The Faces Of An Acacia Tree
The Cameroonian sky was threatening as the dark rumbling clouds shifted their way quickly toward us, and the kids finished patting down the earth around the last tree. Together, that day in June 2002, we planted 30 trees. It was a small amount in the face of so much sand and nutrient-hungry soil, but a step. A slight breeze was blowing that soothed the prickle of salt on my sweaty skin. Little pieces of paper, with their French and mathematical equations, fluttered past in the savanna grass. I remember squatting next to the last tree we had planted, watching as the students and the teachers gathered up the hoes and shovels. I remember feeling the tiny, delicate, light green leaves with my fingers, and I remember how I saw so many people's efforts within that skinny, young acacia tree.
Alphonse gave us the acacia seeds in November. We had been working with him to develop his small tree nursery into a commercial tree business. We helped him to formulate a business plan by scratching figures into the sand in his yard with a small stick. We were calculating how much money he could make, if he grew and sold such-and-such amount of trees, for this-and-that amount of money. That day in November, we told him about the tree nursery at the school.
"Wait," he exclaimed and ran into his hut. He came out with an old, yellow, rusted powdered milk can. He took the plastic lid slowly off the top and told me to hold out my hands. I watched as he poured the slick, brown, shiny seeds from the metal can into my cupped palms. They were small seeds; three could fit on my thumbnail. "These will help," he said. "They are from a strong tree." I wrapped the seeds into a corner of my red bandanna, and put them deep into my pocket.
My friend Hapsatou told us where the good soil might be. "Behind the old school," she said. "I have heard it is good there." "La bonne terre," Hapsatou had said. The good earth. Ah, my friend Hapsatou. Almost every night for the two years we lived in Touroua, we ate dinner with her and her family. Over pounded millet and green-leaf sauces, perhaps with a side of bony fish, we would discuss our days. As my French improved, I worked at describing all the details of what had happened that day. We would tell her who we had seen, what they had said, and how all the trees in the nurseries scattered around the village were growing. She was so eager for contact and for information.
Hapsatou was a married Muslim woman in a very traditional area. Our village in the north of Cameroon practiced wife seclusion. This means that once a woman is married, she does not often leave her home. There are some exceptions. She can venture from her compound walls if one of her children is sick so she can go to the clinic or the marabou. She can also leave to attend a wedding or a funeral or if one of her friends is sick or giving birth. With this practice, the children become the women’s messengers, running from house to house exchanging the news and gossip.
In the first few months that I was there, my stomach often revolted against the new foods and the heat that were so foreign to me. Hapsatou’s five-year-old son El Kass would come to visit us, and see me lying in the hammock or outside the doorway on a mat.
"Jabamma, El Kass," I would say. Welcome.
"Jam na, Kareen?" he would ask me in the traditional Fulfulde greeting that meant literally, “do you have peace?”
"Jam ne, El Kass." It’s all good.
"Jam bandu na?" How’s your body?
"Na boddum, sobajo am." Not good, my friend.
At this, El Kass would turn and run home, without even bothering to finish the traditional string of greetings, including how's the work, how’s your house, how are your goats, how are the fields, and how’s the heat (which would always make him giggle). He would tell Hapsatou that I was, once again, mal au ventre.
This made me a source of freedom for her. She would come over as soon as she heard I wasn't feeling well, bringing with her a bowl of thick and sweetened bouille. The thick, milky porridge was usually slightly flavored with lemons and was a wonderful combination of sweet and sour. I would lie on the mat sipping the bouille while she sat next to me. She would talk about the plants she thought I should know, and tell me who was good to work with in the village and who to avoid.
The first time we walked through our village together was on the way to my first funeral. Hapsatou, her husband Abba, my husband Brian, and I had walked into the compound together when we first arrived. Hapsatou motioned me one way as I watched Brian and Abba disappear behind one of the red mud walls.
Then I heard the crying. I peeked inside the hut and saw 35 women, packed shoulder-to-shoulder within the dark interior. Many of the women were steadily and quietly crying while rocking forward and back. Then, one old woman with wrinkled hands reached out to me in greeting, entwined her fingers within mine, opened her mouth, and let out a long and loud wail. The feeling was surreal, surrounded by weeping women in a wailing hut in Cameroon, but Hapsatou's eyes caught mine, and she steadied me.
My friend Hapsatou, who had wrapped me so well within her nourishment, had given us directions to the most productive soil in town, even though she could not walk there herself.
Abduli was dressed in his long, pale, brown robe that reached to his knees with the matching pants below. The sweat was beading on his forehead and rolling down onto his lips. He blew the droplets off his pursed lips, and concentrated on flipping the black rubber bucket just right so it would fill quickly. When he was satisfied and felt the tug of the right weight of water on the rope, he pulled the bucket hand-over-hand back to the surface. He poured the water into the silver metal bucket sitting in a puddle by the well. He did this several times until the water lapped at the rim of the metal bucket.
Then, he carefully started to lift the bucket to his head. His friend Amadou spotted him and came to help lift the heavy load. Together, they placed the sloshing container on Abduli's head, and did not spill but a few drops. Abduli slowly walked to the corner of the yard where the tree nursery was, and filled the watering cans. The watering cans were old plastic containers with holes punched in the top, but they worked acceptably. He made two more trips to the well and back to make sure all the seedlings were watered. Then he washed his hands and head and finally took a long drink from the well.
So many hands were involved in giving life to that acacia tree. It came to exist through the effort of the community, and the interest of individuals. In a few years, that tree will become tall and thorny, with a dense flat crown and dark fissured bark. Each of its branches will tell the story of the man who gathered the seeds, the woman who knew where the good soil was, the students who pulled the water from the well, and all the others who worked to plant green trees on the dusty land.
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