Today We Work

Today We Work

by Lynn G. Carlson

SHE IS FOREVER GIVING, 1993. BATIK BY SAIHOU O. NJIE. Reproduced by permission from the artist.
Reproduced by permission from the artist.


Alla hu akbar…the call of the muezzin begins and I hear it as if from inside a jar. Propped up against the foot of a bamboo bed which sits under my millet-stalk-roofed veranda, I’ve been lost in my notes, studying Bambara vocabulary since dawn.

Alla hu akbar…the muezzin repeats, calling the faithful to morning prayer: “God is great.” The mosque and my concrete-block house sit on the edge of the village of MPessoba and five times a day this swooning chant wafts through the African air.

My dog Wuluni returns from his morning foray and noses my hand. He is sleek and muscular, a perfect specimen of African mutt. “Today we work,” I whisper to him, excitement squirming in my belly. A flock of guinea fowl rounds the corner of the house, honking in a discordant chorus. Wuluni chases them off and then returns to my side, panting.

I stand, stretch my aching legs and readjust the large rectangle of pink and purple cloth—my pagne—around my waist, tucking in my T-shirt. I dip a ladle into a clay jar and take a long drink of the cool chlorine-infused water.

Later, face and feet washed and hair combed into a high ponytail, I sit on the edge of my bed and gnaw on a stale chunk of French bread slathered with peanut butter. I dig in my kerosene-powered refrigerator and find a few morsels of cold mutton for Wuluni’s breakfast.

As I feed him chunk by chunk I remind him, “We’re gonna work today.” This is not technically true, since Wuluni will not be helping me build woodstoves. His only interest is in roaming the bush, hunting geckos and looking for female-in-heat company.

But finally, after six months and eleven days in Mali, West Africa—three months after being sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer and receiving my Malian name of Tene Keita—I am getting around to doing what I was assigned to do. Construction of my first foyer ameliore—“improved woodstove”—in the village begins today. All that I learned in Pre-service Training will at last be put to use.

I’ve worked on the first phase of the project, educating the people in my halting Bambara about the need for woodstoves: They cut down on fuel consumption by over half so women won’t have to walk so far into the bush to gather firewood. Stoves are also safer than the traditional three-rock fire ring because children can’t fall in the fire. I ka baara nogoya—“It makes your work easier,” I say persuasively to the women.

It will feel so good to show off my stove-building skills, to be competent in something after months of looking like an idiot—unable to eat from the communal bowl without dropping rice on the ground; stumbling to hear, much less enunciate, the tonal difference between words like wulu (dog) and wuulu (penis).

I picture myself in action: surrounded by attentive villagers as I articulate in smooth Bambara phrases the steps to build a stove. The villagers call to passersby to come and look—see this wonderful thing the young American woman is bringing to MPessoba.

I grab my daba—a metal hoe with a wooden handle—and head out for today’s worksite at the family compound of my Bambara language teacher, Monsieur Amadu Daffe. He has three wives and seventeen children, and I visit his compound almost every day to play with the children and practice my Bambara.

Daffe’s first wife, Hawa, sits on a grass mat under her veranda. I approach her immediately, having learned the protocol in polygamous families: the first wife is highest in prestige, so she must be greeted before the other wives.

Hawa is generous in girth and humor, presiding over her compound with frequent laughter. She launches into the traditional greeting: I ni sogoma, Tene, she says—“You and the morning.” She smiles up at me as we shake hands. At least I no longer do the American-style hand pump, which used to crack the villagers up. I have learned the proper Malian way: clasp gently with the right hand, while touching the left hand to the inside of the right elbow—a sign of respect.

I k’a kene wa?—“How is your health?” she asks. I ka somogo k’a kene wa?—“How is your family’s health?”

In spite of the fact that I haven’t seen my family back in Wyoming for over six months, I assure Hawa that my father, mother, and sisters are all just fine this morning.

It’s a glorious chaos at the Daffe compound—kids, dogs, chickens and goats all bleating, crying, scuffling and pecking. I sit on a small wooden stool near Hawa’s mat and watch the action.

Daffe’s second wife, Mariam, pounds millet with a giant pestle in a corner of the compound. She is tall and quiet, a good decade younger than Hawa. Daffe’s third wife, Aminata, bathes a small child in a metal bucket. She is pretty and petite, and all of about fifteen years old. Each of the wives has children, but I’m never sure which kid belongs to which wife, except for the babies who hang in a cloth sling from their mother’s back. It’s part of Malian culture never to designate any sibling a half-brother or half-sister, and children call each of their father’s wives Ba muso—“Mother,” much to my confusion. I eventually give up trying to sort out who “belongs” to whom; obviously I’m the only one worried about it.

Hawa hands her baby, Modibo, to me and I bounce him in my lap. He is a beautiful six-month-old child, with blue-black, translucent skin and a pixie face framed with curly black hair. Hawa fusses over him, pressing him into one of her massive breasts. His small mouth can barely wrap around the nipple. Duminike, Modibo, duminike—“Eat, Modibo, eat,” she croons.

Hawa asked me once if I could give Modibo some medicine to help him grow. A te bonya, she said—“He doesn’t grow.” I had nothing to offer, plus I recalled a warning from the Peace Corps nurse.

“Don’t give out any medicine,” the nurse said, shaking her forefinger. “The Malians think all Americans are doctors. Say to the people, Ne te docotoro ye—‘I am not a doctor.’”

So when Hawa asked me on that day for medicine, I dutifully told her, “Ne te docotoro ye” and she sighed and rocked Modibo in her arms.

Today I tell Hawa I think Modibo has bonyara dooni—“grown a little bit.” She smiles a huge smile, showing brilliant white teeth against blue-tinted lips.

Hawa summons Guimba and Boubacar, the two teenaged sons who have been drafted as my assistants for the woodstove project. Yesterday they gathered shredded millet stalks, manure and clay from the outskirts of the village, and piled it all in the outdoor kitchen area.

When Guimba and Boubacar speak to me they talk louder and slower than normal. Nin bogo k’a ni?—“Is this good clay for you?” they yell. I want to tell them I’m not deaf, but I don’t know the word for “deaf” in Bambara. Instead I grab my right ear and shake it, thinking it’s a pretty good pantomime of “I’m not deaf.” Guimba looks surprised and glances at Boubacar who grabs his ear and shakes it, laughing. Pretty soon almost all of Daffe’s seventeen children are pulling on their ears and laughing. So much for a good comeback.

We begin the back-breaking work of blending the materials into an adobe-like mixture. It’s the same process the villagers use to make material to build their houses. Guimba, Boubacar and I take turns jumping barefoot into the pile. Using the daba to draw the clay inward, we work in a circular pattern, add water, stomp around, add millet and manure, stomp again, digging with the hoe over and over until the clay and millet stalks and water meld and all the clumps are worked out. I try hard not to stumble or slow down—sure don’t want the fine people of MPessoba to think they got a slacker on their hands.

A crowd of villagers forms during this operation. It’s not every day that a white woman is seen mixing mud. In fact, in Mali women never do the mud work—that’s for men. But the Malians are adjusting to my quirky ways and just shrug and laugh at my muddy ankles.

People enter the compound, exchange greetings with the Daffe family and each other, and watch the work for a few minutes before going off on their morning errands. I ni baara, they yell as they leave—“You and your work.”

When the mud is blended to my satisfaction, we leave the mixture to ripen until tomorrow. Getting the mud just right is a tricky thing—too fresh and the elements separate, too ripened and it will slump. I sprinkle a little more water on top of the pile and give it a happy slap. It should be exactly right for tomorrow. And by tomorrow night, the villagers of MPessoba will be able to visit Daffe’s compound and see the foyer ameliore in place in a typical Malian kitchen. After that, I bet they’ll want me to build one for them too.

I wash my feet and return to Hawa’s veranda, ready for rest and a sip of water from my canteen. Hawa hands Modibo to me again. This time he is swaddled in a cloth.

A m’an kene, Hawa says—“He is sick.”

The boy does look listless, and his eyes, which are usually shiny black buttons, have an almost metallic sheen to them. I rifle through my memory, trying to recall the benedictions for illness. I stutter through the only one I can remember: Allah k’a nogoya ke—“May God make him better.”

Amina—“Amen,” Hawa responds, receiving the blessing on behalf of her son.

Worn out from all the mixing and excitement, I return the boy to his mother and decline an invitation to come back and take tea with Daffe in the afternoon. I want to review my stove-building vocabulary in preparation for tomorrow’s construction phase. Heading back to my house, I study all afternoon and into the evening.

After breakfast the next morning, I perform toe touches to loosen up from yesterday’s labor. “Big stove-building day!” I tell the dog.

Wuluni stares out toward the mosque, a low growl vibrating in his throat. I look in that direction and see a figure. As it gets closer, I recognize Idriesa, another of Daffe’s sons, coming toward us. I drag Wuluni into the house by his collar. Unfortunately, he has developed a preference for white people and will growl and bark at my Malian visitors, who always speak admiringly of this dog who is such a good protector.

Idriesa has an envelope in his hand. We exchange the morning greetings. Idriesa stares down at his dusty bare feet.

Mun don?—“What is it?” I ask. Idriesa hands the envelope to me.

Daffe’s squiggly handwriting is on the front. Mademoiselle Tene Keita, it reads. I tear open the envelope and struggle to translate the words written in French.

“The Daffe family regrets to inform you that due to the death of their son, Modibo Daffe, construction of the foyer ameliore will have to be postponed.”

I sit down hard on my bamboo bed. Suddenly the morning light is harsh and blinding. The air has hardened into a steely heat.

Idriesa does not make eye contact with me—that would be a rude gesture to an elder—but I sense his curiosity. He gazes into the distance, waiting. I sit, immobile. Am I expected to answer the note, I wonder? It would take me an hour to write it in French and I’d need to find paper, my French dictionary…no, no time for all that.

I rub my eyes. An image hangs before me: little Modibo with his translucent skin and pixie face in a halo of curly dark hair. Then there is Hawa, holding her son to her breast, rocking him. I hear her cooing his name, over and over.

I open my eyes in time to see Idriesa shift from one leg to another, still gazing out toward the mosque. A benediction, then? Yeah. Benediction for death. We learned some in training. I remember one because it was so perfect for desert-dwellers. I lift my chin and say as precisely as I know how, Allah k’a da yoro sumaya—“May God cool his resting place.”

Amina, Idriesa says. He turns and runs toward home.

I rummage through the metal trunk inside my house, the one I store all my handouts from training in so that they won’t get munched by termites. I find the one that explains the baptism ceremony, complete with benedictions and the appropriate gift. Another handout describes the marriage ceremony. Where the hell is the one about funerals? I can’t find it and I can’t remember much that the cross-cultural trainer told us. Muslims bury their dead within twenty-four hours, I do remember that. And there was more. A lot more. What to say, when to visit the family, what to bring. But the handout is nowhere to be found.

I cry and cuss and throw the papers across the room. Wuluni cowers in the corner. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is spread-eagled on the table where I left it a couple days ago. I throw it at the wall.

I am useless, helpless, pathetic. Stupid white girl doesn’t even know what to do when somebody dies. I sink into a cross-legged sit, my chest bouncing with hiccup-sobs. Wuluni slinks over and slides his head onto my knee. He watches me with tawny-gold eyes.

“I don’t know what to do, Wuluni,” I moan.

He answers by rolling over for a belly scratch. I rub my hand over his chest. I blow my nose on a scrap of cloth. I sit and pet Wuluni for a good long time.

Just go and be with the family. Just be human. This missive from nowhere arrives in my brain and I instantly know the truth of it. I pull myself up into a standing position.

“No work today, buddy,” I tell Wuluni. “Today, we grieve.”

Then I bathe and tie my hair into a scarf. I change into my dress pagne and walk toward the Daffe family compound.  ■


Lynn G. Carlson lives and writes in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She finds that the genre of creative nonfiction gives her plenty of room to roam—through memories, into and around insights, and deep into family stories. Lynn leads the In Our Own Words writing group at Chrysalis House, a residential addiction treatment center. Every other Wednesday, she and eight other women sit around a table, put pens to page, and dig for their authentic voices.

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