Route 1 with Baba Mal

By Mimi Edmunds | Apr 07, 2010
Mimi Edmunds

Driving down Route 1 from the small coastal Maine village of Rockport, on an emergency trip to Boston, Baba Mal softly wails on the CD I just inserted in my 11-year-old Volvo wagon yesterday. I'm transported back to a time in the remote highlands of western Kenya, the province of Elgeyo-Marakwet, where I sat in the back corner of the local cafe or duka (the word for store, but a place used for all kinds of communication and exchange) where the locals talked politics, families, gossip and what the future held for them in their newly independent nation. It was an exciting time, full of exhilaration and hope. It struck me that in this under lit room of the village duka was the ultimate form of democracy in a very indigenous fashion, in the country where I was a first-time secondary school teacher and a brand new and naive Peace Corps volunteer.

Baba Mal carried me back into that dusky smoky room vibrant with life, lit only by the antiquated, so shabbily made in China, blue hurricane lanterns, but emitting the addictive aroma of kerosene. In the dukas, music always played in the background, meshed with smoke from the fire pit in the center of the room, a fire made from the brittle but good burning wood from the wattle tree, a bamboo like tree that grew so easily in this equatorial landscape of East Africa's magnificent Rift Valley. The smells and sensations in the dukas included the ubiquitous, always simmering stew made most certainly of goat, and eaten with a cornbread grits-like meal, called ugale, tended of course by the women nearby, while the local politicians, generally men, gathered to talk. I was privileged to sit with the men, being a "European," or mzungu woman, and young. But here in my car on this night, driving as fast as I could -- which was not much more than 50 mph on the winding, unlit, uneven, seldom flat, Route 1 -- this music was a relief ... no, it was an escape.

It was night, just after dusk, June 3, and I wanted to make this trip be easy; it was too worrisome, and possibly painful to think about why I was going, what I might face upon arrival. Baba Mal‘s lilting tunes with their rhythmic and repetitious guitar riffs, seductive percussion, and dramatic horns and brass in minor keys, dominated the night, the mood was his -- it was working. I was escaping, going back to that time, decades ago, in that remote village in western Kenya where I was living and teaching. It was such a far cry from Maine's Route 1, heading down to the emergency room of Boston Children's Hospital. where my daughter had just been taken.

What was I wearing? Jeans and white, I always wear something white -- have to -- it's bright, it's peaceful; and the good luck charms, a ring, a blue bracelet with straw, earrings that say "good and lasting health" in Tibetan, a black sweat wristband my daughter got from one of the upper school boys at her prep school in Tucson that summer she got sick; worn out bjorn sandals, which felt like slippers -- what will I do when they die?

Baba Mal, thank you, you transformed Route 1 back to a place I had loved and where I felt on the edge of history, the present, and the future, on the brink of something huge and exciting, a privileged witness of a kind of birth in that back room duka in a small village vibrant, where life was hopeful and conversations were alive with laughter and debate, and tonight this was so useful, so necessary. I thought -- everything is going to be OK.

Mimi Edmunds has been a documentary journalist since 1981, working at CBS' "60 Minutes," PBS and the Discovery Network. She has also taught at the Maine Media Workshops for 22 summers and recently moved from Tucson to Rockport with her daughter Eliza. Today she is excited to make her stories visual through the art (craft) of writing.

 

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