Yambo was wiry, quick, dark mahogany; always neatly dressed in button down shirts and khaki shorts. He had a handsome oval face, large round eyes, a fast mouth and mean hands. Yambo was just a little nine-year-old, but he was already big trouble. He didn’t do his homework, despite the fact that his father was a high-ranking governmental official here in West Africa. Worse, he was violent. Yambo would punch you or hurt you at the slightest provocation. One time he cut in front of me in line. I started to raise my arm in protest, whimpering for the teacher to witness this outrage of protocol. He challenged me in French.
“Did I do something?”
“Non, non.” I groveled, but he socked me hard in the stomach anyway.
My sister and I were in Africa because our mother’s former college sweetheart, who she hadn’t set eyes on in twenty years, had proposed in a letter. He was a diplomat who specialized in French-speaking Africa. Libreville, Gabon, exactly on the equator in West Africa, was our home from 1966-1968. Boarding school was out of the question, so despite our two-year age difference, my sister and I were enrolled in the same class of École Mixte, the local public elementary school. About 95% of the student body consisted of black Africans, the rest (with the exception of a couple of American girls) were French. School was taught in French, and I was utterly lost. Since I was in a grade higher than I should have been in American school, I couldn’t even do the math. Only our tutor saved me from academic disaster. While I failed at school every day for the first year, my homework was always perfect.
Yambo sat in the back row of class with the older boys who had been repeatedly failed. But when the teacher dropped her pencil, Yambo always rushed forward and picked it up before anyone else. He was even faster than the teacher’s pet Philippe, the goody-goody French boy who sat in the front row. All the kids had resented Philippe since the time the teacher’s ruler went missing, and she kept the entire class in from recess except for him.
One day, a burley African man dressed in a dark suit come to our class. The head teacher, an older French woman who never smiled, called Yambo to the front of the room. Strangely, he had none of his usual cockiness. He looked small and scared, then wild and frantic. The teacher explained that this was Yambo’s punishment for fighting and being disobedient. The grim man brandished an Indiana Jones style bullwhip as he led Yambo outside the classroom. We heard muted thwacks, and sharp cries of pain. Yambo hobbled back to his desk, where he wept quietly, his head slumped over his unfinished work. Everyone avoided looking at him. I felt righteous vengeance, then pity, and then fear; someone would pay for this humiliation. Yambo would never accept punishment. Silent tension filled the room of sixty odd kids, each of us wondering if we were next.
I’d been unfairly reprimanded for innocent scholastic and linguistic errors. The African teacher my sister and I called “The Nasty Teacher,” because she always wore skimpy dresses that showed her bra straps, had taken away my Petit Larrousse French-English dictionary, implying (erroneously) that I planned to use it to cheat. Another time, the entire class gapped in horror when I accidentally addressed the teacher as tu, the familiar form of “you” that I used all day long with my classmates. They didn’t understand that “you” was just “you” in English. Surely these offenses didn’t warrant a beating?
It was my nemesis, tough, mean Solange who was called forward. She was an African girl who wore ugly old dresses and loved nothing more than making me cry. During my African captivity Solange tormented and teased me daily, calling me la mouche tsé-tsé (“tsetse fly”) and grand cheval (“big horse”). No scholar herself, she delighted in my language struggles, my hopeless battle with spelling. Now she’d get what she deserved.
The severe French teacher brought out a cat of nine tails, a wooden stick with leather strips. It struck Solange’s calves with a sickening whack, whack, whack. Solange danced vainly back and forth, sobbing and trying to escape the blows. My anger melted into pity and then empathy. After five minutes Solange was sent back to her desk where she sobbed hysterically, red welts rising on her legs. The class sat united in shock, fear and revulsion. While it was true that we were unusually sober and attentive that afternoon, I doubt that anyone learned much math or history. The main lesson that day was on the cruelty of authority.
The next day my sister and I learned that the man who had whipped Yambo was his very own father.
Perhaps Yambo had what we now call “learning disabilities.” Maybe he was dyslexic or had ADD or was just the kind of kinesthetic person who was doomed to fail in a system that only valued academic achievement. Whatever his problems were, giving Yambo a public beating was like treating a bad case of poison oak with a blow torch.
A month later Yambo disappeared from school. My girlfriend Natalie, a quiet French girl, was also missing. When she finally returned, she had a thick scar on the back of her right calf, from her ankle to her knee, like the seam of old-fashioned nylon hose.
“Yambo cut me and another girl with a piece of broken glass,” she told me in a flat voice. The wound must have required fifty stitches.
“He is never coming back.”