“Come on,” I said to Kamal and Nia. “I think I can find it from here. Hers is the first farm back.”
But we found no farm behind The Camp, just plenty more houses and kiosks. I felt the time pressure building. Victoria had been expecting us for days now, and this was our last chance to visit her!
A few evenings prior we had utterly surprised her as she entered her compound pushing her bicycle. When she saw me and Nia and Henry sitting on a bench in her courtyard, she almost dropped her bike. She came by the Mayaga the next morning to greet us before heading to her farm. This was hustle time for her, agriculture-wise, and she had little time to spare. She had wanted to organize a supper for us at her house, but I told her not to worry, and to focus on what she needed to get done.
“Then come and visit me on my farm,” she said. “I get there every morning after I attend early mass. I am there—”
“Every day, all day,” I said. “Yes we will do that. Look for us this afternoon, or maybe tomorrow.”
“But I’m no more good at farming-o, due to my age,” she said. “You’ll see. I’m not so strong anymore.”
Like I believed that. Anyway, now it was several days later, and for various reasons we still had not made it to her farm for a visit. This was our last afternoon in Navrongo, our last chance. We had to get there!
Who is Victoria, you ask? Let me back up a bit.
Victoria used to be my neighbor, in the truest, most profound sense of the word. This was before she lived in the house she lives in now, which is her second husband’s, and before she tended this particular farm.
Back in those days Victoria lived in her family compound, which was located just beyond the fenced-in grounds of Navrongo Secondary School where I taught chemistry. From the front porch of my bungalow I could look across a low valley and see her house. Due to proximity, Victoria had befriended the two previous rounds of Peace Corps volunteers who had inhabited my bungalow: Chris and then Mike. Mike had helped to train me in Cape Coast, and told me about this amazing, gorgeous, powerful woman named Victoria who would be appearing on my front porch to welcome me when I got to Navrongo. He told me about her intense farming capabilities, her sewing stall in the Navrongo market where she worked on market days, and her civic work in her village where she led women’s groups in projects such as literacy and small business development.
But when I began living in Navrongo, no Victoria showed up on my doorstep. I’d heard that she’d had an accident, that she had dropped a pair of scissors on her foot in the market. I figured I’d see her as soon as her foot got better.
Two weeks later I was eating lunch at The Camp with my friend Marcia, a second-year Peace Corps Volunteer who taught at Bosco’s Teacher Training College. “Have you seen Victoria yet?” Marcia asked.
“Come on,” Marcia said when we finished our lunch and were climbing onto our bikes. “We need to go to Victoria’s house. Something isn’t right.”
I followed Marcia to Victoria’s, where she got down, hiked up her skirt, and marched through the labyrinthine earthen compound, past goats and chickens and little grain silos to arrive at the door of Victoria’s room.
And there, for the first time, I laid my eyes on the Amazonian that is Victoria. A decidedly diminished Amazonian. Frail and withered, she lay on a mat, clearly in the throes of fever. Though I’d never met her before I could tell she had lost a lot of weight. Arms that would normally bulge with biceps were atrophying.
She had one foot elevated and covered with a cloth. Marcia demanded that she remove the cloth.
I don’t need to describe her foot in detail. It was severely swollen with infection, and the swelling had climbed up her shin. Flies buzzed around a coating of local medicine which had been applied around the leaking wound, which Victoria weakly waved away with the cloth.
Marcia wasn’t having any more nonsense. “Victoria, will you promise to go to the hospital if I give you money?” Then Marcia said, “Never mind, we’ll be back,” and we left and rode to town to get Dr. Ross, a British guy who lived near the hospital.
When we returned with Dr. Ross, it was a no brainer to him: Victoria needed to be admitted to the hospital straight away. And she needed major antibiotics, immediately, or else she was going to lose her foot and possibly half her leg.
I wasn’t there when Victoria, with assistance, made the excruciatingly painful journey to the hospital on the back of a bicycle.
So the beginning of Victoria’s and my “neighborship” had to wait a bit. When she was discharged from the hospital, she moved to a house nearby the hospital so she could go for daily checkups. “Hello Pete!” I would hear a voice call as I rode my bike past, on my way to the market on market days. I’d turn my head and there would be Victoria, smiling and waving, hobbling along the front porch of the house using a cane, her foot in cloth wrapping. By then I wasn’t worried about her. She looked like she was getting strong again.
Eventually Victoria and I became neighbors. And for two years she was always there, always caring, always checking in on me and making sure I was okay. She cooked goodies for me and brought them over, helped me when I was sick, and farmed with me. The school gave me one acre of land to farm and I worked it with Victoria, and we also turned my front yard into a groundnuts patch. In the market, Victoria’s sewing stall was my ground zero, the place where I always parked my bike when I did my shopping or went to Bolga to run errands.
I had many personality issues in those days, mostly problems in dealing with cultural differences which were exacerbated by my lack of maturity. Victoria stayed patient through all of my embarrassing tantrums at school and in town and remained my friend. She was always ready to help me out with anything, like the time she cooked for an end-of-year party I threw for my Upper Sixth Form students. I did what I could to help her out too, for what that was worth, but it paled in comparison to what she did for me. I remember one time she came over to my house with a Coleman lantern that some aid group had donated to her, to help her with her nighttime literacy classes she taught to the village women. We worked and worked on that lantern, but we never got the dang thing to light.
Victoria would drop by my house randomly to hang out on my couch and laugh and talk. “Turn on the radio,” she’d say. “I was in Bolga today, and went to the radio station and dedicated a song to you.”
After I moved away, Victoria kept in touch with me via letters. I remember one in particular that she wrote during my first year away, when I was intensely homesick for Navrongo:
We have missed you very much. I look for you, I walk out into the fields and call into the sky, “Pete, Pete,” and so on.
And I would leave my freezing office cubicle, and walk out into the hyper-manicured lawn of a soulless suburban Seattle business park, and gaze up into the sky and call, “Victoria, Victoria.”
And so on.
“She’s a pot of gold,” Dr. Ross once told me.
Now we needed to find her.
I got off Kamal’s moto and went to a nearby kiosk, a hairdresser’s salon, where a few young people were hanging out on its porch. “Can you please tell me where Victoria’s farm is? It’s just nearby.”
They had no clue. Likely they were students, not from the area. Times had changed and not everyone knew who Victoria was.
We continued through the houses. Finally we came to some open space: a field of millet, bright green in the afternoon light. Out in the field, in the distance, I spied the forms of a woman working alongside two younger assistants. The woman straightened up when she saw us, and looked across, lifting her hand to use as a visor.
From the distance I could feel Victoria’s smile spread across her face as she placed her hoe over her shoulder and began to walk toward us.
The Great Green Wall
“Here are my groundnuts,” said Victoria, as she gave Nia, Kamal, and me a tour of her field.
“What are you working on right now?” I asked, as we turned down another row of crops.
“We are transplanting millet,” she said. “And weeding. Here, you try.” She handed her hoe to Nia.
After Nia weeded a little, I gave it a shot too, overcoming deep-seated shyness. I’d been scarred decades ago, when I farmed my acre at Navrongo Secondary School and endured the laughter of passersby. Later a teacher colleague informed me, “Your form is terrible.”
I handed Victoria back her hoe and gazed across her millet field. It looked like her crop was doing all right, despite the feeble rains so far this season.
“I see you are not forgetting of the trees,” I grinned, pointing to the line of tall trees that ran alongside her field—intermixed with her field, actually.
“The trees are important,” she said.
One of the many projects Victoria worked on with local women, back when I lived here in the late 1980s, was agroforestry. “You see Pete,” she said one day from her table in the market, setting down her scissors. “This thing, the Sahara, it is expanding. We have to stop it.”
That was my Victoria. She seemed invincible. As long as Victoria was going to help try to stop the Sahara from expanding, I felt that we had a chance. I carried an image in my mind of her powerful form, wielding her hoe like a battle axe, fighting back the Sahara.
In truth, desertification is a big concern for people living in these savannah regions close to what is called the Sahel, the transition zone to the Sahara.
“Sahel” literally means “shore” or “coast” in Arabic…
(Continued in Pete’s travel memoir, Roaming Around: A Daughter and Father World Journey)