Wednesday, January 31 8:30 a.m.
It’s market day at Dongol Touma and Hassan and most of the population of Douki is on their way there. I thought about going along but decided to stay here. I’ll be cycling to Dongol Touma when I leave Douki anyway. I may even spend a night or two there. I know that if I took one of my precious days here in my Fula Hut and spent it out there in the world I’d regret it. And Hassan, for all my appreciation of his ability to speak English and his infectious excitement about this area is a bit omnipresent. I find myself hiding from him and distancing myself. It hasn’t been a real problem but certainly “my” private hut that I was so excited about at the beginning hasn’t turned out exactly as I’d hoped. Hassan and his brother have been around so much that I never did get that delicious sense of ownership I was hoping for. Both of them seem to sleep here when they don’t have guests staying and the first two days they were parading in and out retrieving things they needed like toothbrushes and razors. Hassan also needs his “Big B.C.” and comes over with a kettle to heat water on the propane stove. His family cooks over wood fires and it’s much more difficult of course to boil water if you need to start a fire first. Plus Hassan’s brother is in the habit of retreating to the hammock here when he wants to get away from it all. Thus they tend to hang out outside the hut and when I use the hammock I tend to wonder if I’m inconveniencing them. And in a general sense I don’t have the feeling of freedom to do exactly as I please. They know when I wake up, when I close the door to the hut, when I open it, when I go to the latrine, when I wash and shave, where I sit, what I’m doing and so I don’t feel at my ease to indulge my stranger whims and habits, for example having nothing but coffee and bread and cheese for a whole day or eating spaghetti with nothing but a plain can of tomato paste. Food and eating has always been more of an annoyance for me than anything else and I like to keep it simple. (“K.I.S.S. man!” Hassan would call back.)
Actually they’ve been feeding me and it appears that is part of the deal in staying in the Fula Hut. It’s convenient I suppose but it’s also another intrusion. It’s something we have to talk about and discuss and it involves plates and bowls and other things. I’ve slowly been pulling back and preparing my own meals but that requires a lot of discussion and well intentioned efforts on their part to “help” me. It’s difficult for a simple eater like me to keep to himself in this land of plenty.
I don’t mean that as a joke. This land is incredibly fertile and I’m constantly being surprised by what’s growing here. “Here’s a fig tree. There’s a grove of orange trees. The banana plantation is over there. Those are peanuts and cassava. In a month all those mangoes will be ripe. Don’t those papayas look good? These are cashews. Try this fresh honey.” And then there are the fruits I don’t recognize.
For his part I think Hassan is a bit puzzled and perhaps a bit disturbed by my laid back approach to the Douki experience. Despite his endless slogans like “T.Y.T.” (Take your time) and “T.I.C.” (Take it cool) he does anything but. He likes to keep moving. But my pace is just right for me. Every day I throw my net just a little bit wider and my Douki becomes a little bit bigger.
And so far the Douki experience hasn’t let me down. My big afternoon event after hiking to the grotto was to go with Hassan to the village pump to get water. I was surprised both at the number of houses we passed to get there and how beautiful they were. Most were a couple sizes bigger than mine and the outsides were smoothly plastered with meltugol (the mud and cow dung mixture) and then painted with colorful lines around the base of the walls and door frames. Some had elaborate designs carved into the smooth and hard mud used to make steps and floors. These are totally destroyed every year by the rains and are made again.
The pump was a large concrete affair constructed by UNICEF complete with a built in gravel and sand filter. The pumping mechanism consisted of round foot pedals and at Hassan’s instructions I took off my shoes and socks and climbed up onto the two cement blocks. There was a steel bar in front shaped somewhat like a bicycle handlebar and I held onto it for support. With my right foot I hooked the round top of the plunger and pulled it up as far as it would go. Then I put my foot on top and using my body weight and muscle strength pushed it down. At the bottom of the stroke it hit a large orange rubber ring placed there as a cushion. The pumping force I was creating pushed the rod back up and I pushed it down again. After two or three strokes water started to gush out of a large showerhead. This showerhead sat high on top of a stack of three concrete shelves. Hassan said they were part of the filtration process but I couldn’t see what they would accomplish. Each shelf was made with gravel and concrete and was porous so the water went straight through. But it went through so fast it wasn’t clear to me what it could be filtering out. The water then collected in a basin. A pipe went out of the bottom of the basin and gravity fed into a sealed concrete tank with a tap coming out of one side. Hassan said there was sand and gravel inside the tank and that was the real filter. Every six months the tank had to be opened and the sand and gravel cleaned or replaced.
The system was a little counterproductive because it took a long time for the water to come out the other end and Hassan finally lost patience and simply placed his bucket directly under the showerhead. If all the people in Douki did the same thing then the entire filter was wasted money and effort. However, there was no question the filter worked at least as far as removing sediment and suspended dirt particles. Towards the end of my pumping, water finally did start to come out of the tap. Hassan then filled the bucket there and the water was sparkly and crystal clear while that collected directly from the showerhead was murky and cloudy.
My other foray into Douki was with Hassan to a scenic lookout point over the valley into which we’ll be hiking tomorrow. The path to the cliff edge took us through more of Douki village and past several more wonderful examples of traditional Fula houses. One or two were quite large and almost all were immaculate with groomed trails of red lava rock curving around and between. Hassan’s late father was the visionary behind these groomed pathways, a feature unique to Douki. As we walked Hassan introduced me to each of his father’s three wives and the members of these households. We also met the people at many of the other houses (including one woman who got a stern warning to keep her goat tied up – it had been eating the leaves from Hassan’s precious seedlings). They were all related and I quickly gave up trying to make sense of all the familial relationships. It was made even more complicated by the fact that the Fula had names for familial relationships that in the West we don’t have. (“Your uncle’s uncle is your grandfather,” Hassan said.) And the names with which I was familiar like brother, sister, cousin, even mother and father had various meanings and at times seemed interchangeable. I was left with only the vague understanding that everyone was related to everyone else. Hassan said this was partially because in Fula society it was accepted and very common for cousins to marry.
At the cliff edge we were faced with a steep and somewhat dangerous descent down what Hassan called the Indiana Jones trail. In the wet season he said it was better because the ground was sticky. But now in the dry season the trail was covered in dry grass and leaves and was incredibly slippery. There was nothing beside the trail but cliff and I was very aware that even the tiniest slip could have led to disaster. Hassan went ahead of me and removed various branches that weren’t secure. He was afraid that the dumb white guy would slip, grab one of these loose branches for support, and over the edge he’d go. The dumb white guy, however, was placing his feet very carefully and more often than not slithering along on his butt and all fours.
When we finally reached the rocky outcropping that was our goal the views took me by surprise. I thought it was the same valley we’d seen during the first hike but from here it seemed much larger and the cliffs steeper and more extensive. The valley floor was directly beneath us nearly a kilometre below. With Hassan’s binoculars I could watch the people in the villages pounding corn and walking around. The Fula huts in their village groupings looked like fields of squat brown mushrooms. A river threaded through the mushroom fields, visible as a ribbon of denser and brighter green growth. The air was thick with the dry season dust and Hassan bemoaned this lack of visibility but for me the misty reaches served to make the valley larger and more mysterious. I imagined King Kong out there in the mist scaling the cliffs one handed, the other clutching the scantily clad maiden.