The Question I am Asked the Most Often

is what do you do in an average day? Why don’t I put it this way,

“I try to believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Count them, Alice. One, there are drinks that make you shrink. Two, there are foods that make you grow. Three, animals can talk. Four, cats can disappear. Five, there is a place called Underland. Six, I can slay the Jabberwocky.”

I can spend a week in a village that speaks only Jula and worships about one hundred different fetishes. The Tiefo people, blacksmiths by caste, are numerous in Burkina Faso but few among them speak their native tongue. Here, it is my duty to listen to the five remaining speakers, to record and understand what they tell me. The speakers are all very old, and thus very set in their ways. They believe in many spirits; their customs are complex and often impede the work. Their rituals involve consulting and then making sacrifices to many fetishes. These practices were performed right in front of me, in fact my presence was requested and to decline would have been an insult.

I can speak your language though I am not one of you. There were many Fulani living in the area of Gnafongo and I learned to speak Fulfulde in Peace Corps and have used it to communicate ever since. Fulani women are easily identified by their tall, slender physiques, beads braided into their hair, tattooed lips, and pierced septums with thick gold hoops. The kind of people that would be considered uncouth in our culture here are regal in their appearance. I passed one woman walking along the outside of the village one day and I greeted her. She was astounded. She asked me three times, “are you a Fulani woman or are you a Toubab (foreigner) woman?” I responded three times, “I am a Toubab woman.” Despite the fact that based on my own appearance and dress this was obvious, the Fulani woman concluded that no, I must be a Fulani because she had never heard a Toubab speak her language. Language is identity.

I can do linguistic fieldwork in some tough conditions. A baby is crying for his mother who has abandoned him with no milk upon which to feed. Another intoxicated market goer stumbles into the old woman’s house where we am working, spilling sorghum beer across the Toughbook’s screen and babbles over the recording of her carefully pronouncing the names of the forest animals. Onlookers mock my attempts to speak Jula. Just as I am so exasperated that I am ready to give up, I am encouraged by a Fulani herder who confides in me that the problem is larger than me. Though he tells me what many others have tried, that the Toubabs are the masters of the world, he justifies his claim in a way that I have not heard before: Africans know physical suffering and are capable of doing things physically that Toubabs cannot. Toubabs, on the other hand, spend most of their lives learning and are therefore capable of teaching things that Africans do not know. Corporeal versus cerebral talents, and in this way we are one. He also said that Africans are often too proud to ask each other for help but that Toubabs can breach this gap. He said that my work was very important because it is something that the people would not do for themselves.

I can fall in love with a place rather than a person. It may be that memories are filtered through rose-colored glasses, but I really missed my cloud and cliff villages in Mali this week. Which led me to feel that it is possible to invest love in a place, rather than just one person. If God is in and has created everything on earth, than is a soul of sorts not to be found in everything? Hiking out of the village yesterday, when the hunger pains hit, I so longed to see a Dogon woman carrying millet cream on her head. When the rain began to soak through our layers I searched in vain for a rock built shelter at the edge of the fields. When people inquired, not if I had spent the night in peace, but if I had woke up to find myself alive to see another day as part of the morning greetings, the comparison in the people’s mentalities become clear as warriors versus defenders. As we found an uninhabited cave at the base of the cliff and my companion noted that it looked just like a house, I recalled the family above Kolebi that lived in a cave and how nice it had been to visit them and spend the day in the coolness of their home. These are the details one recalls and misses in a lover are they not?

I can get a language for a song. “This is your song. This is for you to take back to your country, Mali or Amerika, wherever you are from. You are not black like us, but God protects you. You are white, your skin is soft, not like ours, hard like leather. You came from your country to save our language. What do you gain from this? Our parents did not teach us their language but you have come here to write it down for us. May God bless you. Thank you”. This is what Lamine, the chief of the village told me on the last day as he played his koro in a song dedicated to me. Throughout the time I was there, people offered me money, grain, drink, music, and of course, their voices. I have never seen a village so eager to document their language, yet why did the elders not pass it along to their children?

I can scale a mountain with my bags on top of my head. As with Bounou, my past field assignment, Gnafongo is remote and travel there is arduous. Car travel is too painful for my back so, after spending this week in the village, I decided to walk the path out which leads to a mountain. A youth accompanied me with his bike and my luggage was strapped atop it. When we reached the bottom of the cliff, we were to meet someone from the village from above who would help up carry the bags. It had been drizzling off and on during our 2.5 hour walk to the base, which was quite lovely for walking as it made the fields vibrant and the sun bearable, but it prevented the person from descending to meet us. So, my companion and I looked at each other, shrugged, loaded up our heads and backs, and up we went.


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