The Mapouka

It was Christmas eve morning, and we'd been living in Cote d’Ivoire as diplomats for three months. In the house, the heat was like a wet embrace. I wanted little more than to retire to the hammock and nurse a cool drink. We'd wrapped presents for the children the night before and planned a small celebration that evening. We got the news by phone.

You saw palm trees at attention

You saw clouds evacuate the sky

The American embassy activated the emergency phone tree to convey the news that General Guei and a rag-tag group of soldiers had marched on Abidjan government headquarters and given President Bedie an ultimatum: Sors d’ici! (get out of town!)

You saw an empty market place

You saw baby-faced soldiers cradle AK-47s

The now-deposed President headed to France. A few of Guei’s soldiers celebrated their new-found power by looting and burning neighborhood stores.

You saw no one on the street make eye contact

You saw musical snow on TV

It’s surprising how easily one becomes inured to the sight of gun-toting young men dressed in fatigues. Young, as in, not-much-older-than-my-son. Young, as in, “does your mother know what you’re doing right now?”

You heard: “A civil war could never happen here”

Over the ensuing months, workplace chatter alternately portrayed hope, denial or disdain; “elections are forthcoming; this situation is merely temporary; Ivoirians are too educated and erudite to go the way of other African nations.”

You heard the buzz of a cut phone line

One afternoon, Dr. Agnes and I were driving back from Pisam Hospital after having visited a government volunteer. We weren’t hurrying, although, mountains of work awaited us at the office. We were in the official U.S. government vehicle with license plates that announced our diplomatic status. Agnes was driving. She came to a stop sign, lightly tapped the brake with her foot, then turned, executing a ‘California stop.’

A soldier waved her to the side of the road with his gun. He was a handsome young man, about twenty-something years of age. He maintained a firm grip on his gun and I tried hard not to stare. Agnes is Ghanaian and, between us, the better French speaker. She did the talking. The soldier informed Agnes that she’d violated the law. She apologized. “Désolé. It will not happen again.” The soldier began to complain of hunger; saying that neither he nor his family were not getting enough to eat. He gripped his gun, all the while. Agnes reached into her purse and gave him fifty dollars in Ivorian currency. He thanked her and advised her to drive more carefully— motioning at the car with his gun. The embassy had long advised us never to give money to avoid issuance of a ticket.

You heard the embassy announce via walkie talkie: “hoard water in pots & cans & bowls & pails”

You heard rumors of bodies ditched & dumped

You heard no one say: “this will pass”

While the population was engaged in deep philosophical discourse about the country’s political path, an odd national mood of conviviality surfaced. A few people began dancing the Mapouka; then, more and more people; in clubs, in bars, at parties. In the streets. The Mapuoka became a fever, explosive and gripping. Everywhere, the Mapouka. It even caught the attention of the New York Times, “Dance Has Africans Shaking Behinds, and Heads.”

You smelled burned flesh

You smelled fear like surround sound

The Mapouka was wanton. A dancer isolated her lower body, propelled and controlled the movements of her behind. She leaned forward slightly and undulated her buttocks in fast circles. The very best dancers could move each buttock in opposite directions simultaneously. Young women tried urgently to gain weight in their backsides in order to do justice to this dance.

You must stay home & away from windows

You must mattress with loved ones

General Robert Guei, a big Mapouka fan, was rumored to have summoned the country’s best dancers for a private show. Sometimes people gestured towards me and muttered in French, “Ah, she must be a very good Mapouka dancer!” Despite my generous derrière, I was not.

What I didn't know at the time, was, that tribalism would soon overtake the country; that the U.S. government would eventually evacuate my family and me following the next coup; and, that the Mapouka would come to represent a peculiar lull preceding the storm of civil war.

You must witness, witness, witness  

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