Running On Water
The Bamako Brawl and Other Adventures of a Gold Runner
By: Kyle A. Foster
Running On Water
Easter Sunday in Mali is a festive holiday with street parades and local barbecues, as is Easter Monday – a national holiday and a day off work. This might seem odd considering that the population of the country is ninety-percent Muslim and, at least in theory, theologically opposed to the idea of Christ as the Risen Son of God. However, I’d been in Mali long enough by then that nothing much surprised me any longer and given that the national motto may as well have been, ‘Party till you Drop,’ there was a perfect logic to this seemingly theological contradiction.
Any excuse for a holiday was acceptable. While I was there MALI celebrated Independence Day, The Prophet Mohammed’s Birthday, Revolution Day, The Chinese Vice Premier’s Visit, Easter Saturday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday and National Voter Registration Day. Each of these occasions brought with it backyard barbeques (pork of all things), visits to the local bar, and raucous nights of dancing. This wasn’t just for a select group in the society. I was trying to avoid these distractions because I had a job to do. But it was impossible, everyone celebrated. And therefore I found it very hard to avoid. As my hippie friend at the beginning of this book said to me, ‘When in Rome do as the fuckin’ Romans.’
Of all of these holidays, though, Easter Sunday was anticipated and celebrated with more‘joi de vivre’ than any of the others. I had been invited to a barbeque at our client’s home. Predictably, he called to cancel because it was ‘Easter Sunday.’ So when Sam Vanderbilt called to invite me to a picnic on the River Niger, I accepted. Sam was already at the river with his friends Clint Eastwood and Hemingway, so he gave me instructions to catch a taxi, point the taxi east on the main road out of town and then call him back. He’d guide the taximan in. ‘And bring your swimsuit,’ he added.
I put on my swimsuit and, following my doctor’s orders, a hat and sunglasses. Out in front of the hotel I waved down a taxi and directed him East. I called Vanderbilt and handed the phone to the taximan. We drove out of town through green fields and then turned south along a dirt trail following the river. The taxi bounced along the rutted dirt trail for about fifteen minutes when the driver pulled over and stopped. I looked around. There wasn’t another person in sight, just a long stretch of river and trees running along the green belt of the river to the horizon. ‘Illegal this place,’ the driver said looking back at me. I offered him more money and encouraged him forward. ‘No, sorry, illegal.’ I looked around again. There was nothing out there and this was the middle of Africa. Visions of panthers raining out of the trees and pouncing filled my head. I looked again at the driver. ‘Sorry,’ he shrugged his shoulders. I paid him and got out, watching the taxi slowly move forward bouncing on the rutted trail – in the direction that I should be going. ‘Expect the impossible and don’t take anything for granted.’
I was in the middle of nowhere, West Africa. This is one of those rare occasions when the modern cellphone actually comes in handy. I called Sam and, as I expected, they were somewhere up ahead in the direction the taxi had taken and, ‘across a beat to hell old bridge.’
I walked ahead under the hammer edge of the African sun, thankful for the hat and sunglasses and the wise, practical advice of my doctor. I’d walked for about half an hour with no bridge in sight when, in spite of my anti-sun equipment I started to wilt from thirst and dehydration. Heat exhaustion was surely just around the corner. This is exactly the situation where Mali culture has provided a very practical solution to the wayward traveler. In Mali, you must always have water available at your place of residence and you must always offer it freely to anyone who asks of it, be they Christian, Muslim, Jew, highway robber, brigand or strange looking white dudes in a funny hat and sunglasses. I had witnessed total strangers walk in off the street, point at the bucket of water (always kept near the door) without a word, receive a drink and then walk away without a word of thanks. Urged on by thirst, I was determined to try my hand at engaging this local hospitality. I scanned the rural river scene and kept my eyes peeled for any signs of peopled habitation.
Another ten minutes walk up the river I saw a traditional hut in the distance with an old woman sitting outside. This looked like a vintage painting of the rural south in the United States. I walked off the road to the hut where the old lady sat and said as sternly as I could manage, with a straight face, ‘Hey, old lady. Water!’ pointing to the clay jar in front of her. I guessed she wouldn’t understand my language. She smiled gracefully as if she understood my joke completely and stood up stooping to ladle a big scoop of water into a rusty tin. She handed the tin to me. I drank it all down and was surprised to find it refreshing and cool. Then, unable to carry my ruse any further I broke into a smile, handed her the cup and said,‘Merci.’
She returned a huge, toothless smile and gave me a little bow. I bowed in return and walked on, turning to wave when I met the trail in front of her home. She waved back.
I walked on following the river, finally coming to the ‘bridge’ fifteen or so minutes later. It wasn’t so much a bridge as a ramshackle concrete dock two-hundred yards long spanning the river where it flowed over barren, black volcanic rock.
Whitewashed concrete tombs straddled some of the higher, larger rock formations. ‘Ali’ was painted on the side of one tomb in big, bold, black letters with a large Christian Cross next to it. I wondered if he was a Sufi or just hedging his bets.
Across the bridge I could see a huge crowd of four or five thousand people on a grassy meadow down along the river’s bank to the right. I stood up on the bluff overlooking the scene: colors, tents, drums beating, a group of two or three hundred men and women line dancing, thousands of motorbikes lined up perfectly parallel parked around the green and the Niger running white and blue over rapids behind it all. I called Sam. ‘Hey, I see you white boy!’ ‘What? I asked, scanning the scene. ‘You’re the only other white man here and you’re wearing a hat and sunglasses. Come straight down the path and you’ll find me.’ I walked straight down into the crowd and there he was, smiling, shirtless and wearing some kind of weird, dainty silver slippers. ‘Nice shoes, Sam.’ I said, shaking his hand. ‘These are my jelly sandals, everyone wears them here,’ he said, handing me a beer. It was cold. ‘Where did you get this?’
‘You can get anything here,’ he said, looking around. There were little stalls everywhere, women selling cold drinks out of coolers, kebabs off the grill, homemade jewelry, clothing, candies, sunglasses…
He led me through the crowd, down to the river and across a series of stones in the water to a large boulder where Eastwood and Hemingway - both in sunglasses - sat looking back over the crowd on the riverbank like two King-Stewards in their realm. Bongo was there in a strapless yellow bikini and sunglasses sitting between them. Eastwood stood up to give us a hand up.
‘Hi Boss,’ Bongo purred, lifting her sunglasses.
‘Hey Bongo. How do you manage to keep that suit on?’ Hemingway asked.
‘You’re a bad man!’ she said, slapping his leg as I sat down behind her and Hemingway.
‘Yes I am, he said. But not as bad as Vanderbilt here, he’s dangerous.’
‘Wayae!’ Eastwood laughed, sitting down and slapping his knee.
Sam sat down next to me. ‘So what took you so long?’
I told him about the taxi letting me out in the middle of nowhere. He said that taxis weren’t allowed to cross the bridge but couldn’t make sense of why he’d let me out three miles down the road. ‘Maybe he thought I needed the exercise.’ I looked out over the crowd. There was a lot of energy there. The line-dancing group had grown, I guessed it at five or six-hundred. There was a real sense of community and abandoning of the self to the crowd. I also got the sense that one or two wrong moves by the wrong person and the whole scene could go Rwanda very quickly.
A blue school bus with large speakers attached to the roof turned off from the bridge and bounced slowly through the green field across the bank of the river, stopping frequently. I watched as groups of people cheered the bus as it moved on, looking for a place to park.
The air was cool here and behind us the rapids rushed and rolled in a white frenzy. Hemingway had a big plastic bag with ice and beers. Bongo was making sandwiches. This was turning out to be a perfect Easter picnic.
A man walked out into the river, balancing like a high wire artist as he stepped carefully over a series of bridge-stones. He stood looking at the white water and then dove into the raging river. The river threw his body like a rag doll tumbling head over heels on the water, limbs askew, before finally sucking him under the angry torrent.
‘For Christ’s sakes, Sam!’ I yelled over the raging rapids. ‘That man’s just killed himself!’
‘He’ll be alright,’ he laughed. ‘And so will you.’
‘I watched in horror, scanning the river for any sign of a corpse when suddenly, 150 yards or so downstream the man popped up out of the current and began treading water in an eddy at the bend of the river. I could feel a collective gasp of relief and looked up to see that at least half the crowd were as concerned for the man’s safety as I was, straining their bodies and eyes in the direction of the swimmer. He began a powerful crawl stroke inching towards the shore in jerky motions, each kick and arm crawl bringing him closer, slowly, to shore. You could see the immense power in his strokes as he struggled against the river ‘I could never swim with that kind of power,’ I thought to myself, as he pulled his body up onto the riverbank and stood facing the crowd, arms held high in triumph like an Olympic diver. The crowd went wild.
‘That guy’s crazy!’ I said to Sam.
‘He knew what he was doing,’ he said, taking off his silver jelly sandals. ‘And you’re going to do it too!’
‘Like hell I am,’ I protested. ‘I’ve got a wife and baby to think about.’
‘But you have to,’ he said, leaning close to my ear. ‘You must. There are people out there and, well, this is just something that you have to do. Just tell me. Are you a good swimmer?’
‘Well, I’m alright but…’
‘You’ll be fine then. Just watch and follow me.’
He stood up and jumped into the roiling water, spinning and rolling in the angry current like a cartoon character. ‘What the hell is this?’ I asked myself.
Feeling helpless, I turned to Hemingway, Eastwood and Bongo.
‘Let’s go?’ Hemingway asked, motioning to the river. The question was still written on his expression as he stepped up to the side of the rock and, holding his nose, walked off into the angry river like a diver off of a ship. The current tossed him head over heels like a spastic cheerleader flipping high speed cartwheels.
A doomed feeling of resignation was beginning to creep over me. I turned to Eastwood. ‘You?’ I asked.
Oh no, no no,’ he laughed. ‘Not me.’ Eastwood could get away with that. He was just too cool, and smart, to participate in a stunt like this.
‘You Bongo,’ I asked, pathetically.
‘This river not for ladies.’ she said. ‘Make sure this swimming trunks is on tight, very tight, she said, walking me over to the edge of the rock. I felt like a pirate about to walk the plank. ‘I take this your ring and this your necklaces and this your timewatch for safety,’ she said. ‘This river he take everything! He is big thief!’ she laughed as I handed her my belongings.
Now I felt more like a man on death row. I looked at Eastwood.
‘You’ll be OK. Just put your feet in front of you,’ he said.
I looked down the river. Sam and Hemingway were bobbing in the eddy downriver, waving at me to jump.
Bongo’s words were echoing in my ears over the roaring rapids. ‘This river take everything!’
I stepped up to the side of the rock and jumped quickly, before my senses could paralyze me with fear. I hit the water in a cannonball tuck, expecting to plunge deep into the river’s folds before being swept downstream. But instead, as soon as a single toe hit the water my body began to tumble and skip – on top of the water. There was no plunge, only a cannon blast of energy that swept me downriver, bouncing and rolling on top of the white water in the tuck position, hands over my head to absorb the skull crashing blow that I was sure would come at any instant. Instead, about half way downstream I could feel the water’s energy begin to weaken and I began to slip into the current, still moving at what felt like half light speed. I positioned myself feet first on my back, head up and guiding myself with my arms outstreched. It was something like jumping off a very high place with a parachute in tow.
Gliding into the bend in the river I pulled out of the spread eagle position and slowly sank into the slow eddy of the river. I swam over to where Sam and Hemingway were treading water, laughing in the steam as easily as if in a hotel swimming pool.
‘Are you ready?’ Sam yelled over the river water, mischievous grin on his face.
‘Yes, let’s go!’ I answered, steeling myself for the hard crawl stroke to the riverbank I’d seen the first swimmer employ to escape the current.
‘We’re swimming back upstream!’ he shouted.
I watched in disbelief as he and Hemingway began swimming, struggling, long strokes and powerful kicks up the stream against the current. I waited to catch my breath. Tens of thousands of square meters of river water were rushing down the stream. At that moment, the riverbank looked like a song and a dance away compared to the titanic struggle of swimming back upstream. I wasn’t even sure it was possible. Hemingway and Sam were still only a body and a half-length away from me – swimming but seemingly held in suspended animation against the current. I looked at the riverbank again and then turned to look upstream against the rolling white water Sam and Hemingway were about to reach.
‘This is crazy!’ I thought as I kicked into a crawl stroke following my friends up the stream. The water was heavier than even I had imagined, and fast. The river didn’t offer the leisure of a split second rest. One moment of catching a breath, one moment of non-motion and the river sent you back to square one and beyond. Sam and Hemingway were slowly moving some distance ahead, or was I in reverse? I struggled, with all my might, keeping my head down so as not to waste a half stroke – kicking, swimming, breathing, tired, tired beyond tired but moving, afraid to give a single inch or second to the river and afraid to look up. Here I was locked in my own private battle with the Niger. When I finally did look up Sam and Hemingway were nearly half- way back to our rock now. I wasn’t making much progress as all. There had to be some method, I thought, there has got to be a better way. Hot pain was rushing through my limbs as I fought against the tide. Just then my left hand caught something on the river bottom as I plunged my arm down from a stroke. It was a rock. I grabbed on to the rock and propelled myself forward kicking against the current, right hand down. I moved like this half swimming now and half rock-grabbing, propelling myself up the river rock by rock. I reached a rock ledge in the water blocking my way forward. It was more like a rock table, about the size of a small kitchen table, flat on top but submerged only an inch or two under the rushing water. I grabbed onto my table and pulled myself half up, gasping for breath. I pulled myself further up onto the rock and sat down, looking upstream through the white water spray to Sam and Hemingway, now nearing the rock we called home. After a few moments I stood up on the rock, the water raced over my feet only inches deep. I heard a sudden roar like the cheering of fans at a sporting event. I looked up and the crowd on the riverbank were on their feet, roaring in approval. I hadn’t realized that they had been watching. Then, I had the idea. ‘Easter Sunday,’ I thought. ‘Walking on water. Funny joke. But if you’ll excuse me, Sir’ I began to walk in small circles on my table over the river. The crowd went mad. Then I thought I might as well do the old Easter prophet one better. I faced the crowd and began to run in place, lifting my knees high and pumping my arms like a sprinter – I was running on water. The crowd went bonzo sending a sky-shattering roar blasting across the river.
I turned around and I was alone over the blue and white rapids of the river with the soft hills blue-green in the distance. The misty white spray of the rapids cooled my body in the sun. The only sound was the roar of the rushing rapids in front of me. I turned back around to face the crowd. I raised my arms like the first swimmer had done. The crowd raised their arms and sent another sky-shattering roar over the river. I could see them all now with absolute clarity: Bozo women selling colorful scarves, an old Bambara woman grilling kebab over a charcoal fire, a veiled Tuareq blue man hawking silver jewelry, Rasta youth dancing in conga lines, rock n’ rollers standing in clouds of smoke next to the blue bus - I knew them because for that one brief moment there on the banks of the River Niger we were one. I understood then how it must have felt to give the Sermon On The Mount. I understood what it felt like to be a rock n’ roll star. I stood there on my table rock scanning the crowd and holding on to that moment while the cool water rushed over my feet, Was it ten seconds? Was it twenty or thirty seconds? Not more. But I know now that thirty seconds can be an infinity in the human heart. For that moment is still with me as I write this down longhand in a far country. And it will remain.