The Tao of Rice
Scott swerved his Honda 350 on the jungle path, narrowly missing a green mamba, one of the most poisonous snakes in Africa. I clutched his waist tighter. The dense, green tangle on both sides of us blurred as we passed, like a cartoon tunnel carrying us from the real world into a dream. Beige cement buildings appeared out of nowhere among the trees and vines, as if we had discovered some lost civilization. This was the sprawling village of Diourou in southern Senegal, near where I would be living for the next two years.
We pulled up to Jean's house where a dozen children and adults milled about. Scott had taught Jean how to plant mango seedlings and start his own orchard. He wanted to show me the orchard to give me a feel for the work ahead.
"Kasumay," they said as we approached. Peace.
"Kasumay keb," we replied. Peace only.
Scott introduced us. I panicked and fell back on sketchy French, hoping they could understand.
Jean walked us through a maze of corridors inside his dark, cool house to the kitchen. His mother, Inay, appeared from a back doorway, clutching a chicken by its legs. It hung motionless, then flapped its wings and squawked when she carelessly tossed it aside. She smiled at us and squawked too.
"Kasumay keb," we replied. Jean and Scott told Inay who I was and what my mission in Senegal was. She smiled and laughed, but threw me suspicious glances. Then Jean quietly conferred with Inay, who listened intently before knitting her brows and screeching an angry reply. Scott looked at me. My eyes begged for a translation.
Several minutes of negotiation passed between Inay and Jean. Scott gave me a quick translation.
"He wants to show you the vault," Scott said, motioning to a large box suspended from the ceiling. "It's where they keep the rice." Inay shook her head, pointed to me, and made an angry remark to Jean. "She doesn't want you to see it," Scott said. Jean's voice grew more demanding, while Inay held her ground. "She doesn't think you're Diola," Scott said.
"I'm not," I said, wanting to leave.
"You will be soon." Scott ribbed me with his elbow. "Use your Diola name."
Inay turned to me, sighed, and said, "Kasumay."
"Kasumay keb, " I said, shrugging my shoulders. Hadn't we already been through this? She looked at Jean, then turned back to me.
"Kares'I bu?" she asked.
Quick, what was my Diola name? "Saly," I said, gaining a bit of confidence. She pressed on.
"Kasaaf'I bu?" I had my Diola surname on my tongue.
"Mane," I said, now rising to the challenge.
"Au bay?" Inay threw her head back, confident I would fail. Should I say, "America," or give her the name of my future Diola village? I hesitated, and she smiled, certain she had me.
"Dana," I replied. Quickly she retorted, "Kata sindo'ay?"
"Kooku bo," I answered. My people are there; they are fine.
Inay squealed and clasped her hands together. She turned to Scott, waving her arms and chattering in Diola I didn't understand. He laughed. Inay grabbed my hand and led me to the ladder that rose into the sacred vault. I suddenly took an interest in rice. We crouched side by side in the blackness of the vault. Jean brought up a lantern. Hessian bags, enough to sustain a small family through a drought year, were revealed in its glow. Inay stroked one of the plump bags, speaking to me with care now.
She plucked a small handful of spilled grains from the floor and displayed them in her palm. She separated one, rubbed it between her thumb and finger, and talked about the rice. I began to see its significance, even though I couldn't understand her words.
"Help me, Scott. I need to understand," I said.
Inay pounded her empty fist on her palm.
"She says they have to beat it," Scott yelled up to me. Inay shook an invisible object in her hands.
"Then they sift out the chaff," Scott continued. Inay pummeled her palm again.
"Then they pound it a second time," Scott said. Inay opened her palm, the rice grains wet from moisture. She flicked a few grains off, and they stuck to one of the bags.
"The girls pick out the rest of the chaff, then it's pretty much ready," Scott's voice trailed up the ladder.
Inay showed me her worn, wrinkled hands and cradled one inside the other. Her voice was soft now, tired. She took my right hand and turned my palm upward. She scooped up another small handful of rice from the floor and placed the grains in my hand.
"Un cadeau," she said in French. A gift.
Scott drove a little slower on our way to Jean's orchard. The countryside opened up a bit where farmers had cleared native forest to plant fruit trees.
"You should feel honored," Scott yelled over the engine's rattle. "It's not often they trust us like that."
We rolled to a stop just outside a fenced enclosure. Inside were hundreds of knee-high mango trees. Scott steadied the bike while I swung off.
"That was like showing you the family jewels," he said. "She wouldn't have done that if she didn't think you were going to make a good Diola."
We wandered among the four-year-old mango seedlings. For three months I had planted and cared for several hundred tree seedlings in my own makeshift nursery. I appreciated the sweat of digging holes; the excitement of measuring your trees' growth every day; the disappointment of coming to water them in the morning and finding brown, curled leaves and drooping stems. I loved the fact that Diolas wouldn't cut down the giant fromagier trees with their smooth webbed bases, because the trees harbored evil spirits that would kill your chickens or make your family sick. I marveled at these people who found a use for every part of a tree - food, medicine, clothing - without cutting it down. Trees I understood. Rice I was just beginning to learn about.
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