Is it wise to trust in the kindness of strangers?
In the shadow of fabled Timbuktu lies the medieval town of Djenné, and every child’s fantasy: here the most colossal mud pie in the world rises from the desert. The Djenné Mosque is 12,000 square feet and built entirely of sand and sticks. Its tan minarets reach for the clouds like arms outstretched in prayer. Six steps, symbolizing the transition from profane to sacred, lead into the mosque. Centuries of monsoons have somehow spared this house of Allah. As I am admiring the holy sandcastle, a teenager with a crutch approaches. In flawless English he announces, “My name is Toka. I would like to show you around. May I?” I haven’t heard a word of English in two weeks. “Follow me,” he offers, his bright smile illuminating his dark face like a crescent moon.
Although Toka has a discernible limp, he hops over the river of raw sewage running in the middle of the street and capers up six flights of stairs like a mountain goat to show me an unparalleled view of the city. I can barely keep up. He points to what looks like a Walt Disney castle surrounded by a moat off in the distance. “That’s where my family lives,” he waves proudly. “Sirimou. Would you like to see a traditional Malian village?”
The path to Sirimou winds through a floodplain so hot and dry that three cows have keeled over like jackknifed semis. Their corpses are already covered with a dusting of sand. Their ribs protrude, bleached white as piano keys. “When I was six years old, I got sick with the flu,” Toka begins. “I remember being delirious with a high fever, and then I couldn’t use my legs.” A procession of villagers on their way to market shares the road with us: barefooted women with newborns strapped to their backs balance wooden bowls brimming with millet or firewood on their heads. A man on a bicycle with a freshly butchered sheep tied behind his seat with a vine passes us. “My family didn’t know what was the matter with me, but they couldn’t afford to find out,” Toka relates, matter-of-factly. “For years, I walked on my fists, dragging my legs behind me like a seal. Then my parents built me a wheelchair so I could roll through the alleys with my friends.”
We pause under a baobab tree, which offers the only respite from the heat. Its trunk looks like an elephant’s leg, wrinkled at the knees. Its bare branches pierce the cloudless blue satin of the sky. Toka’s gaze is drawn heavenward. “Three years ago, when I was fifteen, I was playing in front of the mosque where I met you, when an American woman spotted me. The next thing I knew, she was taking me to the doctor in Bamako and they told me I had polio. But that’s not the most amazing thing.” His brown eyes fix on my green ones like magnets. “She was an angel. She flew me home with her to Chicago. Even though she already had seven kids. And she paid for three reconstructive surgeries for my legs.” Toka plants his crutch in the sand emphatically. “When I returned to Mali, six months later, I walked off the plane by myself. It’s a miracle. How can I ever repay what they did for me?” He looks to the sky again. The sun glints off the whites of his eyes like diamonds. “That’s why I want to help whenever I can.”
Sirimou is built on a hill, so when the Bani River floods, the town becomes an island accessible only by dugout canoe or rickety bridge. We go for the bridge. The call to prayer floats over the rooftops. A throng of screaming children greets us. The older siblings are carrying the younger ones, adorned with fetishes to ward off evil spirits: braided leather thongs gird their waists and ankles, bone talismans encircle their necks. The babies shriek in terror when they see me, but the brave toddlers fight over my hands. “Tobabou!” they shout (white person). “Bonjour. Ça va?” They tap my pockets eagerly, patting me down for candy or ballpoint pens. “Bonbon? Bic?” a dozen ever-hopeful voices giggle. “Ignore them,” Toka shoos them away with his crutch.
The children scatter, but soon we are surrounded by the village mothers and teenage daughters wearing hammered gold crescents as big as bananas in their noses and ears. The tallest woman taps her jaw and moans. Her front teeth are missing. I can see she needs aspirin. I pour two Advil into her palm and offer my bottled water. She refuses the water but grabs the pills. Now women are pawing at me from all sides, yelling, grabbing, pushing, shoving. I don’t think they will hurt me, but I am being crushed as they press in on me. I start dispensing all the Advil I have left, but Toka orders me to stop. “They get medicine from everyone who comes here. There is nothing wrong with them. They just see you as an opportunity to get something.” He speaks to them harshly and they glide back into their doorless houses, like snails retreating into their shells.
Toka leads me through narrow, convoluted streets. I try to notice where we are going, but the streets are really just packed earth between the houses, which all look the same anyway, and I realize that without my guide I am completely lost. Somewhere in the middle of the labyrinth is a mosque, and beside it, a husband and wife have set up shop: neat mounds of white rice, peanuts in the shell, and metal containers of milk. The husband, sitting on sheepskin, is transforming foliage into fishing line by twisting the leaves between his fingers and thumbs as though rolling a cigarette. His wife, on a straw mat beside him, is equally dexterously spinning creamy clouds of fleece into yarn using her toes as the spindle. With her free hand, she cracks a peanut between her teeth and offers me the prize.
Five men who have been leaning against the side of the mosque in the shade watching me now step forward into the bright sunlight, saying something that sounds guttural and harsh. “They are complaining their eyes hurt because they have been studying the Koran so much,” Toka translates. “They want your sunglasses.” One of them tries to grab them from the top of my head, but Toka fends them off with his crutch. “They’re lying. They do this to everyone. Pay no attention to them.” Toka has been emphatic that I ignore the children, the women, and the religious students of the village. But next, the imam comes out of the mosque, gesticulating angrily. “What does he want?” I ask. “That’s the imam,” Toka replies. “You can’t ignore him. He wants you to come with him.”
The imam wears a heavy white cotton robe that grazes his ankles, a white crocheted prayer cap, and plastic sandals. His skin is as dark and shiny as an oil slick. He’s in a hurry. I follow a few paces behind. The imam leads me into his house. Wooden prayer tablets with Arabic verses scrawled on them are strewn about the dirt courtyard. Wicker fish traps hang on the walls. A small boy is untangling a fishing net so voluminous he seems caught in it. His sister, perched on an oil drum, is braiding straw mats. They watch me with wide saucer eyes, but their hands never leave their work.
The imam leads me deeper into the courtyard, past a blackened fire pit with calabashes, pottery sieves, and stacks of animal hides, past two women threshing millet cobs in a wooden pail playing a musical game while they work. They alternate their pestles…thud…thwack…thud…thwack…and between downbeats, they clap their hands in counter rhythms. Their sweat drips into the grain. They giggle. They pretend not to notice me. The imam is focused and intent. He steps over the threshold into his house. The walls are made of straw and mud. There are no windows.
Where is the imam taking me and just what exactly does he plan to do with me once we get there? My mind is racing. Who can help me if his intentions are less than honorable? The kids mending the nets and mats? The wives who are busy threshing tonight’s dinner? It is not that long after September 11th and all I can think about is Daniel Pearl. I try to slow my breathing down. I look at Toka for reassurance, but he just pushes me forward with his crutch. The imam is waiting. The imam means business.
I haven’t seen another white person in the two weeks I have been here. My arms and legs are covered, but my head is unveiled. Can they tell by my face that I am a Jew? I am carrying a camera. I am carrying an American passport. I am a target. And I am afraid. If they decide to do something to me, no one will ever know. There are no telephones in this village, no radios, no cell phones. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The imam pulls aside the braided straw mat that serves as the door to his bedroom.
I hesitate. Toka whispers, “He wants to show you something,” and he nudges me into the room. There is a bare double mattress on the floor. The imam’s clothes are hanging from a wire over the bed. I hear the rhythm of the threshing in the courtyard, but what could the women and children do? I hold back still.
I shouldn’t have allowed myself to get into this situation. I should have used better judgment. But I wanted to trust because I believe it’s important to make connections with people different from me, to learn about other cultures, to make eye contact and trade smiles. This is how we make peace. By trusting each other. By making leaps of faith. By stepping out of ourselves into others’ lives and beliefs and honoring them. But now my heart is in my mouth and I don’t have time to think anymore. I can taste my fear, metallic and cold as iron.
The imam kneels on the bed and reaches for something. There. He has it in his hands. He turns around and inches slowly towards me. He is concealing it in the folds of his robe. He has some gray whiskers in his beard, his toenails need trimming. I shrink back, but Toka is right behind me. The imam puts one hand on my shoulder, and I finally see that in his other hand he is clenching…a clock. The clock face is analog. It is 11:20. The ticking is so loud, I wonder if it’s a bomb. Why is he showing me his clock? Does this mean my time has come? The imam forces the clock into my hands. He is getting more and more impatient, jabbing at the dial, poking my arm. From the growling sounds exploding in his throat, it seems his agitation is about to come to a head.
Now it is 11:21. I am holding my breath. My heartbeat matches the sweep of the second hand. As time slows down to seconds and fractions of seconds, I focus on every detail of the clock. It is made of white molded plastic in the shape of the Taj Mahal. The hands are gold. The numbers have curly tails. The clock takes two AA batteries. There are five buttons with Arabic writing on them. The imam is pointing at some other buttons, beneath the Arabic ones, with words in English: ON OFF SET ALARM. “He doesn’t speak English,” Toka says. “He wants you to set his prayer clock.” The imam’s palms are pressed together in front of his chest and a beseeching smile quivers in the bird’s nest that is his beard. Relief blows through me, hot as a desert wind. An ear-to-ear grin cracks my face like an egg. I can breathe again. The sky has never looked so blue.
In this dusty, fairy tale village of mud and straw, perched on a hill overlooking a floodplain, where there is no medicine, no electricity, no running water, and no telephone, everything takes time, and time is everything. There is a time for fishing and a time for mending the nets, a time for sowing the millet seeds and a time to let the fields lie fallow, a time for shearing the sheep and a time for slaughter. Time is as precious as the river that brings the fish, the clouds that bring the rain, and the sun that nourishes the crops, dries the fish, bakes the mud bricks of the tiny houses that hold so many lives. And prayer is the golden thread that runs through the necklace of moments that make up whole lifetimes here in Sirimou. I set the imam’s clock with gratitude and hand it back to him. He cradles it with the gentleness of a new mother. He thanks me with his eyes, and shows us to the door. The millet-threshing wives look up from their pails and bid Allah to be with us as we leave their house. “My family is just around the corner,” says Toka. “Let’s go.” He skips through the dusty streets on his gimpy leg and crutch with all the exuberance of a pony nearing its barn. A herd of curious goats trots after us bleating, and the imam’s voice, calling “Allah Akbar, God is great,” drifts over the rooftops like snow.
Deborah Fryer is a freelancer who has won numerous awards for her writing, including 1st place in the Moondance Film Festival Short Story Contest. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.
This story was originally published in The Best Travel Writing 2005 published by Travelers’ Tales.