"Konk Konk," said my favorite host sister, Meadow, from my open hut door. I looked up from The Poisonwood Bible, smiled, and welcomed her inside. We went through the normal round of greetings, ending when I asked what was new and she sighed and said nothing. The visit wasn't unusual - it's Ramadan, and afternoons are boring. There's no lunch preparation or afternoon tea to break up the day, and most people spend the afternoon napping. The village is a total dead zone from around 2pm until break fast around 7:30. I'm not fasting this year, so many kids (who also don't fast) use "visit Kadiatou" as an afternoon activity. I have some picture books brought back from America that kids are welcome to read as long as they don't remove them from my hut. Meadow picked up a book she'd already "read" many times and started turning the pages. Ten minutes elapsed - I forgot she was there. The Poisonwood Bible is a very good book. Finally, she spoke.
"Tomorrow, I might go to a dennabo (naming ceremony)," she said.
"Yes, me too!" I replied happily. Several people had told me about the dennabo already. It was supposed to be a huge affair, with speakers and cold boissons biked in from Velingara in coolers. Usually, parties don't happen during Ramadan, but they made an exception for this one. It was going to start right at break fast and continue well into the night. I was really looking forward to it.
Five more minutes elapsed in silence. The Poisonwood Bible is a very good book.
"Aliou's washing tonight," she said nonchalantly.
I was fairly certain I'd heard correctly but had no idea who Aliou was or why she was telling me this. "Oh yeah? What we will he wash? Clothes?"
"No, I said Aliou," she slowly clarified. "Aliou Balde."
"Awa," I said with a shrug. OK.
Meadow didn't give up. "Aliou Balde," she said again. She pantomimed washing her hair. I remembered that was the name of the man in town that washes womens' hair. They just go to his compound and pay 200 CFA (roughly 40 cents) and he lathers them up.
"Awa," I said again. The town hair washer, who washes hair every night, was washing hair that night. That was a weird thing to tell me. Must have been a slow news day in Teyel.
More time elapsed. The Poisonwood Bible is a very good book. Finally, I felt Meadow's stare piercing me through the pages. I looked up and recognized the pleading look in her eyes. Realization hit me like a beam of lightning.
"OH! I UNDERSTAND!" I exclaimed. I was proud of myself for figuring it out but embarrassed that it took so long. Meadow looked relieved. I stood up and got a 200 CFA coin from my wallet to pay for Meadow to get her hair washed for the party.
Then I decided to mess with her a little bit. Like all big sisters, I'm kind of a bully.
"You will wash the hair until you're clean?" I asked. I accidentally used lootde, to wash, instead of looteede, to get washed. Reflexive endings are hard and I forget a lot. Meadow didn't correct me like most 13 year olds would ("no, I'll get washed, dummy!"). She just politely said yes.
"You have a friend there?" I enquired. She just smiled shyly. I kept digging. "A boy friend?" I prodded. Just like in English, "boy" and "friend," innocent when separated by a space, combine into a far more loaded word. Sahel gorko could be nothing, a friend who's a boy, or a real boyfriend. I said the words close together, in a way that was teasing yet kind (I hoped.)
Meadow put her head in her hands and laughed, embarrassed. If her skin were paler, her face would be blushing beet red.
"Now I understand!", I squealed, throwing my pillow at her. "What's his name?"
We both laughed. I waited for inspiring Full House theme music to bubble up, incited by this lovely heartwarming family moment. Instead I heard only roosters and goats.
"Meadow," I said slowly. "You will go to school next year."
She solemnly nodded.
"And the year after next, and three years from now." (This is easier to say in Pulaar - e ñatigaro, e ñatagaro)
I tried to make meaningful eye contact, but Meadow was looking at the door. She had gotten her money and I was acting a little too much the nosy big sister. She glanced back and recognized the pleading look in my eyes.
"Oh! Yes! School! I will go to school," she assured me.
I kept looking at her.
"I will have girl friends only."
We laughed and said "let us spend the afternoon in peace" - a mouthful in English, but three simple syllables in Pulaar, ñallen jam.