Every day was the same. Get up, go to work, come home, eat dinner with my wife, go to bed, repeat. It was the average life of a working man. I never had a problem with it. I loved having a schedule. Being set to something, and everything progressing as it should. It kept me sane. I was a janitor at a church—top three of what I call the world’s most adorned jobs. It was replaceable. And that’s how I lost it.
* * *
I remembered the first time they arrived at Sacred Heart Cathedral, just outside of Bamako, our capital city. As I closed the cathedral for the night, Bishop Ababa’s voice cracked through on my walkie-talkie.
“Hey, Joseph. Could you unlock the basement for me? I have a few people who need a place to sleep tonight.” Bewildered, I set my soaking mop aside and searched through my chain of keys. No one ever went down to the basement. I was shocked to even find the key on my chain.
“Yes sir, I am coming now,” I replied in the walkie-talkie. Downstairs there was a group of men. In total, they counted for a little over twenty. I stole a look at their patterned clothing and patched shoulder-thrown sacks. My head dropped down to scan my name badge, sewn into my dark gray uniform. My eyes took me up to their wild, untamed afros. Instinctively, I felt my free hand rise up to the back of my head, rubbing across my clean-shaven scalp. They had a certain smell, too—stench more so—and I confirmed that they were not city people.
“Here is the key sir,” I spoke softly as I woke myself out of the daze. Bishop Ababa located them to the Cathedral’s basement where food, water, and sleeping areas were pre-set in case we city people ever experienced any sudden natural disaster. But there was no disaster. They were foreigners, and they didn’t belong in our cathedral. Bishop Ababa questioned the most elderly-looking man from the group.
“My brothers, why have you come here?” he asked. The elder stepped forward, his gray afro sprouting as he made his way toward Bishop Ababa.
“The desert is expanding. Our homes are being swallowed whole. No more food to eat. No clean water to drink.” That was it. The elder said nothing else. Bishop Ababa placed his right arm on his rounded stomach and inhaled deeply. With one stroke of his long shabby beard and a smooth exhale, he welcomed them in with open arms.
“Well, we have plenty of food and water for you here. Feel free to spread out as much as you need. I will leave you here tonight to rest. No telling how long the journey must have been.” Returning to the main floor, Bishop Ababa instructed me not to let anyone know of those refugees’ stay in the Cathedral’s basement. I followed his orders strictly, not even sharing the news with my wife that night.
In three months’ time, the third set of foreigners had arrived from central Mali. By then, talk of them spread over the city like wildfire. Holding tight to personal possessions and walking sticks, they advanced into our city with wide eyes and oozing bruises. Babies cried on their mother’s backs. Young children marveled at the towering buildings, scraping the sky above their heads. Black asphalt beneath their feet picked at their open wounds. Each of them covered their ears at the patter of nearby helicopters, incessantly displacing the winds between its propellers. This group was fidgety, more agitated than the first two that arrived previously. Eagerly awaiting their entrance into the Cathedral, they gathered at the front gateway. Bishop Ababa found me staring at them through the bottom corner of the large stained glass window. I stepped down from a window washer’s ladder and caught his hand just before he opened the cathedral’s massive stone doors.
“Bishop sir, what should we do with them? We can’t let them in. What if more come soon? What if our facilities don’t hold up?” I grumbled through my teeth.
“Joseph, the basement isn’t even half full yet. There is still plenty of food and water supply to go around for months.” I could hear his disappointment in me, growing with each word he spoke. I knew it was out of my place to be speaking with him outside of my assigned duty as a janitor, but I couldn’t let up. Not just yet.
“Okay—I mean yes sir. But that was for us. We were supposed to go there for our own safety if ever necessary. I mean look out there. Dry season is killing our grass daily, leaving bare patches to be replaced with sand. Desert sand, sir. And our trees, sir. They are drying out. I see city workers dragging out heavy logs every day when I return home to my wife. Sir, the dessert will not stop coming.” His eyes boomed with rage, but his mouth let out something less harsh.
“Joseph, these are people just like us. In fact, I have learned that they are from Central Mali. That’s 696 kilometers from here. They need time to recover. They left their homes for a reason. People have to do that sometimes. We shall keep them here.” He proceeded to open the door, pushing the button on his right. The gates soon followed suit. In a whirlwind of mourning and rejoice, the large group pushed through the entrance.
“Joseph, let’s lead them to the basement.” I blindly shuffled for the basement key and found it within seconds. Handing Bishop Ababa the key, I once again slipped into an abyss. The group seemed incessantly loud with their native tongue drumming around in my ears. I stared as a little boy dashed through the crowd, leaving dirty footprints along the way. I had just mopped the entrance floors. My hand once again rose atop my head and still, I felt no coiled curls like the afros that they balanced so delicately on their heads. And the stench— it slowly rose in the air and replaced the bleach that coated my nostrils.
“Ey Joseph. Joseph, come help me here. I need you to help me guide them downstairs.” My name was a breath of fresh air, but my mind no longer processed my surroundings.
“Joseph,” Bishop shouted from the depths of his gut. “Are you hearing me? Come here now, or be gone from here.” Beads of sweat collected just above my browline. They dripped down my nose and pooled in the bow of my lip.
“I will say this one last time, Joseph.” I wanted so desperately to take just one step. But the weight in my legs pinned my feet to the ground. Walls closed in tighter on all sides of me. The ceiling spun like a whirlpool. Wake up, wake up, I cried over and over in my head. Still, I wasn’t moving toward him.
“THAT IS IT JOSEPH. LEAVE HERE AND NEVER COME BACK!” His voice boomed and cracked through the cathedral.
The group fell silent. The walls and the ceiling stopped dancing. “We are all people, Joseph. If you can not be here for us all then we will not get through this together,” he spoke in dismay. I struggled for a gulp of air and crashed to my knees.
“Sir,” I whimpered. “Sir please, I do not know what came over me. Please, I need to stay here for me and my wife. We are expecting soon, sir.” My uniform was drenched in a mixture of sweat and tears. I begged and pleaded to stay—the crowd as my witness. But he didn’t let up. Bishop Ababa cuffed his beard, and it was decided. I was released from the cathedral.
* * *
Thunderstorms boomed over our city for weeks. Lightning bolts lit up our dark skies. Ceaseless winds shook our houses deep into midnight. It got harder and harder for us to know when we’d be hit again with another vehement storm. Seasonal rains washed over our lands, taking what was left of our defeated grass holding fast to its final seconds of life. Our trees succumbed to the tumultuous rains, and all we had left were little brown shrubs. People watched longingly every day as the Sahel’s dessert slowly consumed our city, knowing that one day soon we would not be calling this our home.
My family is complete now. My wife had a healthy delivery. I should be happy. I am. But it also means one more mouth to feed, more money needed to support my family with back-breaking labor that I pick up around the city every now and then. Still, the Sahel draws nearer.