Up on the Roof

In Mali, where the daytime temperature most of the year remains at, near, or above 115 F. (46 C.), I devised a survival plan for living there.

Because my relatively modern house in the middle-class African neighborhood of Pelangana in the beautiful ancient city of Ségou was made of cinderblock and absorbed the sun’s pounding heat all day only to disgorge it into the inner rooms at night, sleeping in my bedroom during la saison chaude (the hot season) became impossible for me.

Malians, I learned, slept outside on woven grass mats on the ground in their large central courtyards. But I was a single white woman living alone at the time in a small rented house. I had to find another answer.

My house had no air-conditioning, but I did have a few electric fans, which worked sporadically. During the hottest months, when the Niger River was at its lowest, the hydroelectric power plants shut down for long stretches of time. This meant no electricity – which meant no somewhat-cooling fans, no cold drinking water from the fridge, no reading light, no audiotapes, no Voice of America on the radio, no frosty beer. And no sleep.

In my furnace-like bedroom, spread-eagle on my mosquito-netted bed, rivulets of perspiration ran down my body like crawling insects, waking me. My nightclothes and sheets became soaking wet. Needless to say, with all this sleeplessness, I became grumpy. Until I hit on a plan: Sleep on the roof!

I had an iron ladder made and installed on the side of my front terrace, and I put a bed on the roof of my house. (For the whole story, see “The Bed on the Roof,” excerpted from my Mali memoir, below.) I managed to – both literally and figuratively – rise above what felt then to be an intolerable situation that was making me miserable.

I learned an important lesson: There’s a creative solution to every problem. We must just reach for it. When things go low, we must reach high.

I was reminded of this important lesson recently when the ongoing construction (demolition) next door became intolerable for me here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

At one point, near the end of my rope, hammer in hand, I marched next door and offered to help (ayudar) the hard-working workmen. After all, there had been one guy, with one hammer, pounding incessantly on one spot on one wall (which happens to be the wall abutting my bedroom, where my writing desk is) for hours and hours and days on end. With my help, I strongly suggested to the jefe (boss), the job would get done in half the time!

“I’m very strong,” I told him.

Wide-eyed, he looked me up and down and slowly shook his head.

This bold act (which I don’t recommend) proved only two things: (1) Women certainly can become fearless in their old age, and (2) This old gringa was being driven loca by the pounding-hammering-drilling-reverberating demolition noise on the other side of her wall. To say nothing of the cement dust that enveloped her sweet little apartment. All of which, I was informed, would last at least another seven weeks.

This story, I realize, is not unique in San Miguel. If you find a nice place to live that is somewhat out of town, as I have, a place that is quiet, affordable, and has a beautiful view, you can be sure it won’t be quiet for long. San Miguel is spreading out like a blossoming flower to accommodate the ever-increasing influx of newcomers. New construction is inevitable and it’s everywhere.

All this hammering reminds me of the post-World War II building boom in the U.S. suburbs when I was a child, where new houses popped up like mushrooms seemingly overnight all around town.

So what could I do here and now? The other day, after days of grumpiness, I remembered my Mali story. I decided to seek peace by rising above — going up to this building’s communal-but-unused rooftop terrace and distancing myself from the pounding daytime noise against my apartment’s wall. As the Drifters sang in their old pop tune “Up on the Roof,” “On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be, and there the world below can’t bother me.”

I took my yoga mat, a beach towel, some water, my laptop, a notebook, pens, my iPhone, and, oh, my Mali book. I wanted to reread the story of that memory. And then take grateful pictures of the beautiful view from above:


The Bed on the Roof

The iron ladder (painted white) against the front terrace of my home in Mali

(The following story is excerpted from my Mali memoir, HOW TO MAKE AN AFRICAN QUILT: The Story of the Patchwork Project of Ségou, Mali:)

One afternoon, on the way home from teaching a [patchwork quilting] class at Centre Benkady, I stopped at a metalworker’s atelier to ask whether he might make an iron ladder for me that could be attached securely to the front terrace of my house, allowing me to have access to the flat roof. The man, Mr. Dao, agreed, and within a few weeks the sturdy, narrow ladder was installed.

Then, as if heaven-sent, I saw, one Monday morning on my way to the centreville marché but not yet far from my home, a Malian family from an outlying village conveying on their donkey cart a new, hand-made traditional bed frame made of smooth sticks tied with cowhide to be sold at the market. … [I told the driver I would buy it if he would bring it directly to my house.]

Once on the roof, this narrow bed provided me with a private sanctuary, a refuge, a solution to the confines of my oven-like bedroom, a new love affair with the night sky. With strips of rubber inner tubing, I attached tall bamboo poles at each corner, forming a four-poster bed, to support my mosquito netting. Thus protected from the ever-present threat of malaria, I felt ready to face the elements, braced to take on the encroaching saison chaude.

 And not only that. This rooftop getaway renewed a sense of child-like wonder in me. I felt like a kid, climbing, unafraid, up the narrow ladder to her own secret “hideout.” Once on the roof, it was as if I’d reached a mountaintop, where nobody could see me but I could see everything, especially the sky, the countless diamond-like stars and the fat, bright-as-day moon. …

When la saison chaude arrived, I was ready for it. Sleeping on the roof, I enjoyed a slight, treetop-level breeze. Though the days were typically punishingly hot, the nights became blessedly tolerable. I no longer perspired all night. I slept well, as if on a cloud, beneath a glorious canopy of stars.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

To learn more about my Mali book, please visit the Home page of my website: www.bonnieleeblack.com .

And here are the Drifters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_ksNvivbEI



29 thoughts on “Up on the Roof”

  1. Love, love this story, especially as the heat rises even on the central California coast where I am right now. Unfortunately mountain lions and bobcats make roof sleeping more of a challenge here.

    1. Oh, dear! Mountain lions and bobcats! Hmmmm… We must come up with a creative solution for dealing with them… 🙂 Thank you, Barbara, for your loving response.

  2. Beautiful and especially relevant in San Miguel. And local readers might be interested to know that Bonnie’s books are for sale at Aurora Books, Calz de La Aurora 48A 🙂

  3. Now I want a roof. My one story house is full of boveda ceilings, so there really is no place flat upstairs. Then I would have to put in a staircase, because my days of climbing a ladder are over. This idea is starting to add up maybe it’s best, I just visit friends that have a roof. I do wish I had been there when you went next-door and offered to help hammer it would’ve made a good photo.

    1. Well, you can come and visit me, Victoria, now that you know I have a roof! And, yes, that would have been some photo: Bonnie going bananas with a hammer in her hand. Fortunately, the jefe is a nice young guy who was very understanding and tolerant (though the job must go on!). — BB

  4. Another terrific read woven between time periods and countries. After the demolition and new house build next door, the across the street various houses and hotel have been rehabbing, and one new construction, in succession and sometimes simultaneously. But across the street is nowhere near as annoying as the adjoining wall pounding was. I feel for you.

  5. You and a whole country of people live/lived at 115°F without air conditioning. I guess the over 90° recent heat wave in San Miguel without A/C or ceiling fans in my apartment doesn’t seem so drastic by comparison.

  6. Bonnie, I thought of you today. I went to a flea market in Santa Fe and stopped to look at some mud cloth. The vendor said all the money goes to a women’s center in Mali where she’s from.

    1. How exciting, Janet! I wish I’d been with you in Santa Fe today. Did she happen to say where she’s from? Did you buy some mud cloth? My bedroom here in SMA has an African theme, with lots of mud cloth from Mali on display.

  7. Love this story – but so sorry to hear about the constant pounding. I can only imagine the worker’s face when you showed up with your hammer. Too funny! When you go up to your current rooftop (lovely views!) is there sun protection? Some kind of umbrella or tarp to shade you? Hope so…. Where I am now it’s been in the 100’s during the day. If I don’t get up and walk first thing in the morning, it doesn’t happen. Thank goodness for air conditioning!

    1. Yes, Barb, there’s a shaded section on the roof here. Next time you visit after you return to SMA we can go up there. So Ohio is in the 100s now? Yikes. It’s 20 degrees cooler here. Safe travels, BB

  8. La Bonnie! I’ve always loved the story about the bed on the roof. Muy padre. I can see you going to the jefe, hammer in hand, offering to “ayudar.” Orale, qué chingona!

    1. Yes, Te, looking back on it, it was a funny scene. But I wasn’t laughing at the time! Fortunately, the jefe was (is) a nice young man who is respectful of his elders, even when they are gringas locas. 🙂

  9. I enjoy this essay a great deal, Bonnie. I live in central Texas. When my A/C broke in August of 2020, I did not get it fixed … until this past Friday, July 14 2023. It was three years of practice of dealing with the heat, which is why I did it (it was not a money issue). We keep having rolling brown outs, and/or loss of electricity for days at a time. I have been concerned, and realized I needed to learn, and practice methods, that would keep my dogs, and myself, healthy in heat, and in the winter, during severely cold temps with no power. I have learned a lot. We could do it, but it would not be pleasant, either in winter or summer. I like to practice hard times, because if I don’t actually go hands-on, I have learned I will not truly understand ALL aspects that must be considered and dealt with when these events occur. You inspire me. I wish you well, BLB. Despite all of the chaos around you, I wish you peace and serenity and more than a sufficiency of life’s necessities. Thanks for sharing these moments from your life. I appreciate them and you.

  10. Hi Bonnie, were you not concerned about Malaria when sleeping on the roof or did you install a net? When I was working in Ghana everyone around me warned me to be inside before dark. Malaria meds are not foolproof as you know. I thought, what mosquitoes? I saw none. Well, I was not looking for the tiny little Ghanaian ones that reek all that havoc. I was looking for the large juicy ones we have here in the northeast! I quickly learned what to look out for. I was lucky not to have gotten that terrible illness.

    1. Yes, as I wrote in the memoir excerpt, I made the bed on the roof into a four-poster (with bamboo poles) so that I could cover it with mosquito netting. It worked perfectly. BUT, I did get malaria at one point later on. It was scary!

  11. Oh Bonnie, constant repetitive noise that grates on your nerves, and that you KNOW will continue for hours, is a challenge, at the best of times! Kudos to you for finding a way to deal with it.
    I think my life’s mantra, from the early days of being a teenager, were, “If you can’t change it, find a way to change your attitude towards it!” A wise Dutchman in his 50’s at the time, and who was a boarder in our home, taught this to me, and I’ve regularly referred to it.
    In both cases, you changed your attitude and fantastically, also found a solution to improve the situation for yourself. Well done!
    I particularly smile at you lying under mosquito netting, and staring at the thousand stars and wonder if you knew at the time, how fortunate you were for such an experience.

    1. Thank you, as ever, dear Loula, for “getting” my point. In fact, I did realize at the time how fortunate I was to observe those zillions of stars every night before falling asleep on the roof of my house in Mali. It was a life-changing experience. I feel sorry for people who never learn such lessons because they choose to live swaddled (privileged) lives.

  12. Dear Bon,
    Stories like the one you tell of living in the heat of Mali are heard on the daily news here every day now. Many cities here are 115 degrees and above. Unfortunately, not everyone here has a flat roof.
    I hope the hammering has stopped or at least subsided. I have never had to try to sleep in such heat, but I know I could never fall asleep while someone hammered on my wall.

    1. Yes, dear Paul, the effects of climate change are clearly evident in the daily world-wide weather reports now. It’s terrifying. As for the hammering on my wall, fortunately, the workmen end their workday at six pm, so they don’t interfere with my good nights’ sleep. And, thank God, they’ve moved on to another nearby wall… Love you too, BB xx

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.