November 18th 2015
I held on to the metal bar above my head and watched the deep orange earth fly by me; our driver was pushing this truck as hard as it would go, occasionally the exhaust would squirt out black but we moved on fast enough that I barely had time to register the foul smell. We were on the road to Ibel. This was my third time being jostled and bumped along next to my fellows in the back of a pickup heading to Ibel, my village, my site placement – my names for the place we were heading varied along that same thread.
That day it wasn’t my first time (I knew we were close), and I wasn’t returning after a week of desperately bonding with other fellows after our trial week; I was returning after just a short weekend away, a meeting with the rest of my fellows. The phrase “coming home” rested, perhaps not on the tip of my tongue, but within that general vicinity. But it wasn’t quite right, “my village” felt more comfortable than “home”, and it was a step up from just “Ibel”.
We had just dropped off Abby in the neighboring village, Bandifassy, I was next. We can drop Abby off right by the gate to her compound, but in Ibel the chauffeur drops me on the side of the road and I do a little bushwhacking up a hill to reach my compound. I was just trying to decide whether it would be better if my family to be able to see me coming like Abby’s can, when we zoomed past a large group of colorful women.
The truck suddenly slowed down and pulled to the side of the road. The woman, skirts flying, holding on to babies and head scarfs, ran toward the truck. We quickly pushed ourselves down the seats as women swung in, a flutter of orange fabric here, a women in deep blue pushing in next to Anita.
Suddenly, I was passed my baby cousin to hold and several women around me called out “Nali Jam, Safi!”. Nali Jam literally means, “Are you spending the day in peace?”, it’s the typical afternoon greeting with the typical response “Jam tun”. But in that moment when I replied “Jam tun”, “peace only”, I was being honest, not just following a pattern.
This was not an anonymous group of beautifully dressed women walking in the hot afternoon sun on a dirt road in Africa. These were my women, my fellow Ibel ladies; there was my Aunt Binta, perched on the edge of the truck and there was the neighbor who’s always first to get water from the well, and about fifteen other familiar faces all squished in with me on the back of a truck once again hurtling down the road.
When we reached the particular piece of road side that,for the chauffeur’s purposes, marks my front door, I barely had a moment to say goodbye to my fellows I was so swept up in the tide of Ibel women. I walked up the hill to my compound side by side with my Aunt, her son now strapped to her back with a length of fabric. The sky was growing dark blue as we discussed the meeting the women’s economic group had attended in Dindefello.
I entered the gate to cheers from my siblings and cousins, “Safi arti!” (“Safi came back!”). And I had, I had come back, and I had come home. I sat comfortably on the bench under our tree, playing with my siblings, smiling up at my Nenee, and feeling fully comfortable.
It’s been almost a month since I experienced the first “this is home” realization. Since then what with working and weekly bike rides to Bandifassy and back, I get to experience that thrill almost every day. It never gets old, it only grows stronger.
Today, as I walked through the front gate my brother Moussa Ba sang out “Safi!!” at the top of his lungs and ran at me, swinging his arms around me as high as his little four year old body could go, and putting his chin on my belly, looked up and said “Saf – I!”, stuffing both syllables full of joy and voice.
Each week, I ride my bike to Bandifassy and back for Pularr lessons. I fly along that same stretch of road I first watched zoom under me two months ago, and again at the beginning of November, except now I’m looking up. I’m watching the mountains, waiting to see the hill’s descent, the place I can stop pushing the pedals and soar easily into Ibel, easily home.