In the morning, the light broke through from the horizon early. The sun was bright by 6 o’clock. No one was sleeping in much, since the heat was palpable even then. Roosters crowed. She woke and smiled at Etienne, a little embarassed, and put away the bedding. Etienne looked at her mischievously, “You know, the Africans will give you a new name, here, a French one most likely, but you should consider adopting a local name or even one of their phrases for a name. It will ingratiate you with people more.”
“Like what?” she asks, straightening her dress, practically up to her hips after a night on the mattress. She was suddenly very conscious of having spent the night with a stranger, and grateful nothing else happened besides sleeping with him.
He paused, and looked studious, looking into space over her head. She thought he’s sort of attractive for being knowledgable. “Well, for example, a common name here is Essotina, in Kabye; or in French, Dieudonne, ‘God-given.’ Or Dieuaimee, as in ‘loved by God,’ or simply, Aimee, meaning, ‘loved.’ How does that sound?”
“Sounds like Amy, which is my sister’s name. Perhaps something more African…maybe, May-zah, which is what the kids say a lot?” She looked hopeful, but he looked confused, asking, “When do they say that to you?”
She thought, and said, “Whenever I play with them… they get all excited and say that.”
He still looked confused. “At the end of playing? Just…playing? Are you sure you don’t do anything else, like, maybe… give them money?”
She thought carefully for a minute. “Mmm, I guess well, we played and I have been handing out a few candies at the end of the times to the kids next door to the compound. Why?”
“Because May-zah is what they say when something great comes your way. Like a gift,” he replied. The sun was lightening the room, the yard, the farm, and the hills and trees around nearby. She looked at the beautiful blue sky and the light filling the whole landscape, outside and was struck with the beauty. Contrary to her neighborhood back home, the street and village around this large compound work up noisily, and she heard roosters crow, people walking outside, and the sounds of activity all around.
She heard brushing sounds from the courtyard, and stepped out through the open doorway onto the porch, sitting down on a wooden stool. The guard, Koffi, was sweeping the courtyard between the buildings of the compound, traditional mud and wattle round huts with thatch roofs. She had to notice how dark Koffi’s skin was, like the drink his name resembled. He was lean and muscular from a life of hard work and basic sustenance. He greeted her by bowing and putting his hands together, then continued sweeping. “Koffi, why do you sweep the courtyard? It’s all rock, not even dust,” she asked. He smiled shyly, letting out a brief, high-pitched “whaaa” before looking around for an answer. He looked at her and then looked down a little so as not to make eye contact, “Ah. Madame. I, I, cannot explain easily…il faut toujours nettoyer et balayer chaque matin. And, the pebbles can still be brushed away.” She chewed on this as Etienne brought out a mug of hot tea, smelling strongly of lemon, and some bread. “Koffi is the most humble person I’ve ever met,” said Etienne, “his grandmother is his only living relative, so he takes care of their family fields in the mountains, brings her items up in their family compound, and goes to school everyday to become a teacher, living here, cooking for himself, doing his own laundry, and taking care of this compound for the landlord. That spirit of hard work against your fate, that’s African at its best.” She looked at Koffi and saw him the way Etienne described, an image of perservance with a smile the whole time. They ate in peaceful silence until the bread was done.
“This tea is delicious, is it lemon tea?” she asked. “Lemongrass, boiled, with a sugar cube. Tastes like lemon, almost exactly, right?” He replied, smiling at her. She thought, he tries to impress me a little, sharing something he loves. She found his effort endearing. “What does Koffi’s name mean, anyway?” she asked him. She thought, “strength,” would be a good name for him. “It means Tuesday, so to speak. Many, even most children, are named for the day of the week. So there are a zillion Koffis, Kwames, and etc. It would be my name, if I had an African name, I suppose. But that’s because I used to work selling and brewing coffee drinks, and I love the smell. The local farmers I work with call me Teng-soyu, which sounds vaguely Chinese, and means ‘Tree-grower.’ I told them to just call me the Lorax. They didn’t get it, but they thought it sounds very funny in Kabye.” He smiled and chuckled.
She found this very cute, “So, if I’m named for my birthday of the week, and I was born on a Tuesday, then my name would be Koffi also?” She laughed. Her laugh was infectious and she was delighted to see him smile and laugh with her.
“Close, Koffi is a boy’s name, you might have a girl’s name, like Ama. But, there is no way to know exactly what we’d be called because our week has seven days in it. The week here is a cycle of all the market days; and there are six markets before the cycle starts over. So after the sixth day, their ‘week’ begins again.” He began naming the market days in order, ‘Ketao,’ ‘Kpagouda,’ ‘Lassa-Soumdina,’ but she lost interest in the days and village names, thinking of whether or not “Ama” sounded good to her. She decided it was time to focus on her mission instead, and went inside to shower and change. Afterwards rummaging through her bags and unpacking, she became acutely aware that she had spontaneously moved in with a man she didn’t know. The realization shocked her a little. There was clearly a lot to consider and discuss, and nervous anxiety passed over her like a wave. He greeted her with a smile in the hallway, and she felt the anxiety turn to excitement. For some reason, she trusted in him, and could not put a finger on the intuition that drove it.
She went outside with Koffi to put it out of mind. She approached him in French, “can we please go to your village so I can take some notes on your Kabye, the local dialect?” “Yes, Madame. But…the mountain is far, and it’s a climb,” replied Koffi. She liked his sincere and respectful way of speaking to her, so gentle from a farmer and student with skin like sandpaper on his hands. “Don’t worry, I’ll make it,” she said. It was Sunday, and she was not yet used to days without church services, but seeing as how she was doing missionary work translating the Bible into Kabye, she found it easy on her conscience. She realized, had she lived completely alone, she would be lonely on Sundays.
The set off for the hills above Kpagouda and followed a two-lane road that became a one-lane road, and eventually became a trail, and veered off to the right suddenly at a lonely concrete one-room school building. She marched up the hill, determined, and breathing and feeling good despite the sun blazing on her. Everything looked so vibrant with this much sunlight and all the bright, light colors contrasted with dark buildings, trees, and people around. She felt relieved to sit when they arrived at several low thatch-roofed huts. Koffi clapped twice, respectfully, before entering the compound. Once inside, an elderly woman was found sitting on the ground. She did not get up. Koffi went and kneeled with her and spoke several greetings, “…Alaffia, tonodah, alaffia,…” and got up to introduce her. “This is my mother, Ama,” said Koffi, and spoke to his mother in Kabye quickly. All she could make out clearly was “anasara,” meaning white person, and she figured she was being introduced to Ama Malou.
“Why did you clap before entering your own home?” she asked quizzically.
“It is important to always show respect, especially to our father and mother,” Koffi replied. “Do you want me to translate while you speak to her?” She pulled her pen and paper from her backpack, and began writing down symbols for sounds of the local Kabye dialect. Kabye was a completely phonetic language, with no written characters or symbols. His mother walked on her hands and feet in a sort of bear walk. It came out later that this was due to a kind of scoliosis. She sat and took notes, as Koffi pointed out certain items and the way they describe them. His mother evidently took great delight from having her here, with her son Koffi. She felt bad turning down water, cool water especially on such a hot day, from Koffi and his mother, but she was aware that the water here was not purified. After a warm afternoon taking translations, she put her book away and noticed that Mrs. Malou had been staring at her for a while. She got up, went into her hut, and came out again. Mme Malou walked over and presented her a small necklace with cowrie shells and beadwork in black, blue, white, and purple, all on the same beads. When she looked confused about whether or not to handle it, Mme Malou reaches out, takes her hand, and places the necklace in her hand.
“My mother wants you to have it. It was a gift from her mother to her. She has no daughter to give it to, so you should have it,” Koffi said, “it brings good fortune for many healthy children. You see the little carved figure with the big head and eyes made of cowrie shells. That’s a baby to come.” She felt tongue-tied, thinking, a baby? I’m not even married. Heaven forbid a child born here, now, out of wedlock. What do I say?
“Ummmm…thank you very much, I’ll treasure it and keep it for when I am married.”
Koffi meanwhile, entered a hut and emerged with a yam, bigger than his forearm, and clearly heavy. He took a small rag, like a handtowel, folded it into a small circle and placed the circle on his head, and then put the yam on top for the hike back down the mountain. They made many good-bye gestures, including “bye-bye” and hand waves she was familiar with. Mrs. Malou gave a hand wave that looked like she was swishing a fly away. The path quickly grew narrow after the edge of the village, then disappeared completely until they neared his old school, next to a gravel one-lane road, later opening to two lanes. All the while, Koffi’s head remained almost perfectly still as his body moved to accomodate the weight and keep it balanced, his shoulders and hips swaying a little side to side. As they descended, she drank the remaining water from her second water bottle. She felt herself stop perspiring, her clothing now drier than earlier in the day, her skin also dry and reddened.
Arriving back at her new home, she was aware that her head hurt a little. Koffi put down the yam and quickly took up water from the well, and put two buckets outside the door. She took a quick shower, which cooled her off, and laid down in only a wrap of local fabric, on her bed. Her head still pounding, she thought of Mrs. Malou up the hills. The knowledge that Mrs. Malou lived there alone, without family, walking on her hands and feet on the rough, rocky ground, with only the barest subsistence food to survive, brought her to tears. She drank as much water as she could stand, but did not feel like she was sweating again.
Etienne came home to find Koffi Malou cooking pieces of his yam outside over his small stove. Moving inside, Etienne found her on her bed, and felt her forehead. “Are you feeling well?” he asked.
“No, I feel like I got too much sun, and an awful headache,” she murmurs weakly.
He put a cool, wet cloth on her forehead, and fanned her body. She feels a little self-conscious, like her body is exposed somehow, despite being covered, but is too weak to care or get up and change. Her fabric was paper thin. If he noticed something, she can’t tell, and he did not say or do anything except move the damp cloth around her head and shoulders and neck, and fan her some more. He eventually makes a little dinner, and offers her some broth. She barely drank. She wanted to vomit. Her head feels like a migraine, now, with shooting pain and strange lights dancing around in front of her eyes. As the night wore on, she slipped in and out of sleep. All through the night, when she woke, she noticed the cool cloth on her head, and his fanning. She feels chilly at times. He put a sheet over her and stops fanning when he felt her arm and forehead.
This continues through the next morning, when she felt too weak to get out of bed. “Do I have malaria or sleeping sickness?”
“No, too sudden for that, wrong symptoms. Heat stroke, I’d say,” he replies, taking her hand and stroking it. “Here is a copy of our medical guide, Where There Is No Doctor. You can look up the symptoms yourself, just stay in bed today, and drink this Gatorade.” He was attentive and took care of her all day. They talked briefly, minutes at a time, mostly about sharing a house, some simple rules for living together. She thought about what her organization might think or do if they knew. She knew only one thing: she is safer with him than almost anywhere else in Africa, maybe even safer than most places in the United States. Not because of him, or being a man, she felt safe because of her location in rural Africa, because of being a white female living with a male, perhaps a white male. She knew from the community that she would be seen as a free woman but deserving of respect. She imagines what it would be like to be living like Mrs. Malou, in a hut, with no electricity, only a candle, and no friend taking care of her. She feels like crying again, but no tears come. Only the pounding of her head, and a feeling of weakness.
By the second night, the bed feels warm again, and she kicks off the sheet. He still fanned her, but has stopped cooling her head, leaving a bucket of water and a rag so she can do it herself. The feeling of nausea passesd after the second night, and her headache gets less severe as she drinks water and lays in bed. They talked throughout the day in small discussions lasting only minutes, but it is enough to distract her. She learns a great deal about his life as a student and a biologist back in the United States. Finding out he was an owl hooter, or counter of sorts for the U.S. government, she pesters him for more information, culminating in the most ridiculous owl calls coming from his mouth. Despite how humorous they seem, she believes him when he says, the owls would respond to him. I’d respond too, if he called my name into the countryside.
“What stories do you like to hear when you’re sick?”
“Oh, any of them, you know, the stories from childhood, fairy tales and Disney stories, I guess, the bible stories.” She looked at him, sees the fatherly side of him coming out.
“Okay, then, let’s start with a couple African folk tales, but I promise one bad rendition of Sleeping Beauty, and a horrible tale of Bluebeard, just to change it up a bit.” He smiled at her saying this, and looked lovingly into her eyes as he tells her fables and myths from the local tribes, about strong men as big as mountains always brought down by someone stronger, and a miraculous child who can outsmart anything, including an evil queen. She sleeps off and on, but he remains there when she wakes, always vigilant.
“Go to sleep in your bed, Etienne, you need rest too,” she offered. He nodded and felt her forehead, got up and laid down in his bedroom. They both slept a while through the third night. She got the chills, however, and could barely get out of bed to grab a blanket, which didn’t seem to do much. She was groggy and knew her head wasn’t clear, although her headache was almost gone. She walked toward his room, climbed into his bed, and laid down next to him, feeling his hot body heat her. They spooned naturally, like two little children. He put his arms around her drunkenly, in his stupor, and she loved the feeling of embrace, and enjoyed the heat from his stomach, his groin, his legs against hers. It felt like a warm fire to her chill, and she felt like it was not a sin, to be close in a time of need. It felt, in fact, like coming home again.
The next morning she was aware that they had slept in the same bed, and she wanted to both get up and stay there, all day. She felt like urinating for the first time since returning however, so she got up and left him alone but waking up. Upon returning, he was out of bed, and asked her how she was. She replied that she felt better now.
“You survived your first bout of heat stroke! And your second night of sleeping together… something we agreed in your illness not to do too often. You wouldn’t want to catch anything, like a child,” he smiled and pointed at her necklace, still around her neck.
“I think I may be a wimp, but I’m going to survive this place after all. And, I think I know what my name might be after all, after three days to sleep on it, and some very strange dreams… God gave me you, Koffi, Ama, and my experience here, and Ama was very kind to me, despite her suffering in life. She’s a survivor. I’ll take the name ‘Ama,’ even though it means ‘Tuesday,'” she laughed.
“Mayzah!” he laughed. And they stared long into each other’s eyes, and felt the joy of living, being alive, and grateful, even for the suffering that made their three days so vibrant. She wondered if he said that because she had found a name, or from something else, like he felt the presence of something great in his life. Maybe good health, or perhaps, the presence of God? But she also wished he was grateful for her in his life.