Continental Drift

February 15, 2010

Wanna Do It

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 8:13 am

When I was first learning to talk, I had trouble with my own name.  Le-o-na, all those syllables, different vowels, too complicated.  It was easier, I guess, just to condense it all, and so I called myself Wanna.  I also had strong opinions: about my name, and also about my abilities.  I resented any condescending attempts to aid my baby self with simple tasks, and would instead insist “wanna do it!”  Now of course this got my point across. But it was never clear to anyone what I was actually saying.  Was it “Leona will do it” or “I want to do it”? The sense is perhaps similar, but the nuance is there.  Is it territorial, or self affirming?

Contemporary Leona cannot clear up this confusion for anyone, as I have no memory of that time beyond the retelling of these family legends.  But I have once again found myself in this state of verbal limbo in Bambara, now that I’ve learned the all important words “Ne be se ka”.  It is a magical open sesame phrase to start almost any sentence. Perhaps translating literally to “I am able to,” it can also mean “I know how to,” “I can” and “I want to” and I’m never quite sure which I’m saying.  The more I think about it, the less I’m sure of how important it is that we distinguish the difference, but it continues to puzzle me.  At times I want to offer to help out with some sort of task at home, and I want to ask if I can help.  But if I say literally that I can help, they will laugh at me and remind me that I can’t do anything.  “Do you know how to cook tó?!” (Tó is basically really really sticky and gooey polenta gone mushier.  Cooking it involves a lot of stewing, then adding gumbo powder to make it sticky, and then constantly stirring this heavy, sticky stuff very vigorously while not tipping over the hot metal pot or the charcoal fire it is resting on. The answer is clearly no).

Not to digress too far, but I think a lot about my inability to do things here (see early Mali entries), and exactly what kinds of things I am particularly incompetent at doing.  The other day I was making my usual pre-survey stop at a cyber cafe to make copies. Faced with making 60 copies of each page and then collating and stapling them all by hand, I dared hope that the fancy looking copy machine would be able to do it for me. After all, we’ve all seen copy machines in the states for years that can do everything including tie your shoes for you. It seemed like this shouldn’t be in the realm of the impossible. But it was.

So as I waited for each set of 60 copies to finish printing so that I could start to collate, I started thinking about how super fancy copy machines are the least of the conveniences we take for granted in NYC that are missing here in poor, peri-urban Mali. There are a lot of 21st century things missing from Sikoroni. In fact, many facets of the 20th century are missing as well.

This is an obvious point, I know, since I’ve already extensively discussed the lack of plumbing (see all mention of nyegens and bucket showers). But a good way perhaps to reflect on what development and “developing country” mean for those of you who don’t have it shoved in your face every day in quite the way I do. It means that the issue of women not working outside the home isn’t just a case of male chauvinism or misogeny, but also a real question of time. Whereas in the states, the prime question for working mothers can be: what happens to the kids if mom isn’t home? Here, its a question of, who will spend all day coaxing things into cooking on tiny amounts of charcoal, who will walk to the nearest well or faucet to get water and carry it back on her head, who will constantly use that painfully carried water to wash the clothes that are endlessly dusty, who will pound millet into flour in a mortar and pestle, who will know and notice when diaperless small children need to go to the bathroom before the situation gets messy? The work is endless, and the effort expended is huge.  I’ve moved to a new house where we get our washing water from a well, and the sheer number of times each of us has to pull that bucket up from the well each day is sometimes unbelievable. But the accomplishment in the end? We’ll have to do it all again the next day. We all know those collated pages look the same (maybe better) when the copy machine does it by itself.

So when the Malians laugh at me for my incompetence at daily tasks, and marvel at the fact that I still can’t make tó, all I can say in response is, “Well, we have a machine for that.” And despite the seemingly futile repetition of these task, I’m still the same person, and I wanna do it.

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1 Comment »

  1. ha-ha-ha

    Comment by Dad and Granna — February 23, 2010 @ 8:20 pm | Reply


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