Saturday, March 21, 2009

Papa Haile meets Jabobo Barry and the women of Boulliwel

Greetings friends!

These past 10 days I've enjoyed a visit from the one and only John "It's a Great Day for Sailing!" Haile. Let me tell you a few stories of his visit:

Returning from a successful bread-buying mission to the marketplace and back, I dismounted from my bike and swung open the creaky screen door to my house in Boulliwel. There was dad, sitting on my couch, decked out in his finest Guinean garb: a black-and-blue striped boubou robe, a tall green-and-orange puuto-- the trademark old man's hat-- and a most distinguished air of elderly Fouta authority. He was sitting next to a handful of my middle school boys, and seemed to be engaged in an animated game of Guinean Guesstures.

Dad would point to the table, for instance, jabbing his finger downwards and enunciating very clearly: Taay-buhl. Taay-buhl. Got it, guys?

A high-pitched chorus of young male voices-- puberty has yet to strike for several of my boys-- repeated enthusiastically: TAAA-BUW!

Dad paused from his first real exercise in the exploration of language barriers and greeted me, a relieved look on his face.

"Practicing English, pops?" I asked, stowing my bike in the spare room. "Good stuff."

"Yeah-- It's been interesting," Dad said, in the tone of voice that seemed to say this sort of thing was interesting in a do-it-for-Andrew, character-building sort of way.

"Andre!" one of my boys piped up. "Il faut dire a ton pere qu'on va partir aux Etats-Unis ensemble, eh?" He gestured with his finger, pointing at himself, then my dad, then in what seemed to be a westerly direction.

Dad shot me a quizzical glance.

"He says he wants you guys to go back to the US together," I said, shooing a boy aside and sitting down in the chair across from dad.

"Oh!" he chuckled, nodding. This was at least the fifth time someone had made a similar remark. "Tell him I don't think he'll fit in my bag, but we could try."

I translated and then quickly commandeered the conversation, changing the subject. There were things to discuss.

"Dad-- I hope you're ready for some real awkwardness tonight," I said. "The neighborhood women are all coming to dance for you."

"What?!" Dad asked, incredulous. "Dancing?"

"Yup," I nodded grimly. "I just had the fourth woman in the last two days confirm that they are coming tonight to amanayon-- dance for you. They say they'll be here at 17h00 and to be ready."

"Oh wow," said Dad, shuffling uncomfortably on the couch.

My friend and neighbor, a woman named Jabobo Barry, had originally approached me with the idea of dancing to greet and welcome my dad. She said it was a Fouta tradition to dance for respected visitors in order to make them feel welcome to their village and country. She asked me what time she and a couple of her friends could come and greet dad. I told her Sunday night was good. She clapped me on the back and told me she'd let her friends know. I scratched at the whorl of hair at the top of my head and wondered just what to expect.

17h00 on Sunday evening came and went-- African time, of course-- with dad and I sitting in the house skimming the Atlantic Monthly and talking about Brooks School. Every so often I would peek out the door, watching for signs of feminine mobilization. Sure enough, at 18h15, I heard the sounds of someone beating a stick on a plastic jerrycan, followed by clapping and the titters of what seemed a large group of people.

"Boubacar!" I heard M. Diallo's voice over the din. "Viens ici!"

I stepped out of the house and nearly teared up at what I saw. There, outside my fence, was a group of more than 30 women dressed to the nines and talking excitedly amongst themselves. I recognized my friends and neighbors from the village: Mme Diallo, Jabobo in her bright purple complet, the Sous-Prefet's wife, the lady I buy tomatoes from, the old woman who holds my hand and strokes my arm when I greet her, the middle school girls who I teach English to. They had all come with the express purpose of making my dad feel as welcome as possible in Boulliwel.

They broke into song, clapping and forming a dance circle. M. Diallo told me to bring my dad out to watch.

"Come on out, dad! They're ready for you," I called inside.

Dad emerged from the house looking regal in his boubou and puuto. Someone brought over a chair for him and he sat down to watch-- for the next half hour-- a large group of African women dance and clap and sing and cheer and laugh, all in order to welcome him. What an unbelievable experience.

The women danced, each one taking turns in the middle of the circle to show off their moves. Some had babies tied to their backs with towels, others didn't; some had elaborate head scarves, others not-- all seemed to throw themselves into the showmanship with energy and gusto.

M. Diallo took it upon himself to share some cultural insights with me as the dancing progressed.

"You see, Boubacar," he explained, "you understand what they are singing? They are singing that when one receives a visitor in Africa, they must be loved and welcomed."

"Now they are singing that Boubacar's heart can rest easy-- his father has come to visit."

"They do this only for the most honored guests as an expression of gratitude for having visited their village."

M. Diallo's comments only served to fill my heart with more joy-- what an amazing honor it was!

Dad, in the meantime, took it like a champ, grinning, snapping photos, sitting in his chair with his moustache and man-robe displayed proudly. The women danced for a while and then presented Dad with a platter full of eggs-- a gift of some symbolic importance for Peuhl women. I tried to find the words to express just how grateful we both were, but ended up just saying "Albarka" about 100 times. What an evening.

This was just one example of the fun Papa Bear and I had here in Guinea over the past few days. As I said before, Dad was a trooper, tackling the language barrier, the cultural adjustment, a lugnut-challenged bush taxi, a room full of village elders, a health post opening ceremony, rice and sauce, and hordes of children with grace, patience, and a great sense of humor. During lunch yesterday with a French NGO director, he warned dad that now that he's been given a shot of the Guinea bug, he may find it impossible to resist coming back! Whether that's true remains to be seen. But it was an awesome trip.

In the meantime, a quick project update: After a couple of meetings with the oversight committee for the NGO project, I've withdrawn the money needed for the carpentry phase of construction and given it to the appropriate people to make the purchases needed. The work is supposed to be under way by the time I get back to Boulliwel tomorrow night, and I will collect the receipts and take stock of the inventory on Monday. If all goes well with the carpentry, then the roofing, masonry, painting, and furniture installation should come shortly after. Thanks for your support and your interest in Boulliwel! I will keep you posted as the work progresses.

In the meantime,
Much love,
From Africa,

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