By James Michael Dorsey
A magical day in Mali.
Hippos surfaced with wiggling ears as the boat man poled our dhow past the submerged herd. We were both tense, expecting a bluff charge, while only feet away white pelicans with long golden beaks floated in the shallows casually scooping minnows in their great fleshy pouches. On the opposite shore the grass huts of the Fulani glowed like fiery tumbleweeds in the hazy sunrise as bare-breasted women pounded their dirty wash on river rocks.
At this bend of Mali’s Niger River, the lethargic water resembles dark roasted coffee as it slowly meanders on towards the fabled city of Timbuktu. I was in old spear-and-loincloth Africa to chase the end of an era with my camera.
The Fulani, hereditary nomads of North Africa, had driven over 1,000 head of their cattle onto a small island to graze for a few days and as is their custom, they had surrounded them with their traditional grass huts. Fulani move about like the wind; they and those like them are vanishing from the African continent.
My dhow was piled with bunches of bananas, gifts of a delicacy hard to come by in such a remote place, as I knew from experience that when they saw me coming, the village children would swarm me on the beach, looking for treats.
While passing out the fruit I noticed one little boy sitting by himself, scooping mud from the river. He was fashioning curious animals out of the mud and laying them on a rock in the sand to bake in the sun. They struck me as wonderfully realistic from the hands of one so young. He worked with an intense concentration and the sureness of an instinctive artist that drew me to him. When I approached to tell him how much I liked his animals he did not speak or acknowledge me in any way, so I dropped off a banana, left him to his work, and walked up the bank to the village.
There, in front of a grass hut, I was warmly greeted by the village headman named Able who, noting my interest in the boy, told me his name was Jordan. “Like the river in the Bible,” he said. Able took both my hands in his and held my gaze as if searching for something in my face or demeanor until he finally added as a matter of fact, “He does not speak. He is touched by God.” He then asked me to sit with him and take tea.
While western medicine has un-pronounceable names and diagnoses for various mental states, it has been my experience that in many remote cultures, people like Jordan are often grouped under the title of “Touched by God.” In my own country such a child would probably be on a regimen of medications, therapy, or even confined to a “facility” to alter his behavior, but in rural Africa, people like Jordan are believed to exist on an alternate plane and are considered a liaison to the spirit world. Their condition is accepted as a gift to the village and they are often the people who become shamans or healers commanding both power and respect. In rural Africa there is no mental illness, only spirits, both evil and good.
I drank the obligatory welcome of tea and made small talk as custom demanded but could not take my eyes off the young boy at the waters’ edge. I asked Able if God ever spoke to Jordan or through him and his answer was only an enigmatic smile as he topped off my teacup. I knew that any further questions could only result in a conversation beyond my comprehension because to this man the physical and spirit worlds are intermingled and I am still a long way from being able to claim the same.
With Able’s blessing I wandered into the vast cattle herd to take my photos while clouds of grasshoppers fled my shadow. Men filled calabash gourds with the morning milk, then handed them off to young boys who carried the nectar back to the village. The women were busy ferrying goat skin bags of water to the herders. The air was full of bees swollen with pollen and the panoramic sky emphasized the vastness of the African plain. It was a travelers’ day when the voices of nature became an aria and the only mechanical sound was that of my shutter capturing limitless beauty. Woodsmoke mingled with the stench of a thousand feral longhorns when I felt a slight tug on my pants leg. I looked down just as Jordan slipped his hand into mine. I had not heard him coming and he had not said a word. Together we stood surrounded by baying cattle, taking in the moment. He was eating the banana.
I began to walk slowly and Jordan kept pace, his hand swallowed by my own. As we passed them, people stopped working and stood at an informal attention. I thought at first that they were simply offering a respectful welcome to a visitor but as we continued, I realized that it had nothing to do with me. They had stopped their work to acknowledge Jordan as he passed by, but it was more than that.
Travelers are often captured by a vortex beyond their comprehension. Remote journeys can sometimes be disorienting to the point of the wanderer asking themselves, “What just happened?” For many, attaining such a moment is the very reason for traveling. My reasons are built on a history of such events that always seem to find me while in Africa. It is a land steeped in animism, and marinated in voodoo; a land of myth, legend, and ceremony where there is no horizon between the material and spiritual worlds and, by keeping an open mind I have often found myself treading an edge between the two.
At first the sound was almost imperceptible from the constant breeze pushed along by the river, but it grew in intensity and volume until I could discern a harmonious chant. It was a traditional chant, the likes of which I have heard countless times in Africa, and yet it was its own. Rather than a narration followed by a chorus it was a constant mantra of the entire village emanating from their souls more than their lungs. It was a sound as old as the earth, a sound that held both agony and ecstasy. It was a sound I felt as much as heard. We were surrounded by the entire village, on their feet, chanting.
It was melodious and calming while suggesting an underlying current of power that enveloped me like a net. I floated in the moment, an organic piece of ancient Africa swept along in its mystery and ceremony. I was no longer a visitor but an integral part of the village, and I took in a panorama of the entire scene, hundreds of heads and shoulders interspersed in the vast herd, all turned inwards towards Jordan who still held my hand. His head was now tilted skyward, his eyes were closed, and he showed a tiny smile as he wiped banana from his chin.
Was this happening because the village holy man had left his trance to walk among them, or was I, this rare visitor, just an excuse for a spontaneous celebration? I had no idea what was taking place and I really did not care; I only wanted the moment to continue. Jordan was in another place, or perhaps he had summoned another place to our here and now and something inside at that moment told me he was indeed, touched by God. Whatever was happening was African, and could never be understood by a non-African, and that was enough for me to know. I just let the chant envelope me.
Jordan began to walk, this time leading me by the hand. The people parted as we passed them but continued their grand chorus. Time had slowed, sound intensified, colors glowed with brilliance, and I held the most sublime sense of belonging that has eluded me most times since. I remember herons flying overhead and egrets by the waterside and thinking how the emerald body of a dead cicada was the most brilliant green I had ever seen. The world had become intense. I was in my body but felt out of it being carried along by the wonderful melody. Hours may have passed, but I am sure it was only minutes before I found myself back at Able’s hut.
Jordan let go of my hand and returned to the riverside and his clay animals without ever having said a word. I do not remember the chanting coming to an end but suddenly all I heard was silence, and when I looked about, people were returning to work tending the cattle. I felt elated yet unsure, as if exiting a dream. Able’s face carried a knowing smile that made me wonder if other visitors had had such a day as mine.
It was late afternoon and the golden sky was turning crimson as the African sun submerged into the black water. People became silhouettes as Able walked me to the river’s edge where the boatman waited for my return. We exchanged no words because none were sufficient. Our mutual silence was enough validation that something extraordinary had taken place. As I walked past Jordan he rose and pressed something into my hand, folding my fingers around it with great solemnity. He did not speak and made no eye contact. He simply returned to his place by the water and his clay animals. His gift was small, hard, and cool in my hand and I held it there, not looking at it until we reached the center of the river. It was a tiny clay bull, just like those that had surrounded us all day, Paleolithic in simplicity, pregnant with symbolism.
I did not watch for hippos during our return crossing or notice the ethereal beauty of the West African sunset. I could only stare at the tiny figure in my palm, running my fingers over it and reliving the day in my soul. I did no analysis nor did I yearn for answers. In truth, I often prefer the what-if to what is, and this was one of those times. I wanted only the day as it was, now a memory, but one that I could recall whenever I wished by the tiny clay bull I now held in my hand. Since that day Jordan’s bull has become both talisman and artifact, and perhaps, even a relic.
Later, at a café in Timbuktu, I met two people who had both preceded me to the island. Both had taken notice of the silent boy by the water. They both told me he had not reacted to them in any way and the people had been friendly but had not sung or chanted. I could drive myself crazy with speculation of “Why me?” so I chose to go with “Why not me?”
Whether Jordan was “Touched by God” or simply a mute little boy, he held great face among his people and for his own reasons, took me into an unexplainable afternoon that has affected and elevated my life in the years that followed. I am sure the world is full of Jordans, mostly overlooked or even ignored, walking among us, visible only to those with open minds and hearts.
Maybe all it takes to have the kind of day a traveler prays for is to give a boy a banana.
James Michael Dorsey is an award-winning author, explorer, photographer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in forty-five countries. He has spent the past two decades researching remote cultures around the world. He is a contributing editor at Transitions Abroad and frequent contributor to United Airlines’ Hemispheres and Perceptive Travel. He has also written for Colliers, The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, BBC Wildlife, World & I, and Natural History, plus several African magazines. He is a foreign correspondent for Camerapix International, a travel consultant to Brown + Hudson of London, and a correspondent for the World Explorers Bureau. He is also a fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club. His latest book is Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails. His stories have appeared in ten travel anthologies. He is a fifteen-time Solas Awards category winner and a contributor to The Best Travel Writing, Volume 10. This story won the Grand Prize Gold in the Eleventh Annual Solas Awards.