Continental Drift

July 16, 2010

Mangoro Obama

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 12:56 pm

“White people don’t have farms in America, do they?” Mama asked me one day after dinner.  When she poses these impossible questions, she is no longer my caring, self-proclaimed Malian mother.  She is not merely my landlady, either.   I have become an emissary from an impossible, other land, and she is fiercely determined to glean all possible useful information from me.  When I protested, in response, that we do indeed produce more crops in America than in Mali, she was incredulous.  “You mean, white people take their hoes and go to the fields and bend over and work all day long?” I had to admit that this wasn’t the case.  “In America,” I explained, the people who farm have big machines that let them farm a lot of land all at once, and they don’t have to work as hard.” The machine theme is a recurring issue in conversations with people here in Mali.  To explain why I don’t know how to do my laundry by hand, to explain why I can’t take a 13 year old boy back to the States to be my laundry and courtyard sweeping servant, to explain how people can cook if they don’t use tiny charcoal stoves, I have only one response: we have a machine for that.  Usually, people just look at me like I am kind of crazy, or say something like “You toubabous (white people), what will you think of next?” However, the labor saving advantages of a farming machine are clearly self-evident.

I know this, because a few days later I asked Mama what she wanted me to bring her back from my upcoming trip to America.  She wanted an alarm clock, a flashlight and a farming machine.  When I expressed dismay as to how I would acquire or transport the latter item, she was quick to explain that it was simple.  “Just go and ask Barack Obama for a farming machine and tell him  Mama needs it so that she doesn’t break her back on her field in Sikoroni. Tell him that I will use the machine to grow the biggest mangos  ever, and that I will name them Mangoro Barack Obama.  When I have grown many many mangoes, I will go and bring them to Barack Obama to thank them for his machine.” When I wondered how she might get there she said the obvious, “I will go in an airplane, because I will be rich from all the mangos. It will be me and all the mangos inside the airplane.  I will land outside Barack Obama’s house and knock on the door and bring him the mangoes.”

I still smile to myself at the image of Mama, dressed in a full Malian outfit  complete with towering head-wrap, sitting alone in a plane where every seat is filled with gigantic mangos.  But we can’t forget about Barack Obama, opening the door to a deluge of mangos rolling out the doors of the plane into a big heap on the White House lawn.  As much as we all laughed that night, I was left wondering why Barack Obama has to be a character in this story.  In a country in which the face of any important figure can be seen plastered across the fabric used to make a nice outfit , or on the stickers decorating the carved out vans that serve as public transport, the distinction between politician, celebrity, and deity seems a bit blurred.

I began to think more on that question the other day when we were stuck in the dark during a rainstorm due to a power outage.  We were eating dinner in the one of Mama’s two rooms that serves as a living room, all gathered around two big bowls of tasteless spaghetti by the light of one candle.  “Do you have rain in America?” Mama asked.  “Of course we have rain in America.  Where do you think we get water from?” “I thought,” said Mama, “that Barack Obama gives it to everyone in a faucet.” I insisted that water always has to come from the sky.  After admitting that all Americans do have faucets, but that it is not Obama who puts the water in them, we reached an impasse.  I gave up to stare off into the flame of the candle flickering on the other side of the room, which of course brought me right back to thoughts of infrastructure.  Sikoro only began to have access to electricity 5 years ago.  5 years ago, I was starting college in a dorm room with high speed internet access, where I swiped a magnetized ID card to enter or pay for my meals.  I wondered who Mama would give credit to for bringing electricity to her house.  ATT, aka Amadou Toumani Touré, the president of Mali?

It seems likely.  When the water in the public faucets suffers frequent cuts during the hot season, a huge water tanker comes once a day to sit near the pumps and distribute water for an hour or so.  When I asked around to find out whose truck it was, I found out that it was sent by the President’s wife’s foundation.  “She knows that we have a problem with water here in Sikoro,” my friend explained, “so she is worried for us and sends us the water to help us.” Think about this circle of responsibility for a moment: the president presides over a decentralized governmental system that fails, on the municipal level, to provide basic services to its citizens, due in part to a lack of funding.  When there is no clean drinking water to be had, the President’s wife, through the funds of her own private foundation, sends a water truck to save the day.  She, and therefore by association the president, is lauded as the savior, and the local government gets to go on managing to not spend the necessary money on its citizens.

So whose job is it to give everyone water and electricity and farm machines? Must ATT be like FDR with the TVA and bring an electrification campaign all the way to the desert? Are the people of Mali dependent on Obama to go door to door installing faucets in order to ever have clean water delivered to their homes? In this scenario, Mali’s future hinges on the whims of the big men, the scraps thrown by the haves to the have-nots.  Is this really what Mama’s experiences have led her to believe?  Is this what she means when she attributes all things good to Barack Obama?  Maybe, but Obama does have a tendency to pop up frequently in all kinds of conversation.

Last week, as I was leaving my room with a nearly empty Sprite bottle,  Mama insisted on tasting the contents.  She pronounced it delicious, and demanded to know when I would be bringing her some of this wonderful boisson.  I forgot for a few days, until she began to pester me, asking when I was going to bring her “Cigaretti Boisson.” After I figured out what she was looking for, I tried to correct the misunderstanding that had somehow warped the pronunciation from “Sprite” to “Espritiee” to “Cigaretti.”  When this failed, I resorted to yelling “There is no such thing as cigaretti boisson!”

“Fine,” she said, “bring me Barack Obama boisson instead.”

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