I shifted in the metal folding chair, picking at the threads of my shirt. Nervous, I glanced at my host family, who surrounded me in a semi-circle. Thirty eyes stared expectantly back at me. Intimidated, I lowered my eyes back to my hands, which had now unraveled the thread.
I was in Biko, Mali, a small village in western Africa, with the non-profit organization, buildOn (buildon.org). The pre-travel training focused on hydration and sanitation, leaving me armed with a fourteen-word vocabulary in the local language, Bambara.
Finally, left with no other choices, I pointed to the chair.
“Mun?” I said, fumbling through the small dictionary on my lap.
“Sigilan,” Nieneje, my host mother and unofficial spokesman for the family, responded. Chair.
I nodded. More silence. More staring.
“And this?” I said. I flung the glow from my flashlight across the compound, illuminating a dust-covered cup.
“Tasa,” Nieneje explained.
“Tisa?” I said, unsure of the pronunciation.
She shook her head, laughing quietly at the “tubabu,” or foreigner. “Ayi, ayi,” she said. “Ta-sa.”
“Tasa,” I murmured. Nieneje raised her hands in congratulations. Then, everything fell silent again. My host brothers, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces all shifted in their seats, the little ones restless and the older ones bored.
Suddenly, I had an idea. I leapt for the dictionary, skimming through its pages. Child? Breakfast? Sing?
“Dònkili da,” I said.
My host family whispering amongst themselves – about me. Nevertheless, I was out of options; it was this or vocabulary lessons.
The chair groaned as I stood up. My sandaled feet kicked up swarms of dust as I shuffled into the middle of my impromptu stage. Panicked and in need of a catchy beat, Britney Spears came to mind.
“Oh, baby, baby,” I sang, offbeat and out of tune, “how was I supposed to know?”
Inwardly, I cringed, imagining what my host family thought of me. To my surprise, I heard peels of laughter and delight coming from my “audience”. So I kept going.
“My loneliness is killing me, and I-I must confess, I still believe…”
Nieneje clapped her hands. My host brother, Musa, his wife, Sali, their three children, and the rest of the family joined in.
“Give me a si-i-ign,” I sang, my feet tapping on the dirt and my hands cupping an imaginary microphone. “Hit me baby one more time!”
The song faded into the dark West African night. I burned through “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” and “the Macarena.”
Before I could start my next song, a voice broke from the muted giggles. It was Musa.
“Mee-ka Ja-son,” he said.
“Sega ca,” I asked. Repeat.
“Mee-kol Jek-sin,” he reiterated.
And then I knew exactly what he meant. Michael Jackson. Somehow, the international superstar, “King of Pop”, had made his way five thousand miles across the ocean, over the West African plains, and crawled into this village.
“Michael Jackson! Yes! Yes!” I said, forgetting my stilted Bambara. “Awo, awo.”
While I launched the routine from “Thriller,” I thought about how the smiling and laughing people in front of me were strangers moments ago. Music transcended the language barrier, transforming bland, strained vocabulary lessons into a late-night celebration of our different cultures – which were not so different after all. We both shared a love of music, humor, and apparently, Michael Jackson.
Just one of those things, I shrugged to myself, as I attempted an ungainly moonwalk, transitioning into a MJ-inspired spin, a move which my host family greeted with hoots and claps. And into the dark, West African night, my voice rang:
“You know, it’s thriller, thriller night…”
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