November 17, 2012

Tough Skin

"My hands don't bleed anymore."

When they asked what in my service I was most proud of, that's the answer that come out. Which, of course, took some explaining.

I went to my friend Alima's mother-in-law's house the other day. Alima and her husband had been there harvesting, and I hadn't seen them for a while. So, in true Burkina fashion, I invited myself over. 

The morning I left for the visit, my bike had a flat. I went to the bike-repair-man to get it fixed, but of course he was in his fields harvesting like everyone else. So I walked.
I didn't get there til late morning. They made a big deal that I'd walked "all that way" and seemed pleased that I'd come to see them. 

I'd helped this family harvest once before, last season, and several of Alima's relatives I knew from the rice place or the health clinic. So I felt pretty at home and decided to stay a bit. I wasn’t about to just sit there while they worked, so I asked to help. They offered me some cooked beans to eat. I offered to help again, and they told me to rest under a tree. I asked a third time, and they finally went to go find a knife I could use.

Harvesting millet involves several steps. After cutting down the millet stalks, you cut of the top of the millet and put it in large bowls. These bowls are carried on the head to a large wooden pallet where they are all put on one gigantic pile. They are kept there until the millet seeds can be removed and placed in storage or ground into flour and then stored. I helped cutting off the tops of millet plants. A lot of millet plants. Because the harvest has to last a family the whole year, there is a huge amount to be done.

After a little bit of time working, it suddenly made sense to me why, even though it wasn’t hot season, everyone started harvest around 5 am. At noon in the sun in Burkina, it’s always hot.

There were four of us working in the same area. The work was routine and most of the time was spent chatting and bending over to work. Most women here live their lives like this: forever bending over to do something or another and gossiping with the woman next to them. I felt pleased to be included, glad that I could pick up on some of what they were saying. Occasionally since they knew I was leaving soon, someone would ask me something about America (is it true that some families have two cars?), but mostly I just listened.

Too often for my liking, Alima would ask me if I was ready to rest yet. After a while of this, I chided her for treating me like an old woman. She was so worried I’d get hurt. Her friends laughed and she stopped pestering me. But as we went back to work, she also explained to me that she was worried working in the sun like this would give me malaria again (a common folk belief). Then I tried to explain to her that you can only get malaria by mosquito bites. I’m not sure I convinced her, but who knows.

When I finally sat down to rest, the women were impressed, despite the fact that they had and would work for 5 times as long every day for several months. I had brought my camera, and I brought it out to take some pictures of the women harvesting. They loved it, and on request they posed like pros (with the baby, all together now, cutting millet). I ate the beans I was offered once again. Then I said my good-byes and told the women I would be back soon.

Two days later I made the track back, this time in late afternoon. It wasn’t nearly as hot. Alima fussed over me a bit, concerned the harvesting had been too hard on my hands. She seemed satisfied only when I let her examine them. I had cut one finger but it had been protected by the skin and hadn’t bled at all. I didn’t have any blisters. She seemed satisfied. “Well” she said in Moore, “I just wanted to be sure. Last year you had bad problems with your hands. Your hands bled and we had to wrap one in fabric. Remember?”

I had completely forgotten, but as she spoke, I did remember. After much less work the last year, I’d had bad blisters and bled through a piece of cloth I’d tied on my hand to keep working. As I remembered and it dawned on me how much had changed in a year. I took a moment too long in responding; to cover it, I made a joke. I said that clearly my hands had become strong and Mossi; I was sure they’d turn as dark as hers any day now. She laughed and went back to what she’d been doing.

I couldn’t get that conversation out of my head though. I started to realize that my hands were a bit more calloused, that they didn’t bleed anymore when I scrubbed my clothes clean, and that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a blister. I remembered them playing with children, hauling water, holding the hands of sick people, greeting everyone a billion times a day by shaking their hand, sweeping my courtyard ... doing small things that all added up to tougher skin.

“My hands don’t bleed anymore”

You see, I explained, I came to this country with hands that knew a pen and a key board pretty well, but they didn’t know the first thing about a how to use a hoe or hold a newborn. My hands will always be those of a privileged person. They come from and will go back to a land of opportunities. But they have changed. So much so, that they don’t really bleed anymore.

I’ve said before, a Burkinabe’s hands tell the stories of their heart. I like to think that now mine do a little bit, too.