There were many afternoons we spent in the wooded area near our school. As we passed through the brush that separated it from the dirt road, we would drop our backpacks and be delivered into a world that we knew only in films. It was where dead branches and discarded pieces of wood became our weapons of choice, and where we all became Rambo.
Rambo, that legendary one-man army who with a single serrated knife took out entire legions, defined much our pass time in primary school. Children would huddle together in front of television sets in living rooms across the nation to watch Rambo take out an entire police force in First Blood, then the Vietcongs and Russians in First Blood Part II, and then the Soviets in Rambo III. Of course, none of us had any contextual understanding of the Cold War, and the not-so-subtle image of America that the film portrayed. Nor did we really care. The important thing was that Rambo was kicking ass everywhere he went, no matter the obstacles he faced.
We all wanted to be like him. He was the epitome of manhood for every 10 year-old boy who had been blessed by watching his films. The poster of Rambo holding his rocket launcher and M60 with a satchel of bullets wrapped around his neck appeared along street corners, on bar-room walls, convenience stores, and market stalls across town, and his stoic face was forever plastered indiscriminately onto our subconscious. In fact, countless barbershops and street-side vendors throughout the country adopted the name Rambo. Even taxi drivers began to don the name in bright flashy colors on the doors and hoods of their yellow Corollas and Camry’s. The trilogy really took the country, and the world by storm, and families and neighbors shamelessly watched it over and over again.
My parents had avoided owning a television set for the better part of my childhood, and much to their consternation, I ended up watching all the Rambo movies at my friends’ homes. They were probably worried when they saw their child running out of the house with a ripped piece of cloth tied around his head, a vague semblance of Rambo’s own black headband.
As we banded together in the woods, we used all the tactics and knowledge we had learned from Rambo to wreak havoc on each other. Armed to the teeth, we split ourselves into opposing factions, and moved with stealth from tree to tree hoping the enemy wouldn’t spot us. Our hearts pounded like drums as dead leaves and branches crackled with each step we took. In the end, we were all invincible as we dodged each other’s bullets and grenade launchers, diving for cover behind bushes and old discarded wheelbarrows.
Not too far from where we gathered each afternoon was a brook that cut through the woods. In the rainy season when the land became green and fertile again, the brook would also come back to life, and with it would come the promise of darker forces.
We didn’t know much about what was beyond that brook, but there was a widely circulated story of an old spirit lady who wandered the rivers and waterways, abducting children whenever they came too close to the water’s edge. She had long straight hair like straw and a serpent wrapped around her neck. She carried combs and mirrors, and would often be seen grooming herself by the water. She was known as Mami Wata.
For years we heard stories about Mami Wata, and the children she had abducted or simply killed, but her wrath was not just limited to us children. There were adults whose mysterious deaths were also attributed to her. Every once in a while someone would see her, and word would spread quickly to the rest of the class. Before long, we were all talking about what happened as though we had been there ourselves.
Just the mention of Mami Wata would strike fear into our hearts and send us running for our dear lives.
In the woods, I avoided the creek as best as I could, and I assume most of my friends did too. Rambo or no Rambo, you did not want to tempt the spirit world by getting too close to the water. We all knew that when it came down to it, Rambo’s superhuman tactics would be no match against Mami Wata’s supernatural powers. After all, Mami Wata was from another world, a world where physical rules did not apply.
One day as I was dodging one of the enemy’s grenade launchers, I got too close to the edge of the creek and fell onto the embankment on account of some wet leaves. The earth was a muddy red paste and before I was able to get back up, someone shouted, “Mami Wata!”. Those words rang through the trees, and paralysis took over me. I knew then that my life as I knew it was over. There followed a scampering and shuffling of feet as everyone retreated and started running back towards the main road. It was then that out of the corner of my eye I saw a girl many years older than I was standing half naked by the embankment. Wrapped around her waist was a sarong made of straw.
As the weight of my paralysis lifted, I was able to move again. I don’t think I ever ran faster than I did that day. It felt as though all the forces of the universe were pushing me forward. I had all the energy of Rambo channeling through me as I ran down the hill that afternoon. As I passed my teacher’s house I knew that even he wouldn’t be able to stop me.
If it was our fascination with Rambo that brought us to those woods, it was our inherited fear of Mami Wata that drove us out of it. Many years later, I think back to that girl by the creek, and the little white boy she saw staring back at her, if only for a few seconds. I imagine how relieved she must have felt that Mami Wata saved her from further embarrassment.