Andrew Clark’s unfinished memoir, Lost and Found in West Africa, 3
This essay (# 3) is the last from Andrew Clark’s (Senegal 1978-80) unfinished memoir Lost and Found in West Africa. While there is much more in this manuscript, it would be up to the family (Michiko Clark especially) to publish it as a book. But for now, thank you, Michiko, for sharing these short pieces with us.]
After I had been in Bidiancoto about a month, a very special event occurred. I knew that Ruby Diallo, Mamadou Boye Sow’s only wife, was expecting their second child. No one ever talked directly about pregnancy, fearing bad luck and “evil spirits.” Nevertheless, it was obvious Ruby was expecting, and very soon. One of my friends remarked that Ruby’s stomach “wasn’t just full of millet and leaf sauce.” That was as close as anyone came to saying that Ruby was expecting.
I spent a lot of time in the compound with Ruby, and in many ways she was even more important a language teacher than Mamadou. When Mamadou and his brothers went out to work in the millet, maize and peanut fields, I often joined them for short periods of time. They let me lead the oxen, plant seeds, or weed, but only briefly. They looked at my hands and said I would hurt my hands if I worked too much. After a while in the fields, just about the time the sun was getting extremely hot, they insisted I return to the compound and wait for them for lunch and tea. Ruby was always there, preparing food or fetching water or cleaning, chatting away, gossiping, teaching me words and asking me questions. I realized later that she would have been out in the fields working her own crop; only because of her pregnancy, she didn’t cultivate that first rainy season I spent in Bidiancoto.
The timing of the pregnancy proved excellent for me. Hanging around the compound, I asked her a lot of questions, too. She never said she didn’t understand me or laughed at my mistakes, of which I am sure there were many. She always spoke clearly and simply expressly for me. I picked up a lot of the daily language by listening to Ruby talk to Fatou, and by Fatou talking to her mother. It was one thing to have Mamadou teach me words and phrases that I wrote down in a notebook, another to listen and talk with Ruby about everyday matters. Listening to her talk to Fatou, often in short declarative sentences that she often had to repeat, was very useful. I often asked the same questions everyday, and frequently our conversations were quite similar from one day to the next. Our discussions gradually grew more complex as I grew more confident in the language. Mamadou may have taught me to speak and understand the language, whereas Ruby taught me to think in and use the language.
Naturally, I wanted to ask Ruby about her pregnancy and when she was due, but I had already sensed that people didn’t talk about such things directly. I didn’t have the vocabulary yet, either. Ruby certainly never mentioned it. I figured she had perhaps another month or so although that was sheer conjecture based on total ignorance. I knew for certain that she hadn’t had any kind of modern medical treatment or prenatal care because she mentioned she hadn’t been to Tambacounda since Fatou was born. Such things as modern medical treatment were undreamed of luxuries in rural Senegal. I eventually wanted to set up some sort of pharmacy or dispensary in the village in the future to correct that situation. For the moment, I observed Ruby and hoped everything worked out okay. She may have visited one of the traditional midwives in the village although she would never have told me, nor would I have been able to discover that on my own. I knew there must be a midwife but I had no idea who she was or what exactly she could do.
One evening in my second month in Bidiancoto, Mamadou and I were sitting outside in the compound, drinking tea and talking as usual in our patois of Pulaar and French. Increasingly, we spoke more in Pulaar since I was, in principle, supposed to be studying the language full-time. It was a clear, moonlit night, one of those full moon nights when I was convinced I could read in the bright, silvery light. Ruby had prepared and served dinner, and then gone into her hut, presumably to lie down. I noticed that she hadn’t eaten dinner with the other women in the compound, but assumed she was simply exhausted and perhaps uncomfortable because of her pregnancy. I’d also come to the conclusion that perhaps she wasn’t as far along as I calculated because she certainly showed no signs of slowing down or nearing the time. A couple of times Mother Boye and Granny came and went from Ruby’s hut, which was right behind us, yet I thought nothing of this. Fatou, who had gradually but surely accepted me as no threat and then began calling me “Papa Ousmane,” was asleep outside near us. We were sitting in front of the hut as usual, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. After tea, I listened to the radio for awhile, and then Mamadou and I talked again about training in Thies and some of the people there, a favorite conversation topic of Mamadou’s.
Suddenly, loudly and clearly in the night, a tiny baby’s cry rang out. I immediately knew Ruby had just given birth, less than ten feet from where we were sitting. In my surprise and joy, I exclaimed to Mamadou, “Ruby had a baby!” He nodded, but said nothing. Later I realized I had broken a cardinal rule by speaking about a newborn like that, tempting evil spirits and bad luck. Mamadou’s wordless nod silenced me, and we didn’t talk further about it. We finished the tea, and Mamadou walked me to my hut. He said goodnight and left. I couldn’t sleep from excitement. I lay there, replaying the evening’s events over and over in my mind.
Ruby had prepared dinner and acted perfectly fine until she had gone into the hut “to lie down.” While this wasn’t like Ruby who usually laid down on the wooden bench in front of the hut, near where Mamadou made tea, I figured she was tired from the pregnancy. In retrospect, it occurred to me that Mother and Granny had been going in and out a lot. In the evenings, the older women usually shelled peanuts and chatted, sometimes argued, over by Granny’s hut. How little I had suspected that Ruby was in the process of having her baby. I suppose I thought Ruby would be confined for a day or two before giving birth. This was so unexpected, to me, at least. I presumed there had to be all sorts of preparations that would have signaled to me that the birth was imminent. I didn’t think it would just happen while I sat a few feet away. How wrong I was.
And that newborn cry- I knew immediately! It was unmistakable, universal, whatever you want to call it. Even though I had only “experienced” childbirth through films and books, I knew instantly and instinctively what had occurred. I have two younger brothers in the States, and the youngest I can vividly recall being brought home from the hospital after birth. The birth itself took place hidden away, in a sterile hospital behind closed doors, and removed from daily life. Here birth was the most natural event in the world, and happened without much fuss or preparation. I was astonished it had taken place so close to me, yet the only indication I had was when the baby gave its first cry. What a joyous but, in some ways, unsettling moment.
I recalled Mamadou’s refusal to say a word about the birth, the baby or even Ruby. How different, I thought, from our culture. He acted as if absolutely nothing had happened or was happening; that the birth of a child, his child, was not worth comment. In our culture, babies are born with much excitement and fanfare. There are baby showers, proud fathers with cigars, birth announcements and all sorts of festivities. Granted, births may be very commercialized nowadays in our culture. Nevertheless, births are public and much anticipated events. Everyone knows the due date, talks and jokes and marvels about the coming event. When the birth occurs, usually under very private and exclusive conditions, the news spreads. Here the birth took place on the floor of a mud hut, just several feet away from people going about their usual business, and no one said a word. Why, when a cow, sheep or goat gave birth, there was more outward excitement and concern.
And it wasn’t just Mamadou who seemed unfazed. Ruby had done her chores up to no less than two hours before the birth. She never talked about her pregnancy, and even after the birth, Mamadou, the father, acted as if nothing had happened. Granny and Mother also went about their business as usual, and in silence. We all carried on normally. Mamadou hadn’t even asked anyone how his wife or the baby were doing. We finished our tea and conversation, and he walked me back to my hut, all without any query or single word about his wife and newborn child. In fact, he avoided talking about the birth and his wife. I found this all very puzzling and very strange.
After replaying these scenes in my mind, and comparing them to what I knew about birth in our culture, I began to focus on what would happen next. Was Ruby okay? Would the baby survive? These were logical questions after all the reading I had done on childbirth and infant mortality reaching forty to fifty percent in this area of Senegal. Countless infections and diseases plagued babies and young children. Did Ruby have a boy or girl? How would they break the news to other members of the compound and to the village? Would I know what to do and to say? Had I made a serious blunder by exclaiming “Ruby had a baby?” Well, what else was I supposed to say? I couldn’t pretend that nothing had happened, or that I hadn’t heard that first cry of life. I guess I should have ignored everything, but it was all so exciting and new to me. Besides, no one had told me what to do when a birth occurred right next to me. Was this then, at long last, a critical incident?
As usual, it seemed my head had no sooner hit the pillow, then it was morning. Why did the days sometimes drag on forever while the nights, when I was alone and it was slightly cooler and there were no flies, simply whip by? I would have been perfectly happy if it had always been evening and night in Bidiancoto. If only I could have slept during the day and then been awake all night. I anticipated sunset because that meant night would soon be upon us. The air was often cool, sometimes even chilly during certain weeks of the year. I would lie out on a mat, listening to the muffled sounds of other compounds, people talking, animals calling out in the darkness. Donkeys might bray in the distance or gallop past the compound. I had survived another day and made it to the evening. The best of Bidiancoto rose rapidly to the surface as the sun set on the horizon. The cares, discomforts and problems of the day drifted away as the last rays of the sun faded and died.
The brightness of the day contrasted sharply with the darkness of the nights. There were no artificial lights or illuminations. A small flashlight could penetrate the darkness. There were literally millions of stars in the sky on clear nights, while other times the night was lit by brilliant moonshine. I would lie outside in Mamadou’s compound and stare up at the stars, wondering where various American family members and friends were, noting how lucky I was to be in this village, miles away from electricity or cars or the distractions of modern-day, industrial life. BBC and Voice of America were both on with their best programs in evenings and at night. I even found some American radio stations that played old American music. U.S. Armed Forces Radio, which I stumbled upon one night while channel surfing on the radio, was like an American radio station with a variety of programs. I could listen in and feel in touch with America while being under the glittering night sky of West Africa. Evenings were always my favorite time in the village. I can quickly and fondly recall those times spent out under the stars and sometimes in the moonlight in Bidiancoto. Was it a coincidence that one of the most special events in my early days in the village occurred at night under the stars?
The morning after the birth, and I clearly remember it was a Sunday morning, I was up earlier than usual, and made my regular walk to Mamadou’s compound for breakfast. When I got there, more activity than normal was evident. Mother greeted me first, and said something to the effect that “You have a little mother.” I puzzled over what this meant for a moment, yet I was more concerned about whether or not I could go into the hut. Mother must have noticed my hesitation because she called out, “Go in and see your little mother.” It dawned on me that Ruby had had a baby girl.
Granny emerged from her hut with a big grin. She grasped my hand in hers. “Your little mother came to us last night,” she said happily.
I went into Ruby’s hut cautiously, not sure what awaited me once inside. Ruby was lying on the bed next to a small pile of rags. We exchanged greetings as usual. Then she said, “See your little mother?” and lifted the pile to reveal a tiny baby girl. “She will have your mother’s name.”
I suddenly understood all the references to “little mother.” The baby was to be named after my mother, and thus would be considered “my little mother.” I had ever seen such a tiny baby, hardly 12 hours old. I sat on the edge of the bed, uncertain what to say or ask. Was this a critical incident? I doubt it, because it was a wonderful moment. I was simply very happy and not sure what to say. I kept thinking of the phrase, “the miracle of birth” and how true it was at that precise moment. My loss of words, though, was not because of the difficult nature of the situation, but rather my own happiness. Even though I hadn’t been in the village that long, I did feel part of this birth. The tears welled up in my eyes, and I turned away, embarrassed. I realize now that tears were the only appropriate human response in any culture.
6 CommentsLeave a comment
This story really should be published.
I really like the “layering” as a literary technique.
And the topic brings tears to my eyes.
These are pieces of exquisite sensitivity.
A joy to read. Publish more.
What a beautifully rendered, tender story. Marnie
An extraordinary piece that should be published by itself somewhere–especially in this 50th anniversary year. it is an excellent example of “bringing the world back home”.Only a Peace Corps Volunteer would have such an experience and develop such insights into another culture.
Andrew Clark’s writing is masterful. I pray that these excerpts become a book. Having served in Senegal from 1993-96, his words bring back the wonder of both our experiences there.
(Author of “Roller Skating in the Desert”)