Doctor Stephen Frost and Doctor Rachel Davidson were two of the most esteemed residents of Indianapolis, Indiana.
They devoted themselves to causes praised by other residents, whether they stood left or right of the centre. They supported the arts and the restoration of historic neighbourhoods. They supported college scholarships for worthy young people from low-income families of all ethnic backgrounds. But their principal philanthropic interests were medical. Stephen, an orthopaedic surgeon, devoted several hours of one Saturday each month to performing free surgeries for the indigent. Rachel, a cardiologist, spent several hours of one Sunday each month in the same way. She was Jewish. Though generally not observant, she treated Saturday the way Christians treat Sunday.
Because they avoided politics, other people thought they lacked strong opinions. In fact, Stephen and Rachel took their own black and white view of the world. It’s simply right to do what one can to help people, they agreed, and simply wrong to refuse to do so. But they had made the prudent choice to keep this opinion to themselves in a world that other people had made grey, filling it with grey, wishy-washy excuses for bad behaviour.
Stephen and Rachel had limited their philanthropic activities to Indianapolis—or, rather, to the greater Indianapolis area. In truth, they were esteemed residents of Indianapolis only if Indianapolis is broadly construed. They had grown up in different Indianapolis suburbs and attended different high schools: Zionsville Community in Stephen’s case, Carmel in Rachel’s. They had pursued postsecondary studies in the city, meeting as seniors at Butler University and becoming engaged while at Indiana University School of Medicine, yet all of their increasingly larger houses had been in the suburbs. They told themselves they were not the kind of people who would refuse to live in the city, and they disdained such people. But living in the suburbs came naturally.
By the time they were in their late forties, Stephen and Rachel had started to talk about reaching beyond greater Indianapolis, into the wider world. They thought they had established sufficient credibility so that no one would dare object that there were plenty of people at home who needed help. Helping people who lived far from greater Indianapolis would not entail turning their backs on their home region. They possessed the hearts and the means to help the needy both within and without greater Indianapolis.
So they happily accepted the invitation from a former patient of Stephen’s to meet a Maasai husband and wife who had traveled thousands of miles to raise money to drill a well in a parched area of Tanzania.
The former patient was a retired schoolteacher named Esther. Stephen’s replacement of her knee had enabled her to fulfil the lifelong dream of visiting the continent of her ancestors. Lacking knowledge of the exact part of West Africa from which they’d been stolen, she had paid tribute to the victims of slavery in Ghana. Then she had gone to see the great animals of East Africa. On safari she had met a Maasai couple who explained that in their part of Tanzania, access to fresh water was becoming desperately scarce. The couple and their neighbours had spoken with a water engineer from Dar es Salaam. He had assured them that for a hundred thousand dollars, he could drill a well that would solve their problems. He had laughed and asked if they had a hundred thousand dollars. Then he had laughed again, advising them to contact him when they did.
Esther did not have a hundred thousand dollars, either. But she had told the Maasai couple that she knew some rich people. If the couple’s community could come up with half the money needed to bring them to Indianapolis, she would pay the rest of their fare.
Thus, one fine spring evening Stephen and Rachel found themselves crowded with some twenty other members of the Indianapolis philanthropic community into Esther’s modest single-story home on the fringe of Ransom Place Historic District. Stephen and Rachel had passed the word to their friends after receiving Esther’s invitation.
All the philanthropists were ready to be solicited, and many had come ready also to be entertained. But one, devoted to support of the theatrical arts, had not. She shouldered her way between Stephen and Rachel as they stood in the schoolteacher’s living room and as the Maasai couple explained that they wished to perform a traditional dance.
“I understand theatre,” she said under her breath. “Those are costumes that have nothing to do with how these people really live. They’re here as dancing bears.”
She finished her wine and left.
Stephen and Rachel moved together, filling the gap left by her departure. They cared less about the authenticity of the performance than about the couple’s need. Stephen and Rachel had decided to write a check for twenty-five thousand dollars.
However, as Stephen observed the dance, he realised that he cared also about the beauty of the Maasai woman, Victoria. He imagined her still festooned with jewellery, but no longer clothed in her spectacular scarlet robe. He imagined her bouncing up and down not on her toes in the schoolteacher’s living room, but on her knees in his own bed.
“Don’t Maasai men have many wives?” he whispered, wondering about the others.
“Esther says they’re Christians,” Rachel answered. “Lutheran.”
Both disturbed by his thoughts and eager to reward Victoria’s beauty, Stephen brought out his chequebook. On the top check he wrote “50,000.” He showed Rachel and she nodded.
Watching the dance, he imagined the Maasai man, Lucas, also shorn of his scarlet robe, appearing in the bed along with Victoria. One hand played with her breasts as she bounced up and down. He would catch a breast as it descended, then impart to its upward flight an extra boost. Meanwhile, Lucas’s other hand caressed Stephen.
Stephen became agitated. He was about to tell Rachel that they should leave the check with their hostess and go home when the dance ended. Rachel pulled him by the hand so that they could present their gift to the Maasai couple, who stood with Esther. The husband, the wife, and Esther were overcome with gratitude.
With the possibilities of giving thanks exhausted, Esther changed the subject.
“You should dance with them,” she told Stephen and Rachel. “You’re so fit.”
Stephen and Rachel ate healthily and exercised avidly and looked ten years younger than their age. The compliments directed at them sometimes hinted that their dedication to fitness was self-indulgent. They were sensitive to the criticism, but they argued that good health would enable them to give better and longer service to the needy.
Esther had made Stephen blush. He glanced at the shoulders and arms of the Maasai man, left bare by his robe. Stephen had never been as fit as this man.
Lucas asked if Stephen and Rachel had ever visited Tanzania.
“But you must come on safari,” he said, and Victoria said, “You must.”
“Absolutely,” Rachel said.
“You must also visit us and see where we will have the well,” Lucas added.
As easily as that, it had been decided that Stephen and Rachel would go on safari. Stephen wasn’t worried about finding temptation in his way. He would find a reason why they would be unable to visit Victoria and Lucas.
The Maasai couple had advised Stephen and Rachel to drive themselves on safari. But they were unprepared to get stuck in a pothole in the bush while darkness approached as swiftly as the lion they’d seen kill a zebra that morning.
“We’re literally in the middle of nowhere,” Stephen said.
Rachel didn’t tell him that he’d misused “literally.”
“There’s smoke from cooking fires to the west,” Rachel said from atop the Land Cruiser’s hood. “And pretty close.”
“Sun’s in our eyes if a lion attacks,” Stephen said.
He’d meant to laugh, but he realised that it wasn’t a joke.
She looked at the Land Cruiser.
“I know a way to relax so we won’t worry so much about lions. And if we are going to die it would be nice to do it one last time.”
“Five minutes,” Stephen said, his eyes on the descending sun.
Rachel kept her eye on her watch. After four minutes, she said, “Not going to happen for me, so you go ahead—but quietly, because of the lions.”
“I can’t,” he said, stopping abruptly. “I keep thinking about the lions.”
Luckily, the cooking fires were very close by. They soon found themselves in the only café in the village of Ngula. The owner spoke some English. He explained that he had no beer left and that he needed to close because of the approaching darkness.
He led them to the home of a man named Ibrahim, who had a wife and six children. The family spoke no English. They smiled without cease as they shared their dinner of rice, beans, and tea with Stephen and Rachel. The guests were never told the wife’s name, but they memorised the names of the children.
The café man had said that Ibrahim made furniture. So he could work in the rainy season, he’d attached a shed to his house. It was the dry season and the shed was empty.
“I suppose we’ll sleep out there,” Stephen said.
With her fingers, Ibrahim’s wife had given the age of the youngest child, Shakila, as two. When the child became hungry, she pulled up her T-shirt and nursed the little girl. Stephen and Rachel looked away. Then they realised that the mother was not self-conscious and that Ibrahim himself did not expect them to look away.
Ibrahim’s wife finished nursing. The little girl was asleep. Mother and children went out to the shed. Ibrahim led his guests into the only bedroom. Stephen and Rachel tried by means of gestures to insist that they should take the shed. Ibrahim insisted more strongly that they shouldn’t.
Lying on the bed of Ibrahim and his wife, Stephen finally said, “They’re asleep.”
He reached beneath Rachel’s T-shirt. She intercepted his hand.
“Not in their bed.”
He’d anticipated her reply. He swung his feet onto the floor and stood up.
“Like this,” he said, lowering his pyjama bottoms as he switched on his phone’s flashlight to shine upon himself. “Come sit on my steel girder.”
“The shed’s the other side of that wall, and. . . well, culturally. . .”
“Africans are extremely religious.”
Stephen remembered that Ibrahim had prayed for a long time before dinner.
“But we can be quiet.”
“Not that quiet,” she said, turning her back on her husband. “Put it away.”
Stephen obeyed. He returned to bed with a plan about what he would do once Rachel had fallen asleep. The memory of the nursing mother would inspire him. But he fell asleep before Rachel did.
On their first date, twenty-five years earlier at Butler, Rachel had delighted Stephen with her candour regarding certain sexual experiments that she’d undertaken as a high school senior and as a freshman and sophomore at the university. She had also assured him that they were only experiments. On this night in Tanzania, she was less candid about her fascination with the nursing mother. Once Stephen had fallen asleep, she took advantage of his slumber in the same way he had intended to take advantage of hers.
In the morning, Ibrahim introduced the foreigners to his neighbour, Paul Nimokate. Paul was a schoolteacher who spoke English.
“Can you tell us the name of Ibrahim’s wife?” Rachel said.
“Mrs. Abdi,” Paul said. “She is the wife of Ibrahim Abdi.”
Paul and Ibrahim talked at length. Paul finally spoke to Stephen and Rachel.
“Ibrahim is worried about his friend: a certain Timothy.”
Paul and Ibrahim talked some more.
“Ibrahim will find men who can help with your Land Cruiser,” Paul said. “We will go to see Timothy.”
Stephen told Paul that he and Rachel hadn’t wished to see Ibrahim’s family relegated to his shed.
“Ibrahim says white people only know how to sleep on a bed,” Paul laughed.
Timothy’s appearance startled Rachel. She tried to imagine his features sheathed in black skin.
“You understand the danger?” Paul said, and Stephen and Rachel nodded.
Days before, near the border with Burundi, an albino man had been beaten to death for his body parts in front of his children. Another man, not an albino, had tried to intervene. The Good Samaritan was killed with a machete. The children were young, but on the basis of their statements the police were looking for four men in a large white car.
“Everyone in Ngula hopes that Timothy can find a wife here,” Paul said. “Here he is safe because he is known, but not in other places.”
“Does he understand English?” Stephen said.
“He is shy to speak, but he understands.”
Paul cleared his throat.
“He has found a wife here. But there is a problem. The young woman, a certain Stella Ntutu, is a teacher. The children love her, but this is not her home village.”
“The parents must be consulted. And Stella’s father is not well to travel.”
Rachel looked at her husband and then at Paul.
“So Timothy hopes we’ll drive him to see Stella’s parents,” she said.
“After the men have removed your Land Cruiser from the pothole,” Paul said.
Stephen looked at his wife, who said, “As soon as the Land Cruiser’s ready.”
“God will reward you,” Paul said.
Rachel wasn’t sure about that. She had misgivings about the way she’d ended the night. It smacked of exploitation, given the wealth of Stephen and herself and the poverty of Ibrahim’s family. Rachel and Stephen had hoped that they would never exploit the poor. But she might make amends for her nocturnal slip with the good deed of driving the young albino to speak with the parents of his would-be wife.
“The distance is not one hundred kilometres,” Paul said. “It is close to Burundi.”
“Burundi?” Stephen said. “Is it close to where that albino was. . .”
“Timothy can stay in the Land Cruiser with the window up,” Paul said quickly. “People will see three white people. He will not get out even to help himself.”
Rachel looked at her husband.
“I think that means he won’t pee the whole way,” Stephen smiled.
“Three white people will be safe,” Paul said. “Even bad men are afraid of what your government will do if they kill white people.”
Neither Stephen nor Rachel had noticed the dirt-coloured overnight bag sitting on the ground behind Timothy. He picked it up.
“Shall we find the Land Cruiser?” Paul said.
Rachel allowed the Africans to walk ahead. Stephen fell behind with her.
“If Timothy ever moves away,” Rachel whispered, “he should wear blackface.”
Stephen looked at her sternly. Rachel apologised as she thought again of her bad behaviour during the night and reminded herself that she was performing a good deed.
Ibrahim’s men had extracted the Land Cruiser from the pothole.
“Should we give them money?” Rachel asked Paul.
“Your kindness is their payment,” he said.
Stephen looked at Rachel. She nodded and he gave the men money.
“Timothy knows where to go,” Paul said, adding “Jesus will reward this kindness.”
One of the Africans spoke.
“This Muslim boy says that God is with those who serve others,” Paul said.
The travellers were alone. Stephen started the Land Cruiser.
“Got to help myself,” Rachel said as she unbuckled.
She took a few steps and looked back at the Land Cruiser. The men had turned their heads. Seen in profile through the dusty window, Timothy’s face looked white.
Wanting to avoid the mistake that had put them in the pothole, Stephen drove fast and the Land Cruiser flew over the potholes. After a little while, Rachel asked him to open the top. He stopped. The three of them opened the top and Stephen drove again. Timothy remained seated while Rachel, boots off, stood on her seat.
“I love fucking Africa,” she shouted.
She glanced down at Timothy.
“Sorry,” she said.
They left behind the isolation that had enveloped Ngula. Rachel was exposed to the dust kicked up by passing cars. It became too much and Stephen laughed as she sat down.
“It’s like you’re part of that tribe where the women coat themselves in mud instead of wearing clothes.”
“I think they wear ochre and butter,” Rachel said.
Stephen imagined the pictures of the Himba women that he’d seen on the Internet. He had wanted to visit Namibia, but it would have been far out of the way.
Rachel looked back at Timothy.
“I hope he’s watching where we’re going.”
She closed her eyes as they approached a huge pothole. The Land Cruiser struck the earth on the far side and her teeth rattled in her head. She heard Timothy shouting.
Stephen looked in the mirror, but Timothy didn’t point.
“Left,” Rachel said in time for Stephen to choose a direction at a fork in the road.
She looked at Timothy.
“I wasn’t sure about kushoto,” she said. “But he’s smiling that beautiful smile.”
She was trying to convince herself. She wanted Timothy to have black skin.
Timothy gave fair warning ahead of the next fork.
Rachel turned and raised her hands.
“How much farther?” she said.
She showed Timothy five fingers, then ten.
He showed ten. She told Stephen ten kilometres.
After about five, the Land Cruiser abruptly pitched to the left.
“Do we have a jack and a spare?” Rachel said as she climbed out. “Should Timothy get out? Take some weight off?”
“No one to see him here,” Stephen shrugged. “No traffic since the last fork.”
But Timothy had noticed the white Land Cruiser coming up from behind. It stopped parallel to them.
“Mzungus,” the driver said. “What are you doing here?”
Rachel tried to count the occupants of the shadowed interior.
“You are needing a shower,” said a different man. “I can’t see your white skin.”
“White skin can be pretty if it is washed,” the driver laughed.
“She forgets how to wash,” the other man said. “But we can wash her.”
“A big white car,” Stephen said quietly, and, to the men, “Jambo.”
Rachel thought that his false cheer wouldn’t fool them.
Four men climbed out. The driver took a tire iron from the back of his Land Cruiser.
“We have only this, mzungu,” the driver said.
“We have a jack,” Stephen said. “We can change your tire before I change ours.”
Rachel noticed the other vehicle’s flat.
The two men who hadn’t spoken approached Stephen and Rachel’s Land Cruiser.
“There’s nothing in there,” Rachel said.
She worried that by raising her voice, she had amplified the sound of her fear.
“They don’t know English,” said the one who had talked about washing her.
He wore a Yankees cap. He said something in Swahili. The men laughed, and the two who had approached Stephen and Rachel’s Land Cruiser turned around.
“Ready to change your tire?” Stephen said, the false cheer gone from his voice.
The driver fingered the top button of Rachel’s khaki shirt.
“Hey—” Stephen said as he took a step toward the driver.
The man in the Yankees cap shoved Stephen to the ground.
“Give that to me,” he said, and the driver handed him the tire iron.
He raised the tire iron above his head and swung it toward Stephen. He stopped his swing halfway and laughed. The driver laughed and unbuttoned Rachel’s shirt.
“I think when this shirt is off, we will see white skin.”
“We like all kinds of white skin,” the man in the Yankees cap said.
The driver removed Rachel’s safari shirt and touched the hem of her T-shirt. She shut her eyes and he said something in Swahili. She opened her eyes.
“I told them to see what you have in your Land Cruiser,” the driver said.
“There’s noth—” Stephen said, but the man in the Yankees cap raised the tire iron.
The two men who had approached the Land Cruiser went toward it again. Rachel turned her head and saw them peer through the windows, but she closed her eyes as she felt the hem of her T-shirt rise above her navel.
One of the men said gonjwa: the word for “sick,” Rachel had learned.
“You have some sick man?” the driver said.
An ugly cough erupted from inside the Land Cruiser.
The driver and the man in the Yankees cap joined the other two next to the Land Cruiser. Stephen remained on the ground while Rachel followed the men.
Timothy lay on his side, head and arms covered by his jacket.
“He’s cold and he has a rash on his face,” Rachel said.
The cough exploded again. From beneath his jacket, Timothy spat on the floor.
The men retreated and climbed inside their Land Cruiser. One of the men who didn’t know English jumped back out. He spoke in Swahili to the driver, who nodded. All of the men climbed out. The other one who didn’t know English had a machete.
“Jesus,” Stephen said.
The man with the machete circled Stephen and Rachel’s Land Cruiser and hacked at its tires. The others took its spare tire and jack. As he and his friends left, the man in the Yankees cap matter-of-factly swung his tire iron at Stephen, who ducked out of the way.
The men drove off. Timothy came out of the Land Cruiser.
“You’re fucking brilliant,” Rachel said. “I mean, brilliant. If Stella can’t marry you, I will.”
“From here it is five kilometres,” Timothy smiled. “We can walk.”
Stella Ntutu’s parents gave Timothy permission to marry their daughter. They said they worried for him, but that Africa was changing. Soon there would be no more bad men killing albinos. All Africans would be Christian and there would be no witchcraft.
Stella’s mother started preparing a lunch of rice, beans, and tea to share with their guests. She also heated water for Rachel to pour over her head. Stella’s father had said she needed to wash so that she would look like a white woman.