A Half-Bar Of Soap

On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek


A Half-Bar of Soap

One haunting memory of Africa will always be the unexpected and personal one-on-one encounter with a villager in a remote part of Mali.  The line of five or six mud huts did not constitute a village per se; but could more aptly be described as an encampment on the outskirts of the main village. With the passage of many years, the name of the village itself would only be a guess; suffice it to say that it was beyond the hard-surfaced road at Tambacounda, Senegal, across the ferry crossing of the Bafing River, and in the general direction of the 1980s era Manantali Dam and Lac Manantali in SW Mali.

Our group of 7-8 environmental investigators was on safari in the region and wanted to avoid the distractions of village life like blaring radios, yapping dogs, and the endless parade of curious children.  So we pitched our tents well outside of town, but within sight of the line of huts that were sheltered on the backside by moderately tall trees, affording us all relative serenity and shade from the desert sun.  We spent a couple of days there, collecting data for our individual reports. In particular, our environmental health team was especially busy documenting the many cases of Schistosomaisis (snail fever) and Onchoceriasis (river blindness) that are epidemic in the area.    

During the daylight hours, we rarely saw any of the inhabitants of the huts.  They most likely spent their days tending to their crops in distant fields, or herding their cattle and goats.  It was common for migrant farmers and pastoralists to take their children with them as they toiled; only to return to their huts at the end of the day.  That was the time of day when the Footloose Forester noticed that, despite its modest size as a community encampment, the settlement had a water spigot in its midst. Having running water was not something we had expected to see. There was no electricity, no pavement, or infrastructural development of any kind, other than a single underground pipe leading to the upright spigot.  The source of the water was unseen and the impetus for its flow was unknown.

Since we wanted to bathe as often as possible, the Footloose Forester asked a local craftsman to make him a stool like the ones villagers used when they took dipper baths while standing next to the water spigot. The man came back the next day with a hand-crafted stool cut from the buttress of a Ceiba tree.  A photo of that very stool is shown in the photo below.


Hand-made Ceiba stool from Mali

One of the village elders must have been contacted for permission to use the water because we were informed that we were free to use the spigot to bathe.  In a land where running water was confined to the few rivers that dissected the landscape, the Footloose Forester, for one, was impressed with that modern convenience.  There was only a handful of us, traveling in two land rovers; so we did not overwhelm their resources.  Thus it was, in mid-afternoon, probably on a Sunday when we were not expected to travel to our field sites; and when even the village farmers and pastoralists took it easy, that the Footloose Forester had a brief but memorable encounter with a young woman at the spigot.

As he was finishing up his dipper bath while standing precariously on his small wooden stool and next to the spigot; and surrounded by dusty ground on all sides, the teen-aged girl approached him and offered to rinse off his feet with water from her own dipper.  He thanked her in French. She then politely asked him, also in French, if she could have some of the soap he had in his hand. It was a small bar now diminished by frequent use, and it was the only soap he had left from his travel kit after a week or more on safari.  Yet, he knew that this moment was the essence of why he chose to be a wanderer in the world; and why he so fervently believes in the brotherhood of man and the sisterhood of women.  He broke the small bar of soap in half and gave it to the girl.  And he also knew then that he would never forget those few minutes standing in the sun on his wooden Ceiba stool while learning a lesson about who he really was--on the inside.    

John Brown, son of William & Elizabeth Illman Brow...
Wayman Crow

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