Of all my books, this one is still the closest to my heart. And the memories of Africa still alive in my soul...
We were having dinner, and the newly discovered notion of street food was as delicious to me as the salad I was eating. The sun had set and the town was sunk in darkness. Here and there, some gas lamps scattered small lights around; these lights were yellowish and they looked like small fires or candles, or simply an oasis of light and warmth. One such light was coming from a small wooden table covered with different pots containing lettuce, boiled potatoes, boiled eggs, tomatoes, onions and the like. Others contained some strange white substance.
A woman with gentle eyes was serving salads and you could sit on one of the chairs around and ask her to build your salad, choosing anything from the pots around, much like at a salad bar except that we were in the middle of the dusty street.
We were difficult clients: I didn’t like onions and Richard didn’t want tomatoes. She remembered from the previous day and we didn’t have to explain again; she picked up two plastic plates, threw them in and out of a pot filled with greyish water and once she decided they were clean enough we got our respective mixtures. That time we wanted to be innovative, though, and Richard picked up some of the white stuff from one of the pots and tried to mix it in the salad.
“Ayyy!” she yelled suddenly, and we understood it was not the right thing to do. Then she smiled and waved her head. This international language was clear enough: the white substance was not supposed to go into the salad. Richard decided he would be happy with some brochettes, grilled meat chopped in small pieces that someone was frying on the other side of the street, and we ate in silence.
The dog was still with us. The night when we went to the disco he waited patiently for hours in front of the building and then he escorted us to our room. He would appear mysteriously any time we wanted to go for a walk and would come and rub his back against our legs and jump up and down around us. It was as if he had decided he wanted us as his masters, and tonight he was lying in the dust some distance away from our food place watching our every move.
The woman smiled and leant back on her small chair. A small boy of about four or five came by and she took him into her arms. He soon fell asleep and she watched him in silence, his head on her breasts, one of her hands on his head. She smiled as she watched him and seemed lost in a faraway world.
“Mon fils,” she explained, catching my look. Then she smiled again and I knew I was watching someone who was simply happy.
“Do you have others?” I asked, just to encourage the conversation. Of course she did: here women had five or six children at least.”
“No,” she answered quietly. “Only him.”
I swallowed my next question. There was no need to ask why. In nearby Senegal, one in every four children died before the age of five, usually from malaria. This was Guinea, even poorer and where no statistics were available.
I didn’t feel like talking or asking anything more. The darkness around grew thicker, but in the light of the small lamp I could still see the sparkle in her eyes as she contemplated her son asleep. Today, like yesterday and like any day before that, she put her child to sleep with a smile, with the same smile that she served us salads. Tomorrow she would be on the streets again with her pots and lettuce, waiting for other customers, earning a living for herself and the boy. And, God willing, maybe that one would survive.
WE left Mali-ville the next morning in a small, rotten pick-up pompously called a car. Dog had come all the way with us and watched us loading our bags on to the roof of the car next to two goats, strapped down as inert luggage despite the fact they were alive and protesting quite loudly.
There was no other way to transport meat. Since there was no refrigeration, animals had to be kept alive and they were killed only immediately before they were eaten. And so they were carried around as luggage and strapped on the roofs of the cars or on to bicycles, or thrown in a big pot and carried around on someone’s head if the animal happened to be small enough, like a chicken for instance.
“We can’t take you along, we really can’t.” Richard was having one of his usual talks with the dog. “Look at those goats; do you think you’ll be happy up there?”
As if he understood, the dog looked up and then back to Richard. His eyes were sad and I knew that he knew we were leaving.
“You really won’t like it, I tell you. It’d hurt like hell to be strapped up there next to the goats and I don’t think I can get you a ticket inside the car. You’re better off staying here and picking up someone else after we’re gone. You’re good at choosing your victims, I tell you.”
We sat down and had a coffee, waiting for the car to be loaded. Dog was still with us in spite of Richard’s convincing speech. I felt sad to leave him; or maybe it wasn’t only the dog but all that small town with its smiley people. It was maybe the salad woman who would probably be waiting to see us again that evening, or the girls of the household we mistook for a restaurant who had done up my hair in little African braids that had taken about two hours and a lot of Richard’s patience to get rid of; or the newly discovered notion of having beers from under a bed or the feeling that, for the first time in that trip, I was living the real Africa and it was not at all as scary as it seemed.
One way or another, Mali-ville had sunk deep into my stomach and it was there that I had started learning about living, whether that meant surviving a hard ride in a green truck or watching someone smiling at the last child she had left; and the food of the streets and the smell of the dust were part of it and Richard’s talking to the dog was another part, and I looked at the road ahead, the dusty road that was supposed to take us all the way south, and I knew that, from that moment on, I would see it in a different light.
The coffee was a mixture of Nescafé with lots of sugar and condensed milk and it was so sweet that you needed no other breakfast; the calories were enough to keep you going for the day.
We got into the car, immediately squashed on the back seat between a fat mamma with a baby on her lap and three other guys. Richard asked me if I was OK; I remembered the green truck experience and decided that by my new standards this was quite comfortable, and then off we went with a sudden movement and a cloud of dust.
Dog tried to run and catch up with us for a while and I could see him in the window jumping up every now and then to check if we were still inside. Eventually he gave up, stopping in the middle of the road, and his silhouette – blurred by the cloud of dust – appeared far away, growing smaller and smaller, until it got as small as a dot. And even if I couldn’t see the sadness in his eyes any longer, I knew it would still be there, and that he would feel lost and empty, as someone feels when trying to move on while a part of him is gone. And I knew it was true because we had taken a part of his heart with us, but it was a fair exchange for the part of mine that was left for good there, in that dusty little border town that only heavy trucks could reach…