Mal du Pays

Ruth Gooley

Ruth Gooley

Mal du Pays was selected as part of MSU Library Short Edition's call for submissions on the theme of "Home," in coordination with the MSU Broad Art Museum's exhibition "Where We Dwell." Ruth Gooley, returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Country of Service: Mali.

Children scrabble in the dirt,
covered with dirt themselves,
shorts tattered, no shirts,
barefoot, although you've been warned
worms can creep in through the soles of your feet.

Wearing only cloth tied around their waists,
bare chests and backs slick with sweat,
two young girls pound millet into mush,
their mortar a hollowed-out calabash,
their pestles pieces of wood taller than they.

Squatted before a brazier,
a mother, baby tied to her back,
lights a charcoal fire,
pours water and rice into a rusted pot,
stirs her stew with a stick.

Three men lazing on stools
wait for their tea to boil,
hold the sweet mint drink high,
pour it from the metal teakettle,
watch the woman work.

A cockroach as big as a mouse
runs past your foot.
You recoil, relax.
Other thoughts
creep into your mind.
Your sisters' jokes, their pokes and humors,
your brothers' replies, their thoughtful frowns,
your friends from grad school,
discussions and even final papers,
professors who became friends.

Your apartment in Playa del Rey,
blessed by an offshore breeze, salt-crisp air,
shrill cries of seagulls and terns,
cool, cloud-dropped sky,
the distant moan of the foghorn from the Marina.

Reliable electricity and potable water,
good mail service and phones,
no mosquito nets,
no bats, no rats,
no packs of undernourished dogs.

No Malians who laugh when you say in Bambara
that you can't speak Bambara.
No passing woman who will see you struggling
to carry out your trash
and place your load on her head.

No travelers on the bachée
who will share a mango with a stranger.
No one to warn of a pickpocket in the market,
laugh at a fly in your coffee,
offer you a refill for free.

No gardien who weaves cloth as he guards,
offers you a homemade blanket,
invites you to his dirt floor case,
where you rinse your hands in a communal cup,
eat tō and rice from a communal bowl with your fingers.

No friendly haggling with merchants,
who ask about your ancestors
before you open with an offer,
laugh as they lower the price, take your coins,
slip in an extra banana or egg.

The call to prayer, the warble of the holy man,
your bamboo chair creaks.
Your face now dry, you stand,
wave at your neighbors,
go inside to soak your lettuce and tomatoes in iodine.

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