While in Mali some years back, I roamed the countryside in search of an elder willing to share folktales and stories with me. I needed someone with wisdom and depth whose feet I could sit at and drink from their fount of knowledge and experience. I ended up in a compound just outside of Bamako called N’tomikorobougou as my base. Each day I would leave the compound and wander the streets of the cities and nearby villages in search of an elder willing to share his/her storytelling wisdom with me.

Each evening I returned disappointed. The compound’s cook and her son were always there to greet me with a warm plate and equally warm smiles. I was a mess. Each evening I would complain anyone willing to listen about my hollow quest to find an elder willing to take me under his/her tutelage.

Each morning, as I was gathered my things to depart the compound; the cook’s four-year old son, was always on my heels, shadowing me. His name was Bassi Traoré and shadowing/observing me had become his favorite pastime. Each day Bassi would follow me as far as he knew his mother would tolerate. He could be found sitting outside the door of my room waiting for me to wake every morning. Bassi would even go as far as waiting for me whenever I disappeared behind the door of the latrine. No matter how hard I tried, I could not shake this determined toddler. Each day, when I had traveled to the edges of N’tomikorobougou I would send him back to the compound, sad faced and looking dejected.

One morning, young Bassi had an angry, determined look on his face when I exited me room. There he was sitting on the ground right outside of my room, arms crossed, legs folded.

“Baba,” he blurted out, “why you no ask me for story?”

This four year old was gutsy. His countenance and demeanor made me laugh a little. I had no answer for him and so I asked, “Bassi would you like to tell me a story?”

He shook his head up and down strongly and, without a moment’s hesitation launched into one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard a child sing. It was the song of a long neck bird enamored with the beauty of a young girl from a village. Bassi interspersed his song with narrative. His singing was beyond his years. It was an astounding display of showmanship and passion.

By the time he finished his tale I was convinced that there was an old soul housed in the body of this young boy.

The epiphany hit me hard. I asked Bassi if he would be my teacher and teach me stories. His smile arched the cheeks of his face hide and wide. I made arrangements with his mother and treated Bassi as I would have any elder by making sure there was some level of reciprocity in our relationship.

From that day forward, Bassi and I were inseparable. I had found my elder, my wise soul to learn from.

It can comical how often we search hither and thither for something that is, and has always been, standing right in front of us from the start.

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