In Africa, when an old man dies, it is a library burning down.
-Amadou Hampâté Bâ
After her daughter died, Amy made the hospital her home. She returned to her village to wash her k’sa, a traditional African dress, a few days a month, but those days were less frequent. No need to return, no need to worry about her k’sa. She wears hospital scrubs instead of dresses.
She wakes on a traditional mat, where people normally sleep during the hotter seasons, in the emergency unit. She sleeps there deliberately, in expectation of the next casualty. Some days the sun over the Sahara rises with the shuffle of footsteps, the wails of family members, to which she awakens. Immediately she swings into motion to help those around her. She knows she is safe thanks to the British soldier who guards the hospital.
“Someone would like to see you,” a nurse says. Amy, face still unwashed, rubs the fatigue out of her eyes.
“Has another person died?”
The nurse pauses. “He is waiting outside.”
Cautiously, she walks into the corridor, not knowing what to expect. A minute later in the corridor the man introduces himself. “Je m’appelle Monsieur Keita—My name is Mr. Keita.” He speaks French without an accent, but by now Amy feels more comfortable conversing in Bambara, a language spoken in Mali. A white beard descends from Keita’s face. For a moment Amy thinks he’s a Muslim cleric, then remembers that most Malians grow out their beards. Few have razors, and even fewer have mirrors, which has made it difficult for many to shave. The conflict has made the country’s cheeks and chins resemble Islamists.
He points to a small girl, no older than seven standing beside him. “My wife and I cannot care for her,” Keita says. “Please take her.”
Amy responds regretfully, “This is a hospital, not an orphanage.”
“But there are no running orphanages.”
The request is common in the area. The hospital is funded by international donors, meaning it has food and clean water. Most importantly, it now tends to the injured regardless of colour, making the hospital unlikely to be attacked again by Malian “Black Africans” or “Arab-Berbers” who are on opposite sides of the divisive “colour line.” Casualties arrive in waves, too many to care for, for a small hospital. Amy shakes her head and sighs. There are too many deaths. Brothers are fighting against brothers.
“Her mother was taken by Tuareg militants, an ethnic rebel group, on Thursday. On Friday, the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) came and took away her father.”
Amy looks at the photo of a government official on the wall, as if a symbol could make sense of the times. “The child is smiling,” she says with some relief.
Keita glowers. He feels like Amy sees insolence from the Islamists and occasionally from dissident soldiers, but seldom from successive governments in Bamako, the capital of Mali.
“I can’t… I won’t,” she says, but her tone falters, her repetition wavering.
“I was a company manager before the insurgency,” Keita says switching to English. “Dealing with medical supplies. I will remain here until a solution is found for the girl.”
Amy inspects the alley; there are many casualties, but no doctors. Those with strong connections, the right qualifications and the funds to flee the country have already done so.
“Parents decide which of their children to keep and which to abandon. It will be tough for this girl,” Amy says sorrowfully, gazing in the filthy air.
“Then I will bet my life on this cause.”
“Is she dumb?” Amy slowly returns her gaze to the girl. “What is your name?”
“Mariam,” Keita cuts in.
While Amy examines the girl’s eyes, nose and mouth, Keita retreats to a corner of the unit. A few minutes later, Amy decides to accept the girl. Keita returns, wearing scrubs. Amy takes him around the hospital. All but two wings are closed due to fleeing personnel. She points to the cardiology, internal medicine and psychiatry wards. A coat of Sahara dust covers the floor, their footsteps leaving visible traces. Keita thinks of the movie The Great Escape, and recalls his impressions about the footage the first time Connecting Classrooms showed it.
“What happened to supplies?” Keita asks with frustration. Beds, sheets, surgical tape, disposable gowns, hypodermics, IV bags, gauze, forceps, thermometers—all of the supplies had been stolen. Deserted wards, locked rooms, dusty cabinets, broken drawers, smashed window-panes, and the fragile air remain.
“The emergency and maternity units are running. And we’re bent on maintaining them.” Keita scratches his head. “Emergency, em…, yes. We need room for trauma. But a maternity unit in time of conflict?”
Amy’s sudden laughter rings down the vacant hall. “Right now, we are either making love or fighting.”
“Stop it,” Keita says with a smirk, and Amy wonders if he is upset by her candour. “I have seen children come into the world here and leave it here. That is the Malian story.”
Amy gives him a consoling look, and wonders if he is annoyed after all. She shows Keita the new prenatal section, rebuilt after a suicide bomber levelled the old maternity ward four months before. Fortunately, at that time, no expectant mothers or babies were present, and only two patients died. The water pipes burst, flooding the entire first floor. After the fire exits had all been opened to drain the water, only a patch of water remained, causing a doctor to slip and dislocate an ankle. Amy recalls how she advised a nurse that day to cover the hallways with towels and then with paper as the towels would not suffice. “We have no towels,” the nurse said.
“I beg your pardon?” Keita says, leaning forward to hear more.
“There are no towels,” Amy insists.
Keita wonders if the nurse was traumatized. He wonders if Amy was devastated herself, because he thinks a nurse would be driven crazy working in a hospital without towels or paper.
They walk to the other end of the maternity ward. In front of them sits a doctor and four mid-wives attending to three brand new mothers. One mother holds her child while the doctor attends to the child’s head. The other mother looks unconscious. Her baby lies in an incubator; the sight of it resembles a crushed potato more than a new born.
“Is that a result of poor nutrition?”
“Are you a stranger?” Amy asks as their eyes meet. “There is no nutrition. Since the conflict began we have only had two women from this region healthy enough to give birth to normal children.”
“I imagine their husbands are fighting in the desert.”
Keita says he is about to leave, to check if his house is still standing. He thanks Amy by kissing her on the cheek, and she escorts him to the gate. After he departs, Amy returns to the waiting room. The girl sits on a wicker chair, slouching against the bamboo backrest. Amy has forgotten her name. She hands her a toy. “What is this?” the girl asks.
“A handmade doll.”
The girl feels its texture, looking at it indifferently.
“You must be hungry. Eat this,” Amy says. She hands the girl a cup of yoghurt, which bears the picture of the Eiffel Tower; a strong reminder of the French intervention. The girl turns it upside down, not knowing what to do. “What is it?”
“Let’s go.” Amy shows the girl a mattress in the emergency ward, and then unfolds a sheet and spreads it across the mattress. “Are you okay?” Amy asks with a maternal impulse.
Lying across the mattress, the girl jerks her head. “Where is Papa?”
Amy hears the cries of some women, meaning a new victim has arrived. She leaves the girl, reaches for her drug container and takes amphetamines to ward off sleep. The arrival of a new victim means she has more work. An unconscious man is carried in, a scarf tightly wound around his neck. He is wearing what used to be a white caftan, a traditional dress worn by men, that is now red from his blood. Amy treats the wounds with a cheerful face. She undresses the man, pushing the shard of brass casing from between his ribs, then cleans and bandages the bullet wounds. The man’s right elbow is calloused from hours spent lying on the ground. His forehead and shoulder are bruised from fighting. Amy knows by the size and location of the bruises that this man was wounded for refusing to join the jihadis, who want to turn Africa into a terrorist caliphate. A tumour protrudes from the man’s thigh. Benign, a growth of fatty tissue, but already visible. Amy cuts off the lump, and uses six stitches to close the incision.
“You must bring him back in two weeks so I can remove the stitches,” Amy says audibly to the man’s family. “If you note any pus or any sign of bleeding, please return immediately.”
She checks his arm and puts antiseptic powder on his neck to alleviate the pain from the rash. “You must use this powder after you wash him. You must not use other people’s towels or handkerchiefs. If you do, you risk infection.” She works her way back down the body, pausing at the chest to ask the man’s weight, querying his companions about his diet. She feels the man’s nose with her fingers and whispers into his bleeding ears. “There is no way to distinguish the cranium of a Black Malian from that of a White one,” she says convincingly. “But from the size of the supraorbital ridge, I can tell he is undoubtedly a Tuareg.”
Two hands on her hips quietly pull her away from the man.
Unknown to Amy, Keita had returned to the hospital while she was checking the man’s body. “Look,” he says. “He breathes quietly, his body a few degrees warmer than the room temperature here. Try not to think about it.”
Keita leads Amy to the corridor, helping her into an armchair and waving a nearby local fan to cool her off.
“Take your mind off it,” he whispers intimately.
“I will be fine,” she replies delicately. “Thank you for caring.”
“It is normal. I am better if you are better,” he murmurs. He walks to the book shelf, scans the unarranged stack, and picks up a book. “Read this to fall asleep,” he says, handing her The Story of Race in Muslim West Africa.
Now on a traditional mat, Amy opens the book. The binding squeaks like rusty bolts as she goes through the pages. The book has not been opened for years, and she wonders what on earth led Keita to it. The volume dates back to the 20th century when W.E.B DuBois declared that the problem of his time was the colour line. Amy doubts if DuBois was thinking of Mali then. History repeats itself. Malian refugees, mainly Tuaregs and Arabs, staying in refugee camps strewn across Burkina Faso and Mauritania now decry the colour line. International goodwill abides with Mali; it is the hen that incubates the country so that her eggs may produce new chicks. Amy sees herself as one of the eggs. When she remembers the other eggs—the militias to be disarmed, the soldiers to return to the barracks, the Tuareg separatist MNLA to be unified, Amy doses off with the history book open on her forehead. Her sleep is not deep, is not restful, she sleeps in fits prompted by the amphetamines. Her unbalanced diet, thirst, fatigue and decrease of serotonin tell her she is exhausted.
She awakes suddenly from sleep at the noise of shells: headache, dry mouth, accelerated heart beat. She goes out to smoke, pulling a white filtered cigarette from the pack. She often forgoes food in favour of cigarettes–her tranquilizer in a time of crisis. A few deep puffs, and the carbon soaks into her capillaries. Her face relaxes. She blows out smoke. Keita walks out a few minutes later, his hands wrapped around a cup of Malian coffee.
“I heard you talking on the phone,” Amy says with assurance. “You were speaking English.”
“A call from an American friend. He said Mali is on CNN these days.”
Amy smiles. “Mali has given work to the international media.”
“What do you expect when Salafists and groups linked to Al-Qaeda invade your territory.”
“The world used to ignore us but now the Europeans are paying attention.” Amy snaps her fingers at Keita for a light. “How did you meet the American guy?”
“I met him while I was studying English with the British Council. We studied together for six months. He was the West Africa correspondent of the International Herald Tribune at that time.”
“And he did not take you to America?” Amy says ironically.
Keita gives a small smile. “My sister disappeared. She was sixteen. It was the day France stepped in. I don’t know if she is alive or dead. It was like she died. So I stayed here.”
“Family is a good thing, an important thing to place first.”
“Something tells me your sister is alive.”
“You think so?”
“May God hear you,” Keita says, as they do in Mali, reaching to hug her.
Just then an army convoy rumbles over the hospital road, causing a cloud of dry brown dust. Ten minutes later an elderly woman treks down the hospital street in the opposite direction. She pushes a cart of dry leaves, pausing every few meters to massage her wrists. Amy lights another cigarette and gives it to Keita.
“Charles de Gaulle once travelled here,” Keita says. “He wrote it in his book Memoir.”
“What did he say about us?”
Keita shrugs. “I don’t know. Never read the book.”
“And where were the French in the beginning, when corrupt bureaucracy in Bamako reached fever pitch?”
Keita shrugs again. “When Charles de Gaulle came to Mali, the colour debate was already a hundred years old.”
“It won’t end in our lifetime.”
“Let me tell you a story,” Keita says, feeling his cigarette like a prayer bead. “It is a good summary of national reconciliation and peace building.”
“Two women fight over a package of biscuits found lying on the floor. Before either one could reach the package, they are pulling each other’s hair, drawing blood and screaming curses. One of the women slips by, sprinting to the package. She opens the package, activating the land mine beneath it. She coughs up blood, loses her limbs and dies of blood loss on the way to the hospital. The other woman still brings her in helped by four men.”
Amy smiles, then sips from her cup of coffee amid the return of a cool breeze. “Wartime miracles are the most fabulous miracles one can witness,” Amy says while adjusting her seat, the two now sitting side by side. She strokes Keita’s beard as he speaks, a nervous emblem that gives him the appearance of a Salafist.
“Did your beard grow between the wars?”
Keita shakes his head no.
Darkness shrouds the ubiquitous rubble, the spaces where houses once stood. The hospital generator, the most recent gift from foreign donors, provides the only source of electricity for miles, and the militias hide where power ceases. Amy looks at her fingers. Unpainted, uneven broken nails. She feels embarrassed and hides them, but Keita reaches for her hands.
“I understand,” he laughs. “At least you have nails; many have lost their arms.”
Keita’s hands are sweaty. At that fleeting moment, Amy wonders what the dawn will bring.
Keita’s hands creep to Amy’s forearms. He has a delicate touch, a lover’s sensitivity and warmth.
“I keep thinking in Arabic,” Amy says. “The names of trees. Adaq. Insh.”
“I’m touching your arm,” Keita says. “I’m looking at your shoulder.” He touches her chin, her cheeks. “And lips,” he says and leans closer. “Our lips.”
A minute and she pulls away. She needs the affection. A kiss, a touching embrace, all of that. Keita reiterates he has a wife, but won’t mind another one, as a Muslim can marry up to four wives.
Amy remembers the girl and returns to the waiting room. The girl sees her and shouts, “You disappeared.”
“I’m back now.”
They eat roasted corn and drink local juice made from hibiscus. The girl likes the spicy flavour. Amy wipes crumbs off the girl’s cheeks and tells her to use a chewing stick. They go to the emergency unit to sleep. Only one hospital bed is made. Amy pulls the curtain around the bed, blocking the girl from the beam of the security light.
“We must sleep together tonight, okay?”
The girl nods, takes off her sandals, and climbs into the bed. The sheets look clean against Amy’s dark skin. The girl folds her arms around Amy’s neck.
“Remind me of your name,” Amy whispers, not really a question but a line of reasoning.
“Mariam.” It sounds like Wariaw.
“Mariam. That’s a pretty name.” They lie face to face, Amy breathing into the girl’s face. Amy’s mind escapes to Keita.
“I miss home,” the girl says.
“Home? Home is nothing more than where you sleep.”
The girl takes a deep breath. She speaks again. “I’m not feeling sleepy. Sing me a song, like Mama.”
Amy looks to the ceiling, tries to think of a song that will give the girl pleasant dreams.
“Dors, Mariam dors,” she begins in French, melodiously rendering an old lullaby she learnt in her school days. The girl sleeps, but Amy does not.
Amy showers early the next morning and spends the day in the psychiatry unit assisted by Keita. She tends the only patient in the unit.
“Good news, good news,” Keita says. “They have announced a date for presidential elections and invited interested candidates to register.”
“God bless Mali,” Amy says and searches for the FM radio on her cell phone. She does not need to hear the rest from Keita, she wants to hear from the source, from the announcers, from the interim government in Bamako. Perhaps, the United States, the World Bank and the African Development Bank will resume development aid suspended in support of the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union’s suspension of Mali in response to the coup.
Listening to the news, Amy spots the girl curled up on the bed. She moves closer and extends her hand to adjust the girl’s head, her index and middle fingers stretching to reposition the girl’s wrist.
“Do I have a temperature?” the girl asks.
“No. Your temperature is perfect.” And just after she says the words, it seems like prophesy fulfilled, like the story of their nation coming full circle. A girl with perfect health, a body physically fit. “I have a surprise for you.”
The girl nods in delight.
Half an hour later Amy, Keita and the girl get ready and trek their way to Amy’s house. Block after block, the only constant is the sight of craters and the scattering of shelled bricks. Amy tries to remember what their street used to look like. She breaks her train of thought after a few blocks. Now a desert of dry bones, she muses. Iron poles fan out of the destroyed concrete blocks. Blue clouds gather on the horizon. Her hand in the girl’s hand, Keita’s arms shepherding the two. They stop to buy fresh milk and local couscous.
Amy unlocks the door. “I have not been here in months,” she says.
They eat lunch before the milk ferments, couscous served over fresh milk. Later, Amy shows the girl what remains of her house. She opens the door to her late daughter’s room and points to the bed. “That is for you.”
That afternoon, a story circulates about the conflict. Somewhere in Northern Mali, a church remains standing. No one knows with certainty the name of the church, the name of the street or neighbourhood. The crisis has realigned the geography of the country, and even the way the indigenous people think of themselves. As the story goes, although all the buildings in one village were destroyed, a church remains standing. Each morning the surviving population of the village watches from their windows to see if the church has been destroyed. But it remains there. Some say the church’s survival is the hand of God. Amy calls the story a revelation, and remembers what the British soldier who secures the hospital posted on the entrance gate: Mali will get back on track.
Read Kevin Eze’s interview about “Mali,” and his story collection in progress.