Re: The Ka and Ba Families
Every day on a trip like this can't be filled with dramatic events and revelations. There have to be days that are just serenely scenic as you drive long distances across lush landscapes; and stop to take pictures of picturesque roadside shelters made, like many things here, from odd, crooked pieces of wood; and get invited into the round thatched homes of African women who are beautiful and charmed by the cameras and we three traveling men and a boy.
That of course is what you would reasonably expect, and so did we, through most of that day.
After leaving St. Louis it felt like a perfect day. Alan and I had established a silent détente and were communicating well again, within prescribed limits. Badou had called his wife and discovered that his children were ill so getting to his village became a priority for everyone, although Badou did not want us to feel pressured and would not admit to being in a hurry. Looking at the map we decided that getting to Badou's village was possible if we kept driving; and driving was proving to be great fun. It was Sunday and we essentially had the continent to ourselves. Off the main roads there were no other cars and so few mini buses that they didn't count.
The weather was approaching rain which made the light heavy and colorful. Moving inland towards Central Senegal, the land around us was flat with small trees spaced widely over a carpet of what looked like mowed grass but was not. The soil was dark red and towering clouds filled the sky. Every mile or so we would pass a tiny settlement and I debated with myself about stopping. On the one hand we were trying to make time and to be honest, I felt a bit shy about just barging in on strangers. On the other hand, every time I met Africans in this environment had been a wonder.... and that is what I had come for. So, when we were about to pass what seemed like the perfect little village I asked Alan to stop. It turned out to be just that.... perfect.
The settlement consisted of no more than 15 round homes down off the road with the traditional pointed roofs made from long grasses. From a distance it was never clear to me how they were able to create such a sharp point in the center of the cone roofs. Close by it was still not obvious. It seemed as if there may have been a sharpened branch that was used as the spine for dried grass that was tightly bound around it with flat rope. What was clear is that the cone, as a design for shedding water, had become an important part of their culture. In the fields and driving down the roads in carriages drawn by scrawny horses, farmers can be seen wearing cone hats of the same shape against the rain. (I'll never understand why the horses here look so emaciated with grasses that seem abundant all around. The goats seem to be doing just fine).
The first thing I noticed about the village was that there were no men or boys to be seen. The next thing I noticed was that the women there of all ages were very attractive.. Badou put together a package of gifts from our stash but that was not really needed. Alan is so beautiful with his smile and dreds, and Badou's warm and apparently funny explanations of what we were up to seemed to resolve any doubts there may have been. They seemed happy to be photographed and instantly took poses that raised interesting questions in my mind: What did being photographed mean to them? Were they simply flattered by the camera's attention? Or mine? How does a person know how to "pose"? Does it come from the many photographs they may have seen of people like themselves? Had they even seen that many? Or is there something innate about the body language of being in front of a camera? More specifically, was that young woman over there raising her shirt so that is rested lightly on the firm tops of her breasts because it was a very hot and muggy day? Or was it something else? Eye contact did not clear that question up, but the shirt did come right down.
Driving by these thatched houses as we have, it's impossible to see how complex the structures actually are. When Diayaba, the teenager with the seductive, well... everything, motioned for me to follow her I thought I'd be seeing the entrance to a simple round dwelling. Instead there was a curved wall that lead to a small outside cooking area where a pot of couscous was on a fire ready for eating. She offered me a taste with a gesture and a glance but I politely refused; there may have been goat meat to contend with and I am a vegetarian after all. The kitchen was just outside of her living area which was darker than I expected it to be. What I could see was a surprise: I probably expected to see a grass mat on the dirt floor but instead there was Western-style bed up on what appeared to be wooden legs. I couldn't see anymore without going in and that did not seem advised. Instead I photographed her in front of the fire and moved on.
Towards the back of the village a quiet woman sat on a long bench watching me approach. It's always hard to balance my desire to record things as they are against my need to know that the portrait is wanted. In this case she seemed to be in a world of her own but nodded "yes" when I pointed to the camera. I'm glad she did.
Later when I asked Badou to transcribe their names I discovered that all of their last names were either Ka or Ba. Two extended families sharing their lives by the road. As we drove away we noticed the men and boys driving a herd of goats in the direction of the village. I wondered what they would hear when they got home.
The town of Touba was our next stop. The huge and famous mosque there was spectacular but there seemed to be a problem with us going inside. The guard at the gate wearing a great burgundy shirt and a gun said that being non-Muslims we could not be admitted because the towers were under construction. Then it began to rain. As we raced back to the car, the usual group of begging boys followed and gave us a chance to witness something fascinating. We may have run out of coins but we did have an almost empty bottle of Perrier lying around and Alan handed it to the one who seemed the oldest. As we drove away this boy carefully poured sips of water into the eager mouths of each of the kids around him. They were so excited to taste this wonderful stuff that when he accidentally spilled a drop on the ground I cried out in dismay. I had become accustomed to thinking of these impoverished children as being desperately self-serving. It's never a good idea to underestimate humanity.
Alan had been driving all day at this point and it was near sundown when I began to drive. We had no idea where we were going to stay. It might be that we would end up in Badou's village if we drove for a few hours in the night. With my drivers license stolen it might cause problems if I were stopped but, remembering Badou's children it seemed worth the risk.
As I drove the sun began to set and I turned on the headlights but in the twilight, it was hard to tell if they were having any effect. As it got darker I began to wonder if I had made some mistake with the switch. A few minutes later, the tiny red fuse that had mysteriously appeared on the dashboard began to interest me more and more. When I asked Alan if he could either see any effect from the lights, or, if he knew where that fuse had come from, he said no, and we both began to worry. We were too far from Kaolak, the nearest large town to make it there before it became too dark to drive but something had to be done if in fact the lights were not working. Alan asked Alioune if he knew anything about the fuse and he said that it had been in the glove compartment and was broken. Alan persisted. How did he know that it was broken? Suddenly Alioune became sullen and refused to even meet Alan's gaze.
It was quickly becoming dangerously dark and were forced to stop. We happened to be near what looked like a rundown row of roadside houses so I pulled over and we spent the next twenty minutes searching for flashlights, pulling and replacing fuses until it was clear that we were stuck right where we were for the night. It was too dark to drive a foot more. It was beginning to seem as if an uneventful day on this trip was impossible.
Thinking about Alioune, the idea of spending the night in that cramped car was not appealing, but, what were our choices? Of course we looked at Badou and he of course said "No problem" and walked off into the night. A few minutes later we were surrounded by young men who seemed eager to be helpful. One of them was clearly a bush mechanic and he began to pull and push fuses as Alan had but with more authority but no better results. After a while Badou began talking to them and suddenly there was a man asking for my flashlight who used it to guide me as if I were taxiing a plane on a runway. It was absolutely dark and I had no idea where I was going but I followed his gestures until I could see a crude gate made from corrugated metal standing in front of a rough wooden wall. After a sharp tight left turn, I was in another community of Africans but this time the buildings were incredibly run down and made of concrete. I was once again amazed that Badou had so easily solved the problem of where we were going to spend the night, but from what I could see, I couldn't imagine that there was anywhere that we could comfortably sleep. That proved to be all too true.
Off to the right a woman was sweeping out what looked like a concrete cell with a hand broom. It was a kind but hopeless gesture. The room did have a bed in it. It had a wooden headboard and a foam pad that looked as if goats had been sleeping on it for months, while at the same time eating it for dinner.
The roof was made of corrugated sheet metal and the walls were covered with.... let's just say that they were covered. The back door was a frame of two by fours with a metal skin and our host locked it with an ingenious rope and stick device.
A hard rain was hitting the roof with a persistent roar and the air was thick and hot. Still, here we were and there was nothing to do but be there until morning.
Mosquitoes buzzed all over the room and all I had for protection from them was a tie dyed sheet that was suffocating to be under in that heat. As we got into bed I saw something I hadn't witnessed since Hawaii dozens of years ago: A huge roach that had the horrible ability to fly. I though that was unfair then and even more so now.
Badou and Alan quickly volunteered to sleep on grass mats on the hard concrete floor and I spent the night wondering if they were being generous or were extremely wise.
Actually I spent the night engaged in a very different activity. With the noise of the rain and animals outside; and the discomfort of the heat and humidity; and the fear and torment of the mosquitoes; and then Alioune's tendency to roll into me and kick in his sleep; resting was impossible. So instead I spent that night listening to my mind, and what I heard was very disturbing.
Alan was on the hard floor across the room from me. I could hear his breathing and I found myself wishing that swarms of mosquitoes would descend on him; or that rain would leak down the walls to where he slept. And when I wasn't imagining that any number of other torments would occur to him I could feel an inflated pride at all that I felt I was accomplishing and learning on this trip. And then Alioune would kick and I noticed how I pulled away from him with what would have felt like a rejecting gesture to him if he were awake.
But another part of me was listening to all of this pride and anger, and that part wondered where all of this negativity was coming from. Why was I feeling so resentful of Alan? And why so intolerant of Alioune? I would try pushing these thoughts away, or replacing them with generosity and love but, as soon as I relaxed some new dark thought would emerge. And this back and forth internal struggle went on through the night as the rain would stop for a moment and then thunder back onto the metal roof; or an insect would find its way to my ear and I would once again swat at the empty air and roll under the sweaty sheet until only my nose was poking out....
Then at one point I heard Badou get up and I silently watched him begin to relight the mosquito coils with his matches. He was doing this so that we would have a more comfortable night; just as when he covered us with netting in the night at Podor as we slept. There was something about the contrast between our different attitudes that gave me a clue about something important.
The four of us were an interesting spectrum of emotional maturity. Alioune could be buoyant and joyous at one moment or sullen and depressed at another. Alan is generally an open-hearted, spirited man for whom love and truth were the highest priorities; or he could be petty and whining about minor things or caught up in anxiety that tested my patience as his friend. And I.... well, this night was demonstrating who I was: wise and inspired at one moment and utterly dumb and petulant at another.
Badou was an exception to all of this. He has consistently demonstrated a gift for rapport and generosity that had not only saved the trip for us a number of times, but he has done it while asking for nothing in return. I have seen him make a point of moving into Alioune's bad moods and gently absorbing the young African's distress and then turn it around with a joke or playful shove.
As the rain came and went my exhausted mind could imagine the three of us under it, passing through emotional storms and clearings while, above the weather, Badou watched from where the cycles of night and day were a timeless ritual of beauty and natural order.
What were moods anyway and why do we take them so seriously? Clearly they were only temporary, circumstantial emotional events that come and go, often taking love and good will with them. I lay there realizing that some of what destroyed my marriage was an inability to understand the nature of and how to manage moods that seemed so vital and real when we were in them, but so empty from a distance. Badou seemed to be a master at mood management and his example gave me a perspective that was very inspiring. I knew then that I needed to know more about him and how to maintain a perspective on my own emotional states. What if this understanding was really the point? I finally did get to sleep and I remember hearing the cry to prayer and being thankful for another day to try and grow.
In the morning light we gathered ourselves and watched the community of people who were our hosts going about their morning rituals of washing and preparing for the day. Tiny goats were moving in all directions and there were already men under the hood of our car trying to fix our lights.
I began taking pictures of all this until Badou came over and said that it was time to pay our respects to the grandfather patriarch of the families gathered there. With small plastic bags filled with powered milk and tea we went into one of the dark buildings and discovered an ancient man sitting on the floor with his back to the door wearing black robes and a white Muslim skull cap. He honestly looked as if he had been in that position in that dark room, filled with a bed and devotional objects for years. Everyone gathered around him on the floor as he opened his palms to us and began to pray quietly and firmly with his eyes closed. All of us repeated his gesture and sat for many minutes in silent respect for this man's dignity and reverence. When he was finished he looked each of us in the eye and said how happy he was that he could make us welcome in his home. We each took his hands in ours and thanked him for his generosity and left the room deeply moved.
Outside I saw that the men had brought another skinny horse up to the door with a wagon behind it. Next came a small plow and I realized that they wanted me to document their holdings. I did this happily and, with the lights still not working we finally drove away from another exhausting but meaningful encounter with the heart of something African.
Now it was on to Badou's village. Our last stop before returning to Dakar and going back to Europe and America.