Gail Hoar

Under the Bili Tree–excerpt


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Prologue – April, 2014

Jarring words streamed from my art studio’s radio. They stopped me mid-brush- stroke. I bent closer to listen, but dreaded what I would hear. Another tragedy was unfolding in Nigeria on that country’s Chadian boarder. The report continued and I was catapulted into another time and place. Memories of our life in Africa added colors, sounds and smells to the report and made it even more viscerally disturbing. Although Nigeria was the place I first put foot on African soil, it was not the last. It was also the first place on that continent where we felt the beginnings of roots growing from our souls into the red African earth. But Chad was the place that welcomed us, embraced us, ensnared us, and ensured that Africa would forever be embedded in both our hearts and souls.

At the end of the broadcast, I put down my paint brush and went in search of old photos stored downstairs in the deep side-cupboard above our fireplace. Albums filled with the more recent pictures of our life in the Ivory Coast were packed away upstairs, but I was in search of photos from before that; before our children joined us in Africa; before there even were children in our life. I pulled open the door, and out fell an image from the pile of matted pictures crammed in years before. I barely remembered stashing them in that shelved void behind the door. I plucked the fallen photo from the floor. Long forgotten words in another language, sights from another place, and the unforgettable smells of a world far from New Hampshire burst from the image I held in my hand.

The woman’s plaited hair swung around her head as she turned towards me. I heard her welcoming greeting as I traipsed through the sand towards the Chari River. Before I snapped this picture I remembered the last time I had seen her and her daughters. They were near a pirogue, waiting to be ferried from the village of Bougoumene across the Chari River as the sahelian dry season encroached on their pasture lands. The photo in my hand captured her and her band of Fulani herders six months later as they were on their way back to the north of Chad, once again passing through Bougoumene. They were returning from the Central African Republic in the south, where water and grassland for their cattle were plentiful, even during the dry season.

Now the rains had finally begun and they were heading back to camp on lands their  families had seasonally inhabited for centuries. The photo caught her as she stood, with her braids whipping around her head, on the edge of the Chari with milk-filled calabashes balanced in the sand beside her. Her bronze skin glowed in the late-afternoon sun.

In the distance, the men of her tribe guarded their cattle as they waited for the dugouts that would carry them, their women, children and household goods across the river. At this time of year, the Chari was only half its usual size, but in a few more months the  approaching rains would fill the river with roiling water and make the crossing far more  dangerous. By nightfall there would be tents stitched together from hides, pitched in the swath of land along the still dry Bahr Erguig, a much smaller river outside Bougoumene. Fresh milk and butter would be available in Sunday’s market in the village.

 I pulled more photos from the cupboard and carried them to the table. Each one  brought back memories of the village; its sounds and smells, dry heat and gritty dust, the  welcome shade of the houses and the Bili Tree, market and fête days, the taste of millet, okra  and dried fish, and most of all the people of Bougoumene, who accepted us as a part of their community and their lives. But my memories of that long-ago time didn’t start in Bougoumene. They flowed from the departure gate at JFK in New York and through Nigeria before I had even heard of a Chadian village named Bougoumene. My thoughts moved further back; back to the beginning.

Part One At the Beginning–The Telegram–September, 1968

The yellow sheet of paper with its sharp crease reminding me that I had only recently  unfolded it, lay on the table next to my chair. I had read and then reread its short message  several times.

“Had malaria. Better now. Will you marry me? Can get you here. Luv, Steve”

Steve’s and my relationship had grown from a trusting friendship to a deep and rich companionship. Yet in spite of this, I hadn’t expected a telegrammed proposal. I stood, trying to digest how my life could change. I hadn’t heard from him for nearly two weeks and was concerned about his lack of letters that usually arrived every few days. With this fear foremost in my mind, I was shaking when I tore open the envelope. Although I was relieved to hear he was not injured, his proposal of marriage was unexpected and unsettling. Nothing had been mentioned about marriage before he left for Chad in June, and I had only recently accepted a position at a New York City graphic’s studio, Ben Feder, Inc., after spending three years working at Prentice Hall Publishing Company as a writer and designer. I loved my new job. It was exactly what I had hoped to land when I began my search for work and fit all the dreams I had about a career in New York City. Did I want to give up working in this intimate Manhattan studio, located across from the Rockefeller Plaza ice rink? Every morning I stopped for a few minute before entering the building to watch the lyrical movements of those on the ice. It was a perfect way to start each day. The time I spent engaged by the skaters was just long enough to dispel the trapped feeling I always had when riding the subway and initiated the meditative calmness I needed when engaged in my work.

Not only was Steve’s proposal unanticipated, the fact that the telegram came from  Nigeria was also a surprise. What was Steve doing in Nigeria instead of Chad? And wasn’t  there a serious war going on in that country? Almost daily news of Biafra filled the airwaves. I  hoped an explanatory letter would soon follow. I needed far more information before I  could respond to his cable, not to mention that I was still reeling from having to make such a  life-changing decision so quickly. For Steve, the decision to move to Africa was easy. He had  roots in Africa, having spent the years from age three to six in South Africa with his family just  as apartheid was taking hold. He remembered them all being affected by its unfolding.(1) It would not be too far-fetched to conclude that he had even chosen his field of anthropology as a  vehicle to get him back to that continent. 

While waiting for further explanations, I put together a list of things to do and  questions to ask before making any decision. The most important would be to find a place for my small dog to live. Practically, I wanted to know if there were any travel restrictions with a war brewing. I knew I would need visas and inoculations against a host of tropical diseases, but how, when, and where could I acquire them? How long did Steve  expect to remain in Africa and what could I do for work, if anything? What was the cost of a ticket to Nigeria? How easily could I break the lease on my apartment? When could I resign  from my job without leaving people in the lurch? To be honest, did I really want to give up my  job and circle of friends? Finally, if I decided to go, would life in such a foreign environment undermine our chances for a long-lasting marriage?

The next day a letter arrived from Steve explaining everything that had happened over the past several weeks. He was in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, having been forced to abandon his  anthropological field work in Chad for lack of funds. Somehow the grant money paying for his PhD had lapsed and his renewal application was either lost, misdirected or forgotten  somewhere. When Steve realized he needed to find an alternative source to fund his fieldwork, he contacted a family friend, Dr. H. U. Oluwasanmi (Olu), the Vice Chancellor of the  newly opened University of Ife. Olu had lived with Steve’s family in Boston during his graduate student days at Harvard and remained in contact with them. Steve learned there was a teaching position opening in the sociology department at the university. Olu encouraged him to apply, but warned him he would be only one among a number of candidates. After inviting him to fly to Ife and meet with them, the search committee thought Steve an ideal candidate and offered him a year’s teaching position starting in a few days. He anticipated this would keep him in Africa until he could acquire enough money to continue his research in Chad.

That afternoon I placed several calls to friends and family members, and within minutes of speaking to my parents, had found a place for my dog to live. He would be a good companion for my father on his daily walks. I knew he would be spoiled, well-loved, and have an adventure-filled life on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. He would certainly be freer and safer exploring the wilds of Sequim than the streets, sidewalks, and parks of New York City.

I carefully scripted my reply to Steve:

“Am coming. Arriving in November. Can get myself there. Will discuss marriage later. Love, Gail”

I added “Can get myself there” because I didn’t know how easily I would adapt to  living in such a faraway place as Ile-Ife, Nigeria and thought it only fair to pay for my own ticket. Just as “Will discuss marriage later” was added to let Steve know I couldn’t promise that kind of permanence before I was certain sharing a life with him in small villages in still developing countries under unknown circumstances was for me. (2)

At this point, I had two months to put enough money together to purchase a ticket to Lagos. Working at Ben Feder paid my immediate bills, but I needed to search for freelance jobs to help pay for my transport and add to my small savings account. I already had contacts at Random House where I freelanced between employment at Prentice Hall and Ben Feder, and I had one more job I could rely on.

Posters and Music 

A different opportunity to spread my artistic wings had fallen into my life the previous  year. In 1967, Ted Cohen, an acquaintance of mine, opened a poster shop, The Infinite Poster, on Bleeker Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. One day he called and offered me the chance to join his small team of freelance designers to create “psychedelic” posters for various village venues through his shop’s design offshoot, Liberty Graphics. The posters we designed would also be sold in his store. My first assignment, before trying my hand at poster art, was to create the logo for the shop and all its printed material.

Three venues; The Village Gate, The Garrick Theater and Café Au Go Go, contracted posters from our group of designers. These night spots were each renowned in the mid-1960s as places for music and theatrical entertainment and The Infinite Poster was within spitting distance of all three and the crowds they generated.

One of the side benefits of freelancing for the poster shop was I could watch or listen to the groups practicing next door in the Garrick Theater. One of these was, to me, a strange and off-beat ensemble of musicians who performed outlandish songs with laughter and loads of energy. I often would step through the adjoining door in the back of the shop and slip into an aisle seat while listening to song lyrics that made little sense; at least little sense compared to folk music, which contained what I considered important messages in this Civil Rights and Vietnam Era decade. 

Besides designing posters for Miriam Makeba, Mose Allison, and Dave Van Ronk when they performed at one of these local Bleeker Street venues, one of my early assignments was to design a poster inviting people to an event at the shop which featured Ian and Sylvia, Dave Van Ronk and this strange group from the Garrick Theater called “The Mothers.” It was only later that I learned they were led by a man named Frank Zappa and were, in fact, “The Mothers of Invention.”

 Work for The Infinite Poster increased and I settled into creating posters and pamphlets sixteen hours a day both at home and at Ben Feder, Inc. in the city. I had enough to do to keep me at my design table late into the night. (3)

With this freelance job plus those I picked up from Random House, I watched my savings account quickly grow. It soon held enough money to buy a ticket to Lagos with cash to spare.

The Only One Not in Camouflage

My single suitcase, weighing exactly forty pounds, slid away from the hands of the ticket agent and disappeared into the curtained hole in front of me. Just moments before it had weighed far more. That was until I opened it and dumped out the novels and cookbooks I had planned on using as comforting companions, into the arms of a waiting friend. Forty pounds of belongings for up to two years in Africa didn’t seem enough, but those were the rules and my coveted books would have to stay in New York. What I was able to carry as hand luggage was the shortwave radio I recently purchased, complete with its sales slip. I had been instructed to have the slip backdated to assure the radio would make it through Lagos customs. In the 1960s, sales slips were mainly handwritten forms torn from a book, easily dated as one wished. I was curious about the backdating, but did as requested. 

It was time to leave. Shouts of “Bon voyage,” “We’ll miss you,” and “Write!” followed me as I passed through the gate to the airplane.

Our night flight was traveling to Lagos, Nigeria via Rabat, Morocco. The morning sun woke me as we were about to land in Rabat. The hills looked just as I pictured them when reading Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, about this part of North Africa. A quote from this book struck me before I left New York and now I was living it: The desert landscape  is always best at the half-light of dawn or dusk. The sense of distance lacks; a ridge nearby can be a far-off mountain range, each small detail can take on the importance of a major variant on the countryside’s repetitious theme. The coming of day promises a change…

The little I could see of Rabat seemed very foreign, and a bit daunting. As we descended towards the airport we passed over acre upon acre of earthen homes with brightly colored cloths hanging from lines between buildings or draped over mud walls. Everything appeared tan or a dusty grayish ochre with those bits of fabric adding exclamation points of color to the scene. Minarets rising above buildings drew my attention. I knew nothing about Islam and realized I was heading towards life in an Islamic culture. Now it was rather late to wonder if the decision to move to Africa was made too hastily; too late to wonder how I would be accepted or if I could adapt to life there. I was on my way.

A man in camouflage stepped into the plane and took the empty seat next to me. In fact, most of the others boarding the plane were dressed just like him, all heading to Lagos. They were not wearing regulation uniforms with obvious patches indicating what fighting unit they belonged to. Instead they were in those brown, gray, and greenish patterned outfits used for hiding in forests. I asked him why he was going to Lagos. He replied, “I assume you know there’s a war going on in Nigeria. I’ll be fighting in Biafra for the government.” It came out sounding as if he were questioning my reason for being on this plane.

My heart began to pound and my mind was racing when I realized I was sitting next to a mercenary! To me mercenaries were hired killers; men without compassion or caring for their victims; men who sold themselves to the highest bidder and had no deeper purpose than earning their next paycheck. I was surrounded by paid warriors fighting for the Nigerian government against those I assumed to be courageous Biafrans.

I decided to be very circumspect about my own story and would be offering no opinions about my companion’s or the other mercenaries’ career choices. After explaining my reason for going to Lagos, I reached for the book I was carrying in my purse and opened it. I needed to distance myself from the thoughts and images these uniformed men represented.

After the plane refueled, we again took to the sky and I was able to see the Sahara Desert below. The flight path took us over small oases isolated from any signs of civilization. All that was visible were mere patches of green in a sea of sand. But the land was neither all sand nor flat. Impressive mountains rose, pock-marked with age-old depressions or sporting plateaus of gray rock that abruptly ended in another sea of sand. Yet the scene was deceptive, and ever- changing formations resembling ski-hill moguls mounded over and around hard-packed earth. At times the sand created rolling waves. Other times you would swear there were shimmering rivers below, but these were either just variations in the earth, wind swirls, tricks of light, or drainage marks left from the last rains. These features repeated over and over again for a little more than two thousand miles.

I caught myself reminiscing, lulled by the rhythmic patterns below. Before I left New York I hadn’t allowed myself to think about what I was leaving behind. I had wanted to remain focused on the goal at hand–leaving the city and embarking upon a new adventure. Now thoughts of those left behind filled my head. I was amazed that I could so easily walk away from so many friends and the ideal job to take up an unknown future in Africa.

Then there was the question of what I was getting myself into. I knew there was a serious conflict, the Biafran War, going on in Nigeria. I also knew it had started the previous year, but understood little else about it before Steve’s cable arrival. Where was Biafra in relationship to Ife and how was the war impacting life at the University? I had done some research prior to departing New York and had read enough to become informed at least about the history of the conflict. I was much relieved to discover that at least the fighting was nowhere near the campus. (4) I also reasoned that if Steve felt secure enough to propose and offer to fly me to Nigeria, even with the fighting going on, I needn’t worry about our safety. The university certainly would not be functioning if there was any danger to the staff or students.

Now, on the plane surrounded by a group of mercenaries heading into I knew not what, and into a world that bore little resemblance to anything I had ever experienced before, I noticed the land changing from desert to savannah. Meandering, river-like patches of green appeared beneath us. Soon the entire landscape was a mass of green with only a few clearings and what seemed to be small villages at their centers. These villages rapidly massed into one large city. We were flying over Lagos and about to land.

Once at the airport, the mercenaries quickly passed through customs. On the other hand, these same authorities opened and closed my purse and suitcase several times. They explained this was “required for security.” Ultimately my radio was confiscated by one uniformed official. I soon learned the meaning of the word “dash” and it did not mean “to hurry.”

After paying the bribe–nicely known as a tax although it varied for each person and each circumstance–I was finally allowed to pass through customs, with my radio. Ah-hah! Now the reason for the back-dated sales slip became clear. If the radio had been “new,” I probably would not have had enough money to bail it out.

Once I was through customs and the exit doorway, a patiently-waiting Steve was all I saw in front of me. He was grinning from ear to ear with a slight droll look, but his blue eyes were definitely smiling. It didn’t matter that he was thin, pale and yellow-tinted from jaundice, all I wanted were his arms around me and he, lovingly, obliged.

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Book Coming soon!


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The leaves of the Bili Tree, under which all things of importance take place in Bougoumene, frame the upper portion of this photo. In the distance, the Chari River edges the sand that is its river bottom during the rainy season. At this time, the Chari rises to just to below the compound wall seen on the right. After the rains begin to fall, the river stretches nearly a mile across to reach the tree line on its western shore. The hills of the Cameroons are barely visible in the far distance.

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I’m new to writing blogs, but want to start one since I’m completing my manuscript about the five years I lived in Nigeria, Chad and the Ivory Coast during times of insurrections and turmoil. The book is titled “Under the Bili Tree: An African Memoir.” Its power comes from the environment in which we lived, the people we lived with and the lessons we learned about humanity and community while residing in these three countries.


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