This time of year I often find myself in my hammock outside my courtyard. As the animals settle down for the night and the village slowly returns to its dormant state, the sun sets and the sky gradually opens up. Resting in my cocoon of knotted black cord, I frequently take notice of the moon itself: a crescent of molten silver floating in the indigo inkwell of the nighttime sky. As always, the stars are out, yet they don’t dare approach that great lunar body. Clouds add to the collage: diaphanous veils of grey silk weaving across the constellations, obscuring just enough to provide interest in their movements. As I lie there, I can’t help but remark that this could be the sky of a cold, winter night in New England. As the smell of smoked softwood reaches me, I know the family with whom I live has taken to sitting by the fire. Usually I would go join them but occasionally on nights like these, I prefer my seclusion. Again, I imagine myself stateside, beside a stone fireplace, nose pressed to a frigid glass window, staring at that very same silver crescent. In this vision, all I can feel is comfort: the dichotomy of the bitter cold on the tip of my nose and the warmth of the fire on the nape of my neck.
These reveries don’t last long. What does dominate my thoughts is the Fulani family I met last June. As Malian refugees, they made an impression on me—enough of an impression to devote a blog post to them. What now is disconcerting to me is that they were heading back to Mali just before the worst was to occur. I don’t know where they live—how far north, east or west. Perhaps they’re just over the border, living in an identical village to mine, far from the arm of the rebels. Perhaps they never even left Burkina at all. Regardless, I can only hope that this family is living peacefully. However, I can’t help but assume that they’re not as close to me as I would want. Letting my mind wander, I wonder: what have they seen? What are they going to see? What do they have left? What don’t they have left? What is to happen to them?
It’s a sickening feeling: knowing that I watched a family that had been set on the run, walk up that road and back into harm’s way. Obviously there was nothing to be done on my end, but the mental image is nevertheless fixed. If only any of us had known how much worse those sahelian and desert landscapes were to become. If only we had had any inclination that any ostensible peace would be long to come. However, maybe that family did know; maybe they knew more than I. Maybe they had made the choice to return to their home, regardless of the costs. Whatever the case, they walked up that road and out of sight slowly and with purpose.
With the escalation of the crisis, the southern gains of the rebels, the arrival of Western military assistance, and the entry of ECOWAS forces, the crisis in Mali has been delivered to the international stage. And as I write, Burkina and the UNHDR are bracing for an influx of 70,000 more refugees. What is so overwhelming about this whole ordeal is its unpredictability: like most conflicts in Africa, your guess as to what is going to happen is as good as mine. So there I lie, staring due north where the stars fall behind the tree line, knowing that the tranquility I am experiencing is a scarce luxury not that far over the horizon.
Yet again, where is that Fulani family?
As I sway gently in the harmattan winds, I realize that I’m actually a bit cold. Retreating to the warmth of my mud house, I look up once more at that great indigo inkwell peppered with stars and that radiant crescent of molten silver, now partially occluded by those unapologetic veils of grey silk. Acknowledging that I’m thinking in platitudes, I wonder whether a member of that family is looking up and seeing exactly what I see, exactly as I see it. And then I remember what I saw earlier in the day. I remember the French fighter planes overhead piercing the azure afternoon skies on their way north. Instead of wondering how far that family is from me, I take some peculiar comfort in realizing that after all, I might not be that far from them.