Short, Dark, Handsome Stranger
My Peace Corps training period took place in Dang – a small village of around 80 in Cameroon’s Centre Province. Although only five people lived at my host family’s home, there was a crowd of 10-15 gathered around in our living room most evenings to watch the new American guy eat couscous de maïs (thick corn mush with a doughy consistency) and hear him attempt to communicate with his broken French and hilarious accent. As no one in my village, other than the other trainees, spoke more than two or three words of English, communication during those first days and weeks in Dang was little more than a game of charades. The challenge was to express my 30-year-old thoughts with my roughly two-year-old French vocabulary. This was practically impossible, of course, without relying on a heavy dose of gestures and descriptive sounds. It definitely kept me humble – playing some combination of Hollywood star and village idiot – and it made for good nightly entertainment for the locals.
On one particular evening, I was giving a dissertation to the living room audience on the evolution of my bucket-bathing skills – combining an exotic mixture of rudimentary French words (l’eau, savon), some choice onomatopoeia (swissshhh, rubbadubdub), and various gesticulations (armpit rubbing, etc.) – when my tongue abruptly stopped functioning, mid-sentence. As the thickset stranger, dressed head to toe in black, strode boldly, purposefully through the open threshold of our front door, a wicked chill shot down my spine. All eyes turned to see why the white man’s face had turned a brighter shade of pale. At 1” tall and 3” in diameter, this stout, fur-covered tarantula was the scariest thing I’d yet seen in my two weeks in Cameroon.
My host brother, Ali, saw the look of terror on my face and decided to see if he could make me wet my pants. He took off one of his flip-flops and made a low swipe at our special guest, sending him gliding across the lacquered cement floor to within a couple of yards of my sandaled feet. My host sister’s boyfriend, Parfait, giggling at me squirming to lift my feet off the floor, grabbed a broom and swiped the eight-legged hockey puck past me laterally, left to right. As Ali returned with his sandal for a third grounder, Mr. T did something that I’d never seen before: he sprang, propping himself up on four legs and flexing the other four skyward, as if entering attack mode. Ali and Parfait both saw this pose and backed off, saying they would wait a bit for him to calm down. In a couple of minutes, when our angry visitor relaxed and lowered all eight to the ground, Ali batted him back out the front door in one swift, hard slice.
When I asked why he threw the spider out of the house but had not killed him, Ali explained that it’s a tradition that members of the Bafia tribe not kill tarantulas, as they are believed to contain the spirits of the ancestors. Good reason, I thought. Note to self: Don’t insult the locals by killing spiders, even if leaving them alive and lurking nearby gives me an extreme case of the willies.
About a week later, my alarm woke me at 7am to begin the day of French language and water-sanitation tech courses. My feet slid under the mosquito net, finding my sandals waiting bedside, and I took a few steps to flip on the light switch. As I wiped the sleep from my eyes and looked downward at my army-green Peace-Corps-issued metal trunk, I noticed two partially concealed yet unmistakable swarthy, hirsute legs – only slightly slimmer than my pinky fingers – extending out from under the trunk. I gasped… but tried to think quickly: What would Ali do?
I positioned my feet as far away as possible and slid the trunk sideways to reveal my unexpected houseguest. Although this guy had only 75% of the previous tarantula’s girth, I was not without a healthy dose of respect for this rather large mass of spiderness. I opened my bedroom door, placed a flip-flop about a foot away from him, took a deep breath, and began sliding. This fellow was apparently either brighter or nimbler than his older brother, because before the shoe met its target, he flicked himself up into the ninja attack pose. I lost my nerve and didn’t strike.
Now I was in a bit of a pickle. Classes would begin in roughly 20 minutes, so I didn’t have lots of time to play around and wait for Mr. Spider to lower his adrenalin level… but leaving him in my room all day, only to play ‘hide-n-seek’ with him later that evening, was an extremely unappetizing option. And I also wasn’t interested in insulting my host family – no, make that the entire Bafia tribe – by killing one of their forefathers. So I did the only thing I could think of to do: I called for Mom. My host Mom, Awa, that is. I explained my problem with large gestures and the two words I’d learned from my previous encounter: “grosse araignée !”
Awa entered my room, casually surveyed the situation, picked up a flip-flop, and with a mighty smack reduced my arachnid visitor to a lump of white and black fuzzy pulp on the polished concrete floor.
I asked in astonishment, “Mais c’est comment avec la tradition ?! Et avec les esprits des anciens ?" [But what about the tradition?! And about the spirits of the ancestors?]
She snickered. “I don’t believe in ghosts, do you?”