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Journey Yields Glimpse of Missing Past
Songhay Sophisticate

The Miami Herald
November 7, 2004

Photo by Sarah J. Glover
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts tries a millet drink while visiting Tera Village. The drink is called donou, comprised of millet and goat milk. Pitts didn't like the taste. Pitts grimaced, "It tastes like warm yogurt." Millet is a staple Songhay crop and the millet drink mixture is drank daily by Songhi people.
Small things remind
us who we are

Lunch is served. I am wondering how I can get out of it.

Drink only bottled water, eat only food prepared hot in restaurants that cater to tourists. This is the stern warning the doctor gave me when I told her I was going to Africa. She ran down a list of nasty diseases to which Africa visitors are susceptible and cautioned me to be careful about what I put in my body.

Yet here I am, about to disregard that sensible advice. Problem is, I can't see any way around it. We are in the courtyard of Oumaarou Souleymane's home. Goats are milling about, one of his children is pounding millet in a gourd. Souleymane is off praying and without our knowing, one of his wives has prepared us a meal.

Is there a way to turn that down? To politely say, "Thank you, no?"

If there is, I can't think of it. So we remove our shoes and file into the hut where the food is waiting. There are three pots, one with scrambled egg, the other with chicken legs, the third with a soupy porridge called donou. Fanning at the flies that are a constant torment, I eat a piece of chicken. With my fingers, I scoop out a few bits of egg. But I draw the line at donou.

Three times in the last hour, I have been served this stuff. The first was when Koulbeye Ousseini offered me some. The second was after I'd made a face like Frankenstein's monster taking NyQuil and Sarah asked me to take another sip so she could get a picture. The third was when we went to say goodbye to Ali Mossi and he bade us drink our fill.

Donou is made from millet and yogurt. It is pasty white with green flecks, tastes gritty, sour and sickly warm.

Souleymane's wives are not around to be offended, so Sarah and I pass on the donou. Having eaten enough to be polite, we step out of the hut into the sun. Then I realize Kedidia is not with us.

She is still inside, sitting cross-legged on the floor, hungrily spooning up donou. It is an image that stops me. Kedidia, you have to understand, is a sophisticated woman. Dresses with a flourish, speaks at least three languages, travels internationally, holds advanced degrees.

She is also a Songhay woman. Somewhere along the way, I think I forgot this. Maybe once in awhile, she forgets it, too.

But just when you think you've moved beyond reach of its tethers, culture has this way of sneaking up on you, this way of reining you by small gestures, rooting you by little things. Suddenly you are reminded who you are. And that who you are is about more than blood. It is also about where you come from and the things you saw when you were there.

Kedidia catches me looking. She smiles. "Sometimes," she says, lifting the spoon coated white, "I have such a craving for this."

Sarah and I wander away. Our guide lingers behind us sipping donou, sitting cross-legged in the dirt.