The hen knows when it is dawn but leaves it to the cock to announce.
The myth I heard is this. An old woman named Buktu, the last of her village, set out alone in the desert. Her family had gone, her friends had died, and her intention was to do the same. She wandered without food or water and each night when she lay down to sleep, she expected it to be the final time. But each morning the sun shone on her face and she rose to wander another day. On the fifth day, hungry and parched, she saw a mirage. She walked toward the grove of date palms, heavy with fruit. No palms, but she found a tim, or spring, bubbling with fresh water. It was Buktu’s tim, or Timbuktu.
In Goundam, a town near Timbuktu, I learned to identify a cotton bush and collect the spongy dense balls out of their lobed pods. I was shown how to feel the seeds with my fingertips, work them to the surface for collecting in a gourd and then coax the fibers apart from one another to comb and align them. I used the wire brush, handled with such grace by the six Fulani women surrounding me and I made the fibers align quietly together.
“Yes, yes,” they said. “Yes!”
The women sang a praise song, clapping hands and too many rhythms to count, and two of them jumped up to dance.
We sat shielded from the West African sun. They were weavers’ wives but dressed in factory-made cloth – one piece wrapped around their waists, another wrapped around their torsos – shoulders bare. They had plaited one another’s hair and most wore earrings, some included a coin or two as ornament and, in combination, it dazzled me: color and sparkle against coffee skin.
I’d laid the fibrous creamy cotton cloud in the gourd where the other women placed their newly seeded and combed cotton. I picked up a wood spindle, the size of a long chopstick, smooth and glossy from years in the hands of these women, slipped onto its lower point a whirl – a ceramic sphere the size and weight of a large marble with a hole through it – and I twirled the spindle, weighted at the bottom, with my left hand on my left knee. Spun it like a drill.
I was able to take a handful of cotton cloud from the gourd, cradle it in my right palm, pull the smallest amount – maybe two or three fibers – with the fingers of the same right hand and simultaneously twist the fibers between fingers and thumb while pulling ever so slightly more into the mix.
I wrapped the first two inches of spun fiber around the spindle and pulled the next bit of combed fiber between my fingers. I was spinning thread and winding it around the spindle. I was worthy of their exaltation!
The women wound those first twisted fibers around the spindle in their left hands and spun their spindles to wind-on more of the twist extruded from their right hands. In my hands, the spindle flew off my knee and the whirl popped off the spindle and rolled into a pile of goat droppings.
The women sang a different song and laughed loudly until a man’s bark came from over the wall. The admonition hushed us, but not Rokia’s rush of rude gestures in his direction. She jumped to her feet and pantomimed a man swinging his parts, parading in circles. Aminata’s expression went from a smile into a silent delirious spasm and she pressed her face into a wadded length of cloth.
Ten thousand years ago, long before Buktu wandered its dunes, the Sahara was green: lush with oases, fishable lakes, natural vegetation, elephants and ostriches. Nomads flourished. Homo Sapiens developed agriculture and nomadic communities began to settle and cultivate.
Five thousand years ago the Sahara commenced a natural cycle – quickened by human exploits – of desertification. Soil became sand, desiccation moved outward in every direction.
Today, the region has endured fifty years of acute drought. On average, the desert’s perimeter advances into formerly arable land, ten feet every twenty-four hours. Giraffes, hippopotami, birds and almost every species of wildlife has disappeared. The land is no longer productive so crops fail and domestic livestock die. Cotton and wool are scarce, so spinners, dyers, and weavers have suffered as well.
The southern edge of the Sahara Desert runs up against the northern stretches of the Inland Delta. In wet years, the topography of the Delta is sliced-through a thousand times by rivulets and tributaries. They feed the Niger River that begins in Guinea, runs first northeast, bends near Timbuktu, then turns southeast, emptying through Nigeria into the Atlantic Ocean. The Inland Delta’s annual deposit of silt and fresh water, for centuries attracted grazing and cultivation well beyond anything possible today, and between the years 1400 and 1600 – as Europe stepped from Medieval life into the Renaissance – such empires as Ancient Mali flourished in the Sahara leaving population clusters that remain to this day.
Raw cotton is the color of ivory. For all the patterns in a repertoire that would make a weaver proud, all the complicated techniques used to produce colorful cloths of wool and commercial threads, for me a blanket of plain, un-dyed, hand-spun slub cotton was my favorite. The cello has a timbre close to the human voice and its sound moves us. Plain cotton has a feel or temperature or subliminal smell close to human skin, and is so pleasurable.
Cotton indigenous to West Africa has grown wild since the dinosaurs. The seeds may have been borne on the wind from Egypt for its plants produce long-fibered thread. When long fibers are spun together, they overlap to produce a fine, uniform, durable thread. Thread made of shorter fibers pulls apart easily, fraying like sisal.
Cotton introduced by Europeans during the eighteenth century is shorter fibered and less durable than the indigenous variety. More importantly, for people living in Mali today, the old cotton that grew wild left nutrients intact in the soil. The European variety grew faster, but it depleted the soil. The Industrial Revolution in full swing, European factories required raw materials. Manufacturers used the fertile Inland Delta region of Mali to plant cotton for French textile mills. To keep the machinery running, they introduced peanuts to harvest for their oil. Peanut oil burns at a hotter temperature than other vegetable oils and so was used to lubricate the engines of mechanized progress. Between cotton and peanuts, the soil deteriorated, with famine – for both humans and livestock – the deadly outcome. It’s why the Sahara expands so easily. Sand swallows worn out soil.
Drought made cultivation impossible. It killed herds. Wool and cotton – the raw materials of weaving – became scarce.
In concept, weaving is simple. It is the act of making one thread – the weft – pass under and over stationary parallel threads – the warp – fixed at a right-angle to the weft. Then, in the other direction, instead of passing over and under, the weft shuttle passes under and over. The question is how to do this without manually lifting one warp thread at a time. There is no written record, but at some point in prehistory, a perceptive person had an insight and understood how to set up a loom, and humans made cotton clothes.
I watched in admiration as Rokia drew the filaments from the combed cotton cloud, pulled the filaments into individual strands, overlapped one strand after another by half its length and twisted as she did so, thereby achieving a tight twist connecting one filament to the next and making a fine thread. Inch after inch, until late that afternoon, the spindle was coiled and had the girth of a healthy papaya. How many yards of finished thread it carried, I could only guess it would be in the hundreds, maybe thousands.
Toward dusk, Moussa and Yaya came from the weavers – always male – to fetch me.
“You’re keeping them from their families,” said Moussa.
Yaya laughed into his hands, but then coughed dust.