In the wee hours of the night, a man wakes up. It is 1:30am. Does he awake by an alarm clock, in his hut with no electricity? Or does he just know? The village depends on this man. He walks groggily in the dark, flashlight in hand, to the big mud oven on the edge of the village. He walks past the old medical dispensary; now an empty building that sometimes dispenses food or food-like substances sent from NGOs to supplement the diets of the village. He walks past the women’s garden, looking ghostly with every plot shrouded in white mosquito netting, reflecting the ominous glow of the moon overhead. A donkey brays in the distance and a faint baby’s cry can be heard. Other than that, all is silent except the scuffling of his feet through the sand. He flicks on the dim little lamp and starts the fire, gathering the wood he set outside earlier the previous day. Slowly, the fire grows and he warms his hands with the glow. Fire going, he shuts the metal door of the oven and latches it, now turning to the big basin behind him. He measures out flour in a big tin can that used to hold tomato paste. He uses the same can, then to measure water out of the yellow benior jugs stored inside. This one is almost empty, he makes a mental note to fill them the next day at the village spigot and carry them back, one by one, to the oven. He adds some yeast, a little salt and sugar, and mixes it all in the basin the size of a small bath tub. With his hands, he scoops out balls of similar size and rolls them on the heavily floured wood-slat countertop, the excess flour falling through the cracks into a rice sack rigged up below with string. When he has a good amount of balls all collected on the countertop, the fire is hot and heats up the small room. He opens up the door in the wall to the oven, about the size of a small TV screen, and with the long wooden paddle, pushes the ashes and embers evenly around the oven, leaving a big space in the middle for the bread. Satisfied that the ashes are clear from the cooking surface, he removes the paddle and rests it on the bricks holding another longer wood slat countertop next to him. He rolls out the dough into long shapes and places them on a long piece of canvas on the long wood slat, pinching the fabric between each loaf so they don’t stick together. When the slat is full, he brings it back next to the oven door and puts the loaves, five at a time, on the paddle. He reaches over and grabs a razor blade, his head cocked to one side holding a flashlight (the battery-powered lamp above the basin is not bright enough to light the whole space). With the razor blade, he quickly cuts just the top of each loaf, then from a metal cup next to the oven door; he removes a paintbrush of sugar and water and lovingly brushes each loaf. He unlatches the door, rotating the latch back and forth, back and forth gently to open it. Picking the ideal spot, he sends the loaves into the coals, withdraws the paddle and carefully latches the door again. He turns to the loaves on the canvas and repeats the process. This continues until the sun rises. When the loaves are finished, five at a time, he draws them out on the paddle, latches the door again before gathering the loaves in his hands and quickly tossing them onto the canvas on the floor because they are too hot to hold for long. The pile of loaves on the cold mud floor makes cracking noises as the breads cool. Above the warm, crackling pile, is a bench. The bench is full of bread loaves hard as rocks. Deceptively appetizing, these loaves are the ones not sold from the previous day. They will be pounded down into a powder that is used in ‘haako’, a green leaf sauce dish regularly prepared by all families in the village.
Around 6:00am, the village begins to wake up. The mosque sings the morning prayer and people are up washing their hands, feet, and heads to pay homage to Allah for the first time of the day. Groggily, the first person approaches the door to the oven through the dark of the morning. It is my Baaba Mamoudu, here to pick up the bread to sell at his boutique that morning. He sleepily greets the man who is now busily working, back and forth between taking bread out of the oven and putting the cold dough in. “Did you wake up?” “Fine.” “Did you spend the night in peace?” “Fine.” Did your family wake up?” “Fine.” “How are you doing with the cold?” “Fine.” These greetings are repeated back and forth until Baaba walks out of the oven room carrying the warm loaves in a rice sack in his arms. One by one people approach the oven and get either a few loaves for their family, or enough to sell at their boutique. They either pay him then or wait until the end of the month, using the honor system to remember how many loaves they get from him every day. When the sun begins to brighten the sky, the man sets out a rice sack on the floor and begins the process of washing his hands, feet, and head with water from the beniors. He then begins his morning prayer. People are still coming to get their bread for the day, but they all wait outside for he prays in the doorway – really the only space in the room. After a few minutes, he resumes business as usual, though the bread cooks slower now that the coals have cooled a bit. Around 7:30, he begins cleaning up the oven room and shuts off the light. There is now enough light to brighten the room. He gathers the old loaves of bread that hadn’t been sold the day before and brings them home to be pounded down into a powder that is used in the green leaf sauce dish. Nothing is wasted. The man puts out the last burning coals and locks up the room. As everyone is waking up and starting their day, he is heading home to his family to rest and relax after a long night of work. On his way home, he passes our house, waving at me as I sit in the courtyard eating my 1/2 loaf of bread with my cup of coffee. He passes the school-aged kids, bread in hand, running off to class for the day. This man feeds the village. He is the beginning of everyone’s day. This quiet man with the smiling eyes and the flour forever in his fingernails.
Bread is sustenance. It is life.