Volume 24, Number 1

A Well Away

Bradford Philen

“We have to seal it,” Chongoman Keita said in his mother tongue, Bedik. Deep and wise wrinkles marked his forehead, which looked as sacred as the baobab trees and rolling hills of the surrounding land.

“Yes,” Salif agreed. His voice drifted.

Bedik was slowly being washed away by the surge of French, Wolof, and even English. The youth left for work and opportunity, abandoning subsistence existence. TV and the Internet, that box that provided answers, sat in the back of everyone’s mind with angst and anxiety. The people of Choba anticipated a drastic change in life. And soon. The village of Landé, a few hours away by bicycle, had received a grain grinder that operated not by manual labor, but by oil.

“This water is tainted and cursed,” Chongoman, the headman of the village Choba, said, speaking only with Salif, his friend of many moons, in confidence.

“Yes, but, Djenaba will be sad and angry.”

“Sadness and happiness are one in the same. We have to deal with this now. We will bury her daughter later in the week. I’ll tell Djenaba tomorrow, first, and then tell our people.”

The sun was setting. The day had been hot. A smell of smoke from burning wood hovered over Choba along with the echoing thuds of women and young girls pounding millet. Chongoman and Salif retrieved the well bucket. Their mirrored shadows moved in the reflection in the water one last time.

* * *

Chongoman Keita was in his 15th year as headman of Choba, some 10 miles from the tar road and over 50 miles from Kedougou, the regional capital. Though some controversy had existed while he had been headman, there was no break in ties between the villagers that the Bees did not mend. Time and the Bees mended all. For the Bedik, the Bees were of utmost importance. Honey harvested profit for trade, but, more importantly, protection from the evil spirits that passed through the lands.

The Bees stung when Alfa Yaya, the Fula Emperor of the 19th century Labé, rid the Bedik of their strong men for slaves and their children and women for prizes in his kingdom. The wise elders of Choba and the surrounding villages were slaughtered. Yaya and his men then returned to the nearby Guinea highlands. In an act of absolution to rid their village of the devil spirits, the people of Choba sacrificed 18 of their youth. All at once their necks were slit. The people watched in silence. It had to be done, the land told them. Blood spilled in the calabashes before them. Then, the blood, crimson and thick, splashed on the baobab bark and spilled along the rocks below the baobab that birthed their village. When Yaya returned for further pillaging, the Bees attacked and stung. They swarmed and he, the evil Yaya, left for good. Choba was then safe. The Bees saved them, and then Time healed their hearts.

Then there were the missionaries. They arrived with a different charge and temperament. Alfred and Hans were the first to arrive to Choba. They were of the Protestant faith. The French Catholics went to villages further east and north to establish parishes so Choba was the only feasible option before crossing into the Fouta Djallon. They were slow to preach the Gospel. Very slow. Language was their strength and was their way to connect with the heathen locals. They spoke of writing a book in Bedik and Wolof that was, as they said, the most important property to own. It held miracles, they said. It had the answers to questions of morality, they said.

Jean-Baptiste, then known only by his birth name Ngolo, was quite the linguistic, too. He soaked up words and could manipulate sounds, gestures, even facial expressions.

“Choba ist gut?” he said one day. Hans and Alfred laughed and then it began. Surrounded by Bedik, the learning curve was much greater for the pale visitors.

They shared stories with one another. Alfred was the talker, while Hans was the broad shouldered Gaul. Alfred talked non-stop, Ngolo thought. Ngolo was mortified that their leader, this Jesus, came back to life. “Our land gives and takes life, too,” he said.

“Yes, sure it does. But, Jesus Christ is the maker and master of all,” Alfred said.

“Like Allah?”

“You believe in Allah?”

“No,” Ngolo said. “But a man who did once tried to break our people. Our land brought our life back.”

“Yes, but Allah, my friend, is no Jesus Christ.”



“And your Jesus is no match for our land, mein freund,” Ngolo said.

“Maybe not today, but with prayer, the infidels will perish.”

They went back and forth with their proud claims and the homemade beer, made of millet and sorghum. Loosening his words sip by sip, Hans, the Gaul, proposed a friendly wager. “Let us prove to you, Ngolo, that Jesus Christ is the Almighty, and then, let us baptize you and your wife.”

“You mean, my wives?”

“Yes, of course. Your wives.”

“How will you prove this?”

“Let us into the beehive.”


“That’s the test.”

“No, you can’t. That’s reserved for the elders only. It’s sacred to our village. It cannot be the beehive.”

“What then can it be?”

“Our land is rich.”

“What do you propose?”

“The baobab forest.”

“We’re listening.”

“There are many stories to tell and dares to be made. But in the forest there is a small valley where two trees stand strong. They are not baobabs, but they too do not grow. No leaves. They are never taller or shorter, rather always the same. They never move with the wind and the branches, and though they may break on one day, on the next you will find them unharmed.”

Alfred squirmed. “And this tree cannot be chopped?”

“No. It can’t. It’s been tried. Many times. Once, even, one tree was chopped completely down, but the next day there it was again.”

“That’s it,” Hans said. “We’ll chop it down.”

“It’s already been tried.”

“So what do you propose?”

“Stay there, in between the trees, for a full night.”

“That’s it?” Hans said.

“That’s it,” Ngolo said. “You can take your Jesus there with you, but you will not make it. You will be back from the forest before the morning rooster’s crow.”

“And if we make it?” Alfred asked.

“My friend, you will not.”

“But, if we do?” Hans demanded.

“You will baptize me, there in the big river that empties many miles from here into the sea.”

“And your wives?”

“Of course. And my children, too.”

The moon crossed the night sky, but Alfred and Hans didn’t make it to the rooster’s crow. They rushed back to Choba. Ngolo found them. Alfred stopped talking. His gaze was empty, like the hollow hole of the tree’s trunk there in the valley of the Baobab forest. Hans came back naked and refused to wear clothes. He scratched and pulled his skin, as if the hair on his chest, arms, legs, and back hurt him. Ngolo felt sorry for them, and a week after he went with them to Kedougou, to send them off to Dakar. From there, Hans and Alfred would travel back to Germany. Ngolo had to get Hans drunk just so he could clothe him. The donkey hauling their gear was skittish. Ngolo won and Jesus failed the missionaries.

It wasn’t long, however, before the French missionaries arrived. Pierre and Jean-Claude were soft and didn’t drink. They didn’t try to prove anything. They only wanted the villagers to take bread on bended knee every other day and say thanks to a statue, a black figure, like the people of Choba, only this figure was draped in all white and blood dripped from the crown of his head. It was for the many blessings, Pierre said. The water, corn, millet, goats, and cows were plentiful. Ngolo listened and began to read the book that Pierre and Jean-Claude gave him. Ngolo found that the written words actually spoke to him. It was God, he thought, and Ngolo asked for his forgiveness, as the book suggested. He believed. He asked his wives and children to follow, and, of course, they did. Others followed, too, but not many. Chongoman was a boy when he heard Ngolo say, “my born again name is Jean-Baptiste.” Chongoman didn’t get it, and his father told him to stay away from Ngolo. “Listen to the land,” Chongoman’s father said.

* * *

The road to Ninefescha from Kedougou is made of red dirt that’s not thick and moist like the roads that lead to Victoria Falls in Zambia. It’s not smooth and malleable, made to mold clay pots or to hold elephant prints. The road to Ninefescha is red and dusty, cursed by the heat of the Sahel. It’s gritty and filthy and encrusts your skin, your soul, like the soot of burning coal. From village to village, Peuls and Malinkés and Bediks pass on their one-speed bikes, called cruisers in places like Venice Beach or Malibu and are more of a fashion statement than a means of transportation.

In January, months after the rains have finished, the cotton is harvested. The soft, white clouds of cotton are picked and the hard, brown stems sit erect and strong in the Earth. Unaffected by the dust and the hot breeze, the stems sit and wait for the rain to arrive again. Surrounding grass browns, succumbing to the force of the dust of the road. The grass sways, but the stems just wait.

Isaac, pronounced Eesac, and Peter, both from Choba, pulled to the side of the dusty red road when, in the distance, they noticed a caravan of buses coming in their direction.

“Let’s wait here. The sky is hazy, and the dust will be too much,” Isaac said. Isaac was a few years older than Peter. Isaac yearned to go to Rome. He wanted to see and to touch the white Jesus that he heard Father Jean speak about. But, that was all. He’d never live there with the white people, he told himself.

“Yeah, you’re right. Let’s wait. We won’t be able to see. Too much dust,” Peter replied.

They were traveling with the news to the Bedik villages of Ethies Bas and Ethies Haut. “It’s a shame about Djenaba’s daughter,” Peter, the great-nephew of Chongoman, said. The buses were approaching fast. Isaac and Peter reached for their scarves to cover their faces from the dust. “The well will have to be covered, and the women will have to walk to Ibel now for water.”

“I know. It is a shame. The well is the center of Choba. It won’t be the same,” Isaac said. His face was wide. His hazel eyes stared deep.

“Yes, but we must cover it. It’s cursed. Uncle Chongoman says so. We’ll have to sacrifice a goat, and then the devil will leave. He’ll go elsewhere for now.”

“How can you still believe that nonsense?” Isaac said. “It’s just that now, our women will work harder. Fetch and carry longer.” Isaac covered his head with his scarf as the dust began to swarm.
Submissive, they waited for the buses to pass. Peter and Isaac turned their backs to protect themselves from the sweeping change in the air, from the filth and the heat of the dust. As the first bus passed, Peter looked and wondered at the world apart. He wondered about the life that existed inside the bus and past the dusty road. Isaac didn’t move. Peter held his breath and then inhaled the dust and wondered and coughed and stared and waited for the chaos to pass. The sky turned red as Peter and Isaac were caught in the swarm of the Sahel.

* * *

In the air-conditioned luxury buses a group of French and American men and women sat, mesmerized by the remoteness of the villages they had just left. The three buses sped on with a fierce heat, while frozen Kirene bottles waited in the coolers to refresh the travelers and quench their thirst.

The sleek buses were smooth and flashy, but dark. They held secrets not revealed by the heat of the Sahel. The sleek buses controlled the heat.

“Dad,” Jeremy yelled to his father inside the bus.

“Yes, son?”

“Look at the men with the scarves covering their faces.”

“Yes, son. I see them.”

“Do you think they’re Al-Queda? Terrorists?”

“What, son?”

“Do you think they are Al-Queda? You know, like Bin Laden?”

The father hesitated and then looked to the two men, who were well in the distance, covering their faces from the dust.

“Why do you think that?”

“I see it on TV, on the Internet, at school.”

“You see that at school? That men with head wraps are Al-Queda?”

“Yeah. I think so. Yeah. In books, too.”

“They’re not Al-Queda, son. No, son. They are probably from the villages that we’ve visited. They’re probably farmers, son.”

“Oh.” Jeremy sat, fixated on the covered men, timid and contemplating.

* * *

Djenaba wailed when Chongoman arrived at the front entrance of her mud wall hut. The grass of the roof was new and stiff. It had been replaced every year since Leotine had been born. Her husband was working in Tambacounda with the train service that traversed to Bamako twice a week. He would arrive the day before the funeral. Djenaba was ashamed. She felt responsible. Guilty. Why had I not gone with Leotine to help her fetch the water, she thought. Fetch the water. Every day, fetch the water.

“We’ll cover the well,” Chongoman said.

“No, you mustn’t.” Djenaba covered her face with her hands and fell into her lap. She sobbed until her throat hurt.

“You know it’s been drying anyway for some time now,” Chongoman tried to comfort her. “The devil did this, Djenaba. We will rid the devil of this place. The well must be covered. We’ll make a sacrifice and the Bees will swarm.”

“But, where will we go for water?”

“Don’t worry. For now we’ll go to Ibel.”

“Oh, no,” she bawled again. “That’s too far. We won’t survive. We won’t manage.”

“Quiet, my child. We’ll sacrifice a goat, and peace will come. We’ll survive. You need to prepare now.”

Djenaba sat up. Staring at the brown dirt of the hut, she wondered what might have been. Chongoman told her to pray. He told her to pray to God, to the tall, but slightly disfigured, statue of Saint Joan of Arc, the brown-skinned statue robed in green, and to prepare for her husband’s arrival.

Later that night she met with Father Jean Camara, the priest of the Saint Luke’s Catholic Church of Choba. They knelt at the altar of the statue of the Mother Mary and then at the altar of the statue of the crucified Jesus with skin like theirs. Djenaba cried softly as she asked for peace for her village and prayed for forgiveness for the sins that she had committed. She thought of Leotine, but didn’t know what to pray for her. She thought of her mother’s stories about Choba that ran through her veins. She thought of Leotine and vowed to find meaning for her life, for, as Bishop Camara claimed, “Jesus heals all, not the Bees,” though Headman Chongoman Keita was skeptical. Djenaba was silent and prayed and cried for her daughter and for the trouble that would be caused by the sealed well.

* * *

Isaac and Peter waited for the dust to settle.

“I wonder where they’re from,” Peter said.

“Surely you know they’re not where we’re from,” Isaac said.

“I know that. But what do you mean?”

“We fetch our water. Their homes hold it,” Isaac said and uncovered his face. He still inhaled the red dust, though he was unmoved.

“But, what’s their land like?” Peter asked.

“We’ll never see it. Don’t think of that. Anyway, they carry too much dust with them.”

“I still wonder, though.”

Isaac knew slightly more about that faraway land than Peter.

“They are many wells away, Peter. They don’t fetch water. Come on, let’s go. We have far to travel, and our village needs us.”

With roofs made of the thick grasses that lined the road to Ninefescha, Isaac and Peter continued on their way, passing homesteads and cotton fields that were recently picked. The fields looked desolate and hot as the red dirt of the Sahel roared with the passing of the day.