After a couple of days in the city, I arrived in the village from my paintings and computer screen. Laid out before me, dozens of pieces of artwork hand painted on to huts that made up the chief’s palace. Diamonds, triangles and diagonal lines were painted in black and white on red earth dirt. Animal shapes were present sporadically too. After a tour through the maze of circular and rectangular huts with designs, we returned to two ladies mixing up a grey dirt concoction that was the texture of compacted sand for making sand castles, but stickier like wet clay at a potter’s wheel. They used their hands to spread the mix on the side of the hut wall. Once the outside wall was covered, the ladies applied another layer. This mixture was the color of red earth dirt and had almost a glossy or finish feel and look to it. The second layer was applied the same way, but was smoothed out. Once the structure was covered in red, it was time to paint.
I didn’t see how either mixture was made, nor what the ingredients were. I know nothing about African hut building, or even the Native American prairie mud houses that I saw at local museums growing up. Imagine my surprise when I returned to the city and learned that cow dung was used in the mixture. Poop! My bare hands smeared cow poop on the wall, just as the elderly man had done when I was doing my nursing clinicals.
When my daughter was under two months old, I started a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) program. I had a bad experience in the hospital when my biracial daughter was born. I didn’t want other diverse families to experience the same, so I enrolled. Bonus, healthcare is guaranteed work in the future and good pay for a single mom. I lived with my parents and they helped care for my daughter while I worked to get my degree. An elder man kept trying to touch my butt one day on rounds, and I would position myself so he couldn’t. When I went in later to change him, he took his diaper off and smeared his bowel movement on the wall. I quit nursing after that. One year completed of a two year degree left unfinished. Fast forward seven years, and I was now the smearer.
PAINTING WITH KAYE
Then I met Kaye. I didn’t know her name at that point, but I knew it was her when I saw her. The woman who mentored me in my dreams was sitting before me, next to the decorated huts like we painted in my slumber. You know the dream; where the person is there but you don’t see their face, yet when you see them in real life, you know it’s them. Her positioning of curled up and hunched over was that of a body wearing out or to avoid the sun. Either was possible as beads of sweat piled on her neck like a sparkly makeshift necklace, and as she slowly stood, she coaxed each of her joints; first hands on her knees, then hips and finally low back.
Her hands, the color of milk chocolate, were rough with tales of hard-work and experience. They reminded me of my grandfather’s blacksmith hands, and the lava soap he scrubbed with, but they were never truly clean. Though rough, there was something so gentle, soothing and inviting about those hands. They also appeared to be magnetized as our hands instinctively joined.
After moments of silence, that could have been seconds or minutes but had a lifetime of impact, and gazing into each other’s eyes, she handed me a feather and bowl of what I presumed was homemade black paint. Like a long lost friend that you don’t need to talk to because you already know everything about each other, we began to paint the wall of the hut.
When we got out of sync our hands and feathers met in the bowl. She paused and stared down at our connection. Our hands, that of elder and young, black and white, experienced and apprentice, were working together telling ancient stories through geometric shapes and without any words spoken.
I guess it’s a good thing I found out about the poop after the fact or I would have missed a great experience. The ladies started patterns using a chicken feather and black paint, and then I would follow their guidance. Just like the wall spread, I didn’t know how the paint was made. The pigment was strong though because it stained my fingers instantly.
On the last section, they told me to create my own pattern. Knowing that the designs had special meanings, as well has historical and cultural significance, I asked if they were sure. Given the green light, I created curly lines with circles in the curves of the line. I told them I did this on the paintings I created that led me to learning about the village and their art. I asked them if the symbol I painted had any meaning to them—music. I wasn’t sure why I was creating that because I didn’t think music had much of a role in my life. So of all of the symbols, why would I use this one, I thought.
When I returned I returned to the city, I told Nikiema about this and he wasn’t surprised, so I inquired why. He reminded me that in only a week with me, he saw me dancing multiple times on different dance floors, in the car, in my seat at the dinner table, at the art centers and more. Whether I was tapping my foot, moving my butt or shoulders while seated or upright and using my whole body, I was always moving to music. I hadn’t noticed, but looking back, I saw what he was saying. I do love African music, but I hadn’t realized it’s impact on me.
And of course music was a part of me. I had just stepped away from it. Growing up I loved to sing at church and in the school choir. My dad and his dad were known for singing, “On eagle’s wings.” I never felt that I was in their league though. However, I was better than my brother and mom, who said that God gave her the voice so he had to listen to it because she enjoyed to sing, even if it was off pitch. My brother didn’t care what people thought of his singing; he just sang. A trait I admire. One Father’s Day I was scheduled to sing Bette Midler’s “Wind beneath my wings” at church, but I was getting laryngitis. Some how, I mustered up the vocals and sang my heart out. I couldn’t speak for a few days after. Looking at these song titles now, I wonder if our name, Drake which means male duck, had anything to do with our song selections.
I didn’t just sing, but I played music as a child as well. I taught myself to play guitar in the 3rd grade and in 4th I took piano lessons. In junior high I played the flute. I was always challenging or being challenged by Carrie for first chair. My band career ended in high school when I couldn’t be in marching band. Back then they had wool uniforms, and that coupled with my inability to sweat, just overheat, meant my music days were over.
Stress of life or being an adult, or maybe a little of both, caused me to forget how important music was to me. It was still in me though, I just wasn’t paying attention to its power. Not to mention that all events in my life can be associated with a song. Senior prom- California Love by 2Pac. My wedding- I don’t want to miss a thing by Aerosmith from the movie Armageddon.
When we were done painting the patterns of shapes, white chalky rocks were rubbed on the wall to add another layer of color. They also helped to blend the layers and colors together into a cohesive artwork on the wall. When we were done, a liquid substance was used to cover the mural. I was told it was a temporary sealant to protect it from the weather and that in the morning they would put on the permanent sealer.
ART AFTER THE VILLAGE
I was so sucked into the experience, being present in this living art village with women who carried the symbol knowledge passed down by generations of ancestors, that the fine details escaped me. It wasn’t until after this life changing experience that I began to question things. Upon returning home, I learned that the symbols date back to the 16th century and served as a status symbol and defense. The circular huts are for single people and rectangular are for couples. Huts also house the living and the dead.
At home it was just me painting alone—sad and mending a broken heart. Painting in Tiebele with Kaye was the beginning of a collective experience that changed lives. I was becoming the artist I wanted to be as a child. Through conversations with the villagers, it was decided that I’d try to sell my artwork to fundraise for projects in Tiebele, starting with water and sanitation, and moving to health, education and employment.
The day came, just over a month after I left Burkina Faso, for me to bring my artwork to a local show. I reverted to the shy, red head with freckles and turning red from attention that I was before my adventurous trip. I couldn’t put myself out there to be vulnerable and judged. “No Way!” scream my inner terrified six year old version of myself. A voice inside my head, or from a miniature version of myself on my shoulder, said, “I never thought you were so selfish!” I was caught off guard and replied, “What do you mean? Why am I selfish? And why am I talking to myself?” The voice said, “You promised those women and children that you’d sell your artwork to fundraise for clean water and sanitation in the village. But you’re shy and vulnerable, so go ahead and stay home. It’s not like they will DIE without access. Oh, wait, 24,000 children under the age of five in Burkina Faso die each year from preventable diarrheal diseases.”
And just like that, my artwork was packed into the car and on its way to my first art exhibition.