Kaolak was the first stop on our morning drive to Badou's village. This was the place where the man at the car rental office said that there were people who looked like me. Before meeting Babacar and hearing his intuitions that "my people" were from Podor, where we had been, visiting Kaolak had been a fascinating idea. Now it was much less important; which is a very good thing. It would have been ridiculous for me to drive, or even walk around this busy town trying to see family resemblances in every face I passed. I wonder if I would even recognize myself if I bumped into me on the street?
The thing that did stand out for me there were the first pieces of public art that I'd seen since leaving the coast. There were two large civic sculptures in the flooded, trash-filled area between two roads as we entered the town. They seemed to be memorials to fallen heroes and were striking. I stopped at store with a Kodak sign and paid a hero's ransom for 6 rolls of film to avoid running out and we were on our way.
Just outside of town the landscape changed dramatically. Crossing a large river we entered a broad delta region with massive planes of water on all sides and large pure white herons rising to the sky. It seemed like a perfect place to stop and eat our morning mangoes so Alan pulled over and Badou proceeded to once again demonstrate his skill at this art. For those of you who have never attempted to eat a mango I should point out that, despite being a supremely delicious fruit, mangoes are also IMPOSSIBLE to eat without getting sticky juice on your hands and face. I first learned this in Hawaii where I assumed that the only thing to do was eat them while swimming in the ocean since you were going to get wet anyway. (Actually, don't try that. Salty mangoes are not that tasty).
The problem is that the flesh of the fruit is attached to the seed with Velcro and there is no way to separate it cleanly. In the recent past I have made a sensual art out of peeling and eating a mango.... but after watching Badou use his knife on one I will never do it any other way than this:
(By the way, I was in the process of reading the instructions for eating mangoes while I was waiting for sugar in Whole Foods when Susannah walked up. I never finished)
First you have to determine the orientation of the seed by noticing that the fruit is always flatter on one long axis. The wide flat seed is what pushes the fruit out so you can always use that as a guide. Once you know where the seed is the trick is to take a long sharp knife, Badou uses his huge Swiss Army knife, and cut a thick slice along a line that runs parallel to the flat side of the seed. (Is this crazy to try and explain? Oh well. I'm sure some of you will be grateful).
If done properly what this does is give you a shallow bowl of mango skin filled with luscious flesh. Another slice like that on the other side of the seed gives you two mango bowls and the seed with a ribbon of fruit and skin attached. If the mango is ripe you can cut the skin on this seeded piece and peel it away in one unbroken strip. As far as I'm concerned, it is always the peeler's right to eat the fruit off the seed. It's a wonderful gnawing process that can be very rewarding.
With the seed discarded you now turn to the two mango bowls. Hold one in your palm and take a knife point and begin cutting straight lines that cross each other, creating nearly invisible cubes. Now comes the fun part. Handing this to a person for the first time you should make a show of turning the rubbery skin of the bowl inside out because what this does is separate the mango cubes into free-standing sections that spread out like a blossom. The lucky person now gets to pry the little monoliths of mango free from the skin with his or her tongue. The edge sections have to be eaten by biting into them and sucking. What more can I say.
It took us about two hours to arrive at Foundiougne, Badou's village, and finally at his home. Like all of the other homes we've seen this one was a walled enclosure on an unpaved, deeply rutted road where all of his extended family had concrete rooms facing towards the center. The toilet and wash areas were in the back and the tap for running water was to the right. A heavy rain began as we drove up but instantly, Badou's children came bursting out onto the road squealing with delight. He has two lovely young girls named Saly and Yacine, and a boy named Alioune. I looked closely and noticed that none of them had inherited his unique ears.
His wife's name is Khar and she has an open, weary face with clear eyes. After greeting everyone as best we could Alan and I crashed in one of the rooms and slept through the rest of the morning. Later we were taken in to meet his mother who was sitting on a bed wearing a white shawl and holding prayer beads very gently. Her name is Olymala and she had a sweet but sober expression on her face and something in her eyes showed me where Badou got his depth of character.
This is were I need to tell you some important things about Badou but first let me say that I know it's ridiculous for me to ever imagine becoming anything like an African. But perhaps you have understood why I might aspire to qualities I have seen in so many of the people I've met here. They have both a light, generous spirit that greets you with an open heart; but also a clear spiritual depth that comes in part from their devotion to Islam and in part because they know so well that they belong to each other.
If becoming African is impossible, I can at least use the life of this one man as a reference for patterns of growth for myself. To give you a sense of his life style, imagine the poorest person you can conceive of according to our standards and then take away everything except for beds, a few plastic chairs and an old TV. Even take away paint from the walls and glass from the windows. Overhead there are open beams supporting the standard sheet metal roof. Add a few articles of clothing for each person and you have some sense of how he and his family live. He supports them all by working 6, twelve hour days a week, in a city many hours away from the people he loves the most. He does this making the equivalent of $86 per month!
We learned then that his mother was wearing white because less than a month ago both his father and grandfather died ten days apart from each other. This is the man with the open spirit who took time off from work just to help two total strangers have a fruitful experience in his country. He did this because, for him we are obviously his brothers and he wanted us to know Africa in its true lights.
Watching him with his children and wife I could feel the calm strength that accompanies his humor and openness. When he speaks everyone listens and responds; not because he is forceful, but because there is a solid clarity to his deep voice that comes through even when he speaks softly.
While Alan sat outside talking to the family, I spent some time talking to Badou about his feelings about life. What he said is that, nothing is more important to him than working for his family. As long as they are cared for and happy, he is happy. He said that although he wears a smile on his face, there is often sadness in his heart. What mattered was keeping faith in God and maintaining the right attitude towards life. I sat on the floor as he talked, letting it all in as much as I could. Looking at the walls I couldn't imagine a man having less. Listening to him talk, I couldn't imagine a man having more.
Later I noticed Alioune playing soccer with some boys on the road with a deflated orange ball. He seemed bright and active for the first time in days. Badou was there watching and he turned to me to say that what we had done with Alioune was wonderful. "Look at him" he said. "He is free now". I could only sit there appreciating hearing this come from a man who speaks Alioune's language and knows his heart much better than I ever could.
Walking through the village later that day, on my way to the Tele Centre of course, I watched huge bats flying overhead and realized that I felt calm and at peace with my life at that moment. Something of Badou's example may have impressed me...I don't know.
Something very odd happened earlier that no one can explain. I saw Alioune getting something out of the car and noticed a strange thing; the dome light was on! Walking up to the driver's seat I knew that when I turned the switch, the headlights would go on. And sure enough the strange blackout that forced us to stop had somehow healed itself in Foundiougne.