Two things happened while I was sharing the frothy poyo with Pa Koroma (he was right--it really was sweet today). First, a little girl of perhaps three tottered over to us, dressed only with a tiny gold-colored earring in her right ear, pointed at me, and said, Pisko!, that is, Peace Corps. This happened all the time in the beginning, but by now I expected everyone in the village to call me by my name. So I asked her what her name was and I told her mine. I feel embarrassed now to admit that I was irritated by that incident (she's so young, after all); I guess anything that threatens my notion that I have been accepted into this community is upsetting. This is absurd, of course: I am and never will be even close to becoming a Temne. I may learn their language, their culture, the way they eat fufu, the art of tie-dyeing gara, even the rituals of the secret society, but my memories, the mythology of the self, will never be Temne. But enough of that. The other thing that happened was that the stupid dog was nearly run over by Alhaji Bangura's blue Mazda lorry ("TO BE A MAN IS NOT EASY"), which came teetering around the bend, the usual cargo of about thirty market women coming back from town and the daily-special load on top (looked like sacks of Chinese black market rice along with a couple of tied-down goats), emitting a painful, explosive noise with every rut as if it were going over a field of boulders. The dog staring straight into the nose of the onrushing vehicle (Alhaji only slows down for goats and children), the hoarse horn sounding two staccato gbips, the dog still lying prone on the dry clay, staring, then a blue roar, a red storm of dust, settling, settling, the dog now panting, eyes still staring straight down the road.
I've brought my stool over to the side of my house where Kadiatu is pounding cassava leaves. Her lean, powerful arms drive the pestle up and down, the cassava releasing that sharp, minty odor, up and down, her knees bending slightly inside her threadbare lappa, her tired breasts drooped and trembling. Kadi is thirty, a mother seven times over, a mother in mourning seven times over. It was only last week that her latest child, Brima, died. The illness manifested itself three weeks ago when the mild temperature and coughing that he was suffering from suddenly escalated to severe vomiting and a 40-deg C fever. At that point Kadi came to beg me for some aspirin which I grudgingly doled out thinking that she was using Brima as an excuse for her usual headaches. By the time she came again to fetch me, fear was swimming in her eyes, her Temne words pitched high as kora strings.
Inside Kadi's house I found Brima wrapped in country cloth, lying sideways on the prayer mat, his neck bent way back as if he were trying to look out the window--the classic meningitis symptom. He was still conscious, but he would not respond to my words. I immediately prepared to take Kadi and Brima to the hospital in Makeni, a four-hour trip on my motorbike.
Kadi has stopped the pounding to say something to me. She says she has found a wife for me. Every week she finds me a new wife, usually a girl of thirteen or fourteen, newly initiated into Kadi's secret society. I tell her I have a "wife" na America, but she doesn't buy that at all. Sontehm yu fo get Temne uman we yu de deh na Temne lan. You should have a Temne wife while you live in Temne country.
The doctor in Makeni told me right away that Brima's chances were slim. Soon after the first injections of ampicillin he slipped into a coma. When I told Kadi that the doctor could not help Brima, she insisted quietly but with absolute conviction that she had to take him back to the village to see the witch doctor. The next day I drove them back.
Kadi and Brima were in the bush for three whole days. I never asked her what the witch doctor did to Brima, but when they came back from the bush Brima was definitely at the brink. After two more days I heard the piercing, rhythmic wail of ritual mourning emanating from the house next door.
Kadi has now built a three-stone fire; she places a sooty pot on top and pours in palm oil from a Pepsi bottle. Next she throws in pounded peppers and onions. That filthy mutt has stealthily crept closer to the handful of smoked river fish that Kadi is about to throw into the pot. Kadi and the dog are looking at each other. She quickly grabs the fish and deposits them into the bubbling oil. The dog looks at her for a moment, then lies down on the ground, staring at the steaming pot.
The sun is low in the sky. To the north, the horizon is a soupy yellow like good old L.A. smog--the harmattan must be starting to blow from the Sahara. Soon I will get my brief respite from the interminable humidity. And everyone else will complain to me about how their skin is cracking from the dryness.