“Miss Sarah, come quick. The missionaries have a telegram for you.” Assitan, the medicine man’s youngest son, hurries ahead of me across the dusty school yard with the lolloping gait of a cripple. “They’re in the chief’s hut.”
I enter the hut and bow to the chief, as is the custom, before I acknowledge the others. “Good afternoon,” I say, shaking hands with the four missionaries, a new batch, faces too white, clothes too new. Many missionaries pass this way, few stay longer than their first tour of duty, unable or unwilling to deal with the hardships of life in the Malian bush. I must have looked like them when I came here with the Peace Corps ten years ago.
The leader of the group pulls a crumpled envelope from his backpack. “This arrived in the Bamako office three days ago.”
I’ve never received a telegram before and my hands are shaking. It’s as if my body knows something my mind doesn’t. My other hand instinctively reaches for the locket around my neck. I’m bemused, excited, afraid, all at once. I rip open the envelope and withdraw a single sheet. I scan the pale typeface: DAD DYING. COME HOME ASAP. TICKET AT AIRPORT. LOVE MAMA.
Ten words. One for every year I haven’t heard from them. My legs have lost their ability to support me and I sink to the floor. The telegram slips from my hands.
“Miss Sarah? What is it?” Hawa, my teaching assistant, touches my shoulder. My world shudders to a stop, as if the pause button has been hit. Dad, dying? He’s only sixty-five… I stare at Hawa but cannot speak. My throat constricts against the news.
Then it happens—I’ve never had control over it, though I’ve tried—the stress of the moment causes my spirit-self to detach from my body, and I am above looking down on the scene. I see the bald patch on the missionary’s head, I see Hawa and Balobo reaching for the body I have left. They lift the rag-doll and lay it on a wooden bench, and I find myself staring down at absent-me.
“Drink this,” Balobo, the medicine man says, but the liquid spills from my open mouth. He looks up and his dark eyes connect with my spirit-self; he smiles a knowing smile. Come, he says without speaking aloud and, in an instant, I am back in my body, breathless from the experience. Gratefully, I drink the bush-tea. It is sweet and tastes of flowers.
“I will help you pack,” Hawa says, oblivious to my momentary absence. But I do not move. Balobo… I’m filled with a déjà-vu of sorts… the smell of herbs… chanting?
* * *
We sit together in my hut, Hawa and I. Her brown eyes are full of concern for me. “We must leave immediately,” she tells me. Then she is up and stuffing my clothes into a rucksack.
“No,” I tell her. “No, I’m not going. I have my work here—the children need me. They…” I wave my hand dismissively as if my parents are insignificant, “don’t need me.” I lie back on my simple bed and close my eyes against the memories, but the flood gates I’ve kept welded shut all these years have broken open, and I’m overwhelmed. It’s not natural what you do. Get out of our house. You’re an abomination, a freak of nature, touched by the devil.” With every word, my father’s voice severed the last ties I had to family. I joined the Peace Corps the next day.
Hawa speaks gently, pulling me back to the present, “Miss Sarah, we must leave.”
“I’m not going back,” I tell her, my mind made up.
“But you must go, your papa is dying…”
“No! I don’t have to do anything. This is my life. This is my home. They threw me out of theirs. They pushed me away, ashamed of me.”
“If you don’t go, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Don’t do that to yourself. Bad juju will follow you. Come, we will go together. Balobo will take us. He has new bush medicines to deliver to the tribes near Bamako. He is leaving now—we must hurry.”
“But what about the children?”
“The children will understand. Now, come, we have little time. Your flight leaves in two days. There is much ground to cover if we are to make it to Bamako in time.” Hawa pulls me to my feet. But still I am reluctant.
“If you decide not to fly to America, then return with us. You can decide along the way.” I have had so little time to digest what has happened, but I know she is right. If I go, I have options.
* * *
The unpaved road to Bamako is dry and dusty. The land is arid, brown, gasping for the rains that are long overdue. Balobo drives hunched over the steering wheel of the ancient Jeep, his knuckles white as he hurls the vehicle over the rutted road. We’ve already had to change a tire; there is one left. We have a great distance to travel.
“You never talk of your family.” Hawa nudges me, breaking the easy silence that has settled over the three of us.
“That’s because I have no family.” My voice is bitter and I know I’m being childish. It’s been ten years since I left, and I’ve locked the memories away in a darkened corner of my mind. It’s taken years to heal the hurt, to soften the scars.
“What happened back then?” Hawa asks.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” And I don’t. I have constructed my own world, a world that is important to me. A world that isn’t America. Africa is where I am who I am, and no-one thinks I am touched by the devil. I love my simple life, teaching and nurturing young minds, no judgements, few expectations, no rules about how you have to live your life. I left all that behind the moment the plane left the runway at JFK.
As darkness falls, we set up camp, and long before sunrise, we are back on the road. It’s my turn to drive. The road is smoother now and we pick up speed, devouring the miles. As the sun rises, the heat bakes the land and my skin grows moist. The sky is cloudless—there will be no rain today.
“Why did you come to Mali?” Balobo asks, his voice soft as a whisper.
These are the first words he’s spoken and I’m caught off guard—I thought he was asleep beside me.
“You know my story,” I tell him, keeping my eyes on the road. It is well-known in the village.
“I am a medicine man. I know where your pain is. You have hidden it well, but I sense a break in your cocoon, a deep well of hurt.”
“You are a father. Is there anything your children could do that would cause you to disown them?”
His brow furrows. “Disown? Miss Sarah, I don’t understand this word.”
Of course he doesn’t. In Malian culture, no child is ever disowned. Every life is precious.
“Forgive my example, but in some cultures, a child like Assitan, with his crooked leg, would be cast out, disowned because he is… damaged.”
“It would be wrong to shun a life because of a physical problem,” Balobo says. “I have heard speak of such things, but it’s not our way. Here, few children survive to adulthood, so their time with family is treasured.”
Balobo looks at me with serious eyes. “Miss Sarah, I have known you longer than many of my own children. You are a good woman. What could you have done that would make them cast you out?”
I think for a moment, trying to couch my answer in terms he will identify with. “I was born with a gift. A gift my parents did not understand, a gift they feared. When they asked me never to use my gift and I couldn’t stop, I didn’t know how, they cast me out.” That I have summed it up so succinctly startles me. Time and distance have enabled me to see things without the emotional reaction I used to have whenever I thought of my parents.
“A gift is a special thing. I too have a gift.” He glances at me.
“You have many gifts,” I tell him. “You are a great medicine man, a good father, and a husband who provides for his family.”
“These are not the gifts I speak of,” he says. “My gift is like yours, Miss Sarah. One spirit knows another.”
I stare at him, astonished. How could he know?
“Miss Sarah, I have seen your spirit-self leave your body twice now. It was the shock of the news—sometimes it’s illness or pure joy. I have learned to control mine, so I can leave and return whenever I please.”
The Jeep lurches to one side over a pothole. I am thrown against the door, banging my head hard. The Jeep stops, tilted at an angle, and we all climb out. Another flat tire. I have to wonder at the timing of this incident. Perhaps we should not be talking of spirits. Balobo fits the remaining spare and we are soon on our way. Hawa sits up front while Balobo drives—my turn to sleep.
I lie awake, stunned by Balobo’s revelation. But his words have unlocked a memory. It is elusive at first, like trying to hold on to a dream, but I breathe deeply, close my eyes, and open my heart to the memories.
* * *
It is soon after my arrival in the village. I have malaria. Fragments come: cool hands, a dark room, fever, shivering, every limb aches. Bunches of bush herbs hang—the smell is unfamiliar. A low chanting. A man sits cross-legged, his hair like snakes. Be open in spirit. Accept the healing of the spirits…
My spirit-self detaches. I see the sweat glistening on my body, hair plastered to my head, ragged breathing. But this is not like the other times… There’s another presence up here beside me. It is the man from below, the medicine man.
Balobo nursed me through malaria. As time passed, and I didn’t detach again, I dismissed the above-meeting as the delirium of those days.
But now—we both know.
It’s been nine years since I last detached, since the malaria. Here, I don’t live under the stress of disapproving parents who didn’t understand why my body was vacant, and who didn’t believe me when I tried to explain.
I glance at Balobo and wonder whether he would break with tradition and teach me, a white woman not of this land, how to control it, as he does?
* * *
I’ve been so focused on internal thoughts that I haven’t noticed the military truck until it is upon us, hooting and waving for us to stop.
“Stay here,” Balobo instructs, grabbing his medicine bundle. He steps from the Jeep to head off the approaching soldier. Soldiers are known for their brutality and hatred of ‘whities.’ They rape and pillage and instill fear wherever they go.
I shrink into my seat, hat pulled low, face and arms darkened by a decade of sun. I glance in the mirror and see brown woman, not white woman. I might stand a chance as a Mulatto.
Hawa and I watch as the soldier raises his gun, shoves it in Balobo’s back, and forces him into the truck. “Oh my God, please protect him,” I whisper.
“The missionaries spoke of civil unrest in the capital. But we’re still four hours away.” Hawa reaches for my hand, her eyes brimming with tears. I instantly feel her fear and my heart thunders. I feel a tugging. No! I mustn’t detach. I breathe deeply, trying to calm myself but the air bristles with panic. Without realizing it, Hawa and I are whispering the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Together we watch the truck, afraid for Balobo.
The green tarp over the back is thrown aside, and I risk a peek over the wound-down window. A soldier jumps to the ground, brandishing his weapon. Then Balobo jumps to the ground, and to my utter surprise, they shake hands. He raises a hand in farewell and jogs back to the Jeep, his long dreadlocks writhing. His face is serious, but there is no fear. He clambers in and starts the engine. “There’s trouble ahead, roadblocks, looters. They’ll take us as far as the bridge by the airport.” The truck pulls ahead of us on the road to Bamako.
“What happened back there?”
“I told them you are the spirit-friend of the medicine man, and your father is dying. They fear the juju magic.” I see a smile forming. “They are afraid of spirit-talk. They don’t understand it either. That is why they are helping us, but there will be a price to pay one day.”
“No. I can’t be responsible for this,” I tell him. “Balobo, stop! Turn around. Two punctures, the military, the trouble ahead, the shortness of time, and a debt to pay. Don’t be blind to the signs. We must turn back, Balobo.” He turns his head from me. He knows I’m right.
“If they’ve taken the airport, we’ll turn round,” he concedes.
As the miles pass, I realize the butterflies in the pit of my stomach are those of anticipation, mixed with fear of the unknown. Whatever happens today, my life is heading in a new direction.
My eyes drink in the beauty of the bush, capturing images as mental snapshots to be stored and gazed upon from another land. Thorny bushes, burning sun, wild animals wandering the roadways. I will miss this place.
We are close now. The track turns to pavement and runs beside the Niger River as it drifts lazily toward the sea. The sprawl of Bamako clings to its banks. The smell of civilization is putrid. At the bridge, the military truck waves us on, and Balobo salutes his thanks.
“Look!” Hawa points to a plane circling overhead.
“Lie down, both of you, hold on to something. I’ll tell you when we’re clear of the bridge.” Balobo accelerates and the Jeep explodes through the barrier on the other side. I hear gunshots. “Keep your heads down!” he shouts. A bullet shatters the back window. The Jeep swerves then settles. Balobo slams on the brakes. “They’ve taken the airport.”
I close my eyes. Please, dear Lord, I want to go home.
A siren wails, gunshots crackle through the air.
I grab my rucksack from the back. “I’ve got to try. That was an American Airlines plane. They’ll turn around and head out of here as fast as they can. I’ve got to be on that flight.”
Hawa clutches my arm, “You’re a crazy woman. First you don’t want to leave, now you’ll kill us all.” I grab her hand and pull her out of the truck.
Balobo is already gathering his medicine bundle, ready to run. “Follow me,” he shouts and is zigzagging through trucks and cars. A tank rumbles past, while military vehicles form a perimeter around the building as the three of us stumble through the shattered terminal doors.
A crowd surrounds the American Airlines desk, shouting, waving wads of US dollars, gold watches, jewelry. Confusion and panic mix with the voices of hundreds. A man in an American Airlines uniform stands on the check-in desk with a bull horn: “The flight is closed. All seats are filled.”
Panic and urgency sweep through the crowd like a fire gaining oxygen, and we are caught in the surge of desperate people. A bolt of fear sweeps through me. I am detaching. I can’t stop it. I leave my body.
I am above the crowd as Balobo pulls absent-me from the crush of bodies. Let yourself go, Miss Sarah, surrender to the gift. Go where you are needed. I will be with you.
* * *
I have been called to a familiar place, and it’s just as I remember it. Stay in the moment—do not question what you’re experiencing. Balobo’s words guide and comfort me through this strangeness.
I see Mama and Dad. Dad so frail, his body barely disturbs the sheet. His cheeks sunken, eyelids wrinkled and loose. He looks harmless.
I want to reach out. Reach with your heart. I try… I sense a connection, a knowing. He has cancer and pneumonia. He doesn’t have long.
“Dad?” I whisper, afraid he will be afraid of spirit-me.
His eyes crack open and he stares right at me! “You came. I’m sorry… about…” His eyes close. Mama sobs beside him, oblivious to my presence.
I tell him—I love you, Dad.
An orb of light leaves his body and his spirit hovers beside his wife, and I feel love passing between them.
There are three of us now.
I love you, Sarah. I was foolish to push you away. Be strong for her…
I will, I tell him.
She is slumped over the bed. She sobs. It’s heartbreaking to see her this way. Mama… I reach for her with my heart and again there is an understanding.
The companion she has had for almost forty years is gone. Nothing has prepared her for this emptiness. She is alone in a house filled with memories of him. Half of her has ceased to exist.
Balobo’s spirit fades and I too am tugged back into my body.
* * *
Voices… many voices all around me. I feel the hard coolness of the floor and take a moment before opening my eyes. Balobo, is there. “You did good, Miss Sarah. His heart was open to your gift.”
As I struggle to sit up, he leans in so Hawa does not hear. “We will spirit-walk together again, soon.”
Shuna Meade is a graduate of St Andrews University in Scotland and has been a writer since moving to the Caribbean with her American husband in 2004. She specializes in short stories for both adults and children and hopes to attract an agent for her book-length fiction in the future. She is also a professional editor for fiction, publishers, and businesses. When she’s not writing or editing, Shuna can be found in the gym or lapping in the pool.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “On the Road to Bamako”:
In our seven years of publishing Fabula Argentea we’ve read (and published) pieces where a son or daughter was rejected by the family for some reason (being gay is a frequent reason for that), but author Shuna Meade gave us a different take on family rejection, and she did it in an unexpected setting with well-drawn characters. For us it made for a winner of an emotional story.