I first began to respect solitude in Bankass, the village on the edge of the Sahara, in central Mali, in which I lived for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. At that time, there were no wireless anythings – no WiFi, no, tablets, no Bluetooth, and certainly no smartphones. This was the late 90’s, well when that technology was just growing among consumers.
Early in the morning, just after morning prayer, you could hear radios in the distance, men roaming around in the dark with their personal transistors. AM, FM and shortwaves, men would just go for a morning constitution. In case you’re unaware, outside of the light pollution of cities, the world can be pitch-dark. Yet even then, the fuzzy buzz of short-waves roamed around in the pre-dawn.
I had one, too, a rather swanky, handheld short-wave radio, the final gift from my godfather as I left America. That’s how I got hooked on BBC Worldservice. Outside of music, short-wave BBC was the only English I’d hear in any given day. Plus, I had my own CD player and a portable-enough collection of favorites. There I was, alone in my hut with the bootleg CD’s of the latest hits I’d obtained in shops in the regional capital, Mopti, half-a-day away by bush taxi. Janet’s Velvet Rope and Madonna’s Ray of Light; in my solitude.
Luckily, music was everywhere. It was young people wanting to understand Hip-Hop that got me to teaching English in the village school. Even back in training camp, boys my age called on me to translate and explain the poetic lyricism of Bob Marley, and I was only a nascent fan back then. Still, young people there fully expected me to speak knowingly about that music, first in French, then in Bambara, too. To help my own French, I got my friend Ali to break down Black So Man to me man to man, line by line, and eventually graduated to singing in Bambara.
As I am not Muslim, I did not rise with the pre-dawn call to prayer; this mesmerizing chant soothed me into a morning daze. What an awakening! And then I’d drift off back to sleep. Shortly thereafter, I’d hear the men roaming around the village with their radios. Then after that, I knew the kids would show up.
Just after morning prayer and breakfast, a group of boys – aged around 6-8 – would show up at my doorstep, knocking on my window, unable to conceive that any adult would sleep past morning prayer. “Moussa, Moussa,” they’d call out to me, using the name I’d been given by my host family in our training village. Enjoying the company and not wanting to disappoint, I would rise to their calls like clockwork. What would be this morning’s adventure before the kids were off to school? Could we tend to my meager garden which paled in comparison to the crops of millet their parents grew? Or perhaps, we could go fetch a few buckets of water at the local robinet, faucets of underground water, pumped into a tower, and sold for cheap in every neighborhood, compliments of the German government. Being the godson of Dan Massie, anyone who came around me had to be put to work – we could support each other in whatever needed to be done. Mind you, this was Dogon country, and so all the kids spoke Fulani and a few local Dogon dialects. Like me, they mostly learned Bambara in a classroom, not at home, so we were on the same level. Communication was fluid. Plenty of solitude, but I was never lonely.