Monday, September 16, 2002

"Drum is African telephone," Baye Modou says. His dreadlocks hang haphazardly, framing his toothy grin. Sometimes I worry that one of his longer locks will get burnt when he leans over the open fire to light his cigarette, but it hasn't happened yet. Whether it's his smile, or his relaxed friendliness, or his confidence that nothing is a problem, he has a charisma that smooths out the wrinkles in his character. Around the village, everyone knows this property as the House of Baye Modou, though his taller but perhaps less outgoing older brother Baye An lives there too, as well as an American and a German.

The two brothers seem to have the same first name, but actually Baye means father. That makes them sound a bit like priests, which isn't so far from the truth. They belong to a religion called Baye Fall, originating in Senegal. It's a sect of Islam, but presents a much different face to the world; more like the asceticism of Hindu sadhus, the wandering holy men begging for food in India -- at least, that was my first association when I encountered them in Dakar, asking for donations for their Marabou. Their dreadlocks are supposed to represent letting go of attachment to external form. They don't let go entirely, however, as they're adorned with a host of Baye Fall accessories: leather amulets, a photo of their spiritual leader the Grand Marabou, and patchwork clothing.

"Colors are many, but cloth is one," Baye Modou explains the symbolism of patchwork. "Colors are many, but people are one."

Baye Fallism was founded, says the guidebook, by a Muslim man who didn't cotton to prayer and ritual. When he asked his Marabou if there were any other ways to reach Allah in heaven, he was finally given permission to use work as prayer. Strangely, work doesn't seem to be the most common activity of most Baye Falls I've met -- but then again, Christians don't seem to spend much time loving their enemies either.

Idealogy aside, they welcomed Juliette and me into their home when we appeared on the doorstep. We'd been invited by the American who lives here (even though he didn't happen to be around at the time) and we were glad to have an opportunity for rest after our rough traveling through the Sahara.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes.

"Drum is African telephone," Baye Modou says. My new djembe sits at my feet, ready at any moment to burst forth with machine guns and thunder (or angels and heartbeats, if you prefer). If only I had the skill to invoke its power. It's a simple drum, with no decorative carvings or inlays, but it has a good sound -- even for me.

My dream, one of many, was to go to Africa and learn to play the djembe. It's a little unsettling to realize how distant and impossible it had seemed, and yet here I am, doing it. The dream had lost a little of its luster and romance by the time it became acheivable; six weeks wasn't a lot of time to learn an instrument, so I had no misgivings about returning from Africa a master drummer.

It makes me wonder, though -- if it's really possible to turn dreams into reality, perhaps I should pay more attention to what I'm dreaming.

Whoops, I keep getting side-tracked.

"Drum is African telephone," Baye Modou says. I guess the tribes would play certain rhythms to announce a birth or a wedding, or perhaps even ask a question to a neighbor village. Point is, it's loud. For example, the Baye Fall house is the better part of a mile away from the center of the village, and we can always tell when there's a party going on.

It's difficult to ignore this fact as I sling the strap over my shoulder to go somewhere private to practice. What I'm doing when I play is akin to calling up everyone in town so they can listen to the new rhythm I'm learning.

"You play nice rhythm today man," Baye Modou says when I return.

"Thanks," I answer, hoping everybody else in Kafountine feels the same way.

Light came in through the window, so it must have been after six. Rain also came in through the window, but that wasn't what woke us up. It was the rain coming in through the roof. The thatch roof wasn't bad, the sky was just falling too hard, too fast, to keep it all out merely with the needles of a palm tree.

This was the first early morning storm since we arrived, and we didn't know quite what to make of it. The wind howled as it thrashed the palm tree fronds and tore at the wooden shutters swinging from the open windows of the hut. The thought crossed my mind that maybe this was the beginning of a hurricane, but I kept that thought to myself to avoid inspiring fear and/or ridicule. Falling back to sleep while raindrops keep falling on our heads didn't seem likely, so we got up.

Toothbrush in hand, I rain for the kitchen. No actual cooking took place in the kitchen, nor was there running water, but it was the place where the food and dishes were kept. I wasn't headed inside, actually, just to the thatch awning in front, to get out of the rain. This is where most of the day's activity took place. Activity might be the wrong word; let's say the day's tranquility. Sitting, drinking coffee, eating bread, smoking, eating fish, drinking tea, chatting, eating mangoes, smoking -- you get the idea.

That's why I was so surprised to see Astu out in the rain with a plastic bag on her head. She was bending over in the garden, pushing seeds into the ground. She was soaked, rivulets of water dripping from each fold of her sarong. I don't think the plastic bag helped much, except to protect her hair weave.

I didn't really understand why she lived here, except that she was waiting for her German boyfriend to come back. I didn't understand why she worked so hard -- cooking, cleaning, shopping, carrying 80 pounds of coal on her head -- except that in this culture women who don't work are considered lazy, and lazy women have no value. And I certainly didn't understand why she was up so early planting seeds in a storm. I think that's why it took me a while to offer her my rainjacket, which she gladly accepted. I didn't offer to help her plant seeds.

I don't understand why Astu does anything she does, but she works hard so on the rare occasions when she asks for help I do my best to oblige.

One evening she asked me to help patch the roof with a sheet of plastic. I didn't want to sound stubborn by asking why she chose this twilight hour to begin, so I dutifully began cutting the plastic. It turned out she wanted to fix the roof above the bed Juliette and I slept in, which was awfully nice considering it was one of the drier spots in the house. The problem was that it was near the center of the round house, where the roof was the highest. I wasn't sure whether I was just being a wimpy American city-dweller, but when I climbed up to the top of the wall where the rafters began, I honestly couldn't find a way to reach the roof without breaking my neck. I felt better after she climbed up too and agreed to patch a different spot.

So up the ladder she went with three meters of blue plastic. As it was dark by now, my job was to hold the candle so she could see what she was doing -- which was shoving the plastic between the palm needles and the rafters on which they rested. It didn't take long before her t-shirt -- which she wore not over her shoulders but below them, like a tube-top -- slipped down. I don't know why she wore it this way, but I'm sure she had a reason that I could understand if only we had a language in common. Her hands left the plastic for a moment while they pulled her shirt back up.

I should note at this point that in this part of the world women's breasts aren't considered attractive, and therefore it's not necessary to cover them. It's one of very few ways in which men and women are equal here.

Of course, the shirt soon fell again. When she eventually stopped pulling it back up, I found myself awkwardly trying to hold the candle to give light without looking at her femininity. This was a far cry from India, where it was unusual even to be alone in a room with a woman. Looking at the opposite wall hardly allowed me to fulfill my obligation as candle-holder, so after a few moments I was able to put my cultural conditioning behind me to hold the candle properly without blushing.