Somewhere a Drum Waits for Me


Somewhere a drum waits for me.  I do not know how or when we will find each other. All I know is without my drum I feel bereft, as if I have only half a heart.


“Sorry to intrude on your thoughts, old boy, but there’s a crisis at the other end of the village.”

My head came up sharply as I stared at Magnus, silhouetted against the early morning light as he stood in the doorway of my hut.

I jumped to my feet and grabbed my bush hat off a hook on the wall. “What’s wrong?”

“Tell you on the way. Come!” 

I followed him out of the hut. As usual, I was already dressed although the sun was barely up, and luckily I’d already finished my breakfast of millet porridge and hibiscus tea. I say “luckily” because it would be many hours before I—or any of us, for that matter—would eat again. As we sprinted along the track through the village our sandals created little puffs of dust behind us, although today was only the last day of October. Dry season had arrived early this year.

“Well number five caved in early this morning,” Magnus said, between gasps for breath. “There’s already contamination from surface water because there’s no soak pit.”

“Damn!” was all I could find to say.

It was disheartening news because we’d been so close to achieving a successful project-year. Four of the five village wells had been lined, covered, and reinforced. We’d added pulleys to three of the wells to make drawing water easier and had just planned to start work on the fourth pulley. Now we’d have to throw all our resources to dealing with the disaster.

We arrived at the scene to find the members of the village water quality committee, as well as our work force, clustered round the well.

Iniche,” they greeted us.  “Good morning!  How are you?  Did you have a peaceful night?”

Iniche,” we responded. After we had completed the morning ritual of exchanging greetings, Magnus, face already sheened with moisture as the sun gathered strength, assessed the situation rapidly. “We’ll have to remove the caved-in soil, then reinforce the sides,” he said. “We need a soak pit to avoid future contamination of the well water. Will you do that while we work on the well itself?”

“Of course,” I said, nodding to Seydou and Drissa, two of the engineer assistants.

While work went forward on well number five, the three of us constructed a soak pit next to the well. After rainy season there were always pools of standing water to be found in various places around the village. To purify the water and send it underground—thereby reducing the possibility of malaria from mosquitoes that would otherwise breed there—it was necessary to dig a large hole, line it with rocks, and insert a pipe. The pit would be covered with a tarp and dirt so that all the wastewater would enter the pipe, trickle through the rocks, and enter the water table below.

Dry season in Mali is slightly cooler than rainy season, but even so we sweated gallons as we worked. Catching sight of a girl named Fadima who was watching us, I beckoned her over.

Evidently thrilled to be singled out for attention, she hurried to my side. For almost a year eleven-year-old Fadima had been watching us work whenever she could sneak away from minding her younger siblings or pounding millet with her older sisters. I asked her to bring us a bucket of purified water and a drinking cup.

“Of course, Alassane,” she said. “I’ll be back very soon.”

There’s a name I use in the daylight world, the world of passports and paychecks, of project management and professional colleagues. But here in the village they call me Alassane. In the Bambara language the name means “adventurous.” The people of the village thought it very strange that Magnus and I would leave our respective tribes and travel many miles from our own villages to live and work with them. 

Now that we’d been here nearly a year, we were no longer greeted by shouts of “Toubabu! (Stranger!) as soon as we stepped out of our huts. We had become part of village life. To be sure, the little ones still chortled when they crawled into our laps, marveling at our light eyes, our straight fair hair, so unlike their own rich, dark curls, and the beards we’d grown because shaving was just too much bother.

The day burned on but just as my team and I completed our work and prepared to leave, Fadima appeared again. “Please come and see my grandfather,” she begged.

Seydou, Drissa, and I looked at each other, raising our eyebrows. What was up?

It turned out that Mamadou, the grandfather, who’d been struck by river blindness in early adulthood, was experiencing increasing difficulty feeling his way to the communal latrine we’d built shortly after our arrival. After hearing his story, we three built him a latrine of his own, just outside his hut. We even included a little walkway to make it easier for him.

Mamadou was ecstatic. After we told him it was finished and guided him to the doorway, he did a little dance, thanking us profusely all the while.

By this time the other team had finished work on the well and were preparing to depart.

K’an si,” they said as they took their leave. “Good night!”

 “Let’s call it a day,” Magnus said, wiping his perspiring face with a bandanna. “Oh, for a cold beer!”

There would be beer, but it wouldn’t be cold. Although Mali is a Muslim country, it follows its own path: the consumption of millet beer is not forbidden, nor do the women veil themselves.

For this I was glad. The women of Mali are beautiful with their smooth dark glowing skins and bright eyes; the children, with their flashing white grins, equally so.

As Magnus and I walked back to our huts, the drumming that signaled the end of the workday began and we could smell smoke from the cookfires. What I wanted, even more than a beer, was a cold shower. But that, again, was not available.

Too tired to talk, Magnus and I retreated into our own thoughts. For me the project-year was about to end: next month would see me making my way to Bamako, the capital, for the last time. From Bamako I would take one plane to Paris, another to Washington, DC.

It had been a good year, one that helped me heal from a double blow. Right after Mabon a year ago I’d lost my job owing to “right-sizing,” as my employer referred to it. Hardly had I absorbed this fact than the apartment building I lived in caught fire. It was utterly ruined. I lost everything—clothes, furniture, laptop, and all my possessions, including my drum.

It was the loss of my drum I minded the most.  In my tradition of Witchcraft my drum is like my wand:  only I am permitted to touch it. It knows only my energy, not that of anyone else. It was no light matter to lose it. Heartsick, I had gone to the public library, used one of the computers to search for engineering jobs on line, and found one as a contract water and sanitation engineer here in Mali.

And now there would be a job, a well-paid one, waiting for me when I returned to the States. My overseas experience had made me a desirable commodity, it seemed. In the meantime, as most of my pay had been banked for me in the USA, I’d be going home to a nice little nest egg as well.

The thought did not delight me as much as it once would have. Living here in the village had taught me the absolute unimportance of most material possessions. Here I had no air conditioning, no running water, no electricity. My Malian friends would be considered excruciatingly poor in my country, but here in their own country they didn’t feel poor at all. They worked hard, enjoyed life, danced and made jokes, and would share whatever food they had, no matter how little.

To be sure, there were a few things I missed about the USA. The first thing I’d do on arriving back in the States would be to stand in the shower for ten minutes, reveling in the jets of hot water. But that would be my only indulgence; after a year of living in a country with very little water (and that not always clean), I would neither take running water for granted nor waste it when I had it. 

Reaching my hut, I waved farewell to Magnus, and grinned to think what my covenmates at home would say if they knew how I lived. I was about to wash using nothing but two buckets of tepid water—one for wetting and soaping myself, one for rinsing. Dinner would be more millet porridge, with peanut sauce this time, followed by slices of mango. 

After dinner I would join the villagers as they sang and danced to celebrate the end of another workday. The thought of celebrating reminded me that today was October 31st: Samhain would begin at sunset.

I gathered my towel, soap, and clean underclothes and went behind the hut to wash in the little enclosure I’d built for that purpose. It was roofless but had three walls and a door. We purified the water by pouring it into plastic jugs, capping them, placing the jugs on a  black-painted platform, and letting them sit in the sun for eight hours. After that, the water could be used for drinking or bathing.

Returning to my hut, I took a moment to let my eyes become accustomed to the interior dimness after the brightness of late afternoon. And then I saw it.

In the middle of the hut stood a djembe, the hourglass-shaped drum used in West Africa. How had it got there? Had someone entered the hut while I was performing my ablutions round the back?  But I hadn’t heard the dogs barking as they surely would if someone had come in, nor did anyone shout a greeting if they’d entered the hut. 

As my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, I stepped closer to examine it. It was a lovely piece of work, carved from lenke wood, with a drumhead of goatskin and ropes of twisted cowhide. Obviously, an antique drum.

Who wrought you, my beauty?  Whose hands punched the holes in your hide, stretched it over the frame, laced it tightly? Whose fingertips first made you sing? Whose hands first drew forth your deep tones?  

I sat down on the one stool my hut contained and pulled the djembe toward me. Cautiously, I tried out the bass, slap, and tone. All three rang clear and true, so I played a fast piece with a toe-tapping rhythm  my covenmates and I had used in sabbat rituals at home. When I stopped, pleased with the sounds I’d created, I sat back to consider what I would play next.

And then…every hair on my body stood on end and the very blood in my veins ran so cold my skin crawled with goosebumps.

The drum was playing itself.

“n tógó Hadaicha, djembefola,” the voice of the drum told me. “My name is Hadaicha, and I am the one who gives the drum its voice.”

As the drum continued to play softly a vision rose in my mind.  I could see Hadaicha as she was ninety years ago, beautiful in her brightly patterned boubou and matching turban. I watched as she selected the lenke wood, dried and twisted the oxhide strips, sat in front of the master craftsman as he carved the shell. When it was done, she gave the drum maker two goats and two chickens in payment. 

Through the months that followed her possession of the djembe, Hadaicha—hesitantly at first, then with growing proficiency—mastered the drum. She could make the djembe sing! People came from the surrounding villages to hear her play. Her husband and son were proud of her.

But then the poisonous whispers began. Hadaicha had gone against tribal custom.  She had broken the taboo that decreed only men could be djembefola.  My inner vision flashed to a scene in front of a hut where a group of angry men sat on the ground, working themselves into a rage.

“It’s not right!”

“Women cannot play the djembe!

“A woman must look after her husband and his sons!”

“She broke the custom of the tribe!”

“She is a Witch and should be punished!”

“We will burn the Witch!  She shall no longer live among us and go against the natural order!”

The scene faded into nightfall as the light of a campfire shone on the faces of men who took up flaming torches and ropes and began to march to Hadaicha’s hut.

Through the open doorway Hadaicha saw and heard them but she kept on drumming. She drummed and drummed until her hands and back were sore. As the men approached the door the drumming stopped.

They came to arrest Hadaicha and drag her off to an unpleasant death but they found only an empty shell of a woman, smiling at a sight they could not see.

Hadaicha’s soul had entered the drum. When they came for her she was no longer of this world.

In my own hut the sound of the drumming sank into the background as sobs shook my body. I wept for Hadaicha, who hadn’t been allowed to live to see her son grow up and have children of his own. I wept at the unfairness of a society that refused to recognize her musical gift and persecuted her for displaying her talent. And I wept for the Goddess in every woman, so long and so cruelly denied.

At last I could cry no more.  As I sat in the darkness struggling to regain control of myself, the drum spoke again, softly.

“Who touches me with love shall become my partner and together we will be djembefola.”

Then I smiled. I stood up, dried my eyes, picked up the stool with my left hand and tucked Hadaicha under my right arm. We marched out to the center of the village to join the evening drumming and soft laughter around the campfire.

I sat down and played Hadaicha, and as I did a new vision arose in my mind, of the foundation I would establish when I went back home: a foundation that would provide scholarships so girls like Fadima could study to be sanitary engineers, and talented women like Hadaicha could learn to be djembefola.


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