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.
Oh, but I mean everyone.
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.”
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?”
Baby Batuma greeted every playground structure with flailing arms and wails.
Other people liked things better.
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!?”
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.