“Just paint mommy. It will make you feel better,” my seven year old daughter said while looking at me with her big, sweet, brown eyes, toffee colored biracial skin and curly Afro. Although I had considered myself an artist growing up, but after being told pursuing it wasn’t a realistic career choice, I had left the arts for many years as being around it was painful. My daughter had gravitated to art naturally as I never created around her. Now, years later, fighting through the tears of a broken heart, I picked up a paintbrush and with a stroke of paint, change the course of my life in ways I never could’ve imaged in my wildest painting or dreams.
I had never seen them before, but that didn’t stop me from painting them, over and over. Mud huts with geometric shapes painted on them lined my canvas but I didn’t know why. Night after night, once my daughter slept, I’d paint them into the wee hours of the mourn guided by a daydream of a place and people that seemed to be a part of my family or a past life. Never mind that I had to wake just a few hours later for a job I hated. My need to create oozed into my mommy-daughter time, so we each made our own projects while creating together on the living room floor of the one bedroom apartment we share.
After countless hut paintings, eventually I got curious as to why I was creating them and what it could mean. I googled, “painted mud huts in Africa.” I chose Africa over other places because of all my personal and professional connections to the continent. I viewed the images from my search and found the remote village of Tiebele, Burkina Faso, West Africa, where women paint the huts as a symbol of status and to deter wild animals and enemies. I still didn’t know why I painted the huts, but I now knew there was a place that existed in reality, not just my dreams.
The pictures displayed of the village felt like they leapt out of my chest onto the computer screen. Instinctively, they were a part of me, or I of them, so much so that I grilled my grandma about our heritage as she had mentioned the possibility of African blood in our lineage before. She said her mother joked about it, but that she didn’t know of a connection in our history. Apparently my grandpa called her his squaw, but great grandma said she didn’t know why, when if anything, there was African blood in the family, not Native American. Regardless of a family link, I felt this village, the art and the women pulling at my heart. I knew I had to find a way to go there—I was determined. My best friend cautioned that she thought I was holding onto a connection to the man who had just broken my heart as he was from the same country. While this was normally a plausible possibility, this time was different.
I have to go to this village. This sentiment sang in my heart and soul, echoed in my brain and pounded in my chest. How was I going to make it happen when any other time I had tried to go to the African continent my plans would fall a part? I don’t mean reschedule and try again, but blew up all hopes, kind of fall a part. Plus, even if plans came together, how would I afford it on my single mom’s salary? Oh, yeah, and there was the responsibility of the single mom to schedule care for too.
Unknowingly, planning to get out of my current job, led to the money I needed to take a trip. I approached a friend about a job, and while he couldn’t give me full time work, he contracted with me for a project that paid enough for my travel. Although I needed the money, it was money that wasn’t normally in my budget, so I justified using it to go to Burkina Faso. Simultaneously my friend from Burkina Faso contacted his friend and told them I was planning a trip. Nikiema and his family offered to let me stay with them after less than one minute of us talking. It was all coming together.
My family didn’t understand why I “had” to make this trip. I just did. How do you put into words a sacred calling that wasn’t religious and involved the arts, therefore, people didn’t understand or see it as valid? How was I going to afford the trip when I already struggled financially as a single mother and received no child support or county assistance living in a one bedroom apartment with my daughter? Why did I have to travel internationally in the age of Al-Qaeda and terrorist attacks? Why was I going to a village with no electricity or running water when my idea of camping was a hotel with air conditioning and a pool? How was I going to communicate since I didn’t speak any of the languages? Yes that’s plural; French is the colonial official language but there are numerous ethnic and tribal languages spoken as well. These questions still plagued my mind, just as they did for the month that family and friends asked them, as the smell of stale coffee and cheap plane food filled my nostrils. Yep, a month. All the pieces came together in one month from idea to flight.
The plane made a hard left while descending, making the view of the land more visible. The red dirt of mother Africa spread out as far as the eye could see. That is of what I could see between the water drops. Tears were flowing from my eyes and rain was pouring from the clouds. I had only just glimpsed at this land, not even set foot yet, and I was already sad I’d have to leave. I could no longer smell the coffee, but instead tasted the salt of my tears. It was an immediate connection to my heart that I could feel swelling in my chest, just like when I found the village online. Where did this intense, instinctive pull come from?
Walking down the stairs of the plane onto the hot tarmac, I unknowingly wiped the only semblance left of a good first impression from my clammy face, as beads of sweat pearled on my forehead. Luckily, I always carried lip stick in my purse, as it was the only thing to help my disheveled look. My 24 hour journey from St Cloud, Minnesota, USA to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, West Africa took 48 hours because of plane mechanical issues in Brussels, Belgium. All clothes and toiletries were in my checked suitcase that stayed on the plane as they took me and the other passengers to a hotel for the night.
I like to look good and feel comfortable when I travel, as you never know who you will meet, but this time I was neither. I was wearing the same floor length sleeveless plum dress that was now wrinkly, yet it shapely fit in the stomach to flatter my recent drastic weight loss caused by my heartbreak, and it caressed my breasts enough to show they were there but didn’t reveal too much. My teeth were unbrushed, I had no makeup except what was leftover on my face from the day before, and my short, strawberry blonde, spiky hair was messy—even for a style that was meant to be that way—and my eyes were baggy. It was a sign of what was to come as I didn’t wear makeup the whole trip because it melted off of my face and my hair protested spiking in the 110 plus degree Fahrenheit heat.
Now the baggy eyes weren’t the airlines fault. Most of that was eight years of single motherhood to an overactive child and a natural inability to sleep when I travel. They were kind enough to put us up in a hotel, but a few of us strangers became quick friends and decided to tour Brussels with our unexpected day passes. The visas were much easier for myself and fellow Americans as we immediately got a stamp in our passport with no questions asked. Our counterparts from other countries however were questioned and it took them about an hour to obtain.
At least my jewelry was on point though. My earrings, long layers of purple and sparkly, and a hippy purse strapped across my body, met at my shoulders and complimented the charm bracelet watch I made of elephants, purple and sparkles. My feather shaped non-sterling silver bracelet, I know this because it later turned my wrist green, and the African pendant around my neck were gifts from the most recent ex that broke my heart and led me to painting and this adventure. My iridescent purple wrap was from two ex-boyfriends ago. The ring, a pearl I got in Hawaii when visiting my brother before he deployed to Afghanistan, was set and engraved with my daughter’s name and worn on my ring finger. I was committed to her and done with these exes as I looked forward to this adventure that was going to help me grow. Little did I know just how much.
The temperature was at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit as I walked into the airport. If you add the fact that there was no air conditioning, no ventilation and hundreds of bodies crammed together waiting for luggage, my natural Minnesota windchill calculator switched modes and figured the heat index was 120 degrees. I started to over heat, as I don’t sweat, and thought I’d become a puddle like left by the rain. Thankfully when the customs agent and I didn’t speak the same language, he said, “American?” and waved me through. Nikiema and Tapsoba picked me up in a car without a/c. What was I doing? How was I going to survive? This I questioned, but instinctively knowing who was there to pick me up because their faces called to me like a long lost relative, sharing the road with roaming livestock and armed police and military holding what looked like Russian semi-automatic weapons from WWII or the cold war, seemed natural and didn’t phase me as we made our way through the city of Ouagadougou to the home they were taking me into without questions or knowing who I was, other than their friend asking them to welcome me.
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