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The depths of constancy

Like sand castles on a beach, West Africa's desert towns appear to be made of one piece, as if tugged up from the earth by some mighty magnet. There's a sturdiness of construction and history in these ancient buildings. More than 25 generations have worshiped and rested in the shadowed naves. The rains of over five hundred winters and the winds of as many springs have textured the surfaces. Today the buildings and their inhabitants stand as monuments to a past that has survived a future.

Construction is a painstaking and plodding process here in Mali, where climate has always hampered haste. Temperatures scorch to 120 degrees. Droughts are devastating and foliage is sparse, fierce. Bush thorns stab the air while young acacia trees gnarl and cower. Perhaps because of the enormous effort and patience, the almost painful earnestness required to build or grow here, towns and people of sublime beauty were made.

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Through the ages, wizened women, their bodies as upright as the wooden pestles used to pound millet into farina, have balanced water urns on their heads and moved as gracefully as air along streets that are like wide sand rivers. At the town's edge, roads widen and spill into arid scrubland. Just beyond, the barren and difficult Sahara compensates for its harshness with a landscape that is a simple stroke of sand beneath the sweep of cerulean sky.

Just as the tranquil beauty of the desertscape has for centuries rejuvenated the saddled souls of those who have lived near its borders, so does my friend Moustapha Sene reinstate the historic beauty of humankind and revive my faith that we humans can have bright tomorrows.

Like a desert town, this Wolof-man appears to be made of one piece: his life blends past and present into an exquisitely civilized whole. With the artistry of patience and farsight, he has woven the simplicity and intuition characteristic of the primitive mind into the technology and logic of the modern. Others may be dropping all historical insight to race empty-handed toward the technological niceties that Western society dangles before them, but Moustapha carries into each new 20th-century day the deep history of his African people. At the slightest prompting he will sing poems of that history which, for him, is not past but alive, beating in the core of his being, participating in the shaping of his thoughts and in the directing of his choice.

Moustapha, also known as Tapha, has to duck the doorways of these ancient clay and palmyra-wood buildings. He is 6 feet 5, yet appears even taller. A pointed black beard lengthens his angular face, and flowing white robes heighten his lanky body. Tall enough to collide with the clouds, I thought when I first shook his willowy hand. But the head that crowns that svelte figure is not in the clouds. Tapha is a teacher, well educated in the ways of the world beyond the sunbaked walls of his blink of a town. He is no naive romantic clinging to yesterday, afraid to scale the walls of custom. ''People who dream too much of the past don't succeed in understanding the present, and are likely to be disappointed by or frightened by tomorrow,'' he contends. Yet he also believes that those ignorant of the past are too easily swept off their souls by the material lures of the modern world. ''Exile from the material simplicity of the past is as great a punishment as imprisonment in it,'' he once told me.

Realizing that in our emerging global society some steps toward technological advancement are inevitable, Tapha pauses to ask which steps offer not only material gain and economic security but also support for the unity, dignity and inner serenity of humankind. And he's not likely to take a step in any direction without first reflecting on what of his past is worthy of being translated and transported into his future.

Traditionally, change in his society has been languid. Even today, African customs, like wind-worn buildings, alter more slowly and slightly than most Western minds comprehend. Moustapha is particularly careful about relinquishing aspects of his traditional way of life for Western innovations and comforts. He treats all aspects of his conventional culture like friends whom he would never discard casually, carelessly. And if ever he feels he must sever his ties with them, he does so only after he has clasped their hands firmly and memorized how it feels to hold them. Then, slowly and with enormous consciousness, he releases them, aware that once he and they part ways, life will never be quite the same. He exhibits a precious Stop-Look-Listen quality, rare in this age when the world's focus is on spectacular technological and material growth which tend to run sophisticated circles around the relatively quiet and slow-paced spiritual advancement of humankind.

In such ever-so-gradual emergence I've witnessed a kind of grace, wholeness, and purpose that give me pause. Is my own walk toward tomorrow blind or conscious, hasty or full of concern? What is the impetus behind the changes in my life? Washington Irving once spouted, ''There's a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse; as I have found in travelling in a stage coach, that it is often a comfort to shift one's position and be bruised in a new place.'' Moustapha is less concerned with momentary comfort than he is with eliminating bruises altogether. For him the ultimate question concerning change is not, Should we allow it? but rather, Do we understand why we're moving from one position to the next and is it truly a finer place to be?

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And there are some things he leaves unaltered, constant: when night climbs into Mali's heavens, when the sky grows wide and is filled with stillness, one last shadow passes over the old ochre mosque and Moustapha, in a timeless gesture, bows until his forehead touches the sand.

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