I am with Mamadou and his well-digging and health education crew in the district of Wuli, between the river Gambia and the Senegalese border. A griot sits on a platform, facing an open space on the eastern edge of a village. He is a jali, the Manding keeper and teller of songs and stories. A boy assisting him holds the microphone Momadou brought for the education work. The jali ignores it. He sits on a cushion, prominent as a crow. The gourd of his kora, settled between his thighs, the stem rising out of it and away from him, sturdy as a tree trunk, is more antennae than phallus, strong taut and true, broadcasting with powerful delicacy towards the hundreds of women, men and children who walked here in the late afternoon. Their stately and still shapes range before me in the light of a full moon. They are an entranced gathering, relishing their tradition and heritage. I too, a foreigner, stand entranced.
Mamadou translates the performance to English for me. The jali sings the story of the well and its benefits. He extolls the virtues of clean water for people and for cattle. He praises Mamadou and the well-diggers. He praises me, the toubabou, who works for Mamadou. He praises the chicken that Mamadou presented for his dinner before the performance. He praises the people of the village and the surrounding area. He praises God.
When the performance ends, people leave as quietly as they came. Some children smile at me. An elder approaches me and asks where is my home. I tell him Ireland. Mamadou translates. The man tells me to greet my family from him. He wishes me a safe return home, Inshallah.
The throng departs. The open space on the edge of the village shimmers in the moonlight. The crew pack their gear – well-digging (hardware) and education (software) equipment – into the truck. I work with Mamadou on the education side, the software, but the well-diggers enthral me.
The next day we move to another village, quite close by. A different crew is completing a well. They help me descend a rope ladder alone, until I stand on sodden laterite and sand. I look upwards. The circle of light and the small faces are a heaven away, set sharp against the blue Sahel sky.
Praise the diggers. I have a story to sing.