by Sarah Erdman

I have a hard time thinking of the author of this book as Erdman. To me she is Guissongui, the name the village of Nambonkaha gave her when she lived among them. Erdman’s prose catches hold of you that way. It allows you to see Nambonkaha’s inhabitants, and herself too, through her remarkably clear eyes.

Erdman tells the stories of a number of unforgettable people: Sidibé the nurse, who eats from the same bowl as his wife, the brash Abi whose mockery keeps Erdman away; tiny Moussa who befriends Erdman and learns to read; Dramane, the joker who carries half the responsibilities of the village and fears a curse; Ali, the boy whom a herd of do-gooders cannot save; Benoît, who nonchalantly bouffes a bit of the funds for the maternity clinic; Oumar, who works in the fields in place of his father until sickness strikes him too; Djeneba, who no one will admit brought AIDS to the village through no fault of her own, and who wastes away slowly. Then there are all the mothers enticed to learn to keep their babies healthy in Erdman’s program. At the edges of the scene hover the chief and a herd of grands types. The chief welcomes Erdman, gives her gifts as befits her status as a guest, and grants permission for her projects. The grands types seem to be good mostly for showing up at fêtes and eating the refreshments: “When Dramane, Bakary, and I finally… appear at Sidibé’s for our share, the grands types are lined up in chairs in the courtyard, stuffed and stretched out, shifting occasionally like a row of sunbathing walruses” (p. 260, hardcover edition).

The people are intensely real. They come off the page and talk directly to you as Erdman strives to come to grips with the difficulties of being transplanted and the realities of a new culture. Sidibé, so progressive, so close to being a feminist, does nothing to prevent female circumcisions. The cost is too high, the hope of victory very low indeed.

Nine Hills to Nambonkaha reads like a good story in any genre. It is engrossing, nearly unputdownable on the dramatic level. We travel with Erdman into the heart of Africa and find it is not dark but human, with the nobility and degradation of all of us. And there is always something new to see in Nambonkaha. Erdman’s gift might be best displayed, though, in the small, specific scenes she writes. The market is not chaotic, as most tourists describe it, but ordered in a peculiarly African way. Erdman conveys the dynamics and emotion of the situation lovingly, without wasting space. Through discomfort and frequent grief, she has seen the peculiar beauty of African life.

A sample from near the end:

“I went to see Massieta today to count my chickens and remind her to start on the pill once this pregnancy is over. She stood outside her house with her hands limp at her sides and just kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, we have nothing to give.’ I said, ‘You gave me your sons, and that’s all I wanted. They are many, but pei chengué, they are good.’ Maimouna’s mother came by and stood by a tree. Her cheeks were shining. I said, ‘Are you all right, are you sick?’ And Massieta snorted, ‘She’s crying for you, Guissongui.’ They all say, Yele sin, na tanri mon na mereban. You can go for two years and then come back. Mon na mereban. You come back.

“Last night I couldn’t leave Sidibé’s. We had tea, two rounds, then three, then four, as night fell around Nambonkaha’s orange lights. Abi said, ‘You don’t want to cook now, so just stay to eat.’ The president came by and the mayor and the school director and Ibrahim the teacher, and Abi unloaded bowls of rice and sauce onto the table. There was a chair for me, too, but I sat on the other side of the courtyard with Abi. She was leaving for Tiébro in the morning. We scrunched up rice with our hands, sitting low by the fire. She gave me greetings for my family–each member has passed through this courtyard and eaten at her table. She told me what she will do when I come back. I’ll be collecting things for you, she said, all those things you can’t take home this time. Like a really nice mortar and pestle. And a good stool. I’ll collect them. And then she muttered, ‘A sister like you…” into the fire. ‘A sister like you…’ And said nothing more.

“They set up chairs in crescents around the middle of the village later on, and Sidibé and Siaka and I sat down on the edge of the dancing circle. Villagers melded into their places: mothers in the middle, girls in the outer ring, feet thumping, shoulders twisting, elbows pumping, between them young men and children spinning. And along the outer edge, just on one side, Moussa in his tiny 49ers sweatshirt dancing Rasta-style for me. My ASCs snaked through the circle in their uniforms, twisting, laughing, a conga line of blue-and-white lattice and grins. I stepped into the line behind Massieta, dancing with a baby on her back and a baby in her stomach. And I danced out the glee, danced out the sorrow, danced out the notion that this end is final, that this dance is the last, that the next ride over the nine hills from Nambonkaha does not turn back.

“Tonight Mandou says, ‘Thanks to you we have electricity, a maternity clinic, latrines at the school, a moulin–‘ ‘Wait!’ I say. ‘I hardly brought all that.’ ‘I know,’ Mandou says, ‘but that’s what they say.’ I wonder if we’ll go down in each other’s histories as only golden, romanticized legends: Guissongui who did everything. Nambonkaha that was my Shangri-la.

“Moussa says, ‘Ach! We cry or we don’t cry, but you’re going to go anyway. Il y a quoi dedans?’ Tough little Moussa cried himself to sleep leaning against my screen. Mandou shoves his hands in the pockets of his prized jeans. He says, ‘This is why we’ll miss you, Guissongui: you came laughing.’ I tell him I couldn’t have laughed so much if the village of Nambonkaha hadn’t already been smiling at me. And I wonder if he knows he’s a poet.

“Tired now, but I don’t want to sleep because it just means blowing out this last Nambonkaha night (quiet again despite the lights). I scribble away in my wooden armchair, electric orange bleeding in through the back window but my front room warm with lantern light. So tired, but there must be one last thing before I put down my pen, before I surrender this night. My life here is unfinished but all wrapped up. Why am I leaving? Why do you trade in happiness for uncertainty? What makes you give up a good thing? I have no answers except that there are so many paths that I haven’t yet traveled. I’ll just keep writing, past midnight, moving on one. My lamplight wavers. For two years it has light my nights, lit my students crouched around their shivery rows of letters, lit dinner in pots on the stove, lit faces outside my screen. I lift my pen from the page. The fire sputters and stretches, searching for fresh wick. Then with a soft sigh, the flame goes out” (pp. 306-9).

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