April 12, 2010

A Day in the Life

Sata Sacko opens her eyes to the first rays of morning light. Her thatched roof is perched upon the circular wall of her hut in such a way as to allow a ring of light to slip through the space between. Every day she wakes up to a halo from the rising sun.

Sata yawns as she strokes the bundle cuddled up beside her, her 3 month old son, Mory. Beside her on the mattress made from rice sacks stuffed with straw sleep two more of her children, Fanta and Hawa. These two are about 3 and 10 respectively, but no one can say with much precision since details of this sort aren’t closely followed.

From outside comes the rhythmic thump of corn being pounded into flour. Binta, one of the other wives in the extended family, is already working the large mortar and pestle. This sound will continue throughout the day as various members of the family take turns preparing the corn flour that is the staple of almost every meal.

Interspersed with the thumping are the calls of various livestock passing through the compound. Goats bleat, donkeys bray, and roosters crow as they mill about scanning the ground for food. As the noises outside grow louder and more frequent Mory wakes up. When she feels him stir Sata brings him to her breast to feed, an action she will repeat many times throughout the day in the midst of her various chores.

After Mory has had his fill Sata dresses herself with a t-shirt and a brightly patterned cloth and straps the infant to her back where he falls asleep once again. Sata will spend the majority of her day with her child on her back like this, a common sight in a place devoid of play pens or strollers where even new mothers are expected to work hard to complete their daily tasks.

As she steps out of the hut into the emerging day Sata can see who is already up. Aminata and Mali, two more wives in the family, are sitting around a cooking fire getting breakfast ready. They are mixing the corn flour that Binta is pounding with water and forming it into pea sized balls. These balls will then be boiled in a large cauldron to form a sort of porridge. Sata pulls a stool over to the fire and begins to form the balls as well. The four women exchange greetings and chat idly as they work.

Binta and Mali also have children snoozing on their backs but Aminata, the oldest woman in the family, is past the point of having a newborn to care for. Her husband, Nalen, is the main bread winner in the compound and her place as the eldest of his wives is a respected one.

That is not to say that there is a reason for her to assert her status as they converse. There are perhaps ten women living in the circle of huts and houses that form the compound and they are all married to one of the three elder men in the family. Rather than the reality show style rivalries one might expect to develop in this polygamist environment the relationships among the women are close and strong.

As the porridge cooks members of the family file out of their respective abodes to ready themselves for the day. Some children are wearing school uniforms while others are preparing for a day in the fields. The adult men are loading up their bikes and motorcycles with supplies to bring to the farm about 10km outside of town. More women congregate around the fire and each one is greeted and welcomed into the growing circle.

When breakfast is ready it is divvied out and as many as five or six people, usually segregated by sex, will crouch around the large bowls on the ground and hastily eat the hot porridge. As each person finishes they stand up and thank both the women for preparing the meal and the men for providing the food before they return to their preparations for the day.

As the men and children begin leaving the compound the women break off from the larger group and start the day’s chores. Sata has her and her children’s laundry to do so she heads off to the pump to get the water she needs.

The pump is another communal hotspot where the women from the surrounding compounds meet and socialize as they wait their turn to fill the containers they’ve brought. After waiting Sata fills her twenty five liter basins and carries them back one at a time by balancing the fifty five pounds of water on her head. If Mory wakes and begins to cry while she’s doing this she’ll soothe him by patting or swaying him from side to side, all without spilling a drop.

Once her water is collected Sata is ready to start doing the laundry. She uses a plastic washboard to scrub the clothes clean. A normal sized load might take her a half hour straight of scouring with her back bent over the board. As she works, her youngest girl, Fanta, reports back occasionally from playing in the neighborhood with the other children. Some days she’ll spend almost the entire day by her mother’s side, learning the ins and outs of the daily tasks that will be expected of her in the future. Sata’s other daughter, Hawa, has already reached an age where she can help out and divides her time between school, chores, and play.

Once the laundry is hung on the line Sata sits down with the other women who have stayed in the compound for the day rather than going off to the river to fish or to the fields to plant. Mali is cooking lunch which will consist of corn flour boiled into a gelatinous paste along with a thin sauce to dip it in. The women‘s socializing is interspersed with breast feedings and rocks thrown at goats wandering too close to the cooking meal.

When it is finished the food is again served in a large bowl with a group of males or females seated on stools or crouched around it. No utensil is used this time and the corn paste is simply scooped up by hand and dipped in the sauce before it is swallowed. There are far fewer people in the compound for the midday meal as many family members will take their lunch on the farm. Still, the scene is hectic as children dart to and fro between their mothers and the food, their fighting and playing fueled by a full belly.

After lunch, those left in the compound retire to the shade of mango trees and thatch coverings for some rest. The sun is at its peak now and midday temperatures in the village can reach 130°F. Doing any substantial work in conditions like this is just asking for heatstroke, it’s best to let the sun recede a little before returning to the day’s chores.

As Sata naps subdued green light filtering through the mango leaves dances around her. Mory and Fanta are dozing next to her. Hawa is playing languidly across the compound with a friend. The scene is peaceful and as you listen it seems as though the entire village has gone to sleep briefly. Even the incessant calls of hungry roosters have faded for the time being.

The midday break will crawl along for an hour or two before the heat has rolled back enough to allow people to return to work. Eventually the stillness is broken and people begin sitting up, yawning and rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Sata is woken by Mory’s cries letting her know that it is time for another feeding.

Once Mory has had his fill Sata prepares for the next task of the day. She is cooking dinner tonight for the more than thirty people who live in the compound and she needs to start now in order to finish in time. Although the corn she will use comes from the family farm she will still need to head into the market to pick up some additional supplies.

Like most women in the village, Sata likes to look her best when going to the market so before she leaves she changes into one of her favorite outfits. She emerges from her hut covered from head to toe in vibrantly patterned blue and green fabric tailored into a dress and blouse. Her hair is done up in a matching head covering and even the cloth she is now using to strap Mory to her back compliments the ensemble. As she leaves the compound Fanta runs after her with her small legs working double time to keep up.

The trip into the market takes Sata along the dirt road leading through town. Family compounds line either side and she greets the women working in them as she passes. The thump of the mortar and pestle can be heard from every direction; it is the heart beat of the village.

As Sata enters the village center family compounds of thatched huts give way to small shops with stamped aluminum roofs. Modernization is slowly reaching the village and the metal roofs are an example of how life here is changing incrementally as the world grows smaller.

Soon Sata is in the market, which is a hum of activity at this time of day. Children chase each other among the stalls and vendors are constantly calling out to passerbys to inspect their wares. Women from all over the village are chatting and haggling over the various goods spread over tables and mats. The scene is a lively mingling of colors as the brightly patterned fabrics the women are wearing mix with the fresh produce and spices laid before them.

Sata meanders her way through the narrow rows between stalls stopping to talk with friends and purchase the items she needs. As she walks her basket fills and is soon overflowing with the evening’s meal. Bright red tomatoes and small yellow onions jumble with fragrant spices and peanut oil. Glimpses of green and red from the chili peppers complete the artistic compilation that her basket has become. With her shopping done, Sata finds Fanta who has disappeared with some friends among the stalls and heads back to the compound.

Upon her return Sata changes back into some more comfortable clothing and gets to work. She retrieves some of the firewood chopped earlier in the day by another woman in the family, builds up a cooking fire, and sets a large cauldron of water on it to boil. Once the water boils she will slowly mix it with corn flour as she stirs it into the same corn paste Mali made for lunch. The paste is called toh and is eaten at almost every meal.

As she waits for the water to boil, Sata begins to prepare the rest of ingredients to make a sauce for the toh. She pounds the onions, tomato, and pepper together into a paste and then sets them saut√©ing in oil over another fire. Once the paste has cooked some she fills the pot it’s in with water, sets a lid on it, and leaves it to simmer. She then turns her attention back to the larger cauldron, which has begun to boil.

With a bowl of corn flour at her side Sata sets to work making the toh. The process involves the slow addition of corn flour to boiling water interspersed with rigorously stirring the mixture with a special large spatula to ensure a uniform consistency. It is tiring work, especially as the toh turns solid and the stirring becomes a full on upper body workout. The fact that the whole task is done over the fire only serves to exacerbate the discomfort of having a baby strapped to your back on a day that is still well over 100°F.

As Sata cooks, family members begin returning from the day’s work. The men’s clothes are completely covered in mud from the rice paddies they have been in all day. A few boys come in driving a donkey cart loaded with sacks of fresh corn to be dried and pounded. Women come back with fish to be added to the evening meal. Everyone is tired but in good spirits. With the day’s work over they have a warm meal and a refreshing bath to look forward to.

As the sun sets the meal is finished and the family eats together from the large bowls underneath the night sky. Afterward amidst the expressions of gratitude for a well prepared meal Sata and a few other women collect and wash the dishes. Once this is done Sata gives Fanta and Mory a quick bath before taking a bucket to one of the straw fenced enclosures to bathe herself.

With all of her tasks complete, Sata joins the other women in the family as they sit around the embers of the dying cooking fire and finish the day in each other’s company. Almost all the women have a child with them; some are already asleep in their mother’s arms.

As they chat the night sky stretches above them with a vastness and clarity that is otherworldly. The stars of the Milky Way are so numerous and bright that they seem to be a finely sprayed mist cutting the sky in two. The half moon, radiating its silver light over the horizon, reflects off the women and makes their dark skin glow.

One by one, as the night progresses and the day’s weariness makes itself felt, the women retire to their beds. Eventually Sata follows suit. She bids the other women goodnight and lifts Mory and Fanta, who are already fast asleep, from her knees.

When she enters her hut Hawa is asleep as well. Sata lays Fanta and Mory down next to their big sister and then climbs into bed. As she drifts off to sleep she can hear the last fragments of conversation drifting in from the women outside. Slowly the voices fade and she falls asleep. Tomorrow she will awaken to another halo.