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A Memory by Marshall Riggan

After a long walk through the dying millet fields, we came to the village of Tinga where we were told it was important to pay our respects to the Mossi village chief, a leadership position traditionally known as King of the World. He lived in a small compound, a circle of tiny
conical huts surrounding a large central dwelling, all encircled by a high mud wall. The chief lived in the central hut, his wives in the smaller ones. The old chief was beautiful, very tall, hair and beard white as the snow he had never seen. He carried a ceremonial sword and wore a long orange robe. Although extremely dignified, there was something rather sad in his manner, as if he were
posing, making sure we knew he was King of the World. After a while, he called in his wives, all very young, and they clustered around, a tableau vivant of naked brown bodies and marvelous dark eyes.

In the distance, we could hear flutes and drums. When we asked about the music, we
were told it was for the workers in the millet fields. They labored to the rhythm of the drums and flutes. Encouraged by our interest in the music, the chief led us out into the ravaged fields that had seen little rain for many seasons. The farmers were lean, rugged men, most wearing garments that must have once been colorful, but had suffered the tyranny of time and the seasons.
They looked like a group photograph imperfectly developed. When they saw us coming, especially our cameraman, who was committing the unpardonable sin of filming indigenous people without permission, they began to shout at us and brandish their hoes and other implements of the soil in a threatening manner. The drums and flutes resumed their waling andpercussive clamor. The strange phalanx approached, some of the farmers scratching at the dry unyielding earth with their hoes, other’s waving their implements above their heads.

The King of theWorld seemed annoyed at their behavior, strangely tolerant, as if his power to
govern was not as clear as it might once have been. Apparently, the chief had asked the villagers to demonstrate their work and music, and they resented being asked to put on a show for the white taubabs. But this seemed more than resentment. Was ittoo much fermented millet? A joke gone wrong? Was it rage at the nature gods and the earth that had turned against them? Did they think we were mocking farmers working land where little to nothing grew? Whatever it was, it was
terrifying, which was probably their intent. Later we learned that the farmers were desperate and afraid because the six-year drought that had killed some 100,000 villagers to the north was moving inexorably their way. The Sahara itself was spreading its sands southward. It had been a long time since there had been rain on their fields and if it didn’t rain soon there would be no crop
to harvest and there would be famine.

And so the flutes wailed their treble lament, the drummers set up a fierce clamor, and the farmers scraped their hoes on the hard, dry earth and shouted what must have been insults in our faces and into the air. It seemed a kind of hysteria. The Chief and others began to move through the crowd seeking to lower the strange fever that filled the clearing. And not too soon the fever passed. As if exhausted or embarrassed, the farmersand musicians walked away. The farmers went back to their ravaged fields, the Chief posed once again with his ceremonial sword, then went back inside to his gaggle of wives.

Later that day, we went to a Christian prayer service in a small mud church not far from the compound of the King of the World. It stood like something abandoned within the ruined millet fields. Our guide was the missionary who established the church. He explained that Tinga, the name of the village, meant Goddess of the Earth and that, traditionally, the Mossi viewed God as an omni-potent, all-knowing, unknowable spirit of the Universe. They have no idols, no priesthood, no sacred relics. It is the earth they worship and the spirits of the Earth.

It was growing dark, and as we approached, we could see by the light of torches that the church was packed with families. We went inside. The rustic pews overflowed with worshipers, and many leaned against the walls or sat on the floor. We joined those sitting on the dirt floor, our legs tangled with other late-arriving congregants and their children. Soon, the singing began, old Gospel songs voiced in wonderful African harmonies, deep with feeling. Everyone began to clap and sway. Women nursed their children with closed eyes. Next to me was an old woman, her breasts exposed, her eyes moist with feeling. She was a leper and the hands she clapped were grotesquely deformed. Children climbed into my lap. The singing swelled until it seemed the little church could not contain its power. I had been in many houses of worship, including St. Peters, in Rome, Notre Dame, in Paris, Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul – but in none of them had I felt closer to the Eternal than I felt in that little mud church in the millet fields.

Soon there was a change in the sounds engulfing me. A deep percussive counterpoint
to the singing. Thunder? Could it be rain? Incredibly, it was! Rain! Great torrents of rain, like enormous buckets emptied onto the corrugated tin roof of the church. The singing soared full and transcendent to accompany the orchestra of the elements.

Later, I would think about that remarkable day in Upper Volta, the events in the fields of the
King of the World and the worship in the little mud church. How similar, in a way they were. Both involved music and great passion. I wondered if the strange behavior of the farmers was more than anger at the white intruders, more than a show for the camera. Maybe it was a kind of prayer. Maybe it was the spirits of the Earth that brought the rain. Maybe it was God. Who can know? Maybe neither. Maybe both. Who can know?

 If you enjoyed this story, please check out my novels, "Sulu Sea," or, "The Lost Caravan," available on Amazon and on this website.