Redefining Icarus

Jason T. Tsichlis

(USA)


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On a stale and dusty morning, we gathered in a village in northwest Burkina Faso. At just past six o’clock, the sky was pale ochre, the air choked with Saharan dust, the sun a grey yolk low on the horizon. We were preparing to attempt a two-day expedition through some of West Africa’s most unfamiliar bush country. 

On the other side of the void: a celebrated Sahelian horse festival (Festival Culturel et Hippique de Barani, or FECHIBA). The event is a celebration of the Fulani warrior class and a distinct nod to the region’s historical equine and military prowess. Yet, as is so often the case for this part of the world, such displays are seldom reported. It was our intention to see this festival, and in turn to experience the elements that built some of West Africa’s most vibrant—but hardly noticed—civilizations.

It was 2013, and we were Peace Corps Volunteers who had been living in rural Burkina Faso for over a year. Wishing to glimpse a world far removed from outside eyes, the ten of us proposed to arrive there without the help of roads. In the vein of Icarus, we were Young Fools, driven to appreciate our environment at all costs. And so, we ignored reason and warning because to do so would have been contrary to our character.

A few months before our departure, I began studying a topographic map, tracing a copy to fit into my journal. It appeared that there was a westerly route starting from the trading outpost of Gouran on the eastern edge of the Sourou River, across the water into Kossi Province, through the bush, and up to Barani. The block of wilderness seamlessly crossing into Mali’s Mopti region is about half a million acres in size with only two sister villages in the middle: Wéressé and Kinséré. Threading the needle through these two villages would require a delicate combination of non-existent navigational knowledge and pure luck. To complicate matters, although my map indicated definite paths, these change yearly with the rains. The last time the map had been updated was 1985.

“Worst-case scenario: we’ll head south where we’ll eventually hit a road in a day or two,” I told an ex-pat friend, brimming with the hubris of a Young Fool.

“Worst-case scenario: somebody gets seriously hurt.”

He was right, and I knew it.

*****

We were ten. As the voyage materialized in our plans, a band of Volunteers gradually aggregated around it.

There was Michael: an uncompromising taskmaster. He was sturdy, rugged, invaluable.

There was Sami: someone incapable of stress in the face of adversity. She sewed a traditional gris-gris talisman filled with her own hair to watch over us.

There was Careth: our cook who made sure that we ate well regardless of the conditions.

There was Tarek: he biked at the rear to ensure nobody was abandoned en brousse.

There was Beth: a piercingly sharp mind and a tongue to match.

There was Molly: no illness could ground her.

There was Bilin: he was most likely to best you in a bike race you did not know you were in.

There was Sierra: our pocket scientist and naturalist.

There was Marisol: the steady keeper of the most honest camera lens.

And then there was I.

*****

We set off away from that pale sun hovering above the eastern tree line. We biked to the banks of the Sourou River, loaded ourselves and our gear into one massive mahogany pirogue, and pushed off. Crossing this three-kilometre expanse of water took about two hours, as we were guided by two operators with bamboo poles. By the time the operators had synchronized their movements, the invasive water hyacinth had stretched out under us to the northern horizon, carpeting our world in a field of green. The pirogue followed paths of black cut through the vegetation by multiple passages. As we glided cleanly through the hyacinth, we could see their brown stems winding down into the murky depths. Moving further from the shore, only the leaves and violet flowers were visible, the subaqueous parts swallowed by darkness.

Once across the river, we jumped overboard and regrouped in knee-deep mud. Our noble vessel turned slowly in the turbid river water and as we watched it catch the ebb, we knew with a sinking feeling that we had severed our safety net. 

The simple plan was to find the path northwest to Koubé, a small fishing village that would theoretically link us to a route west towards our day’s goal of Wéressé. True to form, however, the rest of the morning was spent lost in a labyrinthine tangle of cattle paths not on my map. With the sun rising and swelling with heat, the sylvan brush revealed its uninviting character. It disoriented and confused, taunting us with its sameness from every angle. Bathed in a twisted light filtering through the bare branches of grotesque trees, our faces grew drawn. 

In our shared unease, we stumbled upon the forest compounds of a Fulani herding family. We were horrified to find that we had startled them out of their homes. A crashing turmoil ensued with women grabbing babies and grown men running into the thickets. Sami used a few standard sentences in Fulfuldé, which calmed the tension. She shared easy laughs with most people, and this day was no exception. Through her diplomacy, we were able to extract directions towards Koubé. The experience of being lost was to become familiar to us, but after hours of dead ends and circles, Koubé was in sight. It was now almost noon.

Our stop in Koubé was brief—just enough to fill our jerry cans and share some pleasantries with its residents. Soon after we arrived, the village chief approached us. He was an enormous man with a booming voice that flowed with easy lyricism. After discussing options, we made the decision to push on to Wéressé, even though it was the height of the hot season and midday temperatures were 120 degrees. If we spent the night in Koubé, we would not make it to Barani in time for the festival, so leaving for Wéressé was a necessity, albeit a hazardous one. 

The chief sent us onward with a local herdsman, Abdoulaye, and we formed a disciplined caravan behind him. Biking further from the river watershed, we saw the bush grow bronze, scraggly, and leafless. Dry thickets and barren stretches were punctuated by occasional ancient baobab trees—so old that the Byzantine Empire was still thriving when they were saplings. We felt safe with Abdoulaye, and despite the suffocating heat, our alien environment provided a peculiar comfort. After an hour, upon reaching a clearing of leafless baobab skeletons, he left us. We paid him for his time, and he simply told us to continue on.

Wéressé bi min?” Where is Wéressé, I asked.

A ka surun sirayiriw ye. Aw taga tilennen.”  It’s close to these baobab trees. You just go straight.

We rested for a few minutes under the mosaic canopy of a ziziphus tree and guzzled all but a few drops of our water. After loading up and biking for two more hours, however, Abdoulaye’s words began to haunt us. We were very likely lost again—this time without adequate shade or water. Every idea was voiced: We had made some sort of circle; Wéressé was around the corner; we had missed Wéressé altogether; we were actually in Mali. 

We paused for a meeting and sent Bilin ahead to search for what we hoped would be the outskirts of the village. He returned confused and dispirited.

“So we think it’s maybe an hour?” Careth asked while resting cross-legged against a tree.

“I mean, it could be 40 minutes,” I said.

“It could be three hours,” Michael responded as he held the frame of Sami’s bike while she pumped air into her front tire.

“I don’t know, it couldn’t be three hours, could it?” Careth said.

I did not have a response, even though I was the one with the map: our only source of direction, our only fragile connection to security.

I paused, “I don’t know,” was all I could say.

Consulting our hand-drawn map was done more out of formality: it was hard to take ourselves seriously regarding a map we suspected to be inaccurate. Some of us laughed, but most sat in caustic silence. Our lack of appropriate planning was becoming evident: why had we not brought a compass? In addition to tracing a map, who could I have talked to who may have known this bush? The intoxicating call of adventure is the downfall of the many, as it beckons us to abandon our planning instincts. In essence, lack of preparation is the fault of the adventurer alone. And so, to be hopelessly lost in such a remote and hostile environment is to feel the barbed brush closing in: this is how people die. Initially clouded by pretention and presumption, unfortunate Young Fools leave this world in the sober light of their missteps. We realized for the first time how easily we could join their number.

After almost 12 hours of traversing a supremely unforgiving environment, our bikes were mangled, we were almost out of water, and we did not know where we were. Even if we did know our location, we would still have only have a vague notion of where we needed to go. Our bodies were spent, bruised, cut. Above all we were troubled, feeling the wax of our wings melting as we inched ever closer to the sun.

Panic gave way to calm resignation as we realized that the only option was to follow the path we were on. Turning back for Koubé was impossible, for we would not have made it back by sundown, risking becoming more lost than we already were. Summoning our remaining strength, we mounted our bikes. We pedalled slowly, rounding corners with great anticipation. Again and again, we were greeted by greater expanses of nothing. An hour passed and our resignation waned. In a state of quiet determination, we kept moving. We trained our direction west, taking paths accordingly as the sun began its tumble from the sky. Our resolve was rewarded. In one final push, as the sun ended its fall with a halcyon aurora directly ahead of us, the huts of Wéressé gradually formed themselves out of the tree line.

The village of Wéressé was unlike any place we had ever seen. Insulated from the outside world by a dense and unforgiving bush, this pocket of Bwa people had not so much resisted the march of time as they had been stepped over by it. As we arrived, we realized that we were possibly the first Westerners to set foot there since the early French colonialists—one of the first reminders of our connection to the ills that still haunt these formerly occupied lands. We were a cadaverous sight: dishevelled and clearly in need of help. However, the village routine enveloped us, and very soon we were sitting, drinking russet-tinted well water, sharing stories and laughs with our rescuers, and gratefully devouring whatever was put in front of us.

The village itself was divided into three distinct neighbourhoods. Each cluster of houses sat atop gentle hills formed by hundreds of years of collapsed banco structures. In between these groups was a rambling expanse of scrub speckled with listlessly grazing goats and donkeys. The air was thick and fragrant. The sweet cloy of decaying millet stalks cloaked in a wood smoke perfume emanated from the cracked mud walls of the houses. In resting there, the weight of time was palpable. The inhabitants of Wéressé had clung to their land and to their lives in the centre of this great chasm, living the way they knew how, generation after generation.

We spent about an hour there, talking some but mostly listening. While some modernity had reached the little village—we noted a boutique with soap and crackers—it sat fixed in time behind endless curtains of acacias, penetrable only by those with reason to visit. These people’s lives had always been, in a sense, invisible to those of us on the outside; we could only be honoured by their curiosity and trust. 

We dutifully filled our role as a travelling show, yet we felt our muscles weakening and we needed to find a site to camp. After paying our hosts for their food and drink, we took our leave and found the path to Kinséré. A few kilometres out of the village, we found a flat spot of earth and with the last rays of fading daylight, set up our tents. In the viscous black of night, we built a fire with felled softwood and cooked a pot of rice. We ate with our hands while above us ancient myths unfolded through pinholes in the soot-dark sky.

After the dishes were washed, we bedded down. Lying beneath rotating cascades of constellations, we were gradually shrouded in a peaceful, absolute sleep. Around us, we were serenaded by the rustle of chariot spiders and the roar of cicadas lamenting the end of their one day of life.

*****

The Boucle du Mouhoun region of Burkina Faso is home to four main ethnicities: Dafing, Samo, Bwa, and Fulani. The first to inhabit the eastern side of the Sourou River (modern-day Sourou Province) were the Samo, who most likely came from modern-day Mali in the fifteenth century. After the fall of the Mali Empire around 1600, the Dafing descended by way of the Sourou corridor to join the Samo. The two groups commingled as agro-pastoralists, the Dafing adopting Samo traditions and the Samo incorporating the Dafing custom of politically centralized states. In the nineteenth century, the Songhaï and Toucouleur state of El-Hadj Umar Tal swept through the region leaving beaten-earth mosques and a fiercely Muslim Dafing in their wake. Jihads were waged by the Dafing against their animist Samo neighbours into the early twentieth century.

On the western side of the Sourou River (modern-day Kossi Province), the Bwa had been cultivating their parcels in the bush and coexisting with the nomadic Dozo order of hunters since the 1600s. Bwa villages were independent states without central political authority. This weakness made them susceptible to outside invasions. When the nineteenth-century Fulani warriors arrived in the Barani area, they used their military superiority to tax, conscript, and enslave the Bwa. In the late 1800s, the new French forces enlisted Fulani warriors as mercenaries to collect sizeable taxes and further terrorize the Bwa. The exploitation culminated with the French sending unwilling Bwa, Dafing, and Samo men to the fronts of World War I. Resistance by villagers was met with scorched-earth tactics by the French and Fulani. FECHIBA itself is designed to recreate the act of subordination of paying respects to the ruling Fulani king.

By the time the French arrived in the late 1880s, relations between the two sides of the river were acrimonious. Barani had become a powerful Fulani city-state; the Dafing centre of Lanfièra (a village physically connected to Gouran, our starting point) was a sought-after site of Muslim learning. With the arrival of the French, leaders of both Barani and Lanfièra were quick to form alliances. The respected marabout of Lanfièra, Karamoko Ba (“Great Knower of Things”) was an erudite leader who gave audience to the earliest French explorers, François Crozat and Captain Louis Parfait Monteil, eventually facilitating a treaty between the Dafing and French in 1891. Lanfièra’s close relationship with the French did not sit well with the Fulani ruler of Barani, Ouidi Sidibé. In 1896, Sidibé informed the horrifically violent Captain Paul Voulet (often described as a real-life West African Kurtz) that he believed Ba was conspiring against the colonialist forces. Voulet was concerned that Ba could be “the brain of the revolt” against the French. He wasted no time in executing Ba and destroying his mosque. Sidibé took Ba’s remains across the Sourou and buried them in an unmarked grave now lost to time. To this day, there is an obvious emotional disconnect between Barani and Lanfièra.

At the time of our journey, peace and stability were relatively new comforts in this small pocket of West Africa. A region that had been in constant flux for the past five hundred years seemed perhaps weary of the fighting. Yet the spectre of terror never truly vanishes in the Sahel. Now, ten years later, porous borders between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso are rife with those who seek to instil fear and drive instability. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has been attacking civilians with greater ferocity in recent years. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Boko Haram have also participated in the destabilization. In 2018, militants attacked the Lanfiera gendarmes not even a stone’s throw from Karamoko Ba’s rebuilt mosque. In 2019, summary executions of suspected jihadists by the Burkinabè military were carried out in Barani. Both Sourou and Kossi provinces are now under official states of emergency. Of course, those who opened their homes to us are the ones who suffer most. We were most fortunate to share the lives and experiences of the people who offered us radical acceptance during a peaceful time in their lives. And we were most privileged to leave once we had satisfied our curiosity. In this light, we viewed our voyage on ancient paths scratched away by hundreds of years of travel as a search for cultural and historical understanding, albeit a still moment in the churning waves of time.

Moreover, the fact that our journey put us in the same breath as the earliest French incursions gave us pause. For us to infiltrate these remote areas uninvited required the vain presumption that we would be inherently welcome. And while the earlier colonialist forces saw only resources to exploit and terrain that was unquestionably theirs, every kilometre of our trip was a reminder to us that we were merely visitors in a land too often contested by others. 

Today, the conversation regarding the decolonization of international aid is rightfully getting the attention it deserves. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we believed our work to be different, and while our emphasis on integration into communities that have invited us can soften some of the sharper barbs of imperialism, it is truly the bare minimum. 

While we prided ourselves on learning local languages, again, this was the least we could do to engage in participatory community development. Even the very thesis of our trip—our view of this unforgiving and little documented land as ours to explore—had its roots in the earliest Western views of the African continent: it is not known to us, therefore it is unknown. While we would never consider ourselves equivalent in moral failing to murderous colonialists, our work and our presence in that part of the world made us uneasy scions of their brutality. Our trip was self-serving, though it wasfilled with wholesome intentions. And our privileged position and easy demeanor kept us safe as we wandered the same bush as Crozat, Monteil, and Voulet—our only guides being the spirit of Icarus and a hand-drawn map.

*****

We awoke at five o’clock. Wiping the caked harmattan dust from our eyes, we silently coaxed our bodies back to life. It was a blue morning: as we broke camp, our gnarled environment was steadily coated in a cool cerulean film. And as we rejoined the path, a small white sun of crystalline intensity rose at our backs.

We arrived in Kinséré after a few minutes of biking. Most people were just stirring and would miss the convoy of Young Fools. We bought fried dough in the shadow of an aged mosque, refilled our water, and set out again.

No longer was the path a meandering line through thorny brush. The route opened to us, at times as wide as a two-lane road. Yet we quickly noticed that the path had become nothing more than sand, which was immediately fatiguing, taxing our bodies and wreaking havoc on our bikes. As we continued, we noticed horse tracks dotting our route. It became painfully obvious that we simply had the wrong form of transport. Alone in the Sahel, we had only reminders from those who knew it well that we still did not understand where we were. After only an hour of biking, we had to stop, encumbered by flat tires and slipping chains.

The bees came first one by one, then by tens, then by hundreds. They quivered like excited photons dancing in the mid-morning warmth. Before we could react, however, we found ourselves in a bedlam of agitated honeybees. They swelled and broke like jaundiced ocean currents. And once again, we felt defeated by forces beyond our control. Our wings and our pride disintegrating in our wake, we were hurtling toward the earth. Moving deliberately, we kept quiet so that they could not crawl into our mouths. Occasionally someone shouted an order, but we were losing altitude and running out of ideas. One thousand, two thousand, they continued coming—a collective, palpating energy ravenous for our sweat. We had to move on, but Beth’s bike remained overturned without a rear tire.

“They’re attracted to our sweat!” Michael barked.

As Michael and I pumped up a new tire for the wounded bike, we walked in wide circles. Though our hearts raced, we knew that one misplaced swat would elicit the devastating retribution of thousands of honeybees. We had no choice.  We moved calmly, belying the chaos in our minds.

“I think we’re near a hive, we need to get out of here,” Careth said. She kept bees with her family back home in Vermont, so nobody questioned her.

“Who has everything together?”  Sierra asked.

Everyone who could move crept down the path. Michael, Tarek, and I, stayed to right the fallen bike and pick up the remaining baggage. Occluded by a cloud of bees, Tarek turned the bike over, receiving stings all down his left leg. He then began a slow, awkward walk down the path, careful not to step on the bees that had worked their way in between his feet and his flip-flops. When our slow migration started, stubborn bees were crawling on our faces, settling under our clothes, burrowing in our hair. As we plodded slowly up the path, the bees thinned in number. Finally, the last persistent ones left us to rejoin their hive.

Immediate disaster averted, we resumed biking, walking when the sand was too deep. As we pedalled and trudged, the hours melted away while the heat grew. At 120 degrees, the slightest wind did not bring relief, but only crushed the sun’s rays against our skin with even greater pressure. The broad landscape was dotted with unrelenting mirages: optical illusions of inky pools radiating on the horizon. And with every forced rotation of our bike gears, our eyes were compelled to see more water on the parched, sand-drenched expanses.

Beneath a bloated midday sun, we saw dried millet stalks and date palms in the distance. Biking through, we found ourselves approaching the village of Boulemporo—our last stop before Barani. Boulemporo was a Dogon settlement, which was unique for the area. Its original inhabitants were splinters from the long block of Dogons that still inhabit the soaring Bandiagara Escarpment in present-day Mali. Several hundred years ago a few groups broke off and settled in the more comfortable plains further south.

As Boulemboro’s Chief led us out of the village, he insisted on showing us to “sirraba,” or “la grande route.”  And as we rounded the last curve, an auburn-hued dirt outpost road lay before us—dusty and crumbling, but welcoming nonetheless. It was this village’s pride that they lived with the luxury of such a convenience. Knowing well the situation of their more isolated neighbours, it was their personal connection to a modern world.

We took to the road, elated. After two days of feverish biking, oppressive heat, and close calls, we had made it to the other side. As we were rewarded with a relatively easy eight-kilometre ride north into Barani, I looked up at that day’s sun, a fireball of distilled heat, but curiously unthreatening. I could not help but feel that we had left our fellow Young Fool, Icarus behind. Where he wandered, I could not say, but he was certainly not on this road that seemed to stretch out for eternity.

*****

On the outskirts of Barani, we stopped at a comfortable courtyard. Mature neem trees shaded a sloping stretch of sand closed in by chest-high clay walls. Inside were a mare and her wet-eyed colt, hobbled and eating hay. We stopped and asked the family if we could rest for a minute. We stayed there for three nights, repaying their hospitality with a large bag of rice.

The family was a prominent Fulani family in Barani and their hospitality was unswerving. They generously opened their home to us, let us set up our tents outside, let us use their water, and forced their benches and chairs on us. The patron was a long, elderly man. He was clothed in a bright yellow boubou that reached the ground and would sway from side to side as he walked. On his head sat an oversized traditional hat. Beneath its brim, he wore a pair of mirrored sunglasses. He was dignified and stoic, dispensing basic provisions with simple gestures and permanent calm.

Most places we went in Barani, we found our reputation had preceded us:

Mogow ya fo ko toubabouw bora kongo kono!”  People said a group of Westerners had come out of the bush!

As walking oddities, we wholeheartedly accepted our given moniker of Kongo-Toubabouw: White People from the Bush. We wore it like a badge of honor, yet it felt odd to be praised for accomplishing something that those around us could have done far easier and with fewer resources. I felt, however, that our adventure was cause for fascination because it challenged their interpretation of what a toubabou would—or could—do.

After hearing tales of our journey, one of our most eager hosts was the extroverted son of Barani’s chief, Paaté Sidibé (a direct descendent of Ouidi Sidibé himself). Making it a personal mission, he took us in and fed us along with other travellers. He was a tall, sinewy man with an amenable and infectious smile. When he spoke, his caterpillar moustache would quiver and his deep-set eyes would dance. It seemed his face was a direct reflection of an outwardly caring life—a face chiselled not necessarily by personal hardship, but rather by carrying the burdens of others.

Such inherent hospitality made it hard to imagine the treachery of the early Sidibés. It was hard to imagine that there could have been pervasive conflict between ethnic groups. Walking around Barani the morning of the festival, we commingled with elaborately decorated horses and their turbaned riders who had come from as far away as eastern Niger. The horses were bedizened in saddles and harnesses of traditionally dyed leathers in greens, yellows, reds, and blues. Silver and nickel jewellery hung from intricately frayed tassels that danced in counterpoint to the horses’ every move. These animals were walking displays of prestige and power. Closing my eyes, I attempted a leap into a world of battles amongst the fickle and thorny bush. I tried to imagine the Dafing jihadists spreading their mystical interpretation of Sunni Islam at the ends of their spears. I tried to imagine indigenous Bwa villagers fighting off Fulani and French oppressors, steadfastly defending their homes and their lives. I tried to envision the powers that shaped the reigns of the Sidibés and the learned Muslim leaders in Lanfièra.

Opening my eyes to the stallions’ muscles twitching under their taut chestnut coats and the wash of colour and cacophony that surrounded us, I saw for a flash of a second our journey reflected in all we had learned. This festival was the taproot descending into the details of the region’s narrative. As the platitude goes: history is written by the victors. And so is the case with FECHIBA—a celebration of the conquerors of the Bwa, mercenaries for the French. Nonetheless, our wish to engage with the patchwork of ethnicities that make this swale of Southern Sahel home allowed us to understand the Fulani and their prized horses within the appropriate context. Our two-day ride through the unseen and scantly documented lands of mass migration, ethnic struggle, and colonialist subjugation brought us closer to this region’s unshakable truths:

That this is an area of difficult, often precarious existence;

That modern survival relies on cooperation between all;

That there is a perpetual, unblinking eye on history.

And that moment—that pinpoint of time when past and present lost all independent value—was the most any Young Fool could ask for.

*****

The horses were dancing now. The griots and their instruments were wailing in high-pitched modal sequences. Gunfire from hundred-year-old French rifles was thundering through the air. Elaborately dressed men, women, and children braced the winds and dust as they jostled to watch the spectacle. And the horses danced—a swaying blur of hue and sheen. Gathering in the deep sand outside the Royal Mosque, each grain burning its way around our feet, Icarus again came to mind. I asked myself what separated us from the original Young Fool, and I only needed to look towards the other members of our brave band. We were secure in each other’s company in a foreign world; we had openly sought counsel and camaraderie, whereas he had rejected it. And most importantly, we were gifted the hospitality of others from our startled Fulani friends just across the Sourou River, to the Chief of Koubé, our herdsman guide, our rescuers in Wéréssé, and all our gracious and uncompromising hosts in Barani. Icarus never had such luck. With that reality voicelessly travelling amongst us, we shed our wings and watched.

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Jason T. Tsichlis

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Jason T. Tsichlis is a pediatrics resident physician at the University of California, San Francisco. He received a BA in Art and Visual Culture from Bates College in 2009, an MS in International Agricultural Development from the University of California, Davis in 2015, and an MD from Brown University in 2021. He has worked extensively in international development and global health, with a particular focus in West Africa. He served in the United States Peace Corps in Burkina Faso from 2011-2013, where he worked with local farming groups on instituting nutrition- and climate-sensitive agricultural practices. His creative pursuits include music composition, playing piano, writing, fly fishing, and oil painting.

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