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Shake That Family Tree

Thanks to a bond with a small African nation, a Georgian rediscovers his roots

by Roy Blount Jr.

If The Star-Spangled Banner is running through your mind this week, well, fine, but I'll tell you what these Olympics have planted firmly in mine: certain passages from the Dogon-Peulh, a seduction dance of Burkina Faso that, if writing could do it justice, might be said to go sort of like this.

She: Hey! Watch my booty move, big boy, beyond your wildest dreams, kapocketaboonk boonkboonkboonkboonk kapocketapocketaboonkapocketa boonkboonkboonkboonkboonk....

He: Yehhhh-heh-heh-heh boomalammaboomalamma, it is a right good-moving booty. Heh-heh. Smells good, too. Baloomaloomaloom....

Picture

Sedate Decatur had never seen anything resembling Bonogo's libidinous seduction dances.

photograph by
Bill Eppridge


I'm happy the U.S. is winning a lot of medals. But my heart is with the Burkinabe, which is what you call the people of Burkina Faso, the West African country adopted by my hometown, Decatur, Ga.

Burkina Faso used to be a French colony and was then an independent republic called Upper Volta. Its capital city is Ouagadougou. None of its five Olympic athletes is likely to appear on the victory stand, but thanks to its 35-member Olympic delegation—in particular its percussion and dance troupe, Bonogo— I finally came to feel at home, this week, in the place where I come from, where the Burkinabe are honored guests. Before I explain, let me tell you a quick football story.

Back in the '60s, a professional wide receiver and his quarterback were passing through the latter's hometown. They were expected for a family dinner at the quarterback's parents' house, the house where he had grown up. But these two famous athletes got stoned (the '60s, remember), so stoned that when they drove to the quarterback's neighborhood, he couldn't focus on how to find his house. Here was their solution: They drove to the quarterback's old high school, and the quarterback got out, and the wide receiver drove slowly along behind as the quarterback walked home from school.

Maybe that story isn't morally edifying. (I was told Burkina Faso means "country of morally integrated people.") Neither, maybe, is the story of how I found my own way home last week. Maybe I am imposing a personal story upon the Olympics. But who knows? Maybe, despite the promotional crassness in and around Atlanta last week, genuine intercultural exchange was going on, giving rise to many personal revelations. That's what's supposed to happen at the Olympics, isn't it? It happened to me.

Decatur is part of metropolitan Atlanta. When I was growing up there, it was kind of like Leave It to Beaver, only with lots of black people tucked away in little ghettos with names like Eskimo Heights. Decatur was desegregating, slowly and awkwardly, when I moved away in 1968. My sister and only sibling, Susan, left in 1971. My father died in 1974, my mother in 1981. My roots attenuated.


Basking in hospitality, Ouoba (left) and Zio took no offense that their nation's capital was misspelled.

photograph by
Bill Eppridge


Picture

But every so often my travels brought me to Atlanta, and I would drive out to Decatur square, where the old courthouse stands. I would stop to look at the bronze plaque that says roy a. blount plaza. dedicated to the memory of a great builder of homes and schools, and the rapid transit system which lies under this plaza. My father was chairman of the Decatur board of education from 1962 to 1965, when the schools were integrating, and chairman of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority in 1971 and 1972, when the MARTA subway and bus system was in the making. He was president of Decatur Federal Savings and Loan from 1960 to 1974, in which capacity he didn't get rich but did make a name for himself as a community builder. He and I—that old father-son thing—never communicated very well.

"You hear more stories around town about your dad," John Randall told me last week. He is a native Decaturite, and his wife, Linda Harris, is the daughter of my father's late friend Robin Harris. Linda Harris stayed on in Decatur to become marketing director of the Downtown Development Authority. Randall is immediate past president of the Decatur Business Association, which, along with the city government, has taken the Olympics as an occasion for a 17-day festival in the courthouse square. The Irish delegation, which has also been adopted by Decatur, has installed a bar, made of green wood, in the old county courtroom. When I was growing up, the whole county was, like my prominently Methodist father, staunchly dry. And now the courthouse is an Irish pub!

Budweiser, one of the festival's sponsors, has been sending actors from its commercials out to make appearances. The "I love you, man" guy from the Bud Light ads was, I regret to say, not a hit. He brought a large entourage, reportedly resisted saying "I love you, man," and did not want to be hugged. Can't blame him. But the Burkinabe athletes—the two I met are Franck Zio, one of the world's top-10 long jumpers, and Chantal Ouoba, an up-and-coming triple jumper—have been highly popular around town.

The athletes stayed in a dormitory at Agnes Scott College in Decatur before moving to the Olympic Village. Boxer Irissa Kabore trained in nearby Doraville. Local coaches instructed him, using Gary Gunderson, a Decatur resident who works for The Carter Center in Atlanta, as their translator:

"Tell him to move his head, move his head, like this, like this."

"Mobilisez votre tête, comme ça, comme ça."

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Sanou, Burkina Faso's hope in the men's high jump, fell to earth quickly last Friday, failing to qualify for the final.

photograph by
Bill Eppridge


The team doctor, Liliou Francis, was concerned that Kabore was eating too heartily, and sure enough, he failed to make his 125-pound weight limit, had to fight as a lightweight instead of a featherweight and was trounced by a Czech. But the Burkinabe minister of sport, Joseph Tiendrebeogo, assured me, perhaps diplomatically, that Kabore had brought the extra weight with him from home.

Last Friday, high jumper Olivier Sanou went out in the qualifying round. Zio and Ouoba met the same fate in their events on Sunday and Monday, respectively. (High jumper Irène Tiendrebeogo—no relation to Joseph—was scheduled to compete in qualifying on Thursday.) Zio, the team captain, has been living in Paris since 1990 and "could go right to Hollywood," says Linda Harris, and indeed, he speaks English and has a great deal of presence.

"One of [the Burkinabe] asked me to marry him," says Melissa Kirby, who works at the Decatur Recreation Center, headquarters for the Burkinabe delegation. "He made me shake his hand. I may be married to him."

All over Decatur people are trying to master the Burkinabe handshake—you raise your right hand high as if to swear an oath, then you sweep your palm down across your partner's, and the two of you finish by coming off each other's fingertips into a finger snap. The shake comes from a time when Africans were capturing and selling one another into slavery: Slaves' fingers were broken, so the snap proved you were free.

Besides learning Burkinabe customs, a fine diversity of visitors to the square has responded with enthusiasm to food, drink, music (country, blues, gospel, Irish, African) and storytelling—stories told formally to audiences and also stories told informally among the congregants.

"You hear about little kindnesses," Randall told me, "little nudges of the levers of power, things that people like your dad and Linda's did for all sorts of people, black and white, that nobody knew anything about at the time. It makes you feel like you can't do enough."

How would you like to grow up with a father who makes you feel like that? (Come to think of it, the man who brought these Games to Atlanta, Billy Payne, did.) Especially if nobody had ever told you about little kindnesses, and maybe there were nudges you didn't appreciate.

Whereas who could fail to appreciate "screams of rejoicings" and "grace, strength, finesse and virility showcased through the charming contest between young men and women as they challenge each other by way of dance," to quote the program for Bonogo's appearance? (The group will be performing in other Georgia cities, as it has performed all over Africa, South America and Europe.)

How did Decatur hook up with Burkina Faso? In 1985 Gunderson returned from a visit to that country and wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about how struck he had been by the public-spiritedness and family values that prevailed among the Burkinabe in the face of severe drought, disease and poverty. Mike Mears, who was then mayor of Decatur, saw a television news report based on the column and got the notion that Decatur and Burkina Faso should get together.

Not so arbitrary a notion as it may sound. Mears, a white Southerner, says he recognizes that "much of who I am, for better or worse, comes from what people from Africa brought over." And the student body of Decatur High School—all white when I went there in the '50s—is now 63% African-American.

Certainly Decatur is more prosperous than Burkina Faso, but it faces analogous challenges. Elizabeth Wilson, an African-American, is the current mayor of Decatur. I got the impression from her that she and my father communicated very well. On her visit to Burkina Faso in 1985, she said in a speech to some Burkinabe, "What strikes me here is the unity of families, and so many people who could make other choices but choose to stay here because they're going to make things better. I wish I could bottle that spirit up and take it home."

Just before Mears got his notion, there had been a Burkinabe living 60 miles from Decatur. "It helps," says Gunderson, "that the first Burkinabe to come into this relationship was smarter than all of the Americans involved put together." Mouhoussine Nacro was a visiting biochemist at the University of Georgia in Athens. He was looking for ways to produce energy from the bacteria in a soil sample he had brought from home—it resembled red dirt like north Georgia's, only drier, lighter and less stable because his country lacks north Georgia's moisture.

The summer heat in Georgia, the Burkinabe say, is about like that at home, but they've had a little trouble adjusting to the humidity. They also find certain contemporary Georgia customs strange. The extensiveness of body piercing, for instance. Nose and ears, O.K., they say. But navels?

"The very first Saturday I spent in Athens," says Nacro, who is now the Burkinabe ambassador to Canada but is ensconced in Decatur for the Olympics, "I walked onto the campus to go to the lab, and on my way I noticed that most of the people were wearing red-and-black shirts. The closer I got to the lab, the more I thought, People in this country very much like red-and-black shirts. I went to the lab and worked, and when I opened the door to leave, the campus was full of people in red and black! What's happening? I thought. I didn't feel exactly threatened, but on Monday I asked, 'Was this something traditional, a tribal thing?'

"No, I was told, it was a game! A home game of Georgia football!" Nacro became a Bulldogs fan. In 1984 he returned to Burkina Faso; the next year another Georgia professor, a close friend, contacted him on behalf of the Burkinabe-fan Decaturites. (Decatur High's teams, incidentally, are also the Bulldogs.)

With Nacro clearing the way, a delegation from Decatur traveled to Burkina Faso and established a sister-city relationship with Boussé, a town whose population is roughly equivalent to Decatur's 17,300. "Thanks to money and assistance from Decatur," says Nacro, "Boussé was able to build a tower, drill a well and have tap water for the first time." Before, they only had surface water, which they might have to walk four miles to get to and which was often infested with microscopic guinea worms, which would grow within people's bodies until they burst out horribly through the skin. "Now people can get water in the center of the village, and it is clean water," Nacro says. "There are clinics, so that people can have doctors and nurses. There is a new school building."

And thanks to Burkina Faso there are, as Linda Harris puts it, "fertility dances—and no doubt about it, either: those movements—on Decatur square!" Maybe that wouldn't seem remarkable on your town's square. But if you'd grown up in Decatur! (Leave It to Beaver, remember, with ghettos.) All kinds of people enjoying an internationally known African dance troupe together for free in the middle of Decatur!

The biggest blowout is yet to come. August 3 will be Burkina Faso Night, and you can bet Linda and I will be there. My sister is coming in from Houston.

The official language of Burkina Faso is French. (Decatur has a cop now who speaks French. The other day he was interpreting back and forth between his fellow officers and Ouoba, the triple jumper. When I was growing up in Decatur, I'm not sure we had cops who spoke English.) Emily Hanna-Vergara, a historian of African art and the president of Decatur's sister-city committee, translated as I spoke with the dance troupe's director, Jean Ouedraogo, and with Lambert Ouedraogo (no relation), vice president of Boussé's sister-city program. Jean was wearing a shirt hung with horsehair tufts and goat-horn danglers. "A shirt worn by priests," he explained through Emily. "Priests that outsiders typically call sorcerers. The priest acts as a liaison between the world of the living and the invisible world of ancestors and spirits."

It occurred to me to suggest that we step over to the roy a. blount plaza plaque.

Emily translated the inscription for the Burkinabe. "My father would be honored," I said, "that you are here." In fact, if you had told me before this week that there would be an African seduction dance on my father's plaza, I might have said he would be turning over in his grave. But he was a genial man, even I know that. And maybe people in the grave like to turn over.

The two Burkinabe gave me looks that communicated very well. "They are very touched," Emily said. "They say that for them, your dad has not gone, he is here with us speaking your name to them. When they dance again, the first dance will be in honor of your dad."

It would be appropriate in this situation, Jean said, for me to make an offering to my father of a chicken or some beer.

"Unless he's changed his habits in the other world," I told John Randall later, "I think he'd appreciate the chicken more."

"Should it be a live chicken?" Randall asked. That opened up all sorts of theological and practical questions that hadn't occurred to me when the Burkinabe were telling me my father was there, with us, speaking my name, at his plaque. Because I was crying then.

I love you, man.

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