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  • Palm Wine
  • Reginald McKnight (bio)

This was fourteen years ago, but it still bothers me as though it happened day before yesterday. I’ve never talked about this with anyone, and I’m not talking about it now because I expect it to relieve me of painful memory, but because, as they say in Madagascar, the bad is told that the good may appear. So. I was in Senegal on a graduate fellowship. I was there to collect and compile West African proverbs. This was to complete my Phd in anthropology, which, I’m afraid, I failed to do. The things I’m going to talk about now had as much to do with that failure as did my laziness, my emotional narrowness and my intellectual mediocrity. I was a good deal younger then, too, but that’s no excuse. Not really.

Anyway, one afternoon, instead of collecting proverbs in Yoff village, which I should have done, I went to Dakar with Omar the tailor—a friend of a friend—to buy palm wine. I’d craved palm wine ever since I read Amos Tutuola’s novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard in college. Tutuola never attempts to describe the taste, color or smell of palm wine, but because the Drinkard (whose real name is Father of the Gods Who Could Do Anything in This World) can put away 225 kegs of it per day, and because he sojourns through many cruel and horrifying worlds in order to try to retrieve his recently killed palm wine tapster from Deadstown, I figured palm wine had to be pretty good.

As Omar and I boarded the bus, I dreamed palm wine dreams. It must be pale green, I thought, coming from a tree and all. Or milky-blue like coconut water. I had it in mind that it must hit the tongue like a dart, and that it must make one see the same visions Tutuola himself witnessed. A creature big as a bipedal elephant, sporting two-foot fangs thick as cow’s horns; a creature with a million eyes and hundreds of breasts that continuously suckle her young, who swarm her body like maggots: a town where everything and everyone is red as plum flesh; a town where they all walk backwards; a town full of ghosts.

I really had no business going that day. I was at least a month behind in my research because of a lengthy bout with malaria. But I excused myself from work by telling myself that since I had no Wolof proverbs on the subject of drinking, I’d likely encounter a couple that day. But I took my pad, pencils and tape recorder along, knowing I wasn’t going to use them.

On the ride to town, I could scarcely pay mind to matters that usually fascinate me. For instance, I would often carefully observe the beggars who board the buses and cry for alms. Their Afro-Arab plaints weave through the bus like serpents, slipping between exquisitely coifed women, and dignified, angular men, wives of the wealthy, [End Page 219] daughters of the poor, beardless hustlers, bundled babies, tourists, pickpockets, gendarmes, students. A beautiful plaint could draw coins like salt draws moisture. Some beggars not only sang for indulgences but also sang their thanks. Jerrejeff, my sister, paradise lies under the feet of mothers. A heart that burns for Allah gives more light than ten-thousand suns. Some of them sang proverbs from the Koran. Be constant in prayer and give alms. Allah pity him who must beg of a beggar. Some of them merely cried something very much like Alms! Alms! And some of them rasped like reptiles and said little more than, “I got only one arm! Gimmie money!” and the proverbs they used were usually stale. They were annoying, but even so I often gave them alms, and I recorded them. I guess it was because I liked being in a culture that had a good deal more respect for the poor than my own. And I guess I tried hard to appreciate art forms that were different from the ones I readily understood. But, honestly, as I say, that day...

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pp. 219-230
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