New Internationalist

The Awakening

Issue 394

A short story by Chris Brazier, set in the village of Salmaga in Burkina Faso during the Sankara revolution of 1983-87.

The day news of the Revolution reached Salmaga was a day like any other. The sun climbed high and fast into its cloudless showcase. The children ran in and out, free to come and go as they pleased provided they were still too young to help in the fields or fetch water. Old Gerban was out in front of the concession in his usual place, sitting against the wall with his sightless eyes pointed towards the concrete mound that marked the tomb of his brother, once the most important man in the family. This round raised stone was the gathering-place for the whole extended family. People passed the time of day here, and rehearsed the old stories under a big tree where the bats hung all day, their sacks of wrinkled skin decorating every branch.

Memnatu was arriving back from the well with her third bowl of water – it took four of the heavy metal bowls to fill the storage jar in her part of the concession. She looked straight ahead, thinking neither about the weight on her head nor about the perfect erectness of her posture – those were things a woman learned early, part of her sense of herself. Instead her mind ran on, as it was wont to do, worrying at the problem of her children’s health. What did the baby’s cough mean? And why was her daughter not holding down her food?

As she climbed the small slope towards the concession she saw a man on a bike pedalling furiously towards her as if he’d come from the nearby town of Garango. When he came a little closer she could see that it was Pierre. He looked very excited – his round, honest face was glowing with the effort of his ride, and he clearly wanted to be the first to break some kind of news.

‘Ho! Memnatu!’ he called.

Natizena,’ she said in greeting as he slowed up. He held out his hand for her to clasp it briefly.

Natizei. Hey, what do you think? There’s been a revolution in Ouaga. The army has taken power and is saying our country belongs to the people. They say everything is going to change.’

‘What do they mean?’

‘I’m not sure, but that’s what they’re saying, anyway. I’ll see you later – I have to tell everyone else.’ And he was away again, swinging down past the tree into the dip and on up the other side towards his own family’s concession.

Memnatu looked after him in some bewilderment – she had never seen him so excited before. He was a Catholic boy with a slow but easy smile, thought to be very dependable by the elders of the village. As if echoing her thoughts, Gerban called her over.

‘I don’t know why he’s so worked up,’ he said, ‘nothing will change. Governments come and go but life here stays the same. Things are harder than they used to be, but people in Ouagadougou won’t do anything about that.’

Memnatu had to agree. She didn’t know much about the politics of the capital – who in the village did? – but she had never seen it affect their own lives. There was the dam which filled the reservoir across the way and must, she supposed, have been paid for by the Government, but what good did that do for the village? You still had to walk two kilometres to the well for water four times a day, you still had to plead with a merciless sky every year for rain to help your crops along.

Memnatu moved on with her load into the concession. Its mud walls reached up to just above head height and the conical straw roofs of the huts poked over the top at intervals. She passed into the gap that served as a gateway, and beyond into the network of passageways that veined the largest concession in the village. At least 60 people lived here, each family in its own unit. Memnatu’s home was typical enough – separated from the other living quarters by a chest-high wall. There were three huts here – one for Memnatu and her four children with a little courtyard outside, mud seats built into the walls; one for her co-wife Alima and her children, with a bigger courtyard that befitted her status as the first and oldest wife; and the third for their husband Oumaru.

Memnatu poured the water down into the jar from on top of her head, temporarily setting a shimmering curtain between herself and the bright colours of her world. Then, without pausing, since there was much to be done before the sun fell, she was away again on her fourth journey to the well.

                     * * *

The months passed and, as Gerban had predicted, nothing changed. The millet was harvested and stored in the mini-huts that served as granaries. There did not seem to be as much grain as the year before – but then there never seemed to be as much as the year before. And, besides, Memnatu could never be sure, since only her husband could look in the granary. Just after the harvest he gave each of his co-wives a storage jar full of millet that they would be able to use in the hard times of the year. But for the most part they depended for their own and their children’s food on the amount Oumaru carefully measured out to them every four days.

‘Don’t waste any of it,’ he would say over and over. ‘If you waste it, you’ll go hungry, because I won’t give you any more.’ As if she or Alima would ever waste food! Perhaps in the old days when the granaries were filled to overflowing, in the times Gerban would recall with such fondness for anyone who had the time to listen, wives used to be profligate with their food – but no woman of her age had ever been secure enough from the fear of hunger to be so careless. Oumaru’s imprecation was just a tradition – it was as if he had to mistrust his wives on principle, as if by urging them every day to be careful he was warding off the evil spirit in them that would cause Allah alone knew what mischief if it was allowed free rein. The rains had dwindled to nothing by October and then it was on into the dry, cool winter when nothing can be grown except tomatoes or okra for the markets if you were prepared to make the trek to the reservoir for water to help them grow. It was much the same as every year – the women had all their normal work but were spared the extra labour in the fields, while many of the men left to look for work elsewhere, in the towns or even, if they had the money for the fare, on the plantations of Côte d’Ivoire. All promised to return for the rains but every year there were some that did not.

But every now and then through that year there would come rumours from the capital, and not always borne by Pierre, though his ears were as eager as anybody’s for the latest word from Ouaga. The young were particularly ready to discuss the new developments, since they told of an army officer almost as young as themselves who was different from all the other leaders, who was honest and cared about his people instead of just about himself. ‘Camarade Capitaine Thomas Sankara …’ His name cropped up in conversations all over the village long before anyone had seen his picture. Word had it that he had once come to the school in Garango for its open day, and that the Belgian nurse there had a letter from him. Gerban still refused to believe that anything would change and said he could not tell whether Sankara was a good or a bad man until he had heard him speak. So Pierre brought a little radio to the concession and they listened to the impassioned voice together, Pierre translating the parts of the French that he understood with the anxiety of the convert. When it was over and the still sound of the wind in the bat tree returned, Gerban narrowed his blind eyes as if they were peering into the distance and pronounced his verdict: ‘I believe he is good, this Sankara.’

                       *  *  *

In May, just before the next rains, Memnatu’s third child fell ill. The baby was still healthy, protected by his breastfeeding, but four-year-old Fatimata suddenly tumbled into a raging fever. It was rare that a year passed without a child being sick with diarrhoea or vomiting, and that was worrying enough, since Memnatu herself had seen many of the village children waste away into nothingness from what seemed like a trivial beginning. But this was obviously more serious. Her own co-wife Alima had lost two of her five children in this way and they talked worriedly about what should be done.

‘I think you should take her to Lembussa,’ said Alima.

Memnatu sighed but agreed. Lembussa was the wise woman who’d delivered all her babies, but she had a certain reluctance about going to her with something of this sort. There was no knowing what the formidable old woman would diagnose, and Memnatu feared that she might prescribe clitoridectomy for her daughter, young though she was – she knew that there was already much talk around the village about her decision not to send her eldest child Salamatu to be circumcised. But she wrapped up Fatimata and carried her in her arms instead of on her back across the valley to another large concession, in the heart of which she found Lembussa.

Ahsé,’ said Memnatu in respectful greeting, and sat down. The old woman was a little stooped but still strong. She already knew about the little girl, and would have been surprised and offended had she not been consulted as to the requisite treatment. It didn’t take her long to find out the problem, either.

‘I’ve seen this many times before. A great bird of evil omen must have flown in from the bush and passed exactly over Fatimata while she was sleeping. All we have to do is let the wickedness out.’ Lembussa went over into her hut, and emerged from the darkness with a razor blade. She laid the child on her lap and made a small but deep cut beneath the right eye, just on the cheekbone. Fatimata screamed, as much because of the iodine which Lembussa had rather reluctantly adopted as a new-fangled sterilizing agent as because of the actual incision. Memnatu gathered her daughter up hurriedly and left, pausing only to thank the old woman and to take the strip of cotton she offered as a means of staunching the blood flow.

‘So Fatimata will have a scar,’ she thought as she hurried away, ‘as if she were a Mossi child. Still, sometimes that can look quite pretty.’ She was relieved that the cut had been all that was necessary, and, though she had not been sure before whether this visit would do any good, she somehow had no doubt now that Fatimata’s illness would heal with her scar. And within a week the child was playing again.

                       *  *  *

Memnatu was one of the most popular women in Salmaga and she enjoyed that. She was tall and strong, and still young for her 25 years, despite her four children. Her face was not as beautiful as that of some of the other women of the area, she knew, but it was infused with such life that those comparisons were irrelevant – she looked all the time as though she was poised on the brink of laughter, as though gaiety were her most natural state. Only her breasts, pulled and pummelled into lank submission by four hungry infants, showed signs of age, along with her hands, their knuckles slightly swollen. For all the pleasures of being known and respected in the community for miles around, for having something to say and a smile for everyone she passed on the track between the village and Garango, life was hard – no harder than for anyone else, but still difficult. She couldn’t help sometimes but look back upon her childhood in Garango as a paradise, full of rain and plenty.

Her father had had three wives, so there had always been plenty of brothers and sisters around to play with, and there had never seemed to be any problem with the food supply – not that she would have been told if there had been. Her father took the education of his daughters seriously and she learned in French about the world beyond the Bissa people, about Upper Volta and France. She could speak French better than she read it, but either way it was enough to get by.

By the time she was 16 Memnatu was a very marriageable prospect, and three men had already staked their claims to her. There was no question which of the three she preferred. Michel was, at 18, very young as a man to be thinking of marriage, but she had known him at school and there had always been something special between them. At first it had just been a shy kind of friendship which had lapsed once Michel had left school. But they’d met once in the market in Garango and he’d asked at what age she wanted to marry, and from then on she’d known what was inside both of them. It was with some difficulty that she acknowledged this, since it was bound to cause problems – she had been raised a Muslim, while Michel was Catholic. Worse still, three years before, her sister had explored the same stony ground – she had decided to marry a Catholic boy. She had clung to resolve and her lover despite all her father’s anger, his threats that she would never see the family again. And now she was married with a child in Ouagadougou and she had a new Catholic name – Jacqueline.

Memnatu hoped that her father would have learned from the loss of one daughter. But his reaction was just the same. After a furious scene he forbade her ever to see Michel again and swore that if she betrayed her faith by marrying the boy she would be an outcast from the family. Then he stormed out of the concession, leaving Memnatu in the throes of an awful decision. She walked off on her own down the road past the goat market, where the houses thread along it before giving way to open country. Once out of sight of people she sat down at the foot of a baobab tree, a younger, less boastful version of the huge one beside the chief’s concession in Garango.

In truth there was no decision to make – Memnatu had already accepted that she could not marry Michel. Knowing that made her want to be with him even more, made her insides flutter upwards as if to turn her back onto a different road. But to marry him she would have to move away and never see all the places and the people she loved – and she had loved all of them longer than she had loved Michel. They were part of herself, like this tree was part of this rock-hard earth. She turned over a stone beside her with a strange delicacy and watched the white scorpion beneath it swing its tail from side to side, searching for the enemy that threatened it with this blinding light. Killing scorpions is almost a reflex action, something you don’t think about, so hostile are we to each other as creatures, yet Memnatu carefully set the stone back in place above it, restoring its dark safety. Then she set off back to town to tell Michel.

                        *  *  *

The choice between her two remaining suitors was not difficult to make. Both were Muslim, both already had wives and were much older than Michel, but Oumaru was clearly the nicer of the two. He was a quiet man of 30 who exuded a kind of gentle strength. ‘He’s steady,’ said her mother, ‘he won’t let you down and he won’t beat you.’ What more could she ask of a husband than that? – except the means with which to keep her, and her father was already satisfied of that. Oumaru had only been back in the area for six months having worked on the plantations in the Ivory Coast for five years. Unlike most men, he’d taken his wife and children there with him and had saved enough to clear himself of worries about any bad harvests in the next few years. Now that his father’s death had brought him home to Salmaga, it seemed that a second wife would be commensurate with his new status as head of the family. And he regarded Memnatu as quite a prize, not just because she came from a good family in Garango, but because she was lively and intelligent. Not every man wanted that in a wife but Oumaru felt sure she would enrich his life and bring him happy, healthy children. So they married and Memnatu entered upon the normal married life of a Bissa woman. The rhythm of her daily work was soon established. She would rise before dawn to prepare some food for Omaru and herself. Then he would ride off on his bicycle into the bush, since the main family fields were 14 kilometres away. Memnatu and Alima would follow on foot. It was a long walk which took them two hours but it was still one of the most pleasant times of the day – there was nothing to carry except Alima’s baby, and the air was still cool and fresh. And it gave them the chance to talk properly, for Memnatu to ask all she wanted about the life of her new village, about her own role as a wife. She had been prepared for that role since birth but she was still anxious to fulfil it in every particular. She listened carefully to Alima with all the respect that the second wife should show to the first, mindful that it must be strange for her suddenly to be sharing her husband and home with a younger woman. Memnatu was well aware of the problems there could be between co-wives but she was determined to avoid them, and in truth, Alima was so quiet, kind and patient that it was hard to imagine any bad feeling arising between them.

When they arrived Oumaru would tell them what needed doing, which rows of millet seedlings to weed by scraping the earth around them with the wood-and-metal dabas. Since Memnatu knew very well herself at a glance what needed to be done, it seemed a little strange at first that Alima should have to be given orders – she had worked this land almost as long as her husband. But she soon realized that it was important for men to show that they had the authority.

Their backs would be bent until midday when Oumaru would retreat from the fierce onslaught of the sun into the shade of a tree; there he would rest and perhaps chat to a friend before continuing work later in the afternoon. The women, meanwhile, would go off in search of firewood, choosing wherever possible the dead branches so as not to rob the trees of life. In the old days wood had been gathered from around the village, but now the trees of Salmaga were sparse and precious, and it was forbidden to cut them down. So the women had to bring back firewood from the bush, piling the twigs into a bundle four feet high above their heads, adding more time and fatigue to the long day. While Memnatu had no children to provide for, the loads they carried could be a little smaller, or else they could sell some of the wood and buy spices or even vegetables in the market to make their husband’s meal more interesting. And Alima would often say: ‘It’s good to have a co-wife, to share the work.’ Later Memnatu would have her own children and would have too much work of her own to lighten Alima’s burden, but for the moment she felt glad that she could be so useful.

Back at the concession there would be water to fetch from the well and then millet to prepare for the evening meal. And only after the meal was eaten and the night come down could Memnatu sit and think about the change in her life. She did not think of Michel, nor did she consider whether this new life was good, whether it suited her. She wondered only how good a wife she was making, if she was playing her part well. And she yearned for the time when she would be fully accepted as a woman and as Oumaru’s wife, which would not come until she had a child. She knew that the tongues of the old women would begin to wag if she showed none of the familiar signs within three months, and infertility was a black pocket of fear inside her, a great and terrible disgrace. So Memnatu was glad that Oumaru would come to her hut every night in those first months. Normally he would have divided his favours equally between them, but Alima had just given birth and thus was still in the two-year grace period in which it is taboo for a man to have sex with his wife – a traditional protection from the rigours of non-stop pregnancy, evolved by a society without contraception. It was strange, to be sure, this brief but rhythmic heaving, as if Omaru were a daba and she the earth, but he seemed to need it and she knew that a baby could not follow without it. She did not have long to wait, and the old women’s tongues were stilled before the end of the three months. Memnatu’s three-yearly cycle of pregnancy and respite had begun.

                     *  *  *

The winter after the Revolution there was more news from Ouagadougou, and this time it wasn’t just a rustling in a far-off forest, with an interesting sound but no real meaning – this time there were orders for Salmaga. A young man with sparks in his eyes came specially from the big town of Tenkodogo and called a meeting to explain what had to be done. It was the villagers’ first contact with a revolutionary – there were young men in Garango who fancied themselves enough to call themselves by that name, but no one was as yet very convinced; after all, it was just Jean or Brehima whom they’d seen in his school clothes or working in his father’s fields, so how could he suddenly be a ‘revolutionary’? But there were no questioners of the stranger’s credentials. He was no older than Pierre but he had a passion and an authority that immediately set him apart. Rumour had it that he was going to be Haute-Commissaire, the most important man in the regional centre, Tenkodogo. To be working in that big building set apart from the town where the whites used to rule, and so young!

When he had gone, the village could talk about nothing else for days. It wasn’t so much his grand words about building a new country, about working together to undo the damage of the white imperialists, of the capitalists from over the sea who were bleeding the nation dry – that could have been just a modified version of all the other speeches made since Upper Volta’s independence. ‘Words,’ Gerban always said, ‘words change nothing on their own.’ But this new country was to be built in a different way, on their thoughts and needs. In every village and every district of every town there was to be a Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR). This committee would have the power to decide what happened to the village and the power to convey to the Government what the people wanted – ‘the link between Sankara and Salmaga,’ said the revolutionary official, seizing on the similarity between the two names like a born orator. And what’s more, this committee was not to be nominated by the Government or by the local chief but was instead to be elected by everyone in the village, male and female alike.

‘You should be choosing,’ advised the official rather fiercely, ‘not the oldest people, nor the people with most money, nor those in your family, but those who believe most passionately in the Revolution, who will work hardest for development and justice.’ And this was not all. At least two members of the CDR had by law to be women, and one of those had to be either the head or the deputy head of the committee.

This caused more consternation in the village than anything else. Women had gone to the meeting on the open ground beside the copse, but more because it was a big event for the village which they wanted to see than because they expected what the luminary said would involve them. Making decisions was something men did, and there were many women who were not sure this new idea was a good one – it would only cause trouble, and besides, how could you argue against a man in front of all the other men? Who would be able to do that, and what man would allow his wife to take part?

Memnatu was not of this camp – she had been impressed by the revolutionary’s words about changing the country, about working together to make life better, and she felt inspired to think that women had a part to play in such important work. Somehow it changed the whole way she saw the Revolution. Before it had just been a different set of people in power in Ouagadougou. But the official’s phrase – ‘this is women’s Revolution, too’ – set her imagining women at work all over Upper Volta, not just raising children and drawing water, not just scraping the fields and washing the clothes, but also helping to make the country less poor. How it could be made less poor was beyond her understanding for the moment but it was an inspiring vision nevertheless. Perhaps for the first time, she felt connected with the nation beyond the hills, with the people away in Ouaga and Bobo, Fada and Koupela, she felt that she was not just a Bissa woman from Garango but a Voltaic, an African.

Excited as she was by her imaginings, Memnatu had no thought of standing in the CDR elections. She assumed that two of the older women would be elected, someone like Lembussa who had years of respect and authority behind her, and she said nothing about her response to the meeting. She stayed out of the discussions about the difficulties that a mixed committee would run into, and her family’s women wondered at her quietness, since she was normally a lively participant in the debates of the concession.

Then one day, as she sat sorting out husks from grains beside the gravestone in front of the concession, old Gerban started a conversation on a surprising theme. It was late afternoon and he was in his normal place with the sun full on his face, feeling the light and warmth soak into his skin the more because it could not penetrate his eyes. Since she had come to the concession those ten years before, he had grown more and more fond of Memnatu – she listened to his stories and asked his advice, and he in turn found himself listening with more attention to what she said about the people and life of the village than he was wont to offer to a woman.

‘What do you think about this committee idea?’ he asked. Memnatu’s face glowed red and though the old man could not see her blush, her mumbled reply was enough to communicate her confusion. ‘I have been thinking long and hard about this business,’ continued Gerban as if he had heard nothing, ‘and I am still not sure what my opinion of it is. I can see there being trouble with the Chief because he will not have the same power as before. And perhaps that’s a bad thing – our traditions are our strength and the old ways must be preserved. But the old ways didn’t stop the white men taking taxes from our grandfathers, and they haven’t stopped life becoming harder. And if Sankara and that Haute-Commissaire are to be trusted we will perhaps be able to ask for help with our problems instead of just waiting while they worsen.’ He paused, and the sound of children playing on the other side of the communal stone, Fatimata among them, momentarily had no competition. Memnatu looked at his wrinkled face with affection – so he had felt the pull, the inspiration as well. She waited for him to go on.

‘As for women being on the committee, well, I know that many of the men think it is ridiculous. And perhaps when I was younger and I had to keep up my authority over my wives I would have felt the same. But to me the most important thing is that we choose the right women, who will be strong enough to tell the men what women think. That is why I think you, Memnatu, should stand for election.’

The space after his words seemed to make them echo and emphasize their enormity. When Memnatu eventually spoke, it was not to offer the protest that Gerban had perhaps expected, but instead to ask a purely practical question. ‘Won’t the village choose someone like Lembussa rather than me?’

‘I cannot say. But Lembussa is part of the old way, as I am. She speaks no French and she does not read like you. She has no understanding of the new ideas, and I do not think she will want anything to do with them. She may cause you trouble. There is already the question of Salamatu’s circumcision which hangs between you. You are still quite decided about that?’

‘I am.’

‘I do not speak – this is a woman’s affair. But you have argued with Lembussa and she has not persuaded you?’

‘She has warned me that it will be more difficult for Salamatu and Fatimata to find a husband. I know this. But I know also that I cannot send my daughters for circumcision.’

Memnatu spoke firmly but quietly – this was not a subject it would be seemly to shout about. Gerban pondered for a moment before replying.

‘I suppose you brought the seed of this idea from Garango – and probably it was sown there by people from Ouaga. The world is changing, and not just because of revolutions – men are taking fewer wives, and more of the young ones leave our village and never return. The soil becomes harder to cultivate every year. It has been difficult for you to speak your mind. But Lembussa and the older women respect you more than you know – they could simply take Salamatu aside one day and use the razor but they do not. You will find your support not in the village but in this Revolution. I am the more convinced that you should stand.’

The children’s voices asserted themselves again and Memnatu turned her head to look at them. There was a dispute over a small lizard, and Fatimata was arguing with one of Alima’s boys for her rights to it. Even at this distance the little scar beside her nose was visible, like a reminder of the power of the old ways. Memnatu could not say what had made her so clear about clitoridectomy, so sure that it was wrong. She remembered a girl at school who had only appeared briefly after her ceremony and had died soon after. Nobody had said why she had fallen ill but the connection between the two events had been clear. But she remembered, too, a conversation with Jacqueline about a Mossi woman in Garango who was rumoured not to have been cut, yet who nevertheless had a husband and some fine children. The knowledge that she could not send her daughters had grown on her gradually after Salamatu’s birth, a kernel of certainty deep inside that was only waiting on her recognition of it.

And she recognized another kernel of certainty inside herself now. The idea was out in the sunlight now, it was spoken. And it was as if she had always known that she would help the Revolution in a special way. But there was one more fire to jump over before she could participate in the election. She stood up with her bowl of millet and reached down to touch Gerban’s hand. He closed his fingers around hers and bared his toothless gums in a smile.

                    *  *  *

The millet that Memnatu had been sorting, picking out the husks, now had to be ground into flour. Pounding the grain to split them and detach the hard husks from the nutritious centre was exhausting enough. But grinding it then into flour was the most physically demanding task of the day. She poured the grains into a hollowed-out stone and began to push down hard against it with a smaller stone. Back and then hard forward, she built up her rhythm and ignored the ache in her muscles, watching the proportion of powder in the hollow gradually grow. If only we had a little more money, she thought, I could take millet to the mill every day. There had long been a mill in Garango, but it was just three years ago that its owner, a rich merchant who also owned the only tractor in the area, had built one for Salmaga. It lay in its own small hut beside the copse under the hill where the village held its modest market. There, for a fee, the merchant’s man would set his oil-driven machine spluttering and roaring through the millet, grinding in a matter of seconds what took a woman and her stones ache-filled hours. But Oumaru would not have felt it right to waste money on what was part of a wife’s daily duties anyway. So, unless they had earned more than usual themselves from selling firewood – their only real source of independent income – Memnatu and Alima were resigned to this daily grind.

At last the flour was fine enough. Time was getting on – the conversation with Gerban had taken up more time than she had planned, and today of all days she could not afford to be late with Oumaru’s meal. She started a fire and set some water to boil on top of it. There were two parts to the everyday meal. The most important part was the millet, the staple to fill everyone up, and it was the husband’s responsibility to provide that, even if his wives did much of the work in the family fields that allowed him to do so. But the wife had to furnish a sauce that would make the meal more tasty, even though she was given no money with which to buy chillies or vegetables. In the five months of the rainy season this was less of a problem, since although it rained very little, the first onset of moisture was enough to put leaves on the trees, many of which could be mushed into a thick, slimy sauce that was full of goodness. But this winter night she would have to make do with the few condiments that she’d been able to buy with firewood money.

In the pot now the flour and water was thickening as she stirred it into porridge, the into which her children would dip their eager right hands, mixing a blob of the glutinous mixture with sauce before pushing it into their mouths. ‘There is enough time, after all,’ she thought with relief.

After the meal, while the children were still sitting in her courtyard, Memnatu passed through to her husband’s section of the compound. He was writing on a blackboard in a studied Arabic script that he’d learned through his religious devotions – she supposed he was keeping his accounts. Sometimes, as a more educated man than was normal, he would take care of the accounts of another Muslim – perhaps those of a woman who was engaging in a little marketing business. But this aspect of their life was barred and foreign to Memnatu. She squatted to collect his bowl but did not rise with it immediately.

‘You have heard about the new Committee and the elections?’ she asked.

‘Yes, of course.’ Oumaru looked up, a little surprised. He stood rather aloof from village gossip but he had attended the political meeting with his Muslim friends, as she surely knew.

‘And you know there are to be women on the Committee?’ He widened his eyes in assent, beginning to realize what was coming. ‘I should like to stand for election, if you will allow it.’

He looked hard at her face, thinner than it had been all those years ago when he had paid his visits to Garango, but still young and strong. He saw enough in it to show that this was something about which she felt deeply. He motioned to her to sit down beside the wall to his right and she did so, awaiting his answer.

‘When I chose you as my wife,’ Oumaru began, laying down his blackboard, ‘I knew that I was choosing no ordinary woman. And you have proved that with your stubbornness over Salamatu’s ceremony. I did not interfere since, as far as I understand, it is custom and not religious duty which make us circumcise our daughters. And you have been a good wife aside from that – you have worked hard in my fields and borne me strong, fine children. But this revolution business is something else again. You believe, then, that it is good for our village?’

Memnatu did not answer for a second, so unaccustomed was she to being asked what she thought by any man, let alone her husband. But when she spoke it was in a clear, firm voice. ‘I believe that it can be good, that it is up to us all to make it good.’

‘Perhaps you are right,’ he said pensively. ‘For myself it is enough to live and work under Allah’s law, to pray for rain and a harvest that will see us through the year without hunger. Will your Revolution then guarantee these things?’ He spoke a little playfully, and Memnatu knew that he did not intend her to answer. He looked up beyond the outer wall, where the stars were beginning to prick through their curtain.

‘Very well, I will allow it provided it does not interfere with your duties as a wife and mother. Like all these things it probably will not last. But if there must be women on the Committee, there is no more able woman in the village than you.’ With that he picked up his blackboard again as if to dismiss her. Memnatu stood, gave a little bow towards her husband, and went through to her own open living room.

That night, as she lay in her hut surrounded by the gentle sound of her children’s breathing, she stared into the darkness trying to absorb the meaning of the day. The rhythm was broken – where would this new path lead?

                    *  *  *

Exactly a year after the Revolution Memnatu made a trip to Ougadougou. There were to be celebrations to mark the anniversary and Jacqueline sent enough money for the fare, as she had done twice before. There was still much work to be done weeding the fields but Oumaru decided he could do without her for a few days and Alima agreed to care for the children on the understanding that Salamatu could help her with the water and the grinding. It was not without guilt that Memnatu left her family at such a busy time but she saw Jacqueline so seldom, and the lure of the festival was strong.

The whole journey was always exciting, from the moment she wedged herself into the crowded bush taxi by the market in Garango. First there was the brief stretch to Tenkodogo, down the new road that left the avenue of trees planted by the French along the old route looking rather forlorn, a gateway to nowhere. Then there was the tarmac road — to the south it led to the border with Togo, but they turned north, joining the main highway to the capital at Koupela.

The first time she had travelled along this road she had been fascinated to see the way the villages changed in character, marking their passage from the land of the Bissa to that of the Mossi, always the dominant tribe in the region. The huts were still grouped into concessions, but in a much looser fashion, with more makeshift walls and none of the packed mud floors of which the Bissa women were so justly proud. Whenever the Bissa built a new house it was the man’s responsibility to construct the walls and thatch the roofs, but a woman’s to provide the floor that linked all the walls. Were she to attempt it on her own, it would take days of punishing labour to pack down the thick layer of mud into a flat and solid foundation. Instead, all the women of the village would come together to work collectively on such an occasion, starting from one end of the concession in a line, each wielding a flat piece of wood with a rounded handle and slapping the floor with it in perfect unison as the line advanced. Old women like Lembussa would urge them on, shouting encouragement and curses at the tops of their voices, moving from side to side in time with the thwacking rhythm, their withered bare breasts swinging with them, their blatant toothlessness exposed as they ululated in the traditional way. It was frenzied, tiring work but still something that all the women looked forward to, a time of togetherness and visible achievement. And at the end the hostess would offer everyone a drink of dolo – a millet wine which is strong enough two days after making but after four is so fierce as to be dangerous. The calabashes would be passed all round, and even some of the Muslim women would take a long draught of the forbidden liquid.

The vehicle was far too crowded this time to afford more than a glimpse of the country they passed through, but there was one major change. Outside every town there was a CDR checkpoint, and young men with rifles would check their papers. They looked proud of themselves and their new power and checked everything very carefully – perhaps too carefully, since it was difficult to imagine what threat they might be guarding their town against. Memnatu took a quiet pride in the knowledge that she was ‘CDR’, too – she almost felt like telling them this as they studied her identity card, but it would have served no purpose.

In Ouagadougou itself there was little sign of change. The hubbub of people and vehicles was not quite as alarming as it had been on her first visit but it was just as exciting. ‘Like a hundred Garangos,’ had been the description offered by Jacqueline as the only way of conveying the size of the capital to her younger sister and, in truth, apart from the area around the Presidential Palace with its government offices and machine-gun emplacements all the way down Independence Avenue, Ouaga was very much like an overgrown village. People did not work in the fields here – they carried on their petty commerce full time or, if they were very fortunate, had steady jobs in offices. But their home life was not so different – Jacqueline and her husband, Paul, lived with his aunt and uncle’s family around a small courtyard in which the children played beside goats and chickens. Paul had a good job as a driver with one of the European aid agencies that had swarmed into Ouaga after the Great Sahel Drought of the early 1970s, and Jacqueline found occasional work as a typist. By the standards of Salmaga they were rich – certainly they had no worries about food, and that alone gave life a wholly different character, as if by raising their heads above the struggle to subsist they brought all manner of new concerns into view. Certainly Jacqueline felt that her life was superior in every way to her sister’s and she had never been reticent about expressing her opinion that Memnatu should have married Michel instead of Oumaru.

‘Marriage has made you thin,’ she observed, seeking empirical confirmation of her conviction, ‘while I am as I always was.’ Memnatu could not deny it – she had made the same point many times in the middle of the periodic griping sessions that the women of the concession held about their men. On those occasions their collective complaint was exaggerated for humorous effect, and the more extreme the dismissal of the husband, the more hilarious it was. But their marriages were a fact, the details of which might be lamented but the substance of which was immutable and unquestionable. Men were men – they were lazy or unreasonable or comical but they were indisputably there. And Memnatu saw no point in rehearsing her life as it might have been, even if her original decision had been made on a false premise – Jacqueline and her family had been reconciled after five years. She was Oumaru’s wife and the mother of four fine children; she was a revolutionary, a ‘camarade’.

And it was this she came back to, this she wanted to talk about, eagerly absorbing all the information that her sister as an urbanite could offer her. Yes, Jacqueline had seen Sankara – only once in the flesh, surrounded by guards at the opening of a new school, but many times on the television of a friend. Yes, he was an impressive man, full of fire and force, and even those in the city who muttered against him and the new power of the CDRs admitted that he seemed honest, that he meant what he said and set an example in the fight against corruption. And there was something else about him which she liked – after the Revolution people had tried to buy photographs of the new leader, assuming that they would be obliged to hang them in their shops and houses. But Sankara had let it be known that he did not want his picture to be hung everywhere, that the Revolution was not his but the people’s. ‘There are seven million Thomas Sankaras,’ he had said.

The celebrations themselves were a little bewildering – the President of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, a friend of the Revolution, was supposed to be present, but the crowds were so huge that it was impossible to see anything, impossible for Memnatu to do anything but soak up the feverish excitement that washed around her. Still, she could not help but feel that she was more in touch with the Revolution than ever before. And when she travelled home two days after the anniversary, she was proud to think that she’d been in Ouaga at so momentous a time. For, as if to mark the break with the colonial, corrupt past, the country had been given a new name – Burkina Faso, words from two different tribal languages that together meant ‘Land of the Incorruptible’. Memnatu had left Salmaga as a Voltaic; she returned to it a Burkinabê.

                    *  *  *

Memnatu took her responsibilities as a CDR seriously. She had been put in charge of ‘women’s issues’ and throughout that first year she made it her business to talk to all the women in the village about their lives, even those whom she had only known before by sight or by reputation. There were women from over the other side of the valley, for instance, beyond the well. The more forthright among the women on this fringe of Salmaga were as well known to Memnatu as their men, but there were those wives and grandmothers who kept more to themselves, and it was important that she sat with them and came to know their children and their plaints, that they should come to see her as someone they could confide in. And this contact cut both ways – she hoped through her discussions to push the women forward, to make them ready for the new ideas of the Revolution as the earth is made ready for seed.

This gospel quality was central to the experience of the men and women on the CDR, known by its French initials throughout Burkina, just as ‘six heures’ and ‘midi’ had passed into the local languages, there having been no need for precise times before the empire-builders arrived. They were very young – only one of the ten was over 30 – just as the Haute-Commissaire and Sankara were young. And they were as eager to learn as they were to spread the word, listening carefully as Pierre, whose enthusiasm had won him the CDR leadership, read out in French the latest dictates from the National Council of the Revolution. The price paid by the State to farmers for millet had been raised from 64 to 80 francs per kilo in an effort to encourage them to grow food instead of export crops like cotton… Rent had been abolished for a year so that no-one had to pay a landlord for their house… All the land in Burkina was now owned by the State, and would be distributed equally among men and women alike…

They applauded the new measures and understood the reasons behind them, how they helped the Faso’s progress towards justice in a hostile world. But how the laws would actually apply to Salmaga was often more difficult to grasp: here the soil was not good enough to grow cotton anyway, and what surplus millet they could sell went to the merchant in Garango at his own prices rather than the State’s; here no-one paid rent for their houses anyway; here people went on farming their own land, and who was it who was going to change things, to share out the parcels more fairly?

But if some of the revolutionary changes were obscure and still distant, there was one which everybody understood and rejoiced at – all taxes on the rural population were abolished. This did more to make the revolution popular in Salmaga than any number of words, and it helped to foster the CDR’s belief in itself. For they were impatient and, though they were proud of their role as ‘revolutionaries’, they were still rather unsure as to what that role entailed. One day, at a meeting in Pierre’s concession, some of their frustrations surfaced. There was only one talking-point at first – a Garango CDR member, Jean, whom many of them had known for years, had lost his temper while on guard duty and hit a cheeky boy with the butt of rifle. The boy had recovered consciousness after ten minutes but what should be done about Jean? Everybody agreed that it was a bad thing for a CDR to have done, that it put the good name of the Revolution in danger. But opinion was divided as to whether Jean should be punished. Some felt he should be warned, others that it should be left for the people in Garango to refuse to elect him next time.

But if some of the revolutionary changes were obscure and still distant, there was one which everybody understood and rejoiced at – all taxes on the rural population were abolished. This did more to make the revolution popular in Salmaga than any number of words, and it helped to foster the CDR’s belief in itself. For they were impatient and, though they were proud of their role as ‘revolutionaries’, they were still rather unsure as to what that role entailed. One day, at a meeting in Pierre’s concession, some of their frustrations surfaced. There was only one talking-point at first – a Garango CDR member, Jean, whom many of them had known for years, had lost his temper while on guard duty and hit a cheeky boy with the butt of rifle. The boy had recovered consciousness after ten minutes but what should be done about Jean? Everybody agreed that it was a bad thing for a CDR to have done, that it put the good name of the Revolution in danger. But opinion was divided as to whether Jean should be punished. Some felt he should be warned, others that it should be left for the people in Garango to refuse to elect him next time.

At the end of the debate Pierre made a little speech. ‘We have talked long about important matters. It is not for us to decide what happens to Jean, and we have no guns or checkpoints in Salmaga. But this is a problem for the Revolution. There will always be boys like Jean who lose their heads when they find themselves with power – always, that is, while we do not know exactly what CDRs should be doing. But we must all be patient.’

Memnatu was next to speak. If any of the men present had entertained doubts about her value to the Committee, they had long ago been dispelled. They had come to accept the Revolution’s words about the equality of women, even if they had not begun to realize its implications for their everyday life. And, besides, Memnatu said things that were worth hearing.

‘It is difficult to be patient. You all know Saytum, the widow. She needs food – her fields grow little and she has only her children to help. Yet all of us have ignored her situation – the village looks down on her because she is poor. We, the CDR, should be able to help her yet we are all poor, too. When will we be able to help people like Saytum?’ There was a murmur of agreement – no-one knew the answer, but it was important that there should be an answer somewhere.

                    *  *  *

It was 1985, a year that was to test everyone’s faith – in their own strength, in the Revolution and in their respective gods. By the second week in June the millet plants should have been a foot high, flecking the landscape with green. Instead the rains had not come. At the fall of the first few drops in May, Memnatu, Omaru and Alima had sown their fields like everyone else. But those few drops were all that had fallen and they had watched the tiny green sprouts wither back into the earth.

Now they sowed a second time, unable to believe that the sky could hold back its treasure any longer. Yet every morning saw the sun clear the eastern horizon above Benin and sail upwards into the untroubled blue. Their dabas scraped the ground with a desperate rasping sound as they made the shallowest of resting-places for the seeds. Always before there had been a clear end to their work – every drop of water from the well was used, every metre of the journey to the fields essential. But now, as they bent over the baked soil, their pains seemed almost robbed of meaning. The earth was bitterly hard and looked dull, as though it were ready to give up its yearly struggle to bear fruit, ready to yield prematurely to the implacable sun and sand. The redness that screamed its raw life after the rains was locked deep inside, a whisper of hope rather than a promise.

Salmaga could speak of nothing else. All other worries and wishes were forgotten. And no-one was more anxious than Oumaru. Memnatu had never seen him so agitated and she did not fully understand why until he called her and Alima to him one grain-giving morning. He handed each of them their measure of millet as usual and said: ‘Be sure that you do not waste this. I have a special reason for saying this, so heed me. The money I brought back from Abidjan is gone – there is no more. If the rain does not come, this year we cannot fill our empty granary with our coins.’

Memnatu stared at him, her mouth slightly open. He had given them no sign of this, and only now that it was gone did she realize what a comfort the knowledge of those savings had been. When she had spoken to Saytum, the widow, she had felt angry and sad but never that such a pit might be beckoning to her. Alima turned noiselessly and left her husband’s living-room, but Memnatu stood still a moment longer and he spoke to her almost reproachfully.

‘What good is your Revolution now?’ he said. ‘Tell Camarade Capitaine Sankara to make it rain.’

‘What good is your Allah now?’ she answered quietly.

He raised his hand as if to strike her for the first time ever but checked himself, his anger lost in a sudden sense of defeat. Allah knew how he had prayed. The rains had been late before, or too little, but never had they failed completely, not even in the years when famine and death had struck the north. Why did Allah not answer all their prayers? Had he not lived a devout life according to the law?

He sank on to the wall seat beside his hut. Memnatu had never seen him like this before. She felt an impulse to hold him as she would hold her son if he hurt inside but she stood her ground – a man had his pride, after all.

‘If it does not rain I will have to leave in search of work,’ he said, as much to himself as to his wife. ‘Perhaps this marks the end of the old world.’

                    *  *  *

The village could think of nothing else but the earth and the sky, but Memnatu herself had other worries. Her youngest boy, Bubakar, now nearly two years old, was ill with chronic diarrhoea and refused to be parted from her. She was forced to carry him everywhere with her – to the fields, to the well and on her visits – yet even then he was too miserable and restless to allow her to consign him to her back. Normally he would be quite content to be carried within a cloth that tied round above his mother’s breasts, but now she kept having to cuddle him to her as she walked, which took more out of her and kept her hands from useful work.

All her children had been weakened by diarrhoea at times, but so far she had been lucky and had lost none of them to its onslaughts. Memnatu’s thoughts wandered to Lembussa. Ever since her election she had kept out of the old woman’s path as much as possible but, for all that she was a standard-bearer for the new ways, she would have had no hesitation in seeking Lembussa’s help if she had thought the traditional treatment would cure Bubakar as quickly as the cut in the face had cured Fatimata. After all, for this the Revolution offered nothing – no pills and no advice. And why not? The CDR had received papers talking of the importance to the nation of its people’s health but there had been no sign of anything to help the village. There was a doctor in Tenkodogo, to be sure, but it would cost money to get there, money to consult him and money for his pills – it was not even worth thinking about. And the years had not taught Lembussa a magic that would save the village children from death by diarrhoea. No, there was no alternative but to carry on and hope.

But Memnatu had another reason for thinking of Lembussa. Bubakar was just a few weeks away from his second birthday, and that meant Oumaru would soon be resuming his attentions to her at night. And the familiar sickness and swelling would follow inevitably within a matter of months. That was the way of things for a woman. The last time she had become pregnant with Bubakar, she had barely reacted to it. It had occasioned neither pleasure nor regret, had been simply a part of her life and her lot. Yet she felt very different now, and the difference made her realize how much she had changed in those three years. In the past few weeks there had been a weight tugging from below at her buoyancy, even before the anxiety about the rains had set in. It was as if the looming certainty of conception was a threat to her from outside instead of the essential part of her world that it would once have been. Previously she had had everything to gain – another child to help along the work in the fields, greater status as a mother of many, a more solid insurance policy for her old age. But now she had something to lose. Neither pregnancy nor childbirth would stop her working – she had worked in the fields until the very day of Bubakar’s birth, and had resumed her journeys to the well the day after. But it would absorb so much of her time and energy, just as Bubakar with his illness had demanded everything of her in the last two weeks.

Memnatu was as clear as she had ever been about anything that she did not want another child. But what then could she do? Was it possible to stop a baby resulting from Oumaru’s night visits? She knew that Lembussa could make women bleed to stop their pregnancy, but she knew also that it was a dangerous business, and her fear of that danger as well as of the old woman herself made her wish for another way. Jacqueline had told her about special pills that some of the women in Ouaga took to prevent a baby coming. Why were these pills only in Ouaga? Did not village women need them, too? Why could the Revolution not help her in this?

Bubakar’s illness, the nagging threat of pregnancy, the lack of rain and money – all these worries somehow combined to make Memnatu doubt the Revolution more than she had ever doubted it since the day the Haute-Commissaire had come to offer her its inspiration and its purpose. Why were the changes so slow? Did they not see these things as important? And those questions marked a small but important change in her attitude towards the Revolution. Her belief in it was absolute – it was carrying her country forward, and her with it. But whereas she had always before seen the Revolution as something which offered knowledge and answers, as a path leading towards development and justice that began at Ouagadougou, now she had some sense that she needed to influence its direction. If Sankara and the National Council did not see how important to village women was the health of their children and the means to stop themselves getting pregnant, then perhaps she should tell them.

Her heart quailed at the idea of mentioning the question of stopping babies at the next CDR meeting – how could she talk of such things to men, even if they were revolutionaries? They would know how old Bubakar was, would realize that she was talking about herself. Within hours the story would be the property of the whole village and that would be a humiliation for Oumaru – although he was a good husband who never beat her, that would be too much to ask him to bear. But she could at least speak from her heart about her child’s health and feel the whole village behind her. She made up her mind to make her protest at the next meeting.

                    *  *  *

It was the third week in June, and still the rains had not come. Then, one afternoon, Memnatu looked up from the well as she hauled the rubber bucket out of the shaft to see a dark cloud on the horizon. She stared at it for a second, barely knowing whether it was wise to acknowledge the hope that was spiralling inside her. Hastily she raised the huge metal bowl onto her head – it was only three-quarters full, but suddenly that did not seem quite so important – and then set out towards the concession. One hand raised to steady the bowl, she walked at a much faster pace than usual, her eyes fixed straight ahead at the cloud which was beginning to tower menacingly over the group of concessions in the distance. It was moving fast, she thought – perhaps too fast. It was as if the bank of cloud were overflowing with life instead of just being driven by the wind – it clawed its way hungrily up the sky. But this monster had a dull red colour to it that Memnatu did not like the look of – it meant that the storm was more likely to bring dust than rain.

The wind was bringing its advance warning to Salmaga now – the isolated trees began to bend their backs, as though they were testing the firmness of their roots in preparation for the onslaught. Memnatu ploughed on, though she knew there was no hope of making it to shelter in time. She was fighting her way forward against the wind now and the darkness took up half the sky – the nearest concession was barely visible in front of her. Then the storm was truly on her, flinging dust into her face and eyes, stinging the tender skin on the inside of her arm as it curled above her to support the water bowl. She did not even think of setting down the water, and forged onward into the unhealthy red darkness. There was a concession near now. It didn’t matter whose it was – she could see no landmarks, nothing familiar, just the outline of the conical roofs. The storm seemed to increase its fury at the sight of her so close to sanctuary, but now she was through the entrance, setting down her burden of water.

She stooped to enter the first hut and looked anxiously around. It was a woman’s, luckily – Pierre’s wife and her two children smiled their welcome, and she went over to grasp their hands, with the indispensable politeness of a Bissa greeting. Memnatu sat down, her back against the wall. She did her best to talk to the other woman, but really wanted just to be quiet. Never had they seen dust storms like this in Salmaga before this year. The earth was getting weaker and this wind would carry even more of it away. How could the village help but see it as a judgement? But on what? What had they done that was so wrong as to deserve this?

The wind howled around the hut and through the door it looked almost dark enough to be night. Memnatu’s bowl would be filling with dust and not water. There would be no rain tonight. *  

The CDR meeting was a subdued affair – nothing seemed quite as important as it had done just a month ago. But Memnatu’s words about the need for help with health care had been well enough received. She had asked if someone from the village might receive training that would teach them what to do about their children’s illnesses and Pierre had undertaken to speak to people in Garango about it.

After the meeting was over he came over to talk with her; he had a proposal to make. The Government had announced a new programme of military service earlier in the year – every young person was to receive three months of training, and people from the towns had to spend an extra period doing agricultural work. Pierre had come back from his own training in Tenkodogo in the spring full of his usual enthusiasm.

‘It’s not just that you learn how to be a soldier – we were taught so many other things as well. About the need to grow more food. About the problems of Africa and the need for development. And we met so many different people, too – people who work in towns, people with education and people from villages like ours.’

Memnatu had been fascinated to hear about the experience but had not connected it with herself. Yet now Pierre was suggesting that she should do her three months’ training in Tenkodogo from October.

‘It is important that women receive this training as well as men,’ he said, ‘and it is important that you as a member of this CDR should benefit from it as soon as possible.’

‘But how can I? Oumaru will never agree!’

‘Oumaru will have to agree – it is the law now. You could wait until next year. But will it be any better for Oumaru next year than this? I will speak to him if you would like it.’

‘No, thank you. I must think first. It would mean living there in Tenkodogo for three months, as you did?’

‘Yes – but you would be with other women there. Let me know your decision as soon as you can.’

                    *  *  *

Still Salmaga watched the sky. It was Ramadan, the month of fasting for Oumaru and the other Muslims, and never had there seemed so much point to their devotions. Perhaps, after all, the proof of faith that their abstinence provided would make Allah relent. But the extra little strain of not eating during all the daylight hours caught them up all the more in their own anxiety. There was talk of all the men holding a special prayer session in the fields. Then, as if by a miracle, the old world regained its equilibrium. It was the night before the feast to mark the end of Ramadan and just after darkness fell the heavens blessed the earth with a flood. The violence of the rain was awesome, as if it had to make recompense for its tardiness by sending all its lost water at once. Within minutes the land had disappeared beneath a swelling lake; rivers poured into the concessions, lapping up the walls and flowing unchecked into the huts, bubbling ferociously as the huge drops plunged into the tide; children threw water gleefully over each other while babies cried, alarmed to see their beds overwhelmed and their world so disturbed.

Within an hour it was over and the storm had moved on to offer its wild benison to another desperate part of West Africa. As the night went on and the moon reappeared the rivers receded and became streams and then rivulets, the lakes became pools and then puddles and the soil drank its immoderate cocktail to the dregs. When the sun rose over Salmaga in the morning everybody was smiling – full, glorious smiles that enveloped the faces of the men and women as they shouted their greetings. ‘Natizena!’ ‘Natizei!’ Oumaru dressed himself carefully in a rich red robe and set off on his bike for the feast. Today he would pray with more joy and gratitude than he had ever prayed before.

                    *  *  *

Memnatu bent to her work with a will. They were planting for the third and final time in all the places where the seedlings had not taken and, relieved of the doubt about its value, this was a happy labour. The earth beneath her was beautifully soft; she peeled it away with her daba instead of attacking it. More of its topsoil had been swept away by the waters, unable to resist the onslaught without any tree or plant roots around to bind it together, but what remained had reclaimed its rude health. For this year at least, there would be another harvest.

Memnatu came to the end of the seeds in her calabash and went over to the sack for more. Her back ached as she stretched – but no-one would begrudge such an ache on such a day. She looked around at the bending, bobbing figures of Oumaru, Alima and her own daughter Salamatu and thought of how what was in her mind now was going to affect them. Salamatu was old enough at ten to take some responsibility for looking after her brothers and sisters. Alima was good and kind, and would not mind the extra work that her co-wife’s absence would bring her – she should really mind it more, for her own sake. But what of Oumaru? He would not suffer by her absence – the harvest would be in by November, even after this late start. But what would he think of her? Would he curse her for neglecting her duty to him and to the children? Or would he be secretly proud that his wife was the first woman in the village to go away for training? She did not know – men were so transparent at times, yet so impenetrable at others.

And how would it affect her, Memnatu? To be away from home for the first time in her life, away from the rhythms of the earth and the sky, away from the demands of the well and the children… To wear the uniform of a Burkinabe soldier… To meet so many strange and different people and learn about the world beyond these hills…

It was an enormous prospect – the very thought of it set her stomach churning and made her breath catch. But it was right that she should go, and right that she should go soon. Perhaps she would be lucky and not fall pregnant in the two months or so between Bubakar’s birthday and her leaving, and then perhaps she would learn a way of preventing babies while she was in Tenkodogo, a way that would allow her to receive Oumaru without fear. Perhaps nothing would be the same again after this, her revolutionary baptism, just as nothing would be the same again after these years for her country, her Burkina Faso. But Memnatu trusted in the future as she trusted in the ripening of the millet under her feet now that the rains had come. She poured some more seeds into her calabash and went on with her work.

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