We’re in Lokossa, waiting for our medical file, dated 1 – 3 february 2012. Together with Grégoire - brother, friend and guide - we arrived here this morning at about eleven. We had been with the commissaire in Dogbo, expecting to accompany him to the procureur in order to deliver the dossier on the case against Calixte, the man who drugged and robbed us now a year and five months ago. But commissaire David’s office had been full of agitated women. One after the other had been acknowledging or denying involvement with the man huddled on the chair before the police chief. This is quite normal here, in Benin: to arrive for an appointment and to discover the person with whom we have made it quite occupied with other things. No rules concerning privacy, either: we were waved to a chair beside the commissaire and allowed to share in the joys of police investigation. After about 20 minutes of this, we suggested to the police chief that perhaps it would we better if we returned later, since there was the matter of our medical file to take care of as well. Permission granted, we left for Lokossa. Gregoire had called ahead. Gregoire knows an incredible variety of people, in this case the chief receiver at the hospital, who had promised to introduce us to the majeur in charge of emergency admissions.
But perhaps I should take a step back and tell you what has been going on. Last Friday, Grégoire had arrived with news: KPOGLOZOUN Calixte had once again been arrested, and was in the prison civile at Lokossa. Calixte is the man we had known as Ben Ali. After the incident last year he fled. Several months later, however, he had been implicated in another crime, the theft of a laptop, and had been condemned to a year in the prison at Ouidah. There we were taken to identify him, as the evidence against him was being compiled. Going back in October, however, to complete the dossier, commissaire David and we were shocked to discover his early release from the prison. A presidential pardon for petty criminals throughout Benin had by mistake been applied also to Calixte. Since that unfortunate error, the manhunt was on, but we had long given up hope of its successfully being concluded.
Until last Friday: Grégoire, with several acquaintances and police informants, had continued to search out Calixte’s whereabouts and had worked to achieve his capture. A breakthrough came when a one-time friend - it’s probably best to keep him nameless - had also become victim of Calixte’s. In search of vengeance, this man had agreed to become part of the effort. And last Thursday, Calixte had been taken.
Yesterday, we went to the prison for the second confrontation. That took some doing, as we by now have come to expect. First of all, just as before, we were expected to provide transportation for the police chief and those who would accompany us. But not before an interminable wait in his office, while he dealt with assorted other matters. We loaded the HiLux with ourselves (front seats) and the police chief, his second-in-command, a constable, and Grégoire. Four big men on the back seat was a tight squeeze. But halfway to Lokossa we stopped to pick up yet another passenger: the one-time friend who was coming along as well. This man was even bigger than the commissaire. No problem, said the commissaire, he would sit in front with Marijke on his lap. I think not, said Marijke. Grégoire’s lap, maybe… In the end, Marijke and I shared the passenger seat and Grégoire took the wheel. He is chauffeur, after all. And I ‘d rather be uncomfortable with Marijke than subject her to any of the alternatives.
Arriving at Lokossa, we didn’t go the prison directly. Instead, we drove through any number of back streets in search of a barber. Commissaire David had decided he needed a shave. Half an hour later we finally drove up to prison gates. Gathered under the trees were thirty or so visitors, each with a number indicating the order in which they could visit with their particular son or husband or father. Plan was for the one-time friend to join them, wait for his turn, go in to visit Calixte in order to ‘make up’, and then for the commissaire to coincidentally interrupt the conversation. The point was to have the friend identify Calixte as the person the police had been looking for without giving his own collaboration away. (No, don’t ask me about the exact relevance or logic of this identification.) Only: even in African time, it seemed problematic to have to await his turn with thirty or so ahead of us. So the commissaire decided to call the chief of the prison. Indeed, it might have been handy to have done so ahead of time, but time management is not one of the subjects taught at the police academy, it seems.
The prison chief was helpful. He said: why don’t you try this: take your informant in as your prisoner, and pretend you are compelling him to respond. Surprise all round. What a good idea! said the commissioner. So we drove out of the parking lot to allow the chief to get things set up. Hold it, said the commissaire, for this to work, we need to cuff our friend. And we don’t have handcuffs with us. We parked the HiLux along the road leading to the prison and waited for a constable from Lokossa station to arrive with cuffs.
Twenty minutes later, there we were again. Suitably cowed, the one-time friend turned actor allowed himself to be pushed into the prison chief’s office by the burly constable, with the rest of us in their wake. And there sat Calixte, eyes wide with surprise. Do you know this man? the interrogation began. Y-y-yes, came the answer. What is his name? Silence. The constable faked a cuff to our friend’s head. Calixte! His name is KPOGLOZOUN Calixte! And so it went. Things Calixte had told him. Also about what had happened that fateful day in February. Calixte listened. His initial confidence faded – for he had bugn by denying everything. He had never seen us before in his life. He had no idea who we were. No, he did not recognize the house on the photo. Yes, this other man was his friend, but no, there had never been a problem between them. But as the interrogation progressed, he shrank and shrank. There was no admission of his crime against us, but in the end there was no denying that yes, this was his house, and yes, he was the Calixte at Agame who had been identified by the chef du quartier, etc. etc.
What did we feel, as we saw this steady deconstruction of a hardened criminal? No fear. No discomfort. Not like the first time. He avoided looking at us. There was nothing left of bravado, of defiance, of cunning. What we saw was the pitiful remnant of a man we had once known. What a waste of a life. And what a shame that his children had this for a father. We left the prison not feeling very much of anything at all. Not even satisfaction that justice would be having its way.
We went to a buvette with the commissaire and his men to have lunch. By now it was around one-thirty. We paid for the rice, goat, sauce, and beer. No questions now, said the commissaire. Not until after we have eaten. Sharing a meal in Africa is not a companiable thing. It’s only about eating. And after lunch we went back to Dogbo. No one had much energy for talking.Back in Dogbo we discussed what would be happening next. Bring me all your medical receipts, said the commissaire. Of course we had none. But I told you last year that you should keep them all. Not that we can remember, Marijke and I both agree. Whatever. Everyone, including the commissaire himself, was there in the hospital while we were in coma. No doubt about the condition we were in, is there? But there was no relenting. You’ll need to go to the hospital in Lokossa and obtain your medical file. Proof of the seriousness of the state you were in. And after that the files from the Mahouna Clinic in Cotonou.
So that’s what we were doing this morning and afternoon at the hospital. Through the chief receiver, acquaintance of Grégoire, to the majeur. From the majeur to the central registry. From the central registry to a doctor. From the doctor… That’s the short version. Hours of waiting. Hours of the smell of liver and chloroxylenol. Hours of reflecting: this was where we had been. Unconscious from our admission in the early evening of February 1st until our discharge on the afternoon of the 3rd, when Richard overruled the doctors and had us transferred to Cotonou.
Marijke has absolutely no memories of our stay in Lokossa. I remember three things, vaguely. The rude shock of a urinary catheter being pulled out and the tiny flow of clotted blood which followed. Getting pushed back down on my bed by I think it was Mariette when I wanted to get up to go to Marijke in her bed on the other side of the room. And a night excursion which I made through the courtyard. I remember that, but in a strange dreamlike way. You know the kind of dream where you are half aware of being in strange surroundings, with no sense of where you were coming from or where you are going, why you are there, how this event connects to the rest of your life or who the people are whom you might be there with. I stood there this afternoon as we were waiting for the doctor and I remembered walking past the arched veranda around the courtyard in the middle of the night. All was dark, all was silent. I don’t remember getting back to our room, although I obviously did. Mariette, who had been spending the night with us on the ward, had been sleeping and woke up with me gone. She had called the nurse, and they were about to organise a search party when I showed up, blissfully unaware of their fear. Being there in the hospital today and allowing the memory to wash over me, I realized: it really happened to us. We were here. We could have been dead, but thanks to God and thanks to some awesome people, here we are today.
Later this afternoon, Marijke and I both had another moment like that. We were back with the commissaire for the fourth time in two days. He had discovered that the dossier did contain a statement by me, but not by Marijke. So now it was her turn. That went well, actually, with no discomfort for either of us. Except that I did realize for the first time that Marijke’s memory of the incident ends so much earlier than mine.
But after that, the commissaire decided to read my statement, from last February, back to us. Hearing someone else read what I had recounted then was unexpectedly confronting. All the events unfolding, one after the other. My meeting Calixte for the first time. The way in which he gained our confidence by showing interest in the Bible. The invitation to his little boy’s birthday on the afternoon of February 1st. Him giving us degue to drink, the yoghurt-like drink which had been laced with whatever it was that almost killed us. Marijke losing consciousness and me thinking only that that was curious. Me driving back to Dogbo and arriving there in one piece despite my own increasing intoxication. Our carrying Marijke into the house together, and then the falling curtain of darkness for myself. For a moment this afternoon I thought, and I said that to Marijke: he wasn’t a very clever thief, was he? Doing this to us in his own house, which we would be sure to be able to identify.
Until suddenly I realized: but it wasn’t his intention that we should ever get back home to Dogbo. It was only because I wasn’t as affected as Marijke and insisted on driving home, that that is where we ended up. And that we were found by Joseph. And taken to the hospital. And that we woke up when we did. Sitting there this afternoon, and now again, as I write these words, I realize how real it was what happened to us then. And that we’re not finished working through these things yet. We’re past the fear, really and truly. But the impact is still there. And it has affected us and it will continue to affect the things we say and do and feel for probably as long as we are here in Benin. We’re committed to being here and we’re convinced of what we’re doing, for the benefit of God’s people in the ERCB. But when the time comes to leave for good at the end of November, that will God’s time for us as well as for the churches here, and God’s time will be the right time.
And as for Calixte? His time in prison will be long, everyone expects. We sincerely hope that God will give him enough time to come to a change of heart, to learn to live for Christ and to look forward to a better life. We know you are praying for us. Could you spare a prayer for him as well?