Life has some cinematic moments, captured and held only in the imagination. And in the mind, regardless of years, those moments remain both vivid and visceral, unchanged and unfaded.
Most of those moments, for me, have to do with my wife or son, or both. Sometimes my parents, or my brother or a close friend. But the one that came to mind earlier this week concerns someone I haven’t seen for 18 years, since the day I left Togo for what was – so far – forever and, above all, the manner in which I last saw him.While I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, one of my best friends and most frequent collaborators was a young man named Komi Amegnran. He was about my age, and the town where I lived was named after his family. One of his uncles was the area chief, another a former governor. But he was humble and hard-working, and helped me learn about the place I called home for two years.
Together, Komi and I planted thousands of trees in sludgy swamps and sandy wastes. We met and helped dozens of struggling farmers find ways to heal their land and grow better crops. But, most of all, we discussed the mysteries of the universe and the intricacies of life.
Those discussions came to an unexpected end one day in April 1996, when I found out my grandmother had suddenly passed away. What I had foreseen as a weeks-long winding down of my Peace Corps service quickly became a day-long farewell to my town and everyone I knew there.
At many moments over the course of that last day, Komi kept telling me this: “When you leave, I will ride as fast as I can after you. I will follow you all the way back the the U.S. if I can keep up.” I smiled, and he laughed as he nodded his head.When a bright red and battered Peugeot 504 showed up outside my simple house to carry me to Lomé – the capital – on that Togolese Independence Day, Komi wasn’t there. I said good-bye to my host family as they helped me load my bags into the car, then climbed into the passenger seat and waved as we pulled onto the road.
We drove through the town, past the school, past the tailor and past the bar – and then, just as we were about to pass the chief’s house, I saw Komi.
He was riding as fast as he could – just as he said – on a fixed-gear bicycle, nearly keeping pace with the car, laughing all along the way. As we left the town limits, he continued close behind through a landscape of thatched huts and oil palms. By the time we neared the next village – an iron-working hamlet called Klologo – he started falling farther behind, but kept going.
As we were about to crest a hill and coast down toward the Gulf of Guinea, I saw him wave one last time, with his whole arm, as he struggled to climb. I waved back, then turned around to face the windshield when I knew he was really gone.
I’ve imagined and dreamt that road often ever since that day, me headed back northward over that hill toward Amegnran, not knowing what I’ll find. After all, 18 years is a long time. But I know I’ll go back sometime, with my wife and son, to see the town again. And I hope, somewhere along that road, to see my friend.