Origins of "The Talking Drum"

Jan 31, 2014

I broke my first curfew the night I was born in Dakar, Sénégal. The year was 1989, and mounting civil unrest along the lush river border between Sénégal and Mauritania had resulted in a Senegalese man’s death. Subsequently, Mauritanians living in Sénégal became targets of revenge. Enraged Senegalese overturned Mauritanian-owned shops and threatened worse damage. In an effort to contain the attacks, Senegalese law enforcement issued a 10 P.M. curfew in Dakar, after which time anyone could be arrested for being caught outside without the proper paperwork.

Enter my very pregnant mother and her equally supportive husband: American missionaries serving in a remote, tropical village in southern Sénégal. This would be round three for them with the birth-giving thing, and my older sister and brother eagerly awaited news of my mystery arrival from their boarding school in the south (my brother cried when I was not a boy). A month before my due date, my parents moved to the capital, where health services were considerably better than in the setting where they were working. But for all their preparation, I decided to come after 10 P.M.

On our way to the hospital, a muscular Senegalese gendarme brandishing a semi-automatic gun halted the groggy guest house host who was driving us. The officer demanded to know what right we had to be out past curfew. Flustered, the driver replied, “Nous allons au dispensaire pour chercher un bébé.” Translation: “We’re going to the clinic to search for a baby.” A quizzical look from the officer indicated need for further explanation. So the driver gestured to the back seat. Sternness dissolved into empathy when the gendarme saw my mother in labor and he waved us on, yelling, “Oh, c’est évident! Allez-y!” – “It’s obvious! Go!” Thus, my birth certificate says I'm African, but in the midst of beautiful brown babies in the nursery, I hardly needed an ID bracelet for my parents to determine which child belonged to them.

Baby buddies

In the jungle village where I grew up, a talking drum was carved out of a single log, hollowed out in such a way that the griot (gree-oh) – a musician trained to produce and interpret the drum’s unique sounds – could “speak” through this instrument by beating out certain sounds with mallets. Long before telephones, talking drums were used to spread important messages quickly – like Morse code. Through talking drums, griots raised awareness of problems, or sounded a call to action. Now that many rural communities in Sénégal have access to internet and phones, talking drums are mostly used musically, often to tell a story.

Through stories of my own journey to discovering my passion for global health, the message I aim to spread is that anyone can be a global health worker. Global health is not a field exclusive to healthcare professionals, to the rich, to grown-ups, to the religious, or to gutsy traveling volunteers. Not only can you impact global health, but you already do.

Welcome to The Talking Drum.

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