Bernard, part 3

For those who only know revolution as historical event or rallying cry, it can be colored with dangerously romantic overtones.

His skittishness became congruent with his circumstances as his story poured out bit by bit with the cups of tea we shared in an 8x8 room, walls peeling paint the color of raw chicken. Two nondescript people in a modest Convent on a nondescript street in the back of beyond. We would work together, sharing the weight of those long 43 minute silences for 5 months. In that time he shared pieces of his story.

As I distracted myself through the 43 minutes of agonizing silence waiting for Patrick to emerge on the other side unscathed, Bernard began the quiet tale of his arrival in Swaziland from Durban. There had been an incident outside one of the townships. An event so shocking and horrifying, it stole his innocence in 10 short minutes and made him leave the only home he’d known, forever. More than that he would not say on our first day as co-workers and it took all of the tea, ¾ of the tin of biscuits and 42 minutes for him to share that much.

He had run away in the night, never turning back. At sunset on the second night he was given safe haven from a local farmer. Two nights later he lay hidden in the back of a Combi under empty rice sacks. Rice was being donated in bulk in those days, though no one in Africa ate it. The bags sat in warehouses, consumed only by rats, though the people were starving. I would later learn how much he had not shared, how much of the story he held back; the pain and betrayal and fear that stayed inside roiling along the coils of his organs and eating holes in them like rats through those bags of rice.

While one corner of my ear had been tuned to the radio throughout the whole tea and biscuits conversation, I still jumped, more out of relief, when the radio crackled to life, telling me that Patrick still had his. He was by no means safe. Hearing him on the radio every 20 minutes was no protection against bandits or rebels. Guns were guns and bullets were bullets and I couldn’t travel on air waves. And what could I do anyway? Patrick still had more than an hour to travel before he reached the city. But the illusion that the radio waves somehow wrapped Patrick and his cargo in safety and I commanded those waves, made me smile with a satisfaction and sense control I had no right to feel. Every life was precious. No one was safe.

I didn’t leave Bernard in the office. He came with me each time we drove into the heart of Maputo to the Customs House. The imposing colonial structure, low and broad, fronted by an apron of wide steps at first gave the illusion of welcome but made you feel small and insignificant once you began climbing them. Its eighteenth century throwback to Medieval cathedral style dominated the square next to the port. Round, fat, cement columns held up an ornate green dome, one of the many architectural reminders of another time when outsiders came to this place, blind to and erasing the existing grandeur, to build towers of conquest.

She was a tired old lady, with swollen doors and bulging window sills, humidity and time having worn her down. She showed the scars of war and her age. The hallways and offices lined with pilfered mahogany were dark and dusty. Fans, when the power was on, listlessly blew stinking hot air. Men in beige pants suits, the uniform of civilian Communism everywhere, sat on benches or behind desks piled with messy stacks of paper, smoking or staring.

Bernard was terrified of being inside, lest someone in the wrong circles or paid by the right people, recognize him. In the beginning he would wait by the car, blending in with the other hired drivers waiting in the hot sun for the Patrón (boss) to return. We easily pulled off the charade. My white skin entitled me to do just about anything, even though I didn’t dress like a diplomat’s wife.

Over the weeks though, I convinced him to approach closer, at one point pulling out my black US diplomatic passport and reminding him I had full immunity. I swore I was willing to wield that thin icon of privilege like a flaming sword if anyone so much as looked at him sideways. He had laughed at my bravado, though the smile never reached his eyes, but finally agreed to enter the building.

I wouldn’t stay in Africa forever. There were days and weeks when I planned to; the pull was deep, molecular. On arrival, the atoms of my body recognized their ancestry. I felt the call of family in the soil, trees, sky, across the hundreds of millions of years I had been away.

Bernard would take my place counting bags of corn and minutes of silence. The serendipity of my appearance in Maputo kept more of Steve’s people on the other side of the border and off the butcher’s path. I’d been given a place to make a tiny difference in this heartbreaking country, but I didn’t need the R5.00 per hour. For Bernard it meant his continued relative safety in Maputo.

And so, I showed Bernard the ropes.

I didn’t mind the game my job entailed, chasing down official stamps and scribbles from too many self important men. It was the system left to them without their consent; the baton had merely been passed, well, no, dropped, and the perpetuation of power through paperwork rolled on. Many of the customs workers didn’t read. The perfunctory and showy stamps were required for any of my trucked-in donations to get into the intended hands. I sometimes used their inability to understand what was on the paper to my advantage, while I played the part of obedient stamp collector.

The Portuguese were not colonizers in the tradition of the British or even the French, though nobody did it worse than the Belgians. They were conquerors, land grabbers and exploiters. Like all European invaders they were snobs, ok, racists, believing the people who already lived on the land they wanted, were merely rubbish to be disposed of or shoved aside. So much so, these invaders imported all of their required labor from Lisbon and other cities back home; down to the waitstaff for their hotels and restaurants. If you were indigenous Mozambican, the most you could aspire to was maid or houseboy.

This made running a government challenging, particularly when your revolution happened overnight. When the dictator Caetano was overthrown in Portugal, the country cut and ran, abandoning all their stolen territory except Brazil. Mozambique woke up the next day and had to form a government. But the people couldn’t read. The American wife of Eduardo Mondlane, Mozambique’s revolutionary leader and FRELIMO’s first president, told me they had been living in the bush planning their takeover when the news of the coup reached them. “We can’t take over now! We need at least two more years,” he’d complained exasperated. Sometimes you fight for freedom; sometimes it’s thrust upon you.

Bernard was educated. “I have some university,” he’d shared, soft spoken yet melodious. He had far more than university. He was thoughtful, sharing mostly observations of things around us or asking questions about job duties, as he quietly probed this new alliance with a naive, white American woman, with comparatively nothing at stake. But I was all he had to work with.

On a day that we cleared a small delivery of tools for the farmers in the Zonas Verdes, and drove back for our cups of tea, Nelson Mandela had been in prison for 22 years. Five more would pass before his seemingly impossible release. South Africa had been ruled by whites for more than 300 years with “apartheid” becoming law in 1960. Bernard was ANC, the political party of Mandela, and he was on the run.

“I believed in what we stood for,” he’d shared, “freedom is noble and everyone deserves it.”

For those who only know revolution as historical event or rallying cry, it can be colored with dangerously romantic overtones. In reality its tone, under and over, is death, and the higher the stakes, the higher the body count. Bernard had been active in the ANC in Durban. It wasn’t a political party then. It was a guerrilla force. Because he believed in the vision of ending apartheid, like most of the world by that time, this slight, gentle man who would have been a cardigan-clad university professor in another life, fought with his brothers and sisters, for freedom.

“The leaders had planned a raid,” he whispered into the lip of his teacup. “It was supposed to be about stealing supplies only.”

“I had to run away,” he skipped forward again. This was how his story came out; two drops from the beginning, a drop from the middle, one more from the beginning, then four or five in the present. In my mind I would flit from one end of the story to the other, holding out a bucket, to catch those precious drops, like rain through a patchy roof.

That night, I talked to my mom and step-dad over dinner about the situation with Bernard. What was he so scared of?

“You never said he was ANC,” my mother said with a tone of accusation laced with fear. “Honey, isn’t that dangerous for him to be in her office?” she now pleaded with Howie.

To mom he said, “It’s not her office,” and to me he said, “Bernard is in a lot of danger. I’m surprised he’s out in the open.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“If he’s ANC and he ran from them, he’s probably being hunted,” Howie was eating dinner European style, cutting his food with the knife in his left hand, taking bites from his fork, backwards in his mouth with his right.

“Hunted? That sounds a little dramatic,” parents are so protective, I think, was bouncing around in my head, while trying to figure out if Howie was joking. Our humor had become more sardonic in the months since we arrived.

“Jenni, you don’t leave the ANC, especially if you witnessed something bad enough to make you try to leave the ANC,” Fight Club wouldn’t come out for another 15 years.

“And you know South Africa sends patrols to catch their forces that regroup and strategize on this side of the border. On paper Mozambique supports South Africa, but in reality gives the ANC safe harbor.”

“He’s just one guy,” I tried to explain my inability to conceive of Bernard as a threat to anyone.

“He’s one guy who’s probably seen too much,” said my in-house college professor. “My guess is, the ANC is going to be actively looking for him and they’ll kill him when they find him. The RSA is just an additional threat, since they’re here looking for any ANC.”

I was suddenly living in a political thriller.

“Do you know where he stays?”

“Not exactly, he lives with his aunt and nephews, I think,” I had no idea, I hadn’t asked.

“How does he get to the office?”

“He walks, like everybody else.”

“That’s not good, they could be tailing him, could pick him up at any point. Does Steve know all of this?”

“I’m sure he does, how does he give a complete stranger a job without knowing something like this?” The idiocy of what I said hit as the words were coming out of my mouth.

“I don’t like it. You’re basically a sitting duck. Neither side is going to respect that you’re on Convent property.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“You need to talk to Steve tomorrow. In fact, when is he supposed to be in town again? I think I’ll talk to him. He’s being reckless.”

No wonder Bernard was so thin and nervous. How did he even leave his aunt’s house? I couldn’t fathom how Bernard was walking around being that scared. I became anxious just thinking about going to the office the next day, now that I thought I knew more than before.

But Bernard wasn’t in the office the next day. He always arrived before I did, because I am rarely on time for anything. Guiltily, I was a bit relieved. I felt awkward about seeing him again.

I made tea in anticipation of his arrival. And then fear seized my gut. What if they got him? Panic swirled in my chest. I opened the door to see if he was just coming around the corner, and I would laugh at the opposite relief I’d felt moments earlier. No Bernard, just children playing outside their classroom.

The CB scratched static. Steve was on the speaker. “Come in Outpost, over.”

“Steve, Bernard’s not here!” the desperation squeaked out of me. I couldn’t give a shit about CB protocols, that didn’t make any sense anyway.

“I know. His aunt called me.”

Oh God, he’s dead. Tears welled up.

“He’s in the hospital. He had to have emergency surgery last night. His ulcer ruptured.”

The pendulum of relief swung again.

“Jenni, you have to go find him. People don’t survive in the hospital.”

Writing to peel back the layers, expose the juicy middle and maybe find something unexpected.