GEORGE came with the bungalow, which wasn't that at all. It was a two-story house that belonged to the company. That was the way it was in a lot of those west African countries. Compounds that once belonged to British or French or Greek or Lebanese executives operating in-country companies had long ago been turned over to country nationals as part of the whole organizational transfer. No one cared much how it had happened. It didn't matter whether the changeover had come from tax-delinquency expropriation, from simple abandonment, or from outright purchase. Now the main buildings of the downtown companies carried new proud indigenous names.
We were assigned one of these bungalows for living quarters; I had temporary status as a business consultant to one of these all-African companies. That was how we got George.
He came, he told us, from a small town near the (then) Upper Volta border. His real name may have been Kwaku or Kwesi or Kwame - like many of the men from the North. The name George perhaps was his own adoption, borrowed from one of the English families he had worked for as housekeeper, cook, food buyer, handy man, launderer, or table server. But we never asked. He was always George to us.
We never asked how old he was either. We guessed maybe 25 with a young, pretty but very solemn wife and an animated year-old baby boy.
George was always effectively busy at our place with his chores or hobbies. One day he brought us two wild canaries in tiny separate cages. He showed us how they would sing and sing if only the two cages were hung out of sight of each other. He often asked us not to chase off the red-striped dragon-looking lizards from the front porch because they kept down the insects. It was his daily job to patiently herd them away.
Some days he would spend idle hours concocting what we imagined were tribal food delicacies - all for us. He baked breads you could dream about. And his variations on the large very-sweet local pineapples would have delighted any gourmet chef. One thing was hard for us to understand: How he could produce what he did in the cramped kitchen space and with minimal cooking equipment was his secret. There was a tiny sink, one faucet, an old fridge, and a one-burner butane stove hooked above a square tin-door oven.
But it wasn't only his personal specialties that were good. It was everything - appetizers, entrees, salads, desserts. And he was curious about all foods, too. He was always asking about American dishes: how to make them, how to serve them. Once, when we had told him about using chocolate sauce, he served it for us - much against his will, we suspected. It came to the table along with broiled chicken (we thought he understood it was only used by us on desserts). And he waited with some disapproval to see if we really were going to spoil his chicken with that.
George must have had his own systematized schedule worked out. The household things that needed doing were always done well, completely and on time. Water for drinking and cooking was always boiled daily and filled up the motley-sized bottles stored in the refrigerator. Fresh vegetables from the market (which he brought every day) were scrupulously doused with cleansing chemicals before being stored. The ``big'' laundry he did every Thursday morning (on the dot) in the clawfoot bathtub upstairs; it was spread out to dry in the tropical sun on the shoulder-high hedge that ringed the back yard.
But no matter what, George always had time for one more thing. In football (soccer) season we'd hear him telephoning every day about ``his'' team. He spoke in Twi - but we knew (because he always told us afterward) how hot things were in the local league.
One day George heard us talking after a countryside drive about the roadside vendors we saw. A good deal of the country's lush produce was hawked by growers holding up chickens, pineapples, melons, papayas, and the like along backcountry roads. These vendors sold gorgeous fresh fish, too, right out of the Gulf, and many other edibles. What we were talking about - what we told George we didn't recognize - was the vendor offering in hand what looked like a large, gray, foot-long muskrat, tail and all.
George thought that was very funny. It was very good eating, he told us. It was called a grasscutter and it lived all around the countryside in the wet bush. You roasted it with rice, he said, and it tasted like young, well-cooked lamb.
Almost at the same time, George discovered that there was a birthday coming up for one of us. Nothing would do, George insisted, but to have grasscutter as the pi`ece de r'esistance. We weren't sure.
One of the books we had brought with us told about local foods and cooking customs. Looking up grasscutters, we found George was right - it was a real regional delicacy. We were still sort of against it. Much better, we thought, would have been to have an entree like a whole baked fresh fish with the head still on or skewer-broiled chicken breasts done on the outside wood fire.
We didn't say any of this. We were gallant. Afterward we praised George's efforts, told him how much we appreciated everything he did to make the occasion festive (cake and candles). We really did, too. Only we can say now, during the rest of our stay we never encouraged him to prepare grasscutter again.