Until a few weeks ago, I had three host sisters. But one weekend, Nene, after a visit to nearby Guinea, had a little 5-year-old clinging to her side. She was introduced to me as my tokora, one who has the same name. And like that, a little sister was added to my ever-growing family.
I give her a friendly smile and wave.
“Tokora!” I exclaim.
She backs away from me and hides behind the shelter of my mother’s long pink cotton skirt. I wonder if I am the first foreigner she has ever seen.
The next morning, before heading off to my apprenticeship at the local health post, I notice my little tokora sitting all alone on a rock in the middle of the compound. She has her knees in her arms, giving me the kind of stare you give to an enemy of war. There’s no one else around, so I think it would be nice to get her something to do while the family is off running errands, at school, or at work. I run back to my hut and grab a box of Crayola and hastily rip a few sheets of lined paper from a notebook. I plop down next to her, and start drawing a simple flower. I glance up to see her eyes following my hands – a stem, a leaf, a smily sun. The enemy-of-war look has gone from her face.
Anita Chen, you genius, I think.
I finish my sketch and offer her a crayon.
She’s still as a statue.
“Mi wawata desine” she says, she looks down and shakes her head. I can’t draw.
If there’s one thing I can’t stand in a kid, it is self-doubt – the life coach side of me comes out.
“A wawi! A wawi ekitaade.” I refute. You can do it! You can learn! I try my best to encourage her to try.
I continue to hold out the crayon for her and look at her, determined.
Suddenly, she bursts into tears and starts wailing at the top of her lungs.
My big sister comes running into the compound, “What happened?”
In the Pular I know I try to explain how I will never be a life coach now. I’ve ruined everything!
“Ahhh… I don’t know… I tried to teach… coloring. Tokora. Cry. I don’t know. Ahhh! Sorry.”
I head over to the river to wash clothes with my mom. My lil’ Tokora continues to eye me warily. I decide I must prove my worth as a Pular woman by slapping my clothes against the rocks as hard as I can, the way my Nene taught me.
I leave for my cohort’s first training seminar up North and say goodbye to my family, including my little sister.
“See you in a week!”
“See you!” She offers a small wave.
It’s a little victory. Maybe I’m getting somewhere.
Ami, another one of my little sisters, welcomes me home.
During the training seminar, I had picked up a few Senegalese dance moves and I’m excited to show Ami. My tokora is there too.
Perfect, I think. A chance for me to earn some street cred with this kid.
Time to get serious. I kick off my flip flops and mentally prepare myself.
With the most stone faced expression I can muster, I squat with arms out, the starting position of my artistic piece, and perform the movements I had learned. For the parts of the choreography I don’t remember I substitute in “the shopping cart” and “raise the roof” – moves done only by the real professionals like myself, and I go at it with all the grace of a dead frog.
Before long, the neighborhood kids, Ami, and I are all boogie-ing to music that we make. My lame attempts at beat-boxing and repeating the only line I know from this one Pulaar song seem to amuse them. My little tokora laughs like crazy and soon joins in on the dancing too. Score.
Street Cred: +10
The nights here are starting to get pretty chilly, and because my little tokora traveled from Guinea with little more than the clothes on her back, she doesn’t have any warmer layers. After dinner, I notice she has her arms wrapped around her in an attempt to keep warm.
“Are you cold?,” I ask, putting the back of my hand to her arm.
I offer her the navy blue zip-up hoodie I brought from home. She takes it hesitantly and fumbles around with the jacket, confused by the zipper – I forget that she is only five.
“Let me help,” I turn her around pull her arms through, zip her up, and place the hood over her head – it falls and droops over her eyes and little nose. The jacket hangs low on her, she pushes the hood up and pokes her hands out of the sleeves that are too long for her.
Later, the whole family spends the night indoors, drawing heat from coals left over from cooking dinner. While I’m reading, Tokora flops down on the bed next to me.
“Are you tired?”
She shakes her head no.
“Well, I’m sooooo tired. Goodnight.”
I pretend to be asleep and snore obnoxiously – this elicits a few giggles.
After about twenty seconds worth of an Oscar-winning performance, I pop my head up.
“Now I’m awake…. Now I’m sleeping… Awake! Sooo tired.”
We keep playing this game, which turns into a tickle battle, and joke with each other until she falls asleep in my arms. By this time, the Great Tickle War of 2015 has drained me of energy and I decide to get back to my own bed. I wriggle out of her grasp as discreetly as possible, as so not to wake her.
As I come back from my apprenticeship – tired, a little frustrated – I hear a familiar voice.
“Jaja, arti! Jaja, arti!” Tokora chants. Big sister has returned! Big sister has returned!
A grin breaks across my face, I am filled with joy. We run to each other and I embrace her in a big bear hug.
I’m laid out on a straw mat under our mango tree, trying to read.
She rakes her sticky fingers through my hair.
“Hey, stop that!,” I snap.
This goes on for a couple minutes.
“Jajaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.” This means big sis.
“Ko hondun, tosoko?”
What is it, little one?
I almost let myself get really annoyed, but then I remember that a sibling’s not a sibling until they successfully get on your nerves.
So I annoy her back.