"Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast..."
In late February, the home of my best friends in village caught on fire. Hassim, his wife Fatim and their year-old baby girl Mariame, are my neighbors here in Dogon counry, Mali.
I was across village at my friend Sadio's house having tea and trying to weave cotton, when suddenly a group of small children scrambled into the courtyard, yelling frantically. Everyone jumped to their feet and started running. I caught Saydio's arm and looked into her panicked eyes for an explanation, and she mumbled something, the only part of which I could catch was "gogo! gogo.... Fatim nbun da jo!" ("fire! fire.... at Fatim's house!"). As we ran I saw a huge plume of smoke pouring into the sky above their home and a wave of dread hit me. I didn't know whether or not Hassim, Fatim or Mariame were trapped inside the burning house. By the time I got there the whole village had crowded around, and the flames were almost extinguished. I immediately picked Fatim out of the crowd-- she was wailing and weeping in exasperation, unable to control herself. A friend held a crying Mariame, and Hassim stood nearby.
I was fascinated with how everyone reacted, trying to imagine myself in a parallel situation in the United States.
Because, here in Mali, it is unacceptable to cry or show extreme emotion in public, all of the village women were yelling at Fatim to get ahold of herself, even hitting her lightly. But at the same time, they were consoling her. They quickly ushered her into another concession behind closed doors, where she could weep freely.
Hassim, on the other hand, was a vision of stern calmness. He stood there, arms crossed, with but a faint smile on his lips to cover whatever emotions lie therein, while his neighbors excitedly ran to the river to fill buckets of water, throwing them on the flames. Countless others approached him to pull the story of what had happened, and how, from those closed lips.
I pieced together the story, listening to the others chatter nervously. The smoke died down, leaving the wreckage of the front of their house, and on the inside of the hangar sat two blackened motorcycles-- one Hassim's, one owned by his friend who had been visiting from out of town.
No one knows exactly how it happened, but it could be deduced from the scene: Fatim had been boiling water in a cauldron on a three-stone fire on coals inside the hangar. She left, with Mariame tied to her back, to go fetch water from the river. Fuel, fumes, or something flammable, must have leaked from one of the motorcycles, igniting upon contact with the coals. Luckily, the fuel tanks of both motorcycles remained intact-- there was no explosion. As for the house, the rocky terrain of Dogon country turned out to be a blessing for them: all Dogon houses are built of stone, with mud as an adhesive, and so the flames licked only the wooden rafters, support beams, door and windows. The structure of the house was left unscorched, as were a majority of their belongings on the inside.
So what did this mean for Hassim's family, and Hassim's friend? What of their motorcycles, which, to replace, seemed like such an insurmountable task for a family with no source of income, and surely no excess for insurance purposes? Their motorcycles were one of their only assets, aside from the little livestock their families own. In the developed world, it is a tragedy when someone's house burns down or a car is destroyed. Here in rural Africa, I struggled to imagine what they were feeling.
And yet, as I think about it, I'm not sure which scenario is more devastating. On the one hand, my friends here in Mali have virtually nothing, so to lose what they do have is horrible. On the other hand, they aren't dependent on a wealth of material goods built upon itself to construct a life.
...If you're used to having nothing, does it make it easier to lose what you do have?
As I write this several weeks later, Hassim is fixing his house. For weeks he had been making mud bricks-- digging up dirt, going to the river to fill buckets with water to mix, painstakingly forming each brick and laying it in the sun to dry. He searched for wood and straw to reconstruct his hangar, walking miles each day. His friend never asked him for money for his destroyed motorcycle. No one placed blame on Fatim for leaving the hot coals unattended, nor on Hassim or his friend for parking their motos right next to the pot. They simply say that an evil wind came through, and that, thanks to Allah, no one was hurt and worse damage to their home was avoided. They continue with their lives.
I still don't have the answers to the questions I asked above. The only sense I can make out of it is this: whether in Mali, or in the United States, we mustn't allow the things we own to become a burden, for if we do, their loss can destroy us.
"And tell me... what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors?
Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power?
Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind?
Have you the beauty, that leads from the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountain?
Tell me, have you these in your houses?
Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house as a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master?
... Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning to the funeral.
But you, children of space, you restless in rest, you shall not be trapped or tamed. Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast...
You shall not fold your wings that you may pass through its doors, nor bend your heads that they strike not against a ceiling door, nor fear to breathe lest the walls should crack and fall down.
For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky, whose windows are the songs and the silences of night."