Continental Drift

January 20, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 3:17 pm


Guest entry by Paul Rosenblum, aka Leona’s Dad

A week after Eileen and I returned from Mali, Leona invited me to make a   guest entry in this space. Something about a different perspective on Mali and would I tell my side of the camel story?  Ok, I’ll give it a shot.

We only travel to visit Leona. This works out because she always goes away and we like to visit her.  In the past seven years, we’ve been to Budapest and Prague and we’ve been to Paris.  Would it always be this much fun?  The answer: well, this time it was Mali.

5:00 am, December 22, 2009. We’ve just de-planed at Bamako airport. Walked off the runway into the big shed, pigeons overhead, and taken a deep breath.  There’s already a distinctive aroma.  It’s the pre-dawn tang of some very serious air pollution from unregulated auto emissions and charcoal and wood cook fires, sewage, garbage, etc.  Ready or not, it’s Third World Christmas. In French, just like Paris…

Before we left, friends said “The trip of a life time!” Since we’ve been back they ask, “Did you see any big game?”  Okay, Africa’s a big place. No, a really, very big place. It’s only since Leona started planning for her trips to South Africa and Mali last spring that I’ve begun to grasp some of the geography, let alone the size and scope.  But there are no safaris in Mali (except something about desert elephants in the spring, I think), and it was the trip of a lifetime, but not that way.

We began planning this trip as a way to be together at Christmas, a major concern of Eileen’s. As Leona had just been home in mid-October, after South Africa and before Mali, she preferred not to return to the States so soon. We thought to get together in Paris, Rome, Lucca or some such, planning to visit Leona in Mali in March. Then we checked Mali climate and conditions and discovered that March to June was the hottest time of year there (50 degrees C!) and December /January the coolest. We changed plans to go to Mali for Christmas, see Bamako where Leona is living and working, and then make a guided trek of the villages in the Dogon country and back to Bamako for New Year’s Eve.

Eileen and I have been finding it difficult to describe the trip to friends. As I’ve returned to my regular life, I’m starting to get some perspective and some ability to come to grips with what I saw and experienced.  First, it wasn’t fun.  Our other trips have provided the sheer pleasure of time spent away from quotidian concerns, in beautiful and exciting cities, as presented to us by our beloved child, tempered by the limited torment of contemporary plane travel .

This trip had twice as much travel discomfort (the trip from New York to Bamako began on Sunday afternoon and ended on Tuesday morning!), and delivered us to profound culture shock.  In that environment, it never felt like a vacation. It was a challenge. “Challenging” is how we’ve been responding to questions from friends, although that doesn’t feel like enough of an answer.  Describing the sensory and emotional assaults isn’t enough either and recounting the physical strains of trekking in Dogon country just seems like complaining, although there is some discernible pride and triumph in recounting our success and survival.

Ultimately, this trip was about seeing where Leona is working, and making some progress in understanding why she chooses to live and work in a “peri-urban slum” in one of the poorest countries in the world.  For this reason, I’m glad we went.

At one point, I asked Leona if she had been surprised by the conditions she found, and found herself in, in Sikoroni.. “Dad,” she said, “I’ve been studying these countries  and their problems for years. I certainly knew what to expect.”  Reflecting on the recent past, I recall that she spent summers in Oaxaca, Mexico, working in a clinic in a slum, working in Panama and traveling in Central America, and working in Pretoria for USAID, visiting clinics in rural South Africa and Swaziland. The kid’s been around but her parents haven’t been paying close attention.  It was a failure of imagination that could only be remedied by the experience itself.

I never saw anything in Mali that I haven’t seen in movies or on TV. What a poor substitute for reality they are! For a thoughtful, bookish and unadventurous sixty-two-year-old New Yorker, Bamako, Segou, Djenne, Mopti, Sevare, the Bandiagara Escarpment are all more pleasurably experienced in the guidebooks and on the web than in all their exotic and noisome reality. Heat, dirt, smells, garbage, unpaved roads, open ditches and livestock in the streets just aren’t in my repertoire. But there’s no substitute for reality.

I spent the whole trip seeking context. How poor is this place? Why is Sikoroni (the peri-urban slum) the way it is and why do the people here live the way they do? What could or can be done with such a country or for any part of its capital city?  I hadn’t the ability or opportunity to get comprehensive answers to these questions. Time was short. But the trip to Dogon country, with stops in smaller cities on the way, exposed me to life in the villages and demonstrated how life in Sikoroni is the life of displaced villagers trying to adapt their traditional ways to a dysfunctional urban environment.  The lack of running water in Leona’s house in Sikoroni, where we stayed overnight, is a lot less remarkable to her host family than it is to me. I doubt that we would have found running tap water in any village we visited or drove through for 300 miles. We did, however, find cows, donkeys , sheep, chickens and  Guinea fowl in city and country both.   Have the people moved to the cities to find work? There doesn’t seem to be much employment available. This country is as poor as Haiti, without that benighted nation’s geological cataclysm.

I was uncomfortable and dispirited by what I saw and experienced but it’s not about me but about the Malians. This is the life they know and they deal with it, effectively every day.  I could not conceive of living this way. It would feel like a cinematic post-apocalyptic way of life to me.  Yet hundreds of millions of people live this way all around the world. All that human potential under such a suffocating lack of opportunity.

Well, what’s to be done?  I have no idea, but Leona and Devon and Alex and their colleagues in MHOP and their like-minded friends from Development Studies at Brown, and the Peace Corps volunteers and all the development policy wonks and tinkerers who study these circumstances and live among these people and give thought and energy and commitment to developing solutions to the problems have my admiration, respect and appreciation. There’s no counting on a happy ending in this field but it sure is inspiring that so many continue to seek one.

Oh, the camel.  There’s that picture (see above) of me riding a particularly unappealing member of that family.  We were passing the village of Ende, beginning our long trip back to Bamako from Dogon country, when we had a flat tire. Eileen, Leona and I, having previously visited this village, decided to stroll around and buy some more local craft items. When we returned to the car, we saw Mel, one of our party, riding a camel and subsequently awkwardly dismounting.  The young villager holding the reins asked, in French what was obviously “who’s next?”  You’ll recall that my daughter rode horses for Brown’s Equestrian Team, which immediately made her the most highly qualified camel rider. Up she went, in the weird way that camels and riders arise, grasped the reins securely and urged the beast on. She sure looked like she belonged up there. After she dismounted, I found myself stepping up with enthusiasm. I can share with you now that my only romantic association with Mali, prior to our trip, was the yearning to visit Timbuktu and ride a camel there. We never got to the fabled city of yore (it would have meant an additional excruciating 14 hours in the un-airconditioned car during the heat of the day, on increasingly poorly maintained roads).  Yet here was a camel and here was I.

The camel sat, I bestrode the mighty beast. The young man instructed me with a word  (in French, which I do not understand) and gesture, to lean back and place my right hand on the reins and my left hand behind me on the hump.  What I failed to grasp were both his specific instructions and the hair of the hump.  The camel raised first one long leg, effectively shifting his and my balance, and then the other, which action, given my failure to actually hold on to the hair of the hump, resulted in a long, slow, graceless and unplanned dismount, ending with me flat on the ground, staring up at the sun, thankfully unhurt and surrounded by laughing family, friends, tour guide and villager.  I had just provided the funniest moment of the day, week or month for all of these people.  The young man made the beast sit again and graciously motioned to me to sit on its back, without rising, for a photo opp.

During the long and grueling trip home, whenever our guide saw me looking pensive and weary, he enthusiastically referred to Pul-Pul (his nickname for me) and the camel and laughed uproariously, until we all laughed with him.

*with thanks to Leo Slezak



  1. I love your descrptions! Where are we traveling next?

    Comment by EFF — January 20, 2010 @ 8:18 pm | Reply

  2. Paul and Eileen are total rockstars!! Impressed by your journey and, as always, by your daughter.

    Comment by Emma — January 22, 2010 @ 4:32 am | Reply

    • Emma,

      Thanks for the rave. How are you?


      Comment by Paul — January 25, 2010 @ 9:22 pm | Reply

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