While drawing water from the well and hauling it into the house a couple times a day was good for upper body strength, it was still necessary for we women to be intentional about getting exercise. Each day we looked for an opportunity to take a walk, usually at the end of the day after we finished with our salon and before the sun set. One particular walk with Heather, Abby and Asher the dog, took us down the half-mile dirt road and then off onto a footpath headed toward town. I would have been brave enough to take this walk by myself except for the fact that I couldn't speak more than 3 words of the language. (Okay, 4 words if you include "galinha", but what's the likelihood I'd have the need to say something about a chicken?) And besides, Heather and Abby were good company and full of interesting information about our surroundings! Our first ten minutes of walking took us through peaceful grasses, scrub bushes, and past an occasional tree, watching Asher sniff whatever he could find of interest, and listening to the sound of a distant swarm of honey bees. We even found a poop flower in full bloom, but thankfully not yet ripe enough to emit the odor that gives the full meaning to its name. (Yes, this flower looks like a large turd on a stem.)
Then came the stream of boys returning from school. It seemed an odd hour for school to be letting out, but Heather explained that some kids go to school in the morning and some go in the afternoon, so the later group returns home around 7 p.m. I practiced my bo-tarde greeting over and over, and was occasionally treated to a reply of hello or good afternoon by a student clearly wanting to practice his new English words. For the next quarter mile we were passed by perhaps fifty boys of middle school through high school age, and exactly three girls. It is rare for a girl to have the privilege of attending school in this country. Public schools are open to all, but they are not free as we know public schools to be, funded by our tax dollars. Tuition may seem very small in contrast to private school tuitions in the U.S., but even a few dollars a month is out of the reach of many. Besides the cost, girls simply aren't viewed as a good investment when it comes to education, as their value in the eyes of the men is in their physical labor which requires no schooling except what they learn from their mothers.
Further along the path we came across a family of pigs rooting around behind some bushes, and then were entertained by a man chasing a small herd of sheep away from his garden. Sheep in Guinea Bissau don't look so much like our sheep, as they have short hair that never needs shearing. Come to think of it, the pigs have longer hair than the sheep!
We decided we'd gone far enough when we came within sight of one of the main wells on the outskirts of Mansoa. It is at this well that many women bring their laundry to wash, and sometimes to bathe. There was still a considerable number of women and children at this well, finishing up their day's work before the last light of day was gone. After we turned around and headed back on the hard-packed path in our flip-flops, watching every step to guard against an easily twisted ankle or an errant snake, we walked straight into a group of six men heading to town. Their long loose dresses identified them as Muslims, and while we were friendly and spoke greetings to them, we had no desire to stop and chat. They, on the other hand, were intent on exactly that. They began trying to engage us in conversation, and I tried to get out of it by saying something intelligent and impressive like, "Me American. Speak English." At that, one man's face lit up and he grabbed my hand and shook it almost reverently. Heather and Abigail both have enough command of the Creole language that they were able to answer a few questions and tell the men that we live with the bronco (white man), whom everyone in the area knows and respects. Asher was standing alert and ready to intervene if his services were needed. At no time did I feel a sense of danger, but it was nonetheless a relief when we were finally able to free ourselves from their attentions and move away in the opposite direction from where they were headed. Though they were not aggressive, we were outnumbered two to one, and they were slightly inebriated and just a little too friendly for our comfort.
An evening stroll with Abigail and Asher on another day took us through the bulagna where we flip-flopped our way along narrow, packed dirt ridge paths, making our way to the river where the tide was out and the smooth clay of the riverbed lay exposed and glistening in the sunset.
A snowy egret stood along the far bank waiting for a last meal of the day, and a flock of unfamiliar geese honked overhead. My eye caught a flash of red in a tree near the riverbank where a gorgeous endangered African buba bird had taken rest. I stood gazing at the clay mud, trying to picture a baptism in this river where the new convert and the one doing the dunking would first have to trudge through this muck to reach the water.
We decided to return by a different route, picking our way through the maze of paths toward the back entrance to their property. Scanning the landscape, I tried to picture the wildfire that nearly took out their house a year or so ago. Imagine attempting to stop acres of flames crawling toward your property with nothing but a shovel and a few buckets to carry water pulled from a well five hundred yards from the property line. A few charred fence posts stand as a reminder of God's goodness and mercy, enabling them to do what humanly would have been impossible.
As Abby and I talked about life in Africa, and she shared her favorite chicken stories, I kept wondering about the women who work in these rice fields. Even with my attentiveness to every step, I still managed to take a tumble off the path into a patch of stubble and weeds. How do these flip-flop shod women traverse these treacherous paths with heavy loads on their heads and babies strapped to their backs, spines erect and eyes straight ahead? For all their lack of education and knowledge of the world, their strength, and stamina, and tenacity have earned them a place of high respect in my mind.