I kept pedaling. Speeding past the soccer players, I answered calls of, “Mrs. How are you?” and “Nali Jam!”. Today I was not going push the bike up that little hill right before the compound – today I was pedaling. Why did I always get off the bike once I was off road? I ducked under the tree’s low hanging branches. That last push up the hill – there’s the gate!
I stop short. The turn into the gate was too sharp. Handle bars, slightly turned, I’m framed for a moment in our front gate. And suddenly a cry: “Bravo!” my Baaba cheers out, “Bravo Safi! Bravo!” Mari Ba echoes.
Rama is rushing towards me, “Safi, Safi velo!”. She takes my bike, the handle bars are just above her shoulders but she steers it safely into the far guest soodu.
I exchange greetings with my family and Rama runs back to me, her face lit up.
“Let’s go to Nenee Seera’s there’s a celebration there,” she tells me.
“Okay, but I have to bath first,” I say; perspiration sticks my tank top to my back and my legs are stained orange from the dirt road.
Rama nods and rushes off to get the bucket, “I’ll get the water for you,” she says speeding past down towards the well. The flash of her smile, round mouth with a couple of big front teeth, stays in my eyes for a moment.
I bring my soap out and stand in my towel watching her down the hill. Her small frame swings back and forth as her back arches pulling the bucket up out of the deep well.
Ramatou Ba is eight, going on nine. She has high cheek bones and searching eyes. Her skin is beautifully dark and will shine a rich purple in the right light. She holds her head high and proud. She is reserved and mature, with her small pointed chin held up she can suffer any hurt, remain strong despite the odds.
This is her guard, her front, and she does very well by it. At eight going on nine she is being trained up for womanhood and held to high levels of expectation. She takes the challenge very well; but when I think of Rama I think of when the front breaks from ecstasy and joy; I think of the flash of a crooked smile, hands clapping in excitement.
This afternoon, when I walked out of my hut ready for my ride to Bandifassy, I could hear Rama and Moussa down the path. Rama was pushing my bike out for me, Moussa was rolling his tire along behind her. At the path that cuts through the bush to the road, they stopped. I swung on the bike and rode off being chased by calls of “Safi! Safi! Byebye! Bon Voyage! En Kiikiiday!”, I’d turn my head for a moment and see their little hands waving away.
Whenever Rama and I are pounding corn together, she will look up at me every two minutes and command, “Are you tired? Rest! Stop! Rest!”. I’ll tell her I’m not tired and a few minutes later, “Rest! If you’re tired rest!”. This will go on until I am tired and do stop. Then she’s won.
I used to feel a little insulated, I’m a capable human being, after all. “If you don’t want me to help, I won’t,” I’d say.
But I began to piece a few things together and started to figure Rama out. Rama wasn’t saying I couldn’t pound corn, she was trying to protect me from fatigue and rough hands. All those times Rama would whisper audibly to Moussa or Mari to give me a piece of their bonbon; how she’ll watch me as my eating slows down and always turns away from the bowl when I do, urging me to eat more; the shy and excited smile she’ll flash when I grin at her as she sits next to me; it all has led me to one conclusion.
What I’ve found is this: Rama loves me as much as I love her. And that’s a whole darn lot.
Coming to that realization made me open my eyes a little to the way love is shown here. You’d be shocked to hear a proclamation of love here. There’s safety and happiness in the perfected normalcy: precise and repetitive greetings, constant contact with your family and others in the village, and everyone dividing their days in the same. The serenity would be broken with something as direct as a statement of deep emotion. “Happy”, “very happy”, “not happy”, and “very not happy”, are quite enough. Even the response to “Diarama”, “thank you”, is “Awa” which means “I am in agreement with you”.
But I learned to listen closely: how long did they draw out “Awa”, did the word rise and fall like a beautiful song? When I greet my grandmother, I feel how the handshake lingers, how she’s simply holding me. I fall into laughter watching how one person calling me to come in and dance, becomes a raging chorus: “Safi! Come! Dance! Dance!” And I’m charmed watching my little sister tilt her head urge me to eat more, “Beydu! Beydu! Beydu seeda!”
Love is in all those moments, and so many others. Love is in the little actions. It can always be found if you open your eyes a little wider, and let someone guide you to the understanding.