Cynthia Yancey


“I will never be a doctor, Moma!” Sarah angrily retorted. Then, to be more explicit, “Because doctors have NO TIME for their families,” came from little Sarah’s throat, to express her dire disappointment at her mother’s absence from a school event early in her elementary school life. In retrospect, I fear my daughter has longed her entire life for the utterly dedicated parent/child bond that a mother’s profession would never supersede.

My precious little family had been up early in the cool, crisp air of Asheville, North Carolina, on a typical day in our newfound mountain town because my workday started at some ungodly hour at the hospital. This particular morning, dropping off my three elementary-aged children at the YWCA for their preschool care, my daughter, Sarah, hugged me as I pulled her down from her seat in our big old family van and said, “Moma, I forgot to tell you, but we’ve got a really special lunch for all the parents of my class today.” I listened somewhat incredulously to my little girl as she asked me to squeeze something really special into my already cram-packed day. She held me at arm’s length and looked up into my face as her feet touched down to the ground, saying with her most pleading little-girl eyes, “You’ll be there, won’t you, Moma?”

I had recently left their father with his lover back in Jackson, Mississippi, to move to our mountain metropolis in Western North Carolina, officially making myself a single parent. So I was the only possibility for my little girl that day. I also had chosen to work in the public health sector of the medical field, and had bought into the notion that female doctors had to behave as their male counterparts. I knew in my mind I was not going to leave work undone. And I knew how much my little girl wanted me to be there with her.

I looked down into those pleading eyes of hers and said, “Darlin’, I’ll work as fast as I can. I’ll do my best to be there, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it. Next time, please give me more advance notice, all right?”

Off I went to the hospital, then to the health department, where I indeed worked as fast as I could. And of course it was not fast enough for the steady, unrelenting line of broken-down patients. In fact, I worked all through lunch, leaving Sarah, who wanted nothing more than to have her mother beside her at this special school lunch, to go it alone.

At the end of the day, finally having finished work well, I headed back as always to my three little children. As much as I hated not having gotten away in time to be with my daughter, I imagined, quite erroneously, that all parents worked, even that perhaps all parents worked instead of being with their kids at school functions, especially when they only heard about them the day of the event. So, at the end of this particular day, I asked Sarah, with apparently insufficient guilt, “Hey, sweet girl! So sorry I wasn’t able to be there with you today. Did any of the other mothers come?”

Sarah, not missing a beat, nor an opportunity to wake her mother up, responded in her firmest little-girl voice, “AND fathers, Moma. They all came except YOU!” Then, in an attempt to drive her message home… “I will NEVER be a doctor!” choking on her disgruntlement with her only choice for mother.

* * *

Upon graduation from high school, Sarah had no intention of further formal education. Instead she planned to spend some time in Africa. She began as an exchange student, yet because she was no longer actually a student, she taught English as a Second Language to preschoolers while living with a family in Ghana.

Her family in Kumasi was not the typical African family she would have chosen had she been able to look at a cross section of all the choices. The parents of her African family were bankers who lived in a gated community. An African gated community is not the same, mind you, as an American one; still, it was not what Sarah had hoped for.

In middle school, Sarah had occasionally called conferences where she put her teachers on the witness stand for their insidious racist actions toward her classmates in her very public school. Sarah’s friends at that point were mostly African American; she went to their homes and churches; she spoke Ebonics as an apparent act of rebellion against her own race. Her little-girl heart had fallen in love with many of her classmates of a different color, and she would not sit by quietly while her teachers mistreated them, no matter how subtly.

In Kumasi, Ghana, she also would not remain in that gated community for long, but rather would find a place for herself in a small village to the north during Ramadan where she could live in a hut with a far poorer family, join in their fasting and festivities, and begin to find herself in that far corner of the world.

* * *

On her return home a few months later, I believe she noticed, even if at a subconscious level, that she had not yet been able to break through the intellectual pecking order of her own three brothers, who placed her on the very bottom rung. She also knew from her times working out of the country with me, doing volunteer medical work, from the jungles of Guatemala to the cities of the Dominican Republic, that she easily thrived in other cultures. At fourteen, she had functioned as the head pharmacist of our Remote Area Medical Expedition in Central America. She was the only other one of us with language enough to tell the villagers how to take the medicine we were giving out. She loved the simplicity of developing nations’ cultures, and she knew she had yet another trip to take, but on her own this time, and back to Africa.

The feistiness of this young woman that was needing so desperately to break loose from its bondage began to wait tables at a Japanese restaurant in downtown Asheville to save money for that trip. At the same time, she was making her way into the community of West African drummers and dancers that was developing in Asheville, NC. Before long and all on her own, the kid had arranged to live a year in Guinea, West Africa, at first studying dance with a private instructor in Conakry, then dancing with a local ballet, performing with other Guinean dancers all around the region. Eventually she would buy a plot of land, dig a well, build a house and an outdoor kitchen, privy, and of course, a dance floor down by the river.

* * *

Sarah’s African friend Kanke was one of those human beings one fears is too good for this world. She was radiant in every way. Her African Black beauty, the veritable sun shining through her smile. Her demeanor, the way she held herself tall as she walked across Sarah’s yard. Her glow came from so deep within, I didn’t know if I would ever fathom it. I don’t remember if her first language was Susu or Malinké, but I do remember that her West African French was easier to understand than most. She sat many times with me my first trip to Guinea on a bamboo bench on Sarah’s farm and looked dreamily as she talked about Sarah. Kanke seemed to love my daughter; this admiration seemed perfectly mutual.

In West Africa, people don’t know how old they are. There is neither purpose for them to that knowledge, nor the luxury of ticking off years by celebrating birthdays with parties or presents or cakes. They simply don’t know. Once, in discussion down by the river at Sarah’s home in Sabawoori with a young Black man who looked to be an adolescent himself, thereby of a younger, different ilk, I imagined that he might know his age. But the truth struck home for me after the two of us had bantered a bit about all of those whose ages I had asked who didn’t know, when I asked him, “Entonces, quel age as-tu?” (“So, how old are you?”). An utter blank came across his face. Of course, I said to myself. They really don’t know.

We didn’t know how old Kanke was, just that she had miraculously survived some severe hepatitis. Sarah told me how her eyes had turned yellow, how she had not been able to eat for a long time, how she had gotten so painfully thin. The doctors at the hospital and in the clinic had done all of their tests without discovering her malady, but then she had little by little begun to recover to the point of being this absolutely radiant, apparently adolescent African queen. Mornings she would try to help me make my coffee. “Je voudrais t’aider, toi la mere de mon amie Aicha.” (“I would like to help you, the mother of my friend Aicha.”) Guinea had given my daughter “Aicha” as her African name. Aicha, like Maria in Latin cultures, is the most common Guinean name for girls.

On this first trip to my daughter’s farm in Sabawoori, the villagers prepared an Islamic celebration in which they asked Allah to bless her land. We bought a goat to kill; they all brought their cauldrons down to her riverbank to cook their spicy sauces to put over the rice and meat. For them, Sarah brought her ballet troupe from the capital.

The people of her village knew their white-skinned Aicha danced, yet none of them had ever seen a ballet. Sarah was arranging for her troupe to do it up big for them, with a PA system, lights, a stage, and the best of costumes and drums. And finally, she had her mother there to perform for, in all her glory. I filmed the ballet for her brothers back home to eventually see.

After we had all prayed and filled our bellies. After the hot equatorial sun had set and the night’s relative cool had settled in, Sarah’s dance troupe began their performance. Though the villagers had not witnessed an actual ballet before, they certainly knew its story well. The everyday life of the polygamous farmer husbands with their many wives all fussing with them about relationship and division of household duties was played off saucily, with contrivance, dance, and drumming skill beyond my wildest expectations. As I watched my daughter that entire day and night, and savored the exotic uniqueness of the life she had established there, I realized Sarah had made a place for herself in the world. I also knew the footage from their sister’s National Geographic sort of stay in West Africa would surely send her brothers to rethink her tremendous strength and worth. Sarah could come home now and hold her head up high, even among the most arrogant boys in her life.

After the last dance was done and the din of the drumming finally stopped, still the villagers chanted with full enthusiasm, “Aicha! Aicha! Aicha! Encore, encore, encore!!!” When my daughter went up on the stage for the last time that night to thank her adopted African family in her blend of West African French and her village’s dialect, I knew this was her day in the world, and that from here, she could do anything she chose. My chest tightened as I looked up to the starry heavens and thanked God I had been there with this bright beacon of light in my life that night.

Also so proud of Sarah, Kanke curled up and slept in the bed with us that night. The attraction between my daughter and her dear West African friend Kanke was real and strong.

* * *

After my first trip to Guinea, Sarah was in closer contact with me, frequently emailing to ask my advice about her buddies’ illnesses, so that she, in fact, had a practice of medicine all her own. Then, one ill-fated day, I got a call. Sarah’s voice was wailing on the other end of the line as she cried in a cracked, squeaking, helpless voice, “Moma, Kanke has died!” No one knew why. Then, after more desperate sobbing, “We will wait for you to come before we bury her.”

So I prepared to go back. What they actually needed was someone to come with an extra hundred dollars to cover the expense of the rice, meat, and vegetables to feed the entire village. I had that for them, but I also wanted to be there to mourn the loss of such a beautiful, wonderful soul of a young woman named Kanke. I was reminded of my own mother, an angel in disguise who died at twenty-six. Some of us simply graduate early has been my supposition all these years.

* * *

Sarah’s home in Sabawoori was a one-room roundhouse with a thatched roof, situated about halfway between the river and the path to the other villagers’ homes. Sarah’s closest African companion, Ibro, had made her a simple four-poster bed of fresh hardwood. A plain piece of foam was its mattress. A single sheet was all one ever needed at night to cover oneself from the occasionally cool night air.

The night before we were to go for Kanke’s service to Forecariah, the city just across the river, Sarah and I were under that sheet together in her bed when she confided in me, “You know, Moma, the only person I really trust here is Soriba.”

“Is Soriba the old man I brought glasses for when I was here before?”

Sarah had asked me to bring some of my strongest eyeglasses to help Soriba with his vision. She also wanted to try my contact lenses out on him. It only took one look at Soriba and the thick scars over both of his corneas to know that no amount of refraction was going to help poor Soriba’s vision. Still Sarah hoped that she might help this trustworthy, aging African friend. When I tried to put one of my contact lenses in his old eye, he squinted and blinked so that I couldn’t get it in, but Sarah, with all of her loving patience and will to help her buddy, managed to get my contacts in both of his eyes.

Poor old Soriba stood up, stretched his arms out in front of him with his hands up as if to block anyone in his way, and teetered a bit in disorientation, but then settled into some, “Ca va bien…” (“That’s pretty good…”) without a lot of conviction. He kept those contacts in his eyes overnight, but the next morning asked Sarah to take the lenses out, saying the glasses would be enough. Nearly every time I saw old Soriba, he was wearing my super-thick coke bottle bottom glasses from my college days, not really to help his vision, I don’t think, but as a sign that there was a lovely American girl who had tried so hard to help him.

On the day of the memorial service for sweet Kanke, Ibro took Sarah and me to Forecariah on his recently resurrected motorcycle. Ibro always drove. I rode in back. Sarah was sandwiched in between us.

When we got off the bike at the edge of town to walk the rest of the way in, another of their friends ran to us saying, “Soriba est tres malade.

Damn, I thought, the one Sarah trusts most in this West African world is “very sick.” What will we do if we lose Soriba too?

We all ran through town and back a narrow passage to a dark, dank apartment to find Soriba. He was prostrate in the bed, covered with musty, brown, dirty clothes and covers. Upon our entering, he lifted himself up on one elbow and, in a very weak, gruff voice, in mixed French and African dialect, Soriba said, “I haven’t eaten for seven days. Even water comes back up. I have had so much diarrhea, my butt is falling out.”

Sarah turned to me frantically, asking, “What can we do, Moma?”

Feeling a huge responsibility and knowing how frail Soriba was, I said, “Oh, darlin’, Soriba is old. He needs to go to the hospital so they can run tests and give him intravenous fluids to nurse him back to health.”

I knew that in Africa, there is a common belief that one only goes to the hospital to die. Often for lack of funds or for waiting until it really is too late; in fact, the hospital ends up being the place a person goes to die. Soriba sat straight up in bed and, in a still gruffer voice, said, “Non! Je ne vais pas a l’hopital!” stern in his conviction to not go to the hospital. Soriba was not ready to die.

Sarah was adding the Susu words to the conversation that were necessary for understanding, but then she turned to me and emphatically said, “Moma, you didn’t make me go to the hospital when I was sick like Soriba. You told me which medicine to buy to make me well!” Also stern in her conviction to get her medical mother’s help.

“But, Sarah, you are likely fifty years younger and that much sturdier than Soriba!”

I also knew most dysenteries are acute and treatable.

Feeling the weight of the moment, the risk of taking on the role of physician to Sarah’s trusted, super-fragile friend, I said, “If I were to be your doctor, Soriba, I would need to do an exam,” thinking I would need to use every possible resource to get him well.

Soriba’s eyes seemed to light up as he lifted himself up on one elbow again and said, “Il n’y a pas de problem avec ca.” I could examine him all day long as far as he was concerned.

With a deep sigh as I accepted the challenge to cure old Soriba, I looked at Sarah and said, “I probably don’t really need to see his butt falling out. Let’s go to the pharmacy.”

On the way, I calculated the probability of which gastrointestinal infections were the likeliest culprits of Soriba’s illness. Whipworms cause rectal prolapse, and their eggs are in the soil all around them where they daily prepare their food. That lesson I had learned well as a medical student studying in the Himalayas. Water-borne illnesses are as likely parasitic as bacterial, and their water is terrible. So at the pharmacy, we purchased Mebendazole to kill whichever roundworms he might be harboring, Metronidazole to cover giardia and amebic dysentery, and Ciprofloxacin to get rid of whichever bacterial diarrhea he might have, all for the equivalent of seven dollars.

Leaving the pharmacy, I remembered that since nothing had stayed in his stomach for an entire week, all of that strong medicine might need some help staying down. So on the way out the door, we went back and purchased Promethazine, an anti-nausea medicine, and a bottle of clean water.

First Sarah dosed Soriba with the nausea medicine, which also causes sleepiness, then, thirty minutes later, she gave him each of the three medicines to fight his dysentery. They had postponed Kanke’s service. No rush to mourn the dead. More important had been to help an esteemed member of their community and family back to health.

Although Sarah never expressed this to me, I believe she may have at that moment, at least at some level within her, been thankful for her old moma to have worked as hard as she had needed to in order to be who she was, a mother doctor who would come to her in Africa and help her help at least one of her friends back to life.

The next day the African women, in their nicest, brightest dresses and head wraps, were in the courtyards with their huge mortars and pestles smooshing the hot peppers to make the rice and vegetables spicy and delicious. Their huge black cauldrons were steaming with their food cooking over open fires; the scent of burning wood filled the air. Children as always were everywhere, running, playing, asleep on their mothers’ backs. We all congregated to honor Kanke, the best of us, gone to Heaven from this very hot spot on Earth, a place that would never again be quite as warm as when innocent, precious Kanke had walked among the citizens of Forecariah.

And Sarah’s beloved old friend Soriba was dressed and standing at his door, wearing his hat and his glasses. He was on the road to recovery.

In the end, the girl who would never be a doctor herself had doctored quite well her most trusted Guinean friend.



© Cynthia Yancey

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