Le Président: Seven Days
In the beginning, Le President, flattened his ancestral villagei, to create his idea of heaven. “Let there be no jungle”; & there was no jungle. He razed the earth with excavators to make space for his creations. & He made the low-lying metal sheds & maquis disappear. & He cloaked the land in roseate dust. & a wind swept over the land like water. & that was the first day.
“Let the earth yield mangos & pineapples & bananas & fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” & He transformed the jungle & the dark loam of the land into plantations, as geometric as a French garden. & it was so. & there was evening & there was morning.
& “Let there be a church in the midst of this cleared wilderness that can seat 18,000 people in pews made of Iroko wood. & let there be a stained-glass panel of myself beside Jesus ascending to heaven.” So He imported architects & builders from France & Israel & Lebanon — from everywhere, but Africa — & He sent for Italian marble columns & French stained glass. & so the “Basilica of the Bush”ii was built. & it was so. & there was evening & there was morning, the third day.
“Let the remains of my ancestral village & its palaver tree now reside behind palace walls & out of sight. & let the waters under the sky be gathered around this palace.” & so He built a behemoth & furnished it with two gold-plated rams at the door, gilded furniture & hundreds of servants. & the waters that were gathered together, he called artificial lakes.
& it was so. “Let the boulevards of my kingdom be as grand as those of Paris. & let those boulevards swell with adoring throngs, who come to pay their respects to their founding father. & let the tourists follow the swagger of the sun to a twelve-storey hotel at the end of an eight-lane highway, to marvel at the city of my birth.” & there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
“Let the lakes bring forth swarms of living creatures.” So He delivered crocodiles & carnivorous turtles to populate the lakes. & it was so. & He blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful & multiply & fill the waters of these lakes so that I might be protected as the chief of Yamoussoukro. “Let the earth bring forth chickens to sate these starving reptiles. And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
Then “Let me find a caretaker to have dominion over the dragons of the sea. & may he be a native of our neighbour, Mali.” & so He hired a man to keep vigil over the crocodiles as the crocodiles kept vigil over Their One & Only King. And there was evening & there was morning, in all of its excess.
Thus, His heaven on earth was finalized. And He rested on the seventh day. But who else would ever rest?
i. Houphouet-Boigny was the Baoulé chief of his ancestral village
ii. Also known as the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix or Basilica of Our Lady Peace.
The Crocodile Feeder
For Dicko Toki,
Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa
A piece of wood may sit in the water many years, but it won’t become a crocodile.
– Malian proverb
a palace ascends from ochre earth, its artificial lake
ornate with imported reptiles:
leathery sentries that have weathered millennia,
the crocodiles scull from the shallows with checkered tails,
shearing their path to an embankment
sullied by blood; a seething phalanx
inhaling feathered angst
pharaonic, they amass like an avalanche
of uprooted trees with thistled claws
and olive-streaked backs,
their pale underbellies pebbled yellow
their eyes see the world brambled with veins,
mouths emit an oily gleam;
their rocky hides and tides of teeth
tear the lair of men’s dreams
At Ramadan’s end, riveted tourists scrum
above sawdust banks, anticipating crimson
& rubbled bone, their cellphones ready
for the daily feeding ritual. Dicko,
the caretaker, plucks a bill from impatient fingers
& descends to the strand, a machete tucked
under one arm, a dingy chicken under the other.
Each squawk punctures the postmeridian torpor.
Rows of obsidian eyes vein the lake’s drab skin.
Dicko swings the hen twice by its legs
wings frantic in the pitiless light. A trill
soaks the air amid shutter clicks.
Glutted, the crocodiles doze as Dicko tugs
one by the tail for the thousandth time & poses.
He taps the twisted snout of Commandant
& skips over the last of the reptiles
when the hem of his boubou snags in its jaw.
He trips over its tail, machete flailing,
stabbing the air as Capitaine drags him away.
Onlookers shriek, their eyes drowning in jaws
opaque with want. But no sound from Dicko.
No wail wedged between the waves & stained teeth
as the beasts fissure water and sun, sinking
into a lake, reflecting nothing
and no one.
Mud cloth (bogolanfini), cotton, designed and made by the Bamana people, Mali, early-mid 20th century. The motifs reflect protective symbolism for the hunter who wears the fabric. The symbols include: Family (dot within circle); camel footprint (half diamond with central dot); and crocodile (long line with horizontal branches). The crocodile prints (very strong on this cloth) denote friendship in the village – the crocodile knows where to find water and lives a long time. Via Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, NSW, Australia.
This is part of ROT, a section of The Learned Pig exploring multispecies creativity through modest tales of collaboration and coexistence amidst world-ending violence and disorder. ROT is conceived and edited by Julia Cavicchi.