It is a Saturday afternoon in Bamako and we are gathered in my boss Thelma's living room. Mom and I spent the morning with the photography club at the National Museum and then met Cassie for lunch in town. Abdoulaye and his mom, Foulé, spent the morning shopping for bazin fabric in the grande marchée for Foulé to take back to Guinea as gifts and for small commerce. Everyone is looking thirsty and so Abdoulaye and I excuse ourselves to the kitchen to get some hibiscus juice for the crowd. I take his hand as we enter the kitchen. I love these private, albeit brief, moments with him after days that are so public.
Our brief moment is briefer than usual when Bobo enters the kitchen behind us and says with a smile and a shake of his finger “Vous deux, allez dehors!” You two, outside! I look at Abdoulaye who purses his lips and nods his head and I follow him through the living room; I guess the hibiscus juice will have to wait.
Cassie looks up at us from the couch as we walk by. Foulé sits with her hands in her lap in a chair opposite my own mother who is perched on a loveseat, playing with Bobo's baby girl, Aminata. Bobo takes a seat on the chair opposite Cassie and subtly encourages Abdoulaye and I outside with an exaggerated nod of his head towards the door.
Of course I know something is up as Abdoulaye closes the glass door behind us and we settle on the patio outside. I think Abdoulaye knows something is up, too, but he is avoiding my questions and feigns ignorance of what is going on inside. “Come on,” I plead in my usual, charming fashion, “tell me what is going on!” He shakes his head and segues the conversation to our respective adventures with our moms that day. That boy knows how to switch my train of thought! Then Cassie throws open the door and passes us baby Aminata. “Your mom needs to concentrate!” she says before quickly returning inside. I turn to Abdoulaye for an explanation but his attention is on the baby and I find myself quickly distracted by her baby gurgles, too. Aissetou, Bobo's wife, appears from behind the house and takes Aminata away for a feeding. Then Bobo opens the door and waves us inside. I feel a strange expectation build in my stomach and try to smile it away. Abdoulaye takes my hand and gives it a reassuring squeeze.
I re-enter the living room and take a seat on the couch next to Cassie. Abdoulaye sits on the loveseat next to my Mom who is wiping away tears that are spilling down her cheeks. A few thoughts run through my head. First, I definitely missed something. Then, 'Oh my goodness, I bet someone in Guinea passed away and this is the culturally appropriate way to share the news.' And then, wait a minute, how come Cassie got to stay? I look from my crying mother to a solemn-faced Foulé to a grinning Bobo and finally to Cassie whose face is giving nothing away. “OK,” I finally say after the awkward silence becomes too much, “somebody spill.”
Bobo begins the conversation, situating his body and his words towards my mother. He begins by telling her what he thinks of Abdoulaye. He says, among other things, that he sees a lot of people passing through Bamako and that Abdoulaye, who he did not know before coming to Mali (both Bobo and Abdoulaye are from Guinea), is someone special. I have heard Bobo's touching words before but they still give me a little thrill each time; Abdoulaye really is someone special.
At this point in the conversation I am pretty sure I also have something to do with all of this but my Mom is still crying on the loveseat and I still think someone may have died. Then, Bobo turns to me and my Mom's tears begin to taper off. He talks about how in Africa a marital union is not only between the couple – it is also between families. I sit up a little straighter and try to make eye contact with Abdoulaye who is looking intently at Bobo and only briefly catches my eye. I definitely have something to do with all of this.
Foulé begins to speak again in Susu and Bobo translates for me into French while Cassie translates for my Mom into English. Foulé talks about how pleased she is to see her son so happy and continues on with a laundry list appraisal of what she thinks of me now that she has seen Abdoulaye and I together this past week. The list is a good one and I blush and squirm in my seat. Abdoulaye says nothing but looks at me and flashes me one of his heart-melting smiles. I laugh awkwardly at pauses in the conversation. Mom stands up to get another tissue and I brush my hand against Abdoulaye's. “Won tannara,” I mouth to him in Susu. We are together.
Foulé takes a breath and Bobo clasps his hands. His gaze moves expectantly between my mother and I whose own glistening eyes are moving between me and Abdoulaye. Foulé starts up again in Susu and Bobo grins even larger than before. I sense that the conversation is quickly reaching its apex, at least, I hope it is since I am still unsure if the pauses in the conversation are meant as opportunities for me to respond or simply dramatic pauses meant as opportunities for Foulé's words to settle in.
“As the representative of Jenny's family,” Bobo continues in French while looking at my mother, “do you accept for Abdoulaye and Jennifer to join in marriage?” Mom looks at me and tearily shrugs her shoulders and nods (Dad, Sheri and John – I hope you guys are on board!). I smile until it hurts and give Abdoulaye's knee a squeeze before standing up to give hugs all around. I thank our translators – it means even more that Bobo and Cassie, two of the people dearest to Abdoulaye's and my hearts, were there – before I give Abdoulaye an extra squeeze. We head back to the kitchen to get the hibiscus juice we originally came for – this time to toast Part I of our engagement.