The Common Good

From the Dust of the Ground

It is seven o'clock in the morning. The sun is rising over our mountain.

A butterfly settles on the dust. Image courtesy Romas_Photo/shutterstock.com.
A butterfly settles on the dust. Image courtesy Romas_Photo/shutterstock.com.

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It is already hot.

Drops of sweat roll off of the end of my nose and fall to the thirsty ground. Rain has not been on this part of the earth for seven months. Perhaps these drops are a sign to the ground that the first rains are only a few weeks away. I think that makes the ground happy.

I am working with Bala. He is eleven years old. As I look into his eyes I can see intelligence and empathy there—a good combination of traits in anyone at any age but especially in someone so young. His big smile warms me as much as our sun does. When he smiles it is as if my heart is basking in sunshine, as if my soul is standing in the early morning sunrise. All during the day we played a game called "foda." He calls out my name and if I say "foda" then I am safe. But if I forget to say "foda" and say "huh?" instead then he gets to thump me three times on my forehead. Each time he gets me, he giggles as he thumps me and in turn his giggles make me laugh. There is a story in West Africa that teaches that those who make their friends laugh are worthy of paradise. If this is true then he will have a prominent place there. In stature he is small and thin but his heart is as big and broad as this field in which we are standing.

In one hand we are holding small gourds that have been cut in half and filled with millet seeds. In the other we are holding small hoes that the Malinke people call "dabos." We are walking side by side, digging holes in the ground, dropping three tiny black seeds into the earth, and covering the seeds with a fine layer of rocks and dirt. The ground on our mountain is rocky ground and the land seems to have more stones on it than soil. I think it is a miracle that things grow here, that things grow so well here. But they do. We are planting, as all farmers do, in the hope that good rains will come and help the seeds grow into whole, full stalks of millet. I am enjoying learning the life of a Malinke farmer. Bala is my teacher. This is his field.

There is a commotion below us at the bottom of the field, the shouting of children and the barking of a dog. We look up from our work, lifting our hands to our faces to shield our eyes from the glare of the sun.

"What's happening?" I ask.

"A squirrel," he answers. "A squirrel is in the ground."

"What are the children doing?" I ask again.

"We're going to trap it. Let's go!" he shouts.

We run to the kids. I watch in wonder as they go about trapping the squirrel. They are standing around a mound of dirt, a mound that is taller than they are, a mound that is covered with squirrel-sized holes. The dog is barking and digging in one of the holes. In ways that seem as familiar to them as brushing their teeth with small sticks of wood, the kids begin to use rocks to block the holes around the barking dog and chop the ground around him with their dabos.

"There it is!" yells Bala.

With one swift motion he reaches into the hole, grabs the squirrel, and pulls it out of it's hiding place.

"Wow," I say, astonished that my little friends are so adept at finding meat for their evening meals.

"Bakary," says Bala, for that is my African name, "We want to give this to you so Fenda can cook it for your supper."

"No, no," I say, "I don't think Fenda knows how to cook a squirrel. I don't think she would like to cook it, anyway. You take it and eat it. You worked hard for it. You give it to your Mother so she can cook it for you, okay?"

After a while the sun reaches its peak in the sky—its crescendo within the symphony of the day—and we are hot and tired. We are standing under the shade of an old baobab tree, taking big gulps of water from our canteens, letting the cool water run off of our faces and onto our shirts to cool and clean us. It is time to walk back to the village because the sun is stronger than we are. We walk. Bala leads and I follow. I ask questions along our way.

"What kind of tree is that?"

"Can you eat it's fruit?"

"Is there a village over that hill?"

"What is the name of that bird?"

Bala answers patiently as we slowly make our way home. We are talking but mostly we are overcome by quiet, silence that falls comfortably after a long stretch of hard work. We are walking. As always, I am thinking and wondering.

We walk up the steep hill into our village. We see other men with dabos hanging over their shoulders. Mud made of dust and sweat is clinging to their tattered farming clothes. We hear the beat of women pounding pestles on mortars, living metronomes that set the rhythm and rhyme of the village day. I feel a child wrap her arms around my knee and I lift her up off of the ground with each step I take, both of us enjoying her way of saying hello. I observe the children in our village as they chase each other around trees and play in the public meeting place, remembering that over half of the population of our African continent is under eighteen years of age. We go our separate ways, I into my courtyard and Bala into his. It feels good to be home.

I sit down in the shade of our thatched roof shelter that our friends built for us. I bury my face into the folds of my shirt to wipe away the sweat from my salt-worn eyes. I look up and see the extended hands of my friend Baiisa. She is Bala's Mother. The Malinke custom is to bring some food to the person who helps in your field and she is honoring that custom now. She is holding a bowl of food in her hands, pounded corn the color of soft butter with peanut sauce poured over the top of it. She tells me she brings it to me as a token of friendship. It is a practical way to say thanks for working in her son's field. As the warm food fills my belly, she gives a blessing to me.

"May God return the kindness to you that you have shown to me."

I reach into the bowl for another handful of the delicious food and I know that she is an answer to her own prayer for me.

Now I am sitting on a mammoth rock up on a hill just behind our courtyard, in the shade of a mango tree. I am enjoying a respite from the mid-days heat. I can see my village before me. It is as if the whole village is taking a collective breath, waiting for the sun to move down on the horizon so people can go back to their fields again. I close my eyes and there on the canvas of my mind I paint a picture of my Malinke friends. I see small clouds of dust rise from the dry, hard ground with each determined stroke of the dabo. I see three tiny millet seeds fall deftly from the planting gourd into the small, hollowed holes in the ground. I see bare feet stepping over the stony field, calloused and broken from a lifetime of playing, working, and living without shoes. The dabo becomes an extension of the hand and the people themselves seem to be growing out of the ground, those same feet being deeply rooted in the soil.

"The Lord God formed people from the dust of the ground," says scripture. I understand this now. I see a person stooped and working, planting the field that will help his family live. He rises slowly and looks at me. I see Bala.

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, SC. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

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