I always know where I’ll be the second weekend in August. Sitting on a green hill, high above a stage, surrounded by people that I love.
KL and I have been going to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival for as long as I can remember. For four days in the heat of the prairie summer, we sit on a plastic tarp, packed between friends and family and strangers, and wave at the stars with our small, white candles.
When we were in high school, we danced late into the night on Friday and then woke at dawn on Saturday to line up at the entrance gate. Competition for a good spot on the hill was fierce. We never quite managed the front row, which always went to the girls who had the stamina to spend Friday night camped out in tents pitched right outside the festival grounds.
Times have changed. Camping at the entrance gate is no longer allowed. Line-ups before 7 am are also prohibited. A disruption to the neighbourhood, they say. And both KL and I have moved away from Edmonton.
But we still come back every year for our spot on the hill.
On Sunday night, the last song of the festival is always Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds. We sing it together, all one hundred thousand of us on the hill, this song that reminds me of those things that don’t change. And by the time we get to the part about how the snow flies in the winter, I realize I’ve come home.
This past weekend, far from home, I felt the same mix of familiarity and hope and solidarity that I always feel sitting on that hill in Edmonton. Except this time I was sitting in a three-hundred-year-old fort in Stone Town, surrounded by new friends, Tanzanians, expats, and visitors from around the world. We danced as a group from the Sudan sang about peace, listened as a Congolese artist dedicated a song to the 400,000 women who are raped annually in his country, and put our hands together for a Nigerian poet who stunned us all with lyrics about civilized armed robbers and modern slaveholders.
On Saturday afternoon, ER and I zigzagged between jewellery stores, clothing stores, and markets selling vanilla pods by the dozen, before turning a corner to end up in a small dark shoe shop. The shoemaker, with his white hair and unsteady hands, offers custom made leather sandals for $15. His designs decorate the four walls of his shop.
Although his own feet were bare, the shoemaker told us that anything was possible. He offered to replicate any of the samples on display or any other design that we could imagine and articulate to him.
The shoemaker’s young granddaughters sat quietly on the front steps and watched expectantly as we walked around the store. Slightly more wary, the shoemaker stood and gently prodded for a decision.
I found a pair of sandals available in my size. The shoemaker knelt and measured and adjusted the length of the straps to make sure they fit snugly. His son, younger and with stronger hands, helped by glueing the straps down and then forcing the needle and thread through the stiff leather soles. The shoemaker traced ER’s foot onto the back of a magazine to make a pattern for the sandals she had chosen. His son helped cut the leather.
We were told to come back the next day to pick up the completed shoes. Unfailingly polite, the shoemaker-without-shoes stood to shake our hands and to suggest that we could stay in the guest room of his family’s house the next time we are in Stone Town.
Stone Town is a network of narrow roads, tight corners, and thick wooden doors. I spent the weekend getting lost, retracing my steps, and resigning myself to the fact that I was more likely to arrive at my destination by wandering aimlessly than by plotting a route on a map or memorizing landmarks.
On Saturday afternoon Stone Town’s streets were crowded with throngs of tourists in their best safari-coloured outfits and vendors selling brightly coloured jewellery. By Sunday morning the safari-beach-package crowd had moved on to the next destination, and the streets were quieter with only a few shops open for tea or fruit and the occasional child gliding by on a bicycle.