Elvis and Aïcha and Allah and Me

Timbuktu for the Timid

Elvis and Aïcha and Allah and Me

Timbuktu for the Timid

Elvis and Aïcha and Allah and Me
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Aug. 5 2005 11:34 AM

Timbuktu for the Timid

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Click here  to see a slide show. DOUENTZA, Mali—"Bonjour, ça va?" I say this approximately 3,000 times a day, Malians being big on greetings. Douentza is a dusty (redundant, since everything here is dusty), wide spot in the road four hours south of Timbuktu. My friend C. has lived and worked here off and on for years, with the Near East Foundation, and he has given me an introduction to his friends. After weeks of wandering, I plan to stay in one place for a while.

C. is Elvis here, and to be his American friend is to be Elvis' sister in Memphis. The guesthouse where I have a room boasts a fridge, running water (in the courtyard's outside toilet), and electricity. In the mornings I sit on a bougainvillea-bedecked patio and enjoy the shade and the tiny birds that trill in the vines. Graceland has nothing on this. Well, Graceland has barbecued pork—nonexistent in this Muslim area—but let's not quibble.

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The only thing I lack is variety in conversation. Most of mine go like this:

(Silence)

"C. est très gentil."

"Oui, oui. Très gentil, et très sympathique."

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"C'est vrai. ll est un bon homme."

"Oui."

(Silence)

(Slightly accusatory tone) "C. parle beaucoup de langues. Français très bien, et aussi peul, arabe, et bambara." (This is a not-so-subtle aspersion on my own fine-in-France-but-not-adequate-in-Africa French.)

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"Oui. Il est très intelligent."

"Oui."

(Silence)

My lifeline is C.'s friend Koumbourou, who takes me under her wing. She is 42 and has seven children. Another is on the way. "C'est bon," I say, helplessly. "C'est une grande famille."

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"Il est trop," she sighs. It's too much, too many.

Koumbourou is kind, patiently helping me make purchases in the market and ensuring I have all the goat and rice I can stand. I am always invited for dinner, and if I stay in my quarters, covered bowls of food appear. Meals are eaten by hand (right hand only, the left is for ... personal hygiene) from communal bowls. Men and boys (served first) in one corner of the courtyard, women and girls in another.

She and her husband are in the Malian middle class, with all the accoutrements. There is a servant girl who prepares meals and cleans dishes, a truck and a scooter, their own well, electricity. And they have a very visible status symbol: a large television, complete with satellite dish.

The television flickers softly in the courtyard each evening. I love the commercials, shiny women singing and dancing about coffee and detergents. But my favorites are the weather announcers, who preface each prediction with "Inshallah." Translated roughly, this means "If Allah wills it." It also gives the meteorologist an out. Maybe Allah doesn't want it to rain.

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Less well-off neighbors often step quietly into the courtyard, settling in the bluish glow. Nothing is wasted here. On each street, children walk, waiting to be offered leftovers. The lucky ones have covered plastic pails. Many of the garibous—young Quranic students whose mullahs send them out to beg—accept their scraps in fly-specked aluminum cans.

Koumbourou invites me to celebrate an Islamic holiday with her family. It's a big deal, sheep slaughtered and fancy clothes for everyone. She looks at my grubby backpacker wardrobe and announces that I shall have a new boubou.

I find myself choosing cloth—the cotton prints here are gorgeous—and being whisked to a tailor who measures me in front of six or seven interested bystanders. An old woman pokes the fat on my upper arms approvingly. That I have lived on a couple hands full of rice and a few chunks of goat a day for more than a month and not lost weight is proof enough that there is no God. Or, in this case, no Allah.

What comes back from the tailor is an enormous, pouffy dress trimmed with lurid green ribbon. Everyone loves it, but I'm flash-backed to the Pretty Plus children's department at Sears, circa 1974, where my mother stuffed me into uncomfortable monstrosities suitable for being dragged to church in. I sulk in the giant boubou like an oversized 10-year-old, deaf to the compliments and the "très jolies." I want my Levi's.

And I want, after five weeks, to go home. The respiratory illness I've been fighting since arrival has worn me down—the mild case of malaria won't appear until later—and I'm sick of telling men I don't want to buy jewelry. I miss my husband. Also, I hate goat. There are other stories to cover, other places to see. I can look back at Mali with no regrets. Mission accomplished. Been there, done that.

After Friday's feast, I make a call and pay a hefty fee to change my tickets. Then I walk to the main road, to a French-owned campement, in search of a whiskey-Coca and some English conversation.

And that, of course, is when everything changes.

Aïcha is 5 years old. She was abandoned at this campement, naked, sick, and beaten, when she was 3. Her mother had remarried, and the new husband wanted nothing to do with another man's child. Too many of my friends endured bad stepfathers for me to blame this on Mali, but it's never a good situation. The owner nursed her for a few months before returning her to the family. Since then, she's snatched sleep and sustenance wherever she can find it.

Aïcha takes one look at me in the ugly boubou and crawls up on my lap. Cats do this. Children don't. I'm not a sentimental do-gooder, not the mommy type. There's a reason I reached 40 free of children. But reason, it seems, just quit taking my calls. By the time I understand her situation, it's too late to go back. I pet her, awkwardly. And carry her home to the guesthouse.

Over the next week I stick my big American nose into village affairs, talking with Koumbourou and Laya (another of C.'s female friends) about Aïcha, trying to find a solution. There is another trip to the tailor, this time for tiny dresses and a pair of flip-flops to replace the too-small mismatched ones she came with. Lots of Fantas and showers with the Bulgari soap I hoarded from the poshest of Parisian hotels. She loves the showers and the soap, washing her hands and feet with a Howard Hughes-like attention to detail.

I teach her to clink her glass and say, "Cheers, darling." I enroll her in kindergarten, at a cost of—I kid you not—$2 a month. Her teachers tell me she is bright and quick, a confirmation of what I already know. She loves to look through my photographs and postcards, to play with her new school supplies and the toy horse that local Peace Corps volunteers passed along to her. "Pony," she squeals. "Missouri."

What will happen to her, to us, is in Allah's hands. For the time being, village tut-tutting has ensured that she has a place to sleep in her stepfather's courtyard. Not a bed—they are a poor family in a very poor region—but a place, nonetheless.

Adoption is a remote possibility, made more difficult by the fact that both her parents are alive. And although children are both bought and stolen here every day to work as slaves in the cocoa plantations of Ivory Coast, I'm told that Mali's imminent signing of the Hague Adoption Standards Project will make a legal adoption all but impossible.

I schedule a meeting with the head of the child protective agency, hoping to enlist another ally. His own young son died Thursday night. He is not in the office.

Had Aïcha and I met a day earlier, before I changed my tickets, I'd still be a stay-at-home mom in Douentza, making peanut butter sandwiches—she loves peanut butter—and squeezing citrons for lemonade. As it is, I must watch the fat tears roll down her cheeks when I tell her I'm leaving. "I won't forget," I promise. "I'll come back."

When I'm gone, Koumbourou and Laya will look out for Aïcha as best they can. I'll send money, packages. I'll start hoarding my frequent-flier miles, begin planning a return to this place that I am so ready to leave.

And the next time, maybe, Aïcha will be leaving with me, for Bamako or America or anywhere, really, but here.

Inshallah, as they say. If Allah is willing.