Discovering Water Against all reason, I see him gliding in the forest. He taps lightly on the barks of the nehri trees to wake them. He curls worms with the end of a stick, drops a rock in the water to watch the reflection of the sun break up into a thousand pieces. Sometimes he just stands on a hilltop, squeezes his eyes closed, and makes an extra effort to feel the wind, bounding along the Fouta Djallon, brush against his cheeks.
What a fancy dream I have. There is no sense to this vision, no reason to believe he would have behaved this way.
First of all, the country rolls strangely here. The mountain paths may turn left while the mountain itself slopes right. The horizon reveals whole plains and valleys rising and falling at opposing angles. The way God arranged the land is still visible: sudden ridges, odd crisscrosses of rivers and red rock, great movements toward the sky. A man not careful to keep his head down could suffer illusions in a place like this, become dizzy and fall down.
He had no time to fall down. He had to get to school.
On dry days, he left Diontou at six in the morning. He set out when the forest was still drawn in night shadow, still filled with the phantom shapes of prowling monsters. Most times he took an orange, two bananas, a mango, a long twist of bread, two small bags of red goro nuts, and pieces of cassava shredded by his mother’s fingers. He also brought a mathematics book, a reading book and a book of someone else’s history, two shirts, his prayer robe, called a boubou, and a prayer mat. The load was bound in a sack that he balanced on his head. The food held him for five hours, the entire journey between villages. On arriving in Diari, he gave his hosts the second bag of goro nuts in gratitude for allowing him to stay with them. They sat on the floor together in shared blessings for his studies. They ate the nuts and talked excitedly with their mouths full and their tongues red.
Over the school year, he came this way a dozen times or more, thirty kilometers each way. He would remain in Diari for three weeks, sometimes longer, before returning home. He was eight years old the first year, twelve the last. He did not own shoes. He pulled down the large pohpoh leaves, thick as lily pads, and tied them to the bottoms of his feet. In this way he avoided the worst of the blisters that came from the hard, wind-burnt open spaces, and the leaves helped him keep pushing in the rainy season, kept him from dropping in the mud.
There were brilliant days, too. He walked through long, yellow grass and swelled banana groves. The bananas hung in plump, satisfied bunches. The mountains were free of mosquitoes, which were not interested in clean, light air such as this. Mischievous monkeys sometimes stared after his slight figure appearing in one opening in the bushes, departing through another. Entire hillsides smelled of nothing but oranges.
In the vision I wish, he lingers, makes faces at the monkeys, finds whole stories in the rivers and roads. And I am holding his hand. I know him well. He tells me we will be home soon.
He set out at six in the morning, earlier in the rain and mud season. There in the murky morning, in the near dark and the not-quite light, is the rightful place for this story to begin.
He pushed past the mirages. He was my father, son of a wise man, grandson of a king, and he was Amadou first.
Great imagination swept through Guinea in this time. The other families in Diontou noticed my father’s long absences and whispered that the French had stolen him in the middle of the night. The women in the village visited with my grandmother and told her a plot was afoot to control their minds. The kidnapping of her Amadou was just the beginning. The French knew that the children were the wealth of the families. They would come for all their sons, and without them, the women would not have the help they needed in the fields. The rice and maize crops would surely die out. The other mothers watched over their own children nervously, brought them together under blankets at night.
The women of the village were only partly right. The French had announced that each family must choose one son to go to the government’s European school, and this worried the men, too. It was one thing for the French to hold sway over the banks and far-off houses of government in the big cities, but their voices took on great dread when they talked about their traditions, their language, their children. These, the men said, were beyond trespass.
On their way to prayer the men stopped to see Alfa Oumar Diallo, my grandfather. Diallo, pronounced “Djallo,” was a name shared by descendants of one of the four original families of the Fouta Djallon, the mountain region in the north. To the men of Diontou, he was Karamoko Alfa, the title given to the teacher and spiritual leader of the village. At his house, down a small hill, below the two yellow spires of the mosque, the men could be sure to hear the high summoning cry of the salee. It came to them like a melody. With water my grandfather gave to them in clay jugs, the men of Diontou squatted on my grandfather’s land and performed the saliqui, the ritual of washing their hands, mouth, nose, face, ears, and feet. Then they walked in a single quiet line up the hill to the mosque. When prayer was over, they returned to eat my grandmother’s yogurt and to share their worries.
I do not want my son to be taught by white men. We have a good school here. My son is learning the Koran and we all write in the same alphabet. We are organized. I do not want him to speak French or read books from Europe. The chiefs do not favor this. How will that help him when he returns to Diontou? How can he teach his brothers and sisters what they need to know?
The men turned to Karamoko Alfa. Many times before, they had dispatched their sons and daughters to him for a deeper reading of the Koran. My grandfather calmed jealousies and spites between neighbors and listened to their longings and private misgivings. Husbands and wives came to him to trade accusations. He passed no gossip. He was the teacher of the village, the most righteous man anyone knew.
But the question of whether to send a son away was too personal for him to settle. Every other family in the village ignored the government’s decree. My grandfather considered his riches—three wives and thirteen children—and decided that his eldest son, my father, the one with the sober eyes, would go to the school. Perhaps, my grandfather believed, it was not a bad idea for just one of them to know what was happening in the school, to see life in another village. His Amadou might discover an unheard-of history from across the ocean, or ride a bicycle, or sleep under a zinc roof.
One morning, in the late summer of 1936, my father started out from Diontou with a sack on his head, and was not seen again for some time.
The way life happened here was slow, with the feeling of something drooping for a long time and then changing with the suddenness of a heavy curtain collapsing.
Four years at the European school led to a promotion test, which led to four years at a high school even farther away. After graduation, my father strode into the village, and everyone gaped at him in his dark suit and white colonial hat with a wide brim like the French businessmen in the city wore. He also wore a belt. No one in Diontou owned a belt. He was given his own caz, or hut, separate from the main hut and away from the younger children, and the message went out that Karamoko Alfa’s oldest son was eyeing for a wife.
My grandfather had already seen the girl, Diaraye. She was from nearby, in the village of Tinkin, set on another hill. She had been perched on the bare back of a pony, wearing a white dress and a gold necklace, when he spotted her. This was at the celebration after Ramadan a few years before. She rode into a great open field covered in gifts her father had brought her from Senegal. My grandfather was surely struck by her long back, the long youthful neck, and by her eyes, which held just enough mystery. My grandfather grabbed hard on her wrist.
“I want her for my son who is away at school,” he told her father.
And when it came time to tell his Amadou, he said, “I know of a girl who is interesting to look at.”
Of course, my father wore the suit the first time he and my mother talked. The suit fit well on his narrow waist. My mother wore a chain with a pin in the center, and my father watched it nervously, thinking it might cut her, just at the soft cleft above the breastbone.
“May I hold it?” he asked.
She hesitated before she understood, and then she laughed to think he was worried about her this way. She laughed again, though in a different pitch, when she understood that he had noticed her skin where the pin rested. She felt him look down her body.
“Give me your ankle bracelet, too,” he said. And they laughed more.
She was a girl who had been well tended by her father, Thierno Mamadou Bobo Diallo. He had brought socks, shoes, and watches from abroad into Tinkin. This had given him the status of something like a discoverer and her the aura of a little princess. Soon after that day in the field with the pony, her father died while off in Guinea-Bissau. He was found holding a Koran and poems he had written exalting God and nature. Dying away from her, he left her with wonder about how he could have died at all.
The family went to Guinea-Bissau to bury him, and on their way back, walking in the lowlands on an especially hot day, they ran out of water and fell ill with thirst. My mother saved them by scratching the ground with a stick. Finding the ground softer than expected, she scratched and dug some more. The more she scratched, the wetter the earth became until she, her mother, and her two brothers were able to cup their hands full with water.
Quickly, the family descended from a life of abundance to one of hardship. Her mother, my grandmother, was named Kadiatou Diallo. She, with the help of her children, had to grow her own crops. The others in the village saw their struggles and came to help. Diaraye was sent to stay for a while with her aunt, who happened to live in Diontou. On the day she met my father, at the moment he realized he could not turn away, my mother was beauty and entitlement mixed with a question.
Tenderness and rapture had merged with pain and pity, sorrow and puzzlement, and all of it showed on her face. She wore sandals, and her toes were lovely. My father only knew he did not want to live with- out her.
As for her, she admired my father’s thinness. His fingers were long, like hers. His body had a wiriness, suggesting someone who could slice through anything, as though his time in the bushes had brought upon him actual physical change, his adaptation to the wild terrain leaving him with new contours conferring upon him strength and ingenuity.
She had been promised to another boy, whose mother was practicing to be a witch. On learning of their marriage, the boy went to my mother’s family and demanded her return. My uncle, my mother’s brother, now the head of his family after his father’s death, carried the message to my father in desperation. His village was talking about the broken contract.
“Give me back my sister because I can’t go back without her,” he said. “There was a commitment.”
My father, it turns out, was brave. Karamoko Alfa had told him to never give up on his love.
“You have to take care of that business alone,” he responded. “I have my wife. I will not give her up.”
It’s not clear what happened after that. The spurned boy undoubtedly went back to tell his own mother what had happened. My mother and father left for Boké, far west and beyond the Fouta Djallon, where my father hoped to become a doctor. Moving forward, they never learned—it is not certain they ever wondered—if the spurned boy’s mother had reached full witchhood and placed a curse on their young marriage.
They began having babies with funny feet and uncommon hands. A daughter, Halimatou, was born early in the morning on January 1, 1952, with six toes on each foot, six fingers on each hand. A son, Alfaoumar, was born two years later with eleven fingers in all. To each other and to all the brothers and sisters to come, she would be Diadia because that is what the eldest sister in Fulah families are called, and to the younger ones he would be Koto. My father was disappointed in Diadia for being a girl when he wanted a boy first, and disappointed in Koto for not coming before Diadia. But he saw a star quality in Diadia. Her eyes twinkled a deep purple. He called her his New Year’s Day Miracle.
And my father needed to have Koto close to him. He carried Koto constantly, told him stories about the bushes before Koto could understand, and in time, when he began to toddle, Koto would follow my father everywhere.
My mother and father, who now were Néné and Baba to their children, also had Abdoulaye, one of my father’s brothers, living with them in Boké. It was customary for new husbands and wives to take care of other members of the family, and Abdoulaye demanded attention. He had a small, thick body, liked to wrestle other children, laughed boisterously, and had a shyness revealed by a persistent stammer. His presence gave my parents’ union the kind of dignity that can come only from honoring obligations and fulfilling tradition. Baba made sure his younger brother went to the big school in town. Abdoulaye’s being there gave their lives the fullness of responsibility, so it can also be said that my mother and father never had a young marriage. There were always children to care for.
In the deep, dark tender part of the night, they were never far from a child’s breathing.
In Boké, Baba worked in the public hospital, which had one examination room and a dozen beds divided into two rooms. He administered shots, wrapped legs in splints, pushed patients in their wheelchairs, dampened the foreheads of children with high fever. Most of the patients he saw were either victims of malaria or road accidents, the maimed and handicapped who needed pills for their pain. He made sure the hospital had enough bandages and the few medicines that were necessary to treat yellow fever and malaria. Whenever his duties quieted, he read through books on biology. He had the semblance of an idea he would end up in medical school in Nairobi or even Paris.
In the meantime Baba bought rice and maize in the high season, stored them until the low season, and sold them at a premium. At home, he was able to pay a young girl to cook. Néné stayed with the babies and with the other women and their babies, and she learned to sew. Abdoulaye returned in the afternoon with tales from the classroom. Néné had never gone to school, so as different mysteries of growing up fell away, the mystery of school remained. What did they talk about? What did they see? What did it feel like to hold a book in your hands and know what the writing said? Abdoulaye ran Néné’s fingers over the big black letters from the writing books he took home, and tore pages from the back of his notebook for her to use. He read to her, and she began to recognize words.
My mother sat against a tree with a book. I have heard that this happened.
Then Baba got into a bad mood. I heard about this, too. He would walk fast or pace or find fault in others. Weariness rolled over him, a fatigue so overpowering that it was best to just let him sleep. Even then, he might awaken more disturbed than he had been or happy, but in a way no one had ever seen in him. He yelled a lot. He wanted to roll in the grass with the babies or he didn’t want to see them at all. His hands became tense and twitchy. The first time Néné had gazed at his long fingers, she had not foreseen this possibility. He gave money away to passersby or threw coins in the air. The more depressed he was, the more money he gave away. Once he gave away his most ornate embroidered robe. Néné, always following Baba’s tracks, later bought back the robe.
The day Baba came home and saw Abdoulaye helping Néné with a book did not improve his mood. They were outside the hut, not expecting him for a while.
“What is happening here?”
“I am teaching her to read.”
“My wife?” He looked at his brother. “You will never do this again. If I wanted an educated wife, I would marry one from the city. I married a girl from the village on purpose.” His eyes burned Abdoulaye. “You are a man. Keep your books to yourself.”
A fever in the family, and Néné would go straight to the bushes as she had watched her mother do and bring back the kasia leaves for boiling into tea or for bathing. These were small, fine leaves with a bitter taste that could be felt from throat to nose. Drink three from the left hand, three from the right, Néné ordered. It could wipe out the fever and nearly everything else in its path. Néné could fix a cold with kenkeliba leaves and cilantro. For the bad headaches that stole from behind the eyes, she boiled pelitoro leaves. But Baba dumbfounded her. She knew of no plants or oils to calm his fitful energy, and she could not be certain that something was wrong. Most people found him reasonable during this time. He gave away food and clothing at whim and lent advice more freely than ever. He was tirelessly accessible, suddenly talking a lot. When he slept or sulked or when he took away her book, Néné could not be sure which conduct came from a sickness and which from manly behavior.
Men have their states, she thought, so do as he says. Baba says be quiet. Be quiet. Baba says the rain will end soon. It will. Baba throws money into the stream. Smile for him. Baba wants you, too, to throw money away, do it without questions.
It was Baba who declared himself sick. He said he had Agitation.
He was unable to focus at the hospital. He left patients unattended, drifted in conversation, forgot the hour. His supervisors decided to treat him the French way, which granted him a full escape, a trip to Dakar in Senegal, but they told him a man with his condition could never to be a doctor. Most people saw Dakar as the hub of the French colony in West Africa, which in some ways made it a symbol of the region’s dependency on outsiders, and of the changes the outsiders had wrought. But it was indisputable: In Dakar, the best of everything was available. The treatment of choice for Baba was pills. He slept sixteen hours a day and was otherwise not disturbed. Solitude gave him new clearness of mind.
For a month Baba dreamed.
He dreamed about the forest, dreamed that his feet were scorched, that the animals were after him. He dreamed about steps. He saw steps for his two children and his children still to come. The steps spiraled up from a center space where they were knotted and rooted into the ground. This was Baba’s mental pinwheel. Through his confusion, he saw his children and knew if he stayed well, his children would be well, too. It was then he began to sense himself as a builder.
Another baby came in 1956, Hadiatou. She had twelve fingers and twelve toes.
Shortly after her birth, an older man named Ibrahim Diallo, a relative of Néné’s, on his way to the hajj in Mecca stayed in their house. Baba gave him food and water and anything he needed. The man was so taken with the respect Baba had shown that he blessed Baba, and said, “You have respected me like a father. May God give you someone to respect you in your lifetime.”
Because he was known as clever with money, and because he could write in both Fulah and French, and because he could type, Baba was given a job as a tax accountant for the government. He worked in an office in Conakry, the capital that sits on the Atlantic Ocean, far removed from the Fouta Djallon. He inspected the records of businesses and collected their taxes. As a bureaucrat he was considered privileged. He was paid enough to live in a cement house. He hired two girls, one to cook and wash, the other to mind the children. He bought a piece of land north of the city that was wooded with thin-trunked nehri trees, and he tested the market in palm oil and rice. On Fridays, he went to the weekly market in Boké and bought barrels of the oil, which he turned around and sold for double the price he paid.
Conakry was an odd, swirling place that brought out Baba’s expansive side. Each morning, overfilled buses left for the diamond pits in the countryside. The miners sipped air from the tiny window slats or hung loosely from the rear running board. The country’s one rail line chugged into the center of the city every day, coming from as far east as Kankan, loaded with cigarette cartons, canned foods, aspirin, metal scraps, boxes of tissue paper, ink drums, Fruit of the Loom underwear, and a hodgepodge of other products, some ridiculously unneeded or unusable. One day, a cache of used tires might arrive, another day sunglasses. Once, reams of telephone cords came in, enough to outfit a quarter of the city—this in a place where only government officials owned phones. No one knew who sent them or why, but sure enough, someone snatched them up.
That is the way business was done. Get your hands on whatever you can, make yourself an owner, worry later about the selling.
Change was happening. There was a boom in Conakry at the time, but it was evolving unevenly. Three times a week a big ship arrived from Paris or Morocco with a payload of Coca-Cola or cornflakes or women’s cosmetics, or large equipment. Conakry stretches like a long pinky finger into the Atlantic, and in the late afternoon you could always spot men tugging a loaded-down crate up from the pier over the broken, knuckling road. You could see a man carrying a discarded, rusted icebox on his back next to another man heaving a shiny just-manufactured Frigidaire into a city where maybe a dozen homes had electrical wiring. At five o’clock the canoes, called kunki, came into the fishing port, and a line of women formed, first to buy the catfish, tuna, conque, and soy soy, and then to sell. Behind them, the sun, a burnt orange ball, slouched low on their backs.
This place, smelling of dead fish and cardboard boxes, belonged to no time exactly, but at least people would be ready when the time came.
Baba wanted to be first in line.
He bought and sold gold and began to build a house. He told his mother in Diontou that he had money now, and he offered to give her gold nuggets. But his mother was concerned that her husband’s two other wives would be jealous if they saw her with jewelry. They would want jewels of their own, and she did not want to put her husband in that position. She refused the gold and told Baba to give her cows. The other women, she reasoned, would appreciate the cows and share the milk, but a woman is not going to fight over another wom- an’s cow.
Conakry would have been a perfect place for Baba and Néné, except for maybe a thousand reasons. The ocean itself had a sluggish way. It was crazy hot there. The air crept reluctantly off the ocean, stinging with bugs, dirt, and dust.
The dust, rising off the earth, was red, which was a good thing, because it meant the land was rich, and more important, it made everyone feel richer for just living on it. Many people, Baba, too, felt proud. When talking about his country, he talked about the rich dirt often. It would have been better, of course, if the government had extracted the iron and bauxite that made it red. The air would have been lighter and the people cleaner and richer. Instead, the people were tired and dirty. Even Baba and Néné, whose floors were made of cool concrete, resented the government for allowing the iron to seep under their skin and into their lungs. There was one paved road in the city. There were no maps because few roads had a name. When it was not hot, June through August, it rained. The rain carved out craters and gullies in the dirt. Trips into town or just to visit a neighbor turned into tricky, tiptoed adventures over flowing, runaway garbage and drowned mice.
Nothing much worked well, which was acceptable in the villages where people lived off the land and relied on one another, but in Conakry people had to rely on systems and faceless ministries to keep things going. The dirt and the heat and the garbage made everyone angry at someone or some thing. Many people were angry at the French, who owned most of everything, or they blamed the Guinea administrators, who took directions, slashing budgets and rerouting goods.
Anyway, no one was tender with Conakry. No one gave it special care. A place without a map or names for its streets feels like it is dying all the time. A pinky stretching into the ocean. It was more like one of those extra dangling pinkies that Néné’s and Baba’s babies were born with. When they were old enough, Baba and Néné brought the babies to the hospital to have the extra fingers and toes taken off. This was done with a tightly knotted bandage that cut off the circulation. In a few days the unneeded toes and fingers fell off. Perhaps that would have been the kinder way to treat Conakry, rather than let it wearily hang on.
The people had been mad at each other for some time. Few roads in the country were tarred. The coffee was contaminated, and a country that grew maybe more rice than any place in the world was importing rice, not exporting it. The city people, mostly the Soussou, were angry at the Fulah who had come from the mountains, people like Baba and Néné. They had crowded Conakry, they thought, and taken away work. They fought and killed each other in the streets. Baba, worried for his family’s safety, bought a rifle.
Even by 1958, when tensions had calmed, the country worked only in fits and starts. In May 1958 the railroad between Kankan and Conakry stopped running altogether. Guinea sits near the bottom of Africa’s left shoulder. It is roughly the shape of a rounded fist, bordering six countries and embracing nearly all of Sierra Leone, which sits right in its palm. Conakry is the big city in the west and Kankan is the big city in the east. Shutting down the railroad was like cutting the country in half.
General de Gaulle distracted everyone from all that. He offered Guinea and all the French colonies a kind of independence, a halfway standing between country and protectorate. Sékou Touré, the new Guinea president, preached “ethnic integration,” which had a promising ring. The different groups turned their anger against the French instead of one another.
“We have a first and indispensable need of our dignity,” Sékou Touré declared in 1958. “Now, there is no dignity without freedom. We prefer freedom in poverty to riches in slavery.”
De Gaulle took him at his word, making sure that Guinea was poor. Before the French left, they emptied everything—from bank accounts to file cabinets. They burned records, and took nearly all the country’s engineers and agriculture experts. Every bit of gold they could get, they jammed into suitcases and into their pockets. The last of their planes flew out over crops still burning from the fires they had started. When they were done, there were maybe a dozen people in all of Conakry who had gone to college.
The government radio called itself the Voice of the Revolution. And people paraded and sang triumphantly:
And without a grudge
I, myself am not offended
Good-bye everyone to his own home ruthless
Without any fuss
Good-bye provided you disturb us no more
Let him follow you
He who believes you indispensable
Baba admired Sékou Touré, but he thought independence had come too soon. After all, the French had treated him well when he was in Senegal. Though he had given money to the government’s party, no one from the party had come to help his family when he was away. Baba could not always be sure who his friends were. He sat on the step in front of his house with the rifle. No one bothered him—and he demanded much respect this way.
The rifle wasn’t far away when Néné told him another baby was coming.
Nothing finishes as it begins.
Before the scholars entered Guinea with the word of Mohammed, the Fulah women picked their husbands. If this is surprising to you, it was not to me. My father told me so when I was only a young girl, no more than six or seven, and early on I firmly understood the natural order.
The men of that time, seven hundred years ago, arranged elaborate dances, a kind of competition that required the men to preen. They painted their chests and colored their cheekbones and eyelids bright reds and yellows, and they gave special attention to their teeth, cleaning them, and shaping them, too, against the smooth edges of river rocks, until their smile had just the glint of the devil.
Each man held a spear and made a whooping warrior dance over each woman, but when a woman held up her palms, they stopped and slumped off. If the woman nodded, the man approached her and went to his knees for the woman’s closer consideration. In the end, the women surrounded the men and made their choices.
Soon came the weddings. The whole village turned out, the women were regaled with music and poetry, and the men swore their faith to their new wives. Then, after days or even months had gone by, should a woman look at her man and see too much of the devil in him or not think his teeth fascinating or his unpainted physique tempting, or had she discovered him to be unwise, she could declare a change of heart. With that, the woman would move on, not to scorn but to even more fervent wooing by a string of suitors who saw in her now something they had missed before—the aura of true independence and elusiveness.
So nothing remains as it begins. We followed the cattle through the bushes, building our huts around the spot where the animals found water. There we lived for a hundred years before the springs dried or the animals finally grew restless. The women grew their gardens, or suntoureé. The men were responsible for the fence around the gardens. The men and the women grew old and died in the same huts where they were born. We believed in the old ways, and still the old ways evaporated. In time, the children left the villages before the animals did. The men told the women what to think and then thought little of what the women said. The men preached the Koran to the women but did not let them read it, and when it was time, the men left, to explore, make money, to satisfy an itch.
The women waited for their men to return, or they waited for something to happen. When nothing happened, they waited for nothing. They only waited, their babies growing heavier on their backs.
Questions: Did my father tell my mother about the way it was in the beginning? Did he dare? Would it have changed anything?
A detail: The deep well my mother discovered as a young girl swelled quickly from below and in a single season became a spring. It has helped many villages survive, and because some people in the villages knew my mother, they named it after her. It’s called the Bhundhu Diaraye, named for her. People traveling between Tinkin and Guinea-Bissau drink from it. It is the place where my mother scratched at the dirt and discovered water.