Friday, July 21, 2006


Dembele, my nineteen year old houseboy , is actually much more than a houseboy. The sort of ‘upstairs downstairs’ arrangement I had in Rwanda and Burundi and Papua New Guinea nearly thirty years ago is not at all suitable or relevant here. Besides, I have no friends apart from those close to me in my daily life. Dembele comes to sit with me most nights and I teach him English, he teaches me Bambara and we talk about life, his dreams and fears about the future.
Also , he only works for me a couple of hours a day. He does my cleaning and washes my clothes. He also does bogolan for me since he used to work for Pama, and still does now and then. But he is also an accountancy student.
Dembele plays basket ball- he is tall and angular with most elegant long limbs and fingers. His fine, sensitive features and intelligent eyes sparkle with humour and he never stops teasing the long stream of young girls that pass through the courtyard back and forth to the well. At the same time he tries to tell me he never speaks with girls. I tell him he is a 'grand menteur'. Dembele pretends that he is only defending himself - how can he not reply to all those girls who torment him all day long? He is a charming mixture of youth and innocence -a virgin and very pure and religious, he prays five times a day- at the same time I can already see the wise, kind old man he will one day become. His father , in his late seventies, is just one such: the tall, elegant, grand old man with his long white 'boubou' and his white cap seems a prefigure of Dembele in 2060, perhaps.

Dembele is in love with one of his ‘tormentors’ by the well. The appropriately named Nana, a curvaceous young cocotte who understands her sexual power and uses it expertly to strip poor Dembele of all his considerable composure and dignity. He tells me that when she walks past and she calls his name he feels his heart become frightened and he cannot breathe. He has confessed to her that he cannot sleep at night for thinking of her, to which she just burst out laughing and replied: ‘what concern is that of mine‘? He thinks she doesn’t love him because she treats him so badly. All the same, I have noticed how she has now taken to pretending to visit me in the early evenings, so that she will be able to pop in. Clearly I am of no interest to her whatsoever, and I have assured Dembele that she wants to see him, although she pretends not to, and that all is not lost. However, since she is already engaged to someone else, and Dembele is of the wrong tribe anyway, the match seems doomed.
Flirting is definitely a well-developed skill here. The children flirt from early toddler stage, keenly and correctly aware of their cuteness, and of the power it wields. The young flirt and the old flirt- I have not noticed any diminishing in the flirting instinct in women even significantly older than I am. Even Boubakar’s and Oumar’s grandmother , at a venerable age of at least eighty was flirting with Oumar’s friend Ishmael, who flirted back gamely. The flirtations are mainly teasing- Africans tease each other endlessly, and laugh easily. Poor Dembele is never -endingly teased about me- is he going to marry me? To which he replies that I am his new mother. Everyone insults each other- Dembele tells me in front of a young girl that he cannot even look at her because she is so 'vilaine'. She tuts and throws her lovely head nonchalantly back, spitting contemptuously through the gap in her front teeth while she barely deigns to waste a withering glance on Dembele, then she shrugs and walks off with all the grace and superiority of the Queen of Sheba. Fulani women are very cruel and very beautiful.

So does romantic love exist here? I might have to modify last week’s opinion. Perhaps it is even more romantic than the slow, complicated build-up of emotions and circumstances normally required in Europe before such a state is arrived at, if ever. Indeed, love at first sight seems to be the norm here. Oumar, Boubakar the weaver’s brother is a potter who is now making me a chess set. He told me yesterday that he was in love with a young Fulani potter girl from Mopti. He knew her name, he knew she was nineteen and he knew she had noticed him too. Although he had never spoken to her he was intending to ask Boubakar, in his position as elder brother and head of the family to approach the girl’s father to ask for her hand.
While he was talking about her I swear he was blushing, if only it were possible to notice on black skin. He became all coy and was wriggling uncomfortably on his stool in a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment which seemed to me rather endearing and unusual in someone of the age of thirty. I reflected that my Dogon guide boy was ten years younger, but already a cynic, for whom love was a commodity like everything else.
But then the effect was rather spoiled when Oumar the potter walked me back home across the dusty square before the Grand Mosque as night fell: he suddenly told me he loved me! I smiled and said I liked him very much, I was very pleased we had met, and very happy that he was making me a chess set.

So love is a confusing thing here. I think Oumar may well have felt some sort of momentary affection for me-clearly also inspired by the fact that I am fabulously rich in his eyes. Posted by Picasa


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