When we arrived back at the initiation camp, it was almost deserted. Those present were being given the assignment of the day: tree knowledge. I had expected a general meeting of the type we had the night before, but nothing like that happened. Instead, we were placed in groups of five to fifteen and asked to walk a little distance away. Each initiate should select a sizable tree. We were to sit, stand, or kneel about twenty meters from the tree and look hard at it. We were supposed to see something, but were not told what. Each elder was assigned a certain number of students. Apparently his task was to supervise this boring training and to make sure that we saw what we were expected to see.
The tree I chose was about ten meters high, with a trunk less than a meter in diameter: a yila
tree. I chose a comfortable place to sit and began staring. The sun had risen higher and the freezing temperature of the morning was quickly turning warm. I gazed at the tree faithfully, as I had been told to. For the next five hours nothing happened. The exercise merely became more and more exasperating, since I had nothing but a tree to look at. The same sun that had warmed me up, freeing me from the chill of the night, was now slowly baking me.
A Yila tree in Dano, Burkina Faso
To distract myself from this torment, I started thinking about something else. Hadn't I suffered worse than this in the seminary? And was this really a test of seeing or was it just an endurance test? The heat of the sun was more palpable than anything else. It was irresistibly taking possession of my senses. I fought this distraction by thinking about how satisfying it would be to survive this ordeal, to prove that I could do what the others could. The heat, however, was impossible to ignore. Sweat fell into my eyes, which were soon burning painfully. The only way to alleviate this distress was to rub my eyes with the back of my hand, but my hands were too sweaty to be helpful. So I kept my eyes closed. In my struggle against the crippling effect of the heat, I forgot the tree: I was dragged away from my task.
Sitting there with my eyes shut, I felt the impatience and frustration of someone who has something to do but can't get to it. My helplessness in the grip of a simple natural phenomenon was extremely irritating to me. I had to act. My eyes still closed, I got up and scratched around for the leaves of a plant or anything that I could use as a towel. Suddenly a voice behind me commanded, "Back to work---now!"
I explained that I could not see because there was sweat in my eyes. The elder laughed, as if what I had said was rubbish.
"What do you think you are doing?" he said. "You think cleaning your eyes will help you see better? Anyway, do as you wish. There is a plant right in front of you that will help."
I wiped my eyes with the plant and returned to my position. The elder who had spoken to me wore a ragged balbir
that barely covered his emaciated body. Kola meal that he had been chewing dripped from his red-stained mouth. He was still rhythmically pounding the rest of the nut between his toothless jaws. Sitting at his ease in the shade of a tree, he watched me with interest, as if I were a specimen destined for a secret experiment.
I resumed my gazing assignment. The momentary change of posture seemed to have done something good to my body, and for a while it was willing to cooperate with me. The sweating had cooled me by this point, and the distraction caused by the heat of the day diminished. On the way back to my tree, I had noticed that some of the other students were casually strolling around. Why didn't the elder pick on them instead of me? I was almost certain I had seen at least three boys walk back toward the camp.
"You will not get anywhere if your thoughts are watching one thing and your eyes another. The boys you just saw are through with their assignment so they are free to go do something else."
Baobab tree in Senegal
It was the elder who had spoken before. I did not respond. How did he know that I was thinking about something else, let alone about these other students? I figured he must have noticed me looking at them in astonishment as I was returning to my place by the tree after taking care of my eyes. You cannot see another person's thoughts,
I told myself. Reassured by that conclusion, I continued to let my thoughts wander while my eyes were locked onto the yila tree. A little later, when I heard the elder begin to sing, I wondered if he too were trying to divert himself from the boredom of this task: watching somebody watch something must have been just as monotonous as staring at nothing.
That thought made me feel better, but not for long. The song the elder was singing was not a commonplace one. It was an old healing melody to which any words could be sung that fitted the situation at hand.
The blind man had two eyes
That saw things that moved
And things that did not move
He thought he was not blind
And was proud to see,
But when asked to see the moving
In the thing that does not move
He decided he was blind.
His eyes would not believe
That the still was not still
And that the moving could cease
Because the only thing the moving knew
Was move move and move.
Seeing has become blindness
And that which does not move
Knows you lie to yourself
When you lend trust to what you see now.
I listened to the elder sing this mournful song over and over, and it made my body react in strange ways. Instead of hearing the song in a normal way with my ears, I felt instead as if I were hearing it in my body, my bones, my blood, and my cells. With each repetition, the meaning of the song seemed different and more helpful to me in some way. Though my eyes were fixed on the tree, my attention was on the singer. Soon I had no doubt that the elder was singing about me.
"See anything yet?"
He had stopped singing. I realized he expected me to see something now. What I wanted to tell him was that my tree would never stop being what it was, and that looking at it would not make it any more or less of a yila. Instead, I decided I was going to be polite. So I responded with a mere "No."
"Keep looking," he said and resumed his song.
I stole a quick glance at him. He wasn't even looking in my direction and he didn't seem to care one bit about what I was doing.
As evening approached, it became cooler. All around me I heard the voices of my fellow students. Some of them were familiar, others less so. I guessed that I was again falling behind the group in my assignment, since they seemed to have completed theirs. But I figured that soon I was going to be released anyway since the day was almost over.
Another elder joined my supervisor and they began to discuss me. I listened carefully.
"How is he doing?" the newcomer asked.
"In his belly he is a full-bred white. He can't see," my supervisor replied. "The white man's medicine must have damaged vuur
[spirit]. But his soul is still in him. That's why I said a year ago---that for his own sake he should not be involved in initiation. But Kyéré silenced me as if I were speaking nonsense. Now, if this boy can't even wipe his eyes, how do you think he is going to clean his body? We are barely a day into Baor and he is already trailing behind."
Acacia tree in the African savannah
There was a moment of silence punctuated by coughing and spitting. Even though I could not see well, I felt their presence very powerfully. The newcomer asked if I could see anything. I replied that I could see nothing but the same damn tree. He laughed compassionately and then ignored me.
They returned to their chat, and my supervisor said, "You would assume that a person like him would have an easy time, since he has some white man's blood in his medicine bag. He can think like them. And isn't the white man's medicine supposed to be really powerful? They have traveled beyond the seas to parts of the world really wondrous. This boy here is a riddle to me---I can't figure him out."
The voice of my supervisor sounded grave, as if he were announcing an unknowable doom. I wondered why he felt sorry for me. I was just doing what I was told, or at least trying to. It was not my fault if I couldn't see anything in the tree.
"Whatever he learned in the school of the white man must be hurting his ability to push through the veil. Something they did to him is telling him not to see this tree. But why would they do that? You cannot teach a child to conspire against himself. What kind of teacher would teach something like that? Surely the white man didn't do that to him. Can it be that the white man's power can be experienced only if he first buries the truth? How can a person have knowledge if he can't see?"
The second elder was clearly exasperated. He did not seem to be speaking to my supervisor anymore, but wrestling with a theoretical challenge. For him too I was obviously a riddle. There was something about me, something about the way I was not assimilating my lessons and the way my body was not reacting properly to the most important instructions, that attracted the curiosity of these old scholars. They watched me like a dog that has seen a worm for the first time.
As I continued to watch the tree, I knew I was also being watched. Even after overhearing the conversation of my teachers, I could not help wonder what they really thought of me. I vacillated between two ways of thinking about myself. In the first I saw myself as a living example of the white man's medicine successfully competing against the medicine of the indigenous world---a force to be reckoned with. In the second I was convinced that everyone saw me as incompetent and foolish. The first idea inflated me with pride. Perhaps, I thought, the elders would let me go on, realizing that there was nothing to be done. The second thought took this pride away. As more time passed and my tree stayed the same, I told myself that I should have thought the last thought first. Was there something I was supposed to do that I was not doing? What veil was I supposed to push through? My assignment had been to sit at a respectable distance from the tree and never lose sight of it. Other than getting up for a moment to wipe the sweat out of my eyes, I could not see how I had done anything so far that would have ruined my status as a student in good standing. I had successfully demonstrated my ability to be patient, obedient, and present all day long.
Darkness came. The elders left and the coach appeared. "That's it for today," he said. "If you were not able to see while you had light, how do you expect to do so now that the moonless night is coming on? Do you plan to use some starlight?"
Mango trees in West Africa
...Suddenly I knew I had failed that day, not because of the coach's remarks, but because I felt failure from the depths of my being. I still did not know what I was supposed to see, or what was preventing me from seeing what I was supposed to see. The day was over, the night had come, and other things were going to pile themselves upon me in addition to this failure. I had already missed a traditional deadline. This was a little frustrating, but worse, fear was creeping into my consciousness as I remembered Father telling me about the dangers of initiation. Was there something in this tree-gazing exercise that could kill me? Of Water and the Spirit
(To be continued in the May/June issue of E-Village News)