Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gender-Blank? Or Just a Gender-Bender?

Greetings are of the utmost importance here. And it's not just saying hello -- its's asking how you passed the night, did your family sleep well, how your mother is, your children, everyone in your house and your neighborhood.

But despite their breadth, these greetings go no farther in depth than a standard "How are you?" Everyone is always doing just fine, no problems at all.

It's to the point that when I ask Lahmine about his dying mother, he always tells me she is doing a little better: "A k'aphsa," he says. I received the same answer when I called him in San, where he'd gone with his siblings to take his mother to the hospital. It seemed to me to be a clear sign that his mother was most certainly not doing better.

So I was surprised when I asked Aissa how she had slept and she shook her head and said she hadn't slept a wink, that she'd been up all night worrying.

Aissa says she lays in bed unable to sleep not because of the heat, like me, but because she's worrying about her future.

Aissa is a widowed mother of two, both grown women moved out of our village. She lives with her father-in-law, Boré, who once worked at the National Museum in Bamako and lists two of his dearest friends as John Kennedy and Barack Obama.

Age is hard to guess here, and almost no one knows their birthday. (Asked by a doctor how old she was, Banta confidently stated her age as 100. The doctor laughed and recorded her birthdate as January 1, 1948). But Aissa is somewhere in her late middle ages, and she really should, like the other women in her age group, be sitting sitting in a lounge chair in the shade everyday, issuing orders and getting fat.

But Aissa gave birth to no sons, and daughters are not yours to keep. Although women keep their last name after marrying in Malian culture, they become members (almost property) of their husband's family. Your daughter is no longer yours -- she is the daughter of her mother-in-law. Wholly. Completely. It is this new mother who she will care for in her old age.

And so Aissa continues working at the health clinic, scared and unsure and tired, forever worrying over who will care for her when she finally retires. It's not exactly like her salary allows the savings of a comfortable retirement fund.

Aissa's fears over aging are just one of the hundreds of angles through which to examine the role of women in my village, in Mali. And while I know that everything is constantly changing --that slowly but surely, women will gain equality -- the struggle these women face in reaching equality will be a long one. The biggest battle will be an understanding by both genders that women are equal to men.

My gender neutral (I've come to think of it as gender-blank) status means that men speak to me quite openly about what they seem to see as distinct differences between men and women, as though I'm not a member of the gender of which they speak. Men joke with me about how great having multiple wives is, especially when that means you get to sleep with a young girl. And immediately after trying to convince me of their progressiveness, many of my male friends will insist to me that women must first, as a priority, respect their husbands; that men are the "chefs de la famille"; that women may make good managers, but they could never be successful money-making businesswomen; that women should never take on the role of mayor; that their rightful place is in the home.

While I am accepted as a Westerner -- and therefore as an independent woman and close to an equal to men -- I must understand the differences between me and Malian women that make it impossible for Malian women to behave as American women. That is the message I take away from the men in my village.

But perhaps lately I 'd begun to take my status as "other" for granted, or at least as a get-away-from-jail-free card. I thought I could act as an American woman, not as a Malian woman.

Even though I have begun to see myself as "gender-blank," there seems to be a shred of femininity hanging onto me. Friends -- men and women -- have started trying to convince me that I really ought to hurry and find a husband when I get back to America, before I get too old and undesirable. Even the way people talk about my singleness (Samouhan man ce soro folo) seems to imply that I'm not married yet because I haven't been able to find anyone who wanted me, that I haven't been able to hold down a man.

A more noticeable sign that I should take note from Malian women has been reactions to my clothing. First there was the Pants Incident in the market, and now, the excitement of me wearing a headscarf when I leave my compound.

To my neighbors and friends and the random people who walk up to me and comment on the scarf, I've never looked so good! I can't help but wonder if everyone wouldn't have been more comfortable if I'd been wearing the headscarf all along? Because although I'm assured that I can wear whatever I want since I'm unmarried, I sure am past the marrying age and I'm also spending a whole lot of time with married men.

I forgot the headscarf at home one day, dashing off to market after work. As I was buying tomatoes, a group of women called me over. They asked me where my headscarf was, and when I told them I'd left it at home, they cried out "Samouhan! You're no good! Did you not pray today either?" Nope. I hadn't prayed. You're right, I said, I'm just awful.

It was International Women's Day on March 8, a holiday I never knew existed until I got here. We didn't celebrate on the 8th though. The Chief of the village and his counselors, along with the mayor's office, decided we should wait until March 12, when a group of Americans touring Mali from Shenandoah University stopped in my village to get a better idea of real life in Mali.

I couldn't figure out why they'd decided to celebrate International Women's Day with the toubabs. We all assembled at the mayor's office, where the Americans were greeted by the village authorities, but no reference was made to the significance of the holiday, no greeting extended to the delegation of women assembled in the back, all wearing their International Women's Day fabric. The women toured my village with us the whole day, their only privilege seeming to be riding on the Americans' air-conditioned bus from the mayor's office to the radio station to lunch.

Aissa is completely financially independent from men. She is well-educated, speaks flawless French, and was the first matrone in our entire commune. She worked for eight years without a salary and has gained the confidence of the commune -- women and men. She, although often deferring to men and never straying outside of what she sees as her role, certainly recognizes her worth, strength, importance. And there is the woman my friend Jennifer befriended in Bamako, who holds a senior position with a bank, owns her own house and cars. Even so, she is struggling to find a husband who she feels is her equal, and she wonders whether the best she can do will be to become a man's second or third wife. There is Banta, who had the courage to leave a husband she had never wanted to be with, who also does not rely on a man for her own security. Banta, who tells me that some people no longer speak to her after she left her husband. There is the woman who insists on practicing family planning despite her husband's adversity to it. And there is every woman in my village who has taken the well-being of herself and her children into her own hands by joining a women's association or embarking on a small enterprise, like selling bean cakes or juice on the roadside.

Donni donni, kononi be se ka pan. Little by little, the little bird can fly.

At the end of my day, when I'm heading home, I stop by Lahmine's compound. He's usually not home yet, but his wife, Soté, is, getting dinner together or giving the kids their baths. This is Sote sifting millet flour.

A family portrait: Sote with three of her five daughters. Clockwise, they are Batouma, Baro and Npa.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

This one's the biggest bean-eater of them all.

This is Aissata Konaté, my homologue, stand-in mother, friend and ally. I tell her I'm going to vote for her for Tene's mayor (elections are in April). She laughs. Then she tells me to eat more.

These photos are from the closing ceremony of our Peace Corps training at Tubani So.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Market day is Saturday. Each week, my village comes alive on Saturday: fresh fish come from the river in Djenne, clothes and nails and pots and calabash bowls and well bags all come from San, and kola nuts and cucumbers and carrots and peanut butter potatoes and rice and women selling spaghetti and hibiscus juice and donuts all arrive from all the surrounding villages. They come by donkey carts, by foot, by moto, or on mini buses piled so high with goods and people that they're twice their size and you're sure they'll tip. On my latest trip to the market, I wore pants. While buying soap, I was approached by an old man, who began yelling at me in French about the impropriety of a woman wearing pants in his country. Good thing I haven't worn jeans: the only time I've seen a woman wearing jeans was on a teenager. And she was the talk of the village for a week, after which the jeans were never seen again.

I was riding my bike home from the health clinic one day when I felt a car slow beside me. I turned to look at it to see a car filled with white tourists, all pointing at me, clearly terribly curious over what I could possibly be doing in a small village. One took out his camera and snapped a photo.

My phone was stolen off of my window ledge, leading to an inconclusive search for the thief via the footprints left in my compound. That was followed by an announcement every five minutes on the radio that my phone had been stolen, and that the thief would be killed if my phone was not returned. Yep, killed. As you can imagine, my phone was returned pretty darn quick. Three weeks later, I'm still getting asked about my phone, and not just by my villagers. I was on a bus from Djenne and a man, after learning my name, asked if my phone had been returned.

I had my first visit from home last week, Marika. We had a whirlwind trip of Mali with quite a few highlights. Including: a visit to my village during which we were treated like queens and given at least four dishes at every meal and singing a song in French on my village's radio station. Despite that we were laughing through the whole song and using my Nalgene water bottle as a drum, the radio director's phone was ringing off the hook with calls about the wild success of our performance. So if you've always dreamed of performing on the radio, you're always welcome here. Just an afternoon drinking tea in village. Would you like some tea with your mousse?

The biggest mud building in the world: Djenne's mud mosque.

Marika and I were in Bamako for a few days, where we spent quite a bit of time sampling the delicious street food the capital has to offer. One morning we were enjoying fried plantain and brochettes sandwiches. After stuffing the last bite into our mouths, we looked around for a place to throw our trash. [As a side note, Mali has not yet developed a trash disposal system. It doesn't help that everything in Mali comes in little plastic bags: your groceries, your vaccination card, your notebook, the donuts you bought for your snack. Malians love plastic. Which means that there's a whole lot of plastic piled up in the streets, floating in the wells, and worst of all perhaps, being burned. My village, for example, does sweep the streets of the market every week into many piles of plastic. Where to put them? Just burn them.] So when Marika and I didn't see a great place for our trash, I turned to the woman who had made our sandwiches and asked her if there was a receptacle for our trash. She nodded at me very seriously and held out her hand for my trash. I gave it to her, and just as seriously, she hurled it into the street in front of us.

Up next: A group of Americans make a visit to my village and we begin ameliorated porridge demonstrations at the clinic.