My bus from Bamako barreled past all the familiar, forgotten places. Fana, Segou, Bla, Yangasso. The road to Dieli. Diabougou. I made my way to the front as we started up the hill and announced my upcoming descent, much to the surprise of the front row passengers and driver. They looked out at the seemingly endless expanse of dust covered bushes and asked me, “Are you sure?” We crested over the hill and in the distance I could see the white beacon of the Koroguelabougou plaqui, or sign, glimmering in the blanched white sun. It was small, easy to miss, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was the first indication that I was almost home. “Yes,” I said confidently, “I’m sure.”
I blinked as I stepped out into the glaring midday sun. The world was hazy, dreamlike. Sure enough, there was Brahman, sitting under his gwa, legs flat out in front of him, weaving more baskets to place for sale by the side of the road. I waved to him and he hesitated before getting up, making sure what he was seeing was real. “Eh?” I could hear him saying. “Eh, eh, eh, eh?” The Malian noise of disbelief. My, how I’d missed Malian noises.
And my how I had missed this clearing. A place that had once seemed so elusive, so easy to pass by without noticing from the cramped insides of Malian transport. I remembered my first time here, so overwhelmed by what I had signed up for. How would I ever find this small clearing by myself, I wondered? How nervous I had been the first time I’d taken a bashé, or transport van, home from San, my friend Hannah and I snug between the three other Malians in our row. I peered out the window the whole 20 kilometers, heart racing, pondering the best plan of action in case I missed my stop. And then, I saw it: the tree with straw stashed between braches to provide extra shade. The two small mud buildings further back, the well, the gwa. “Ne be jigin yan!” I had said in my fragile, over-annunciated Bambara. I’m getting off here. The driver looked back in disbelief and I repeated myself louder. As the bashé slowed, I breathed a sigh of relief and Hannah patted my back, saying, “Good job, Bougourie. It’s always the little things.” Though knowing I was capable of finding my way home seemed far from little at the time.
Oh, the hours I’d spent here, waiting for a ride into town, hailing anything that passed, always both relieved and nervous each time a private car stopped to offer a ride. And then there were the times I’d come just to see Brahman, my host sister-in-law’s father. How happy he always was to see me. How proud he always was to show off the trees in his nursery.
How numb I’d been the last time I was here, sitting on the mahogany colored rock, sketching designs in the dust under my feet, forbidding reality from surfacing in my mind. Just another day waiting for transport, I had told myself. But it wasn’t.
It was that day I’d promised myself I’d come back to this clearing. That I’d take the wispy path through the bushes back to my village as soon as possible. What confidence I’d had in that simple promise. But coming back is never easy. Time goes by, circumstances change, people move on. How many times I had wondered if this was the right promise to keep? If I wasn’t better off putting Mali behind me?
But then, I heard it: the smooth roll of wheels gliding over the sandy path interrupted by the jolty clip clop of hooves, the creaking of wooden boards yearning to come loose, the uneven chorus of the axel and straps rubbing against the horse, against each other. I looked up to see Seydou and his horse cart, or wotoro, emerging from the bushes. The wotoro looked smaller than I remembered, but Seydou—his black winter hat resting loosely above his heart-shaped face, mouth concealed by a dusty black airplane eye mask that the Malian men so fashionably wore to keep dust off their faces while driving—Seydou looked the same. As he rode closer, he pulled down his eye mask and I could see his full moon cheeks and his almost bashful smile revealing the few crooked teeth had left.
He hopped off the wotoro and we greeted the long, extended greetings reserved for those who have been gone a long time. Welcome! How are you? And your family? Are they in peace? Your mom? Your dad? All the people in America? Michelle? Is she at peace? Tom? Jim…? I stumbled through the answers, out of practice. After loading my bags, Seydou instructed me to get on the wotoro. I mounted with ease, my back to the cart, one hand on the axel, one on the side, one quick jump and I was sitting in my assigned place up front just behind the horse to the right. We waved goodbye to Brahman and rode off to his customary instructions to greet everyone, mumbling, “They will hear it,” after each person named. He finished as he always had, with a laugh, using his only English word “Bye bye!” and waving.
My body moved with the wotoro, naturally predicting the bumps and curves. The path was the same, if but a little more sparse than I had left it, as the women had already collected most of the wood for the year. The horse trudged along, pulling the cart past leafless bushes waiting for rain, the dusty khaki ground littered with pockets of dry leaves and dull, mahogany pebbles. We passed all the forgotten landmarks, the rocks I knew to avoid on my bike, the seven baobab trees to the right. And then in front of me, the familiar rectangular mud homes set back against the horizon across all the spiky, partially cleared millet fields, collectively making up a village, my village. Just as I had left it. I was home.← In Transit The Long Awaited Return →