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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!