Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I ‘bless the rains down in Africa’ as much as the next guy, but this...

The afternoon began like any other...

I was sitting in Boki Diawe waiting for a horse cart back to my village. When one finally showed up, it was immediately stampeded by myself and seven other women anxious to get back to our respective villages. As we were pushing, shoving, and piling on, I looked up and noticed some ominous, dark clouds moving fast in the sky. I turned and asked a lady if she thought it would rain. She replied that it probably would but she didn’t seem the least bit concerned. So we squeezed in and took off.

We were about halfway to the first village off the road when the wind began blowing violently. In a short time, the wind was joined by hail and extremely heavy rain. At first I thought, “Well this kind of sucks. All my stuff is getting wet (cell phone, iPod, books, etc.) but at least it’s not hot...”

The rain and wind grew more violent and stung my head and face. All the women were shielding themselves with their long headscarves, but since I didn’t happen to be sporting one, a lady next to me took hers and wrapped the both of us up in it. I was huddled up against this lady’s chest like a child as I watched the ground beneath us go very slowly by, and watched what happens to the desert when it rains — it floods. The ground became mud… then water… then swiftly flowing water. You can imagine how these conditions might not be favorable for a tiny, two-wheeled, one-horse cart bearing nine people and all of our stuff. Also, I believe I should note that the terrain surrounding my village is neither flat nor friendly. There are many deep gorges cut by previous rains, as well as hard clay deposits and patches of deep sand that the rain instantly turns into deep mud. Thus began our long journey home.

Wet and disheveled, we were constantly required to get off the cart and push it out of the mud or through a gorge, sometimes wading up to our chests in flowing water, shoeless I might add, because we were all wearing flip flops that would get stuck in the mud and lost forever. We were stepping on all kinds of rocks and thorns. I was cold and wet and uncomfortable and still a long way from home but surprisingly I was not in a bad mood. The women’s spirits were high and we traveled slowly along, joking all the time about how we looked and wondering aloud about why we didn’t choose to go to town the day before or the day after. The women were helpful and engaging the entire time, always turning to make sure I was still with them and doing OK. “Where’s Atoru? There you are. Come on.” Through the deep wading they would hold my hand.

Well after dark, we finally got to the village nearest mine and dropped off the bulk of our passengers. Two women from my village were the only ones left on the cart besides the young driver and myself. As we neared our village, we began to hear an eerie sound. The horse driver stopped and we all fell silent, listening. I asked what the noise was and the ladies replied that it was water.

“Like rain?”

“No, not like rain.”

We drove on and finally came upon the water sound’s source — a flooded gorge rushing wildly across our path. There wasn’t a raging river running near my village yesterday, but there was now. The two women (both in their 70’s at the very least, one small and frail-looking) got off the cart and began taking off their clothes and preparing to ford the river. I was told to stay on the cart and hold on very tight. I was sort of disappointed because I was ready to join the river-fording club and had already begun disrobing as well.

The driver and the two women took their stations behind the cart, ready to push. The road was quite bumpy and it wasn’t long before we had to halt. The cart was stuck and refused to budge. The driver began untying the horse and said we’d have to leave the cart and come back for it. The women insisted that they would move it and it was agreed that they’d give it one more shot.

These two courageous women once again took their positions and, on the count of three, pushed as hard as possible. The cart was jarred loose and everyone was abruptly thrust forward with it, sending the little old woman into deep, swiftly rushing water. In a split second she had been carried away a couple yards and without a moment’s hesitation, the other lady jumped in after her. Neither woman could be seen for a horrifying second, but soon emerged struggling against the current to get back to the cart. My heart beat rapidly as terror overtook me, and seeing that they were still struggling to find footing, I jumped in and grabbed hold of the older woman and helped her back to the cart. By this time, the cart was led back to dry ground and the two older women and I emerged from the water winded and clutching each other’s hands.

When we got back to the village I took a visual inventory of what we arrived with:

A very tired and wet horse and horse cart, as well as driver.

Two half naked, very wet Pulaar-speaking women, one shoeless.
    “Where are your shoes?”
    “They're gone.”

And one very wet, disheveled white girl.