By Janet Riehl
The rich cadence of an airport porter’s voice rises up singing. “Your voice does me a world of good,” I say, feeling as if we are in so many places, all at once. “I cannot begin to tell you. It’s like hearing good news from home.” His voice goes straight inside me.
“You just made my day,” he replies. That’s all we say or need to say. We’ve connected, and that’s enough. “It’s been a pleasure serving you,” he offers.
“And it’s been a pleasure being served,” I reply.
In this brief exchange we are enacting the ancient call and response of all African languages I’ve ever encountered. In Twi, the language of the Ashanti tribe in Ghana, West Africa, the leave-taking exchange literally rendered is: “I lie at your feet.” With the reply, “There is no need for you to lie there.” It is a way of say, “I am at your service.”
This exchange takes perhaps ten minutes, yet it makes my day, too. The courtesy and graciousness of his rich voice–a man whom I have not exchanged names with–connects me back to a dusty roadside in Ghana as I wait for a small bus (which runs on no particular schedule) to take me to the next village.
Two young women help carry my too-heavy bags and then stay with me. They keep me company until my uncertain transport arrives and I am safely on it and safely off. This is a scene I’ll repeatedly experience throughout the Africa of the 1970s–wherever I go, west, east, or south.
In Botswana, this is the custom of taking half-way. In a village one can spend the better part of the day faithfully performing this custom. It works like this. Upon the end of our visit, I escort you at least to the edge of my compound where the space of my home meets the communal space. This African custom is similar to the one in small towns of seeing off one’s guest.
If I have time, I’ll continue walking with you across the village toward your compound. Possibly, we may even hold each other’s hands, swinging them happily between us as we chat, until we reach some invisible intuited point at which we both understand we must part. Now our call and response ritual begins.
“Travel. Go well,” I will tell you, and you will respond, “Stay well.” And, I do as you take your first steps towards home, now traveling alone, with no one to protect you. And, I breathe in and out the perfume of your presence, turn, and make my way, now alone, with no one to protect me–towards home.
Thank you, dear man who talks with the good news voice from home. Thank you. That is where you took me when you carried my three bags and a box at the airport today.
JANET GRACE RIEHL–award-winning author, blogger, conference presenter, and Authors Guild member–lives in St. Louis. Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary is also an audio book Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music. Her poems, stories and essays are published in national literary magazines and anthologies. Visit http://www.riehlife.com/to learn more.