Down the Garden Path


My youthful entourage, which in no time at all had swelled to imminently unmanageable proportions, pulled me, grubby little hands in mine, off the dusty track that cut through the sprawling Casamance village and down a narrow, palm fringed footpath. Sharp purple shadows criss crossed the ground, the surface of which was sprinkled with the impressions of countless feet heading in the direction of the forest beyond, the disturbed sand providing the children with a thrilling detective game - identifying each pedestrian by the familiar pattern left by the soles of their shoes.
Passing a tiny tailor's shack, it's walls fabricated out of woven palm leaves, the soft earlymorning
voices of men and the gentle whir of a treadle sewing machine drifted through the open
doorway. Resisting the urge to peer in, and ducking under the colourful swaying fabrics hanging
outside, my gang and I strolled on until we came to an imposing bamboo gate. With sticky hands
and crusty noses pressing against my bare limbs, we peered through the gaps at the lush,
tantalising garden beyond.
“Madame, are these children annoying you - are you lost?” I turned to see a tall, handsome man,
with long, neatly tied-up dreadlocks, emerge from the tailor's shack. I answered him in my inept
schoolgirl French, my heart thumping palpably .“ Er – no, thank you. I just came down here
looking for a peaceful place to paint. What a beautiful garden!”
“My name is Samba, this is my garden. You are welcome to paint here - you won’t be disturbed,”
and firing off a few sharp words in Mandinka, the children, dispersing like a shoal of sardines,
darted back towards the village.
Wandering around the garden, I began to compose imaginary paintings from the abundance of
subject matter - a crumbling well, overgrown with bougainvillea; rows of carefully tended
cassava and onions; chickens, sleeping dogs and old bicycles; red buckets and broken pots,
everything sumptuously dappled by the early raking light. Eventually I settled under a gazebo
made of palm fronds to paint the view looking back towards the gate, through an avenue of lime
trees, oleander and frangipani. Sitting quietly, tiny iridescent sun-birds flew in to sup with minute
curved beaks from nearby flowers; the toots, squawks and chatter of African birds increasing my
sense of being very far from home.
Despite my determination to produce another picture for my forthcoming exhibition back in
England, my attention was caught by Samba watering his trees. “Come on, concentrate woman,”
I told myself; but there was something about the way he moved, the straight back and slightly
turned out toes, like a dancer's, that mesmerised me. He was stepping delicately between the
plants, making sure that enough water was applied to penetrate to the roots of each sapling,
testing fruit for ripeness and dexterously plucking out weeds, dead flowers or shrivelled leaves.
As he moved out of my field of vision, I became aware of the distant rhythmic boom of the
ocean behind me; my pulse rate slowed and I re-engaged with the task at hand.
Applying the final watercolour wash to the sky, I found myself wondering where Samba had
gone. Then, clearly not wishing to disturb my concentration, he tip-toed up behind me with a
plate of freshly picked, beautifully sliced papaya, wordlessly slid it onto my table and slipped
away.
A decade passes. The garden continues to provide inspiration for my paintings; Samba still
carefully tends his plants but now our dusty kneed daughters help their father with the watering.
The tailor lovingly makes their dresses on the old treadle machine.


Tilly Willis

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