West Africa: A Love Story
Julie Dreyer Wang
That evening I arrive at Chez Guillaume wearing a sleek black knit sundress and wedge-heel sandals, what I jokingly call my high-heeled sneakers – sophisticated but a little wobbly when I walk. I am just in time to watch in amazement as several hundred fruit bats launch themselves into the night air. They circle and squeak, eager to be off on their nightly raids to plunder nearby mango trees.
Darkness is settling in fast in Natitangou. The restaurant, with its thatch roof, red mud walls, and open windows, is brightly lit and cheerful. Floodlights bathe an entire outside wall covered with the Chez Guillaume logo in red and green on a white background. The garden is gently illuminated with tiny bulbs shining through the bushes and against the surrounding walls. The small, unpaved parking lot in front is full of cars and motorcycles. This will be a good night for Guillaume. My heart rises. I worry about his finances, always.
Inside, the lighting is dimmer, creating a more intimate setting. Bare light bulbs hang from the ceiling but are stylishly covered with calabash shades, delicately carved into intricate patterns. About ten rectangular wooden tables, made from a handsome, dark wood, are spaced around the room, with seating for six at each. We have scoured the local markets to find small, hand-made terra cotta pots that hold a lighted candle on each table, romantic and very convenient in case of a power outage.
The sounds of Ella Fitzgerald singing “They can’t take that away from me” fill the interior space and pour out into the street, attracting customers and conjuring up memories, for me, of previous lives in England and America.
I walk through the restaurant into the garden beyond to find the other Peace Corps Volunteers I am meeting. But they haven’t arrived yet, so I sit down, order a Beninoise and settle in to listen to the music. Janet, the petite young serveuse from Ghana, brings me a large, cold bottle of beer. She greets me with a broad grin, happy to see me. She is one of Guillaume’s best employees and I hope she will stay. So many of them leave after a few months. They get bored or homesick. Janet has been here almost a year and lives with her sister, so she seems more settled.
After two years of working with Guillaume to upgrade his restaurant, it is a relief to see everything coming together. Since my arrival we have installed running water in the kitchen and a handwashing bowl for customers; a flush toilet replaced an outdoor latrine; flowers and shrubs beautify the garden; a couple of new refrigerators keep food and drinks cool. We built stone pathways in the garden and between the kitchen and eating area; repainted the shutters in a more pleasing color (they were bright turquoise); resurfaced the kitchen floor so that it can be kept clean; built a wood-burning pizza oven; a new counter and a bar with high stools; a television to watch the African football cup. We hired local carpenters to make new furniture inside and out for the garden. I am proud of our work together and of how successful his restaurant is becoming.
After a while Guillaume appears around the side of the building. He is always a little anxious when I come to the restaurant, afraid I might cause a scene if I am not pleased with the food or the service. So often the staff doesn’t bother to clean up the black plastic bags that blow into the garden, they forget to light the candles or don’t pay enough attention to greeting every guest in true Beninese style. But tonight everything is perfect. He tells me he has saved brochettes of biche
, wild antelope, for me, served with sautéed potatoes and haricots verts. I know they will be delicious.
He greets a party of nuns seated nearby, who come here periodically to feast, using money the poor have scraped together to give to the Catholic church. A Beninese man and his girlfriend are carefully hidden from prying eyes in a dark corner of the garden. Perhaps she is his mistress, Guillaume says. Inside, a group of six Belgians and Germans who work for Agro-Benin are loudly telling jokes and laughing boisterously, as they drink beer and wait for their food.
Finally, my friends arrive, a half hour late. Rarely does anyone feel the need to rush to be on time for an appointment here. I am slowly adapting, learning how to relax and to stop feeling that time is money or so precious that it shouldn’t be wasted.
“Just remember, T.I.A.,” my friends told me when I first arrived.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“T.I.A. This is Africa.”
And so it is, and so I must constantly remind myself after thirty years of working in New York and running my own business. It’s time to slow down and enjoy life.
The other volunteers and I settle in to chat and drink beer. They order their food and then we wait, and we wait and we wait. I become more and more impatient and embarrassed enough to seek out Guillaume in front of the doorway leading to the kitchen. I know I shouldn’t do this, but I feel responsible for things running smoothly.
Guillaume puts his hands on my shoulders and whispers softly in my ear:
“Doucement, doucement, tu vas faire du mal a ton âme.
” Slow down, slow down, you will do damage to your soul.
He reassures me that everything is almost ready. The biche
was frozen and took longer than expected to prepare. I tell him he should serve my friends first and not worry about me. But that is not the West African way. Everyone must be served at the same time. Everyone must wait until my meal is ready.