I have waffled between calling Diarra my landlord and my host-dad. I pay him rent and therefore he is, in fact, my landlord. But I also eat dinner with him every night, and we often drink tea together after dinner, making him something significantly more. If I ever have a problem - things often don't work here the way I expect them to - Diarra can usually fix it.
At fifty-seven years old, Diarra's body could easily be seventy-five. He began working in the fields when he was very young (his own recollection places it somewhere between seven and ten). Every year since he has spent a considerable amount of time doubled over, face close to the ground, working a short hand tool called a "daba", which has the blade of a hoe, but the short handle of a hatchet. His hands are rough and calloused, his feet cracked and hard. He can’t see very well, but I only know because sometimes he fumbles a little when he reaches for a glass of tea, and I think he struggles to recognize faces as they approach him. From up close, his eyes are visibly clouded with something that I'm sure, in the States, would be treatable.
At his age, he only makes the four-mile walk to his field a couple times a week. The rest of the family goes out at least double that. When he does go, he returns hot, dehydrated and weary. I always know when he's been out because he's much less jovial over dinner, and excuses himself to rest before tea is done. One day I went with him, and despite doing about half the work that he did, I returned in similarly poor shape.
Most days, Diarra can be found sitting in the shade in front of his house, greeting neighbors as they pass and occasionally shooing away chickens or goats that are getting close to the night's dinner. He enjoys a good belly-laugh, and his gift for finding comedy in daily occurrences allows him to sneak one whenever he can. His three-year-old grandson, Mamadou, is one of his continuing sources of pleasure and entertainment. I suspect there is nothing he would rather do than to pass the day drinking tea and talking with Madou. I often watch with glee and a hint of longing for my own grandfather as they compete to tell each other tall tales.
He speaks French at least as well as I do, which never surprised me until he told me he had never been to school. "Not one day in my life," he said.
One evening, as we sat waiting for dinner, I was feeling particularly curious about the details of this man's life, and so I asked. He has been married three times. His first wife died about seven years ago, he tells me with a hint of tenderness that is rare in a culture where marriage is more an economic arrangement than a life partnership. When I ask about his second wife, he asks if I know the term "divorce". It's uncommon here, and when he doesn’t come forward with the details, I allow him to leave it at that. His third wife, Sayon, is twenty-eight. Just to be sure, I ask if any of these marriages overlapped. He replies that they did not and, as if to assure me, he asserts that he never really understood how one man could provide for more than one woman and that many children.
I follow that line to ask him about his children. He has had ten - all by his first wife. I live with two of them, one twenty-one, and one nineteen. When I ask about the rest, he gets quiet. It's a fact of life that a lot of times kids don't make it here, and I assume that Diarra's family is no exception. I wait for him as he holds his head in his big, calloused hands, and assume he's trying to put a timeline on what must have been major events in his life. Six of them died before age five; "Sumaya," he says - malaria. Every illness here is malaria, but it's never a bad guess. "The other two?" I ask, praying that they are working in Bamako, or cab drivers in Europe. One, a boy, died at thirteen, he says. The other, a girl, died about five years ago, at seventeen. He takes a moment and looks me in the eye. "Ça, me derange," he says. I can't tell if his eyes are teary or just the usual cloudy.
Later, I go back to my French-English Dictionary to make sure I understood "derange", but "upset" doesn’t quite do it justice. I wonder if there are words in any language for that.