January 17 – I Will Take You Half-Way




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.


9 responses to “January 17 – I Will Take You Half-Way

  1. Janet – from the very beginning this exuded comfort, calm, and a sense of familiarity. What a lovely exchange. I love the analogy of the rituals from a land far away being much like seeing a neighbor off in small towns in this country. I, for one, miss that nicety — You’ve made me wonder when, where and why we’ve lost that pleasantry…that small gesture that can mean so much and can linger long after the two are out of one another’s sight.

  2. Such a pleasure to read, Janet. You’re taking us more than half-way.

  3. What a lovely ritual, Janet, and thanks for showing us how it “works.” In today’s jangled and jangling world, having such a glimpse of civility soothes my soul. Thank you. And all those who exercise this ritual. Sam

  4. I loved this post, Janet! Your words took me on a gentle journey with you. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  5. What a beautiful piece, Janet! You’ve found your writing voice, the tone and cadence and perspective that will take we readers more than halfway to the experiencing and understanding the Africa that shaped you. Your love shines through–congratulations!

  6. I apologize Janet because I really meant to comment on this post, as soon as we received it!
    I absolutely loved reading this! Lee’s comment about familiarity, comfort and calm echoed within as well, because that is exactly how I felt as I read your words!
    Gestures of respect and kindness, full presence in the moment and the person we are engaging with; certainly things that have a tendency to be lost in this crazy world!
    Thank you so much!

  7. That’s what I love most about Alexander McCall Smith’s #1 Ladies Detective Agency series — there is so much grace and beauty to the old Botswana manners and culture (plus, I much prefer the term “traditionally built” to our term obese). This is one series that is best enjoyed in audio form, for the narrator is magnificent at portraying these attributes through the characters’ melodious voices.

  8. Until I read your blog, I had forgotten our old custom in the little rural Texas community where I grew up. Adults and children alike would often walk to see neighbors. When it was time for the visitor to go home, the one who was visited always walked at least half-way. I remember times that I would “walk a friend home, then she would walk me back and I would walk her home until our mothers made us stay put. What a warm wonderful memory. Thank you.

  9. Ladies!

    I am honored and blown away by your comments! Somehow I’d missed the posting/publication date & link for this. I found it just now while searching for my reviews of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe series.

    Yes. Civility, gentleness, and grace. Even when I returned to Botswana in 2008…even in the age of cell phones in every pocket…that spirit of hospitality and kindness was still there. This is, indeed, at the heart of my love affair with Africa and Africans.

    Janet Riehl

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