My Friend Dramane is Volunteering for the War


This is a story about a man named Dramane – a story that has a beginning but no end – at least I don’t know how it is going to end…so let’s start at the beginning.

Dramane was my first friend that I made after my family arrived in Spain. In the second week of September the sun still screams at anyone who dares venture outside in Zaragoza, but the calendar calls all the kids to school anyway, so I took my daughter’s hand and walked her through the park and into the schoolyard of what would be her first real school.  I forced a big smile and said encouraging things, but my daughter just stared back at me with a look of “But dad, you never taught me any Spanish” on her face.  I gave her a hug, and took a big breath and swallowed hard as she walked in with her new classmates who would spend the next few months talking at her with no response.  When all the children were inside, the parents began filing out, chatting and catching up on news and gossip from the summer.  I just stood there for a moment and then started for the door, where I would see Dramane for the first time.  He wasn’t chatting and catching up.  He was just standing in the back and smiling, then darted out – satisfied grin in tow.

For a few days each morning was identical.  My daughter was brave and Dramane stood in the back and smiled after seeing his twin boys hop up the steps into the school. But then after about a week, Dramane came over, shook my hand and simply said “Hi.  I’m Dramane.”  I told him my name and stood there looking at his smile.  I don’t know that I had ever seen anyone smile that much.  As Americans, we often get made fun of for smiling all the time in public, which is fine, because it is absolutely true, but on that morning, and for mornings to come, Dramane made me look practically miserable in comparison.

For the next two weeks it was always the same, a firm hand shake, a “how are you” and an enormous smile.  We became friends, at least I considered him my friend, and I hoped he thought the same of me.  We told each other about our home towns – mine in the United States, his in Mali – and we talked about the school.  We shared our “immigrant experiences,” and I ridiculously imagined that we had so much in common.

One morning he took me for coffee and showed me his business – one of those storefronts where you can get on the internet, make copies, use a phone or send a moneygram to a loved one back home.  He ran the place with his brother.  That day he told me more about his family. He told me about his wife and how the paperwork to get her to Spain was impossible.  He told me that he had a two-year-old son, also in Mali. He told me about driving back and forth to bring his family things, describing a car trip that would make a coast-to-coast U.S. road trip look like a lap around the block.

I never went to his shop again, but we always shook hands and said hello without fail.  I found what I thought was a link between us, an immigrant experience that we shared, and knew that no one else in the schoolyard quite understood us.  We were different, and although eventually I started talking to the Spanish parents, Dramane never did.  He just stood in the back and smiled like he always did.


Now the weather has turned colder and the schoolyard chats have been shorter.  Up until this week I hadn’t seen Dramane in a while and wondered where he had gone.  I no longer think that we share a common immigrant experience, and realize that it was a fantasy to think that we ever did, and never did that become more clear than when I saw Dramane last Friday and shook his hand for the first time in a while.

“Hey Dramane, how are you?”

“Aric, I’m good, How are you.”

“Good.  I’m good.  Hey what ever happened with your wife’s papers?”

“Oh, she is here now.  I don’t know, maybe you have seen her?”

“Wow! Great news. And your son?”

“We had to leave him in Mali.  His papers did not go through.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s o.k.  I am leaving soon anyway.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to Mali.  I am volunteering to fight in the war.”

“You’re doing what?”

“I’m going to fight.  They are taking volunteers.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Aric, you need to understand, this is no way to live.  I can’t stay here, and I can’t just go back and live in the sand.  What am I going to do, live in a village in the middle of the desert?  I can’t do this anymore, so I will go home and fight.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I just stood there looking for words and Dramane just stood there smiling and shaking my hand.  He probably noticed that I didn’t know what to say, so he just said, “ I will be fine.  It’s no big deal.”

But of course it is a big deal, but all I could come up with at that moment was “good luck.  I really don’t want this to be the last time I see you.  Be careful.”

He assured me that he would, turned and walked away…

I walked home thinking about Dramane.  He was going to fight, and I didn’t even know what side he was on, hell, I didn’t even know what the sides were.  I went home and looked it up.  It’s complicated.  Why does it always have to be so complicated in West Africa?  It’s about religion, or not, because it is really about cultural differences from hundreds of years ago, or not.  It’s about al-Qaida.  It’s about money. It is about oil.  It is about colonialism.  It is about the French.  It is about poverty.  It always seems to be about poverty.  It’s about the Tuareg, a nomadic North African people who impossibly have a Volkswagen named after them.  Do we name cars after ethnic groups?  Is that actually something that we, as privileged westerners get to do? You can read for yourself what it is about here. It is about all of those things and none of those things, but whatever it is, it is enough to make Dramane want to fight, and perhaps kill other human beings.

There is no moral to this story without an end. Only that we live in a big world, where sometimes people leave to go fight, and when that happens, the lucky ones stay home. I don’t know what Dramane believes in, or if he will actually take up arms against his countrymen, but if he does, I hope that he is safe.  I will think of him when he is gone, and perhaps while he is away I will embrace my big fat American smile and start shaking some more hands.

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42 thoughts on “My Friend Dramane is Volunteering for the War

  1. Nice story. A couple of hundred years ago, there were no doubt others who thought those colonists fighting against the British and later the north fighting the south were crazy to do so, but it was probably the right thing to do in the minds of those men. So many other countries are sort of at that point in their history where they’re fed up and want to make a stand for what they think is right. Thanks for sharing one man’s, well two men I guess, story.

  2. The call to do what you feel is right is one of the most difficult when the odds are stacked against you. Your friend had the strength to leave and start a new life, to engage in bringing his family to that new life, and to suffer through it all with a smile.

    Now, he returns to try to settle the score so-to-speak. He is a very brave man.

    You and I know what it’s like to be the “immigrant” out of our element. Add to that fire turmoil in your home country and always wondering if your family and loved ones are safe. As Canadians and Americans, that never is part of our repertoire.

    Very well written, very humble story. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    • I agree with you completely, except on one point. There are, in fact, millions of Canadians and Americans who have concern for the safety of their loved ones in their home countries all over the Third World.

  3. A lovely story. It is often too easy to forget how privileged we are to grow up without war being a normal part of our existence.

    The other day, my son asked me if there were any wars going on in the world right now. I had answered that there were many, many wars – so many that I had stopped paying attention, long ago. So many, that at times, it is too overwhelming to listen to more stories of loss and suffering. In school, he has learned only of the wars that have directly impacted on the loss of Westerners.
    It was shocking for me to realize that in his adolescent worldview, the media (mainstream) and his teachers, are still paramount in conveying all truths. What he doesn’t know of, he pays no attention to (although, he sure knows much of Selena Gomez’s breakup with Justin what’shisname.)

    Sadly, my own ignorance has probably not helped him to explore the world outside of our very small Western perimeters.

    Thank you for this compelling piece. Today, I will start to make changes in how I (and my children, by extension) marinate in self imposed ignorance.

  4. This is a beautifully written piece and while it may not (yet) have a particular moral or end, it’s certainly moving and thought-provoking. The best part? Dramane’s incredible smile! There’s something in that smile that also makes me–a privileged Canadian–seem practically miserable. Thanks for sharing. I hope Dramane stays safe.

  5. I would call it an heartbreaking experience, the way both of you realized you didn’t have anything in common. I’m in tears

  6. You’re article really moved me. As I myself,a Nigerian can totally relate. I still wonder to myself if West Africa is ever going to change, The constant oil fight, the new terrorist group “BOKO HARAM’ ‘WAR!!! Dramane only did whaat he thought was right. I hope he makes it out alive ,but we all know that war changes you!

    • Thank you for that story. I am a german immigrant in the USA and the longer I am here I encounter more and more cultural differences.

      A genuine gift for you to have met this heartfelt and clear man Dramane. He already changed something.

  7. The fact that Dramane saw his going to war, leaving behind a family whom he loves, as his only option, is what breaks my heart. Thank you for sharing the story of your friendship.

  8. Loved this post. I have great respect for Dramane. I myself have been to war 4 times. I was shot twice. Once by the ememy, once by myself in a mad scuffle that was life or death. That one experience, shooting myself makes me think of Dramane. In that scuffle it was live or die even if shooting meant that I may be shot as well. So I think of him. He is going to war because the is part of him that must. No because he wants to, or because its the right thing to do. I kind of get that.
    Again, great post.

  9. Beautifully told story, powerful in its directness and simplicity. It made the war more real to me than all the news reports I (half) paid attention to. Often I have no idea why some posts get FPed. This, however, is truly deserving. The ambiguous ending makes it truly unforgettable. I’m a sucker for ambiguous endings. Still, I hope there will be a follow up story sometime…

  10. Excellent read… Thank you. I was itching to hear some more about his smile and why it creates a polarization. By the way you describe him, he seems truly happy. It seems that the happiness that western civilization is nowhere close to being as genuine as his.

  11. When I moved to Australia for a brief 5 years, I felt the same: “Sharing the experience of immigrants.”
    And yet each story is so different.
    We see here in Germany now people from Portugal, Spain and Greece arriving, highly skilled, very qualified and well educated. No paperwork to be done thanks to the EU. They speak several languages. They face the life of a migrant trying to start something far from home.
    And yet they do not share the faith of those who passed the gates of Schengen and came in to the EU from far, far away.
    What can I say…I very touching story.
    And a bag full of luck for your friend Dramane.

  12. I agree with Mafia Hairdresser, Dramane entered your life for a reason. This beautiful post/story proves it. Because of you, he now has lots of people supporting him in their thoughts and maybe prayers too. Because of you, he has a village of bloggers supporting him on his journey and in his battle.
    There is a connection and in time or through your children you may see a bond between yourself and Dramane and not a difference as you feel now. Honestly, I think that he (and his smile) will always be with you……..

  13. Dramane sounds like an amazing and inspirational guy. I hope wish him all the luck in the world and hope he gets the home he is fighting for

  14. As far as I can tell, almost all of Africa is complex. A few (smaller) countries that seem to be doing well are Botswana and Swaziland. Quite rich, well managed, especially Botswana (from the top of my head). Ah, Africa, the lump in my throat plays up already and I must now shut my mouth. ;)

  15. wonderful story about this man dramane …it makes us wondering about war, about humanity, about relationship…i had a great pleasure reading this post ..;and will think about dramane wherever he is now, sending him some hope !

  16. Great story reinforcing my belief that immigrant status is just so much more complicated than most people living in their home countries would ever be willing to believe. Natives would like to believe that people coming to their country should change their ways and try their best to shift their mentality to match that of culturally dominant majority. Think The States, western Europe etc., but whenever Westerners start living abroad they are mostly locked in a “tourist” mode.

  17. Great post. I am scrambling to get paperwork to Kenya for our nonprofit before we get any closer to the March elections…because no one knows what happens then. Your post does a great job of not making the tough questions seem easier.

  18. Pingback: My Friend Dramane is Volunteering for the War « LFF KENYA INTERNATIONAL

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