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Shake That Family Tree
Roy Blount Jr.
August 05, 1996
Thanks to a bond with a small African nation, a Georgian rediscovers his roots
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August 05, 1996

Shake That Family Tree

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

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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."

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.

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