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Remembering Africa

Upon reading the moving description of the many meanings of women carrying 40 pounds of water on their heads several times a day, [“Water” by Rachel Schneller (Mali 1998–98)], I thought back to the time I traveled overland from Buea in Cameroon, to Lagos, Nigeria.
     At the slave-trading town of Calabar, I had to get from the ferry dock to the train station. I didn’t know the distance was fifteen miles. My suitcase was full of books, naturally, and I got about ten yards when I admitted to myself I had trouble. I took a shirt out of the suitcase, made a doughnut with it, put it on my head and then hefted the suitcase and dropped it on the doughnut. I balanced it with two hands and started walking — half drunken sailor, half woman-with-broken-neck.
     On the road were several people: women carrying pots of water, baskets of produce, a baby goat, legs dangling to either side, and one man with one of those four-foot long saws with handles on both ends which bounced and twanged with each step he took. They all revolved their bodies carefully so as not to disturb the balance of their loads to stare at me. First they smiled, then they used their free hands to cover their mouths which was only polite since they didn’t want me to see them laughing. When my suitcase slid off my head and fell to the ground, they couldn’t help themselves — they had to put down their loads so they could let loose great peals of laughter.
     And then I was surrounded by volunteers all offering to carry my suitcase to the train station. Instead (being in no hurry since I didn’t even know if there really was a train station), I said, “Teach me.” The attempt was half-hearted at best since we were all in stitches. I kept asking them about the neck pain and they kept saying I hadn’t found the correct balance. We all could see I would never find the correct balance.
     Finally, a woman came to me who was going to the train station to meet her sister. She had nothing to carry since she’d be helping her sister
carry her stuff on the way back. The woman didn’t count the baby on her back as something to carry. So I insisted on a trade — I would carry the baby in my arms if she carried my suitcase on her head. She protested. She said, “But he will urinate on you.” What’s a little urine among friends?
     So she carried my suitcase on her head, I carried sweet baby Acquinas in my arms and the people on the road dried their tears, rubbed their
laugh-ached ribs and put their loads back on their heads. We all went on
our way.
     Acquinas’ soft hair, shining with a vaseline rub, smelled the way the
breeze does when the honey harvest arrives at market.

Thank you with all the gratitude a recovered memory elicits.

Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67)

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