The following is the thirty-third of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available in paperback, in various ebook formats including Kindle, and as an audiobook at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog! The author also welcomes your comments.
A Jeep was waiting at the Dakar International Airport to take Adam to the farm south of the city. The hot, sticky climate of equatorial Africa and the brightly-colored dresses of Senegal’s women awakened fond memories of his childhood visits.
Nabil’s wife met him at the front door of the main house and led him to the room he’d stayed in as a child. This same room had once been his father’s, and he wondered if a child of his would ever sleep in it. François always spoke of the farm as if it were an ancestral trust and he were its steward, responsible for the land and also for the livelihoods of the people who worked it. His relationship with them had a curiously medieval flavor, as if they were all members of his extended family.
The farmhouse stood on a hundred hectares of fertile rolling land devoted primarily to what the locals called groundnuts, but which Adam knew as peanuts. They also grew millet and sorghum, and recently, François had taken steps to further diversify the crops, adding sugar and ornamental flowers for export.
After he washed up, he paused to peer out the window at the old baobab tree behind the house. If the farm had a hub, the baobab was it. He recalled hiding from Ousmane in a hollow in the tree’s huge trunk, then climbing up into its branches behind his friend.
As he entered the kitchen, the caretaker, Nabil Diop, rose from a prayer rug spread on the floor. Though François’s parents had been Catholic, most of the people on the farm were Muslims.
Nabil smiled and spread his arms in welcome. Adam embraced him, and they exchanged greetings in Nabil’s native Wolof. Then, taking mercy on Adam, Nabil switched to French.
“Thank you for coming, Adam. It’s been too long.”
“The farm looks like it’s flourishing,” Adam replied.
“Yes, it’s better than ever, but I’m afraid I’m a little the worse for wear.” He did look thinner than Adam remembered, his worry lines more pronounced.
Mrs. Diop called them to the kitchen table for tea and biscuits, and Nabil immediately turned to the business at hand.
“Ousmane is in Johannesburg. Sadly, he didn’t see himself spending his life on the farm and left us last year to make his way in the world. Two months ago his letters stopped. Last week we received a note from him from prison. It seems he was arrested for participating in a demonstration over conditions in the coalmines.”
“We’re glad you let us know. My dad wants to help.”
“Ousmane needs an attorney. We were wondering if …”
“No problem. Our attorney in Johannesburg is at your disposal.”
“Would you explain things to him?” Nabil’s eyes welled with tears. “As I told your father, I’ve never traveled and my wife is afraid for me to go.”
“I’ll leave for Johannesburg tomorrow. Did Ousmane say exactly where he’s being held? And what the charges are?”
Nabil handed his son’s letter to Adam. It was in French, not Wolof, suggesting Ousmane had anticipated that someone other than his parents might have occasion to read it.
“It’s not really clear from this, but I’ll be in touch as soon as I know what’s going on.”
The next morning, as Adam was about to leave for the airport, Nabil handed him a little box. “This is for Ousmane.”
“I’ll see that he gets it.”
“Please give my respects to your father, and our thanks. We’ll be waiting for word. Farewell, my son, and Godspeed.”
Adam went straight from the Johannesburg airport to the office of François’s attorney, Mr. Vishveshwara, a lawyer of Indian descent. A man in his fifties, he insisted on being called “Vishu,” and considered himself to be of the distinguished lineage of Indian lawyers in South Africa that included Mohandas Gandhi. Vishu had been born in South Africa and held South African citizenship. Under the apartheid system he was classified as “coloured,” a status higher than that of the black majority, but below the ruling white minority. François had chosen Vishu to represent him in South Africa because his intermediate social status gave him access to both white and black communities.
After hearing Adam out, Vishu began placing calls. Adam sat in a cramped reception area and waited. Three tense hours later, the intrepid Vishu had determined where Ousmane was imprisoned and learned that his release could be secured by posting as bail bond the equivalent of five hundred dollars. Such a figure put freedom completely out of reach for most prisoners, so it was tantamount to indefinite detention. By paying it, Ousmane would be free until his court date. Political conditions in South Africa were changing rapidly, and Vishu thought that by the time the matter came to trial the case would either be dismissed or the defendants would be let off with sentences of time served.
Adam instructed Vishu to post bail in the courthouse, then he paid the bail as well as the attorney’s fees.
The next morning, Adam was waiting in a taxi at the prison gate when Ousmane was released. He was shocked at his old friend’s appearance. Slumped and walking with a limp, he seemed to be dragging himself toward the taxi. His once bright eyes were sunken, his face pallid and drawn. There appeared to be bruises on his neck, and his handshake was limp. Dazed by his sudden freedom, all he wanted was to put some distance between himself and the prison.
They returned to Adam’s small hotel so Ousmane could bathe and rest. Later that evening, they settled in a café on the other side of town. Adam explained how his freedom had been secured and gave Ousmane his father’s present.
Ousmane unwrapped the package and found a bracelet and necklace made from the bark and seeds of the baobab tree. “The very tree we used to climb in. We believe that no harm can come to the wearer. If I’d had them during the demonstration I might have avoided jail. How can I ever thank you for getting me out?”
“We’re even. You got me out of the baobab tree,” Adam said, laughing at the memory.
They stayed awake late into the night, catching up. Ousmane recounted what had happened since he’d arrived in South Africa, and reported on the nation’s evolving politics. To Adam’s question about prison life, he said, “They treated us like dogs. You cannot imagine …” He trailed off, then abruptly turned the conversation to Adam and his family. Adam found it embarrassing to speak of life at Princeton in the wake of Ousmane’s experience in the shantytowns, pits, and prisons of South Africa. Instead he told Ousmane about the famine in Baidoa and the Princeton demonstration—but stopped short of mentioning his suspension and departure.
Ousmane was quiet for a while, then said, “I wish you could show your countrymen what it’s like in the mines here. On our TV, we see how you live, but you have no idea about conditions here.”
“I think I do,” Adam said. “I …”
“No, you can’t know,” Ousmane interrupted. “No one who hasn’t worked here has any idea of the degradation. I didn’t know what slavery was until I worked in the pits. Forgive me, Adam, but you’ve never been hungry, not for a single night. You’ve never been so tired you couldn’t stand. Try spending even an hour two miles underground. Miners are old before they’re forty and dead by fifty. But to quit means you lose the roof over your head, and your family starves. We are slaves, without chains, but slaves nonetheless. Don’t misunderstand, I’m very grateful to you and your family for getting me out, but so long as we depend on whites and foreigners for our livelihood, there will be a cost—to our pride.”
Adam said nothing. After a silence, Ousmane asked him if he’d brought his camera.
“I never go anywhere without it.”
“Then there’s something I’d like to show you. We’ll need a car and a guide.”
The next day they took the train to Soweto, where Ousmane introduced Adam to two men who, for ten dollars each, would not only take Adam into their world, but could also protect him from its dangers. The bargain reminded Adam of the technicals in Mogadishu. Over the next few days, he realized that the “protection” they provided consisted mainly in knowing what situations to avoid.
Ousmane provided a running commentary on everything they saw. The driver and the guide spoke to each other in Xhosa, a language Adam recognized from the staccato clicking sounds that punctuated it. The guide spoke Afrikaans to obtain permission for Adam to take photographs, and blunt English to tell him when to put the camera away if he sensed trouble.
By day’s end, Adam had shot five rolls of film in and around Soweto. He left them at a photo shop near the hotel, but when he saw the prints the next morning, he was disappointed. The images were not nearly as moving or powerful as the ones of the Somalis. The photos of starving children went straight to the heart, whereas his shots of poverty and injustice aroused only feelings of helplessness. This would take more thought, he realized, but far from discouraging him it bolstered his determination.
The next morning he stopped by Vishu’s office to tell him that Ousmane had decided to return to Senegal and forfeit bail.
“Are you going with him?” Vishu asked.
“No. I’m heading for the subcontinent via the Middle East.”
“May I make a suggestion?”
“My ancestors came to South Africa from Banaras, India’s holy city. Banaras is to Hinduism and Buddhism what Jerusalem is to Judaism and Christianity. But there the similarity ends. Whereas Jerusalem is a city of conflict, Banaras is a city of peace. If you go there, look up my guru. His name is Lahiri. By day, Professor Lahiri teaches geology at Banaras Hindu University, but in truth he’s a sage. His students see him as a holy scientist because in his teachings he sticks to the evidence and debunks the charlatans. Lahiri taught me to see the sacred in the mundane.”
“If I get to Banaras I’ll look him up.”
Ousmane and Adam shared a cab to the airport. When it came time to part, Ousmane slid the baobab bracelet that Nabil had made for him onto Adam’s wrist.
“The griots say the baobab’s powers are useless to Muslims and whites. Since you’re neither, you should be covered.”
Though Adam doubted the power of amulets, he liked the idea of wearing this one. “I’ll wear it till I’m home,” he promised Ousmane.