My Sister and the Three Fat Pigs


IN THE past few years it has become more and more noticeable that anyone who has spent some time in an exotic place must have a literary career, and vice versa. Everyone who was brought up in India or China, or who lived in rural France, or traveled around in Indo-China or Mexico, is busily writing his reminiscences. I think it’s time for mine.

Until I was eight years old I never saw another white family except the Johnsons, who lived on the other side of the Na-go, which would have been called the Kampong, or Compound, in the Orient, and they seemed more like part of our own family. Technically, I suppose I had, because I was born in Ohio, and we didn’t move to French Equatorial Africa until I was nearly three, but I don’t remember anything about Ohio except the big leather rocker in the living room. (The admission about Ohio gives a nice touch of simple honesty, I think.)

My father was a chemist, and he was doing experiments with a plant called Nbu by the natives, Catalandis rubensa by the botanists, in the hope that under certain conditions it might turn out to have the properties of rubber - only, he hoped, better. (It might be better to make my father a missionary, but I don’t, know much about missionaries, and chemists are likely to do almost anything, aren’t they?) There was a small, crude laboratory built on to the back of the house, where he and my mother used to work all day, doing everything imaginable to that plant, and some things you couldn’t imagine.

The laboratory hardly deserved the name, since there was no running water, no gas, and only the crudest and most essential equipment. When my father needed anything he didn’t have, he had a choice of waiting anywhere from six to eight months for it or making it. himself. (I guess that ought to prove that the place was remote enough.) He usually chose the second, since neither he nor my mother had any special desire to stay in Equatorial Africa any longer than necessary. (I hope I’m attaining the proper unemotional attitude in this story. That’s the most important thing.)

Mr. Johnson was a botanist, and he was trying to cultivate Catalandis rubensa artificially, to provide my father with enough specimens for his work. He was also trying to learn enough about the plant so that if my father’s efforts were successful, they could take the plant back to America and cultivate it in quantity. (Catalandis rubensa — wouldn’t that be a lovely name for a plant? It sounds so erudite, too.)

The Johnsons had three children, slightly older than my sister and I, but their children were safety in school in Switzerland. My mother was trying to give us the equivalent of a grammar school education, but we all knew that soon the dreaded time would come when we too should have to be sent away. (This is the sort of dull explanatory paragraph used by all the experts in reminiscences of this kind.)

In the meantime, we had M’buna to take care of us. There was no word in the dialect of that region meaning nurse, but M’buna was a close approximation, meaning, precisely, foster-mother, and relating chiefly to animals, the word M’ai-buna meaning mother. (You simply have to sprinkle the story with bits of exotic languages. It’s too bad I don’t know one, because making it up is a lot of work.) M’buna had chosen the name for herself, and she laughed out loud each time she said it. I think she was slyly making fun of us poor white children, by implying that we were like little animals, helpless. At any rate, it was apparently a great joke. (You always have to give the natives emotions that you don’t quite understand — it shows their inscrutability.)

Our M’buna was not, strictly speaking, a nurse, and she did not care for us in the usual sense at all. My mother would not permit her to prepare our food or bathe us, because she feared that M’buna was not completely sanitary in her methods — a fear that was probably well founded. (The more I think about this, the gladder I am that I was really born and brought up in New York City, even though it did stunt my literary career.)

M’buna’s real name was M’n-aiba, which meant Tall One, and which must have been another joke, for she was not tall at all by our standards, but quite thoroughly on the dumpy side. We never used her real name except on very formal occasions, like the yearly bestowing of the salary.

M’buna received the magnificent salary of three pigs a year — on the hoof. Pig was a delicacy she had first tasted with us, when my father once brought a pig home from Nichubi, the nearest town, on his bimonthly trip for supplies and mail. We couldn’t very well pay M’buna in money, for she would have had no way of spending it. Previously, she had received her salary in calico, jewelry, and sugar, all rare and wonderful things. (I suppose some stickler for accuracy will discover that pigs, calico, jewelry, and sugar are the principal products of French Equatorial Africa, but I have to take some chances.)

It was curious that of all the new foods she tried with us, the canned and preserved meats, vegetables, and fruits that were shipped to us from America, pig was the only thing she really cared for. As for the canned milk that my mother ordered in huge quantitles, M’buna had asked a million times what it was, but when my mother explained, M’buna simply didn’t believe it. (Those natives are so unsophisticated.) She insisted that the milk must have some magic quality which we were keeping secret, or why would my mother make up such a patently untrue tale?

M’buna went home each year when she received her three pigs. We never knew exactly when she would go, or exactly when she would return. (You see? I told you they were inscrutable.) She would simply melt away (melting away is something that all natives of strange places have a great knack for) into the incredible darkness of the M’n-bu-go, or Land-of-the-Tall-Plants (and please notice the trouble I’ve gone to with this language) within several days after receiving her pigs, to walk, my father said, some forty miles to her native village in a clearing on the other side of the jungle. How she did it, with no shoes, no machete, and no supplies other than the three pigs, which presumably she would keep to share, roasted, with her people, we never found out. (I wonder if she’s a little too inscrutable?) But the pigs must have been fairly tough by the time she got them home. After about a week, she would simply be in the house one morning when we awoke.

M’buna had been hired originally to keep an eye on us children, while our mother and father were working, to make sure that we didn’t wander too far off and get lost, or eaten by wild animals. Later my mother learned that wild animals don’t approach human beings if they can help it, and that the jungle was so thick that without a machete or kabun you couldn’t travel three yards beyond the clearing. Bui by the time my mother found that out, M’buna was already a part of the family, and no more dispensable than we were. (There’s something funny about that jungle, come to think of it. M’buna always managed to get through it, and my father did get to Nichubi every two months, but when it came to us children - oh, well, jungles are supposed to be impenetrable, and I’m sure to think up an explanation if anyone forces the issue.)

The only thing that could possibly have been called a danger was a certain snake, the Bako-nu, but there the chief likelihood was that it would scare you to death. Though it was a horrible-looking creature, we knew that it would strike only if attacked, and we learned just to stand still until it slithered away. Its bite was supposed to be fatal, and we knew that the natives collected the poison for their own mysterious reasons, but we never knew of anyone who had actually been bitten. (The snake may seem a little unnecessary, but you can’t go wrong with some nice bits of local natural history.)

M’buna would, at certain irregular intervals, disappear for sometimes an entire day, sometimes for several hours, but on these occasions we never found out what she did. My father jotted down the dates on a calendar, hoping to discover some sort of regularity to the disappearances, but he couldn’t figure it out. After these short absences, M’buna was quiet for the rest of the day, and didn’t even giggle when we called her M’buna or drank our milk.

The last year that we were there, my father decided to buy the pigs for M’buna’s salary when they were young, and keep them in the clearing to fatten up. He built a wooden enclosure, and brought the little pigs home from Nichubi in the back of the old truck. The pigs were squealing and kicking, and my sister was enchanted. I thought they just smelled bad, but all my sister could see was the little curly tails, and she loved them madly. She was only five and a half then, and almost as chubby and squealing as the piglets.

After that, my sister refused to do anything all day but play with the pigs, a diversion that did not dismay M’buna at all, but that disgusted me. The family was satisfied though, because it kept her busy and happy and out of trouble, and the pigs were taken care of almost to within an inch of their lives. (This is just to show how normal we were, even in the midst of all that jungle. American or English families are always normal, no matter where they are.)

By the end of the year the pigs had grown marvelously, and were fatter and healthier than any pigs we had given M’buna yet. My father was pleased at the success of his plan, for, he said, the pigs had plenty of fat for the long walk home.

My sister had grown desperately attached to the pigs, though they were no longer, even by the wildest imagination, the least bit cute or little. She had assigned singularly inappropriate names to them, and cried pitifully when my mother warned her that they would have to go. She couldn’t bear to think of their being taken away from her to be killed and eaten, and my mother could hardly drag her away from the sty at mealtimes. She had never had a pet before, and knew about puppies and kittens only from a few picture books that had come from America.

When my sister finally realized that she would have to give them up, she decided that she would let them go, but never, never to be eaten. So one night she crept out of bed and opened the gate of the enclosure. The next day the pigs were gone all right, but no doubt they were eventually eaten anyway, even if not by a native tribe. (You have to be very careful not to let any emotion creep into this sort of story.)

Father was in despair. The pigs hadn’t cost a great deal, but they were a great trouble to bring home, and he didn’t want to lose the time it would take to make the extra trip. That night at dinner he asked M’buna if she could wait another month for her pigs, since that would be the time for his regular trip. M’buna said she could not. My father and mother looked at each other, and my sister Pat hung her head. M’buna saw that she was creating a great difficulty in the family. Finally she said that she was willing to come to a compromise. Everybody smiled and breathed easier.

“That’s fine,” my father said. “You mean you’ll wait two weeks, then, for the pigs ?”

No, M’buna said. But having thought the situation over, she had generously decided that she would be willing to take my little sister Pat instead of the three pigs. (Actually, this is a little more of a surprise ending than is generally permissible in these stories, but perhaps no one will notice.)

Pat and I were sent away to school in France the very next month. (Wind up with just the right note of understatement.)

I feel sure I could have had a perfectly fascinating childhood riding around in droshkies with a Chekhovian Russian governess, or brooding about in a mosque in my bare feet in Mecca. I might even have worked out something pretty good about a succession of Marias somewhere in Mexico. But the main thing in these stories is to stake out a new territory, and who was ever brought up in Nichubi?