Fitchuk comes in two varieties. The first, they call The Drink of the Gods. You can smell it everywhere in Cameroon, like a smooth honey perfume wafting along on the warm air. It’s a mild drink, more alcoholic than beer but softer against the body and mind. Sharing a bottle or a bowl or a gourd full, you get the impression that maybe you might be able to sip this drink eternally, rising to immortality like a Greek tasting ambrosia. And you must always share fitchuk: the more, the merrier, no matter how short the supply. This is the drink that binds us; this is who we are. Long day on the tobacco plantation and you need a pick-me-up? Here, drink this fitchuk with me, my friend. High blood pressure? Fitchuk will fix that for you. Low sperm count? Put some power in your pump with another cup of fitchuk.
The second variety seems to be battery acid and is invariably served in a plastic bucket by a sideways man with crazy eyes. It’s unacceptable to refuse a drink, though paradoxically, it’s never okay for a woman to appear drunk. The red-eyed demon offers you the ladle and you take it from him. The drink will go down like poison, burning off the lining of your esophagus, searing through flesh and bone and skin until you’re standing on your head debating best practices for growing cacao trees with the moon. And the moon is winning.
That’s why I stayed far away from the bucket man and his danger drink. He lingered on the shadow edge of the market, always in view but lacking substance; a bad omen. I would keep my hands busy with bottles of warm lager and I would keep my eyes away. As painful as not observing was, the morning after, upchucking fitchuk, would have been far worse.
Ando and I had walked to a nearby village in search of a satellite dish and a few cool drinks. Well into his second year of service, Ando was a local by now and I walked safely next to him.
Tonight, tensions were high. Cameroon was playing Denmark and everyone within ten kilometers had gathered to witness. Tickets cost fifty cents, a steep price out here, and those that didn’t have the money pressed against the thatched walls to peek in through the cracks. Ando stepped over to a booth left of the bar to pay our entry fee and procure us a few beers.
I didn’t even see him coming, this terrifyingly drunk man who charged over at me and closed my tiny wrist in one of his massive, palm tree-crushing hands. He roared at me in French with a terrible urgency.
“I don’t speak French,” I lied. I do speak French but I’ve learned that I can’t understand their accent and they can’t understand mine. I pulled at my hand, hoping to slip away but he had me like a vice. Ando was gone.
The enormous man squeezed my arm, shook his head and repeated himself louder and faster than before.
“I’m sorry. I don’t speak French. I’m an American. Je ne parles pas le francais.” I used my thickest accent: nasaling the sweet French vowels into ugly American ones and pronouncing the final consonants as if I didn’t know any better.
But he dismissed my protestation as irrelevant and shouted at me again.
I shook my head and tried my best to shrug innocently.
Once more he bellowed, this time in English. “You know what the problem with the French is?” he spat at me, “It’s that they think they can come over here and take our land and our women and our drink and give us nothing. Nothing!”
He was angry, not at me, but I was standing closest, so I’d do.
“Yeah,” I agreed, “That’s not fair. They shouldn’t do that.”
“You’re French,” he informed me, coughing up the word like a lung worm.
“No, I’m American.”
“You come here with a cat and you call it a rabbit.”
Were we insult sword fighting he would have gotten me there. I had no retort.
He pulled me closer, examining me suspiciously through squinting eyes. I could smell the distilled drink on his breath. “You tell them when you go back. Tell them, ‘Go home!’ Tell them, ‘Stay away!’ Tell them from me.” Then he grunted, like a bear when it decides not to chase and maul you after all, and lumbered off.
Without any blood left in it, my hand glowed white in the moonlight.
The woman collecting tickets informed me that my friend had already paid for me and that he had gone inside. I bought a bag of peanuts from her.
In the darkness of the bar, I found Ando in the corner, balancing on a slim wooden plank suspended a good four feet off the ground. This place had stadium seating.
“Looks like you made a new friend.”