Woven Journey

The first time I heard a balaphone being played,
I fell in love with this instrument.
An old man was giving a concert on the street in Accra.
I listened for a long time
With the large crowd that gathered around him,
It took me 12 years to figure out that I could own one,
& another 8 years to find someone to play it!

1 What Was I Doing in West Africa?

I’ve been reading autobiographies
Since I was a little girl
& astrologers have been telling me for years
That I’m supposed to tell stories.
The telling of this story
is a process of reclamation,
of finding the thread
by the distant visual memory,
ancient journal entry, old photograph, saved artifact & pulling,
unraveling for all it’s worth.

Tonight’s story
is of a journey that began over twenty years ago
& has never left me.

What was I doing in West Africa?
finding necessity
and luxury
joy, freedom, release

What was I doing in West Africa?
in 1973, at the age of 20?
You could say, I had nothing better to do.
Really I went on a whim.
Dissatisfied with the limitations of academia,
I was looking for a place to study weaving far away.
I remember that the woman on the phone told me
that she could send me weaving to Italy, Greece, Ireland or Ghana.
Although I had never been to any of those places,
I decided on the spot that Ghana was it.
I’m the kind of person who orders the unknown item on a menu.

I got off the phone excited, having made my decision,
& walked across campus to the library
to look up exactly where this place was.
I’ve still never been to Ireland.
& Italy and Greece are deeply resonant places for me.
But I knew that I could get to Europe,
it existed in my imagination.
I had even been there once
when I first found weaving
in Denmark one summer.
But Africa had never occurred to me.

I grew up in suburban Washington, DC.
I never had a chance of being in the mainstream
even of the fringe,
being born to two socialists
at the height of the McCarthy era.
The religion that was practiced in my family
was socialism.
A basic belief in human dignity, and human rights.
Firmly anti-capitalist.
Pro-worker, anti-boss.
I always knew that my ethnicity was Jewish
but the religion was socialism.

At twenty,
I was trying to find out
what I really needed or wanted in my life.
I made a distinction
between necessity and luxury.
I was trying to strip down the rules
of my suburban middle-class upbringing,
trying to decide what if anything to keep
and what to discard.
There was so much that I had grown up with
that we clearly not useful to me.

In Africa, I was relieved to find, as I had suspected,
that there are many ways to organize life on earth.
That everyone gets born and dies,
& eats when they get up in the morning, if they can
How can I describe the joy, freedom, release
Of having to learn a whole new way of looking at the world.
Or the shock that all I had been raised to take for granted
Had disappeared and been replaced with a new code.
It seems to me that the appeal was as much
That what I found was so different from what I knew
As it was the particulars of what I found there in that year of travel.

2 Disconnections

We who are so far from ourselves and the earth
are drawn to the cultures of the ones
who are in touch, alive.

Imagine, hear an old Jewish woman telling you
that another old Jewish woman looks like a holocaust victim.

She lived alone much of her life.
She was always very glamorous.
I think she didn’t want anyone to see her getting old.
I think she didn’t want to see herself getting old.
So she pushed everyone away using whatever methods would work for each person.
The disconnections were each beautifully personal almost gift wrapped.

One day as I was leaving, I leaned close to kiss her good-bye
She whispered that they took her outside at midnight
& held her up, & there was music, & there was moonlight.
& they were going to do it again tonight.

I wondered if she was being abused in the hospital
or if she was telling me she was going to die that night.
Were you dreaming, I asked? She shook her head.
Was it good or bad? She moved her bony shriveled shoulders in a shrug.
She didn’t know. Scared.

All this is filtered through my own illness.
There was a fundamental confusion on my part about whose illness was whose.
& In the dreamy state that illness induced,
I thought I had her unnamed disease, and that she had mine.
That’s not quite right. I couldn’t tell the difference between her illness and mine.
I really can’t explain it.
We who are so far from ourselves & the earth
are drawn to the cultures of the ones who are alive.
We are so deadened. We seek life from the ones we make poor.
I say “we” because whatever standard of living we have has been built on their backs
We in the west try to make them like us; try to make them dead.
We can’t stand that they are in touch with the earth
when we who can build tall buildings have lost ourselves.
If we succeed in making them like us, we will all die- us and them,
because our greed leads us to make this earth
ever more unlivable- physically, & psychically.
How can we save the earth when we don’t respect the people who live here?

3 February 22, 1973: Landing in Lagos

I stepped off the plane into the hot, humid dusk.
Both the temperature and the humidity were close to 100.
it so hot I could barely breathe & so humid I could barely walk
& there’s hoards of men, & it is hot & humid & dark
& lots of people

& I had to weave my way through the close chaotic mob
to the one room arrivals shed, to the passport desk
through swarms of men to show my passport to the military man behind the desk.
with gruff questions the uniformed official slams his stamp hard on my passport
& everything is so strange.
I don’t know what’s going to happen next, what’ll be expected next, Its like a crash landing

I go a few feet to the table in the center of the room
with the pile of luggage & its so hot and humid
& I get my pack & now they really want to help me
& I go a few feet to customs & show my passport again
& I’m sweating & still more men want to help me
& I’m telling them I can do it myself

& I’ve finally figured out to pay attention only to the ones in uniform
& then a seated man without a uniform asks for my passport
& I hesitate a moment, & 3 large uniformed men step closer
so I know I’d better show it,
I fumble & drop things & then through the doors, I’m outside.

uneasy about going outside the little fenced area
& the 6 people in the group take soooo long to join me
& by this time I’m really sweating & hot & nervous
& they finally come out
& again hoards of men try to “help” me with my luggage. a taxi, a place to stay
& I feel very conspicuous, very white-European,
& someone asks Harvey about all of us being his wives
& Nancy gets proposed to
& they want to help Katie off with her pack
& Barbara goes to get transportation
& Larry goes with her
Larry, the only African American in the group is as uneasy as the rest of us
& finally the hoard thins, the bus comes & we ride to the guest house.

Africa!!! Welcome to Africa

4 Djenne

The heart of my journey was Mali.
The boat trip from Mopti to Djenne was supposed to take 12 hours
& instead it took 3 1/2 days.
There was so little water in the river
that we kept having to get out of the canoe to lighten the load
and push the boat down the river.
There were only 4 of us on the boat and lots of burlap sacks of grain
Besides me, there was a woman passenger
on whose hands and feet were painted beautiful red designs in henna.
The woman and I sat facing each other on the lumpy sacks for 3 days
& each curled up on them to sleep at night.
I fluctuated between being enchanted with the river,
the motion, the people, the skinny cows
the encampments of huts made of woven raffia mats
& pissed I had ever started the whole thing since it was taking so long,
bored, physically uncomfortable.
I started reading Virginia Wolf, To The Lighthouse.

It would have been a great 12 hour trip
It began to seen that Djenne didn’t really exist.
Finally we arrived at the beach & had to walk 4 km
exhausted from not having slept well for 3 nights.
First we arrived at the shell of a town without any people
and then there was Djenne beyond, a charming town with twisty back streets and alleys.
& lots of children studying from Arabic tablets.

Of course I went to the market–one of the supreme joys of West Africa.
Markets are lively, Lots of commotion, Very social.
Venders show their wares on varieties of tables or cloth spread on the ground.
It was always the place I went as soon as possible when I arrived anywhere.
It was a good way to orient myself to the place,
see the variety of produce and spices and household goods.
I would buy the smallest example of each type of basket I encountered
so it would fit in my pack.
I sought out the printed and woven cloth. perhaps there would be a local broom
or a new kind of ceramic vessel or some kind of fruit I had never seen before.
I could hear the local language, Get a cheap and filling meal,
Perhaps find a place to stay.

And Djenne has the most beautiful mosque made of mud in West Africa.
I timidly tried to explore the mosque not sure if women or non-Muslims were allowed.
I entered the gateway & peeked in at the entrance of the mosque.
I was thinking about climbing the mud stairs on the outside of the building
when someone came along and instead of asking permission, I left.

I traveled back to Mopti from Djenne by road
and instead of three days, the trip took 3 hours.

5 Mopti to Gao

In Mopti, I found a truck that was leaving at 3 for the two day trip north to Gao.
Well it was supposed to leave at 3, Just like it was supposed to take two days.
We finally left at about 7 & got about 20 km before we stopped for the night
because the radiator was leaking so badly it had to be taken back to Mopti to be fixed!

The passengers slept at night by the side of the truck in their respective sleeping rolls.
The nearly full moon was so bright
that I had to move into the shade of the truck in order to sleep.

The next day, we were just about to start when a storm blew the sand around
so fiercely that there was no visibility & the truck had to stop again.
Luckily, I had opted to travel in the luxury of the cab this time,
instead of riding in the open back.

The cast of characters is the usual rather odd combination.
Besides the driver, the other passenger in the cab is
the new young wife of a Mali customs official.
She is very friendly & we share a sense of the situation,
although we share no common language.
Since we are in the cab, we know that the driver is absolutely crazy.

He’s always stopping and deciding that the truck can’t go on for no apparent reason
& instead of driving in the worn places in the corrugated dirt road, he drives on the ridges
making the ride as bumpy as possible.
He speeds up when he should go slow.
The next time, the driver said, that the truck, was broken down,
There was wide spread feeling among the passengers,
That he’s sleepy or hungry & just doesn’t want to drive anymore.

The customs official is taking his new bride from Bamako the capital,
to a remote northern border post.
For the entire long and dusty trip, he wore the khaki military uniform of his post.
He is the only person on the truck who speaks any English,
and “Good Morning” is the extent of it.
I was always extremely glad to hear that “Good Morning”.
He took care of us both, his new wife and me.
We were the only women on the truck & since he was taking care of one,
I guess he figured he could watch out for another as well.

Mali was formerly a French colony but very few of the passengers spoke any French.
Only the Customs official, an Algerian man who kept looking at me with curiosity
& open wonder at my presence,
& a postal official who was later my host in Gao,
I have been adopted by these people.

The old manager of the vehicle & two friendly crazy young mates
Who serve as mechanics for the camion are also taking very good care of me.
I always carried some provisions, a tin or two of sardines, some bread, a canteen of water
in case I got stuck in a place without any food
Fortunately the food was almost always unnecessary
since I was almost always invited to eat with the managers of the trucks.
There is another large group of men that I know little about.
The nice thing about these people is that they treat me,
A stranger & a white person, almost like one of them, except of course
That I am a woman.

I am tired of living in public for so many days.
The only time there aren’t any people around
Is when I squat behind a scrawny bush & take a piss.
I wish I could smoke a joint, have a good cry, a conversation or even a friendly chat
In American.

Mysteriously, the truck was fixed & off we went
Only to break down in a slightly larger town for an afternoon.
I waited, sitting on the sandy ground, with everyone else from the truck
in the shade of some trees just outside the mud walls of the town.
It is certainly hopping today, besides us, truck passengers, there’s a wedding.
Several northern men wearing black turbans wait with us.
They are beautiful & entertain us playing 2 1/2-stringed instruments.

There have been no trucks thru this town all day.
There were 3 camels, but they were going in the wrong direction!
Stuck and helpless. My journey is not yet complete but that doesn’t fill up these spaces.

We finally left. Everyone was excited.
The engine had just been put in proper order.
We drove off into the sunset and broke an axle!

6 Milk

pointing, nodding, smiling grunting & drawing pictures in the dry, crusty earth.

Next we were stuck for several days near a village
nestled at the foot of huge, beautiful, bare wind-sculpted mountains.
It was extremely dry, almost desert.
A group of passengers decided to walk the last 30 kilometers to their village
& departed across the nearly barren landscape.
It seemed that the truck was beyond repair.
We were simply waiting for another truck to come along.

The villagers were curious about the travelers, the truck and me.
I talked with people of the village in the universal language of pointing, nodding, smiling & grunting.

I saw women weaving round colored raffia mats & they insisted on giving me some.
The women wanted to feel my hands for calluses. They wanted to feel my hair.
My trip to West Africa is the only time I have ever been asked how I got my hair so straight.
I found I could make a connection, show my genuine curiosity and interest in them
by reaching out to feel their hair in response.

A woman invited me into her one room mud house.
A bed made of the same material as the house, & covered with straw mats
was built into one end of the room.
It took up about a third of the dwelling
The edge of the bed was finished with beautiful carved slats of wood.
The woman and I exchanged greetings, smiling , pointing, nodding.

I was invited into a huge walled courtyard & seated on the ground at one edge
beside the owner of the house who was the only one sitting in a chair.
Many gathered villagers were also seated along the edge of the courtyard.
A servant came through a door at the far end of the large open expanse
carrying a calabash which he offered to me a large bowl of milk to drink.

After six months in West Africa, I was eating just about everything.
meat in little market stalls.
Water when people offered it to me hospitably in their homes.
But unpasteurized milk was the last taboo.
I looked at the milk & looked at my hosts.
I looked around the courtyard at the gathered villagers
who were watching me smiling and curiously.
I smiled back, trying to figure a way out.
Not finding it, & expecting to die, I began to drink.
To my relief, it was wonderful, like yogurt.

7 Goat

Since the trip was taking so long, the truck manager decided to feed the passengers.
He bought a goat from the villagers.
I wanted to watch it being slaughtered & had to explain how I had gotten to be so old
never having seen a goat being slaughtered before.
I explained as best I could about supermarkets and packaging
in our mutually primitive French,
nodding, pointing and drawing pictures in the dry, crusty earth.

They wanted me to take pictures of the whole process which unfortunately I declined to do.
I did watch it all except I missed the actual slitting of the throat.
After the blood was drained, as is Muslim custom,
the body was opened & the guts were removed.
The intestines were carefully cleaned, cooked and eaten almost immediately
as a reward to those present for the slaughter.
Then the body was cut into parts. No part of the goat went unused.
Spontaneously, the passengers lined up at the end,
for a group portrait holding pieces of goat and pans of water.
That night we feasted on goat meat & a kind of desert bread which is baked
by burying the formed dough in the ground under the open fire used to cook the meal.

8 Famine

The next morning, all of a sudden there was a way to fix the truck.
We were about to be off when it was discovered that the key was lost, nowhere to be found.
The truck had to be hot wired.

More and more of the desert,
The scenery was beautiful–huge dry expanses, a few scrubby trees, bare rock mountains,
blue cloudless sky

In the desert, I participated many times in a tea ceremony.
A small metal enameled pot with a long sprout is packed with tea and sugar.
Water is heated on a small portable stove.
Then everyone who is assembled is given a small glass of strong, sweet, hot tea to drink.
No matter how many or how few people are sitting around,
there is always just enough tea in that little pot to go around.
The process is repeated twice more using the same tea leaves & adding more sugar.
Each participant is given three glasses, each sweeter and weaker than the previous one.

We are again waiting for another truck to come by.
The axle is really broken this time, not fixable.
There was a severe drought in the Sahel in the early 70’s.
There was no water in the river & there was nothing to eat
in the town where we broke down this time.
People were starving.
I will never forget the face of the boy who must have been 12 or 14
who looked like an old man
& ate the discarded empty cardboard box from the tea ceremony
for the remaining grains of sugar on the box.

Around this time, I started fantasizing everyone I had ever known
showing up in a land rover to rescue me.
Old friends, old lovers, family, even people I never particularly liked.
Sometimes these people also rescued other passengers from the truck.
It has been a week and a half since I’ve spoken English!
except for the few very welcome words that the customs official knows.

We from the truck ate & a few grains of rice fell on the ground,
they ate that.
So I ate as little as I could & gave the rest away.
It got to the point where no one could eat very much.
It was decided by the truck passengers that we had to get out of town
because no one could take it.
By popular demand, somehow by changing the tires around,
the camion was able move enough for us to break down a few miles out of town.

I explained there were also people in the US who don’t have enough to eat
& had to further explain that it was not for of lack of food but for lack of money.
I have been explaining that yes, the government is rich, & some of the people are rich,
but not everyone.
The Algerian man asked, “Why isn’t there a revolution?”

9 Gao

I got to Gao covered in dust. after 2 good nights sleep, I’m still tired. almost 2 weeks without English.

At the house of the postal official little children offer me tea,
There’s a 13 year old cook. I’m very tired of eating rice.
The young son showed me his math paper, new math in Mali, they’re learning bases!

Although I was proficient enough at the art of the bucket bath
to be able to wash myself and my hair with the one bucket of water that constitutes a bath,
I was so covered in dust that it took me one whole bucket to wash my body
& then I waited til the next day to wash my hair.
Water which must be carried by the women from the well & stored in large terracotta urns
is very precious & very heavy.

I remember that the aluminum frame of my backpack had broken
& I took it to a machine shop on the edge of town
where the machinist made a curved metal splint for the snapped tube of the frame
& attached it with two small bolts.

I went to the big hotel in Gao to drink a soda and gawk
& bought a couple of carved wooden spoons just the kind of small inexpensive souvenir
that I could carry in my backpack.
The two story mud mosque overlooked the dusty city with its wide earthen streets.
I gazed over the roofs of the mostly one story mud buildings
& caught a glimpse into their walled courtyards.

During a walk near the drought shrunken river,
the same river I had pushed the canoe down from Mopti to Djenne,
I saw the parched carcass of a cow
dry, cracked skin & bones with no flesh,
lying on dry, cracked ground which is under water
when there is water in the river.

10 Claustrophobia

From Gao I traveled east toward Niamey in Niger.
I rode in the back of a pickup truck that had wooden benches on the two long sides
& boxes of goods in the middle with children on top of the boxes.
The back of the pickup had a hard top & cloth flaps for the sides and the end
which were open during the day.
The truck was, as usual, over packed with both people and goods.
I rode all day squashed between two people who seemed not to understand
that my feet and legs were connected to my torso.
There were frequent stops for border checks since this was the far north.
The stops meant that everyone had to pile out of the back & show their papers.
Every time we got back in I tried to make myself more comfortable
& somehow I only got more uncomfortable.

As it got dark, the flaps were closed on the side and the back.
I couldn’t see out of the truck.
There were too many people, too much baggage, too many children.
After a while I began to panic. I couldn’t get enough air in the enclosed truck.
I tried to open the flap abit to get some air, but the other passengers objected.
I didn’t know what to do. I thought I was going to start screaming.
Janet, I told myself, “Calm down. You can’t freak out here.
They just won’t know what to do with a screaming white woman.”
I was seated mid-way down the bench.
I found myself standing up in the crowded moving truck
& somehow making my way to the back where I was able to sit at the end of the bench
& stick my head out the flap.

The sky was clear & there was a full moon.
I calmed myself with that and the breeze from the motion of the truck.
I became aware of a young Tuareg man sitting across from me at the end of the facing bench
He was gently running his foot up my leg and smiling!
It was a friendly , naughty gesture & the gentle, human contact helped calm bring me back.

11 Culture Shock

About four months after I returned to the US,
I happened upon a sidewalk sale in a small town in Ohio.
I wanted to buy a plant which cost 75 cents & all I had was a five dollar bill.
I asked the vendor if she had change.
Of course any vender in America will be able to change a five dollar bill,
but in the markets in Mali it might have been necessary for a young child
to run all over the market to find change for that bill!

The first time I heard a balaphone being played,
I fell in love with this instrument.
An old man was giving a concert on the street in Accra.
I listened for a long time
With the large crowd that gathered around him,
It took me 12 years to figure out that I could own one,
& another 8 years to find someone to play it!