Continental Drift

December 14, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 12:12 pm

So a while back, I decided it would be a good idea to take everyone to the National Park. The National Park is a wide expanse between the Modibo Keita Stadium and the Zoo, just across the street from a fancy French school, and right before you head up the hill towards the hospital or rather the President’s big white house (‘presidents, they like their houses white,’ someone told me recently). The area was fenced off and under construction since before my arrival, with hopes of renovating it for the cinquantenaire. And, shockingly enough, they finished it in time. The result is astoundingly lovely, an eerily calm and green place when compared with the hustle of the market you must pass through to get there. I finally got my act together to go there a few weeks after the cinquantenaire, and enjoyed just wandering around and splurging on the garden-side coffee shop experience.

My joy was only diminished by thinking about what a shame it was that my friends and family back in Sikoro wouldn’t ever come and enjoy this place. It only costs 250 CFA for Malians (and persistent Americans who speak loudly and forcefully in Bambara) to get inside, but I know Mama would never just set out one day to head over. There’s transport each way, so by the time you’re done, you’ve spent at least 550 CFA for a single person. If you wanted to take even just one child with you, you’ve spent as much as the family spends for their entire daily meal. So, as I said, I decided to take everyone.

Everyone Part I

Oh, but I mean everyone.

Everyone Part II

I asked Mama last week, wouldn’t it be nice to go to the Park Nationale.  “Parki-wa?” she asked.  “Who would come? Just me?”  “No everybody.” “Me and Tanti?” “No, everybody.” “Everybody?”  “You and Tanti and Papu and Bois and Beiny and Ma and Fatoumata and Batuma and Awa and Fatim and the twins. Everyone.  Even Makoroba, if she wants to.” Since Makoroba is probably pushing 80, it seemed unlikely to me that she would want to venture so far afield. “Well obviously Makoroba would come, she has a lot of curiosity.”

Ah bon.

So the idea was planted, and the message was passed around the compound.  “Will the chefs de famille come?” “If they want to.” “But what if they have to work? Or what if they want to go into town?” “Then they won’t come.”  “What will we see there?” Beiny piped in, “Lions.”  Expectations were going to be set a little too high if people were waiting for the lions, so I tried over and over to explain.

The day was set for Sunday.  Except when I woke up Saturday morning to Mama yelling through my door “Barack Obama’s Maimouna! Wake up! Wake up! Haven’t you woken up yet? What time are we going to the Parki?”

Mama on entering the park, at the foot of a long sweeping path past all sorts of trees and ending in a fountain, “So, what are we supposed to look at now that we’re here?”


Some of us enjoying ourselves more than others, Mama insisting on avoiding a picture.

Baby Batuma greeted every playground structure with flailing arms and wails.

Other people liked things better.


Fatim braving the scary playground horse


It was fun having Fatoumata clowning around posing on the grass. She has so much work to do at home and Batoma cries so much that usually I forget that she is only 19.



Same thing with Awa, I forget she’s only 20 or 21, because she’s so mature in taking care of the house and the kids.

Mama on the National Park after seeing the fountain, “There is water here and we are thirsty, but we can’t drink it.  What kind of place is this?”

Victory for me came when Fousseni, the twin who has been crying every time he sees me (big scary toubabou) for weeks, let me hold him on my lap.

Bois on understanding that these toys were, in fact, weight machines, “Fatoumata should get off, these are not toys these are for exercise.”

Everyone on hearing that pain au chocolat cost 400 CFA (80 cents) and a soda cost two dollars, “Wari kacha! (So much money!)” Pause.  Awa asks slyly, “If each of us can choose a soda or a pain au chocolat, aren’t you going to buy sodas for the twins!?”


Lassi hoping for a soda

Tanti on discovering that “Soda water” cost 1000 CFA (two dollars), “We can’t have any water here. What kind of place is this.”


Eventually, I convinced one of the two disdainful women at the counter to give us tap water.  (“Where did you learn to speak Bambara like that?” “Here in Mali.” Other lady at the counter, very condescendingly, “If she hadn’t learned it here in Mali, where exactly would she have learned it.” I was glad the question wasn’t directed at me.)

Mama on the fake sotrama in the middle of the museum lot with fake Malians fake riding inside.  “This isn’t a Malian sotrama.  This is something else.”



Mama on entering the temporary exhibition room. “I can’t go in there, there is neneba (very large amount of cold) in there.” (It was air-conditioned rather strenuously).

Mama on my offer to take Lassi off her back and carry him myself, when she started limping from her back hurting.  “Toubabou te se ka den bamou. (White girl doesn’t know how to carry a kid on her back.”

Mama on the Parki National while walking to the sotrama stop after leaving, “The museum, that is is a good place for old people.  But the park, no no no.  The park is for young people.” I thought, perhaps she was referring to it requiring too much walking.  “No, that park, its all the young people leaning into each other like this, holding hands like that. (Makes a kissy face).  Musokoroba te se ka ta parki la. (Old ladies can’t go to that park.)”

Random man on the street commenting on me carrying Lassi on my back, “Hey, is that your kid?”

Mama on the Parki National, talking to Tanti in the courtyard while heating up the rice at home, “Maimouna ye wari bo bi! (Maimouna spent loads of money today) That park is too expensive.”

But just when I was worried that perhaps, even if everyone else enjoyed the park, maybe Mama actually hated it, she said, “You know, the park and the museum, they are very good places.  The kids should go there, because it really helps their brains develop.”

Of course, she understood the point of the expedition the whole time.  I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who enjoys messing with me quite so much.  Of course she is Maimouna Ballo, so that makes her a Noumou (blacksmith), which makes her my joking cousin, or possibly my slave.  Depending on who you ask, of course.


In these last days, not only have I been trying to cram everything in that I want to do, but I’ve also been trying to cram in giving everyone everything that I wish they could have but they don’t. This is an impossible task, and would be even if I were far richer.  I can buy presents and expensive sodas at the national park one time, but even if I can give them a taste of the things I enjoy on a regular basis, the gap between what I have and what they have is still enormous.  This is not something new that I am learning, but something that is harder than ever to know and accept when I know I will return to New York where that same 40 dollars I spent on a day at the park for 12 people could easily be spent on one mediocre dinner.

I think that the family is starting to realize that I am giving too much, as if I could give enough to make up for leaving.  I told Ma and Tanti today that on Thursday I will buy lots of chickens, and we will have a big dinner party.  We’d done that once before and it was a big hit.  Ma said, “Ayi, I te she san.  Aun te she dun, ani i te taa Ameriki. (Don’t buy chicken.  We won’t eat chicken, and you won’t go to America).” Unfortunately, or fortunately, I can’t really oblige.


Tonight one of Tanti’s friends came by.  He grabbed Ma’s notebook and started trying to read her lesson, then made fun of her that she can’t write at all.  “N te se ka sebennike, nka ne be se ka kalanke! N be se kosibe. (I can’t write, but I can read.  Really well!)” She proceeded to read out loud a phrase describing three kinds of water: open, flowing, and flat.  I stopped her and asked if she had any idea what the words meant.  “Ayi (no),” she said, giggling.  I have no idea how anyone here in Mali manages to learn to speak French, let alone anything else.  I have no idea if Ma will pass 5th grade this year.  But she did go to the National Park, so lets hope that it helped her develop her brain.


December 1, 2010

I speak English fairly well

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 9:56 am

Adama, the leather worker who lives across the courtyard from me, got home from work at the artinsanal market late tonight.  He pulled a book out of his bag to show me.  “Look,” he said, “I’m going to study English.” I looked at the book.  The fact that the title translates to, “I get by okay with English,” didn’t seem sufficiently ambitious, but I just said, “Oh, great.”

The kids passed the book around.  13 year old Beiny confirmed that this is the book by which to study English.  Mama stared at it in the way she generally approaches the written word, as if she is trying to look through the paper and expecting something to speak from inside the object and tell her what it says.  But this time, as usual, I was again reminded that she is perfectly literate, as she pointed out, “It says here, ‘En Anglais, tous les verbs se conjugant dans la meme maniere’ (In English, all verbs are conjugated the same way). Is that true?” “Well,” I admitted, “It is a little bit true, I guess.”

Upon further discussion, it was determined that the book only costs keme fila (1000 CFA/$1).  Beiny encouraged Mama to purchase the book so he could study English so that I would let him come to America with me.  Mama agreed.  “I’m going to buy this book.  And Beiny will study English.  I can’t study English, because my brain is old and spoiled and I don’t see well at night.  Then Beiny will go to America where he will make lots of money and then come back and explode the rocks.  He tells me all the time that if I would just let him leave school, he would go to America and this is what he would do.”  “He will do what?” “Break my rocks!” she repeated, this time adding in a gesture towards the rock wall behind the house.  Seeing as I was still confused, she deigned to explain, “He will break down all those rocks and build me a one story building, and put me in it! And then he will build a whole mosque, and that will be the mosque where I will go and pray.  He tells me all the time that he will do this, what a funny kid right?”  There was nothing to do besides agree, and then yell at Beiny that he better not leave school.  This is for his own good, as well as for the good of the unsuspecting people who live directly behind our house, perched on the top of the same rock face that Beiny wants to explode.


Ma and friends hanging my laundry above the infamous exploding rocks, in front of the house that rests on them

Everyone was still passing the book around, and in looking at the cover I remembered that I’ve seen this book before. At the regular market, the only books you find are the ones sold at the stationary stalls. The only books the stationary stalls  bother to stock are the ones that all students are required to have for certain grades, so you only see the same books over and over again. And this one had definitely jumped out as something memorable.

I get by in English okay

I felt bad that I was privately sitting there laughing to myself about how horrendous it was that the one English book that anyone has access to here has a caricature of an English colonist and his farflung subjects on the cover, and worried that they would think I was amused by their attempts to learn English.  I tried to turn over a new leaf, let them in on the joke instead of just storing it up to write about it later.

So I said, “I don’t think it is very good that they have this picture of an old English man on the cover, and then they make silly pictures of all the different people that England colonized.” “Yes,” said Mama, pointing to the white man in the suit, “This one is an American, I think.”   “No,” I said, pushing us back towards the point I was trying to make, “I think he is English.” “Yes,” said Mama, “I think he is an old English man, that is why he has a hat.” “Look,” I tried again, “Is it right that they make the Malian look that way?” pointing to the black figure.  “Do Malians really look like that?” “No, that’s true, that’s not really what a Malian looks like.  But that one,” pointing to the figure on the right, “that one is a Nigerian.” Ah bon. “Oh really?” “If that one is Nigerian, where is that one from?” I asked, pointing to the figure on the left wearing the sombrero.  With no pause, she replied, “That’s an Ivoirian.” “Wait, so if that’s an Ivoirien, who is the one in the middle?” I asked.  “Oh that one, well that one is a Senegalese.” “And the last one, bent over on the right side?” “Oh  her as well? Well she’s also Senegalse.”  With each identification Beiny was laughing harder, as was I, as was Ma, but Mama was only smiling knowingly and I have no idea what joke any of us thought  was funny.  I decided there was now no choice, I had to document the book jacket.  I told them I needed to take a picture of the cover.

As I looked for my camera in my room, Mama called out to Adama.  “Adama! Maimouna says that there is a picture on the cover of your book with the English man and all the people he colonized. She asked me who every one was, one by one, and then she said she wants to take a picture.  Maimouna kungolo mein! (Maimouna’s head is bad!).”

After I was done taking pictures of the cover, I was handed the book again.  I started flipping through it to see what Adama was supposed to learn. I discovered that the book had pictures inside too!

Better than that, the captions on the pictures tell Malians to speak English with the exact terrible accent with which all Malian English speakers speak.

There is even a line in the book that says “TH: like S.”

Chi iz heun gre

But then, as if these diagrams weren’t helpful enough, I discovered this one:

priz-neu of ou-or

Now I can go to sleep in peace, knowing that I can ask Malians across the country, and probably citizens across Francophone Africa, how to get to the ‘hed kou-oteur’ if ever I am lost and can’t find my ‘bar rak’ and am worried that a ‘plenn’ will come by and shoot a ‘gueunn’ at me and leave me ‘-houn-ded-‘ and in need of a ‘stret-cher ber-eur.’ I can only hope that this will save me from becoming a’priz-neu of ou-or’.

November 22, 2010

Sambe Sambe

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 8:49 pm

Aw sambe sambe!

The fete was full of dead sheep, per usual.  There was greeting, shiny clothes, lots of tea, and excessive amounts of meat. Mama even shoved meat at me and told me it was my job to cook it myself.

Further photos later.  Just for a taste of the fun, here are Tanti and I all dolled up after running around town visiting.

Note awesome cinquantaire/seliba border, from the photo studio on our where we had it taken.

Happy almost Thanksgiving!

Germ Theory

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 3:16 pm

Long before I came down with this weeklong killer cold/throat infection combination, I’d been warned about the wind.  I mean, everyone in Mali who didn’t have malaria during the last month did have a cold, and the obvious culprit was the mostly pleasant breeze that arrived with the tail end of the rains. The wind signals a preview of the neneba (the big cold), and is the symbolic seasonal shift equivalent of changing leaves in Fall.  In the same way that leaves changing means back-to-school means cold season, wind means back-to-school means cold season.  But Malians are convinced that this is causality, not correlation, and sometimes their ferocity in attributing all sorts of malaise to the wind is so convincing I begin to wonder if there is something particularly ominous and contagious in these Sahelian winds that I have merely misunderstood scientifically.

Twins with colds bundled up against the evil evil wind

My cold was not unexpected.  Everyone in the compound had had a cold or two already, and after weeks of sharing bowls of to and rice prepared by someone with a cold (and a lack of soap and tissues) with the hands of a variety of sick people, I was more surprised that it hadn’t arrived sooner.  Batuma and the baby twins have, predictably enough, had on-and-off colds for more than a month, meaning all sorts of snot, cough syrup and wailing.  The day when Batuma clambered onto my chair to look me in the eyes and pleading hold out her hand for a taste of to, but instead looked me in the eye and sneezed violently into my bowl, I knew I was done for. That Friday, when I awoke with a sore throat, I headed over to the office to make some tea.


Can't get between Batuma and food that she wants, however dirty she is.



“How are you? Did you sleep well?” asked Diak.  “I slept well, but I am a little sick,” I explained.  “My throat is sore.” “I know! It is this wind, it is really terrible.  Myself, I have passed a terrible night, I woke up and felt very ill at three o’clock in the morning and I couldn’t go back to sleep.  It was because Madame had insisted on sleeping with the windows open and the wind was very harsh.  Even though I closed all the windows when I woke up, it had already really disturbed me.  I really have to counsel you to sleep with your door and windows closed.  I know you [plural, meaning white people] feel hot easily and want air, but really it is very important to keep the wind out.  You can turn your fan on once everything is closed if you must have ventilation.”

This discourse was too much for me too early in the morning, especially since my throat really did really hurt.  I nodded and retreated back into my tea, to ponder what it was that was so bad about natural wind that was not reproduced by my fan.  Diak is a very competent doctor, one very sensitive to the superstitions of the community and usually quick to quote biomedical theory to disprove it. All day people told me it was the wind’s fault.  Everyone: educated, uneducated, male, female, everyone blamed the wind.  Ami arrived to open the microfinance caisse, and also bewailed the wind when she heard that I was sick.  “All the children,” she said, “have been getting sick because of the wind.”  Diallo said that he thought that “This wind, it is very bad.” Sometimes a fleeting reference was made the “the period,” this terribly perilous, windy season, but usually the culprit was the wind itself.

The next evening, at Erin’s house cooking dinner, I was chatting with her courtyard-mate, Amidou, a young man who prides himself on being intellectually curious.  We discussed that I was sick, he wished me good health, and then I joked about how everyone seems to want to tell me it was the wind.  He looked concerned.  “Well,” he said, “I don’t really believe that wind can make you sick, there isn’t anything to that, it is just what people say. But, I have to say, what I do know is this.  If you go out and get caught in the rain, and the rain makes your head wet, it can make you sick.  If it gets on your hair—I know this is true for myself and I have talked to many others that find this to be the case—then you will get a cold.  This is why you will often see people, if they don’t have anything with them to cover their heads, if they get caught in the rain they will take a plastic bag and put it around their heads.  Like this,” he demonstrated.

I was taken off guard, by the way his desire to show that he was not to be taken in by old wives’ tales about the wind meant that he used his own sort of anecdotal ‘proof’ to prove the very old wives tale that if you go running around with wet hair you will get sick.  As a myth, it makes more sense to me that this would have sprung up in countries where walking around with wet hair in winter can actually make your hair turn to ice, but obviously somewhere along the way I have missed the point.

Mama, not surprisngly, had more to say on the subject than anyone.  The third day I still wasn’t better.  My throat was still piercingly painful and I had developed a full blown cold besides.  “Why didn’t you buy a chicken?” she asked.  “If you had bought a chicken, I could make you a soup and I would put lots of hot pepper in it and your cold would go away pew (completely) just like that.” And, “Did you take medicine? You should go to the pharmacy  they will give you medicine to make your cold go away.”  Most frequently, she continued to berate me—as she has every time I have had a cold—for blowing my nose too much.

Most people around here can’t really afford enough tissues to only use tissues to blow their noses.  Moms are constantly using whatever is handy to remove snot from their kids.  If it is their finger, then they rub it off on the wall.  Adults are on their own.  Nose blowing seems to be looked on a really disgusting thing to do, kind of like farting.  If it must be done, it ought to be done in private, and when I do it in public I constantly receive disgusted looks.  But because I am sick and because it seems ridiculous to be so offended by something that is actually preventing me from getting germs all over you, I usually just do it anyway.

Mama’s response is not disgust, she simply threatens me. “If you keep blowing your nose like that, it will fall off.” And when that doesn’t work, “If your cold doesn’t go away soon, n bena nu tige” (I will cut off your nose).  I have learned that simply protesting this fate does not discourage her, I have to threaten to cut her nose off back.


Mama probably threatening to cut off my nose, next to the saga (sheep) that she will soon cut up into little pieces.



I told her, on this third day of my illness, that I was going to rest on a mattress under the mango tree in the office courtyard.  Since everyone in the family sneaks over the office to sleep under the mango tree whenever possible, I expected approval of this plan.  “With the wind!” she exclaimed.  “You mustn’t go lie there with the wind about, of course your cold isn’t getting better.  If you sleep outside the wind will get in!” I tried protesting that I was hot, I tried protesting that it didn’t bother me. Finally, to escape the tirade of worry, I had to promise that I would find some fini (cloth) to wrap around my head to keep out the dreaded wind.  I escaped off to the tree, where I camped out enjoying the cool air, the pleasant breeze, and privacy to blow my nose.  I remembered that I had another throat infection in Africa a little more than a year ago; that time the only things pushed on me were thermometers, effervescent flu tablets, endless wonderful cups of tea with honey, and finally an extremely efficient doctor’s office with some antibiotics.  But that was South Africa and that was then, and this is Mali and no one in South Africa would have killed a chicken for me.

My disease dragged on all week, though thankfully my throat troubles healed faster.  I continued to feel stuffy and awful, and continued to blow my nose and then be threatened by Mama with losing it.  The day of Seliba and the day after I decided to be well enough to eat meat, greet and be very merry by force of will, which led to feelings of utter physical collapse by the end of all that.  That night, concerned that I still wasn’t well, Mama continued to berate the wind but searched for other environmental factors.

We talked, me flopped down lying on the ground, she sitting fanning the fire to heat up a large pot of hot water for my bath.  She told me that the reason I stayed sick was because I was showering with cold water.  No, it was because I was showering and getting my hair wet at night.  “Can’t you wash yourself without washing your hair?” “No, it is sweaty and dirty. “Why didn’t you shower at midday?,” I wasn’t home at midday, I was visiting people.” “Don’t you know that wet hair makes you sick? If it were daytime, the sun would dry it, but at night it stays wet.” Exhausted, and left with little hope that any further attempt to dissuade her logic would be pointless, I decided to just be the all-knowing toubab voice of authority. “That’s not true.  People say that but it isn’t true.” “It is true.” “No it’s not.” “It is! If you wash your hair, and it stays wet, the cold can enter through the tiny little holes where your hair comes out.  That’s how you get sick.” Lying wrapped in my pagne looking up at the stars,  already half-asleep from being horizontal, it seemed awfully difficult to find anything that could possibly be more true than that. Luckily I didn’t have to, the water was ready, and I took a deliciously toasty hot bucket bath.

Snugly in my pajamas, I sat down to eat some to before I collapsed in bed.  “You have to give me a different bowl, Mama, I’m sick.  If I eat with you guys, I will give you my cold.” I had tried this tactic the other day, and had only been laughed at.  “Maimouna, we don’t know that way here. Here we all eat from the same bowl.  Anyway, people can’t give illness to other people.  Only God can give someone an illness.  Isn’t that true?” But the following day, when Mama felt she was coming down with something, she had yelled at me “Maimouna, you gave me your cold!” “No Mama,” I cried triumphantly, “I can’t give you my cold.  Only God makes people sick!”  She liked that immensely, and shouted it out louder for old Makoroba to hear.

Since all of that had already happened, I thought that maybe today she’d be more amenable to isolating me and my germs off to my own plate.  Grudgingly she agreed to it, and dished me out a serving.   I sat to the side about to eat when Djenebou, a neighbor came into the compound to say hi to Tanti.  To explain why I was off to the side eating by myself, Mama said “Maimouna says if we eat from the same bowl, all of us will get sick with her disease.  Isn’t that a crazy thing to say?”  Djenebou agreed that the toubabou idea seemed rather unlikely. Having won the bowl battle, I didn’t feel the need to participate in the continuing war.  I reached my nice clean, freshly showered hand into the dish to take the first bite.  Instantly, I was greeted by shrieks of disapproval. “Maimouna!” yelled Rokia and Mama, “You haven’t washed your hands!”  They shoved the bowl of murky water everyone else had already washed their hands in towards me, “What are you thinking? You’ve been out on the town all day and you have a cold, and you don’t even wash your hands before you eat! No wonder you are still sick! Toubabou doesn’t know anything.”

November 18, 2010

Four Hundred Dollars

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 11:25 am

Four hundred dollars is a lot of money in Sikoro. Really, four hundred dollars is a lot of money anywhere.  Except when it isn’t: when it doesn’t pay half a month’s rent in NYC, when it’s less than a quarter of a roundtrip ticket to Mali.  When it is the difference between attending high school this year or dropping out with a ninth grade diploma to work as a maid for a year or so and then go back to your village and get married, it is both insurmountable and negligible.

The Malian public education system is not, on the surface, so completely broken as to charge its students four hundred dollars for a year of high school.  On the other hand, it is hard to place the blame anywhere else.  This story is complicated, and requires a disclaimer: my knowledge of the system and its foibles is anecdotal and observational, mixed in with a few words of wisdom from people working here in Mali with large development organizations who are trying to help restore order to the chaos.

Officially, the Malian government, in keeping with the exigencies of the Millennium Development Goals, provides universal primary education for all its students.  Now, ignoring the fact that universal should mean ‘completely free,’ but doesn’t mean that when uniforms and books still need to be purchased by cash-strapped families, the larger problem with this is that there aren’t enough schools.   Simply opening the doors of schools to all students regardless of ability to pay, doesn’t build more classrooms or train and hire more teachers.  This leads to all sorts of basic problems, but let’s group them in two main categories: 1) the level of instruction drops, and 2) parallel private school systems are set up to pick up the slack.  The two are, in many ways linked.

Why not just build more schools and more classrooms? Why not just open more teacher training institutions and hire more teachers? This all comes back to a basic lack of funds.  Though I have no proof of this, I am guessing that the older system that required more payment for education was somewhat like the user-fee system of healthcare:  the fees that students used to pay before universal primary education were an important component of school funding.  Considering the history of World Bank and IMF obligated structural adjustment programs, the national education budget was or is still bare bones.  With this increase in pupils, facilities and teachers are both overworked and financially precarious.  I have heard from many people that teachers rarely get paid on time, and what they get paid is very low.  The shortage of teachers also means that unqualified teachers are often hired.  Having spent hours helping my neighbor Issa translate paragraphs from English to French and being completely flummoxed as to what exactly a sentence was supposed to say, considering the ridiculous number of grammar and spelling errors in the original, I can vouch for the fact that at least one English teacher in Mali is not up to the task.  Particularly egregious, teachers—like many other state employees in many developing countries—take  on second (and third, and fourth) sources of income in the private sector.

This, understandably, distracts them from their jobs, greatly diminishing the quality of instruction pupils receive.  As Mama explained it to me, the government teachers are supposed to be with their students from 8-12, and then again from 2-5 after the lunch-break. “But they just show up in the morning, they write something on the board very fast, and then they run away off to their own schools.  They all would rather open their own school.  Often, the children come back here already at 10:00 in the morning. Is that normal?” Whether or not it is normal, it makes it very hard to learn anything.

Shoddy teaching sets even those students with space in the public school system up for failure.  This is also exacerbated by a decision that was enacted about ten years ago in favor of bilingual education.  Based off of research results in the US that bilingual students are more likely to succeed if they learn to read first in their mother tongue, Mali officially adopted a system in which every student has the right to learn to read and write in their first language, before being taught in French.  On the one hand, this sounds great, a preservation of cultures and languages, and a boost to future academic performance.  In reality, the idea is a joke.  In fact, it is so preposterous I don’t even know to what extent it figures into the problems I am raising here, perhaps everyone has just been ignoring this regulation since it is just an absolute impossibility.

The reason this is such a bad idea is that there is no basis for an educational system in any of the vernacular languages spoken by Malians.  First of all, despite the fact that the majority of Malians belong to the Bambara ethnic group, there are a dozen more ethnicities spread across this country—which  shouldn’t be a surprise considering that the Northern border is in the desert past even Timbuktu, and that Bamako is in the (comparatively) lush, tropical, South only an hour’s drive from the  border with costal Guinea.  Even imagining that linguistic diversity were not an issue, there is no base of teachers who even know how to read and write in Bambara, let alone teach it, let alone in any of the other languages.  Formal schooling was introduced by the French, therefore it occurred in the French language.  Every person in Mali educated through the formal school system began learning in French in the first grade, and their subjects were thereafter taught in French.  The only people with written Bambara knowledge are people who have specifically studied Bambara at the university level, those who were taught to read and write in Bambara in remedial education/literacy courses, and traditional scholars of N’Ko, the Bambara word for the language itself.  As far as I understand, this emphasis on a right to bilingual education has only served to dilute the emphasis on the importance of French in the classroom.  While a part of me thinks that a country like Mali has the right to decide it would like its official and professional language to be Bambara (the actual lingua franca), that is not a direction the country is heading in.  Formal sector jobs (both public and private) require French fluency.  The professional world happens in French, and records itself in French.  Allowing students to limp through school by letting them use Bambara as a crutch in the classroom only leaves them further handicapped later in life.

But that, of course, is if they manage to pass. Returning to the second problem, the parallel school system, means returning to the underpaid and overworked teachers.  A system of private schools has sprung up around Bamako, and I’m sure elsewhere in the country.  These schools are privately owned and for profit, but because of the space shortage, the government pays these schools to accept the overflow of students who could not fit into the public system.  In effect they have contracted out a large portion of their education system, which means even less oversight.  Though the state counts students enrolled in private school in their official numbers in the race towards “Education for All,” these are not government run schools.  I’m sure that this means some teachers rush out of their government jobs early to run to a private school where they are better paid, this time again by state funds.  I’ve heard that the government pays 300,000 CFA (or six hundred dollars) to the schools to educate a student for the year. I can’t quite believe that is how much they pay per student in the official public system.

Beyond this nebulous grey area of privately owned, state funded schools are the medersas.  These “Franco-Arab” schools are funded both by local Islamic groups and foreign ones, and they are the largest growing sector of the educational system.  As the government continues to lag behind the ever increasing number of students (in a country with the third highest fertility rate in the world), the medersas are being built faster and faster to fill the gap.  Parents send their children to these schools for a variety of reasons, somewhat tied to how religious the family is–but not entirely.  The elements that go into this choice are still a little ambiguous to me, but there is certainly an amount of Islamic clout that you claim for having attended madersa.

I have nothing substantive to say about the political side of this: I don’t know if these schools are places of political indoctrination though I have to suspect it.  What I do know is that the emphasis on Koranic teaching dilutes the educational experience to the point that I personally have not encountered any students educated purely within this system who can actually speak conversational French.  Though this doesn’t mean that there are none, this is clearly a failure.  I obviously cannot judge outgoing students’ Arabic abilities, though what I have heard seems to be an ability to recite Koranic passages and understand basic greetings. However, even if students were coming out of these schools fluent in Arabic, that still wouldn’t get Malian students very far in the professional world.  Without French, as I mentioned, you are pretty much sunk.

So here you have this dysfunctional, tripartite school system, in which the odds are set well against any student setting forth.  Except, of course, in primary school.  “You want universal primary education?” asks Mali, “You’re welcome to it.” And so, with a magic wand, everyone passes primary school.  There is no failing.  You can ‘redoubler’ a class, but eventually they will pass you and no matter how terribly you do on the exit exam, you will still officially have a primary school education.  But then, what to do with all these students who, due to the overcrowded classrooms, lack of books, distracted teachers, etc. never learned much of anything? How to make sure that a high school degree actually means something?  And what to do with all these students who took forever to inch their way through primary school, and are now far older than they are meant to be?  First make the primary school exit exam harder to pass.  Then, when students are examined again at the end of 9th grade, in the dreaded ‘DF’, make it incredibly difficult.  Only students who pass the DF are allowed to go on in the educational system.  If you fail it once, you can repeat ninth grade once.  You fail again, you’re out.  School is done with you.  If you pass with flying colors, you get “oriented” to a high school.  If you pass with a low score, you are placed squarely on the vocational school track.  Then, set strict age limits.  Once a student is over the age of 16, they cannot start high school.

And now we are back to our question of four hundred dollars.  Rokia Sanogo arrived in my courtyard around the time of the cinquantenaire.  She confused me at first, this awkward girl who refused to speak to me in full sentences, but then would laugh at me hysterically whenever I used Bambara phrases that up till then had been easily understood by my friends and acquaintances.  Finally, someone explained that she had come from ‘the village’ to go to high school in Bamako.  Except, when school started up on October 4th, she didn’t go.  Ma, Beiny and Bois all marched off with their new “shack-ies” (schoolbags).  Little Fatime hop-skipped-jumped out of the house with her dad on the way to nursery school.  The private school on the corner of our block was an explosion of fancy new back-to-school outfits and water-bottles on lanyards around small children’s necks.  But Rokia was still at home, and the next day as well.

The day after that I asked if she had gone to school, and she told me that no, “I haven’t been placed yet.” It seems, after much questioning, that the Malian school system administers the DF exam in June, after which they process student scores throughout the vacation.  At the beginning of the school year, they release the ‘orientation’ of every student: whether they will attend high school or vocational school, and where.  The reasons why Rokia, a girl born and raised in a village outside of Sikasso (6 hour drive from Bamako, on a good day), would have expected to be placed here, are beyond me.  For some reason, Mama had agreed to take on Rokia’s school expenses, etc, and to house her here for high school. The workings of the Malian “Grande Famille” obligations and politics are something that I doubt I could ever begin to fully understand.  But whether they had expected that she would be automatically placed here, or if they were going to go in and pull strings to ensure that it was fixed up that way at the end, I don’t know.  I just know that for days on end, Rokia borrowed my phone to call her parents and find out if her name had shown up on the list.  For a while there was still hope, the lists were late, no one had been placed.  But then the lists came out and her name wasn’t on them.

I mostly steered clear of this issue, mostly because I didn’t understand it, and partly because Rokia always had a somewhat accusatory air about her when she demanded my phone to call home.  Her French, considering she was supposed to be starting high school, is poor.  And I eventually discovered that her strange way of speaking to me in Bambara stems from the fact that her first language is Senopho, since she is from a small Senepho village. Even so, when she got off the phone each time, she would angrily explain that things weren’t working, in a way that made me feel like she expected me to fix it.  Why does this girl, appearing in my life a week ago, expect me to fix this for her? And anyway, I’m obviously the last person who can help her, considering that my grip on the intricacies of the system is abysmal compared to Mama (who has put 7 children through it) or any of the other Sanogo relatives in Bamako who made it through themselves.

Finally, in listening to a discussion between Mama and one of those mysterious relatives of her late husband who always come at night and whose names I never remember, I put the pieces together and understood that the issue came down to age.  Rokia is 19. You cannot start high school if you are over the age of 16.  She is too old. And so the campaign was launched to make Rokia 16.  You’d think that this might be the hard part, but no.  Glance at any grown-up Bamakois’s (person living in Bamako’s) birth-certificate, and glance back at the person, you will do a double take.  One of our community health workers consistently claims to be 24, one year older than I am. He has even showed us his birth certificate to prove it.  If that man is younger than 32, I’d be shocked.  In amongst the bureaucratic cogs that must be turned to get a new copy of a birth certificate, it is as easy as anything to shave off a year or two when you claim the date.  By the time you have stumbled your way through the mine-fields of primary education, you’re probably not the 11 year-old that the government thinks you ought to be.  By the time you actually succeed at passing the DF, it is unlikely that you are 14, like you are supposed to be. And you might need some extra years later on, in case you run into trouble in high school and have to repeat a grade.  Given the ubiquity of age changing, I assumed that now that the problem was identified, Rokia would be heading off to school toute de suite.  But she didn’t.

Several weeks into October, I asked Mama why Rokia wasn’t around the house the last few days.  “Has she started going to school?” “Oh no,” said Mama, “She can’t go to school.  She’s been working as a bonne since if she stays here and helps me I can’t pay her.”

A bonne? Bonne’s are village girls who come to the city for a year or two to earn the money for the extensive set of cooking ware and fabric that they are expected to have on entering their marriage.  Here in Bamako, your family is expected to provide you with this, I guess you would call it ‘trousseau,’ but in the villages there is little chance of amassing that much cash.  So you come to Bamako to slave away for families who can afford the luxury, for a pittance, usually about ten dollars a month.  What was a girl with a ninth grade diploma, destined for high school, doing as a bonne? “She can’t go to school because she is too old,” said Mama, interrupting my confusion.” “But I thought you were going to change her papers?” “We can’t,” she said simply, “it’s too late.” Sensing my incomprehension, she explained. “Here in Bamako, we know how to do these things.  As soon as Ma repeated third grade, I went and got her papers changed.  For Bois I did it before he took the CP.  But Rokia took the CP with her real papers.  And then now, she took the DF with her real papers.  When they looked at her exam to grade her scores, they know that she is too old. You cannot change them now, it is too late.  Now, she could go to the private school, but they charge 200,000 CFA (four hundred dollars) a year.  I called her family, I told them this, but they do not have the money.  You know that I do not have the money.  So she should be a bonne.”

I was flabbergasted by this dead end.  A girl from a village, having made it past the odds to get all the way to ninth grade and pass this difficult exam.  And then, no exit.

I had already heard about this division between government students and paying students, “Private Agents,” they seem to be called.  My friend Dauda had attended Koranic school all the way through 12th grade, but the way he explains it that doesn’t count if you want to go to university.  So he had started all over again in primary school, and has gotten back to 11th grade in the private system.  Because he is too old to go to school, he has had to pay every year.  In high school, not only are school fees covered, but properly placed students receive a small stipend to cover expenses.  Dauda wants to go on to medical school.  As a student far too old for the system, if he passes the exams he’ll be allowed in, but only if he pays large amounts of money while the other students are being paid to attend class.   But this was his choice, to return back through the whole system, and he talked about the difficulties cheerily enough, considering that his family is able to find the money to pay these fees.

I talked longer that night with Mama, trying to understand why the other, richer members of her late-husband’s family (this girls relatives), were not going to help Rokia.  Everyone I mentioned was a dead end.  For whatever reason, the people who feel obliged to provide for her have no means, and those with means do not feel obliged to provide for her. That, according to Mama, was the end of that. Rokia was lucky enough to have already found work with “Les Ivoiriens” down the block.  “Hopefully, when she has enough money, she’ll get married.”

Obviously, in the days that followed, the four hundred dollars nagged at me.  When I bought my ticket home, I cringed doubly, once for the hit to my bank account, once for the ease with which I was parting with more than twice the missing four hundred dollars.  Next year, I reasoned with myself, I’ll be employed.  With a little bit of economizing, I should be able to find $400 within even the paltriest of starting salaries.  I was still hesitant, feeling that it was not my place to help a girl that for some reason her own family didn’t seem especially motivated to help.  Part of it was personal.  Her attitude continued to grate on me.  The requests to use my phone increased and continued endlessly, and I began to resent the way she was eating through my phone credit, without ever a thank you.  Rokia never began to feel part of the family, though thinking about this only made me more aware of the arbitrariness of the family ties I do feel here.  Why would I feel differently if this were Papu’s education, or Ma’s? Are they really any more related to me?

October was almost over, a month of school already lost and I knew what I had to do.  I asked Mama if Rokia could still start school if she could pay.  She said yes, so I made my offer.  Always the pragmatist, Mama pointed out that one year wasn’t enough, what would happen after the first year was up?  I had already realized that signing Rokia up for one year of high school and then dropping her would be far worse than doing nothing at all, so I was ready to commit for all three remaining years.  Mama promised to talk to her ‘son’ who lives in another quartier, one of these mystery men related somehow to her late husband.  She would have him come to the house so I could talk things over with him.  He would know where she could or should enroll, and would help us set things up.  There seemed to be an unspoken agreement that until he came, Rokia was to be kept in the dark.

So I waited.  For a week I expected some information from Mama at any moment.  Then I started to search for a moment when no one was around to ask her what the situation was.  I asked once, she said she hadn’t had a chance to contact him yet.  Then Mama was hit with a bad case of malaria, and the family pretty much came to a halt.  We held our breath, I helped buy some medication. Abdoulaye, our neighbor nurse, treated her at home and she recovered enough to yell at me just as much as she always had.  With things back to normal, last night as I was on the way out the door to a friend’s going away dinner, I spotted Mama alone indoors.  As I said good bye, I asked if she had made any progress on the plans for Rokia.  “Rokia cannot go to high school,” she told me, “She is pregnant.”

Just like that, my four hundred dollars are back in my pocket, irrelevant, and Rokia is about to be hustled back to the village.  Evidently she’s four months along, she arrived here already in this ‘condition.’ “Am I supposed to take on all those expenses? No, she must go back where she came from.  Her parents have no means, she should live with her man.” “Is her man aware…?” I ask.  “Ha, is he aware, that is the question.  Does she even know who the proprietaire of the baby is? She arrived here, right away I asked her if she was pregnant she said no.  ‘Les Ivoiriens’ asked her, she said no.  Finally, I paid 2,000 CFA for a ‘text’, a midwife gave it to her and now the two lines both showed up.  She will stay to finish the month of work and then she must go, right away. Her stomach is already out.” She paused a bit on her angry tirade, and then said more softly, “She knows her parents have no means.  How can she mess around like that?”  I’m not entirely sure where Mama places the blame for Rokia’s messing around, quite possibly squarely back on Rokia herself.  But I have to think about that four hundred dollar tenth grade year, would there have been an hour of sex-ed throughout the whole of it?

And in all of this, what does Rokia want? Did anyone ask Rokia if she wanted to set out to the unknown world of Bamako to struggle through three more years of studies? Would she rather have stayed back home with her family? Would she rather have gotten married in the first place? Was she heartbroken to be denied schooling when her placement never arrived, or relieved? Did she already know that she wouldn’t be able to finish 10th grade this year anyway, or did her ignorance (or lack of access) to contraception extend to an ignorance of the signs of pregnancy? Though I live with her and see her every day, our relationship remains mute.  She greets me, giggles, and returns to whatever she was doing.  Soon she will be gone, as arbitrarily engulfed back into the great unknown of Sikasso and “la brousse” (the bush, as Malians and particularly expats in Mali refer to the countryside), as if I had never known to claim her has family.  Maybe someday when I return to Mali, Mama will tell me the baby’s name.  And who knows? Maybe her baby will have better luck with the educational system, and won’t need to rely on the largesse of an American stranger to find those impossible four hundred dollars.

November 14, 2010

Happy Birthday

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 5:15 pm


On Tuesday, September 21th, it seemed that the only thing on anyone’s mind in the entire country of Mali was the cinquantenaire.  Mali was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence from French colonial rule the next day, September 22, 2010. The event was not only notable for its historic significance, there was something in it for everyone: free concerts, at least five patterns of cinquantenaire fabric to buy and have sewn into ever fancier modeles, two huge parades, visiting dignitaires (Gadaffi!) and, most importantly, rumors that not just the 22nd but the 22nd, the 23rd and the 24th were all work holidays.  Even though official holidays from work only affect the formal sector of salaried employees—that is to say a tiny fraction of the population—all this and more equaled enormous cause for celebration.

As a visitor, I was happy to watch everyone preparing to showcase their national spirit, and even more interested to listen to the undertones of political debate (especially since no one seems to ever talk about politics here in Sikoro) over the grandiose spending in honor of the event.  “They are building an island in the middle of the river to build a great statue on.  Why do we need to spend all that money on a statue when a single tomato costs 100 CFA (20 cents)? And don’t they realize that the Niger is the lifeblood of our nation?  How can they risk impeding its flow, and cut off the water that nourishes the rest of the country?” “Anyway, its all financed by the Chinese.” “It’s the Libyans, Gaddafi is paying for the whole cinquantenaire.” “The Prince Agha Khan bought the national park, and now they made it beautiful for the prince but Malians can’t go inside.”

Different versions of the same questions have been burbling below the surface all over West Africa as country after country hit the 50 year mark.  Nigeria baked the largest cake in the world and suffered a homegrown terrorist attack.  Mali installed a fake waterfall on a lovers lane full of quaint lampposts, and outlined large thoroughfares with flashing, red, yellow and green lights; I imagine they look like Christmas light twinkling snakes of Malian flags if seen from above.  From car level, they look like a seizure waiting to happen. They are solar powered, and so will theoretically last forever.

The cinquantenaire phenomenon captured the national, continental, perhaps even global consciousness.  But in the Ballo-Sanogo household here in Sourakabougou, what most interested everyone, even more than all the rumors and excitement over the party that was to come, was that Tanti was in labor!

For me, Tanti’s pregnancy had been a bit shorter than the standard 9 month period.  Given that she went into labor on the eve of the cinquantenaire, she had to have been pregnant when I moved into the house in late January.  As time passed and the situation should have become obvious, I just figured that maybe she’d always been a bit plump, it seemed certain that she’d always been irritable, and she always told me that she never liked to have her picture taken.  For everyone else, I suppose the fact was so obvious that they never bothered to tell me.  That is, until one day in June, Mama and I were walking to the market, and she told me that when Tanti went into labor, I’d be the one to go with her to the clinic.  Sure that I must have heard wrong, I asked, “When Tanti does what?” And there it was, the Toubabou knows nothing.  I asked if it was a secret, she said, “That’s something that you can’t hide, can you? How could it be secret?” I asked if we would have the baptism party at our house, she said “Isn’t it for the propreitaire of the child to do that?” And so, in June, I was launched clueless into the murky waters of  Malian pre-marital pregnancy, a situation not at all uncommon here in Sikoro, but a total unknown to me.

The only picture Tanti let me take of her during her pregnancy

As soon as I had been told what was going on, I kept trying to see how I could have missed the signs which were so obvious. Certainly the normal silhouette for women’s clothing here is better equipped than the American one to hide a bump, but now that I knew, it seemed impossible that I could have missed it.  Mama would watch me watching Tanti and would laugh and laugh that I was afraid of Tanti’s belly.  Tanti would yell at me in rapid-fire Bambara, until, sick of being caught in the act, I tried to distance myself a bit.  I wanted to avoid being the bossy white girl, making pronouncements on Tanti’s health when the collective number of births to women living in our courtyard alone must be between 15 or 20.  I was aware that she seemed to be going to the clinic for prenatal visits, and that her boyfriend, Sinaly, was paying to fill the prescriptions she was given. I gave Mama an extra mosquito net to be sure that Tanti was protected from malaria.  Then once I brought home a lot of eggs so that she would get some protein.  She professed not to like eggs at all, Mama claimed that pregnant women cannot eat eggs, and I gave up on meddling entirely.

So on that Tuesday when Mama told me Tanti was having pains, and that they were going to go to the CSCOM that evening to see if this was the real deal, I was somewhat surprised.  Given my obliviousness to her condition, I certainly hadn’t felt capable of judging what stage she was at in her pregnancy. When I found out what was going on, Mama was already saying that she was due next month, which I found hard to believe.  She had also once mentioned that August 15th had been Tanti’s due date, but when a full month passed and Tanti was still doing laundry and climbing up and down the rocks in the courtyard, I figured I must have completely misunderstand.  And since Fanta (Papa’s mom, from back at Pig Corner) claimed to be due in October but already looked about twice as pregnant as Tanti did, I was expecting Tanti to be pregnant for a while longer.

But there she was pacing the courtyard in obvious pain, and I asked if we shouldn’t take her to the CSCOM that morning, as opposed to waiting till nightfall.  “No, explained Mama, “If we go in the day people will see, and they shouldn’t know she is going to the clinic until we are sure that it is really the moment.” Despite the fact that this made no sense to me, they obviously knew best, and they waited.  They went that night while I wasn’t home, and the people at the clinic evidently told them that it wasn’t time.  On the morning of the 22nd, while the whole family gathered around the TV to try to catch a glimpse of Mama’s oldest son Lamine marching  in uniform as a newly minted soldier in the military parade, Tanti paced up and down the opposite side of the yard. No one paid too much attention, we were all too engrossed in president Amadou Toumani Touré’s (ATT’s) wardrobe choices (austere black outfit, neither Western suit nor Malian boubou, with very un-head-of-state baseball cap), his amazing ability to hold a salute for the entire length of the parade, and the magnificently terrifying figure that Gaddafi cut in his swirls of white and purple bazin.  While I was in the city that day and that night to celebrate the occasion and the day off , I kept calling neighbors with phones to find out if Tanti had given birth yet.  They all told me no, not yet.

That night she slept at the clinic, and Mama explained to me that it wasn’t the Sikoro Community Health Center, it was a different, private clinic down the street.  The public clinic was too full.  Thursday, I came back early, expecting to meet my newest Malian brother or sister.  But Mama was back at the house, explaining that Tanti had been evacuated to the health  reference center.  Sinaly’s sisters were going to spend the night with her there so Mama could get some rest.  I was immediately alarmed, but she told me there was nothing wrong, the people were just worried that Tanti hadn’t given birth yet so they had sent her there.  When I came back from showering, Mama told me that Tanti had given birth to a baby boy! She was okay, the baby was okay, the sisters were with her, and we would go see her in the morning.

Mama and I chatted while we watched the civilian parade on a TV.  Held at the stadium, it was more of a ballet than a parade, with hundreds of Malians moving together to act out the history of Mali.  The soldiers were still featured prominently, and my friend Bai came running in to tell us that he had just seen Lamine.  Sad to have missed it, we watched more closely, and I noticed that there were people holding up colored squares of paper on one side of the bleachers.  They were creating giant mosaics of important Malian historical figures and their quotes. ATT’s outfit was designed to make up for the disappointment of the day before.  A full Malian boubou, it was made of the shiniest white bazin,  with a small Cinquantenaire logo on the left breastpocket.  But it was when he turned around and raised his arms to wave at the crowd and you saw the giant red-green-yellow cinquantenaire logo on his back that the full ensemble combined to create the effect of Malian superman.


Superman Logo



As we talked with Bai about the parade and about how tired Tanti must be after all that labor, Adama came over.  As one of only two courtyard residents with a functional phone, he is the official communicator between the house and the outside world on most evenings after 9PM when he arrives home from the artisanal market.  He told Mama that she had to go to the health reference center right away. The baby hadn’t cried, he was being evacuated immediately to the Pediatric Ward of the city hospital, the sisters were going with him, and Mama had to go stay with Tanti so she wouldn’t be alone.  The Pediatric Ward is the place of last resort here, we were all frightened.  What was wrong with the baby? Nothing, he was just so tired that he hadn’t cried, so they wanted to get him checked out.  Bai drove Mama to the reference center on her moto, leaving the rest of us waiting and wondering.


As I lay in bed reading, trying to fall asleep, I heard knocking at my door.  A small child I didn’t know was telling me something about Ma, Mama’s 11 year old daughter, who appeared to be sitting right across the courtyard.  Finally I understood, she was afraid to go to bed because Mama and Tanti were gone, and her older brothers were all still out chatting and drinking tea with their friends.  She didn’t want to be alone in the room, so she was falling asleep on the ground outside.  I told her to come sleep in my room, but she refused.  I told her I’d go into her room with her, and prove that there was no one there.  She refused. Bai came home so I asked how Tanti was.  “Foyi-t’ala” (she has nothing, meaning, nothing is wrong).  Ma perks up from her sleepiness and her fear, and like the true little sister she is, with extreme interest asks “A be kashi la?” (Is she crying?) She looked relieved but maybe also a tad disappointed when Bai told her that no, she wasn’t crying she was just tired.

Mama came home early the next morning, and we called Sinaly to get news about the baby. “Est-ce que ale man kashi folo?” (Hasn’t he cried yet?) “Ale kashira” (He cried) “A nyogoyara?” (He’s healed?) “Ayi, a segenna kojugu” (No, he’s so tired).    And that was all we knew.

Makoroba (Adama’s mother, known as The Old Woman named Ma), went to fetch Tanti at the health reference center.  She was weak and in a lot of pain, but everyone told me that there was nothing wrong with her.  I was shocked to see her back so soon, not more than 12 hours after such a difficult birth, but I knew that that is normal here.  Women aren’t welcomed into the clinic until a labor is well advanced, the woman is expected to do that first part on her own.  And after it is over, you get to spend the night or just a few hours, and then you need to go back home.  It’s a question of space, and a question of the unpleasantness of hospitalization here. Your family has to constantly shuttle back and forth with food and clean clothes, it is hot and stuffy and full of sick people, and doctors are constantly giving you new prescriptions that cost money to fill.  No one wants to stay any longer than is absolutely necessary, but it still pained me to see her walking around when it seemed to cause her so much pain. I told her to lie down and I would bring my fan so she could nap comfortably.  She said no, they would leave right away to go to the hospital so she could breastfeed the baby.  “Maimouna,” she said looking at me, with less force and self assurance than I’d ever seen her speak,  “den mankene kojugu.” (Maimouna, the baby is really sick.)

They left, and we waited for them to come back that night.  They didn’t, and no one had any news.  I bemoaned the fact that Mama did not own a telephone.  On TV, the cinquantenaire events continued with the parade of the private sector, which seemed like a bit much as a category. Though these boubous were shinier and more ornate, if such a thing were possible, it seemed to me everyone looked a bit bored by that point.

In the morning, I kept asking the kids if there was any news, and there still wasn’t. I listened to the members of the family and the friends on the block have the same conversation over and over again “What is wrong with the baby?” “Oh well, he is just so tired. You know, she was in labor for three days, such a long time. Of course he’s tired.”  Finally Abdoulaye, the only other member of the household with a phone, told me he’d been at the hospital yesterday.  “What is going on, what is wrong with the baby, is he doing better, when can he come home?” I asked, bombarding him with questions. “Well, the baby is really tired.” I was growing more and more frustrated with the diagnosis of “tired”, especially coming from Abdoulaye, a practicing nurse.  Tired doesn’t require that you spend two full days in the ICU of the pediatric ward.  Tired doesn’t explain why the labor was so long, why the birth was so difficult and so painful, or whether or not the baby and Tanti will be okay.

Finally Mama came home.  Again I posed the same string of questions, and she told me that  “Foyi ta den la, a segenna droon” (There’s nothing wrong with him, he’s just tired).  ‘Had she talked to the doctors?’ ‘No they don’t tell her anything.’ ‘Had Sinaly talked to the doctors?’ ‘No, they don’t tell him anything.’ ‘Was he at the hospital now?’ ‘No he had been there before, but now his brother’s wife was staying with Tanti. He has already spent 150000 CFA ($300) on the delivery and hospitalization costs. That’s a lot of money.’

Mama had come home to cook food and fetch clean clothes.  We agreed to go back together tomorrow. I was determined to quiz the doctors, to find out what was actually wrong with the baby, somehow ascertain if the treatment was really effective, and make sure Tanti was okay.

Gabriel Toure Hospital is not what you think of when you imagine the horrors of overcrowded, undersupplied, crumbling African hospitals.   The place is clean and white, with tile floors and seemingly sufficient space.  Though it is disconcerting from the Western context to see scores of people, mostly women, lying on the hospital floor on brightly colored plastic mats, I quickly realized that this was not evidence of the conditions of hospitalization for the patients, but instead for the accompagnateurs, in this case the parents. We found Tanti in the corner.  “Eh, Maimouna nana!” (Oh wow, Maimouna came!) she said smiling.  We chatted together, and it seemed that there was no news about the baby.  The only thing that had happened was that the doctors  had given another very expensive prescription, and Sinaly had had to go all the way to the other side of the river to find the medicine.

As soon as the doctor came over to talk to them, I was going to use my toubab status to find out what was going on.  Except the doctor never came over.  There was no interaction between the medical staff and Mama, Tanti, or Sinaly’s sister, except to discuss a medication that had gone missing overnight but was then eventually found. No status updates.  No diagnosis.  No prognosis.  No one allowed to go back and see the baby except Mama, Tanti and Sinaly’s sister.  Finally I just followed Sinaly’s sister back into the ward, hoping no one would notice and stop me. I made it in, and was confronted with a room full of gleaming incubators on my left, and a room full of tiny, baby sized ICU beds on the other.  There was Sinaly’s sister, so she must be near the baby.  All the babies looked tiny, but these babies weren’t in incubators, so he must not be premature. “Look,” she told me, laughing a little, “he’s the one with the huge head, just like Sinaly.

Staring at this baby, I had no idea if his head was big or small, if he was too pale or okay, if he was tiny or normal sized.  I never have had anything much to do with three day old babies before.  All I could see was how fast his breathing was, and how his face was obscured by a teeny, baby sized oxygen tube in his nose.  I tried to remember anything I knew about babies and neonatal care and the only relevant observation I could ascertain was that he did not, unlike his baby neighbors, have a central line feeding tube. Maybe that was a good sign, that he could eat? But they weren’t letting Tanti breastfeed.  And how could he possibly sustain such fast breathing? I tried to figure out who to question, but the nearest (very professional very efficient looking) nurse descended at that moment to kick me out of the ward.  “She has to go,” she told Sinaly’s sister in Bamabara, “she can’t be in here you know.”  Not wanting to anger anyone, I left, figuring I’d come back in to try to ask questions later.

But Mama wouldn’t let me.  She said that if I went in, the hospital staff would think that the family was putting on airs, having a toubab pry into their business. When I left, she said, they would insult the family and provide inferior treatment.  Sinaly would ask the doctor what was going on tomorrow morning.  Since only the interns were around right now over the weekend, they didn’t have any information to give anyway.  After my third attempt to convince her to let me talk to them failed, I gave up and left, saying I would come back tomorrow to talk to the doctor.


As I sat in the new office later that night watching a movie on my computer with another volunteer, Mama stuck her head in the compound door.  “We’re back,” she said.  Excited, I ran out to great her.  “Yes, the child is dead.  So we came home,” she said matter-of-factly.  “The child is dead? When did he die?” “Just now.  Tanti is already at the house.”

We left the movie paused as I told Alex what had happened. And then I sat there unable to believe it.  Of course, I had known that the evacuation to the hospital meant the baby had slim chances for survival.  I had been surprised he had survived the first night, and the second, and the third.  But that very survival had encouraged me.  And having seen him just a few hours before, and being told over and over again that he was only tired had reassured me.  Perhaps, I had convinced myself, he was really and truly just fatigued, and they were keeping him for observation.  Now, instead, he was dead and I still knew nothing about why.  No illness, just one baby so tired he wound up dead.  Hundreds of dollars spent on his care, people bustling in spotless scrubs with gleaming tools working to save his life, and yet, he’s dead and Tanti and Mama are back home.

When I think about child mortality in Mali, I think about children dying in villages, far from medical personnel.  I think of children dying in Sikoro because they arrive at the clinic too late for doctors and nurses to be of help.  I think of children dying of the diseases we treat in our program: malaria, malnutrition, respiratory infections and diarrheal diseases.  I never thought of this particular way.

I didn’t know quite what to expect as I followed Mama back home a few minutes later.  Sobbing? Normalcy? The family was sitting silently outside the door of their room.  Bai was over, and was quietly offering blessings.  People began to mutter softly about how the pediatric ward is bad, how they just take your money and don’t do anything. Murmurs about tiredness, three days of labor, etc. I heard someone enter the courtyard, and turned around see a soldier loom out of the darkness.  It was Lamine, he’d taken 24 hour leave.  He didn’t say anything, or sit down, or even really look at Tanti.  But his presence made me feel a little better, I don’t know about anyone else.  We all continued to sit, and after showering and changing into civilian clothes, Lamine joined us as well.

Mama began telling us that we should go to bed, but we lingered.  Finally everyone admitted to feeling tired, Ma was already falling asleep on the ground.  Everyone started to shift and move towards bed.  Except Tanti.  “Ne te’n da,” she said (I will not go to bed).  “Moona?” (Why) I asked? “Sunogo te’n a” (I’m not sleepy), she said. “Y man segen folo?” (Aren’t you tired?) “N te se ka sunogola, ne te se” (I can’t sleep, I can’t).  “Moona?” (why again?) At this point Mama butted in. “She can’t sleep,” she said, “because she was crying.  I told her that she shouldn’t cry over a baby, that that isn’t something to cry over, but she didn’t listen to me, she cried anyway.  Is that a good idea?” I attempted to counter with a feeble, “Sometimes, its important to cry.” She did not seem convinced.

I hated this culture that shuns showing emotion, I hated Mama’s jovial tone and above all I hated my inability to speak fluently. My language-induced-muteness was all the more frustrating, not just because it meant that I had no genuine words of comfort for Tanti,  but also because it had gotten in the way of us forming a real relationship, one which would have positioned me to be a support in this moment. I hated not understanding how others, and therefore I, were reacting and dealing with this event.  I hated most of all not understanding what had happened to the baby.  What happened to Tanti, why was the birth so difficult, why was the baby so tired? It felt somehow as if, if I just knew that there had been something actually wrong with him, that something beyond negligence, incompetence, lack of resources had killed him, I would feel better.

It was tempting to turn the situation into a narrative that involved me.  Perhaps, if I had only gone to hospital the first day to offer to pay, they would have bought the medicines faster and the baby would have been okay.  If I had only gone with her to the CSCOM during the labor, maybe I would have understood what was happening and would have been able to help at whatever moment things went wrong.  Maybe I should have gone with her on her prenatal visits? But I knew that this wasn’t about that.  Sinaly was committed to taking care of her and their baby.  He had the resources and the willingness to do so.  This wasn’t my story.  I just happened to be here to witness it.

A week past.  Sinaly came to visit almost every night.  Hoardes of female friends and family members came to pass each day in the compound.  They all brought their babies and I couldn’t stand to watch Tanti watching them breastfeed.  They all would have come if the baby had lived.  Thursday came and went, without the festivities of the baptism.  No one killed the goat, no one cooked beans and zame, the multitudes of women didn’t descend in the evening with their loads of gifts.

This story is about that absence.  It is also a story that can flail endlessly searching for blame.  I can criticize everyone involved: myself, the doctors, the family, the hospital, the country for celebrating fifty years of independence when a baby can still die this way.  It seems to me though, this desire to know where to pin the blame is coming from that same American cultural need to understand what happened to the baby.  As if that could make it better, somehow.  Underneath, this story isn’t about any of that.  This is a story about a country setting forth into the unknown of its 51st year, unsteady and unsure of exactly what that ought to mean.  More importantly, this story is about a baby who isn’t here.



Tanti has opened up to me more now that my Bambara is better and now that I (and my fellow MHOP volunteer Devon) supposedly saved her life by whisking her away to the hospital the day she fell ill due to complications caused by the delivery.  That is another story; she is healed now, and back to her loud and assertive self.  We sat on a mat in the office compound in the early evening, a couple of weeks after all of this had ended, and I tried to ask if Sinaly wanted more children. My Bambara failed, so I asked something more along the lines of, “Does he want the baby?”  She told me that Sinaly goes to visit the baby in the cemetery every day.  “Every day,” she said, “he goes to see him.  Is that normal Maimouna?” I said it seemed normal to me, if that was what he wanted to do.  “Do you go too?” I asked. “No,” she said, “I won’t ever go.  That place is scary.” She paused.  I ventured to ask, “Does he want to have other children?”  “No,” she gestured forcefully.  “And you?” “No, none, never.” “Never? Sometime you will have a new baby!” “No, I never want to do that again.”  “But don’t you want a child?” “I’m not having another one. I’m going to buy my babies instead,” she paused, “in the market!” she yelled triumphantly, and we laughed.

November 9, 2010

Phone Home

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 10:28 pm

Last week Dr. Diak, Adama and Dramane were sitting working around our brand spanking new conference table.  I have no idea what sparked this discussion.

“That kind of illness,” said Dr. Diak, “is hard to treat.” “It’s mental,” said Adama.  I said nothing, seeing as I was paying more attention to the printer in the corner of the room, wrestling with it to convince it not to jam and not to print child growth charts sideways.  “No,” said Dr. Diak,  “it isn’t exactly that it is psychological.  It is physiologically based with psychological symptoms.” Huh? “It is sociophisiological.  To treat it, you must be a doctor.  If it is purely psychological, you don’t need to be a doctor to treat that.  That is what psychiatrists do, and anyone can deal with that who wants to do psychological treatment.  But for this, we do treatment and psychoanalsysis.  Doctors have almost two years of courses on this.”

This discussion, though incomprehensible, seemed too perfect of a lead-in to last month’s cellphone discussions.  I couldn’t resist breaking in.  “Speaking of psychosocial maladies,” I began, “whatever happened with the cellphones?”


“Oh that,” said Diak, “it turns out it was just a rumor.”

“Ah bon?” ask Dramane and I.

“Oh yes, it turned out it was just a rumor started by Orange.”

“What?”  Of all the people to start such a rumor, Orange the cell-phone giant?

“Yes, it turns out that Malitel (rival cellphone company) had just had a promotion, and Orange was about to follow them with one of their own.  So they started the rumor.”

“Wait,” said Dramane, “doesn’t that mean it was started by Malitel, against Orange, if they were the ones who were about to have a promotion.  So that people wouldn’t call?”

“No, it was Orange.”

Staring at him, perplexed.  Makes no sense.

“You see, they knew that everyone would call their proches (those who are close to them) to warn them not to answer their phones.”

Brilliant.  Just brilliant.  Oh Orange, you know the Malian relationship with the cell phone all too well.  If there is something mostly useless to say over the phone, every single person will scrape together their last coins to find the money to buy credit to call their entire family, and everyone they know, to say it to them.

This is not restricted to cellphone disease threats. Despite the high price of credit, I am constantly bombarded by people calling just to greet.  We go through the entire greeting process, “Good afternoon.” “Hi, good afternoon.” “How are you?’ “Good” “And the family?” “They have no problems.” “And your mother?” “She has no problems.” “And your husband?” “He has no problems.” “And your young children?” “They are just fine.” (I have given up denying the existence of said husband and young children). “And you, are you doing well?” “No problems.” “And your father?” “He goes well.” “And the family?” “They are fine.” “And the nuclear family?” They have no problems.”

Then I pause, waiting for the person to say whatever their reason was for calling.

“Well,” they say, “it was just a salutation (greeting). Have a nice day.” “Amina.”

And that’s all.

Just wait, Orange, Seliba (Tabaskie) is in two weeks.  On that day, no one can even make calls, because the lines are so full (incidentally, and not coincidentally, both Orange and Malitel have major promotions on and around the day of the fete, which both allows them to profit from the calling craze and exacerbates it).   But everyone dutifully presses redial over and over again, trying to get through to their proches.  And when they do, they repeat the list of benedictions. They begin, “Fa tigi allah, Ba tigi Allah, Ce tigi Allah, Den tigi Allah, ” (I believe the translation for this bit is something like, May your father be with God, May your mother be with God, May your husband be with God, May your children be with God, insert any other family member here, on down to grandchildren), then continue on to, Allah ka san nyogon keme, (Let us celebrate 100 more years together), then add in several more general good will benedictions, and finish, finishes with “Allah ka ya fama” (May god forgive us), to which their proche is obligated to reply “Allah ka bee ya fama” (May God forgive all of us).  At which point the proche starts the whole thing again, and then you hang up as fast as you can.  It’s kind of like how you have to call every member of your family on Thanksgiving, but instead of asking how cousin Joe is doing, the conversation has to end immediately after the part where you both say “Happy Thanksgiving.”

Personally, I like Orange’s promotions.  100% bonus on my credit means that if I buy 10,000 CFA credit during a promotion ($20), that can usually last me more than a month, if I’m lucky.  Otherwise, that 10,000 CFA of credit just disappears far too quickly.  This seems to me an obvious way to deal with the credit extortion practiced by the cell phone companies.  But most people don’t have money lying around to buy a lot of credit at once, and they more often buy credit in anticipation of a particular call they are making.  They know they need to make a call, so they go out and buy 1,000 of credit.  This also means that having credit on their phones means they make calls right away to use it up.

For Malians, a bonus credit day seems to be just that, a specific day on which your credit is worth more.  Nevermind that the credit you buy continues to be worth double for months afterwards. A friend explained to me that far from seeing those 100% of bonus as a treat, he sees it as an inconvenience for the network. “Personally, I don’t like the promotions.  On those days,  everyone just makes so many calls, the network doesn’t work properly.  I don’t see the point in participating.”  Buy the credit and store it up for later? But of course not.

Anyway, to finish my summary of office life, I have to give you a scene from today’s job interviews.

For context, the newest American volunteer who arrived here is Asian-American.  This has caused somewhat of a stir on the block, as people ask me constantly about La Chinoise.  As I have dutifully explained that she is, in fact, American but she does have family that came from Korea, word has spread.  Instead of asking if she is Chinese, they now just ask, “That new toubabou, I think she looks a little bit Korean, how is she doing?”

But back to today’s moment.  We are looking for a Malian to replace some or most of my job as Action for Health Coordinator, and did several job interviews today.  Dr. Diak was giving the intro speech at the beginning, which included the eloquent welcome, a description of the program, a description of the job, and then a discussion of the things the person needs to be capable of doing.  “You see,” he finished, “we are a diverse group here, on this team. You have to be able to get along with all kinds of people.  We have a little bit of everyone here.  We are a bit black, a bit white, we are even just a touch of yellow.”

November 1, 2010

The Cross-Cultural Work Environment

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 2:11 pm

One day we were sitting in strategic planning session #5125 for the future of MHOP, and Dr. Diak’s phone rang.  He obviously immediately answered the phone, while still sitting in the meeting.  This is not noteworthy.  After a few dirty looks from the American side of the team, he got up and took his (loud) conversation outside.  But almost immediately, he came running back in.

“ I have an announcement,” he said, “that I think will be of interest to everyone here.”  We look up, waiting to hear that the fridge has arrived at the clinic, or that some medical bigwig friend of us is going to introduce us to the president. But no.
Dr. Diak giving a slightly more important speech at the clinic opening. In the center in the suit.

“I just received a call from our association of concerned medical professionals, they confirm the news that I’m sure some of you, within this very group, have already heard.”

The Americans look at him blankly, the Malians nod.

“As you know, there have been rumors across the city of Bamako and these rumors are true.  Patients are really, right now, at the hospital, and the doctors in my association are going to investigate the scientific causes right now.”

Americans wildly look around at each other, wondering if we are in the middle of a cholera outbreak.

“The phone calls we have all heard about, are real. Please do not answer the phone for numbers that you don’t know.  These calls, they can even come from real numbers, Malian numbers that look like my phone number or yours.”

Looking around, he interrupts himself.

“I see that some of you may not know what I am referring to.”


“Since yesterday, there have been rumors flying around Bamako about people who are falling ill, and it is caused by phone calls.  Some unfortunate criminals are using the cell phone network to injure people.  They are calling from special numbers, and when people answer the phone they start to bleed from their ears and their noses. These numbers look just like regular Malian numbers, so it is imperative not to answer the phone unless the number is saved in your phone already.

Many people in Bamako have someone close to them in the hospital because of this.  This is very serious, I have just had it confirmed from the head of our association, this is not just a rumor. They are heading to the hospital right now to examine those who are ill, and to discover the causes of this illness and how it is spread.”

“It’s true,” said my Malian colleague Adama, “this is all anyone was talking about all last night.”

There were many issues with this going through my head, such as the fact that this was crazy, such as incredulity that Diak had interrupted a meeting to tell us this, and a strong urge to laugh.  I also was thinking about the fact that about 85% of calls I receive are from numbers not saved in my phone book.

This is mostly because in Mali, everyone has one “puce” (sim card) for Orange, the French mobile giant, and one for Malitel, the privatized spinoff of the national Malian telephone company Sotelma. They switch back and forth between puces so as to get the best possible rate on calls depending on which company the person they are calling has.   Then of course, since the phone system here is prepaid, everyone is perpetually out of credit, so they are constantly calling you from someone else’s phone (and then hanging up before you can answer, called “beeping”) in order to get in touch with you. If I stopped answering calls from unknown numbers, I would never talk to anyone who wasn’t American.  But that would be going a bit far anyway, and this is a digression. More importantly, I was somewhat curious to know what was actually happening to these bleeding people in the hospital.

So I made the mistake of asking, “Wait, what? How does answering the phone make people sick?”

And so the discussion devolved into potential ‘scientific’ scenarios in which this would be possible.  This sounded like screenplay ideas for the next terrible horror movie franchise.

“Well we all know, of course,” responded Diak, “that if the decibel level is high enough it can injure your ear drums.”

Our Programs Manager, Erin, wondered aloud whether perhaps a phone wouldn’t be capable of being that loud.  Also, would ear-drum damage cause ear bleeding, let alone nose bleeding?

And so the discussion became an exceedingly strange attempt to reconcile skepticism (from everyone) with what seemed to be the extreme belief on the Malian side that what the rumors said must be true.

In the midst of all this, another Malian colleague’s cell phone rang. It was a call from someone not saved in his phone book. He showed it to us, shrugged, and and answered the phone.  We all held our breath. No blood ensued.

Just another day at the office.

October 27, 2010

I never forget the usuals

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 11:17 am

September 20th, 2010

And so, we moved offices.

It feels like the end of an era, and maybe it is a symbol for the beginning of the end of my MHOP era.  I’ve been here more than eleven months, and every single working day (and most of the other days besides) I have walked the same walk through Sikoroni, down the hill, past the market and the creek that divides Sikoro from Hippodrome, next to the soccer field, all to reach the office.  It is a long walk, but I have never known how long, because whenever I try to time it I get stopped so often to greet so many different people, that by the time I check my watch upon arrival, the time elapsed is meaningless.

Now, I’ll probably never know, because we just moved our office to the compound directly next door to my house.  When I say directly next door, I mean the compound walls are adjacent.  I mean that when we first arrived and didn’t have enough copies of the keys, I had Malian colleagues walking in on me while I was half asleep and getting dressed to ask if I had the key to the office, because they couldn’t get in.  That close might be a little too close, but it’s still a compound of our own, right smack in the middle of Sikoro-Sourakabougou. It was kind of impossible to imagine this when I arrived.

The way it always was, required an intricate commute.  Part one was leaving the compound.  That meant saying goodbye to Batuma, while she shrieked Mamoooo!, and then listening to Mama’s pearl of wisdom for the day.  “You shouldn’t go out with your hair like that.  I don’t know if you have to put a head wrap on or what, but you must at least brush it, or something.” “Where are you going with two big bags like that? Are you moving to the hotel in the city?” (What hotel? Where does she think I spend my time?).

Mama, in a less confrontational mood than usual

Then I would say hello to my neighbors as I walked down the street.  If any of the old men of the neighborhood were around so early in the day, I greeted them while I went past the boutique.  The dugutigi (village chief) often sits there, with some of his brothers and counselors.  One man is somewhat blind, and he always greets me (in English) “Hi! Hi! How-are-you? I’m fine, good morning,” no matter what time of day it may be.  He likes to tell me “My patron, elle est American, Hillary with-a-K.” I can only infer that he feels strongly about Hillary Clinton, and is not familiar with the hard ‘C’ English consonant.

But I digress.  Past the boutique, I would walk down towards the egg stand where my friend Dauda works.  You already know that my favorite egg-stand restauranteur is Diallo, but during Ramadan I had to come up with a new breakfast plan.  Diallo was staying up all night working, so as not to miss the 4AM pre-dawn breakfast rush, and since he has no employees, was often too tired to stick around till 8 or 9 to serve the, surprisingly large, non-fasting population breakfast. After a few mornings without my daily sweetened-condensed-milk-latte fix, when I was starting to go into egg sandwich withdrawal, I decided it was time to seek other options.  So I discovered that Dauda’s sandwiches were actually better (more onions and more bouillon powder in the sauce), though his coffee didn’t quite cut it.  So I’d greet Dauda, and the carpenter and the rasta who sit on the bench next door, and then either take my breakfast there or head on my way.

Dauda and I in his Boutique


From there, I could go about 20 yards before passing Fatou’s house, where I’d have to stop again.  Fatou is one of those intensely sassy Malian girls who could be anywhere from 14 to 25 years old.  She is also one of the loudest people I’ve met in a country full of extremely loud speakers.  “Mai! Hey Mai! Mai! Come over here, you hear me?” I had certainly heard her, and would probably have heard her even if I had still been lying in bed.  I’ve trained her over time to limit her extreme enthusiasm to a simple greeting exchange, but sometimes she still would feel the need to expound at great length about my how remiss I am in my visits and presents to her, and about how wonderful or horrible my clothes happened to be.  I don’t have any idea how she always knew exactly when I’d be passing, but she had a sixth Maimouna sense to step out onto the road at exactly the right moment to catch me on my way.

After extricating myself from Fatou, I’d pass the next courtyard where the old man always required a joke about my cows in America before I could pass.  From there I had a free hundred yards that were usually safe from interruption.  Then I’d hit the Gaku household at Pig Corner, and be attacked by the combined forces of Tata and Papa as they came flying out of the house at full speed, grabbing whatever limbs felt handy to them.

Papa got big!

After greeting the family, and whatever MHOP Americans who happened to be living there at the moment, I’d head out again.  Before I could start walking again,  I’d never pass by without greeting Penda Sidibe, a traditional healer who sells herbs and tells fortunes out of a small tin shack by the side of the road. She claims the title of my first Bambara teacher, and has an incredibly cute grandson named Moustaphe.  Alex Ruby taught him to high five and fist-pound, so I always kept that tradition alive.

Penda and I on Selifitini

From there, it was a straight shot to the hill, , unless I got stopped by the energetic kids of Oumou Camara, one of our Community Health Workers, and went over to say hi.

Oumou and I all dolled up

While trying to make sure I didn’t trip on the loose gravel or get hit by any motos during the descent, I’d remember to greet the women selling frou frou (fried dough balls) and fried fish outside their house.  Then it was usually, finally, a brief straight shot to Diallos.

View down the hill, don't trip, Diallo's on your left.

At Diallo’s, even if I wasn’t eating, I’d always stop to greet.  I’d greet Diallo the Tailor in his shop in French, his kids, Adama and Badra, in Bambara, Assaita (Diallo’s wife) in my poor attempt at Fula, and Diallo himself in English.  “How is the morning? You are sleeping well?” Since the remodel, Diallo is getting more business, particularly because of his fancy cable TV.  He has five channels, with fascinating programs like a documentary on French summer camps, endless Malian music videos of women in bazin with giant headwraps swaying back and forth, and cartoons.  But his biggest hit is a DVD of all the Backstreet Boys greatest hits.  Some mornings I’d hear Larger than Life maybe five times before getting to work.  On arriving at Diallo’s, I’d often buy ‘paté’ from Tene, a woman who sets up a table on the street in front of Diallo’s. Paté is a fried dough stuffed with ground beef cooked with some sort of green leafy thing, more reminiscent of an empanada than any French liver based food that the name might remind you of.  Deep fried breakfast is something that my stomach never quite got used to, but it was so delicious, I couldn’t resist. I’d greet Tene and try to convince her daughter, Kadia, to shake my hand instead of crying in terror.  By the time we moved, I’d gotten so far that she’d hold her hand out even before I asked her too.  But picking her up was still off limits.

Did I tell you we picked a name? Welcome to BamakObama, Cafe Americain!


After buying my usual pate, I’d sit and chat with Diallo over the sounds of the Back Street Boys.  By this time on my walk, I’d have been getting pretty late for work, so I’d drink my thick, syrupy, condensed milk ‘coffee’ more quickly than I would have liked, before starting out again to confront the market.  The Sikoro market, you must understand, is on the main Sikoro road.  The main Sikoro road is paved from where it begins in Hippodrome, until the instant the market starts.  This means that even in the dry season, the Sikoro market is a collection of stalls on top of a muddy slick of the associated liquids of the market.  But in the rainy season, the passage of so many marketing feet combined with so many vehicles crossing through creates a sludge that is often about ankle deep.  I have to admit that sometimes I deviated from my normal track by two full blocks, just to avoid arriving at work with my feet covered in unspeakable black goo. But if it was a dry day, or a day when I had the energy and courage to hop and dodge around the goop, I’d head through the market.

First I’d pass Fatoumata, a woman who sells firewood.  She was so ecstatic about meeting my mother when she was visiting that my mom’s reaction was “I feel like a celebrity just for being your mom!” I’ve never done absolutely anything to merit such excitement, other than greet her to the best of my Bambara abilities.  After replying “Amiina” to her blessings, I’d head into the depths of the market itself to pick up vegetables to cook for lunch.  Maimouna, the woman selling condiments (Maagi bouillon cubes, garlic, pepper, salt, and all the things required for the small reparatory of Malian recipes) would call out “Ne togo ma,” meaning something like “The one who has my name,” and I’d grab some garlic, negotiating through the crowds and muck to get past her to the good eggplants and the reddest tomatoes.

Fanta the woodcutter.

Finally past the market, I’d try to avoid being hit by any of the motos careening around the unnecessarily complicated intersection, and then start on the home stretch towards the office.  First passing the beggars on the bridge, then greeting the guy who sells beautiful bracelets and earrings he makes out of goat horn, then saying hi to Fofana, the owner of the nicest grocery store in the area, and finally turning the corner past the sparking metal workshop that is constantly churning out doors, window shutters, school benches and the special Malian “Most Uncomfortable Chair in the World” chairs, I’d be on the home stretch.  I’d arrive at the boutique where I’d greet my fisherman friend “Jege” (Fish), and the boutique owner Samba.  Finally I’d be at the office, ready to head upstairs and start the day.

Now, I only do that walk when I go into town. The walk is still the same, as are the people on the route, but our interactions have changed and life has picked up a different rhythm. Maybe my relationships with some of these people have improved since now I have to seek them out.  On the other hand, when three or four days go by without seeing Diallo it feels like an eternity has passed since the last time we hashed out the state of the Guinean elections.  It is just a tiny preview of the eternity of absence that will begin when I step on that plane in December and I am swallowed back up by America.   Even when I do come back to visit Mali, this will no longer be my walk.

I already miss it, but I know that at least I won’t forget it.  As we sat in Diallo’s room feasting on delicious meat and fries for the party at the end of Ramadan (Selifitini), Diallo reached into a black plastic bag and started pulling out glass soda bottles.  As they each clinked as he placed them in a line on the floor, I saw that they were all Djino Pomplemouse, the grapefruit soda favored by our toubabou palettes for its tangy, not-too-sweet flavor.  Our love for Pomplemouse hadn’t been a topic of conversation for a long time, probably nearly a year had passed since we’d discovered the soda and begun to seek it out in Sikoro whenever possible.  I told Diallo I was surprised that he had remembered that it was our favorite.  He looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, me, I never forget the usuals.”


I would like to stay here until December 17th, and am just doing budget calculations before buying my ticket.

September 14, 2010

A list of things I notice, and then I think about them sometimes

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 3:02 pm

But never enough to write a whole post about them.  So here are some post-ettes.


There is an old man who watches many documentaries, follows American foreign policy more voraciously than I ever have, and adores American TV dubbed into French.  I can’t remember his name, but he is a friend’s neighbor, and I like him. Despite being convinced that Bush and Osama were in a conspiracy together to create the 9/11 plot, he loves America.  Particularly Jerry Springer. It is a good thing, he says, that we have this show on the air to shatter taboos and bring things out in the open.  In Mali, these things stay under wraps, and no one hears about the terrible things happening.  It is brilliant that we have invented such a forum for public shaming, so that people learn not to do these things. When he told me that, I tried to imagine for a minute what it would be like if that were really true.


Sometimes I think my family only likes me because I buy them things.  Every once in a while I distribute luxurious largesse like powdered milk, a thermos, cakes, sugar, salad ingredients, meat on the bone, or even old clothes.  When I tell her I won’t buy something that she requests, Mama gives me the saddest puppy face.  Who knew pleading was so cross-culturally communicable?


There is now a man selling “fripperie” (the clothes you sent to goodwill that make it all the way across the ocean to be sold here for anywhere from 20 cents to 2 dollars) on the road to work, and he wears a cowboy hat and a really bling necklace.  Since it is only a high of 85 or 90 degrees here these days, people are cold, so he set up a headless mannequin with the ugliest, shiniest Reindeer sweater I’ve ever seen.  I bought cute shoes from him because they were only 400 CFA and they said they were from a designer in Paris.  They gave me blisters because they are too small, and since they are old I can’t convince myself that I just have to keep wearing them to break them in.


I sat down to drink tea one night with one of the three “grains” (groups of guys who sit drinking tea, like a gang without the gang part) on my street who always ask me to drink with them when I arrive back from The City tired and disgruntled.  “When I am president of Mali,” said one guy, “it will be great for the other Diallos.  I will make sure that my son is the Prime Minister.  And my son-in-law, he’ll be head of the army.” “What if he isn’t good at leading the army?” I ask, playing devils advocate.  “He’ll be head of the army even if he can’t even read!” “This guy here, he’s trying to destroy this country. That’s not the way to run a democracy,” chimes in someone.  “Mali,” says nepotism-dude, “is not a democracy.  It might be a democratic country but it is not a democracy” (or maybe he said the other way around.  I’m not sure which would make more sense, because I didn’t know what he meant exactly.  Do you?).  “Shut up,” says the same someone as before, “Who does he think he is, he isn’t even from here.  He’s Guinean.”


When you get married in a civil ceremony (usual several years after your religious one, because it costs so much money to get the white Western dress and throw the huge party) here in Mali, you have to sign whether you want a polygamous or monogomous marriage. My friend Djibi studies law, and he says the husband and wife discuss this before they are officially engaged, and decide which kind of marriage they will sign.  His sister, Diba, says, thats not how it works.  The husband just tells you the day of the ceremony, I’m signing polygamy, and that’s that.  Djibi told her that in article iv of the XXX Act of Marriage, etc, it says something or other.  Diba said, “Have you been married? I have!” Diba’s husband used to work for NGOs on development projects, then he got fed up and became an entrepreneur of sorts.  He is one of the best educated men I’ve met in Sikoro.  I wonder if he signed polygamy because he really wants a second wife.  If not, then why exactly? Djibi says you have to sign polygamy to keep the wife on her toes trying to keep you interested. If you sign monogamy, then “It’s Over.” Sounds like an American bachelor party attitude.

When I asked Djibi why Mali had bothered to introduce this legal distinction in its marriages, he tried to explain that it was because Mali believes in “Laicite”.  (For those of you who have not spent a large amount of time pondering the differences between French and American state secularism, or whether the French-veil and mosque banning laws are total nonsense, basically the differences can be described as this: while America believes the state must step back to allow you to practice whatever religion you choose without interference from the government, the French believe the government must insure that you have the right to go about your life without interference from other people’s religions.  The syntactic nuances are subtle, but in practice important.  Regardless, the idea is very French. Oh the things that are preserved through to the post-colonial era).  So basically, Djibi is saying that because Mali has a French-Laic government, this very Muslim country has to offer the option of monogomy in its marriage contracts.  What would it take to make France use the same logic to allow you to sign “Poloygamy”?


            Last night there was a neighborhood dance party organized just for the kids.  Everyone from Sikoro, Sourakabougou, and Banconi were invited.  When I walked over, a group of boys wearing shiny polyester shirts, hats low over their eyes, baggy jeans, and basketball jerseys were taking turns in the center of the circle, spinning and flipping and contorting and basically being excellent break dancers.  They could have been from anywhere (anywhere where there are pirated movies and Akon, that is.  But really, that’s everywhere, isn’t it?).  Finally, when the MC cut them off, my friend Bai told me “Now they are going to do a “Battle Danse.”  Battle dancing sounded like they were going to pit two lines of mini-break dancers against each other to compete.  I was ready for things to get crazy if someone’s back flip landed on someone else’s head. But then, before I realized that the music had changed, backwards-cap kid launched into an arms-flailing traditional dance.  It looked like something I saw during the masked dance in Dogon, or West African dance performances at Brown, or really most dancing I see in Mali.  Not a dance battle, a battle dance! And these kids were good. These break dancers had morphed instantly across periodand distance to appear as if they belonged in a small village some other time entirely.  They continued to take turns showing off in the center, these same kids with their baggy pants, but the dancing style was completely different.  Of course, then the song ended, the MC called out to some more kids to join the circle, and behold, the dance battle began.


            This morning on the way to work I passed two 10 year old boys carrying aluminum bowls filled with individual, unwrapped disposable diapers on their heads.  They were going door to door to sell them.   I couldn’t decide if I even think that this is strange anymore.

            (I’ve also never seen a baby wearing disposable diapers in Sikoro)

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