ABurkinabeManIf you were a Burkinabe man, one of the good ones, you alone would bear the weight of responsibility. You would take charge of growing food for your family, from the planting to the harvesting. You must decide when to plant: early enough to reap the first rains of the season, but not so early that your seeds lie blankly in dormant earth, exposure and hungry critters sucking away the promise of fruition. When the seeds sprout, you must keep your rows of corn and millet free of weeds, giving them a monopoly over the soil’s weak nutrients.

If you were not lucky, you would walk (not bike) five or six miles to your fields at dawn, then make the return trip at sunset. You would do everything by hand, hunched over rounded rows of crops with the foot-long hoe crafted in the village from wood and steel, sweat soaking your thin t-shirt, dirt covering your flip-flopped feet. You would work every day but Sunday, which is God’s day, and you would know this because of the Catholic mission that came from Belgium fifty years ago, before you were born.

If you were lucky, your wife would help you in the fields, or your son could help, but he is an infant now so that is years away. Perhaps your wife would stay home to get water from the well and cook your meal over a fire, scrub clothes clean in large plastic buckets, then walk to the field, your lunch of beans and palm oil balanced on her head, your son strapped to her back. But if the harvest time is close, you may be running out of the food you have grown and hoarded these last eleven months, now forced to eat just every other day so it will last. Your wife might eat with her family, but she will not bring food home for you; her parents expect you to be the provider. So you come home at dusk to an empty house, fill a bucket for your bath, splash cool water across your aching muscles. You have pushed your body too hard. You get dressed and cough up blood.

If you were a Burkinabe man, one of the good ones, you might make friends with the American woman who just moved to your remote village in Burkina Faso to teach English. Since you are a farmer and a good man besides, you would have no reason to approach the white woman, but she wants to learn the djembé. You learned to play this African drum as a child in Bobo-Dioulasso, before your parents sent you back to the village to care for your aging grandmother. When the American offers to pay you for lessons, you refuse. Because you’re one of the good ones. You start giving her lessons, two or three times a week, but eventually you become friends instead, the djembé forgotten.

As a good Burkinabe man, you would want to protect your American friend. When other Burkinabe men, who are not the good ones, come to her house, you see the dollar bills and green cards in their eyes. As a good Burkinabe man, you would not be one of those pursuers. You already have a wife, and you would not cross that line, not even when you take the American to another village to see a harvest festival, when she drinks too much dolo and speaks to you in her own language, a longing in her voice you might understand.

As a Burkinabe man, and a poor one, you would watch your mouth carefully. You would know how quickly gossip travels between villagers, and you would not tell any of them about your conflicted feelings toward your wife, or your doubts about God, or your brother who just returned from Cote d’Ivoire and is eating through your food supply. But you talk about these things with your American friend, and this is a kind of friendship you don’t have words for. Instead, you express those feelings in your eyes when you look at her, your smile when she returns to the village from a trip to the capital, the daily handshake that is the only way you will ever touch her, even during two long years of friendship, except the one time she rides behind you on a moped and leans into your back, her thighs against your hips, her hands set gingerly on your firm, narrow waist.

Kara Garbe Balcerzak’s nonfiction has appeared in The Tusculum Review and the anthologies A Life Inspired and One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo. She’s a student in the MFA program at Minnesota State University Mankato, and is currently revising her memoir about the two years she spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso.

Photo by Maria Romasco-Moore