Leela tightened the string on her hat, knowing it was more like a security blanket than anything else. She could practically see the heat in the still air; her hat wasn’t going anywhere. She sat in the dust at the side of the road just before it branched, and waited for something. Anything. The sun was almost at midday, and she prayed she would not still be sitting there when it set.
Four schoolchildren in blue uniforms materialized from around a bend in the road. The littlest of them stopped to wipe her brow. Her square backpack was twice the size of her tiny torso, and Leela chuckled. The children stared at Leela and paused their conversation as they passed. It was obvious she wasn’t from around those parts. The children kept walking in the direction from which the minibus had come. Leela watched them until they vanished in the distance.
Glancing again at the position of the sun, she got up, eeny-meeny-miny-moed to choose a road to follow, and began to walk. After an hour of passing seemingly empty huts and fields full of cassava and maize, she realized that her white shirt was slowly metamorphosing into an impressive shade of brown.
Nothing was becoming clear to her, nobody seemed to be around, she didn’t know where she was going, and she was only getting further away from so-called civilization. She tried to stay positive, but what if there were wild animals? Things biodegrade rapidly in the tropics, she thought to herself. No one would even find her carcass.
The road forked again. She crumpled onto a stump in the middle of the fork, placed her face in her hands, sighed and pleaded to the universe. “Please help.”
The sound of shuffling made her look up to see a very old man limping slowly out of one of the maize fields onto the road.
“Good afternoon,” he said in a feeble voice. It was the first bit of English Leela had heard in a while.
“My child, do you have water?”
“Um, yes,” she said and handed him her bottle, wondering what type of germs he may have. He poured a swig down his throat without touching his lips to the bottle, and handed it back with a wink. “Can you help me?” she implored. “I’m looking for Volta village.”
“Ah yes.” The old man nodded. “The Chief of Volta village has recently died. They are having a big funeral today and for many days. Several drumming groups have gone there. It is the next village down this way.” He pointed to one of the roads.
Leela’s eyes brightened.
“But please,” he continued, “You must take them a message for me. I cannot walk so far.”
“Yes of course.” Leela got to her feet.
“The dam on the river is breaking. It can rupture, but the people of Volta do not know. It may break during the funeral and flood the village. If it does, the people will think it is the neighbouring region that has broken it out of disrespect, and people will quarrel. But it is not they who will break it. If the people of Volta go to the dam now and begin repairs, they will prevent the rupture. Please go and tell them. You can tell them Koblavi Senior has sent you. If you listen, you will hear the funeral drums. Just follow their sound.”
Leela turned to look down the road. She could hear the drums in the distance. Funny, she thought, she hadn’t heard them before.
“Thank you,” she said, turning back, but Koblavi Senior was gone. Leela rotated 360 degrees, but saw no sign of the hobbling old man. She was amazed at how thickly the crops grew, and how easily people could disappear among the maize stalks.
“I’ll give them your message!” she called out to the fields, and began to walk towards the drums, now sounding very clear.
The circular, intricate rhythms of many drums, high- and low-pitched, were a dynamic conversation. As she walked, Leela imagined that they told ages-old stories. As she got closer, she could feel the rhythms in her heartbeat. She began to walk in time, and fought the urge to dance the rest of the way. She breathed in the smell of corn roasting on coals, and heard voices, about a hundred – a community of women’s voices raised in song. They blended with the drums to create a single sound. Leela felt shivers down her spine.
Sound soon gave way to vision, and a mass of swaying bodies in crisp cloths with intricate patterns in vibrant colours. Beautiful women and men rippled, shook and undulated their bodies in total harmony with each other and the music. Leela was breathless. Her heart was in her throat, and she momentarily forgot that she was a foreigner.
“My sistah!” she heard beside her. “You are welcome!”
A tall, stunningly beautiful woman approached. Her skin glowed and her hair was wrapped in a brilliant red cloth piled high on her head. She held out her hand for Leela to shake.
“Thank you,” replied Leela, when she had found her voice. “I have an important message from Koblavi Senior.”
The woman let go of Leela’s hand. Her smile dropped and her eyes became wide.
“I have a message from Koblavi Senior, about the dam. There is danger. Who should I tell?”
The woman did not answer, but called out to a second lady and spoke to her in another language, gesturing towards Leela. All that Leela could make out from the conversation were the words “Koblavi Senior”. The second woman also gave Leela a wide-eyed look, and ran off.
“Please, my sistah,” said the woman in red kindly. “Come and sit.”
“But I have…”
“Yes,” the woman interrupted. “Someone is coming.” She led Leela to a row of plastic chairs – apparently VIP seating, for most of the other observers were either standing, or sitting on a few benches. On the other chairs were regal-looking men and women dressed in large quantities of shiny, embroidered fabric. Leela sat self-consciously.
A tall young man arrived and seated himself in the chair on her left. He was also wrapped in elaborate fabric.
“My sistah, you are welcome,” he said in a voice that was surprisingly soft. He looked directly and inquisitively into Leela’s eyes, and offered his hand.
“Thank you.” She placed her hand into his firm grip. The shake he offered ended with a double snap, his middle finger sliding off hers twice in succession.
“I am the son of the Chief. My name is Koffi. Who are you?”
“My name is Leela. Is it your father…?” She looked around the gathering.
“Oh. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Koffi nodded slowly. “My father was a great man. We are celebrating his life. Sistah Leela, my wife tells me you have a message from one Koblavi Senior. Is this true?” Koffi was still looking her straight in the eyes.
“Yes.” Leela explained the warning about the dam. Koffi sat up straight.
“Where did he give you this message?”
“On the road to the village.”
“What did he look like?”
“He was very old. He just wore a white cloth. And he had a problem with his foot. And a beard, he had a grey beard. He spoke very quietly. He didn’t talk for very long.” She began to feel uncomfortable. “And then he went away before I could thank him for giving me directions to this place. I was trying to come here anyway.”
As if she hadn’t spoken at all, Koffi called out to a group of young men. He explained something urgently to them. Again, she only understood the words “Koblavi Senior.” The young men looked at Leela, then ran off.
“I have sent them to begin repairs to the dam. Thank you very much for this message.”
“You’re welcome. Can you please tell me how I can find Koblavi Senior again? I’d like to thank him. Without him, I may not have found this village. I should also tell him I was able to deliver his message.”
Koffi hesitated, then said, “Please come.”
He led her into a nearby house, where he pointed to a bed. Lying there was the body of a very old and very dead man with a grey beard. He was draped in a white cloth.
“Sistah Leela, Koblavi Senior was my father.”