All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.
The sunlit dance floor seethed with wiggling bodies. Benson’s High Life Orchestra played the popular tune “Wofa No, No.” After dancing for a half hour, I was resting at my table in preparation for another spree. On Ghana’s dance floors, women and men could dance alone or with members of the same sex without causing the slightest notice. As I looked around at the mostly empty tables, I saw a man in a white lace Grand Boubou whose size was startling. His back was turned so his face was not visible, but he sat so high above the surface of his table he had to be over six and a half feet tall. He had broad shoulders and a very thick neck.
I didn’t want to be caught staring if he turned, but I did cut my eyes in his direction often, hoping to see his face. When the orchestra finished playing, three women and a small man returned, laughing, to his table. The big man stood and roared, “Bienvenue. C’était bien?” He turned and I saw that his face had the regularity of a perfect square. Every feature was of the proper size and in the proper size and in the proper place. He looked like romantic drawings of ancient African kings on caparisoned horses. He would have been at home surrounded by voluminous tents, talking birds and camel caravans. He remained standing while the women sat. He pulled the smaller man away from the table and bent his great bulk to speak privately and briefly. When he finished he spoke to the women and they gathered their stoles and purses and followed him as he made a path through the tables to the door. I watched the small man walk toward my table. In a wee corner of my mind I hoped that he was headed for a destination beyond me.
He stopped and gave me a slight bow.
— May I take a little of your time?
I nodded again. He sat nicely on the edge of a chair.
— My name is Mamali, and I have a friend.
His quiet voice and manner gave him a ministerial air.
— Yes? May I ask your name and if you are married?
My answers were as direct as his questions.
— Is it possible that you noticed the large man who sat at that table?
I reined in wild horses and answered with calm dignity:
— I noticed him.
— He is my friend. He is Sheikhali, and he has asked me to ask you if you will dine with him tonight.
He took out a note pad and pen.
The horses were surging again. I said:
— But I don’t know him. Who is he? Where does he live? Where would we dine?
— Miss Angelou, he is from Mali. He imports thoroughbred horses and was formerly the largest importer of beef to Ghana. When he visits Accra for business purposes, he generally stays at my residence, but he has a place and I am certain that he would take you to a very fine restaurant.
— But is he married?
He had treated the three laughing women with the indulgence of a benevolent Pasha.
Mamali looked up from his note pad:
— All personal questions must be directed to himself. If you agree to dine, I will need your address. He will come for you at nine o’clock.
I hoped that I wasn’t accepting too quickly, but how could one know the peculiarities of a culture glimpsed largely in a technicolor fantasy?
My disappointment at finding the house empty was enormous. I needed Alice and Vicki to counsel me on what to wear. I needed to share my excitement over Sheikhali and most crucial, I needed them to see him and let him see them. Suppose he kidnapped me and sold me to an Arab trader? My apprehension was not bootless. During my stay in Cairo I knew ambassadors from sub-Saharan Africa who rushed to Arab countries to negotiate for the release of their nationals stolen and placed for sale on the still active slave market.
It was most important that Sheikhali see my friends and understand that they were intelligent, worldly Americans who could call out the American Army to rescue me. When that last idea came to me I had been searching my closet for an elegant, rich but simple dress. I stopped and sat on the bed, imagining the American government, which had been a participant in both my people’s enslavement and emancipation, sending troops to rescue me from one more auction block.
At the knock I opened the door and my knees weakened. Sheikhali filled up the whole outdoors. He wore yards of blue silk embroidered with real gold, a small blue lace cap draped itself jauntily over his brow.
— Miss Angelou?
— Please come in.
His presence ate up every inch of space, and there was hardly any air left for me to breathe.
I said calmly:
— Please sit down. My friends will be here soon.
He sat, stretching long legs out into the center of the room.
— Your … uh … friends? … Your friends to eat? You, me, restaurant?
His English was terrible. I asked in French, if he would prefer to speak French.
When Sheikhali smiled, I knew I had earned one more star for my heavenly crown. His black lips opened gradually and his teeth shone as diamonds spied through the darkness of a deep pocket.
— You speak French, too?
He used the familiar “tu,” and I was pleased.
I explained that I wanted to let my friends know where I was going and with whom. He nodded, the smile still on his face. — Write them a note. Tell them Sheikhali is taking you to L’Auberge Restaurant in his avion d’argent.
Ghanaians called the 1963 Coupe de Ville Cadillac with its high standing fins and prohibitive cost “money with wings,” so I was not surprised to hear Sheikhali call his car a silver airplane. I wrote two notes for my housemates, and allowed the gallant caliph to usher me into his silver American chariot.
In the restaurant he waved away the waiter and the menu and spread his hands like large palmetto fans on the tablecloth.
He spoke to me:
— We will have coquille St.-Jacques, trout, and beef steak. I suppose you drink wine?
I hesitated. Clearly he was not used to dissent. In the car I had been as demure as an African violet, but now I had to speak. I said:
— Thank you, but I don’t eat fish or seafood. I’d like steak and vegetables.
A tinge of surprise widened his eyes, then he smiled.
— American women. It is said that you know much. I see you (again the familiar ‘tu’) know what you will and will not eat. And wine, will wine please you?
As a Muslim, he was not supposed to drink alcohol. I refused the wine. His look was piercing.
He clapped his hands and the waiter scurried to his side.
— Mademoiselle will have steak, vegetables and wine. Good wine.
He continued ordering his own meal. I looked around the restaurant, trying not to think about the man or the rest of the evening and my good or bad luck at catching his attention.
— Mademoiselle Angelou, his voice was a soft rumble, May I call you Maya?
He was already using “tu,” so I said yes, and he took the conversation by force.
Although he often visited France he had never been to the States, and was it true that after slavery White Americans gave their money to the Blacks and now all Blacks were rich? I don’t think he heard my gasped denial. And why wasn’t I married? I was tall and young and pretty. Had all the men in Ghana gone blind? I murmured against the flattery, but he touched my hand very gently:
— Don’t you want children? You must not wait long, for a woman can live without a husband, but everyone must have at least one child.
He was obviously concerned.
— I have a son.
— In America?
— No, my son is here at the university.
He was too dignified to display his surprise, but I saw the flicker cross his face.
— You have a child at the university, but then how old are you?
— I’ll tell you my son’s age. He is eighteen. But my mother says a woman who will tell her own age will tell anything.
For the first time, I heard him laugh. He slapped his leg and nodded approval.
— I like a funny woman. Pretty women are seldom funny. I like you.
And I liked him. He was certainly the most sublimely handsome man I had ever seen. I knew that if the purple was visible in his blue-black skin under artificial light, he would be stunning in direct sunlight.
— Tell me about yourself. Everything but your age.
He smiled, and as I drank wine he told me of his youth. He was the first son of a fourth wife. His father, who sired thirty-two children, had given most of his attention to the first sons. He had married Sheikhali’s mother, the youngest wife, in his old age. She had been catered to and and petted by her husband and all his wives because she had brought a whisper of youth back to the aging man, but after Sheikhali’s birth, the old man sickened and died, and nearly all his goods had been shared by the older wives and their offspring.
When he was ten years old, he joined other young men and began herding cattle. They walked cows and goats through rain forests, across the savannahs, and over the desert, protecting them from wild animals, venomous snakes, and severe weather. By thirteen, after his initiation into manhood, he was made leader of the drive and became sole supporter of his mother, her mother and family.
I told him:
— I compliment you. You’ve had a hard youth, but now you have become a rich man.
— I was a man at thirteen. I am still a man. Nothing has changed.
Maybe it was that balance of maleness and manliness which intrigued me. I had long known that there were worlds of difference between males and men as there were between females and women. Genitalia indicated sex, but work, discipline, courage and love were needed for the creation of men and women.
Dinner was finished and I couldn’t remember the taste of anything I had eaten.
— Now, we go to the hotel.
He clapped his hands again. I tensed. How dare he assume that he could take me to dinner and then immediately to bed. I was no prude and the thought of those large arms around me did make my breath quicken, but I needed some soft talk, some endearments, a few “honeys” and “darlings.”
He pulled a tooled leather bag from his smock and gave bills to the waiter.
— For you. Now help the mademoiselle.
The waiter pulled my chair and when I stood I saw Sheikhali was already at the door. He could hurry all he wanted, I followed idly, selecting the best way to reject an invitation which had not yet been offered.
We were in the car before any apt words came to me. Just as I formed a disclaiming and apologetic sentence, he began to sing. The tone was naturally deep and the melody haunting. I didn’t understand the words, but the meaning was clear.
I was being serenaded. Possibly in his culture a serenade was equal to an evening of sweet talk and all the blandishments one could wish.
He parked at the Continental Hotel, and helped me out of the car.
— This is the best dance band in Accra, but if you prefer we can go on to the Star Hotel. Benson is playing there tonight.
I shook my head and he took the gesture to mean I didn’t choose the Star Hotel. In fact, I was physically responding to my ignorance. He had mentioned hotel, and I had immediately assumed that he was planning an erotic tryst and had just talked myself out of and into agreement.
I didn’t have to act demure when we entered the lobby. Embarrassment had made me truly docile. Sheikhali laughed when he danced and oh, the man could move. He lifted his arms and yards of blue silk billowed. He spun around and the lights glinted off the gold threads. His cap, still on his head, was the only non-moving part of the whirling mountainous man. Years of dance classes and professional dancing did not allow me to keep pace with Sheikhali. At the end of the first song he glided close and gathered me in his arms.
— You move like a night wind. A soft night wind. I like you.
We spent hours dancing and looking at each other. He whispered a translation of the song he had sung in the car: “A man loved a woman for her large eyes, for her hair that moved like a hive of bees, for her hands and sweet voice. And she answered him with a promise of eternal faithfulness.” When he clapped his hands and drew out his money pouch, I was sorry the evening was over.
— We can go to the Star Hotel if you like, or I can take you home.
He looked down at me from an enormous height.
— Or since I have an apartment in this hotel, we can go there and rest for a time.
Happily, I chose the apartment.