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LA MAISON DES JEUNES
Early in the afternoon of July 8, one week after my sixty-sixth birthday and a few hours out of Paris, Lynn Griffith called to me from her window seat across the aisle, "Hey, Don, we must be over Mali! I see the Sahara down there!"
A serious young woman from Wyoming, tall and fairly large-boned with perhaps a few drops of Native American blood, Lynn was one of my early favorites in our contingent of Peace Corps volunteers, perhaps because, at twenty-six, she was one of the oldest. After college, Lynn had tried a few inconsequential jobs and, when she found them leading her nowhere she especially wanted to go, joined the Peace Corps; she had a wonderful sense of starting over.
I leaned over and craned for my first look at the country where I, too, was to spend the next twenty-four months, but there was nothing to see. Nothing, that is, but a great ocean of beige stretching from horizon to horizon, textureless and vacant. Half of Mali, from its northwestern borders with Mauritania and Algeria eastward to the ancient cities of Timbuktoo and Gao, is like this, peopled only by passing caravans and a few thousand nomadic families. Together, we stared fascinated for hours and saw never a hint of shadow.
I tried to visualize the kinds of lives that might go on in that featureless desert, but all I could bring to mind were childhood pictures of conquest and adventure—Lawrence of Arabia, Chinese Gordon, Ronald Colman with the French Foreign Legion in the film BeauGeste—all the great jingoistic books and movies. I thought of my destination in the Dark Continent—the "heart of darkness" below the desert. What did I know of Africa and Africans besides a few exciting stories of jungles and lions—hapless Frances MacComber with a bullet in his skull—outnumbered British mercenaries falling before the black dervishes at Khartoum—wild Stanley gunning his way down the Congo in search of fame and Livingston?
I knew, of course, that I wouldn't find lions in Mali, nor mobs of whirling dervishes either. I was going to be living and working in a country where the natural graces of rain and fertile soil are so scarce that even the feeble help I and my fellow American volunteers could offer would make us absurdly welcome. Still, my bookish childhood kept haunting me, shaming me with its distorted perceptions.
The seat-belt light came on and I felt the plane descend toward Mali's capital city of Bamako. I glimpsed a blur of gray-green, then a sleek, professional-looking control tower and, as we taxied, a conventionally shiny airport building with a glass-walled restaurant on its second floor. Like Topeka, Kansas, I thought. Like anywhere.
Once we alighted, I knew I was wrong. Nothing about this place was shiny. Everything—everything—was the reddish color of clay—the grass, the occasional trees, even the restaurant windows. The parking lot was almost deserted. On a field large enough to handle the biggest jets, ours was the only visible plane.
A score of large black men in flowing robes of many colors—apparently government officials or visiting dignitaries-preceded us importantly off the plane, and then we fifty-odd volunteers, each eager to place both feet on African soil, swarmed onto the tarmac. John Zarafanides, the local Peace Corps director, and some members of his staff were on hand to greet us. So was the U.S. ambassador, a soft-spoken, sprawly sort of man with unpressed trousers, unshined shoes, and a face that reminded me of Howdy Doody. He spoke for about two minutes in a light Minnesota accent, and I felt he was the right man for such a place. The temperature must have been a hundred and one.
If anything, it was hotter and dirtier inside the terminal. The glass-walled restaurant that had looked so tempting from a distance was empty and apparently closed. There was no newsstand, no gift shop, not even a Coke machine, just a score of officials in olive drab uniforms listlessly directing traffic, and a couple of old men with carvings to sell.
Evidently the Peace Corps had made some sort of arrangement with the military government, for we volunteers were waved through customs uninspected and were out of the building in less than half an hour. Once in the street we stowed ourselves and our luggage in three or four bashées (middle-sized pickup trucks with side benches and canvas tops like the weapons carriers I rode in the army forty years before) and headed for the center of Bamako.
Now for the first time, Bamako began to hint at the exotic side I'd heard and read about—small villages of thatch-roofed mud houses, humpbacked cattle, miniature donkeys as comical as Giapetto's pulling loads that towered twice their height above them, women in brilliantly colored ankle-length robes, bearing on their heads platters of bananas and baskets of vegetables, green oranges, and what appeared to be laundry.
As we approached the city we found ourselves part of a procession of vehicles—battered Peugeots and Citroens, shiny black Mercedes, twenty-five-year-old Volkswagens, and scores of vans, trucks, and overloaded taxis competing doggedly for space with what must have been hundreds of bicycles, motor-cycles, and motor scooters.
At last, after ten or a dozen miles of this traffic, we came to the famous Niger river, pronounced by everyone here in the French fashion, "ni-ZHAIRE." The Niger is one of the great rivers of the world, traversing almost the entire width of West Africa and nourishing the dry land in the same way the Nile nourishes Egypt. For most of its course, the Niger flows so slowly that one of the great puzzles to nineteenth-century explorers was, Which way does the river flow, westward toward the Atlantic or southeastward to the Gulf of Guinea? For some reason, they failed to learn this from the fishermen along the river, and the direction of the Niger's flow remained an enigma until a Belgian named Speakes worked his way to the vicinity of Bamako, where the current is a bit swifter, and saw that the flow was to the southeast. In the process, he caught malaria and died; he is buried not far from Bamako, in Koulikoro.
However impressive the Niger may appear in atlases, it looked pretty ordinary here, and the low bridge across it was no more spectacular, though perhaps longer, than the Post Road bridge across the Saugatuck River in Westport, Connecticut. As soon as we crossed, our driver turned and pulled up at a big, three-story masonry building surrounded by enormous kapok trees standing tall on their roots like a squadron of Tolkien's Ents preparing to charge.
La Maison des Jeunes, or Youth House, the place was called, and it was here the Peace Corps had arranged for us to spend our first week in Africa. Built by the French during the colonial regime, La Maison was once probably modern and solid, but was now falling apart because of lack of maintenance. Windows were broken, doors didn't latch, toilets had no seats, shower drains were clogged, and the whole effect was of appalling decadence and decay. Worst of all, the Peace Corps had packed us in like herrings in a barrel: My room contained ten cots placed six to eight inches apart so I had to creep sidewise into bed. The shower room was coed. Defecation was performed standing up or squatting. No place for the squeamish.
Once our duffels were unloaded and partly unpacked, we gathered in the yard to listen to Rebecca, our pretty Peace Corps Medical Officer, give us a quick review of elementary health precautions: Don't drink untreated water (bacteria and parasites); don't eat ice cream sold on the street (tuberculosis); take chloroquin tablets religiously (malaria); and use condoms (available free and in a choice of colors) during intercourse. It was about five o'clock, and above her voice I could hear the hoarse cries of what sounded like a flock of starlings in a roost. I looked up, and there, wheeling among the branches above us and thick as insects around a lamp, were hundreds of giant bats; their wings seemed a foot and a half across. These were fruit bats, I learned, and they don't zig and zag like the bats I knew back home, for they don't eat insects at all, just dates, mangoes, and other fruits. I made a tape of their sounds.
Out of consideration for bodies six hours out of step with African clocks, we were allowed to sleep late our first morning in Bamako, and when I awoke it must have been nearly nine o'clock. I wrapped myself in a towel and waddled along the balcony to the coed shower, then dressed and went outside to listen to the chatter of the bats. They fly about constantly except during the hottest part of the day, between noon and three o'clock, when they fold themselves into their wings and hang head downward from the branches.
But it was soon clear that we weren't brought to Africa to muse on bats or other bits of local color. Breakfast was a fast hustle of French bread and Malian-style coffee—a quarter teaspoon of Nescafe and three soupspoons of sweetened condensed milk in a tin cup of hot water, like a hot malted milk with too much syrup in it—and by nine forty-five we were out under the date palms for our first training session. Life, we were told, will get tougher: classes from eight to noon; a three-hour break for lunch and siesta; classes again until six in the evening; training sessions most evenings as well.
This first morning was Orientation, and it began with the introduction of our "professors," the young men and women who were to spend the summer preparing us for whatever it was we were expected to do. All of them were Malians, except for Monica Kerrigan, the snub-nosed Irish-American consultant who'd been brought over from the U.S. to coordinate our training, and a stupendous young redhead named Becky who had just finished her own stint as a Peace Corps volunteer and was helping out with the logistics; when not rushing about getting things done, Becky kept busy cleaning pus from an ulcerated sore on her left calf.
The Malians were a surprise to me. I don't know what I had imagined they would be like, if I imagined anything, but they certainly didn't remind me of black Americans. First of all, they were, with just a couple of exceptions, really black-black the way a freshly polished iron stove is black. Yet the faces of most of them were not what white Americans like myself have been taught to call "negroid." They seemed to be, and in fact they were, of many ethnic types, and despite their color the features of some of them could scarcely be told from those of a European.
Their manner, likewise, didn't fit my romantic stereotypes, and I could see that whatever might have remained of the old tribal ways had been well veneered by four generations of French colonial occupation and a further twenty years as an "independent" satellite of the great powers; nothing of the primitive was apparent in their behavior. During the school year, most of these instructors were full-time lycée teachers or graduate students of education at ENSup (the school where I was scheduled to start teaching in just three months), and because of this, and perhaps especially because Mali was their country, their own turf, they were completely at ease in their professorial roles.
The instructor in charge of this first morning's session was a light-skinned, loose-jointed Malian whom everyone called "Sam" because his last name was Samakè (SAM-a-kay). Of all our trainers, Sam was the only one I might have mistaken for an American; his cowboy slouch and easy, expansive gestures had nothing of the Hollywood African about them. Sam was in charge of what is called "cross-cultural" training, and apparently his first responsibility was to see that we learned enough of the history, traditions, and customs of Mali to keep from insulting people by accident.
There would be no forks and spoons in the bush, so we were taught to eat our rice as the Malians do, with our fingers from a common bowl. There is an etiquette for this. The family gathers on low stools around the food, the men and boys in one ring, the women and younger children in another. The chief of the family washes his hands in a bowl of water and then passes the water around the circle so that everyone in turn can wash; he also gives the sign to begin. The meal is eaten ravenously and in silence. Each person must eat only from that part of the bowl that is in front of him, and only with the right hand. This last is especially important, as the left hand is reserved for cleaning oneself with water after defecating; toilet paper is not considered effective and, in any case, is almost never available. There are other taboos against the use of the left hand, such as shaking hands and offering gifts or money.
At lunch we had a chance to practice all this, dipping our right hands diffidently into a great bowl of white rice into which had been stirred some kind of tomato-based sauce with a few chunks of meat. I learned that the best way to keep from using my left hand accidentally was to sit on it. After lunch, I watched half a dozen small and very ragged boys creep into the yard with slingshots; one of them brought down a sleeping bat and skinned it.
In the afternoon, we had our first language lesson. During their first three months of training, all volunteers in Mali are expected to become fluent in at least two languages—French, the official language of the country, and Bambara, the lingua franca spoken by about 60 percent of the population. These first few days were being devoted to Bambara, and this afternoon we learned the traditional ceremony of greeting.
Back home, we say "good morning" or "good afternoon," or maybe just "hi," and the other person simply returns the greeting or says something like "fine, how are you?" Here, such shortcut greetings would be considered disrespectful, even if merely buying something from a merchant on the street. There is an established ritual, with variations, in which each inquires in turn after the health of every member of the other's family, and it can go on seemingly forever. Gaussou Mariko, our Bambara teacher, told us that the more people one asks about the more respect one shows, and respect is what the people of this unlucky country have learned to cherish and to share.
The ritual responses are especially interesting. For one thing, they are sexually loaded. The male response to a greeting, mba!, is a kind of combination between a grunt and a belch; it begins with a short, deep m and ends with an explosive ba!—a real billy goat sound. The female response, nsè, is much less assertive, almost a whinny. And apparently no one ever admits to being "fine": one is "at peace" or has "no problems."
Just as we were winding up classes for the day, I was startled to hear tom-toms beating at the far corner of the open court. There was a small stage there for productions of various sorts, and a group of young men and women in their bright everyday robes were loosening up for a dance. It turned out they were members of the Bamako District Dance Troupe, amateurs who were rehearsing a program of traditional dances for the upcoming Muslim feast of Ramadan. The dancers weren't in ritual costume, and there was a lot of laughter and horsing around—not at all a finished performance—but the movements were rhythmical, stylized, and vigorous. I had no way of knowing whether this was the real face of Africa I was seeing, but it was certainly a real face.
Dinner was rice with a spicy tomato sauce, eaten, of course, with the fingers. Afterwards, we had just seated ourselves in the courtyard to begin another class in Bambara when violent gusts began to shake the trees overhead and to bring leaves, fruits, and small branches tumbling down on us. "Rain!" cried Becky, and we hurriedly picked up our chairs and followed her in a wild dash to the relative safety of a tin-roofed shed, or hangar nearby.
And rain it was! No cozy pitter-patter on the roof, in fact no identifiable sound of rain at all, just a continuous crashing sound, as if all the gods of Africa had decided to empty a skyful of water on our heads. The uproar continued for at least half an hour while we tried as best we could to hear what Gaussou was teaching us. My fellows at the edge of the shelter, who were being soaked simultaneously by wind-borne rain and splashing mud, began making loud, uncomfortable noises of their own and, eventually, Sam told Gaussou to give up. We waited and listened.
The Malian year is not conveniently separated into the short and roughly equal seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter. Instead, there are just two grossly unequal seasons, a short rainy one, and a long dry one. The rainy season usually begins in mid-June and continues to about the end of September. It is the one fecund season of the year, the season for planting and cultivating; during the following eight months, most of the country receives scarcely a drop of rain, and that period is called, logically, the "dry season." We had arrived just after the beginning of the rains.
The rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and the sun glowed hazily through the super-saturated air. Within minutes, as if by miracle, the earth dried, leaving only a few muddy puddles scattered here and there. I was told we could expect downpours like this three or four times each week, perhaps oftener, for the next three months.
At seven o'clock, the Bamako Dance Troupe arrived to begin another rehearsal and this time invited those of us watching to join them. A number of my fellows jumped at the chance and were soon hopping gaily about the stage. I, too, thought of accepting but chickened out at the last moment. It had been more than forty years since I last dared trust my uncoordinated feet on a dance floor. Maybe next year, I told myself as I listened to the commanding drums.
Excerpted from Fishing in the Sky by Donald Lawder. Copyright © 1997 by Donald Lawder. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
|BOOK I. (1983-1986)|
|1. La Maison Des Jeunes||11|
|3. Born Again||32|
|4. Making a Home in the City||38|
|5. L'Ecôle Normale Supèrieure||60|
|7. God in the Classroom and Other Anecdotes||91|
|8. Dreams and Near Disasters||107|
|BOOK II (1988-94)|
|10. Return of the Prodigal||127|
|11. Will I Ever Get to Timbuktoo?||138|
|12. Playing Grandfather||149|
|14. "The Best of Times||The Worst of Times"||173|
|15. Grandfather For Real||183|
|16. "Bless You Aminata"||196|