In this extract from Away From the Light of Day, Amadou's father forbids him to join in with the annual fishing festival, so he brings along his flute and joins in with two percussionists to play music to the fishermen. The rewards are much greater than he had anticipated.
In Mali, the dry season begins in November and lasts until the first rains come at the end of May, or the beginning of June. A drop in the river level signals the start of the festive season in the villages. The high point of the festivities is when the whole village goes fishing together. I was lucky enough to be part of this collective fish for the first time in Douansan, where fishing is done in a traditional way with rudimentary implements. The catch is divided into two, one half for eating and the other to sell.
I had heard so much about the festival that I was dying to take part. When the long-awaited day arrived, I wanted to go into the river with the others and get close to the fish. But my father advised against it, arguing that the water was too churned up by all the fishermen chasing the biggest fish. When I insisted he said, ‘Even men whose eyesight is one hundred per cent perfect risk getting hurt. You can hardly see anything, it’s best you don’t go.’ Until then I hadn’t really been conscious of being less able than the others. I didn’t realise how disabled I was, or rather I didn’t want to accept it. I felt like crying. Standing by and watching my friends fishing in the river was so frustrating. That’s when I got really worried, I resented what this cruel illness was stealing from my life.
I went into my bedroom. Sitting on the bed, I put my head in my hands. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to disobey my father but neither did I want to stand on the bank watching my friends fishing. Then I thought of going back with my flute. A huge crowd of men was moving towards the river. Only women, young children, old people and the very ill had stayed at home, and some men in charge of village security. It was very hot. The reflection of the sun’s rays on the water made the naked torsos sparkle. In the shade of a huge baobab tree, the village chief and his counsellors were sitting in a most dignified manner. Everyone was waiting for them to signal the start.
Two tam-tam players were standing on the bank when the chief declared the festivities open. They began to beat their tam-tams rhythmically together. Everyone fell silent as the village chief made a speech which basically said that everyone had to look out for each other. I remember him insisting that the fishing should be joyful, peaceful and good-humoured, as it had been in previous years. A murmur of gratitude rose from the crowd, followed by a huge noise as the villagers threw themselves into the water. The fishermen stood side by side, crouched over, with their harpoons and nets. They then moved forward upriver against the current and caught big fish that wriggled in their hands. They threw them onto the river bank where others collected them.
Among the few people left on the bank were the two tam-tam players and me. When I took my flute out of my pocket and began to blow, they smiled and motioned to me to come and play with them. They must have noticed I had trouble with my eyes because I was walking very slowly. If the sun was too bright, they streamed. Or worse, they irritated me and I rubbed them until they burned.
The musicians welcomed me.
‘Hello, my boy, how are you?’
‘Fine, thank you.’
‘I’m Badjo, and he’s Seriba. What’s your name?’
‘You must be the son of the master bricklayer?’
‘My children go to the same school as you. They often talk about a boy who has a problem with his eyes and plays the flute or the harmonica at break. Is that you?’
‘Yes, it’s me.’
Then they explained that musicians were one big family and that they were very pleased to have me with them.
‘Play what you play best and we’ll accompany you,’ they said.
When I began to play, they followed me on their tam-tams. My lips grew tired of pressing the mouth of my flute for so long. It was the first time I’d played with real musicians. They encouraged me and I gave it my all. We played for about an hour. Then they suggested I had a rest, and they did some real tam-tam drumming. I liked it so much that I began to dance. Over the music, people called out my name to urge me on. And so we livened up the fishing festival as the heat of the afternoon cooled.
People started coming out of the water and assessing their catch, both in terms of quantity and quality. Badjo, Seriba and myself were in for a wonderful surprise. The fishermen divided the catch into three equal piles, and gave one to us. And my two new friends in turn gave me a fish from their share. Later when my friends came out of the water to fetch me and take me home, they were astonished at the amount of fish I had. I had more than they had got by fishing, and a voice inside me said, ‘Amadou, your illness prevented you from going into the water. But your music got you more fish.’
When I got home, my mother couldn’t believe her eyes. She hugged me tight. My sisters cried with joy. I was very moved, so happy and proud. They all asked me what I had done to get so many fish. I told them about Badjo, Seriba and our musical show. My mother, who knew Badjo’s wife, went over to thank them for their generosity on behalf of our whole family. This kind of little courteous gesture is very much part of Malian social custom. She came back with compliments about me from Badjo himself. I’d never heard such praise from anyone. My father also realised something that day. He was very proud of me too and clasped me to him in his big bricklayer’s arms. I think that was the day I began to hope I might earn my living as a musician. I didn’t take it for granted, however, because that first concert made me realise that I’d have to work very hard to become the professional I dreamed of being. But I was burning with desire and that gave me the strength I needed.