Continental Drift

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.

1 Comment »

  1. This post gives such a vivid sense of your days in Bamako, bringing me tears. We know that isn’t entirely unusual, but know it is just wonderful writing. And the photos are magnificent! Each one is great, but you and Papa….

    Comment by Eileen — October 31, 2010 @ 4:38 pm | Reply

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