The Big Fire
- Africa, Togo
- Folk Tale
There's a boy sitting nervously on my front porch. He's wearing a tattered blue soccer jersey with an Italian crest, shorts of a different blue that is too light to match and too dark to complement, and sandals made of old car tires. All he has with him is a pen, coincidentally also blue. I call him petit frère, little brother, but his real name is Esso. We don't talk very much because he's an extremely quiet child, moving without noise through the grassless yard to do the family's chores. He's here on my porch because I invited him; I wanted to get to know this shadow of a person whom I see every day but never speak with.
What I do know is that he is a relative of the man who owns the house I stay in. Here in Togo, as in much of West Africa, a child like Esso who has wealthier relatives can go live with them, as long as he provides some household services for the relatives. This doesn't mean he's mistreated by any means, only that he fetches water and sweeps and cleans. The family will then pay for his food and school costs. Up to this point, Esso and I have exchanged few words; I am probably the first foreigner he's ever known.
Esso's French is as bad as mine, so we both communicate in small, broken phrases. This actually works in our favor because we can both speak slowly and simply enough to hold a conversation. I don't want to seem intimidating, but he appears nervous nonetheless. It seems quite formal, both of us sitting, rigid in our chairs, with me holding my pen and paper to take notes.
I ask him if he knows any stories, the kind that parents tell children, about animals that talk or fairies that live in the woods. He says he hasn't learned any yet but I'm not sure if he understands my question. So I ask if I can tell him a story. He agrees, and I begin with one that I learned when I was very young, about two boys who worked in the fields and fell, one after the other, into a deep well. I change their names to Togolese ones—Koffi and Kossi—try to make the scenery match what a young villager would find in Togo so that Esso might better relate to my story.
When I finish, I explain the moral of the story. Esso's face lights up a bit and he understands what kind of story I'm looking for. He says he has one, and very shyly he begins:
Two brothers went off toward the river to catch the small fish that dart between the rocks when the water is low. While there, they became bored because there was nothing to catch, so they started a small fire to amuse themselves. Now, one of the brothers was quite mean, and a wicked thought crossed his mind. He said to his brother, "Rest here a while and I will be back in a few minutes." He pulled a burning stick from the fire and walked off.
Half an hour later he returned, without the flaming stick. A great cloud of smoke was beginning to rise in the direction from which he had come. "A fire!" exclaimed the brother who had stayed there. "Let us go and see what is happening." Off they went toward the smoke, and they came upon a farmer's field. All his crops were burning. Minutes later, the good farmer arrived, having seen the smoke from far away.
"Who started this fire?" he asked.
"We did not see," said one brother honestly, for indeed he had not seen. The other brother remained silent.
"I do not believe you," said the farmer. "Do you not see that all my yams are burned? What shall I eat?" The farmer then tookthe brothers to their parents' house and stood them before their mother and father. "These two children started a fire in my field and have ruined my yams!" he said.
"It is not possible," cried the mother. "I sent my children to the river to catch fish, and that's where they've been the whole time."
"I do not believe it," said the farmer. "I will take them to the chief. He will punish them."
"Please, no!" cried the honest boy. "In truth we went to the river to catch fish. Only when we saw the smoke did we go to see what had happened and that is when we came upon your field all ablaze." His brother said nothing.
The good farmer saw that the boy was not lying. "I will let you go, then. But if ever you do anything wrong in the future, I will make sure that you are severely punished."
The wicked boy never did anything wrong again.
Esso smiles again, shyly, and I wait expectantly for the end. But his silence tells me that the story is, in fact, over, and I assure him that I enjoyed his story very much. We chat a bit longer, and he returns to what he had been doing before—gathering wood.
I had never heard this story before, and was unsatisfied by the ending. Where was the justice? How did the farmer manage to survive without his crops? And as for the wicked boy, what poetic twist of fate eventually brings him to a deserved end?
But soon I realized that I had missed something. The story Esso told reflects a harsh aspect of life: crime sometimes goes unpunished. The guilty conscience of the culprit may be his or her only penalty. And, as in the case of the farmer, bad things can happen to people who don't deserve them. But I find here that there's a strong acceptance that what's done is done, regardless of whose fault it is. Life here is sometimes a series of trials, and the only way to survive is to shrug off bad fortune and start planting crops for the next year.
Were it my story, though, I would have had a fairy turn the little bandit into a frog.