Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah/Anna Badkhen

Saturday, March 7, 2015

I had said, about this blog, that I would reduce my frequency. Posting just Mondays and Thursdays now (unless there was personal book news to share). Making more time for Time. Easing away from increasingly desperate sense that more was expected of me than I could ever adequately deliver.

But yesterday and today, reading Anna Badkhen's memoir, Walking with Abel, I realized that there will be some days, some books, that will require an interlocutory post.

I can no longer read everything I'm sent, write about everything I read, respond to every package that arrives on my stoop.

But I must write about books like Anna's.

I've written about Anna here before—the day I met her, in the living room of the home of the documentary photographer Lori Waselchuk. I have written of her Afghanistan narrative, The World is a Carpet. I have come to know her—only occasionally, but always meaningfully—in the time in between. We have discussed self-compassion. Bigotry. Chromites. New books due in August, about love. I was prepared, in other words, for Walking with Abel, her story of living with a family of Fulani cowboys and starwatchers as they move herds across the country of Mali in West Africa. The wisdom of the Fulani is earth wisdom. It is in the sand they cross, the rivers that rise, the frogs that sing, the constellations that guide, the nudge of a cow. It is in the stories they ask for, and the stories they share.

Into their wisdom came Anna.

Here, in the early pages, she tells us what she seeks:
To enter such a culture. Not an imperiled life nor a life enchanted but an altogether different method to life's meaning, a divergent sense of the world. To tap into a slower knowledge that could come only from taking a very, very long walk with a people who have been walking always. To join a walk that spans seasons, years, a history; to synchronize my own pace with a meter fine-tuned over millennia. For years I had wanted to learn from such immutable movement.
Anna's immersion is uncompromising. She sleeps beneath a tree on blue plastic tarp, her backpack at her head. She wakes, one day, to a goat standing on her knees. She bathes in rivers. She churns the buttermilk. She holds the babies. She learns (perhaps I should have started with this) that language. She finds breathtaking beauty in her hostess:
She had no front teeth left and the remaining teeth were rotted and brown. She was narrowboned and gracile and she wore her long gray hair in cornrows woven so that two thin braids ran down in front of either ear and the rest bunched at the back of her head. The tattoo that once had accentuated her whole mouth and blackened her gums had long faded except for an indigo shadow on her full lower lip.
This is Anna making room for astonishment in the world—Anna who is both a migrant and an immigrant, a former war reporter who is capable of seeing beauty and who ponders, out loud, in Abel, this: "Maybe a true writer of conscience was one who never put down a single word."

I am glad, we should all be glad, that Anna puts down her words (and her pale, evocative sketches of the homes she made on that swatch of earth). I am grateful that this book leans into memoir, yields Anna's own vulnerability as she tries to live in the aftermath of an ended love affair, that she uses both her heart and her eyes to see, that she writes, or seems to write, this book for the man who, in transient moments, made her happy, the man she carries forward, memories now, interludes, words. Who was he? Who were they? She tells us:
My beloved and I had been comrade voyagers before we became lovers, footloose storytellers who shared a supreme reverence for wordsmanship. We filled our notebooks with the beauty and the iniquity with which the world branded and buoyed us. We wished our stories to bring it to some accountability, some reckoning.
Anna, the world is better for your reckoning.


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