In Mali, where the daytime temperature most of the year remains at, near, or above 115 F. (46 C.), I devised a survival plan for living there.
Because my relatively modern house in the middle-class African neighborhood of Pelangana in the beautiful ancient city of Ségou was made of cinderblock and absorbed the sun’s pounding heat all day only to disgorge it into the inner rooms at night, sleeping in my bedroom during la saison chaude (the hot season) became impossible for me.
Malians, I learned, slept outside on woven grass mats on the ground in their large central courtyards. But I was a single white woman living alone at the time in a small rented house. I had to find another answer.
My house had no air-conditioning, but I did have a few electric fans, which worked sporadically. During the hottest months, when the Niger River was at its lowest, the hydroelectric power plants shut down for long stretches of time. This meant no electricity – which meant no somewhat-cooling fans, no cold drinking water from the fridge, no reading light, no audiotapes, no Voice of America on the radio, no frosty beer. And no sleep.
In my furnace-like bedroom, spread-eagle on my mosquito-netted bed, rivulets of perspiration ran down my body like crawling insects, waking me. My nightclothes and sheets became soaking wet. Needless to say, with all this sleeplessness, I became grumpy. Until I hit on a plan: Sleep on the roof!
I had an iron ladder made and installed on the side of my front terrace, and I put a bed on the roof of my house. (For the whole story, see “The Bed on the Roof,” excerpted from my Mali memoir, below.) I managed to – both literally and figuratively – rise above what felt then to be an intolerable situation that was making me miserable.
I learned an important lesson: There’s a creative solution to every problem. We must just reach for it. When things go low, we must reach high.
I was reminded of this important lesson recently when the ongoing construction (demolition) next door became intolerable for me here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
At one point, near the end of my rope, hammer in hand, I marched next door and offered to help (ayudar) the hard-working workmen. After all, there had been one guy, with one hammer, pounding incessantly on one spot on one wall (which happens to be the wall abutting my bedroom, where my writing desk is) for hours and hours and days on end. With my help, I strongly suggested to the jefe (boss), the job would get done in half the time!
“I’m very strong,” I told him.
Wide-eyed, he looked me up and down and slowly shook his head.
This bold act (which I don’t recommend) proved only two things: (1) Women certainly can become fearless in their old age, and (2) This old gringa was being driven loca by the pounding-hammering-drilling-reverberating demolition noise on the other side of her wall. To say nothing of the cement dust that enveloped her sweet little apartment. All of which, I was informed, would last at least another seven weeks.
This story, I realize, is not unique in San Miguel. If you find a nice place to live that is somewhat out of town, as I have, a place that is quiet, affordable, and has a beautiful view, you can be sure it won’t be quiet for long. San Miguel is spreading out like a blossoming flower to accommodate the ever-increasing influx of newcomers. New construction is inevitable and it’s everywhere.
All this hammering reminds me of the post-World War II building boom in the U.S. suburbs when I was a child, where new houses popped up like mushrooms seemingly overnight all around town.
So what could I do here and now? The other day, after days of grumpiness, I remembered my Mali story. I decided to seek peace by rising above — going up to this building’s communal-but-unused rooftop terrace and distancing myself from the pounding daytime noise against my apartment’s wall. As the Drifters sang in their old pop tune “Up on the Roof,” “On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be, and there the world below can’t bother me.”
I took my yoga mat, a beach towel, some water, my laptop, a notebook, pens, my iPhone, and, oh, my Mali book. I wanted to reread the story of that memory. And then take grateful pictures of the beautiful view from above:
The Bed on the Roof
(The following story is excerpted from my Mali memoir, HOW TO MAKE AN AFRICAN QUILT: The Story of the Patchwork Project of Ségou, Mali:)
One afternoon, on the way home from teaching a [patchwork quilting] class at Centre Benkady, I stopped at a metalworker’s atelier to ask whether he might make an iron ladder for me that could be attached securely to the front terrace of my house, allowing me to have access to the flat roof. The man, Mr. Dao, agreed, and within a few weeks the sturdy, narrow ladder was installed.
Then, as if heaven-sent, I saw, one Monday morning on my way to the centreville marché but not yet far from my home, a Malian family from an outlying village conveying on their donkey cart a new, hand-made traditional bed frame made of smooth sticks tied with cowhide to be sold at the market. … [I told the driver I would buy it if he would bring it directly to my house.]
Once on the roof, this narrow bed provided me with a private sanctuary, a refuge, a solution to the confines of my oven-like bedroom, a new love affair with the night sky. With strips of rubber inner tubing, I attached tall bamboo poles at each corner, forming a four-poster bed, to support my mosquito netting. Thus protected from the ever-present threat of malaria, I felt ready to face the elements, braced to take on the encroaching saison chaude.
And not only that. This rooftop getaway renewed a sense of child-like wonder in me. I felt like a kid, climbing, unafraid, up the narrow ladder to her own secret “hideout.” Once on the roof, it was as if I’d reached a mountaintop, where nobody could see me but I could see everything, especially the sky, the countless diamond-like stars and the fat, bright-as-day moon. …
When la saison chaude arrived, I was ready for it. Sleeping on the roof, I enjoyed a slight, treetop-level breeze. Though the days were typically punishingly hot, the nights became blessedly tolerable. I no longer perspired all night. I slept well, as if on a cloud, beneath a glorious canopy of stars.
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To learn more about my Mali book, please visit the Home page of my website: www.bonnieleeblack.com .
And here are the Drifters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_ksNvivbEI