Sorcery and Witchcraft in Burkina Faso (continued)

                I’ve written about this topic before, but I find it so interesting that I keep returning to it.  I believe that the last time I addressed this it was all theoretical, stemming from a conversation with a friend where he explained the basic traditional beliefs and superstitions here.  This time, however, I wanted to experience magic, or “wok” as they call it here, first hand.  There are distinctions made between wok and sorcery; one basic difference that has been explained to me is that while wok is used to create or summon magic, sorcery is used to kill people.  Keep in mind that beliefs here often differ from region to region, so I will search for more information about the differences for my next blog.  However, with a desire to actually observe traditional magical practices up close, my friend, her neighbors, and I traveled to a village about an hour outside of Yako to consult a “wokman.”

One neighbor’s father used to be a preeminent wokman, and therefore her family has connections to all the wokmen in the region, making it easy for us to seek a consultation.  Normally, a group of all women cannot do so by themselves; a man must be present.  However, thanks to our connections, we had no problems.  When we arrived at the wokman’s house, we were seated outside under an overhang to wait for him.  From off in the distance, a man riding a camel slowly strode up to us.  If you’ve never seen a camel in real life, and I’m not talking about the kind that give children rides at the kiddy zoo but the kind that might trek across the Sahara Desert looking for water, then I’ll let you in on a secret: they are huge, gargantuan, smelly creatures.  This one was no exception.  As they arrived, his rider, dressed in Arab garb, slid off; then, to amuse the crowd, he performed a few parlor tricks, such as having the camel greet us by bowing and spluttering a hello.  The man, tall and regal looking, came to sit with us and exchange.  All of this happened in Moore, of course, so I had no idea what was actually happening.  Finally, we gave him some change and he left, mounting his gigantic camel (whom I could not take my eyes off the whole time he was there) and prancing off into the sunset.  When I asked desperately where our wokman was going, everyone laughed at me – turns out the man was just a common beggar.  All I could do was shake my head and wonder why more of the beggars I meet can’t be as interesting as him.

After this I was informed that a man who had been sitting with us the whole time, a family member, was actually the wokman.  He is 75 years old and training his son, who must be in his 40s, how to practice wok.  We paid for two chickens to sacrifice, one for me and one for a friend.  Then, he led us into the family compound and to a small circular hut that lay on the grounds.  The five of us entered and found seating around the hut; a sixth person would have had trouble finding space.  We sat on small stools, our knees up near our chests, and gazed around ourselves.  The hut in which we found ourselves was made of mud brick, and the roof was thatching held up by several sturdy sticks laid across one another.  Inside the hut, rocks were piled in different corners, empty gourds corked and filled with a variety of powders and medicines crowded against us, gourds and musical instruments hung from the ceiling, and a rope ran across above our heads, from which hung clippings from the rope harnesses of sheep that had been sacrificed for the wokman this year as a result of people who had asked for favors in consultations and received them (there were maybe 100 and we were only three months or so into the wokman’s new year, which starts in December).  But the eeriest part was that all of the aforementioned objects were covered in layers upon layers of dried animal blood and chicken feathers.  It formed a thick gray paste that coated everything in the hut, and drove home the fact that we were in the presence of someone who practiced ritual animal sacrifices.

After we first sat down, the wokman passed around a large bowl filled with a mixture, which we had to scoop out and drink using our left hand (to honor the ancestors) and a small gourd; I could taste that the mixture was comprised of water, some local beer, a dash of hard liquor, and various quantities of sand, dirt, and powder/charcoal (I spit a few sticks out afterwards).  I didn’t realize until later that a small amount of animal blood was also in the mixture, because the ancestors apparently like water, alcohol, and animal blood.   The wokman then asked if we would like to make a sacrifice for anyone; since a response wasn’t forthcoming, and I wanted to observe as much of his arsenal as possible, I asked that he do so for me.  He sent for a young chicken from his courtyard, and in the meantime he passed around dirty shot glasses, the first filled with water, the second with hard liquor.  Each person had to hold the glass and drink a small amount, with the person for whom the sacrifice was being made drinking last, before handing it to the wokman.  He then did the same and sloshed the remaining liquid in the glass onto the rocks, as a sacrifice to the ancestors.

Finally, he took the chicken and passed it around in the same fashion.  Animal lovers, beware the next few sentences.  As I grasped the chicken’s legs, I whispered an urgent apology; then, handing it to the wokman, he pulled out a painfully dull looking knife and slit its throat, dribbling its blood onto the rocks below.  When the chicken had stopped kicking so forcefully, he grasped its wings and tossed it into the air.  If the sacrifice had been accepted, the chicken was supposed to land on its back; unfortunately, it bounced onto its chest.  As a result, we repeated the process with the water and liquor, and the wokman sent for another chicken.  While I was trying to convince my stomach that it could handle watching the life literally drain out of another creature, the woman sitting next to me leaned over and hissed, “Don’t say you’re sorry to the chicken!”  She theorized that my apology had something to do with the failure of the sacrifice, so the second time I kept it together, and the chicken landed on its back.

To complete the sacrifice, the wokman performed several other tasks, each of which had to show a sign of being accepted by the ancestors.  First, he took that same bowl of blood, alcohol, and water and balanced two sticks across it, following this by balancing the small gourd which we drank out of atop them.  If the gourd did not fall, the sacrifice was being accepted.  Following this, we had to drink some more of the mixture, and then in the same muddied bowl he placed a large stick.  If the stick stood upright, the sacrifice was being accepted, and after some pushing and prodding he managed that.  Then, he handed me a kola nut and asked me to break it in half, and to subsequently drop the two halves on the ground.  He told me to pick up the half that landed with its inside facing up and roll it in a powder mixture of his own creation.  After this, I had to place it into another gourd filled with water; if it floated (which it did), the sacrifice had been accepted.  Finally, he took the wet kola nut and rubbed it against the side of the hut; when it stuck to the wall, he announced that the sacrifice had been fully accepted.  He then continued to open nearly every one of the umpteen gourds that lined the walls and pour a little of their contents out, mostly dirt, sand, charcoal, and other powder substances, which he mixed together and passed around so that everyone except myself could eat a pinch of it, as if to vouch for me.  The wokman explained that I should keep the powder with me, and any time I wanted some luck or good fortune to come to me, I should eat a little bit and speak aloud what I wanted to happen.

For the second set of sacrifices, we switched seats so that the wokman could sit near another pile of rocks in the hut.  The process started out much the same, with us passing around and sipping at a shot glass of water followed by one of hard liquor.  Then, since chickens were integral to this sacrifice as well, we passed around our chickens so that everyone could touch them.  Since I went first, I held my chicken last and spoke aloud what I hoped to come of the sacrifice, and then I handed it to the wokman.  He held it by its feet and placed it on its back next to the pile of rocks and began speaking aloud.  He asked the genies that frequent that area of the hut to take the blood from the chicken and kill it, so that it could serve as a sacrifice for me to achieve what I wanted in life.  Shortly after he began speaking, the chicken began kicking out frantically, as if in the last throes of life, and after several minutes it simply…died.  None of this is an exaggeration; I saw him, with my own eyes, talk a chicken to death.

Once it had died, he tossed the chicken over to me so that I could examine it.  Everyone else in the hut laughed, but I was intent on finding how he had killed the chicken – had he broken a pivotal bone somewhere by putting too much pressure on it, or had he crushed some of the chicken’s insides?  I poked and prodded with the tenacity of a detective, but all I discovered was that the chicken was perfectly intact.  I handed it back to him, and he held it by its feet above the pile of rocks where it had died.  He slit its throat, and no blood came out; it was completely dry, as if blood had never run through that chicken’s veins.  After allowing me to gawk for a few moments, he spoke to the genies again, asking them to release some of the blood from the chicken, so that he could give it as a sacrifice to the ancestors.  In an obligatory fashion, just as he finished speaking the first drops began trickling from the chicken’s neck and pouring onto the rocks below.

He performed the same sacrifice for another woman with us, with the same results.  To complete the sacrifice, we simply had to drink more of the dirty water mixture and the hard liquor, and then repeat aloud that which we wanted to come from the sacrifice.  He explained to us that every part of the hut had a special significance, and that he could do the same sacrifice with sheep or goats; in fact, according to him, one of the dogs from their courtyard had lain in that same spot to take a nap, and as soon as it walked out of the hut it dropped dead.

Following this, he predicted our futures, which he did using a straw mat and a handful of traditional shells that used to be traded as currency back before colonization.  When one of us would place money on the mat, he would toss the shells and interpret their meaning based on how they clustered when they fell.  My reading was fairly generic; he knew that I had arrived in a group to do humanitarian work (a pretty easy deduction given my skin color), and he also knew that I had one sister.  He did, however, know some very personal details about the other women in the hut with me.

Speaking objectively, the shell reading wasn’t the most fascinating part of the trip.  I’ve had my sand read before, which is practiced commonly out near Fada and involves a visit to a sand reader.  You place your hand in the sand and pose a question, with the theory being that we all came from the earth and will return to the earth, so the earth knows us best.  Then, the sand reader draws lines in the sand, a process he erases and repeats many times, and then interprets the markings based on your question.  It’s an interesting process, however the benefit of the shell reading was that we weren’t required to ask questions first, so that his answers could not be constructed to fit the questions that had prompted them.

One last aspect worth noting, and something that I’ve been told signifies that we met with a real sorcerer or wokman, is that the money we were required to put forth for the sacrifices was next to nothing.  We had to pay for the chickens, which were about the same price you would pay for any chicken in Yako, and then for the smaller sacrifices and shell reading he asked that we put down a small amount, which I can’t imagine amounted to more than 400 CFA.  He certainly wasn’t trying to strip us of as much money as possible, which he could easily have tried upon seeing a white person; in fact, he was more concerned with proving to me that he is a legitimate practitioner of traditional beliefs, which he did by bringing out an worker’s card that had been issued to him by the Burkinabé government identifying him as an official traditional practitioner.

Leaving the hut, it was about lunch time, so his wife invited us to eat some food they had already prepared.  Afterwards, they gave me a gift of a rooster, which I had to hang onto by its feet the entire way home, and they made us promise to visit them again.  I’d like to; next time, I’ll ask for something concrete to happen, that would have to come true within a few weeks or month of the visit, so I can have more proof regarding the effectiveness of the sacrifices.  While I’m a natural skeptic, and I’m well aware that most of you reading this from America will think there must be some obvious explanation that I missed, I can tell you that I searched and pondered and poked, and I can’t find anything to explain how he talked the life out of a chicken within a matter of minutes, or why blood would simply disappear from one of the main arterial highways in any living creature.  I know that you will probably say that you won’t believe it until you see it…but that’s what I always say.  And so I did.  I went and I saw it.  And what my eyes have told me is that, for any of this to be possible, we’ve got to embrace a little bit of the mystery.

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Men As Partners conference 2013

The Men As Partners 2013 conference took place two weeks ago, February 11 to 15 in Léo, Burkina Faso.  I believe I blogged about the conference we held last year, but I thought I’d follow-up and write a few words about this year’s formation.  The conference is sponsored and run by the Gender and Development (GAD) volunteer committee in Burkina Faso, and the funding came from a grant that we applied for with USAID, the American government’s foreign aid organization.  The idea behind the conference is that women in Burkina Faso cannot make strides towards equal rights and better living conditions without the help and support of men, and so we need to involve men equally in the debate and movement, soliciting them as “partners” to act as positive role models in their communities and encourage behavior change in male peers. 

                The reason for including men in the fight for women’s rights, boys in the struggle for emphasizing girls’ education, is that neither gender can function without the other.  Society requires both male and female counterparts to function, not simply to continue and multiply by having children, but because both parents reinforce and define gender roles and stereotypes for their children.  Teachers, both male and female, inadvertently pass this knowledge down to students, and community members, both male and female, act accordingly in social situations.  If women begin to change their attitudes and behavior, they will face strong push-back from their male counterparts, and since men are still seen as the head of the household in Burkina, it would be hard for women to make forward progress.  However, the opposite also holds true.  When men in Burkina start making changes to their behavior, for instance helping their wives around the house by doing something as simple as carrying their own bucket of water to the shower, oftentimes they face angry resistance from their wives.  Women get up in arms to defend “their” work, demanding why their husbands are taking over their tasks.  Does her husband think she isn’t doing a good enough job?  She isn’t fast enough?

                Both men and women here face a give and take scenario.  We use MAP to target men that are influential in their communities to explain why it’s important for them to support the movement toward gender equality and how they can do so.  Through our Gender and Development fund in Burkina Faso, we support dynamic women that are independently taking part in this movement, whether through building a soap selling business or organizing community activities.

                All of that being said, gender equality is still a long ways off in Burkina; it’s still seen as a foreign, a “Western” concept, that we are trying to impose on society here.  Many of the men that volunteers invited to the conference may be progressive or positive role models in their communities, but they still don’t understand or support many of the concepts that we introduce in MAP, and volunteer participants often found their counterparts answers shocking or disappointing (as I did, when I first attended MAP last year).  For instance, in one exercise we asked men what they wanted to tell women to help them better understand men in Burkina (we asked women the question too), and they responded by saying that women should tolerate their infidelity.  That may seem extremely crass (it is), but here infidelity is extremely commonplace and not considered a reason to leave a significant other.  Because a large percentage of Burkinabé are Muslim, Burkina law permits a man to have multiple wives, so it’s common for men to cheat and then, if questioned (which is rare), to simply claim to be searching for a second wife.  More progressive women in Burkina (and, at the conference, even our Peace Corps representative talked about this) will take measures to protect themselves, which include buying a box of condoms and discreetly placing them where a husband or boyfriend can find them (or not so discreetly packing them in an overnight bag) in the hopes that during trysts with various mistresses, he at least wears protection so he can’t pass anything to his wife/girlfriend.

                Shocked yet?  Don’t be.  In a conversation at dinner one night during the conference, a volunteer’s counterpart told me that he can’t go a week without having sex, and that it’s not his fault – women plan for sex, but men can’t help it, their penises mess with their minds.  If they sit down in a chair and their penis points out a woman across the room, they really have no choice in the matter.  Cue Marvin Gaye.  And then there was the day where we were discussing the problems with intergenerational sex and a heated argument ensued, during which one counterpart loudly proclaimed that at 16, a girl’s body is fully functional.  Yes, functional, like an automobile.  Last year at my high school, four separate male teachers impregnated their students, and the only problem that was seen with this was that one or two of them cheated on spouses to do so.

                So, you can see where Burkina’s gender relations stand for the time being.  Female politicians aren’t respected because most people assume they got the job by playing mistress to someone holding a seat two rows down in national parliament.  The other night while watching a prominent female television reporter, the man sitting next to me denounced her simply because she had refused to get married, boldly stating that it “wasn’t part of her plan”; despite every argument I countered with, the conversation always returned to the fact that he didn’t respect her, and therefore her position or her work, because she had refused to follow the traditional path and find a husband, raise a family.  Gender roles are so cemented here that having a conversation about them can be like attacking a steel-reinforced wall with a sledgehammer, feeling frustrated with how little mortar you dislodged as you walk away with stinging palms.

                While many of the responses offered by counterparts at this year’s MAP conference were hard to hear, the level of participation in discussions and debates was outstanding.  Even more so than last year, men were willing to give and defend their points of view; they weren’t simply saying what they thought we wanted to hear, which in my opinion is so important, because it opens an honest dialogue on the subject.  Despite the fact that they may not have understood or agreed with all of the topics that we brought up, there may be one or two small ideas or practices that they decide to adopt upon returning to their communities.  If nothing else, we gave them something new to consider the next time they reflect on the society in which they live, and the everyday activities and challenges faced by wives, daughters, or co-workers; I think that the women who attended MAP this year had a lot to do with that.

                Last year, we wanted to invite women to the conference, but the Peace Corps Burkina Faso administration vetoed that idea.  This year, however, we managed to invite two women, whom we handpicked so as to be sure that they wouldn’t be afraid to speak up and express their opinions in front of a room of men.  Whereas in the past, men could have said, “well, this is what women here think,” this year the women were given a chance to speak for themselves.  And it worked out great.  Because of the cultural differences, the women did agree with the men on some issues that volunteers did not.  However, most of the time, the women spoke out strongly during debates to disagree with what other men had said; while wives or girls may be too timid to disagree with the man in their household or a superior, at least the men at the conference heard what the two women had to say, and maybe were introduced to a perspective they had not had access to before.  (I’ll add, and this won’t surprise any of you that met her, that my counterpart in Yako, Cathérine, was one of these two women, and she did a great job.)

                Therefore, despite some logistical issues, I would call MAP 2013 a success.  It’s a small activity, like dropping a speck of salt into an algae-filled pool you’re trying to clean with iodine, but it’s done in the hopes that it will lay the foundation for a cultural shift and greater gender equality generations from now.

P.S. I’ll try to post pictures when I get a good enough connection!

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Projects: Part 2

                Cathérine and I chose a day to visit all of the classes at our high school to announce that we were starting a girls’ team.  My school doesn’t exactly have a loudspeaker system set up for announcements, so we had to do it in person.  We held practices on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for an hour; I wanted to add one on Saturday, but the girls told me that they have chores in the mornings and then preparation for church at night, so it wouldn’t work.  We started out with small numbers of girls coming out, but after a few weeks we had an average of about 15 girls playing (although it was irregular, and some practices the number dipped to less than 10). 

                We started up the team towards the end of the school year, so Cathérine was often too busy with teachers’ meetings or testing to come to practice.  For my part, I had to learn a whole new vocabulary to coach soccer in French, and I was struggling to come up with training exercises.  I’ve played soccer since I was about 7 years old, so I had plenty of drills in my mind to run through.  However, I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to coach girls who had never played before in their lives.  Even the simplest drills became extremely sloppy, and because the other girls on my teams had always taken the sport seriously, I wasn’t used to players who were just looking for a fun afterschool activity, and would only half-heartedly try to aim the ball in the direction they wanted to kick it.  No matter how many times I explained how to make a pass with the instep of the foot, the girls simply returned to the toe-ball (which, if you’re a soccer player, you can imagine how frustrating that was).

                Thus, our practices were often disorganized, disjointed, and held with little to no resources.  The girls usually played in bare feet or flip-flops, on a concrete surface with goal posts that we rarely used because they had no nets, and when one of my girls succumbed to an asthma attack it was only sheer luck that another player had an inhaler she could use, as there was no school nurse to call.  I used rocks that I found around the training area as markers and obstacles, and we were constantly defending the two ‘general usage’ soccer balls that we got from the school from the boys who wanted to play.

                We ended the school year shortly thereafter and the girls dispersed.  A few expressed a desire to train over the summer, but most would be in village or going to stay with family in another part of the country, or even Côte d’Ivoire, and the idea of a summer training program became too difficult.  But the girls were happy and wanted the program to continue, so we decided to begin training again the following October, when school started.  

Over the summer, I invited Cathérine to participate in a 10-day long formation with me called Coaching for Hope.  If you read the blog, you know that it is a training in which participants learn how to combine teaching soccer skills and HIV/AIDS education.  Cathérine was the only female Burkinabé participant, and she was a rockstar.  Having never played the sport before and being somewhat overweight, she tried her best at all the physical activities, dominated in the classroom, and our team became very protective of her.  Overall, the formation prepared us nicely for coaching the girls during the 2012-2013 school year, and to talk to them about issues such as HIV/AIDS.

Cathérine and I had also decided that we wanted to expand our girls’ soccer project in Yako.  We visited several other administrations over the summer asking if they would be interested in creating their own teams, with a goal of convincing the three other largest high schools in town to play.  We asked for a small contribution from each school of 1 to 2 balls for the girls, and two coaches, including a gym teacher who could train the girls in the sport and a female teacher/secretary who would be there to support the girls and could travel with them if necessary.  We also wanted the coaches to take time each week to talk to their girls about issues such as HIV/AIDS, STDs, early pregnancy, skipping school, and others that impact their general well-being (Cathérine and I plan on starting our Coaching for Hope lessons in January).  The schools agreed, and we decided to visit again once school started.

In the meantime, we needed funding if we wanted to organize games for the girls.  Cathérine and I typed up letters to take around to some of the governmental departments and largest business owners asking for money or materials in support of the project.  Now, here is where I want to start outlining some of the particular frustrations involved with working in a country like Burkina Faso.

For one thing, deadlines in this country are never really seen as hard deadlines.  Cathérine and I had the idea for the letters, but just a week before school began a friend suggested to me that we try to drop them off before the school year started and various school-related groups and organizations began touring around Yako to ask for money as well; that way at least ours would be on top.  I hurried to Cathérine with this information, and as I had been to see the Director of Sports in Yako earlier in the summer to discuss the project, I had a budget that he had written out for me.  I typed up the budget, and Cathérine helped me type up a letter addressing each recipient.  At our annual teachers’ meeting I printed out over 20 copies of both the letter and the budget to be dropped off. 

Our first stop after this was to the Director of Sports, to give him the first letter.  He sat down with us and began reading over it and making various corrections, and after a while he simply stopped and said he’d get back to us with his own copy.  Apparently there was a certain way to write a letter of demand that he was well acquainted with, and we, unfortunately, were not.  He offered to rewrite the letter in correspondence with the manner and dialect preferred by most of our high-level government recipients.  The school year started the next day, so I gave up the idea of reaching potential sponsors before that deadline.

A few days later, the Director called us and we met him to get his edited version.  He had rewritten the letter completely and redone the budget.  That night, I typed up his versions of both, and shortly thereafter we printed the letters, signed them, and deposited them in envelopes, ready to be dropped off.

I’ll preface what I’m about to say next with this: Cathérine is a close friend, a hard worker, and a role model.  But she is still a Burkinabé, and the concept of time and urgency here are quite different from what they are in the U.S.  Dropping of the letters should have taken a day, or maybe even a week; instead, it took closer to a month and a half.  There were countless afternoons where we planned to meet up and take the letters around, and instead I heard nothing from her, only to find out a day or two later that she had actually gone to Ouagadougou to run some unforeseen errand and had simply not called to tell me.  It got so ridiculous that I started predicting we would not get together at our designated times, so that when she actually was available I could be pleasantly surprised. 

In other cases, the culture still managed to frustrate us, even when the difficulty did not stem from us.  I remember one Friday in November, after we had begun going back around to the offices where we had deposited letters to follow-up with their recipients.  The day before had been a holiday, and we had visited about three or four offices without meeting anyone when finally Cathérine turned to me and said that nobody would be available.  When I asked why, she explained that since the day before had been a holiday, and the day after was the weekend, most government workers would prefer to take a long weekend and, therefore, would simply not show up to work on Friday.  No big deal.

Then there’s the actual problem with funding.  Most recipients praised our idea when we brought the letters by and said that they definitely wanted to support the project.  However, when we began our follow-up visits, most of them looked at us somberly and explained that, unfortunately, they did not have that much money at the moment, or their department did not have the capacity to support projects monetarily, but that they still wanted to give us a contribution from their own pocket, handing us a thousand CFA as they said so.  One thousand CFA, in case you are wondering, is the equivalent of about $2; our total budget for the project is several hundred thousand CFA.

With regards to the teams themselves, I had high hopes that we would get a good turnout this year at our high school, since the girls had started playing last year.  Cathérine and I visited all the classes to announce the team’s start date, and on the first day of practice…it rained.  At the next practice, all of two girls showed up.  The next one, about four.  I was so confused, but Cathérine explained to me a saying they have here, which essentially communicates that anything that starts out too easily will end badly, but if you have to struggle in the beginning, in the end it will be worth it.  So, with that motto in our heads, we trudged forward, slowly building up our roster to about 12, where it sits currently.  I hope that this number will grow, but girls’ have it tough in this country, and especially where I live in the North, often because they are heavily Muslim areas.  Parents don’t always send their girls to school in favor of the boys, and when they do it’s to attend classes, not get caught up in some sport.  If that’s not the problem, then girls’ usually have too many obligations at home to have time to practice.  On one follow-up visit, Cathérine and I even had a police officer ask us how the girls would finish cooking and cleaning at home if they were spending time playing soccer.

In order to unify our efforts with the other high schools, I organized a meeting for the other coaches to attend.  They all agreed to come, and yet on the afternoon of the meeting, there sat only two coaches where there should have been six (two for each school).  Luckily, the two were each from different schools, so only one was completely missing representation (they informed us afterwards that they went to the wrong school for the meeting, after which I suppose they gave up and went home).  Of the two coaches attending, neither had officially started a girls’ soccer program at his school, although one had passed around an interest sheet to the girls.  We addressed a few key topics with them, including problems they faced in starting their teams and potential solutions, as well as coaches’ propriety and how we wanted to organize the games beginning in January, and then we let them go.

I’m using this project to illustrate some of the difficulties associated with working in a country such as Burkina Faso, especially because it’s important to understand that culture is often at the root of these difficulties, and yet nothing can be accomplished without finding a way to incorporate and work with the culture.  People here are fond of saying the phrase, “Ca va aller,” which essentially means, “It’ll work out.”  In a lot of ways, this saying is accurate; you miss your bus, you catch the next one, or you find a car driving past that’s heading to the same location and get on.  However, in terms of projects and development, it’s incredibly frustrating, and it’s easy to see how forward progress can stall when urgency and deadlines are not prioritized.  It’s all too common to set a date for a meeting or a project visit and then nobody shows up, the reasons for this ranging from simply forgetting to having a stomachache to needing to go withdraw money from a bank in another city to the weather.  Sometimes, there is no reason given, and even that is accepted.

So, it’s been a long, frustrating struggle to get to where we are today with the project, and we still have a long way to go.  However, we’ve got a group of 8 to 12 girls that regularly attend practice during the week.  We’ve had materials, manpower, and a tiny bit of money donated to our project, and Cathérine and I plan to apply for a Peace Corps grant to fund the rest.  I had previously spoken with a member of the administration that was not represented at our coaches’ meeting and knew that they had not yet formed a team, but the administrator insisted that they planned to.  However, I called the other two coaches and was happily surprised to discover that they both had started practicing with their teams, and were eager to start playing games.  Cathérine even had a representative from an entirely different school stop her on the road one day and ask how they could start a team and become involved in our project.  Finally, a new administrator at our school organized a group of male students to play soccer afterschool and invited our girls’ to play with them, which they’ve already done once.

I hope that my brief description of this project gives an idea of what doing grassroots development work in this country can mean.  It requires some extreme amounts of patience and commitment to a goal, but I think that if I can manage to witness a game or two between my girls’ and another school’s team, regardless of the outcome, it will have been worth it.

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Projects: Part 1

                I’ve written a fair number of blogs about my observations of the life and culture in Burkina Faso, which are important for you to read.  I’ve written less, however, about my actual job here, and especially the difficulties that accompany it.  I’m currently working on one project that’s very important to me, and I thought that describing the process from its beginnings to where it stands today might help you understand what it’s like to work on development in Burkina Faso.

                A lot of you know that I started a girls’ soccer team at my high school.  It happened last year, towards the end of the school year.  Ironically, when I started teaching at my school I had firmly decided not to create a girls’ team.  The reason being that there are generally a few volunteers in every new group that start up teams, and I wanted to focus on something else, something original and more important to Yako’s development and the livelihood of its inhabitants than a sport. 

                I was, however, playing soccer.  I had started playing during my training period in village and had found a group to play with in Yako as well.  It was comprised of men and some of the older male students at my school, good players, and we played at a location not far from the school grounds. 

                You may have already inferred this, but women don’t generally play soccer here.  They’re kept too busy with chores around the house, or they’re mocked if they try.  I got a free pass because I’m white, but I’m not sure how long it would have lasted if I wasn’t any good.  As it were, some of the men were quick to come up and introduce themselves after I started playing, but others were less welcoming, never passed to me no matter how loud I yelled, and waited several weeks before begrudgingly admitting that I knew my way around a soccer ball.  I could tell that only my skill and persistence had earned me their respect, or at least their acknowledgement, and that’s when I realized how important sport can be to development.

                Burkina Faso has serious gender inequality issues, especially in the North, where I live.  Girls constantly fall victim to early pregnancy, and then may be kicked out of their homes.  Families will often send their male children to school and keep the girls at home; boys are seen as an investment, because they will grow up and carry on the family name, while the girls are married off and become part of someone else’s family (which, in fact, is not true, because that family always sees them as an outsider, meaning that women in this country suffer from being the constant foreigner in any family they inhabit).  Women stay at home; they cook, clean, maintain the household, raise the children, and sometimes they even work in the fields.  The men work, drink, and sleep with other women.  This may seem like an excessively harsh conclusion, and of course, I am generalizing; I have met several men that break this stereotype, but they are few and far between.  There is a social expectation for men to have multiple sex partners, and I’ve felt my jaw hit the table on more than one occasion when women tell me that it’s not a big deal for men to cheat on their wives because culturally men have the right to several wives anyway.  Women, however, risk being kicked out of their homes, stigmatized by the entire community as a prostitute, or worse, if they step out with another man.

                But, I digress.  Women’s issues are a future blog.  My point is that women and girls have very few opportunities here.  I saw that playing soccer with the men changed a few of their perspectives about me, and young girls would stop alongside the field to watch me play, fascinated.  Maybe seeing a woman play a sport with a group of men would make them think twice about what they can and can’t do.  But, it wasn’t enough.  I was only one person, and a white woman at that, which meant that I fell into a special ‘third gender’ category where I’m obviously not a man but I’m not quite seen as a woman by West African standards either.  I’m a woman with my own set of rules that were forged in a country and a culture that are so foreign to this place, they may as well be on Saturn. 

                I decided that soccer could be an opportunity for girls at my school to discover that their capabilities and opportunities exceed the kitchen.  And while I knew we’d be mocked by the boys, I figured that there would have to be some that, like the men I played with, upon seeing the girls repeatedly practicing and trying to learn the sport, could at least admit that the love of soccer is entitled to cross gender lines.

                So, I mentioned the idea to my school principle in passing once or twice, more as a way of testing the waters to see what he thought than to take constructive steps to set up the team.  When I realized that I had his support, I sat down with him to ask him how to go about creating the team.  He told me to talk to the gym teachers, maybe they could help. 

                The next day I showed up at the school, with no real purpose but to mingle with some of the professors during their break time.  This largely consisted of me greeting each one of them, and then standing around awkwardly as they talked and joked with one another.  A larger woman strode out of the teachers’ room.  I recognized her as the female professor who always sat at the table with the men during teachers’ meetings when the rest of the women pulled up chairs back near the walls, who drank beer when all the other women drank sodas.  She had a presence in the way she walked, seemed to be everyone’s confidant, the eternal jokester, the loudest whether she was happy or upset, and frankly, she intimidated the hell out of me.  She had never given me the time of day before, so I didn’t realize at first that she was talking to me when she walked up beside me and announced, loudly, “Madame, I would like to be your capitain.”  The other teachers fell silent and looked over at us; even I turned to look at her quizzically, not processing at first that she had spoken the phrase in English, meaning it must be meant for me.  She tried again.

                “I would like to be your capitain, with the football.”

                “Ahaa.”  I still couldn’t make out what was going on.  She raised her eyebrows at me.

                “The principle told me that you want to start a team with girls.”  Lightbulb.  I hadn’t even realized he had talked to anyone about my idea.

                “Oh!” I exclaimed.  “Yes, I mean, I do.”  She smiled.

                “Well, I want to help.”  Then came the obligatory joking and mocking from the male teachers; not only was she a woman, but she was very heavyset at that, not exactly the kind of person you’d picture to run a team.  She deflected the comments with self-deprecating humor, and when she went back to her class ten minutes later, we had exchanged contact information and agreed to meet to come up with a plan for our team.

                I was ecstatic, although slightly cautious.  This wasn’t exactly how I had foreseen things progressing, and for all I knew, this woman could be a loose cannon, or unreliable.

                That’s how I met Cathérine, my counterpart, co-coach, and closest friend in Yako.

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SIAO trade show

Last weekend I happened to be in Ouagadougou for a GAD meeting, and it coincided perfectly with the opening of SIAO, so I decided to go and shop around and let you guys know what it was like.  SIAO is the largest trade show in West Africa, held every two years in Ouagadougou.  Vendors come from all over this part of the continent selling a variety of different artistic pieces, including sculptures, paintings, bags and accessories, clothing, jewelry, table decorations, kitchen materials, and more.  There are also a number of co-operatives represented, many of which sell the aforementioned items and others who market food, such as dried mangoes, different-flavored honey, chips, and creams made from natural substances such as coconut or guava.

                But, I’m getting ahead of myself, so I’ll back up.  SIAO is held in a part of Ouagadougou called Bogodogo, but most people just refer to the area as SIAO after the giant pavilion built to host the trade show.  The road is roped off several blocks before and after the actual entrance, and is lined with opportunistic Burkinabé trying to sell anything from hats to kebobs to water and sodas.  For the equivalent of about $2 you can purchase an all-access pass at the entrance, which allows you entrance to all of the pavilions. 

                Once inside the arena, a small open square with bleachers arbitrarily placed along its edges leads up to a large stage with speakers.  This is inhabited throughout the day and into the evening by performers rapping, dancing, and broadcasting their way into attendees’ hearts.  If you duck off to the side, you will come across – yes, in West Africa – a lady selling cotton candy!  In fact, the whole event exuded a very carnival-esque atmosphere.  Now, as I’ve said, this is the largest trade show held in all of West Africa, so it’s huge.  Four to five massive pavilions sit inside the arena, each packed full of small boutiques and shops set up to house the vendors.  Two of these pavilions are air-conditioned and possess more of a Western, casual shopping environment, while the others preserve the feel of an African, open-air market (although covered and still much less stressful than if you hit, say, the Grande Marché in Ouagadougou). 

                Once inside, you’re free to browse, moving as slowly or as quickly as you like, looking at everything or searching for certain items in particular.  All of the stands are labeled with the name of the shop, entrepreneur, or co-operative, and which country they hail from.  Some of the items are labeled with prices, but most are not, and even those with a tag are often still up for discussion if you are persistent enough, giving entrants a chance to really flex their bargaining muscles and see how good (or not) they are.  Some natural advantages also apply; for example, it can be harder to negotiate prices down during the first few days of the show, but by the last weekend vendors are much more flexible, as they are eager to sell everything they brought with them.  Additionally, if you’re a bit cutthroat, I don’t recommend going back to the same boutique more than twice (and even that can be pushing it).

                There are larger items for sale outside of the pavilions as well, including some beautiful tables, chairs, and lamps.  Luckily, the entrances and exits to most of the exhibition areas are populated by locals selling drinks, a necessity when you’re spending hours walking, inspecting, discussing, and bargaining.  This year, SIAO was sponsored by Japan, so the Japanese flag is featured on the SIAO fabric and bags produced just for the event; I was also told that there was a Japanese restaurant set up in the arena, although I did not visit it. 

                SIAO provides a great opportunity not just to view the different types of products fabricated in countries that sit so close to one another, but also to meet both Africans and ex-patriots living throughout West Africa.  Surprisingly, I heard a lot of English being spoken, and discovered later that USAID (the U.S. government’s arm for funding development projects abroad) had sponsored a section of one pavilion, so a lot of co-operatives organized, trained, or funded by USAID or American ex-patriots were grouped near one another.  After living in a French-speaking country for nearly a year and a half, it was also bizarre to hear announcements coming over a loudspeaker in both French and English (especially when they were messages such as, “the owner of the green Nissan car outside may choose to move his car…or we will take it”).  The event also provided a great opportunity to converse with West Africans from neighboring countries, and I bought items that came from Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, Chad (spelled “Tchad” here), Ghana, and Mali.  In a place that’s known for its high levels of poverty, it was refreshing to see such a large number of people that had worked, trained, and invested to become highly skilled in a trade so as to make a livelihood for themselves, and to see the outpouring of people that turned out because they are interested in what these artisans have created.

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How to survive a soccer match in West Africa

Sheer luck.  That’s really what it boils down to.  I attended an African Cup qualifying match last weekend and the only reason I got in the game, sat down, and made it back out without being trampled, jumped on, or gashing something open, was really sheer luck.

It all began earlier in the day, when we sent someone to go buy our group tickets in advance.  Much too late, we realized that was folly.  We got medium-priced tickets and had a taxi pick us up an hour and a half before start time, to ensure that we got good seats together.  The stadium in Ouaga is huge, and as soon as we pulled onto the paved road leading to parking and the entrance, we were immediately swamped by people blowing horns, waving flags, and uttering really any type of noise to convey their excitement.

We entered the park easily enough, and then went to find our seating.  This is where we should have first realized that things would not go smoothly.  Now, West Africa in general is not known for its lines; rather, a more mashed-potato approach is taken, wherein everyone rushes the same small aperture and gradually one or two of the more tenacious fighters will pop through at a time.  So, when we arrived outside the gate to our seating, we were surprised to discover lines; even more confusing was that two lines had been constructed leading up to the security check, and for some (still) unknown reason, they zigzagged to form a perfect square with one another.  I’ve never stood in a square line before, but that’s really the only way to describe it.

We waited in our square line until we reached the security guards, who were performing pat-downs on every person that entered.  Except us.  The guard still had his head down by my knees from finishing his last check when he likely noticed the blinding white color emanating from between my sandal straps and backed away like I had just set off a radiation detector.  He waved us each through in succession and we climbed the stairs to our entrance gate, where another line had formed.

The line stopped moving right about as we arrived; after about five or ten minutes, we heard angry voices and scuffling near the front.  Mind you, there were two entrances to our seating, and as we looked across the balcony to the other we watched fans literally running up the stairs and through the gate.  But we were stuck.  Apparently, people were trying to get in using old or fake tickets, so the police had simply locked the doors and refused to let us through.  When it became apparent they weren’t budging any time soon, most of us ran down our set of steps and through the parking lot to the other entrance that, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, we got locked out of right about as we reached the stairs.  We crept up to the front of the line in the hopes of just melding into the crowd, but we got yelled at by waiting fans and shoved aside by the riot police rushing past us.  Now, if I’m being frank, I don’t think a country can really pick and choose when it wants to use lines, that’s just not fair.  If lines are a thing within your borders, by all means, protect and cherish them; however, if the custom is to rush the entrance like a baker trying to cram a pound of flour down a cup-size funnel, then clamoring about people trying to butt into some fantasy line of yours is, really, quite rude.

On the landing above us we saw more fans rushing through an opening.  It led to a section with cheaper seats than we had paid for, but at that point we were desperate to simply get into the stadium, so we took off.  I think we barely made it in before they closed the doors there as well; they certainly didn’t have room for anyone else.  (By the way, if you were thinking they were actually checking tickets at any of these entrances, you would be extremely mistaken).

We pushed and shoved our way through a crowd on the stairs until we made our way to the seating, which was completely full.  However, being white and generally prone to attracting attention and standing out in a crowd, some seats miraculously opened up for us right up near the railing.  During the entire game, a standing crowd filled the stairway we had just walked up.

One section of the stadium was dedicated to the Central African Republic fans.  Their team scored first, but then Burkina came back with a very pretty goal, followed by a score on a penalty kick, and capped off with a third in the last minute of the game.  The fans went berserk.  I’m talking losing-regard-for-your-own-body-and-those-of-the-people-around-you type of crazy.  I nearly missed being elbowed in the face and jumped on to form some kind of human triple-decker hug, but my neighbor was not so lucky and had her toe split open by the jumpers.

As the referee blew his final whistle, fans screamed wildly, shouting and cheering for their team and their favorite players, and began jumping the railing and rushing out onto the field.  What I hadn’t realized until this point was that I had just witnessed a qualifying match, and Burkina had just made it into the top 16 to play in this year’s African Cup.  Quickly, the pitch filled with Burkina fans, running, jumping, doing cartwheels and handstands, climbing onto goal posts.  They mobbed their favorite players (i.e. I watched the goalie disappear beneath a congratulatory pat on the head from 100 people), and for the sake of their own safety, riot guards (who had taken the field at the same time) forced the losing team to stay on their bench as Burkina fans formed a semi-circle around the downtrodden crew and taunted them via songs, chants, and dances.

This continued for at least 10 or 15 minutes.  At first we watched in amazement, and then because we were told it would be safer for us to wait before trying to exit.  Eventually the riot guards grew tired of the celebrations and spread out to form a line the length of the field; then they slowly walked the width, sweeping off celebrators as they went, batting and swinging their batons at anyone who didn’t listen or came back for seconds.  The fans were so avid, I even saw one pass out on the field of his own sheer exhaustion and dehydration.  All in all, though, the celebrations were really exciting to see, the kind of fabled tales you hear about from people who have attended Super Bowls, the World Series, or any soccer game held outside of the United States.

We finally made our way out and found our ride.  Everyone was in the parking lot and streets shouting, honking car horns and blowing whistles, and it continued our whole ride home, with people who had just watched the game on TV or heard about it from a friend pouring out into downtown and the main streets to celebrate.  Burkina isn’t usually a very winning team, and in tournaments people here usually end up supporting their formidable neighbor to the southwest, Côte d’Ivoire.  In this case, it was great to get to see everyone have a chance to celebrate their home team.

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A Rainy Season

 Short story – here it is!  Hopefully it all transferred…sorry it’s late but bike tour had something to do with it ;)  Comments/thoughts/ideas are appreciated!

For Bee.  Happy (belated) birthday!

                                                         ______________________

                “She is too weak.”

                “She is only a girl.  What can I do with a girl?  If you had given me a son, he would be strong.  And he could help us make money.”

                “Yes, but she needs food and medicine.  Otherwise, she will die.”

                “What she needs is rain!  Tell her to go and bring the rain, and then I can make my money to buy those things.” 

Nourata listened to her parents argue.  She glanced at the dusty ground; indeed, the rains last year had been disappointing, barely enough for their corn and millet crops to sprout, and still only about half survived.  This year, already one month into rainy season, the sky had opened only twice, and its constant sunny, cheerful gaze acted as painful mockery for the inhabitants of her small village.

“C’mon, you stupid sky,” she snarled under her breath, eyeing her great blue adversary.  “Give us some rain.  We need it.  And she will die without it,” Nourata added, considering her father’s comments.  Her eyes traveled over the uneven floor of their mud hut to her older sister, slumped on a mattress worn so thin it might as well have been the dirt that lay beneath.  Her small body and shallow breathing indicated her acute level of exhaustion; she had returned home late yesterday from preparing the fields, after which she was expected to cook and clean for the family, a task which kept her awake far into the dark of the night.  And today, she would rise early and do it all again. 

Nourata turned from her perch at the hut’s entrance, giving the sky one last threatening glare before doing so, and clambered over to her sister.  She ran her hand along the sleeping girl’s arm, which seemed too frail to her, and saw the little patches of hair that had fallen out in the night and embedded themselves in the mattress next to her head.  They all needed food; of course, they were constantly hungry.  But her mother had said medicine, too.  What was her sister sick with?  As she gazed at her sister’s drawn, slightly pale face, Nourata realized that she did look somewhat ill.  Too gaunt, maybe.  Suddenly, her sister’s eyes snapped open, and Nourata jerked her head up as her father came thundering back into the hut. 

“Get- hey, what is she doing here?  Bibata!” he shouted, calling to his wife.  She came rushing in.  “Here, look, she’s just crawling around again.  Get her out of my way!”  Obediently, Bibata hurried over and shooed Nourata back to the opposite corner of the room.  Her sister began to sit up but he kicked her anyway.  “Get up, you lazy cow.  We have work to do and I cannot do it all by myself.”  He turned to exit, and then with a last burst of fury he shouted, “I wanted a son!”

Her sister sprang out of bed and quickly threw on a pair of slacks and ripped shirt that said Miami Heat on it which lay next to her. 

                “Ami.  Amiiiiii.”  Nourata whispered, although her mother shushed her.  Her sister turned two shining eyes on her. 

“Hey, Nou!  Maybe I can find you some flowers today,” she said, smiling gently.

“AMINATA!!!”  They heard their father thunder from outside.  She turned and rushed out after him, flashing her sister one last bright smile before parting.

Inside the hut, all was finally quiet.  Nourata watched the muscles in her mother’s shoulders relax as the footsteps of her husband receded into the musky dawn. 

“Mother, why can’t I go help in the fields?  Then I could be with Ami and help the family make food.” 

“Maybe next year.  You are too young this year,” answered her mother, a note of exhaustion rising in her voice.  “Here, lay down.  I am going to start cleaning.  Don’t get in my way,” she said, instructing Nourata onto the small, secluded mattress where she had spent the night.  Nourata did as she was told, even closing her eyes to pretend that she might go back to sleep.  Her mother swept the hut mechanically, indicative of the years of repetition and practice that guided her movements, and Nourata felt the dust swirl slightly around her toes.  She knew that next her mother would have to go to the market to buy vegetables for the day’s meals, and so she kept her eyes closed, waiting to hear her mother’s footsteps disappear from the hut. 

As soon as they did, Nourata opened her eyes and sprang to her feet.  Maybe she had to wait until next year to help her sister in the fields, or to cook and clean, but she wasn’t going to let her die in the meantime.  Her father had said that if it rained, the family would have money to buy food and medicine.  So Nourata was going to find the rain. 

                                                                _____________________

Nourata tip-toed to the hut’s entrance and peeked around.  She could see her mother growing smaller and smaller as she traversed the dusty footpath that would eventually lead to the market, a plastic bag hanging from one arm, in which she would return with a few nearly rotten onions and, depending on the day, maybe the bones of someone’s already cooked chicken.  Nourata slipped around the hut and placed it between her and her mother.  Turning, she glanced out across the fields of their neighbors, a few measly shoots protruding from the ground, twisting towards the heavens as if an extra five centimeters would help quench their thirst.  In the distance, she could make out the forms of her neighbors, the father and his two sons.  One, named Cheikh, was about her age, and they used to scamper in between huts and up into mango trees fighting invisible genies.  That was before Cheikh’s father made him start helping in the fields, which took up all of his time during the rainy seasons.  Nourata didn’t know why he could work and she couldn’t, when they were the same age; she reasoned that it had to do with his father wanting to teach his sons to grow up tough and strong, like he had.

She gazed at the clear blue sky. 

“If I was rain,” she mused, “where would I be hiding?”  The entirety of the heavens shone back at her the same color; there wasn’t a cloud in sight to be hiding behind.  Huffing, she decided to simply pick a direction and go with it, so she turned and began heading away from her hut. 

She had only marched for about half a kilometer when she tripped over a large rock that seemed to have sprung up from nowhere.

“Ouch…ugh,” she murmured, pulling herself onto her forearms.  Looking back at her aggressor, she tasted blood, and touching her nose she realized she must have hit herself harder than she thought.  She watched drops of deep maroon dribble onto the dust below her.  As it collected, it formed a large, menacing puddle.  And yet, she hadn’t moved her body, but the dust in the middle of the puddle seemed untouched.  More than untouched, in fact.  Oddly, it resembled an arrow.  She squinted, and as she brought her face closer to study the surprising symbol the last drops of blood fell into place, and she found herself eyeing a perfectly formed arrow, pointing in a direction just to her right.  Her gaze followed its path, and as she looked up, she noticed the sun glance off of something at an odd angle, creating a slight reflection.  It was hard to see, but if she tilted her head at the right angle, she could just make out a ripple in the horizon, as if an invisible wall stood between her and the end of the earth.  She reached out towards it, and touched a hard surface.

Immediately, as if it had simply been waiting for her touch, rays of sunlight were pulled into the frame of the wall, as if by a magnet, and raced around the odd shimmer in a rectangular shape.  The light coursed and pulsed, quivering like a runner waiting for the gun, and as she watched wide-eyed Nourata saw a small orb thrust from inside the shimmer, like watching a tree’s growth over the course of several years condensed into seconds.  Pulling herself to her feet, Nourata could still see her neighbor’s fields extending out beyond what had just arisen before her, but there was no mistaking its imagery now.  It was a door.

Nourata eyed it suspiciously.  She looked back, sideways.  Was anyone else watching her?  Had anybody else seen what happened?  She was completely, utterly alone.  All of her natural intuitions told her not to get closer, not to turn the knob.  And yet, a strong, inexplicable urge emanated out of her, from a place deep inside, that told her, begged her, desperately, to approach.  To turn the knob.  To step inside.

She looked back, realizing that she had been unconsciously overpowered by her greater desires, and was already across the threshold.  The door slowly closed behind her, and in a moment of panic, she scrambled to find a rock, something, to block the door’s motion.  Her eyes desperately scanned the field around her and her hands scrabbled frantically at the dirt, but she found nothing.  She turned and rushed at the door just as it sealed shut, the light once again racing around its perimeter, this time erasing its border as it passed. 

“No!”  Nourata balled her hands into fists and banged against the invisible wall, but as the light finished its course and disappeared into the earth, her momentum threw her forward and she fell into the dirt on the other side.  The door had vanished, sealing off the dry fields of her neighbors and replacing her surroundings with those of another land.  She stood and raised a trembling hand to where the door had just been.  “Ami?”  The name escaped her lips in a frightened whisper.

She walked across the threshold once again, thinking it might carry her back home, but nothing.  Nourata threw herself onto the ground, even knocking her nose as she fell again, but to no avail.  No blood, no arrow, no door.  Her breathing quickened, and tears rushed to her eyes as she realized she was lost, and didn’t know how to find her way home.

A shadow passed along the ground before her, and she glanced up to see a cloud lazily making its way across the sky.  Suddenly, Nourata remembered why she had left her home in the first place.  She scrambled to her feet and looked more closely at the passing cloud; it looked dark, heavy, like it was full of water.  Her world might not have any rain, she realized, but maybe this one does, and here she could find help for her sister.  Gritting her teeth, she surveyed her surroundings.

Ahead of her lay a vast green field, lush and blooming with grasses and flowers.  Surely, rain had been here.  Just beyond the field loomed the largest tree Nourata had ever seen.  Its trunk was thick, far thicker than the biggest baobab she’d ever seen at home, and its gnarled bark twisted and turned its way into the sky, where she could only barely make out the distant green of what promised to be substantial foliage.  At the base of the tree sat a squat building made out of material Nourata had never seen before.  In fact, it seemed to be built into the tree itself. 

She crossed the field and stood before it, examining.  Its exterior was simple; just bark, but it was a deep brown color, darker than any of the trees near her family’s house.  A simple door was flanked by two small windows that looked out onto the field like a tiny pair of eyes.  Glancing behind her again, Nourata saw that the field stretched out all around her, as far as she could see in every direction.  The tree was the only structure for kilometers, it seemed, so she turned the knob in front of her.

As she closed the door behind her, Nourata stepped into complete serenity.   Inside, the bark transformed from one uniform color into a multitude of veins, each a different shade of brown, which twisted, ducked, and leapt from wall to wall, as if in a dance.  To the left of the room was situated the most beautiful staircase Nourata had ever seen, made from wood but flanked by leaves and berries as it spiraled up the tree trunk as far as she could see.  At the center of the room, which was surprisingly large, sat a sturdy looking structure, perhaps the cutout of another tree’s trunk, inside which four women sat busy with paperwork.  They looked up as Nourata approached them.

“Hello there,” the first woman said, warmly gazing down from her perch.  “How are you doing?”

“I’m fine,” Nourata answered.  The woman nodded.

“Okay, then.  How about we find you a room.  You don’t have any bags?”  Nourata shook her head.

“Excuse me, I’m looking for the rain,” she said, stating her case clearly.  The woman looked up at her again from a small machine on which she had been hitting buttons. 

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” she asked, pulling a pair of spectacles further down her nose, so that they were in danger of falling off. 

“I’m here to find the rain,” Nourata said again.  “My sister is sick and my father said that she’ll only get better if the rain comes, so I’m here to find it and bring it home.”  The congenial woman’s eyes narrowed, bringing her face to a small point at the end of her nose.

“Girl, do you know where you are?” she asked.  Nourata shook her head and the woman sighed, pulling off her glasses completely and leaning back to massage the bridge of her nose.  “Ramata!” she called.  “Ramata!  I think you’d better handle this, seeing as nobody tells me anything in this place.”  As she spoke, a large woman sitting behind the tree desk squeaked and spun around in her chair.  In her excitement she jumped up, forgetting that the chair’s arms held her snugly, causing her to fall back into her seat and scoot backward several feet in the chair’s rollers.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, this time taking a moment to disengage her fairly hefty posterior before lifting herself out of the seat and bustling over to stand next to her colleague.

                “Okay Etty, I’ll take care of this one!” she said, turning a set of beaming eyes on Nourata.  “We’ve been waiting for you.”  Etty rolled her eyes and threw her hands into the air in despair.

                “As if it would have been so much harder to tell me this,” she grumbled, rolling away in her chair.  “I’ve only worked here half a lifetime, but no, it obviously makes more sense to give the sensitive information to the new girl…”  Ramata pulled Nourata out of earshot.

“I have a few things for you, but first, let’s find you a room, just in case.  That way you’ll have a place to set up.”

Ramata led Nourata up the staircase, which was even more exquisite up close.  Nourata watched as berries bloomed fresh before her eyes and grasshoppers flitted from leaf to leaf.  It seemed they had only been climbing for a short time when Ramata turned off of the staircase onto a balcony, also made of wood, which was lined with numbered rooms.

“Yes, we didn’t want to put you up too high, in case you plan on coming and going a lot,” she said over her shoulder, as if reading Nourata’s mind.  She fumbled in her pockets for a pair of keys and finally reached out to unlock the door to No. 23.

They stepped inside and Nourata immediately gasped.  It was the nicest room she had ever been in.  A large, luxurious mattress with fluffy pillows lay sprawled in the middle of the room.  A small room off to the side housed two large barrels of water, simply labeled “WARM” and “COOL.”     

“You can clean up in here,” Ramata said, pointing out a tiny bucket that she could dip into the water temperature of her choice and use to shower herself.  “And here is a toilet,” she said, gesturing towards a large porcelain bowl that Nourata was supposed to sit in; she eyed it suspiciously, having heard of such devices but never having used one.  “Or, if it makes you more comfortable, you can use this,” said Ramata, pointing to a familiar looking hole in the ground in the far corner.  “Don’t worry,” she whispered covertly, “it leads outside,” and chuckled.  Escorting her out of the small room, Ramata walked over to a large dresser sitting against the wall.  “And in here, we have several sets of clothes laid out for you.  You can wear anything you like!”  As she said this, she opened a drawer and Nourata immediately had to squint because the light reflecting off of a million little golden tassels and beads was too strong.

“Oh!” she squealed, running her hands over the shimmering outfits.  Ramata smiled. 

“Okay, lastly, here is the view from your room,” she said, pulling aside a curtain Nourata hadn’t noticed before to expose a large window that looked out over the endless fields.  She turned and faced Nourata.  “It usually rains once or twice a day, but you can’t catch it here; it moves too fast.  Take this,” she said, reaching into another pocket and pulling out a sheet of parchment.  “It’s a map.  It tells you where you can find the rain, but it’s difficult to get to.”  She looked hard at Nourata as she took the map.  “You know, nobody’s ever been successful in catching the rain before.”  Nourata shrugged.

“I don’t have a choice,” she said, thinking of her sister.  Ramata nodded.

“Okay, then.  I’ll leave you here,” she said, turning to go.  “Oh, one last thing.  Because you’re so young, whenever you fall asleep while you’re here, you’ll return home.  Don’t worry,” she said, chuckling when she saw the discouragement on Nourata’s face.  “You won’t actually be going anywhere; you’ll still be able to touch and feel whatever is around you, like these bed sheets.  But you can see your family and they can see you, so they know that you’re safe.  Okay, then…good luck,” she stated, pausing in the doorway to bestow a sympathetic smile on the girl before turning on her heel and exiting the room.  

Nourata stared at the door for several minutes after it closed.  Finally, she looked down at the paper clutched tightly in her hand.  It had been folded several times, so when she opened it fully she had to lay it down on the bed to see all of it.  The intricacy of the map surprised her.  To the left she recognized the great tree in which she was housed; even its upper limbs disappeared off of the top of the paper.  Its commanding trunk lay surrounded by fields, which she confirmed by glancing out her window.  Neat rivets in the ground with tiny shoots protruding from them were all she could see.  Following these appeared a vast barren region, labeled as a desert.  Nourata didn’t spend much time on this part of the map, figuring it must be like home.  Her eyes drifted to what followed.  A large forest of trees with strong, dark trunks and shimmering green foliage appeared to be swaying to and fro in some unseen gale of wind.  But more interesting were the shadowy figures shown flitting in between the leaves and the trunks.  They leaped and soared, with powerful beats of their strong wings; one was even drawn looking up at her, hissing and glaring with fiery eyes.  Nourata had never seen anything like them before, but she set her jaw and moved on, knowing she didn’t have a choice.  Past the forest and the animals sat an ocean moat surrounding a craggy island on which the waves crashed and foamed.  Atop the island rested a fat, dark cloud, its eyes closed in slumber; the island was labeled “Home.” 

_____________________________________

Shortly after the portly woman had left her room, Nourata had departed as well.  She did, however, linger for a few moments, laying back and running her hands along the clean cotton sheets that enclosed the luxurious bed, noting sadly that she probably wouldn’t return there until after her quest had been completed.  Unless that bed wanted to magically travel with her as well, she didn’t see any way of making it back to sleep in it every night. 

As Nourata reached the edge of the fields of crops surrounding the massive tree, she glanced back and noticed that the shade from its foliage nearly reached the spot where she stood, even though she had been walking for over an hour.  In front of her stretched an endless sea of sand dunes; it wasn’t like home, where it was hot, flat, and dusty, but inhabitable.  This was real desert.  She had seen pictures of some of the ethnic groups north of them that rode camels and wore scarves to cover their heads and mouths when they journeyed through the desert.  Unfortunately, Nourata had neither a camel nor a scarf.  She glanced back at the large tree looming behind her.  She could probably walk back and ask for something to cover her head with, but it would add at least two hours to her journey to go and return again.  And she wasn’t sure how much time she had.  Determinedly, she stuck her foot out into the waiting sand and pushed forward, refusing to look back again. 

The small granules collected and closed around her feet as she trudged.  She felt the sun, scorching, burning down upon her small back as she walked.  She’d been exposed to the sun at home before, often on days she spent running and climbing with Cheikh, but it had never been like this.  She felt the heat on her back and the top of her head begin to spread to other parts of her body, as if in fact she had caught on fire.  The skin on her forearms, her chest, even her face began to flush and overheat, to smart, even.   She searched desperately around her for something to block the sun, or for some shelter to find a break from its heat, but she saw nothing.  Nothing but sand. 

Nourata had no choice but to keep going.  She felt so tired; she wished she could lie down, just for a minute, and rest, but she knew that doing so would give the sun an even greater chance to burn her little body.  She had to keep moving.  She was also incredibly thirsty, and had no way of knowing if she had been walking straight, as she had hoped, or moving in circles, and had effectively doomed herself to wander the desert until she collapsed.  Frankly, she already felt on the verge of doing so.  But in her mind she conjured up images of her sister; her sister picking her a fresh flower she found growing out of a tree near their house, or smuggling back the fattest mango she had picked from their one mango tree.  The mangoes were all supposed to be sold at the market, but every now and then Aminata snuck one out for her.  She saw her sister protecting her from her father’s rage, telling him it was she who had knocked over the jug of water, not Nourata, and then getting slapped so hard by her father that Nourata could still see the outline of his fingers on her face three days later.  She breathed in deeply, summoning all of the strength and courage she had left.  Her body was burning, she could feel it, but she pressed on.  Just one more sand dune.  Just one more.

Suddenly, she caught sight of a large shadow passing over head and glanced up.  She saw clouds, dark and heavy, racing through the skies above her head. 

“Wait!” she called, but they were moving too quickly.  But seeing them renewed her vigor, and she began to run, following them as they sped forward.  They flew above her head but she kept moving; maybe she could actually catch a raincloud.  She stumbled forward, every nerve ending in her body buzzing from the heat and dehydration.  The clouds all began blending into one, and she thought that they might get away from her when she staggered up one last dune and lost her footing at the pinnacle, causing her to somersault forward and slide down the dune’s other side. 

Judging that she might not be able to lift her head up from the sand one last time, Nourata closed her eyes and felt her other senses push forward, jockeying for the lead, and she suddenly realized that her head wasn’t lying in sand.  Instead, she felt the rough slime of recently-muddied dirt slide across her cheek, and her hand reached out and clenched a patch of moss to her right.  She pulled herself into a sitting position and gazed about herself; to her left, she saw the stretch of desert extend as far as she could see.  To her right, an immense forest of trees shaded the underbrush.  Vividly colored flowers sprouted out amongst dewy leaves, and a shadowy path snaking into the dense wood beckoned her.  She wanted to move forward, but her parched muscles wouldn’t allow it.  Rolling onto her back, she wished for some kind of relief, some kind of new strength to help her along.  Gradually, she watched the dark clouds that she had chased collect above her, as if returning from their mission to gather over a fallen friend.  She closed her eyes and felt large, cool drops begin splashing down on her face, on her burning body, and she drifted away in its refreshing embrace.

__________________________________

“Ami….?” Nourata whispered, dazed.  Her sister’s face hovered above her, her eyes large and glistening.  A smile worked its way across her face when she heard her name. 

“Hey there, Nou,” she whispered back, wiping her eyes quickly and glancing around the room.  It was clearly late at night, and their parents were sleeping. 

“What are you doing here?” Nourata asked, afraid that either her sister had been forced to cross the desert to find her, or her mission had failed completely and she’d been returned home.  The side of her sister’s mouth twisted up into a grin.

“I live here, silly, remember?” she said, reaching out and stroking Nourata’s hair.  With a sudden flash of relief, Nourata remembered what the woman had said, that she would be both at home and in the other world when she slept so as to see her family.  To double check, she slid her arm sideways and felt the slick rub of heavy mud, not the roof thatching on which she normally slept.  She looked up at her sister.

“I’m going to make you all better, Ami.  I’m going to find it, I promise.  And then you won’t be sick anymore.”  Aminata raised an eyebrow in confusion, and then let it fall in resignation.

“I know you will, Nou,” she said, taking her sister’s hand.  “I believe in you.”  Nourata beamed up at her, but her sister still looked sad.  She opened her mouth to reassure her that she could find the rain but her sister shushed her, looking back at their parents.  She reached behind her and removed something she had tucked into the back of her waistline and placed it gently in Nourata’s hand, which she had never let go of. 

“Here you go, Nou.  I found it while I was out in the fields.  Isn’t it beautiful?”  As she moved Nourata’s hand up to her chest, she gazed down at the loveliest flower she had ever seen.  Brilliant shades of blue and yellow intermingled so intricately that they appeared to be dancing around each other, each taking turns twirling the other up and down the petal.  In the dusky shades of the early morning, it appeared like a private showcase that only she and her sister were allowed to see.

_____________________________________

Nourata’s eyes snapped open.  She looked around herself, felt the mud, now drying, and gazed back upon the endless sea of sand dunes she had already crossed.  She had returned.  With a new resolve she pulled herself to her feet and surveyed the forest that lay ahead.  It seemed to be doing the same to her.  It had only one entrance that she could make out, a dark, cavernous mouth that coiled away from view almost immediately.  Vines twisted from tree to tree, and she could hear the chirping of various unknown species of animals that lived inside. 

She supposed she ought to be scared, but resolve and determination pushed her forward.  She climbed to her feet and took several confident steps towards the forest’s edge.  As she entered the shadow cast by the trees, however, she felt a shiver creep up her spine.  She looked into the forest and saw nothing, only blackness.  Stepping further, she felt the darkness gradually seeping into her bones, until she found herself shivering.  But, she knew that turning back meant death for her sister, and that was not an option. 

She followed the course of the path that led away from the entrance; it ran like a river, constantly switching directions, yet indecisively, as it seemed to choose its route as she walked it.  Rounding a bend, she gazed down a straight path, resolute as far as she could see.  But, hearing a noise, she looked up, and when she turned back to the trail it banked sharp right after about twenty paces.  She shook her head, wondering if she simply hadn’t seen it before, or if she really was losing her mind.

The beauty of the forest and its inhabitants helped assuage her fears, however.  The vast canopy above her provided shade for a lush undergrowth; felled tree trunks leaned their massive weight against one another, while moss as thick as the carpet in her room nestled atop their broad structures.  Brightly colored flowers of variant shapes and sizes decorated the floor, some peeking out of large vines that twisted their way far above her head, others content to tickle her feet as she walked.  She stopped at one point to examine the brilliant colors of a chameleon wandering his way along a tree trunk, who turned to gaze at her quizzically as she placed her face close to the intense purples and oranges swirled along his back.

As she rounded the next bend in the path, however, she sensed that the ecosystem had changed.  Suddenly, she could no longer spot the dazzling colors of insects or lizards scurrying along the forest floor, and the high chirping of small finches had stopped.  The flowers faded and the vines, twisting and snaking their way into the great awning above closed in on the path, so that it became barely passable.  She had to pick her way through overgrown shrubs and muddied puddles left by the rainclouds when they had swept through, sometimes hopping from rock to rock in an attempt to spare her bare feet.

A small stream appeared and her route aligned itself so as to accompany it.  Moving forward, she could glance down and see a few large, dull-colored fish swimming lazily through the dirty water next to her.  They carried with them none of the energy she had seen in the forest’s previous inhabitants, and she had half a mind to stop and ask them why things had changed when she looked forward and saw a great bird standing motionless, silent, in the water.  It kept its eyes down, no doubt scanning for unsuspecting fish like she had just seen.  They would be within his reach any second.  Time seemed to freeze as she watched the massive bird, its vivid colors, massive wings folded back behind it, muscular legs frozen in place, and eyes that seemed to burn with intensity as the predator waited for its prey.  Or was it hatred?

She hadn’t realized she had been leaning against a low-lying branch for support until it cracked, throwing her off balance and sending her foot splashing into the water as she caught herself.  It took her only a moment to regain her composure, but it was too late; the fish heard her tumble and jetted off into a million different directions, and as she glanced up, she stared right into the blazing eyes of the hunter, now angrier and hungrier. 

She turned to run but it was much faster than she, and immediately a strong blow to her back knocked her on her stomach.  She looked up but couldn’t see the bird, so she pulled herself to her feet again and dashed away.  Before she had gotten several steps it appeared again, so fast that she could see no more than the blur of its colors, and she felt its powerful talons slash at her face before it disappeared again.  She kept running, but put a hand up to her cheek and felt three long gashes stretching from her temple to her jawline, and when she pulled away her hand was covered in blood. 

As if sensing the urgency of the situation, dark clouds rushed overhead and rain began to fall harshly on her back as she ran.  She didn’t dare stop to look for her aggressor again, lest he take the opportunity to strike her down.  Through the sheeting rain she heard his cry, a high-pitched shriek, almost like the scream of a goat being slaughtered.  The swoop of its giant wings sounded just behind her and she felt its claws rake deeply into her back.  She cried out in agony and stumbled to her knees, and as she regained her feet she chanced to glance up at the sky and saw them circling.  Not just the one that had seen her, but ten, twenty of them had gathered under the clouds above her to scream out support for their friend.  One dove at her as she looked up and swiped away the arm she put up to protect her head, knocking her to the ground once more.  The rain quickly washed out the talon marks and she could see, as her face lay in the mud next to her arm, that it was bleeding profusely. 

She got back to her feet once more and stumbled forward, but her head felt muddled and her reflexes dulled from the loss of blood.  She tripped on a root and went down again just as another bird tore into her shoulder.  Nourata yelped in pain and searched around for something to defend herself with but found nothing, and as she grimly began thinking that she might not escape these birds she heard a thunderous sound crashing through the foliage behind her.  Barely having the strength to turn and look, she forced herself up on one elbow and squinted her eyes against the rain as a scraggly-haired beast appeared on the path behind her, bellowing ferociously to announce its arrival.  The squawking and screeching of the birds intensified and reached a new pitch, but the animal seemed undaunted, roaring over and over again. 

She couldn’t quite make out what exactly it was; it looked like a dog, just as skinny and malnourished as those that lived in her community, but of a larger stature.  As she gazed at it in confusion it looked at her, locking a pair of morose, honey-brown eyes upon hers.  They held one another’s stare for a moment, but then as the next bird dove at Nourata it reached up with a great big paw and batted it out of the sky.  This seemed to enrage the others, and they coordinated their efforts, swooping down in teams to rake at the animal’s skin.  Nourata looked about frantically and saw an area sheltered by several bushes and small trees with intertwining branches, so she quickly crawled over and wedged herself beneath the undergrowth.  Looking back, she watched the birds attack the animal that had come to her rescue; to her surprise the creature did little to fight back or rebuke the birds’ attacks.  Time after time they rained down upon it, opening up large patches of exposed muscle, until the beast could no longer stand on its own for loss of blood.  It fell to its knees, and finally onto its stomach.  Nourata watched it close its eyes against the onslaught until her own vision blurred from tears and wooziness.

________________________________________________

“Shhh, shhh,” she heard someone whisper as she began to whimper, the cold touch of a wet compress sending shooting pains throughout her face and shoulder.  She didn’t dare open her eyes to look for the blood.

“You’re okay, Nou, it just stings a little, I know.”  Hearing the familiar voice of her sister, Nourata relaxed somewhat.  She hadn’t realized that her family would be able to see her wounds while she slept, but she found herself grateful as she felt a soothing compress of leaves and tree oil placed carefully against her gashes by her sister’s gentle hands.

“I’m so close Ami,” Nourata murmured, still dizzy from blood loss.  “I just need to get out of the forest.”  Aminata shushed her again.

“You will, Nou.  I believe in you.”

_______________________________________________

Nourata blinked.  Slowly, foggily at first, colors and shapes began coming into focus.  A small, green frond drooping under the weight of fresh rainwater hovered anxiously above her nose, as if checking for signs of life.  She squinted her eyes and stared hard at it, until the water droplet quivering dangerously close to its edge gave one last tremble and leapt off onto her cheek, sending the young frond springing back from the loss of mass. 

She reached up to wipe the water from herself, then gently moved her hand across her face to where the bird had struck her.  Three large welts and a constant throbbing confirmed that the attack had actually happened, but she removed her hand to see that the blood had stopped running. 

Nourata held her breath and listened, but the forest was deadly silent.  Turning her head, she looked back at where the attack had taken place.  Aside from a few claw marks in the wet dirt nearby, it looked as if nothing had happened.  Both the birds and the mystery beast were gone.  Gingerly, she slid out from her hiding place and pulled herself into a sitting position.  She eyed the sky warily, lest the birds be simply sitting in the trees, out of sight, waiting for her arousal.  But still she saw nothing.

Climbing to her feet, she continued down the path in the direction she had been headed.  The loss of blood made it difficult to walk straight, and every step heralded agonizing pains in her shoulder, back, and jaw.  Groaning, she pulled herself along, urging herself to take one more step.  One more step.

Suddenly, she heard the unmistakable rush of water.  Not like the small stream where she had encountered the fish, but great thundering crashes of waves against rock.  They had no ocean at home, but every one of her instincts told her it had to be the sound of the water from the last leg of the map, the sea.  And that meant that the small island where the rain lived wasn’t far away.

Coaxing her body into a limping trot, Nourata rounded the last bend in the forest path and emerged onto a rocky beach.  Powerful waves hurled themselves against large boulders resting at the waters’ edge, and the ocean seemed to stretch for as far as she could see in every direction, save for behind her.  It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. 

On the horizon, sitting far out into the great watery expanse, she could just make out the figure of a large rock structure, which she knew must be her destination.  She started towards the waterline closest to her but quickly realized that she couldn’t enter at that spot.  The waves crashed against the rocks so ferociously that they sent spray leaping up above her head, and looking down she could see tiny whirlpools created in their wake, swirling and churning rapidly in tight spirals.  Frustrated, she looked about in both directions, but the coastline seemed the same either way.  She had no choice but to arbitrarily choose a direction and pick her way along the rocks in the hopes of finding a gentler spot to enter. 

After what felt like an eternity of stumbling and tripping over jagged rocks amidst the shooting pains racking her small body, Nourata noticed a spot along the shoreline that might fit her needs.  The rocks near the edge were much more rounded, and water lapped over them at a moderate pace.  She made her way over to it and gazed down into the depths.  Below the calm surface, the water became ferocious, roiling and tossing upon itself like water boiling on the stove.  She sighed, sliding into a sitting position as her spirit faltered.  She looked around and saw nothing but rough waves hurtling against sharp rocks in every direction, and suddenly tears sprang to her eyes in a fit of frustration and pain.  Was this it?  She had made it all this way simply to be defeated by a large body of water?  And her sister?

Her sister.  The thought conjured up more images from their lives together, images of her laughing while she braided Nourata’s hair, and holding hands while they shared a mat at night.  Images of Aminata standing and taking scoldings from their mother for burning the rice, or running determinedly after their father to help in the fields, even though he never acknowledged her hard work.  In her short lifetime, Nourata realized, the most happiness she had known existed in fleeting interactions with her sister: a quick squeeze of her hand, sharing a mango in secret behind their hut, curling into her body, skinny but firm, to shield against the cold rains.  Her sister was brave and strong; she wouldn’t hesitate to face the ocean’s powerful currents to save someone.  Didn’t Nourata owe her the same?

Without a second thought, Nourata waded into the water.  She was going to save her sister.  Almost immediately, the undercurrent swept her feet out from under her and dragged her into deeper waters.  Swimming, she realized, was harder than it looked, and she could barely muster the strength to thrust her head above the dark, swirling waters long enough to fill her lungs before they pulled her down again.  Up and down she bobbed, and amidst the turmoil she could make out the sea’s ultimate quest: the current was circling around to build up enough speed to make another run at the rocks.  The pace of the water around her quickened as it began its rotation towards the shoreline.  Spluttering, flailing, Nourata had barely enough time to breathe at intervals, let alone decide on how to save her life.  She was at the mercy of the ocean, whose goals did not include sparing her life.

Frantically, she looked down, grasping about for something to anchor her, but the speed at which she was now moving was too great for any reed to stop.  Suddenly, a flash occurred to her right, and as she squinted her eyes against the ocean water she could make out a large figure next to her.  It kept pace with her, and as the ocean tossed her she found herself studying another pattern of vibrant blues and yellows swirling and leaping across a series of scales.  The gigantic fish turned its head slightly, but just enough, to set a pair of large, questioning orbs upon her.  It held the gaze, and Nourata instinctively reached out and grabbed the sizeable fin directing its movements from atop its lithe body.  As quick as a bullet, the fish darted right, out of the Jetstream that had been holding them and began swimming furiously against the current.  Every now and then it would surface just enough for Nourata to take a large gulp of air before diving again to fight the tow.  Nourata could see that it was tiring, but it never stopped, and every time they surfaced the craggy island home of the rain loomed closer and closer. 

Finally, they slowed, and the current seemed to have relented.  The fish swam at an easy pace as they approached the rocky fortress, finally coming to a halt in the shallows.  Nourata found herself on her hands and knees in a bed of pebbles, the water leisurely lapping against her thighs and elbows as she took a moment to catch her breath.  The fish hovered nearby, watching her, a look of concern in its eyes.  She glanced back reassuringly, and was still fighting for the breath to say something thankful when it promptly turned and shot back into the depths from which they had emerged.

Nourata sat, panting in the shallows, looking at the spot where the fish had been.  She had no explanation for its actions, and she couldn’t help wondering what she had done to earn its assistance.  First, the giant beast in the forest, and now the fish; she would never have made it to this spot without them. 

Her thoughts would have continued down this path if the sky above her had not darkened, the waves around her begun to foam and churn, and a light mist started falling on her upturned face.  She scurried about halfway up the island’s incline and ducked into a small cave so as not to be seen as rainclouds raced from every direction to gather atop the island’s highest point.  She could hear them murmuring and groaning to one another, jockeying for a position to sleep. 

She waited quietly in the cave until she heard the only restful silence above her, and then she slipped out to find footing and begin her ascent.  The climb was tricky, but luckily not too challenging, as the pain in her shoulder and back had returned.  After several minutes she crested the peak, first just pulling her head above the rocks to look around.  She could see the rainclouds, all huddled together in one dark mass, hovering several feet off the ground as they slept.  A light mist fell from them in their slumber and blew gently against Nourata’s face. 

She stood frozen, watching the clouds, unsure of her next move.  She realized that she had been so focused on her journey to get to this point that she had never actually thought about how she would get the rain and bring it back home.  Maybe if it were smaller she could try to take it while the clouds slept and carry it, but it was not small.  In fact, the rain seemed inseparable from the clouds in which it incubated, and to somehow catch one of those clouds and bring it home, back through the myriad of challenges she had already faced in the sea and the forest, without making enough noise to wake the other clouds, who might try to steal back their comrade and could cover ground at far more than double her speed, seemed an impossible task to Nourata.

She pulled herself over the edge and slumped against the rock in frustration and defeat.  What had she been thinking?  She had not anticipated the problem of bringing the raincloud back, and so her journey had all been in vain.  How could she return empty-handed?  And what would she tell her sister, whose life depended on her success?

The misting from the sleeping clouds increased, and Nourata reached up to clean it from her face when she realized that it wasn’t mist at all, but tears, large and heavy, dripping down her cheeks.  Instead of wiping them away, she buried her face in her hands as powerful sobs racked her tiny body.  She surrendered herself to the anger and frustration and sadness that had grown in her throughout the voyage, refusing to fight as it engulfed her entirely, an action that seemed fitting given how helpless she had turned out to be.

*********************

“Ahem…ahem.”  Nourata froze.  She had lost track of time, and had no idea how long she had been sitting beside the sleeping clouds.  Sniffling, she slowly disentangled her head from her arms and poked one eye above them, scouting.  A perturbed glare met her gaze; all the other clouds seemed not to have noticed her, lost in their slumber, but the one closest to Nourata sat staring back at her, a raised eyebrow demanding an explanation. 

Quickly wiping the remaining tears from her eyes, Nourata straightened up and looked back at the cloud.

“Umm…hello,” she tried, but the cloud simply rolled its eyes and huffed loudly.

“Oh, lord, what on earth are you doing here?  And why are you crying like that?  Can’t you see we’re trying to sleep?”

“Oh, yes, I’m sorry, it’s just-”

“How many kilometers do you cover in a day, hmm?  One?  Two?  I bet it’s not two hundred, like I do.  You think that’s easy, racing all over the world like that?”

“No, I’m sure it’s not, but-”

“And all I get is one hour back here to sleep and recharge.  One hour!  But not today.  And why not?  Because there’s a little girl crying where I’m trying to sleep, and it’s keeping me awake.”

“I’m very sorry, I-”

“And really, you should be ashamed of yourself for keeping me awake like that.  I’m the reason your flowers grow, the reason you have food to eat every day – I give life to the world!  It’s because of me-”

“Not where I’m from!” Nourata cried, her eyes narrowing.

“Excuse me?” the cloud asked.

“You don’t rain where I come from,” she said.  “That’s why I’m here.  Maybe you’re so great and important and you cover hundreds of kilometers every day, but you forgot someplace.”

“Well I-! You must be mistaken silly girl, it rains everywhere in the world.  In fact, I just got back from-”

“You forgot us!” Nourata shouted, taking the offensive.  “You can’t say you make flowers grow, or you put food on the table, or you give life, because where I’m from you’re the reason nothing grows and people are dying.  Because you forgot us!  You may rain everywhere else in the world, but in the places that you miss, people die.  Like my sister.”  A look of guilt and remorse slowly replaced the annoyance in the cloud’s eyes.

“Your sister died…because of me?” it asked, its tone softening. 

“Not yet,” Nourata said, shaking her head, “but she will.  She is sick, and my father said that the only way she will get better is if the rain comes, but it hasn’t for many weeks.  If you don’t come, she will die.  That’s why I came here, to find the rain and bring it back with me.”  Nourata looked hard at the ground, studying a small ant mounting a rock several times its size.  “Please,” she whispered, “please don’t let her die; she is the best thing in my life.  She protects me and brings me flowers and keeps me warm when it’s cold.  She always makes me happy when I see her, always.  She loves me, and I love her.  Please.” 

The cloud watched her studying the sand, trying hard to regain her composure.  “Okay,” it said gently, causing her to look up in bewilderment.  “Okay, I won’t forget you anymore, I promise, I’ll go there today.”  A smile crossed Nourata’s face.

“Really?” she asked, her eyes beaming.

“Really,” said the cloud.  “Besides, it’s not every day we get visitors here,” it added, gazing over the rough ocean towards the forest.  “You must have had a very difficult journey to get here, and anyone important enough to motivate you to come all this way must be worth helping.”

“Thank you,” said Nourata, sighing.  “Thank you so much.”  She slumped back against the rock, the fatigue of her trip hitting her suddenly, replacing her worries.  The cloud studied her more closely.

“You know, you look exhausted.  Rightly so, as like I said, getting here is not easy.  Why don’t you lie down and sleep for a while before you go back?  Then maybe we can both get some sleep,” it added with a chuckle.  Nourata nodded.

“That might be a good idea.  I’ll just…thank you again,” she murmured, lying down on a bed of grasses growing through the rock.  No sooner had she closed her eyes than the dark curtains of sleep closed over her.

___________________________________________________________

Nourata blinked, slowly regaining her consciousness.  Her head still felt fuzzy from sleep, as if thoughts were trying to force their way through her head like sludge in a sewer.  The sun beat down on her brightly, and as she began to move her hands and arms she felt a lumpy, dusty surface below her and the half-formed shoots of plants too thirsty to live.

“Nou?  Nou!” she heard a voice exclaim, her sister’s voice.

“Ami?” she asked, puzzled.  “Ami, where are we?”

“I’m so sorry, Nou.  I’m so sorry,” she heard her sister sobbing, and as her vision cleared she saw her sister wipe away a tear and lean over her.  Except it wasn’t her sister.  It couldn’t be.  The girl bending over her looked deformed; deep bruises etched themselves over her face and neck, and enormous gashes carved into the skin on her cheeks and arms.  As she turned to retrieve something behind her, Nourata could see that the skin on her right shoulder blade had been assaulted so badly that the underlying muscle was exposed, reminding her of Cheikh’s skinny dog after he lost a fight.  The girl turned back and handed her a bright red flower.

“I found this for you, on the way,” she said, sniffling.  Nourata took it, breathing deeply, afraid to look back at her sister.

“Ami…what happened?  What happened to you?”  She heard her sister sigh. 

“Father…he, he thought you knocked over a pot of soup on the fire.”  As she spoke, Aminata reached down and tenderly touched a raised patch of skin on Nourata’s cheek; she felt a sudden flash of pain.  “It’s okay,” her sister whispered soothingly as Nourata squirmed.

“I don’t understand,” said Nourata.  “If he thought I knocked it over, why are you hurt?”  Aminata smiled down at her sister.  “It’s okay, Nou, it’s not important right now.”  Nourata looked up at her sister to protest, but Aminata shook her head, and the look of heartbreak that stole into her sister’s eyes stopped her.  Infused with anguish, they turned a familiar honey-brown, and Nourata caught her breath although she struggled to remember where she had last seen those eyes. 

Nourata’s gaze fell to her sister’s blouse; in stark contrast to the normal loose t-shirts that her sister normally wore, brown and faded from dirt and sweat, she found herself gazing in delight at a nicely cut top with a few frills around the neckline.  The most remarkable part of the outfit was the color, however, and Nourata’s gaze followed the bright blues and yellows as they dove and bounded amongst one another, dancing their way around the shirt in a large swirling pattern.  Aminata followed her sister’s stare.

“I wanted to look my best for you, Nou,” she said, her voice cracking as her eyes moistened.  Nourata looked back up at her sister, and then around them, realizing she had forgotten to account for their surroundings.

“Ami, where are we?” she asked, concluding that they were actually in a field.  Aminata exhaled abruptly, impending tears threatening to force her throat closed.

“I…I didn’t know what else to do, Nou.  I asked father to take you to the clinic, but he said no.  And then I asked that he let me take you, but he refused to give me one of the donkeys; he said he needed them in the fields.  So…so, I carried you.  I thought I could find someone to help us on the road, because it is so far…I couldn’t.  And I thought I could take you farther, but…I kept falling down.  I’m so sorry, I…please Nou, I can’t lose you, what can I do?  Tell me, please, what should I do!”  Nourata felt the sun’s burning dissipate and saw shadows racing across the field.  Leaning her head back, she stared up at the sky, watching as dark clouds stormed in, moving like an army unit invading a post.  She smiled inwardly, thanking the clouds.

“I brought the rain, Ami,” she whispered, looking back into her sisters eyes.  “I went and I found it and I told it to come because we needed it, because it couldn’t forget us anymore.  Because you need it.”  Nourata breathed in deeply the musky odor that always preceded rain, felt the first few drops splatter onto her legs and ground next to her. 

“I need you, Nou,” her sister whispered, choking.  “Nou, you’re all I have.  You give my life a reason.  You’re the only person I want to see when I wake up and when I go to sleep.  I can’t be here without you; please, don’t leave me.”  Aminata began weeping, and her tears splashed thickly onto Nourata’s face, cooling the fiery sensation in her cheek.  Above, a clap of thunder sounded and the rain started to fall forcefully, quickly soaking through the clothes of the two girls.  Nourata held the red flower close to her chest, and felt her sister intertwine her fingers into her other hand.  She looked up at her one more time.

“I love you, Ami,” she said.

“I love you too, Nou.”   

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