Little boy. Knees so busy under your school khakis. Your dried millet stalk prods an old bicycle tire, bare of tread, along a rocky footpath.
You wear a cereal box on your head.
You are fearless! The magic of your cardboard helmet makes you bold, protects you.
Your tongue trills out machine noises, your body synced. You are an engine of movement, propulsion. You are a green dart of energy running towards me, flitting to the side when we intersect.
You come into focus, and I fold into laughter. Magic Sugar Flakes, imported from Ghana, now transformed. I know this box. Knock-off Frosted Flakes from the Muslim grocer. His store is Fridaos. Muslim Heaven. Did the wind carry the box out of the trash heap and lay it at your feet, like manna?
With the donning of colored paper with shiny letters, you metamorphose.
You take a scrap and animate it, let it animate you.
You are unstoppable, courageous.
Will anyone tell you this? Will you remember it if you reach adulthood?
Will you find other ways to protect yourself, to dodge harm when malaria and parasites and infection comes?
Later this afternoon, I drive the truck to another footpath. A new village. The rumble of the diesel an intrusion. The rhythms of this place are pestles pounding manioc, machetes chopping wood, women sifting chaff from rice.
I come to say hello, to visit. I approach a group of four women crouched on wooden stools where the path opens. There you are beneath them, the second little boy of this day. And the second mask of this day. You lie on the ground, atop a red and yellow pagne. You are all knees and twigged arms. Your face. What is this? Are you, too, wearing a cereal box? I double take, uncomprehending.
Then I see the older woman sitting closest to you. She tends an ochre paste in the scooped out earth. She is applying the mud to you. Not a mask. It is your misshapen face. Your jaw is longer than my hand. Your eyes bend and bulge through stretched, contorted skin.
You see me, too, and then you turn away. Is it a tumor? A birth defect? There is no box to contain what I’m seeing, not even Magic Sugar Flakes.
My tears start. Too many and too fast to swallow. Yes, this is happening. I go from watching to being watched. You and the women have no container for this, a white stranger who openly sobs.
We have scarcely exchanged the most threadbare of greetings. Nyanewisi: you and the sun. The afternoon greeting, followed by a litany of questions about the state of your health, your work, your children.
But no further questions will continue under this sun.
And only God knows how the years will unfold under suns back home, in North America. I will sit with people seeking spiritual guidance. I will encounter them--sometimes in the midst of great suffering--and it will unmask us both.
But for now, uneasy air stirs like a dirty swill of river water around us. None of us knows how to ease back into the everyday. I have seen you. And you have seen me seeing you. And we cannot unsee.
This is a place of suffering.
This is a place of bravado.
This is a place of brazen love.
Love in your unmasked faces, your downward gazes, bearing witness as you attend.
And while this day has been extraordinary, you are all preparing me to see others and myself more clearly as spiritual guide.
Little boy from this morning, you are preparing me to find bold, bald courage. To re-use the tools I have to leap into new worlds.
Little boy in this afternoon sun, you are preparing me, too. Preparing me to sit unflinchingly in waves of suffering and waves of love, in equal measure.
Women, you are preparing me. You teach me to turn my face toward what is before me, my attention more potent than any medicine I offer. You show me what it means to love until the end.
Author Jane Neal is a student with Cohort 2 The Spiritual Guidance Training Institute, graduating in January 2020. She lives with her family in Tyler, Texas.
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Deepening the understanding, practice and importance of spiritual guidance-companionship across traditions.
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