The Long Awaited Return
I’ve heard it said you can never go home again. I’ve always thought this to be true. Until now.
I sat in my courtyard under my newly built gwa, shielded from the midday sun. One by one, the important men shuffled in to greet me and welcome me back. They brought in chairs—the long reclined palm wood kind and the smaller metal framed rubber band kind—and they perched around me in a rough half circle and asked about my trip. Behind them was a wall of children, perhaps fifty in all, standing, sitting, pushing, smiling, scolding, crying, laughing. So happy to see their toubab! I scanned their faces—they all looked the same!—and I was so happy to see them, too.
I tried to stay focused on the conversations around me, but I couldn’t help but be distracted by the kids, by the constant coming and going of village men, by the general chaos that always accompanied this many Malians in such a small courtyard. The reality of the moment was overwhelming: I’d actually done it. I’d actually returned to village, and right now, I was actually sitting in my yard surrounded by the people I had missed so much the last two years. I couldn’t stop smiling.
I looked up to see my youngest host mom, Batoma, pushing through the crowd to greet me; I was so happy to see her, too! My aunt Hawa came to greet me with her youngest daughter, Baniofla, who was all of two and a half, and completely terrified of the strange white woman in her midst. She clung to her mother and shook and screamed for her life, while we all laughed at the poor little girl before she was taken away. My smile grew wider with each new person I saw.
More men shuffled in and out, and then a familiar voice pushed through the crowd, one I had forgotten that I would get to hear today. It was Awa, my host sister-in-law and my first friend in village. She had left to go work in the city halfway through my stay last time, and I had gotten used to life in the village without her. I couldn’t believe she was now standing in front of me! Awa held out a cup of water and did the slight, bent knee curtsey that was customary for women to do when greeting guests. I took the water, just now realizing how thirsty I was, and drank it while internally pleading with my stomach to stay strong. Bleach would have been a good thing to remember, I thought to myself.
I’d barely noticed that Seydou had disappeared, but when he returned, he held a chicken by its feet, hanging upside down, resigned to its fate. I smiled, knowing it was customary to give guests of the village a chicken. I was touched by their generosity, by the generosity of their custom, and was so grateful to be back in their company again. I watched as Seydou handed the chicken to one of the men and quietly explained that he was giving the chicken to me as a gift. The other men continued their conversations while the man accepted the gift from Seydou. He then passed it on to the next man, explaining again that Seydou was giving me a chicken as a gift. The chicken was passed around, working its way up the hierarchy of importance, until it ultimately ended up with my host dad, Baba. I accepted the chicken from Baba, holding onto its knobby legs while he explained to me my gift. I thanked him before handing it back to Seydou so it could return to me later fully cooked. We would undertake this ritual four more times before the day was done.
Awa left and returned a while later with a bucket of water and placed it in my nyegen, or pit latrine, so I could bathe. With this, the crowd dispersed until just Seydou and I remained. “Come see your house,” he said, as he led me inside for the first time. My eyes adjusted to the dimness of the small kitchen room, and I took in the dusty smell and the familiarity of the place I used to live. The dull mud walls looked more worn, pock-marked by termites and riveted in the places rain had gushed down during all the storms I had missed. The black plastic I had put on the ceiling to keep termite dust off my things had fallen down and been removed. However, there were my tables to the right, dusty and covered in cobwebs, but otherwise just as it’d left them. The big map of the world was still nailed to the wall, as were the pictures of Chicago and the valentine my mom had sent me just before I’d left. The pictures I’d hung of my friends were curled around the edges, but otherwise intact, and the dusty curtains I had sewn still hung from the window. My large bucket for washing clothes was filled with many of my dishes, which Seydou informed me he himself had washed. He then unwrapped a bundle of things he hadn’t known what to do with: lentils, black beans, bulger, and the bag of sunflower seeds I’d collected from my garden, all dusty from two years of waiting. In my second room, my bedroom, my bookshelf still stood, some of the books damaged by rain, but most of them still very readable. “A kine, wa?” Seydou asked. Is it good? “Yes!” I told him, “So good!” I looked away as my eyes started to tear up. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt this fortunate.
Seydou left me alone and I changed into my tafe, or wrap skirt, to use as a towel for my bath. I grabbed my soap and went to my nyegen, a little nervous of what I would find. Not surprisingly, though, it was also just as I’d left it: unused for the last two years. As I bathed, I thought back to my first arrival. It had been much the same as this one, except the first time I was terrified. I had wanted so badly to give a good first impression, but the village men surrounded me and bambara words I couldn’t identify tumbled out of their mouths. I looked back at them wide-eyed and awkward, wishing my emotions weren’t so visible on my face. I had been exhausted from the bus ride, and even more exhausted from the new realization that I was a forty minute horse cart ride from the road on a path I couldn’t retrace if I’d tried. I had put all my trust in a village full of people I couldn’t understand.
My house had been nothing like I’d been imagining for over a year and the finality of knowing my fate had been too much for me in my dehydrated, exhausted state. I had wanted more than anything to be left alone, to catch my breath, to have the chance to accept my circumstances as they were, but when I had finally been allowed to bathe, Seydou sat in my courtyard, waiting for me to finish. From day one, his priority had been to make sure I was taken care of at all times, though I couldn’t see the value in that at the time. Instead, I had stood in my nyegen and silently cried giant gulping sobs, pouring water over my scrunched up face, trying to convince myself I could in fact live here for two whole years. How far I had come from that very first day, I thought to myself now, my smile still wide across my face.
After I dressed, Awa returned with a giant bowl full of leftover toh, the squishy, dull green mix of millet and water cooked til it was more or less solid, the consistency of forgotten oatmeal. It was generally dipped bite by bite into baobab leaf sauce, dark green and slippery, but as leftovers, both toh and sauce were combined into a slimy mixture that evaded hungry fingers searching for bites. For some reason, though, I liked reheated leftover toh better than regular toh, and this day, sitting down to eat with Awa and her four year old daughter, La, it was even better than I remembered it.
When I finished eating, I walked next door to my host family’s compound, where I found my teenage sisters and cousins sitting under the gwa. I sat down near them and was soon surrounded in a full circle by no less than fifty kids. I looked at them all, not knowing what to say to all the peering eyes. I was rarely the object of so much attention. My host sisters made things more awkward by taking pictures of me with their fancy new cell phones. It was the clearest change I’d found: only men had had cell phones when I left. One by one, the older women came to greet me, and it wasn’t long before my aunt Fatoumata asked if I remembered everyone’s names. She pointed at kid after kid and I pulled names from some far crevice in my brain, impressing even myself with what I could remember.
Before long, Seydou returned and saved me from my awkward sitting. We left to greet the dugutigi, or village chief. We walked the familiar paths across village, and the only noticeable change was the mud missing from the tops of compound walls, washed away during the last two rainy seasons, making the walls shorter and thus easier to see into people’s compounds. We greeted the dugutigi, and Seydou explained to him that I had come back to visit, that last time I’d been part of Peace Corps, but now I was here all on my own. He emphasized that I even saved up my own money to buy a ticket, which was quite expensive. I didn’t remember explaining to Seydou too many details of my return, and was touched that he’d pieced everything together. “A diyara an ye,” the dugutigi said. It pleases us.
In the evening, I went as I always had to my host family’s house, and found my designated chair under the gwa. I sat watching the stars peek out one by one in the dimming sky. My family shuffled around me, their evening routine the same on this night as every other. My sisters returned from susuing, or pounding, the next morning’s breakfast millet, my mom and dad prayed, Awa filled the clay containers with water for the horses and donkeys to drink. All the details of an evening that I’d forgotten were now right there in front of me, smiling, welcoming me back.
Seydou came by to tell me my rice and sauce that the women of his family had prepared for me was ready. My dad and I followed him to my house, where a giant bowl of rice and a smaller bowl of sauce filled with the pieces of my first returned chicken were waiting. We washed our hands and Seydou ladled spoonfuls of sauce over the hot rice. With our right hands, we took fistfuls of sauce-soaked rice, stuffing our mouths with the salty, msg-laden goodness that tasted like home. No one made rice and sauce quite like my village.
After dinner, I leaned back in my chair, staring up at the black moonless sky, dotted with more stars than I had seen in ages. I could feel the heat from the day radiating off the mud wall behind me. Long gone were all the apprehensions I’d concocted over the previous weeks. Forgotten were the feelings of isolation I’d perceived in the stillness of the early morning bus station. All the doubts about my decisions seemed silly in this quiet moment. I was not alone! I was surrounded by my adopted family, my adopted village. They say you can never go home again. But, I sat in my courtyard under my slightly shorter mud walls with my dad and Seydou, and I knew that’s exactly where I had come.← Going Home Where the Path Widens and Other Explanations →