The International Writers
Prayer for Mariame
the suns rays woke and stretched over the rainforest, another
Sunday began as usual. Six-year old Mariame and two of her brothers
would soon leave their mud brick home to walk the dusty road to
my house, a western-style concrete building with light bulbs and
toilets. Two more different little girls would have been hard
to find. Our lives crossed 20 years ago in the West African country
of Côte dIvoire, and I find them still crossing in
Mariame and I didnt notice the differences. We were both little
girls, which apparently was enough to make us friends. Our language barriers
were overcome thanks to dolls my parents had brought with us from America.
Naturally, I carried my baby in my arms and fed her a bottle. Mariame
tied hers onto her back with a piece of cloth and walked around balancing
a basket on her head.
We taught each other the hand-clapping games we knew. I repeated the unfamiliar
sounds Mariame sang, not sure when one word ended and the next began,
but learning exactly when to snap my fingers or clap my chubby white hands
against her thin brown ones.
At lunch we sat on the porch eating grilled cheese sandwiches and jell-O,
washing it all down with Kool-Aid. Mariame never cared much for the brightly
colored jiggly stuff, but fell in love with Kool-Aid. We sat on the swing
drinking from plastic cups, watching my brother Chris and her brothers
Dramane and Mamadou chase lizards and build forts. If we were in the mood,
we might grace them with our presence as fortress princesses.
At the end of the day, Mariame and her brothers would walk back home,
crossing paths with their father riding his bicycle to our house. Mariames
father, Zégué, was our night guard. He arrived at the same
time each evening, tuning his radio to the songs and voices I began to
associate with the sun setting. Armed with a flashlight strapped to his
head, knee-high rubber boots, and a long-bladed machete, he was ready
for the night. During the four years our house was under Zégués
watch, no one ever tried to rob us. Things might have been different if
they realized his machete was more for killing snakes rather than fending
off burglars. The tally sheet my mother kept in the kitchen showed 38
marks, one for each snake that fell victim to Zégués
machete in one year.
The early morning was a changing of the guards of sorts. My father would
wake up, make his coffee, then go read and pray before the sun rose. When
the first pink rays appeared, my father came to wake us up as Zégué
rode his bicycle out through the gate and back to his home.
The route to Zégués house was simple, if you knew
the way. Take the long dirt road out of town. Keep going until there are
only tall, leafy trees on either side. At the top of the hill is a small,
barely visible, trail between the trees on your left. Follow the trail
into the darkness of the jungle canopy. Go past the cacao and coffee fields.
Push away the flapping banana leaves. The small structure there in front
of you, made of mud brick and woven palm branches, is where you find Mariame,
her twelve brothers and sisters, and her 38-year old mother.
Mariames mother was beautiful, to put it simply. Her dark brown
skin was the color of coffee beans drying in the sun. She wore small gold
earrings and outlined her eyes with a blue pencil. Only when you stood
next to her could you see the small lines woven around her eyes. Her bright
smile and rolling laugh welcomed you, even though you didnt share
the same words. She spoke Maninka, a dialect from the neighboring country
of Burkina Faso.
Like many people in Côte dIvoire, Zégué had
immigrated years before, bringing his young wife with him. While much
of West Africa suffered from poverty and wars, Côte dIvoire
remained politically stable and was the worlds leading cocoa producer.
The soil was rich here, the sun and rain plentiful. Zégués
family of 15 grew their own food and sold the cocoa and coffee beans for
profit. During the harvest season, Zégué would come through
our gate with an overstuffed bag strapped to the back of his bicycle.
On the porch he would unload gifts of yellow grapefruit that were so big
I needed two hands to hold them and ears of corn picked early since he
knew we liked it pale and sweet.
Far too often for my taste, my mother would decide it was time to sort
through our toys and clothes and give away what we didnt need or
use. Of course, my selfish little heart didnt want to part with
a single toy, even the ones shoved in the back of my closet that Id
forgotten. A shirt I never wore suddenly became my favorite and I couldnt
bear to part with it. Even still, wed collect a few bags of things
to give away. When Mariame would show up the next Sunday, smiling in a
dress Id outgrown, Id promise myself that the next time Id
give more generously.
Five days a week I put on my blue and white checkered uniform, slid into
my backpack, and hopped on my pink bike to go to the French Embassy School
a few blocks away. Six days a week Mariame tied a piece of fabric around
her waist as a skirt and worked in her familys fields, cared for
her four younger siblings, and helped her mother cook rice and sauce.
Only on Sundays were our routines similar.
Now, twenty years later, I wonder how long our friendship would have lasted
had I not moved from Côte dIvoire at 12 years old. As the
years went by, I often tried to imagine what Mariames life was like
at that time. In a culture where women marry in their early teens, it
would not have been long before Mariame had her own baby, not a doll,
tied to her back. Meanwhile, I was preparing for homecomings, SATs, and
dates on a Friday night.
On September 19, 2002, I felt an earthquake, but few around me noticed.
My world was shaken as news came that a bloody rebellion had risen out
of the capital city of Côte dIvoire and was making its way
north to the Daloa region where my family had lived, and where Mariame
still lived as far as I knew. Reports over the next few months described
the intense fighting in the area, the heart of the money-making cacao
fields. In every emerging news article and every video clip, I looked
for her. Instead of seeing Mariames face, I heard about the rebel
forces killing immigrants and anyone who didnt have papers to prove
their Ivorian citizenship. I heard about the raping and maiming of women.
Two years ago I ran into an Ivorian man who had been my fathers
French teacher. As we exchanged news, I learned that the house where wed
once lived had been used by the Red Cross, until it was taken over by
rebel forces. I cautiously asked him about the people we knew in Daloa,
afraid of what he might tell me. Reading it from an AP or BBC report had
not prepared me for his answer. "Cétait un massacre,
Kari," he said quietly. They killed people everywhere, he said. His
calmness seemed to make it even more painful, as if the killing had become
a common part of life.
I still dont know where Mariame is, or what her life has been. Our
paths uncrossed years ago. Ironically, if I were to see her again, the
only thing I could say to her would be the words of the clapping-song
she taught me. But maybe as our hands clapped together, it would be enough
for her to know that I remember her friendship and have not stopped praying
BBC Country Profile: Ivory Coast http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/country_profiles/1043014.stm
Amnesty International: Côte dIvoire
UNICEF, At a Glance : Côte dIvoire
Human Rights Watch
World Food Programme
Kari Masson has a very colorful collection
of stamps in her passport. After growing up in Cote dIvoire, West
Africa, she studied in the US and UK, spent time with the Maasai people
of Kenya, camped in the Swedish tundra, and worked in Senegal. The most
recent addition to her passport is a French residency permit. She speaks
English, French, and the African dialect of Wolof.
Drawing on her experiences, Kari is a freelance writer for travel, cross-cultural,
and expatriate-focused publications. More than 150 of her articles have
appeared in North America, Europe, and Africa.
© Kari Masson March 2007
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