When the blue buttered Toyota forerunner stopped under the gigantic tree in the crossroad that links Duanza and Timbuktu and the road from Bamako to Gao, I stepped down in stiffed legs, looking like a paralyzed cripple. My legs felt like sticks because I have just finished riding 200 kilometers in seven hours on a lousy dirt road. Most of the road was off road because the desert was softer and with less potholes. This is the Sahel, the big plate between the Sahara and tropical Africa. the world’s hunger belt that covers Africa from Sudan to Chad through Niger and Mali.
It is hard to differ where the Sahara turns into Sahel because here and there are dunes, Acacia trees, dust and donkeys.
The donkey looks like an ant loaded with a tent and serves as the Sahel’s vehicle.
The cars that moves on the roads crumble under heavy weights, demanding drivers and impossible roads. I don’t know other continents where cars disintegrate so fast, keeping working and then disappear to dust their parts looted for those who did not disintegrate just yet.
We had two punchers that I blessed because I was one of four passengers on the back sit that was meant for three. We where spoiled because we were whites and paid exaggerated price.
I set by one of the windows, half on the sit half on the upholstered plastic cover of the wheel that transfers the shocks and the bumps without softening anything. The red dust penetrated through cracks and crevices and I felt it on my lips, inside my eyes, toughening my hair, rising and clouding the Quat – Quat’s inside. Every few minutes I took of my spectacles and cleaned the glass with my hands. It was useless. The lenses were covered immediately in dust, my nose was full and my throat sore and choked.
The Driver’s helper took down my beg from the roof. It was cleaner then me. The luggage was at list protected from the dust. I walked to the restaurant that stood near the junction. The waiter, a short man, looked at me and said :”Poussiere”. Yes, I agreed, a lot of Poussiere. Dust. He brought me water and I washed my face. And then I washed again and spat red saliva on the red soil.
When I spat the bloody red dust I thought on the dying people I saw in Somalia and Ethiopia. The droughts kills the children of the Sahel just the same.
The dry land is turning into flying dust that is mixed with the Tuberculosis germs and penetrates easily into the dry throats and noses, everybody that the cloud of dust engulf, dry, thirsty and vulnerable, accumulating the dust that colonize the dry lounges, arouse the Tuberculosis.
If there is an ugly sounds that follows me from these poor dusty places is the sound of the dry coughs.
The tiered coughs of the little children, spitting blood till they choke to death.
It’s only dust I remind myself, washing.
a group of children hovered around the food stalls, hoping that somebody will throw them a bone, peel, anything. Africa is the poor screwed continent of the world. Mali is one of the poorest in the world. I bought Mango from one of the women, cut it and nibbled. The children moved in a close pack behind the restaurant fence and asked for the peels/ I gave them and they munched what I left after munching. Leftovers.
Do you know where Joel the blond lives? In African French you don’t say white-blanch but blond. I am blond, Joel is blond. All of us whites are blond.
“Its close by.”
We crossed food stalls, Mango sellers and the road that had very few cars travelling on it.
The iron gate was locked. The man knocked on it and Fatmata opened. I didn’t pay any attention to her. Maybe because I was tired, dusty, I was hot and wanted to rest from my two months of hard traveling to Timbuktu.
Here, I Joel’s the blond house in Duanza, I felt the tension melt. Timbuktu is behind me. I am back on the Asphalt road. I shall not go to Agdez, I don’t care if I get a visa to Algiers and to the hell with what is going on in Tamanrast.
And that’s why I looked inside the mud house that had a dark shady corridor. I put the bag down, lining on the Wall and set on the iron chair criss crossed with nylon fibers.
Fatmata returned to doze under the tree and I dozed under the welcome shade of the Adobe.
Only later, when Joel was late to arrive, I asked Fatmata if there is water.
she looked at me with sleepy eyes, walked to the water hole that was close to the tree just opposite the locked iron gate, lowered the rubber basket twice down the deep well, lifting the full heavy sack and pouring it into the big heavy plastic bucket, carrying the heavy load, the weight pulls her and she curves herself to the other side, walking to the shower.
I crossed the yard under a blazing sun to the toilet that were a hole in the ground. The outer wall of the toilet was the wall to the compound and in the bottom of it was a drainage for water and other liquids, leading to the graveled street.
I pour water on my head. the water was cool and nice and at first it melted the red dust to mud and then turned into a brown red stream.
I walked out of the shower compound a revived man. Still exhausted from the trip. but revived. I was tired from the entire trip. From the minute I crossed the sea at Aljiseras, the Gibraltar rock watches the ferries behind going to Tangier where I started traveling hard to Timbuktu.
It was the first time in this journey I was peaceful. The peace of the traveler who is home. in a sheltered place where he can stay as long as he wants, the pick behind him. Fatmata went back to sleep in the shade and I almost didn’t notice her. I was occupied in tasting the air. I set in the shady entrance to the house that created a kind of porch in front of the two locked rooms , spread myself on the green and blue nylon cords of the low iron chair, I put my head back on the earth wall, and fell asleep.
Joel came two hours later and I got the room next to the Aduan’s. The Aduan was true to his name, the head tax collector that managed the road block outside Duanza, fighting (the African way) the cigarettes and alcohol smuggling (You smuggled? half is mine. Now drive on). He was a Rum and beer addict. The morning started with a beer. Noon stretched into Rum, and most of the day he battled life swimming in a sea of friendly alcohol that the Burkina Faso smugglers left at the road block. To those who stopped outside Douanza the first time, he had to confiscate the vehicle for some hours till they came willingly smiling and laden with cigarettes and alcohol to the yard’s iron gate, leaving the commodities at the Adoun’s feet.
“I make here so little, that I am not sure its worth my time to be here-” he told me one of the nights as we set and watched the darkness, the weak yellow lights, listening to the sea of silence on which floated the voices of the main road between Gao and Bamako, a life line of trucks buses and minibuses that on its banks lay the restaurants, the shops and the whores of Duanza.
Joel arrived dusty from head to tow. He took his Swiss Mali friend’s boy to Timbuktu and now they were back. The boy was born to a Bambara women from Duanza who stayed behind when his father fell in love and left Mali with a Swiss girl after living with her some years in Duanza. He divorced the Swiss girl after few years but stayed on in Switzerland. He said to Joel (Who never visited Africa before) that he can stay at his house in Duanza. When Joel arrived, he found out that the house was rented out to the Adouan by his Mali’s friend brother. They came into stable equilibrium – Joel in one room, the Aduan in the other room and the Aduan is responsible on the supply of beer and rum and Fatmata.
Fatmata was the girl friend of one of his tax collectors and looked after the house, preparing food, cleaning the dust and doing the washing. Now she lay in the shade, allowing the immense heat to burn the yard, protected by the shade of the huge tree.
Joel is a Gardner, French, despite his Swiss passport.
One of the evening, we drank beer and he told me how his wife left him, driving him out of the house. He missed his daughters, turning his back, leaving everything, going on exile to Switzerland never to go back. Circles upon circles of lonely detached people that accumulate in places that draws lonely blond people that the Africans take for granted that they are reach, or happy or knows what they want and the truth is, that every one of them, is more lost then the last of the poor people of Mali.
“You found the house!” said Joel his eyes bright “I told you it’s easy! No Fatmata!” he said when Fatmata meant to fill the bucket and do the washing. He washed, laundered, squeezed, hanged and pour the remain of the water on the Lemon tree he planted in the yard. He built small stone fences around the trees so the goats that stray in the village and wonder into open gates, won’t destroy.
I got the mattress in the room next to the Aduan and then we set on the Iron and plastic linen chairs, drank beer and watched the fading day.
The house was surrounded by a high wall that did not stop the neighboring chickens hoping over looking for seeds. To the north, on the direction of the road to Timbuktu, stood a chunk of silvery-red sand stone doted Acacia trees tat climbed the vertical slopes. The night came in and Fatmata brought the pot from the kitchen. The kitchen was a few square meters of open ground between the house and the wall and from the kitchen climbed the crumbling adobe stairs to the roof of the house. The house was built of mud. Earth. Soil. Adobe. Thick walls, Stapled floor, wood trunks holding the ceiling, the windows of opaque metal that needs to be open if you want light and air and shut down to prevent the dust storm from coming in.
Joel was happy because he went to Timbuktu. Because we met, Because he was back in Duanza. The Aduan, small, soft, not really black, more brown, set with his plastic cup, poring beer and nice portion of Rum. We smoked and the lady mosquitoes were merciful and punctured my legs only from time to time. January is the dry season, no rain. The Niger river shrink. The big boats, The stop sailing between Mopti Severe and Gao. Only the Pirouges sail on to Timbuktu .I spent four days in one of them before I met Joel.
Joel locked the room’s door at night. The Aduan snored next room. There was no door between the rooms. I covered myself with the sleeping bag against the cool breeze and slept sound sleep.
The morning was cool and fresh and Fatmata lifted already the rubber sack from the well, did the dishes and was boiling the water on the fire she lit with papers she tore from a box. I pour the water on the tea bag, and put concentrated milk to sweeten the tea in the plastic mug.
My eyes followed Fatmata , but no more then eyes that follows somebody crossing the yard. The Aduan slept heavily under the spell of the Alcohol. Joel woke up when the sun flooded the yard with light, pulling the water sack from the well, crossing to the toilette’s that were a square wall attached to the outer fence and ad no roof, facing the broken piece of mirror that served its purpose for shaving or looking into faces.
After the morning tea we headed down the road and through the market in the center of Duanza to the hills that rose to the south.
“This is my bank” entered Joel a local shop where he changed some money to SFA – the central African Frank, so he could by a sword to his son that lives with the mother that doesn’t want to see him. His elder daughter doesn’t speak with him since they separated.
“You still love her” I said to him in one of the evenings under the yellow light. The female mosquitoes hummed around us in sad buzz.
“Yes” he answered and his eyes shone in the dim light.
We crossed the last houses and entered a deserted field where the dry hay bundlles stood in rows. Musa, the 13 years old son of his Swiss Mali friend from the other woman led Three other boys and us towards the Send stone ridge, which is the beginning of the “Falace Dogon” – The dogon land. The Dogons pushed the Balams from the sandstone heights to the savannas of Burkina Faso.
We climbed into the canyon till we reached a clear sweet spring. I waited in the shade when Joel and the kids carried on into the gorge to look for the ancient burial place that Musa promised is full of bones.
It was quiet and shady, and from a distance, across the deserted field, the green trees and the village’s roofs, it was possible to see the relict mountains. Beautiful I thought. how beautiful and silent. And I thought about all the Malis I met on the roads who wanted to go to Europe. To live elsewhere. To come to Israel. Fly to America because there is no hope in Africa despite of its beauty. Despite its people.
We came back to the house when the sun was low in the west. I went to lift a sack of water from the well when Fatmata made an entrance from behind the house. From the open kitchen she was cooking supper. She was transformed. I couldn’t take my eyes of her.
“Stunning/” I said to Joel after I took the shower and set on the low chair.
“Yes” swallowed Joel his saliva.
Fatmata had a hair cut. She did it during the time we went to visit the mountain gorge and until we came back she turned into another woman. She didn’t resemble even in a remote way the extinguished heat tired girl who opened the iron gate I knocked tired and exhausted from the crazy dusty ride from Timbuktu.
She flattened her hair and cut it ‘care’. Her brown eyes shone and her body, lean and lithe moved in bewitched way.
Her nipples stuck were visible on her white T shirt and the green blouse was a piece of cloth that made love with her buttocks as she bend down to wash the pot. She washed it expertly, never razing her head from the soil and the water, her buttocks turned towards my eyes. I was fascinated. She wetted the bottom of the pot and threw dry eart on it, spreading the mud with her hands and then seeded the mud with dust and fine stones. It didn’t kook like a metal pot any more. It looked like a clay pot that one puts on the fire for a long cook, the layers of earth and pebbles preserve the heat and protect the rice from burning fast.
She lifted her head and sent me a side glance. I took out a cigarette. Joel opened a large beer and lighted a cigarette.
Wonderful, I thought to myself. How beautiful she is. Only now I noticed the Aura that encircles her when she move. Aura of passion reflected from me, Joel and the Aduan.
“She is Musa’s girlfriend.” Musa was the Aduan’s deputy. “but it’s a secret. They are sleeping together in this room” He pointed with his chin to an outside room that was attached to the outer wall of the house.
“No. But she has a boy. She is 25. I don’t think its a good idea you made a pass on her. Too complicated.”
“Sure” I said “never crossed my mind.” I didn’t really care for Musa. Not for Joel’s angry eyes.
Sometimes, when a beautiful woman, which is not yours, makes you invite other men to admire her.
“You like Fatmata?” laughed the Aduan and pour himself a huge beer, adding Rum generously and lit another ‘Marlboro’. “I can ask her – it can be arranged.”
Fatmata did not speak French. Very few people in Duanza spoke French. Most of them spoke Bambara which is the language of Mali.
There was one Christian family in the village and Joel went there to prepare the new year celebration but apart from this family the rest were Muslims.
Sahel Muslims. No fuss about religion and god. And therefore there was no influence on the way Africans see relations between man and women.
In Mali, as many sections of Africa south of the Sahel, the men were the bummers and the women were the family. The man the children consider their uncle is the mother’s brother. You can not be sure about the other men. Nor who is your father. It was the same practice in South India few hundred years ago. It is still the case in societies where men travel to find Jobs, fertilize and move on.
Fatmata had a boy from one man, she was Musa’s girlfriend and worked for the Aduan and Joel that watched her with eager eyes. But she did not belong to any of them. Not in the European or Mediterranean sense. She was her own.
“You don’t want a goat? you prefer chicken? Fatmata!” shouted the Aduan and took out a bundle of notes “Go bring chicken – he prefer chicken for supper!”
“The woman and the donkey are the salves of Africa.” said Joel.
I had no preference but Fatmata lost none of her bewitching Aura when she encircled the house to take the money, going out of the iron gate to the market next door to fetch chickens.
“You want a woman?” asked the Aduan. Everything is so simple in Africa. White man. Black woman. “I can arrange Fatmata for you.”
“I don’t think its a good idea.” said Joel and his voice was tense and full of pain.
“I know!” said the Aduan “If you don’t like Fatmata, I can call her friend – Maria.”
“Maria?” wrinkled Joel his forehead in his French accent.
“Yes, the one who came to you last week.” said the Aduan.
“Ah-” smiled Joel “She is great, you will love her. She is very beautiful.”
“Shell I call her” Asked the Aduan, “When do you want her to come?”
“But you should be careful.” said Joel. “You remember its Africa?”
Fatmata returned holding two chickens. She walked around the house to the kitchen area, slaughtered the chickens, plucked their feathers and started cooking.
Fatmata’s radiation almost paralyzed us, drunk and full of smoke as we were. The Aduan can say and do whatever he wants and still Fatmata was the true ruler of the house by her being there.
“Maria shall be in the disco tonight” said the Aduan “Do you want to go to the disco? one of my workers will come later and take you.”
“I am going with Joel to the church.”
“When you come back from the church.” said the Aduan that was, like most of the Malis, a very relaxed Muslim.
It was a heavy dark and slow new years dinner. We were 10 men – the Christians of the village, on Catholic and one Jew, and we set by a low rough wood table. The women brought beers, chickens and chips. It was late when I walked back through the dark village, passing the seven mosques that the Saudis financed to win the Mali’s heart. I doubted if 100 mosques will do.
I pushed the iron gate. The Aduan set on a chair and drank beer in the dark.
“Maria is in the disco.” he said “They celebrate the new year. Shall Musa take you?”
Maria came one afternoon. She and Fatmata set in the kitchen and Fatmata braided her hair to many small plaits. Maria was tall, full, with a round bosom and smiling face. She was wonderful, but Fatmata, in her fine movement created bewitching tension. I thought that I’ ll drink a Bee or two and dance for the new year. Musa led me through the night. We crossed the road, passed by trucks, buses and pickups that parked in the darkness by the two restaurants and the Banana, meat and vegetables sellers. The kids were still there, waiting for some food. In the mornings they were waiting silent and hungry, there torn T shirts not really covering them from the morning cold, waiting for the merciful ladies who prepared them thin porridge of milk and barley to fill their belly after the hungry night sleep.
Trucks road on the road on their way between Bamako and Niamey in Niger. African highway. Hunger, smuggling, HIV, hopes, dreams, Acacia trees on red earth. Termites mounds, sheep , goats, donkeys. People. And more people.
We entered the southern neighborhood of Duanza, walked some few hundreds meters and came to a place where some dozens of youngsters gathered outside it.
Musa walked me in to see if I like the place. The party did not start yet. A group of white tourists set near one of the tables and looked lost, observing the Malis that started filling the tables.
Rooms were attached to the disco (do you want beer? Rum?). This is the African way. Boy invites a girl. There is a room. The boy pays for the room, for the condom, for the fuck. Very different indeed.
Maria was not there and I didn’t feel like waiting for her. I was, like everybody else, in love with beautiful Fatmata. I walked in the darkness back to the house. Joel did not come back yet. He was drinking his longing and love to Fatmata from huge beer bottles. I set in the yard under the weak yellow light beside the Aduan and watched the night.
“Do you want me to tell Maria to come here?”
“Thanks.” I said “Happy new year.”
The next morning was a Sunday. 1.1.2006. Joel slept late. He didn’t want to see me. He invited me to stay in Duanza, to rest after my journey from Mediterranean to the Sahel. To charge myself before going to Gao or Bamako.
In few days there is the desert music festival in Gao. Then I shall cross to Niger and travel to Niamey and Agdez- the twin town of Timbuktu on the shores of the Sahara.
He invited me in a wave of friendliness, of loneliness, maybe to defend himself from beautiful Fatmata that devoured his days and nights. Joel, in his loneliness, that came for three months in Mali, that it was his first time in Africa, fell in love with Mali, Africa and Fatmata.
I knew that inviting me was a mistake. He was generous but he couldn’t stop being jealous.
I waked out to the cattle market that was on the edge of the village. i tried to walk in the shade of the houses, under giant trees. January,, the coldest month of the year was not cold at all. I know places cooler then this heat in the middle of the summer.
Under thorny Acacias, in the shade of tall Baobabs and under the sun gathered the Tuareg, dressed in their colored scarves and cloaks, smoking long engraved metal pipes, looking like small trumpets. The Bambara and the Pula wore Cork hats, and on the Dogon’s shoulders hung leather bags that were really empty goats, their legs serve as the carrying straps, you can still see the udders and the ears on the dry skin darkening in the sun.
The Bambara girls, dressed in red and green, moved among the crowd (mostly men), selling frozen Popsicles and sweets. the mountains – the relict tables on the way to Timbuktu and the Dogon height in the south floated in the heat.
When I came back to the house I saw Maria and Fatmata cooking and laughing in the shade. I couldn’t resist and started photographing. their laughter became wild and I turned the photography into what it is a lot of times a sign between man and woman that everything is possible. The transformation of light and mass into energy. Of relativity. I asked Fatmata to take me to the silver smiths of Duanza. In every village and Mali town there is at list one silversmith. The silver works (maybe brought from the Maghreb with the Jews) were left here in separate pockets after the cross desert routs were abandoned. We walked silently through the wide roads, in front of the mosques, on the footsteps of the church that its grave tower stood over the street.
The silversmith was a cripple. He took out jewelry. White silver I saw in Timbuktu and Dire. Gentle flowers. Ring, Necklace, earrings.
I asked Fatmata to try it on. The white silver on the dark black skin. Her eyes shone, her mouth was open in a smile.
When I came back home, I dived into my site. Maps, photographs, Africa guide. As the days accumulated between the day I returned and the amount of days I spend in front of the computer, I noticed that in the activity report of the website there is a place of honor to Switzerland. somebody from Switzerland was looking hard into my website. I entered the photography portfolio and looked at Fatmata. She was still beautiful. Even more so. and I knew that we, Joel and I are looking at Fatmata at the same time, and both continents we miss something. Ah- Fatmata.