Non Fiction / Memoir
Date Published: December 18, 2013
Everybody needs to run away from home at least once. Susan Corbett told people she was out to save the world, but really she was running — running from her home as much as to anywhere. Like many women, she was searching for meaning to her life or for a good man to share it with. In Africa, she hoped to find both.
Compelling and compassionate, In the Belly of the Elephant is Susan's transformative story of what happens when you decide to try to achieve world peace while searching for a good man. More than a fish-out-of-water story, it's a surprising and heart-rending account of her time in Africa trying to change the world as she battles heat, sandstorms, drought, riots, intestinal bugs, burnout, love affairs and more than one meeting with death. Against a backdrop of vivid beauty and culture, in a narrative interwoven with a rich tapestry of African myths and fables, Susan learns the true simplicity of life, and discovers people full of kindness, wisdom and resilience, and shares with us lessons we, too, can learn from her experiences.
Up the Gambia River
Three dolphins gamboled in the waters of the Gambia River Delta, their fins slicing the gold-leafed surface. A wave hit the bow, and the arthritic boards of the ferry creaked and moaned like old bones. On the south bank of the river, morning sun reflected off the tin roofs of Banjul, stinging my eyes.
A six-hour late-night ride in a bush taxi had taken us from Dakar to the Senegalese border town of Karang. Just before dawn, we crossed the border into The Gambia on foot and took another bush taxi to Barra, a ferry stop on the north bank of the Gambia River. There, we caught the 7 am ferry across the mouth of the river to the capital city of Banjul.
Numb with fatigue and smelling of sweat and stale breath, I crossed the narrow plank from the ferry onto a wooden dock. Tricia, equally ripe, followed so closely behind she bumped into me each time I paused to shift my backpack. Caught in a stream of debarking passengers, we flowed from the dock onto the Banjul Quay and into a sea of humanity.
The quay teemed with the people and bright colors of the West African coast. Tall, thin women of the Wolof tribe hawked fruit from overloaded head-pans. Mandinka men in long robes and skull caps talked in groups, while women and children with bundles tied up in cloth waited to board the ferry. Everywhere was the salt-saturated smell of the sea.
We threaded and bumped our way through the crowds and paused near a shack of wood planks with a bar and a bench. On a strip of wall above the bar, someone had painted a proverb in neat black script. When a snake is in the house, one need not discuss the matter at length.
Tricia frowned. “I hate snakes.”
“Taxi?” A tall, wire-thin man approached us, eager to take us, Allah willing, wherever we wished. He led us to a rusted yellow taxi with a bent front fender. Tricia got in the backseat, and I threw our backpacks into the trunk.
Speaking the round, soft English of the Gambia, our taxi driver chatted all the way to “The Ritz,” a small, not very ritzy beach hotel, where we dumped our packs with enormous relief and checked in. Once in our room, we changed into swim suits and headed for the ocean.
European tourists, most of the women wearing only bikini bottoms, lounged along the wide beach. I waded into the water up to my neck and floated in the salty warmth of the Atlantic. Thoughts of Dori and work crowded my head, but I banished them with the image of a warm wave washing over my brain. The ocean, white sand beaches, and fluttering leaves of the palm trees soothed my singed ends. The numbness began to thaw. The water was silk against my skin, and the tips of my fingers and toes tingled. I had died and gone to heaven.
Back in our small hotel room, we took sieste. I dreamed I was in a spaceship with a wide window before me. I sped through space at a velocity that sucked me against the seat like vacuum wrap. Stars and planets blurred past so quickly my mind flattened and spread, exhilarated, free. I awoke to the nasal voice of a loud speaker, calling the faithful to five o’clock prayer. The colors of late afternoon entered our room through wooden slats and rested in long yellow stripes across the floor.
The music and crowds beckoned us out to explore the narrow streets and single-story mud buildings of Banjul. One of Tricia’s most endearing qualities was her love of a good meal and her willingness to eat at anytime. In order to find the best food, one had to have help. Thus, the essential travel guide. Tricia never left home without one.
We wandered the crisscrossed streets, looking for a particular chop-shop that promised the best domodah and the coldest JulBrew in Banjul. We passed McCartney Square and turned up Clarkson Street where the scent of onions and chili peppers was so thick you could taste it on the air. We found the chop-shop and sat at a corner table. As promised in the guidebook, their specialty was domodah, peanut stew over rice, and they had cold beer.
Tricia stuck her nose in the guidebook. “We have the Portuguese to thank for the stew.”
The food arrived, and I spooned thick sauce spiced with red chilies, onions, tomatoes, and bits of chicken into my mouth. The chilies were so hot, beads of sweat broke out along my upper lip.
“Oh, man. This is good.” A thrill ran through me, as though the food and the spices were opening a spigot to all the hoses in my body.
“Portuguese traders introduced groundnuts, cotton, and tropical fruits from Brazil in exchange for slaves. The river became known as the Gambia from the Portuguese use of their word “cambio,” meaning exchange.”
Suddenly the sauce took on a different hue. “It’s sad to think they traded people for peanuts,” I said.
Tricia looked up. “True, but interesting, isn’t it?”
It was, in fact, very interesting and a nice change from the topic of infertility, but one had to be careful not to encourage Tricia too much or she would never take her nose out of the book long enough to actually see the place.
I pointed at her food with my spoon. “Eat.” I finished the domodah and ordered another beer.
Near sunset, barefoot and wrapped in pagnes, Tricia and I strolled the beach at low tide. Shallow waves rippled along the shore, the water a near perfect mirror of clouds and sky. Seagulls congregated on the sand. As we approached, they took to the sky, scolding us for disturbing their territory. A young French couple walked by, arm in arm. The man wore a tight strip of silk that hugged his loins and buttocks.
“Bun-huggers,” I said, turning to watch them walk up the beach. “French guys are all skinny and they all wear bun-huggers.” I turned back and sighed. “It’s not fair.”
“That men peak at eighteen and women don’t peak until twenty-nine or thirty.”
“Peak, you know, sexual peaks. Men’s hormones rage at eighteen and, for one of nature’s perverted reasons, women don’t peak until twenty-nine.”
“So you’re peaking and there’s no raging eighteen-year-old male in sight.”
“Well shoot, he doesn’t have to be eighteen. I’m crawling out of my skin and everywhere I look, all the women I see have a hunk on their arm and I don’t.”
“Susan, Susan.” Tricia sighed. “What is it with you and men?”
I kicked the sand. “Well, why is a good man so hard to find?”
Once, long ago in a village, there lived a beautiful girl called Abena who, thinking she could have anything she wanted, decided she would marry only the most charming of princes.
Tricia looked at me sideways. “When was the last time you heard from Steve?”
I shook my head. “That’s over.”
“Even after coming all the way to Liberia to see you?”
“He lost sixty pounds in six weeks, then went back to California.”
Another couple walked by.
“What about the ag guy in Dori? Jack. He seems nice and he’s cute.”
“He has a girlfriend back in North Carolina.”
“So? North Carolina’s about five thousand miles away.”
Jack was a great guy, but I’d never thought of him as boyfriend material. That chemistry thing just hadn’t happened. I shrugged and made a face.
Alas, Abena had a bitter tongue and was rude to her suitors. She scoffed at the hunters as mere bushmen; the farmers she teased for always having their faces to the ground; poor men she ignored because of their poverty; and the rich men she found ugly or ill-mannered.
Tricia squinted at me and shook her head. “You’re hopeless.
I picked up a rock and skipped it across a flattened wave. Another couple walked by.
“I need to go for a run. See you back at the room.”
I broke into a trot, then a run, pushing myself until my heart beat in rhythm with my feet and the sensation of ants crawling under my skin lessened. Up a ways, I ran past a group of beached fishing boats with red and green stripes painted on their sides. Farther on, I circled a clump of palm trees, then headed back down the beach toward the hotel.
The sun dipped into the sea, igniting orange and yellow flames across the water. Up ahead, Tricia bent here and there, collecting small white shells. As I passed, she looked at me with her lips pressed together, like I needed a leash.
At dawn the next morning, a cardboard box balanced on my head, I climbed the steep plank of a riverboat. “Lady Chilel” was painted in block letters on the boat’s side. She was a two-story wooden boat with a tall black smokestack and a white coat of paint that didn’t hide her years any better than makeup covered the wrinkles of an aging face. But from the shape of her bow and the ornate woodwork of her doorways and rails, it was evident that the Lady Chilel had been quite a beauty in her colonial youth.
The box on my head bulged with bread, bananas, oranges, cheese, juice, wine, and bottled water we had collected at the shops along Banjul’s main street the afternoon before.
By midmorning, I was comfortably ensconced in a chair under the awning of the upper deck as the Lady Chilel steamed up the river. Along the shore, mangroves thrived in the salt water pushed upriver by ocean tides. Limbs tangled with dark leaves pushed stilt-like roots into the mud along the water’s edge. Smoke and the flavor of fried fish rose from the deck below and mingled with the humid scent of the jungle. The river smelled like a thousand years of stewed plants and animals.
Human voices chattered above deck and below, blending with a chorus of bird calls from far out in the bush. Smoke belched from the smokestack. Its brown path trailed behind us, around the river bend, back to the hustle and bustle of the Banjul quay.
Ah, solitude. Tricia napped in the small cabin we had booked. I opened the book in my lap. I had finally found a copy of The Snow Leopard.
“To proceed as though you know nothing, not even your age, nor sex, nor how you look. To proceed as though you were made of gossamer.”
Since Rob’s letter, Drabo’s departure, and the dreams that continued to drown me in the terrible conviction that I would never find love, I had been on a desperate search. Constant work had numbed it some, but here, a gentler sun, a warm ocean, and the freedom of travel had unleashed a dangerous restlessness.
I sighed. How freeing it would be to let the desperation go—the frustration of unattended passion. To become like a mist that loses its form yet remains. A mist that finally dissolves, particles scattered in the sun. I could see myself scattered, part of the mist that hung on the river, already dissolving with the morning heat. A white crane flew in a straight line along the river bank.
The scent of coffee came around the corner with Tricia. She carried a tray with two steaming mugs, cradling her guidebook under an armpit.
“Coffee! Wonderful. Where did you get it?”
“I talked the old man that runs the little cafeteria into boiling some water. He lent me two cups and sold me a tin of Nescafé and sweetened condensed milk.” As she lowered the tray, a small wave of coffee spilled over the brim. “Rats.” She handed me the tin of milk. “You’ll have to use your finger as a spoon.” She pulled up a chair. “It’s nice to be in a place where people speak English.”
I sipped from the plastic mug, amazed at how good instant coffee tasted when one was in the open air and the nearest coffeepot was miles down river.
Tricia sat back with a sigh, wiping sweat from her forehead. “It was getting a little warm in our room, I had to come up for some air.”
“It beats sleeping on the deck.” I nodded downward where villagers, unable to afford cabins, set up camp on the lower deck for the three-day trip upriver.
People wrapped in blankets crowded the lower level. Little girls washed their younger siblings from buckets of river water, women cooked over small kerosene burners, and young boys sold freshly caught fish.
Voices speaking English with American accents came from behind us. We turned to find two men coming around the corner. One was a tall nice-looking guy with a mop of black hair, the other, a shorter man with freckles. The tall man nodded and walked past. Freckles gave us a broad smile and said, “Mornin’ ladies!”
We said hello and they continued down the narrow walkway, disappearing onto the back deck.
Tricia and I looked at each other. I did my Groucho Marx eyebrows.
We spent the rest of the morning lounging on deck. The river and the Lady Chilel provided all the movement we needed for the moment.
That evening, armed with a loaf of bread, goat cheese, and a bottle of white wine, we climbed the ladder to the top deck for an open-air dinner. I popped my head above the deck floor and stopped. There they were. Tricia’s head bumped into my rear.
“Hey! Why’d you stop?”
I continued to climb up, smiling at freckles and his buddy—tall, dark, and handsome. Tricia grunted her way onto the deck.
“Hey, ladies, come join us.” Freckles waved us over. He had sandy hair and a boyish, friendly face. “I’m Tom and this is Larry.” Tall, dark, and handsome nodded.
Some way away on the banks of a river lived a very large python who possessed much magic. The python heard of Abena and the way she treated her suitors. He went towards her village and, when nearly there, he turned himself into a handsome prince, dressed in cloth of gold.
We dragged two deck chairs over and sat.
“We have bread, cheese, and wine,” Tricia said to Tom.
“That will go well with our shrimp and”—Tom grinned as he pulled another bottle from behind his chair—“more wine.”
Several more heads popped into the space where the ladder opened onto the deck. Within minutes, we had a potluck dinner party of four Americans, three French, and a German, all of us working for one aid agency or another.
A French guy asked us why the U.S. was training contras to overthrow Nicaragua’s newly elected government. His girlfriend wondered if we’d heard that the U.S. was sending 24 million dollars in military aid to El Salvador after three American nuns had been raped and killed by Salvadoran armed forces.
I swear, why couldn’t aid workers have a conversation for once without talking about world events and what a mess America was making of things?
We all agreed that America’s policies were disastrous, and the world was on a fast train to hell. Then Tricia asked Tom how he had prepared the shrimp. He launched into an explanation of white wine and steaming the shrimp just until they turned pink.
I sat back, sipped the smooth chardonnay, and eyed the group. The more wine I sipped, the more interesting the Larry guy looked. He sat with his long legs folded Indian style, quiet, yet attentive. Now and then, he quipped an offhand comment that produced laughter from the group. I caught him watching me a couple of times and pretended indifference. The games we play.
When the prince reached Abena’s house he asked her parents if he could see her. She came out reluctantly, but when she saw the handsome prince her face changed. She came towards him looking radiant and, without even waiting to be asked, she told her parents that this was the man she wished to marry.
An unhindered view of the water and jungle surrounded us. The air, nearly body temperature, drifted off the water and brushed its velvet against my cheek. The sky filled with stars and the tip of a full moon rose out of the depths of the river.
Larry pulled out a guitar and strummed a quiet song. He closed his eyes in concentration, plucking the strings with slender fingers. Though I had never really seen one, I decided he looked like a Cossack. The kind in the old movies who, grasping their women around the waist, rode away into the desert night to the music of violins.
Tom opened the fourth bottle of wine and poured all around. “Tough life, eh?” He winked at me. I liked his smile, his playing-in-the-backyard-after-school look, such a contrast to the mysterious darkness of Larry.
The moon rose bright orange with a tail of yellow light that rippled off the water. I stood and walked to the bow of the boat and leaned out over the rail. Stretching my arms wide, I splayed my fingers to catch the light from the moon. The river misted my face. Soft footsteps creaked on the deck boards behind me. It was him, the Cossack, robes flowing in the lunar wind. I placed my hands in the angle of a salute just below my eyes.
“What are you doing?” he said, his voice as soft as the air off the river.
“If you place your hands just so and lean out over the rail”—I demonstrated, not looking at him—“the boat disappears and you see only the river. You can imagine you’re flying.”
Silence. After a moment I turned and found him staring at me, his brows drawn together. I couldn’t tell if he was confused or alarmed.
I turned back to face the river. Soon, the sounds of his guitar indicated he’d decided it was safer back with the group. So much for Cossacks.
Rejected again. How strange it was that part of me burned to find someone upon whom I could unleash my passion, yet another part stood rigid, frozen with fear. Thank you, Rob. He was married now. Somebody else was becoming the woman in the Vermont parking lot with her baby and dog.
I imagined Rob out in the river in the jaws of a crocodile, sinking beneath the dark water. I breathed in the thick spices of the jungle. The gossamer path of moonlight rose up from the river and surrounded me with golden threads.
“If only I could make love to this river, this moon,” I whispered. The stuff that myths are made of.
Heading straight into that velvet wind, enough moonlight to see the banks, the bush, and the palms, I flew out over the water, a lone figure following the path of the river, as if in a dream.
After a while, I rejoined the group and accepted several more glasses of wine from Tom. The night passed in a dreamy haze of fermented grape. The group talked and laughed in several languages until the last wine bottle lay empty. By midnight, Larry had his arm around the German girl, and at 2 am they left together. The air cooled, and the shrunken moon sighed from high in the night sky.
When the wedding was over the prince asked Abena’s parents to collect much food for the long journey to his palace. So the parents called some thirty young girls to help carry the loads
and the party was soon on its way with many sheep and goats, plantain and yams. Along the way, the prince grew hungry and ate four pigs, five sheep, three goats, all the bananas and yams, and all the young girls. When the prince and Abena arrived at a hole near the river, the prince turned back into a python.
The next morning, with sunglasses and a hat to cut the painful glare, I leaned over the rails of the upper deck, watching a troop of hippopotami. Their snouts rose just above the water line, shooting jets of water toward the boat.
“Cup of coffee?” Tom arrived, holding a cup in each hand.
I gratefully accepted with as little movement of my head as possible. “Thanks. Look!” I pointed. “Hippos.” We agreed there was nothing cooler than seeing wild animals in their natural habitat.
“Where’s your sister?” Tom asked.
“Still in bed. Where’s your sidekick?”
“Still in somebody’s bed. He’s a snake.”
“So I gathered.”
Back in Liberia, I had picked up a piece of newsprint from the corner of my sitting room one afternoon and uncovered a large snake. I did exactly as Peace Corps instructed: ran out of my house and yelled, “Snake!” Several of my students quickly converged, rendering the snake very dead. This happened at least three times in the two years I was there.
Too bad a similar alarm system didn’t exist for the kind of snake with two legs and a penis.
Tom pointed to the riverbank where several colobus monkeys ran, squealing and throwing clods of dirt into the water. A family of dog-faced baboons sat on shore, their heads following the boat as it passed. Tom and I smiled at each other, sharing the thrill.
We sipped our coffee, chatting. He was from North Carolina, an ex-Peace Corps volunteer, and would soon be going to Cameroon on another assignment. I wondered why I was never attracted to nice, uncomplicated guys like Tom; why I ran away from guys like Steve.
Around noon, Tricia shuffled up to join us. We lounged in the shade, under the overhang of the second-story deck. Tom left for a few minutes and returned with a loaf of bread, cheese, and some mangoes. The day hung hot and humid, and the jungle shimmered under a butter-yellow sun.
Ju Ju, one of the boat men, called our attention to a large, mossy looking log on the river bank. As we stared, the log raised itself up on squat legs and slipped into the water. I almost peed my pants.
“A crocodile!” Tricia’s excited voice brought several more people to the railing.
“Today is a special day!” Ju Ju said in lilting English. “It is long since the people on the boat have seen so many animals. You are lucky!”
Yes, I thought. I was lucky to be there, steaming up the Gambia River. I was lucky to have family and friends. True, I didn’t have a man or a baby. But hey, I had a dog. And something rang clear in my overheated, hungover brain—if you go looking for the prince charming of myths, be prepared to trip over a python or two.
A writer, community organizer, and consultant in program management, micro-enterprise development, family planning, and HIV/AIDS education, Susan Corbett began her community development career in 1976 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, working in a health clinic in Liberia, West Africa. In 1979, she joined Save the Children Federation as a program coordinator for cooperative and small business projects in Burkina Faso. In 1982, Susan returned to the States where she has worked with local non-profits in drug and alcohol prevention for runaway youth, family planning, homelessness prevention, and immigrant issues.
Susan has traveled to over 40 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Pacific and Caribbean, and Central and North America and has lived and worked in ten African countries over the past thirty years (Uganda, Tanzania, Mali, The Gambia, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mauritius, Tunisia, Nigeria, and Liberia). She lives in Colorado with her husband, Steve, her sons, Mitch & Sam, and her dog, Molly.