I am working with Bala. He is eleven years old. As I look into his eyes I can see intelligence and empathy, a good combination of traits in anyone at any age but especially in someone so young. His big smile warms me as much as the sun does. When he smiles, it is as if my heart is basking in sunshine, as if my soul is standing in the sunrise. All during the day we play a game called "Foda". He calls out my name and if I say "foda!" then I am safe. If I forget to say "foda," however, and answer, "Huh?" instead then he gets to thump me three times on my forehead. Each time he gets me, he giggles as he thumps me. His giggles make me laugh. The Koran teaches that those who make their friends laugh are worthy of paradise. If this is true then he will have a prominent place there. In stature he is small and thin but in heart he is as big and broad as this field in which we are standing.
In one hand we are holding small gourds that have been cut in half and filled with millet seeds. In the other we are holding small hoes that the Malinke people call "dabos." We are walking side by side, digging holes in the ground, dropping three tiny black seeds into the earth and covering the seeds with a fine layer of rocks and dirt. The ground on our mountain is rocky ground and the land seems to have more stones on it than soil. It is a miracle that things grow here, that things grow so well here. But they do. We are planting with hope that good rains will come and help the seeds grow into whole, full stalks of millet. I am enjoying learning the life of a Malinke farmer. Bala is my teacher. This is his field.
There is a commotion below us at the bottom of the field, the shouting of children and the barking of a dog. We look up from our work, lifting our hands to our faces to shield our eyes from the glare of the sun.
"What's happening?" I ask.
"A squirrel," he answers.
"A squirrel is in the ground."
"What are the children doing?" I ask again.
"We're going to trap it. Let's go!"
We run to the children. I watch in wonder as they go about trapping the squirrel. They are standing around a mound of dirt, a mound that is taller than they are, a mound that is covered with squirrel-sized holes. The dog is barking and digging in one of the holes. In ways that seem as familiar to them as brushing their teeth, the children begin to use rocks to block the holes around the barking dog and chop the ground around him with their dabos.
"There it is!" yells Bala.
With one swift motion he reaches into the whole, grabs the squirrel, and pulls it out of its hiding place.
"Wow", I say, astonished that my little friends are so adept at finding meat for their evening meal.
"Bubakari, we want to give this to you so Fenda can cook it for your supper."
"No, no. I don't think Fenda knows how to cook a squirrel. I don't think she would like to cook it, anyway. You take it and eat it. You worked hard for it. You give it to your Mother so she can cook it for you, okay?"
After a while, the sun reaches its peak in the sky, its crecendo within the symphony of the day, and we are hot and tired. We are standing under the shade of an ancient baobab tree, taking big gulps of water from our canteens, letting the cool water run off of our faces and onto our shirts to cool us and clean us. It is time to walk back to the village because the sun is stronger than we are. We walk. Bala leads and I follow. I ask questions along our way.
"What kind of tree is that?"
"Can you eat its fruit?"
"Is there a village over that hill?"
"What is the name of that bird?"
Bala answers patiently as we slowly make our way home. We are talking but mostly we are overcome by silence, the quiet that falls comfortably after a long stretch of hard work. We are walking. As always, I am thinking and wondering.
We walk up the steep hill into our village. We see other men with dabos hanging over their shoulders. Mud made from dust and sweat is clinging from their tattered farming clothes. We hear the beat of women punding pestles on mortars, living metronomes that set the rhythm and rhyme of the village day. Afternoon meals are being prepared for hungry families. I feel a child wrap her arms around my knee and I lift her up off the ground with each step I take, both of us enjoying her way of saying hello. I observe the children in our village as they chase each other around trees and play in the public meeting place, remembering that over half of the population of our African continent is under eighteen years of age. We go our seperate ways, I into my courtyard and Bala into his. It feels good to be home.
"Hello tired one. You worked hard today!" say friends who are visiting us.
"Hello my friends." Are you passing the afternoon in peace?" I ask of them.
My wife brings a cup of water to me and kneels as she places it in my hand, following a Malinke custom that all married women must practice. I grin.
"Please don't kneel," I say to her.
She kneels anyway, partly to save herself from the scandal of not kneeling and partly to say that she loves me.
I sit down in the shade of our thatched roof shelter that our friends built for us. I bury my face into the folds of my shirt to wipe away the sweat from my salt worn eyes. I look up again and see the extended hands of my friend Baiisa. She is Bala's Mother. The Malinke custom is to bring some food to the person who helps in your field and she is honoring that custom now. She is holding a bowl of food in her hands, pounded corn the color of soft sunlight with peanut sauce poured over the top of it. It is a practical way of saying thanks for working in her son's field. As the warm food fills my belly, she gives me a blessing.
"May God return the kindness to you that you have shown to me."
I reach into the bowl for another handful of the delicious food and I know that she is the answer to her own prayer for me.
Now I am sitting on a mammoth rock up on a hill just behind our courtyard, in the shade of a mango tree. I am enjoying the respite from the midday heat. I can see my village before me. It is as if the whole village is taking a collective breath, waiting for the sun to move down on the horizon so people can go back to their fields again. I close my eyes and on the canvas of my heart my thoughts paint a picture of my Malinke friends. I see small clouds of dust rise from the dry, hard ground with each determined stroke of the dabo. I see the three tiny millet seeds fall deftly from the planting gourd into the small, hollowed holes in the ground. I see bare feet stepping over the stony field, calloused and broken from a lifetime of playing, working, and living without shoes. The dabo becomes an extension of the hand and the people themselves seem to be growing out of the ground, those same calloused and broken feet being deeply rooted in the soil. "The Lord God formed people from the dust of the ground," says Scripture. I understand this now. I see a person stooped and working, planting the field that will help his family live. He rises slowly and looks at me. I see Bala.
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