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The International Writers Magazine

A Prayer for Mariame
Kari Masson

As the sun’s rays woke and stretched over the rainforest, another Sunday began as usual. Six-year old Mariame and two of her brothers would soon leave their mud brick home to walk the dusty road to my house, a western-style concrete building with light bulbs and toilets. Two more different little girls would have been hard to find. Our lives crossed 20 years ago in the West African country of Côte d’Ivoire, and I find them still crossing in my mind.

Mariame and I didn’t notice the differences. We were both little girls, which apparently was enough to make us friends. Our language barriers were overcome thanks to dolls my parents had brought with us from America. Naturally, I carried my baby in my arms and fed her a bottle. Mariame tied hers onto her back with a piece of cloth and walked around balancing a basket on her head.

We taught each other the hand-clapping games we knew. I repeated the unfamiliar sounds Mariame sang, not sure when one word ended and the next began, but learning exactly when to snap my fingers or clap my chubby white hands against her thin brown ones.

At lunch we sat on the porch eating grilled cheese sandwiches and jell-O, washing it all down with Kool-Aid. Mariame never cared much for the brightly colored jiggly stuff, but fell in love with Kool-Aid. We sat on the swing drinking from plastic cups, watching my brother Chris and her brothers Dramane and Mamadou chase lizards and build forts. If we were in the mood, we might grace them with our presence as fortress princesses.

At the end of the day, Mariame and her brothers would walk back home, crossing paths with their father riding his bicycle to our house. Mariame’s father, Zégué, was our night guard. He arrived at the same time each evening, tuning his radio to the songs and voices I began to associate with the sun setting. Armed with a flashlight strapped to his head, knee-high rubber boots, and a long-bladed machete, he was ready for the night. During the four years our house was under Zégué’s watch, no one ever tried to rob us. Things might have been different if they realized his machete was more for killing snakes rather than fending off burglars. The tally sheet my mother kept in the kitchen showed 38 marks, one for each snake that fell victim to Zégué’s machete in one year.

The early morning was a changing of the guards of sorts. My father would wake up, make his coffee, then go read and pray before the sun rose. When the first pink rays appeared, my father came to wake us up as Zégué rode his bicycle out through the gate and back to his home.

The route to Zégué’s house was simple, if you knew the way. Take the long dirt road out of town. Keep going until there are only tall, leafy trees on either side. At the top of the hill is a small, barely visible, trail between the trees on your left. Follow the trail into the darkness of the jungle canopy. Go past the cacao and coffee fields. Push away the flapping banana leaves. The small structure there in front of you, made of mud brick and woven palm branches, is where you find Mariame, her twelve brothers and sisters, and her 38-year old mother.
Mariame’s mother was beautiful, to put it simply. Her dark brown skin was the color of coffee beans drying in the sun. She wore small gold earrings and outlined her eyes with a blue pencil. Only when you stood next to her could you see the small lines woven around her eyes. Her bright smile and rolling laugh welcomed you, even though you didn’t share the same words. She spoke Maninka, a dialect from the neighboring country of Burkina Faso.

Like many people in Côte d’Ivoire, Zégué had immigrated years before, bringing his young wife with him. While much of West Africa suffered from poverty and wars, Côte d’Ivoire remained politically stable and was the world’s leading cocoa producer. The soil was rich here, the sun and rain plentiful. Zégué’s family of 15 grew their own food and sold the cocoa and coffee beans for profit. During the harvest season, Zégué would come through our gate with an overstuffed bag strapped to the back of his bicycle. On the porch he would unload gifts of yellow grapefruit that were so big I needed two hands to hold them and ears of corn picked early since he knew we liked it pale and sweet.

Far too often for my taste, my mother would decide it was time to sort through our toys and clothes and give away what we didn’t need or use. Of course, my selfish little heart didn’t want to part with a single toy, even the ones shoved in the back of my closet that I’d forgotten. A shirt I never wore suddenly became my favorite and I couldn’t bear to part with it. Even still, we’d collect a few bags of things to give away. When Mariame would show up the next Sunday, smiling in a dress I’d outgrown, I’d promise myself that the next time I’d give more generously.
Five days a week I put on my blue and white checkered uniform, slid into my backpack, and hopped on my pink bike to go to the French Embassy School a few blocks away. Six days a week Mariame tied a piece of fabric around her waist as a skirt and worked in her family’s fields, cared for her four younger siblings, and helped her mother cook rice and sauce. Only on Sundays were our routines similar.

Now, twenty years later, I wonder how long our friendship would have lasted had I not moved from Côte d’Ivoire at 12 years old. As the years went by, I often tried to imagine what Mariame’s life was like at that time. In a culture where women marry in their early teens, it would not have been long before Mariame had her own baby, not a doll, tied to her back. Meanwhile, I was preparing for homecomings, SATs, and dates on a Friday night.
On September 19, 2002, I felt an earthquake, but few around me noticed. My world was shaken as news came that a bloody rebellion had risen out of the capital city of Côte d’Ivoire and was making its way north to the Daloa region where my family had lived, and where Mariame still lived as far as I knew. Reports over the next few months described the intense fighting in the area, the heart of the money-making cacao fields. In every emerging news article and every video clip, I looked for her. Instead of seeing Mariame’s face, I heard about the rebel forces killing immigrants and anyone who didn’t have papers to prove their Ivorian citizenship. I heard about the raping and maiming of women.

Two years ago I ran into an Ivorian man who had been my father’s French teacher. As we exchanged news, I learned that the house where we’d once lived had been used by the Red Cross, until it was taken over by rebel forces. I cautiously asked him about the people we knew in Daloa, afraid of what he might tell me. Reading it from an AP or BBC report had not prepared me for his answer. "C’était un massacre, Kari," he said quietly. They killed people everywhere, he said. His calmness seemed to make it even more painful, as if the killing had become a common part of life.

I still don’t know where Mariame is, or what her life has been. Our paths uncrossed years ago. Ironically, if I were to see her again, the only thing I could say to her would be the words of the clapping-song she taught me. But maybe as our hands clapped together, it would be enough for her to know that I remember her friendship and have not stopped praying for her.

BBC Country Profile: Ivory Coast
Amnesty International: Côte d’Ivoireôte _d_ivoire/
UNICEF, At a Glance : Côte d’Ivoireôte divoire_24138.html
Human Rights Watchôte di
World Food Programme

Kari Masson has a very colorful collection of stamps in her passport. After growing up in Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa, she studied in the US and UK, spent time with the Maasai people of Kenya, camped in the Swedish tundra, and worked in Senegal. The most recent addition to her passport is a French residency permit. She speaks English, French, and the African dialect of Wolof.

Drawing on her experiences, Kari is a freelance writer for travel, cross-cultural, and expatriate-focused publications. More than 150 of her articles have appeared in North America, Europe, and Africa.

© Kari Masson March 2007>

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