Eh!” and “EhBo!” hang-high above the motorcycles noise. I slow down for the dirt speed bumps ahead, only after I hit it at 45kmph. They are shocked to see two whites this far out, on a motorcycle, one a teacher; the other his “wife” they’ve heard of, and may only have imagined seeing before. “Walle-ne!” I reply.
We move out of the village at a steady 30kph. Down a slight incline and flat through more swamps. Traction is difficult to gain as we ascend; Mille asks that I go slower. I listen. I acknowledge that I’m not worried what happens to me, but should she get hurt, well. Villages appear, their notorious speed bumps now a keen sight in my vision. Children run after us. Walle, Walle trails the FDMCO, until I can shift into 3rd and pull deeper into the tight, rutted road. There is one village, with a clear fork. Veer right? I know that goes to Makeni. Or, left? We head towards Makeni. Maybe 30 minutes have passed. We talk about looking for a place to stop.
I can sense Mille wants to push further, but fears a flat-tire or an accident. We are out here. In awe and truth I think of where we are. That no one, except for she and I, knows where we are. The villages we’ve passed know only our skin color. Few may recognize me as the teacher from the Chiefdom Headquarters. It’s here, for the first time, do I feel the purest sense of freedom. Of escape. Of extreme bliss. A man and his woman, on the road, under the sweltering African sun. Alone. Together. Blades of grass seem to pass slower, the clouds lack movement. I am at once content and amazed.
Either side of the concrete bridge shows the dried remains of a flooded river six months away. Up the hill, I navigate the FDMCO towards firmer ground. Treads of previous drivers mark the way. The bike traverses the hill in broad sweeps and then short, calculated turns. Over the hill’s peak, we spot the unmistakable clearing of a schoolyard. We agree to pull off here. Villagers on their way to the farm pass through the back of the field carrying machetes. I park the FDMCO under a mango tree. The yellowed, ranch-styled school building extends to the left. We greet the people at the far end of the field. I untie the bag from the rack. Mille asks to take my picture next to the bike. I refuse worried that somehow Peace Corps will see it. You’re being a fool. Under the shade of the rusted zinc awning we smoke Gold Seal filters. From the bag I take out our lunch. I capture a photograph of her looking off to the buildings end. The smoke of her cigarette trails up in the near-still, twelve o’clock air. We rest here for sometime, smoking, talking; reflecting. Nobody knows where we are.