Where the Path Widens and Other Explanations
The patchwork of compounds in my crescent shaped village were divided into six neighborhoods, the western-most of which was mine. Belakuna was its name, though I’d still never gotten the story behind it. Belakuna was dissected by a path, which skirted between the walls of Seydou’s family’s compounds then widened before continuing on past the neighborhood, past the village, and disappearing beyond the fields into the brush. This path was inconsequential, like any other, except where it widened.
The widening held the heart of the neighborhood in its dusty emptiness, like the moment after an long exhale. It was flanked by no less than eight compounds: two of Seydou’s brothers at one end, then Gaoussou’s cow pen, followed by my uncle Amadou’s house, then BaMusa, then the older Seydou at the far end, before looping back around with more of BaMusa’s family, my house, the crumbling remnants of an abandoned home (its owner long gone to work in Sikasso), and ending with the solar panels and the broken solar pump back in front of Seydou’s brother Amedou’s house.
The compounds were each contained behind mud walls, which formed a loose border around the space where so much village activity took place. Near the solar pump, a ficus tree shaded the six large wooden kolons, or mortars. It was here that the thud, thud, thuds of wooden pestles permeated the darkness each morning, accompanied only by the self important call of roosters. As the village brightened, the widening was criss-crossed by sheep, goats, and cows headed west to roam the fields nibbling the leftover millet stalks and whatever else they could find. The villagers woke up one by one and all found themselves in the widening at some point: schoolkids on the way to school, women in the midst of their morning chores, and the men on their morning walks to greet all the other villagers they passed.
As each day wore on, the widening found quiet. The biting sun kept the villagers hidden under gwas in their compounds, the men dozing in their chairs, the women washing clothes or shelling peanuts or drying onions for sale. Only the small children dared to entertain themselves in the widening at midday, laughing, running, fighting, crying, venturing from compound to compound.
By late afternoon, though, life was restored, initiated again by the lone thud, thud, thud of a woman susuing. As the day wore on, the chorus of pestles multiplied, the sheep, goats, and cows criss-crossed back home again, and the men, finished with their work for the day, chatted in the shade of a gwa by the older Seydou’s house at the far end. School children returned home all at once, their voices heard far before they could be seen. The girls joined the circle of susuing or grabbed jerry cans to fill at the pump across village, and boys took over the middle of the widening, chasing a homemade soccer ball until almost dark.
Most nights, the girls would be the last ones home after they finished their susuing under cover of darkness, the next morning’s breakfast millet freshly sifted in their calabashes. Some nights, quiet would envelop the widening until the first thuds of pestles the next morning, but sometimes, under bright moonlit skies, the kids would form a large circle of singing, drumming, and dancing, and their laughter would seep into the quiet, restful compounds nearby.
My house was nestled right in the commotion, in the middle of the west side of the widening. Two small mud rooms, angled perpendicular to the widening, along with a courtyard, a small garden, and a nyegen, or pit latrine. The door to my compound was on the far side of my house, away from the widening, giving the impression that I was farther from the center of my neighborhood than I actually was. A gwa stood at the widening end of my courtyard, under which a concrete slab had been built. The door to my house opened onto the slab, and it was here, under the gwa that I spent much of my time. By day, I sat with my back to the mud wall separating me from the widening and I chatted with whoever was stopping by. By night, I set up my mattress on the concrete slab, my mosquito net hanging from the gwa, and I slept under the stars that peaked through the millet stalks that topped my gwa.
My house was also nestled in the string of my host family’s compounds, which also sat perpendicular to the widening. My host family was quite large, and could be broken down into three smaller families: my dad Baba’s family, my uncle Amedou’s family, and the man I thought of as my grandpa Mama’s family. Mama was the oldest in the family, but didn’t have any of the responsibilities of being the oldest man, because he was too old to walk much further than his compound wall. Thus, my dad was the one who made most decisions, including what we ate for dinner on a given night (it rarely changed from toh), and whether anyone was allowed to go work in the city. Baba’s house was across from my compound door on the very edge of village. We called it Dukurala, or the new house. My dad, his three wives Ba, Na, and Batoma, my sisters and brothers, and Awa lived at Dukurala. When he wasn’t in the city working, my brother Nouhoum, Awa’s husband, lived there as well.
On the other side of the widening from my house was my uncle Amedou’s compound, where he lived with his wives Hawa, Fatoumata, and Seli and their assorted children. Behind Amedou’s house was Naani Seydou’s house, where Naani and his wives BaHawa and Jenaba lived. Naani was Mama’s son, and Mama’s house was directly behind Naani’s. Mama had only taken one wife, whom we called Baba, but as is customary in Mali, when a man dies, his wives go to his younger brother. So, when Amedou’s dad passed away, his two wives, whom we called Ba and Bani, went to Mama. Mama’s three wives were the ones I considered my grandmas. Ba and Bani, however, didn’t live with Mama. Instead they stayed in what we called Dubala, or the big house, which was located across another empty expanse, across from Mama’s house. Dubala was the center location for my family, though only my grandmas lived here. The main family kitchen (a mud room with a fire and a giant cauldron for toh) was where lunch and dinner were cooked and served each day in giant metal communal bowls. It was also where the women susued, and where I spent much of my time.
Jelica and her husband BaMusa were part of Mama’s family, but lived over amongst Seydou’s people’s compounds, as did Lamini, who was Amedou’s son, and his wife Mamou. All in all, 63 of my host family members were living in village upon my return, with many others off working in the cities or in school. In rainy season, many would return home to work the fields.
While I was assigned to be a volunteer for my whole village, I mostly only knew people from Belakuna, and I knew the people who spent time in the widening better than those who didn’t. I knew my host family and its inner workings better than any other family, and I knew the people in Baba’s house better than Amedou’s or Mama’s. And within Baba’s house, out of my three moms, Na was the one who was more my mom than the other two, with Batoma coming in second, and Ba a distant third.
It is here, in the widening and in the surrounding compounds, that my story takes place. It is in this neighborhood, in this family in particular that I became a part of a village. Sandy, well trodden paths extended out from the widening in all directions, like arteries, leading to other places, other stories. But it was from the heart of Belakuna, the place where the path widened, that I let each day unfold in front of me and learned what I could from whatever unfolded. This is my story.← The Long Awaited Return Tea and Traditions, Among Other Things →