We stop in a village, get out of the car and walk over to a circle of men sitting in thick shade to avoid the impossible African sun. A lump of charcoal or maybe a fist-sized hunk of wood is burning in an scorched steel sleeve the size of an old coffee pot. On top of that sleeve sits a tea pot, heating.
The men are watching the pot, but not thinking much about the tea that is to come because they're yakking about something I'd love to be able to understand. But I've been in a circle of guys like this often enough to recognize good, old-fashioned b.s.ing. They laugh, rib each other, yuk it up but good. In Africa, where two or three are gathered, there's almost always a bushel of belly laughs.
They don't seem to be bothered by these strangers who've come out of nowhere. In fact, a minute or two after we arrived they offered a couple of low-slung lawn chairs, and I took one. If I'd known French, I might have been part of the company.
They offered me tea but I waved it off politely because I didn't know the ground rules--tiny little cups full of frothy stuff dark as chocolate. I didn't want to embarrass myself.
It wasn't quite noon, and I guessed we were going to be here for awhile. Even though the guys sitting beside me were heartily welcoming, I'm a stranger in a strange land.
A young woman walks up. Even though the world is, I'm quite sure, entirely Islamic, she's not hiding her face, as I would have expected. There's no birqua. Islamic women are not supposed to be showy, I'm thinking, but this one is wound up in a gorgeous robe so profligate with color it's almost blinding. You can't look away. It's beautiful, as she is--young and pretty. She smiles at the men she's serving. It's clear she knows them.
She's working, trying to make a buck. The food she's lugged up brews in a couple of pots that fit atop each other. There must be standing orders because she ladles out some stew for one of the guys sitting there, then flops some meat in a long, thin French roll, a kind of Maliean hot dog, I'm thinking.
She looks at me as if I might want some lunch. I smile, shake my head. She doesn't seem nervous in the least. She's the only woman anywhere near the circle of gents in the shade, but she goes about her work as if this is everyday, which is what it probably is.
She doesn't say much, but it's clear to me that she's perfectly at home; and what I don't hear is the kind of cat calls I would have expected. There's at least a half-dozen men a good deal older than she is, and she's a woman, all alone, standing there in front of them. I don't know French, but I swear I don't hear a thing that I could translate as sexual innuendo.
Here's the way I've been trained to generalize. Islamic women hide themselves in flowing black robes with slits for their eyes only.
Not this one. You can hardly look away from her dazzling robe.
And the American in me would have expected the guys to toss out a comment or two. The numbers were right--a pack of middle-aged men sitting in a circle with a pretty young thing leaning down and spooning out the goods. I'd have expected her to take some hits.
Mali, Ghana, Niger--hard as it is to believe, the lands I visited don't have significant drug and alcohol problems because the price for such iniquity, for such sin, is just too high--thus saith the prophet, after all. They let the short-order cook alone--I really think they did. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself. Civility, after all, is not a word I would have associated with Islam. But I'm learning some things I never thought I would.
I don't suppose that one incident in a village is enough to generalize, but I know the feeling of being in a little handful of men when some young thing comes along and brightens the day. I saw none of what I expected.
I didn't understand a word they said, didn't drink their tea, didn't sample the grub she spooned up from those pots she put back together after she'd sold them the lunch they wanted. I wasn't part of their world really, but as I sat there they showed me things I honestly didn't think I'd see.
In that little circle of gents I remained a stranger in a strange land, but I wasn't the same man I was when we'd pulled up in front of those guys having a good time and waiting for tea.