The Tree in the Red
Illustration by Erin McPhee
If you’ve ever felt heat before, or experienced an extremely long summer, you haven’t. You have never felt real heat. Burkina Faso: a tiny country landlocked in the middle of West Africa, is literally one of the hottest places on Earth. It sits slightly above the equator, sandwiched between Mali and the Ivory Coast. I was there during the summer to boot; the time of year when nobody ventures outdoors between eleven am and two pm; the white-hot sun too much to bear even for those who’ve always lived there.
There the mosquitoes sting like bees and leave you wondering if you’d caught their disease. The temperature climbs so high that a night when it drops to thirty-five degrees is a cool relief. It’s best to stay indoors after the sun sets because the night brings creatures that never see the light of day.
The heat seeps through clothing and skin. The humidity rivals that of a rainforest yet the red earth is still as hard as concrete. It is difficult to walk in the dense air, hair stands on end and water evaporates immediately.
Despite the harsh climate, the beauty is enough to keep me there. The savannah stretches as far as the eye can see. The ground rises in puffs of dust as people walk and motorcycles pass. I can make out the low clay houses from where we walked, their tin roofs like hundreds of silver suns.
I look up behind me at the towering baobab tree to see its closest branches dangling seventy feet above my head. I run my hand along its side. The bark is smooth and earthy as if the roots feed soil as well as water. In the side of the tree there is a massive hole in which I can stand upright. I climb into the massive hollow trunk. I’m so thankful for the shade I forget to check the ground for scorpions.
Thousands of veins snake upwards to reach the fruit at its very top. Green lizards skitter over my feet and up the tree. I follow them as fast as I can, trying not to lose my balance. I peer through another hole in the trunk. Although I’m only a few feet above the ground, if I stick my head out and crane my neck, I can see the sleeping fruit bats high above hanging upside down in tiny black furry bundles. Back when we stayed at the hotel, they would swoop down from the banana trees at night and drink from the pool.
My brother finally scampers in behind me. He makes an attempt to climb up where I am. I laugh, his nine year old feet were not as nimble as mine. “There are scorpions here, you know”, I remind him. He freezes. “Where?” “I don’t know. You can’t always see them. But they hide in trees.” “But they don’t sting you, right?” “Of course they do!” “But only if you bother them, right? Right, Elizabeth?” “If you accidentally step on one I think that it would be pretty bothered, so I would be really careful - ” He tears back outside without hearing the rest of my sentence. I laugh even harder. I want to see one. I haven’t yet and I’m disappointed. I know scorpions are deadly and dangerous and the nearest hospital is not a great one. However at this point I’ve already gotten malaria and that hadn’t been nearly as horrible as I thought it would be. So I figure if I could get over this supposedly deadly disease in less than a week, maybe scorpions aren’t as bad as everyone says they are. Logic at its finest. You see, when I was younger I had a ridiculous lack of fear of danger. It was great because I was never (and still am not) afraid to try new things… But it also meant I went searching for scorpions. Not to worry, I never found one. I go back out through the “door” to join my brother and my uncle who brought us there. We make our way to the peanut fields, where the short plants sprout from the red earth. Walking through the humidity is like walking through water with the sun viciously beating down on you. You learn to adapt, and when you do, summers will never be hot again.
Farmers dot the planting area. Their hunched forms hacking with pickets in their hands. I’m not exactly sure what they’re doing, but I want to try it.
We wander for a while, passing a cemetery on our way back. The ground is too hard to dig, so the graves rise from the ground in mounds of clay. Some have metal cages around them, others stand alone with simple wooden plaques. I catch my eye on two graves inside a single metal cage, as if binding its inhabitants for all eternity.
I know my grandparents rest there. I imagine their hands intertwined underneath the solid ground. I only ever met them once, the first time I traveled to Burkina Faso, long ago. I don’t know why I feel sad, it’s not as if I knew them. I remember a translated conversation from the first trip. I was only seven at the time, and I laughed along with everybody else. I don’t speak Mooré, the African language indigenous to the Mossi people. Not all Burkinabés are Mossi, the country is split between several ethnic groups, including the Peul, and Gourmanché. The Mossi are by far the largest group, making up more than sixty per cent of the country’s population.
Before the French drew lines across Africa, forcing people to live across newly formed borders from their families, the Mossi lived in West Africa. They made their homes along the Volta River for thousands of years, long before the country of Upper Volta was carved out of their homeland and the national language became a foreign one. Before Thomas Sankara’s revolution brought change beyond the name of the nation (Burkina Faso can be translated to mean Land of the Upright Man, or Land of the People of Great Integrity) the Mossi lived from the land. French is the language that was forced upon us, and remains the only evidence that we were ever colonized. I am Mossi, but I don’t speak Mooré. I speak French, the language of the colony. Not the language of my people.
I remember my father telling me that my grandmother had told him (she’d never been able to learn French) that if we waited this long to visit again, she would be dead be dead before we got there. Most of my cousins had laughed nervously, an aunt told her not to say such things. It wasn’t until the day we bought the tickets for the trip I’m on now that the meaning sunk in. I think of the phone call an hour after we booked our flights. I remember my parents with their eyes downcast and voices sullen telling us our grandmother had joined our grandfather in the land of the dead. The glint of the sun off the metal cage forces me to look away. I don’t look back.
The clay houses are much closer now, which is a welcome sight. The sun is climbing higher into the sky, noon is approaching. I greatly fear being caught out here at the day’s hottest point. When the road leaves blisters on your feet if you forget your shoes. When all you need to fry an egg is a pan and the scorching ground.
To reach the houses, we have to cross through the bog. During the dry season there is no issue. But in the rainy season as it is now, the crater fills with water drowning a stretch of the road. It’s murky and green and does not smell as water should. The stink hangs heavy in the air and I swear I can see it, although I would be told later it’s just the heat. I wade through it as quickly as I can, not yet at the age where I am no longer ashamed of my nightmares. I come out running and breathe a sigh of relief, shaking off my feet at the ankles. My uncle laughs and buys me a mango from a street vender. The juicy sweetness running down my chin dribbles away my worries with it.
We follow the unpaved roads in tired silence. I run my hands along the sides of the houses. My palm smoothes the earthen bumps, staining my fingers burgundy. I can now see the old beige bull sitting lethargically underneath the wooden awning. It juts out in front of the only two-story house in the entire neighbourhood. I can pick it out all the way from the bog. It’s where we we’re staying, with another uncle his wife and my three cousins. I walk through the door, the ceiling fan exciting me more than it should. I pick up my napping cousin who lets out a high-pitched snore but doesn’t wake up. I place him gently on the couch, his tiny toddler body not even occupying an entire cushion. I take his place on the floor under the fan.
Adults file in from the heat anticipating the daily screening of Tereza. It’s a melodramatic Spanish soap opera dubbed over in French about the struggles of a wealthy woman and her many suitors. Most days I can stand to watch it, I’ve even come to enjoy it a little. I find it hilarious, even more funny when my brother tries to imitate the actors. But today, the tree and the red earth have taken all my energy for their own.
I wait for sleep to come and it does, passing over me like a warm breeze. Then I wait for the heat to pass. It never does, but I don’t mind.
I would trade this time for nothing. There I fed baby elephants and climbed a hollow tree. I wrestled semi-tame crocodiles and bribed a police officer. I survived a “deadly” disease known by the locals as Palou (known by Anglophones as malaria) without so much as a glance at death. I went searching for scorpions. I watched fruit bats drink from a hotel swimming pool, I chased wild ostriches and met the president’s wife. I lived without air conditioning in a climate that averaged forty-five degrees Celsius a day. I rode motorcycles helmetless in the dead of night, I saved my drowning cousin’s life and taught impromptu English lessons. I made friends with babies and they told me their first words, I sat for six hours as cornrows traced my scalp.
I roamed free and played every day. At the age of twelve I gained independence, confidence, and an adventure most adults wish they’d had. There I never missed home, but here I miss my home every day.