A home away from home

West African hospitality doesn’t stop at a lunch invitation; it goes all out for this African sister travelling the region alone—on this leg of my travels, in Mali.

In Souleymana’s case the hospitality came with an invitation to move into his home “to be with family”. Who could resist? So instead of finding myself lonesome in yet another dilapidated budget hotel, I move in to compound number 227, in dusty Djocoroni Para, Bamako.

Number 227 is a large four-bedroom flat with two kitchens, a lounge, two typically uninviting bathrooms and a dining room turned into an extra bedroom. The family comprises Souleymana, his two brothers, their sister, four friends and, at any given time, an assortment of tourists, travellers, students and businessmen who drift here. That’s how wide the Sene family’s open-door policy is.

West Africans call it social living; your first obligation is to family and friends, after which helping everyone around you is your spiritual calling and a pleasure to execute. This philosophy has turned the Sene family’s home into the “world”, as Omar puts it.

Omar is the other half of a French couple, here to see his lady through three months of art school. Others who have made Souleymana’s household their world for a while include Charles, the self-described “tour guide and hustler” with three years’ experience in Conakry, Guinea. Then comes Samba, a Senegalese who has lived in Abidjan for four years, and Abass, who cheerfully tells me he has pushed drugs in Nice in France, a country he loves to hate, knowing it better than Mali.

There is also Dave, the gold dealer who walked in with Abass one morning, screaming royal murder into his phone—a gold deal gone sour. The dealer wanted money before handing over the goods. Dave (and his photograph with Prince Charles) wanted the goods before handing over the cash—by a bank transaction once back in London. “Haven’t you heard of recession? The white man has no more money, my friends,” he kept saying.

And then there’s Miriam. I met the Sene family through Miriam, who met them through Abass, who knows Souleymana from when they lived in Togo. Hang around Miriam a few minutes and you will not doubt realise that music is her passion. She breaks into song at any time, ideally accompanied by an instrument.

“I can’t live without music,” is her catchphrase. It’s followed by the clearing of her throat, the soft humming of a melody and then a full-throttle song in her soulful voice. But that is only in her head. The truth is Miriam sings as well as most white people dance, as well as a lot of black people swim. She inspires all of us at the house to declare “poor thing” and look away in embarrassment.

Miriam, a 27-year-old Spanish Gypsy, came to Africa “to study music”, she tells me in Segou, the south-central Mali city, where we meet during the annual festival sur le Niger. The festival is a get-together of musicians from Mali and neighbouring countries. At night the golden lights of the stage shimmer on the surface of the water and thousands push forward as though we are not jamming on the banks of the (mighty) river Niger.

By day the festival is magic with a traditional sound track and spontaneous drumming sessions. A marionette parade floats on the river. Nomads form a semicircle under a tree; the red earth beneath their feet is their stage as they clap a rhythm while a few move with the grace of camels in motion.

It “inspires” Miriam to “create music”. Her favourite question is: “You want I play something?”—followed by strumming, a ding ding ding. She clears her throat, then: “All we need is love. And peace. Love. Love. Yeah.” She’ll then pass her weapon to her man and ask him to strum No Woman, No Cry. This is her cue to freestyle: “Don’t cry mama Afrika. Fara-fina. Yes Mr Bob Marley. Afrika. Mali. Fara-fina.”

Miriam has single-handedly turned the roof of our communal home into something close to hell. The roof is the heart of the house. It’s where the brothers’ friends come to chill, drink tea, enjoy the evening breeze and watch telly.

One night Miriam takes out her djembe and starts to wail as loudly as ever. We cringe. She bangs the drum harder. “Music takes me to a deep place” is another of her lines. That place is painful.

One night she sits next to me and wonders why people get so offended when she plays. She suspects local superstition, which says never to play drums at night. But we who have endured hours of her musical talent know it’s because she sucks.

“My doctor says I must stop straining my voice or I won’t be able to sing any more,” she says. I peek at the notepad she always has in case she gets inspiration for lyrics: “Every time best way is the truth. Sometimes it’s hard but always is the best because no real feelings. When we talk about love can broke many things. Feeling me good in spirit is the first thing. After feeling me good with my brothers. Time is going and I want to enjoying all the way. Free your mind and don’t confuse yourself. Love is love.”

“I prefer my own lyrics,” she says.

Her depth has made enemies of us and of instruments alike: a drum, a flute, a guitar and the stringed West African ngoni. The ngoni sounds like heaven in the hands of a professional. Miriam makes the ngoni sound like a crime against humanity. Worse. She now has Samba, Abass, Mohammed and Seray tuned in. They are just as bad as she is. It’s the Sahel Horror Show!

With so many people sharing space and so many new people passing through, we tend to react as one does in the squashed circumstances and get on with our own little interests in public. Abass starts running, I start dancing and soon the roof at sunset is an open-air gym. Moussa comes back from hustling in Guinea, prays at sunset as he does at all five daily prayer times, and Harouna, his friend, Mohammed and Charles follow. Dorianne, the French art student, goes wild with wax and bazin cloth, fashioning elaborate Malian ensembles. Miriam and I follow. That’s social living.

Lerato Mogoatlhe is a South African on a mission to know all of Africa like the back of her hand, starting in the region of her obsession, West Africa. She is headed to Togo, Benin, Nigeria and beyond

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