Tuesday, May 26, 2009

At last! A way to beat the heat!

Banta set up a hammock in our compound. But don't try to push her! She's sure she'll fall out.

To Have and To Hold

Rain pours down from dark clouds. It hits dry dirt, land aching for water. Motos zoom by with brides holding long white, wet dresses in their arms. Their shoes are ruined. Men and women in their most beautiful boubous and complets run by, mud splattering them. It is wedding weekend in my village and all the couples have gone to sign their marriage certificate at the mayor's office. Who planned for rain? It is May, and the earth seemed to have resigned itself to its parched future.

More than sixty couples will be married this weekend. Family members have come in from Bamako and Mopti for the festivities. One man returns from Cape Verde to marry his 14 year old bride. Our village is peculiar in that all marriages happen at the same time, but the reasoning behind it is quite smart.

All over Mali and West Africa, there are griots: men and women who sing the history of Mali and Sundiata, of villages and Chiefs. Today, griots make their living off of celebrations like weddings. They travel around like unwanted guests to the different parties to sing the great deeds of the family and praise men and women. In return, the family must give them money. When their are more than 20 griots in one small village, parties can get pretty expensive. In order to force the griots to split up, my village decided to host all weddings on the weekend. This way, while you may still be bothered by as many as 10 griots, at least the whole lot of them will not descend on you. And especially if you're poor, the griots will probably spend their time prying money out of the hands of richer families.

One of the many village griots singing the praises of Samouhan Daou

Lahmine Daou, my jatigi, is taking his second wife this weekend. He is tall and striking in his big white boubou on his wedding day, but his smile is bashful as ever, and he becomes nervous when his fiancé, Bebé, is late. We are waiting in the market place for all the brides to arrive before going to the mayor's office. The brides arrive in white, Western style wedding dress and everyone gathers around them, pointing and snapping pictures. For once, someone else besides me is the object of so much attention.

Lahmine, all cleaned up and ready for a wedding.

There are motos everywhere. They are driven by young men and boys doing wheelies and standing up on the moto. Look at me, girls! They seem to cry, No hands! We take bashée buses to the mayor's office -- their is one private car that shuttles back and forth with the brides and grooms. The road is full and the bashées are piled high. With motos zooming in and out and bashées careening around the road, there are many accidents. One morning, Stacy, another volunteer visiting me, and I sit at Adama's house, unable to tear our eyes off the road. It's an accident waiting to happen, but we can't look away. We take the back roads to all our destinations.
The bashée I took to the mayor's office is the yellow one in front. I was given the passenger seat to share, a position of honor. Except that sitting there, I could see all the accidents we just barely escaped from.

Arriving unscathed by flustered at the mayor's office, it's time for pictures after the couples sign the papers. Lahmine is first since he is the younger brother of the chief of the village. Bebé sits with her body leaning away from him. She looks as if she might cry. She is young, but I am afraid to guess at her age. The photos begin, and Soté, Lahmine's first wife is pushed into a group shot of Lahmine and his two wives.

Soté on her husband's wedding day.

Soté is beautiful, the mother of Lahmine's five daughters. For the past 10 or 15 years, it has been just Soté and Lahmine. Perhaps they do not love each other, perhaps they do not know or believe in a concept such as love, but after so much time alone, now Soté will be forced to share her husband. Bebé will have her own compound, and Lahmine will spread his time and money between the two. Soté is laughing today, she smiles strongly, but her jaw is set. There is a clench to her teeth. I notice her hands shake as she hands money to a griot.

I tell her how beautiful she looks; she has done her make up, put on her nicest complet. She was up for 4 hours last night putting an intricate henna design on her feet. She squeezes my hand. To whom do I hold my allegiances? To Soté? To Lahmine?

One of the brides waits to sign her marriage certificate

The signing of the marriage certificate at the mayor's office is the only part of Lahmine's wedding celebrations that Soté attends. I do not see her for the rest of the weekend. Banta tells me she has retreated to her mother's house. I ask Banta if Soté isn't terribly sad and upset. Of course she is, Banta tells me, but that's the way it is.

Unlike American weddings, Malian weddings are not a celebration of the bride's happiness. The brides do not smile. They do not laugh. They do not speak. During three days of wedding celebrations, I will not speak one word to Bebé. As hard as this is for Soté, I wonder if Bebé is not even sadder. She is leaving her village, her family, to start a new life with a man she barely knows. A man who is at least twice her age.

Bebé at the mayor's office.

The next day, the women of the family gather. Bebé is led out of the house, a cloth over her head. We stand in a circle, and a griot sings a mournful song. It is call and answer, and the women sing back to the griot. I try to clap to the beat. Bebé sits on a stool, and her shoulders are shaking hard. The cloth is not covering her face completely, and so I can see all the tears, endless streams, rushing down her face. Bamou walks to her and pulls the cloth down to shield her. Her shoulders shake harder. An older woman takes water from a calabash bowl and begins washing Bebé's hands, her feet, and finally her face. She wipes the tears away but they stream down, a never ending river. As Bebé stands up, she kicks the stool over, and the women close in around her. They are dancing now. Her head is covered. She is a married woman now.

Later that night, Stacy and I walk with Lahmine's sisters. It is dark and the village is quiet. My village is a truck stop at night, it is loud and busy and crowded, but tonight everything is still. I am Lahmine's balaman muso today, his sister, and it is the responsibility of his sisters to prepare his wedding night. Bamou carries a wooden mat tied together with animal skin, and we follow her to an empty house, where she lays it down and covers it with a course white sheet. We sit outside the house, waiting. We wait and wait in the quiet, hot night. Namu falls asleep. Finally someone calls us, and we walk to the big tree outside my compound where everything important takes place.

The old men are already sitting there, spread out on mats, their flip flops and sandals on the ground in front of them. We unroll our own mat and wait for the brides to arrive. When they arrive, they are wearing white again, and this time, their head scarf is white too. They seem almost limp with the weight of the change tonight will bring them, exhausted from their tears. One by one, the men bless the marriages: May their life be long and they be protected. May they be blessed with many children, productive fields and much money. May they be healthy.

The blessings are finished and now it's time for the balaman musow to lead the brides to the house where each will spend the next four nights. For four nights and four days, Bebé will not leave the house we lead her to. When she emerges, she will greet all her family and friends as a married woman. When we reach the house, Lahmine is already there. He is smiling and laughing; he and his friends are drinking tea. One by one, we women walk into the house to see Bebé one last time. She is sitting on the mattress, and she is really crying now. This is it -- the end of her childhood. A friend holds her hand -- her head is uncovered, and I wonder who will hold her hand on her own wedding day. Bamou walks out last and closes the door behind Bebé. Our job as balaman musow is done. Lahmine's friend passes tea around as we walk away. Someone tells a joke and they break into laughter. Inside, Bebé cries on her marriage bed.
Ala k'a ni si bee. Ala k'a denw caman soro. K'a waari caman soro. K'a keneya bee. Ala k'a su here di.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Talk Back Beautiful Woman

As the bus hurdles south, the piles of mangos by the side of the road grow bigger and bigger. Slowly but surely, the dirt turns a little redder, the landscape fills in with greenery and trees. We are on vacation, Joe and Ashley, Jennifer and I. Leaving Bamako, we take a car into Guinea on our way to Sierra Leone. The windows are rolled down, and I lean out of mine to eat a mango. The wind pushes against me, hard, and there is mango juice flying everywhere, covering my arms and face.

We exchange money at the border, and I come away with a wad of bills so large and fat, I'm sure I'm a millionaire. I stuff the money wherever I can fit it, in my wallet, every pocket of my backpack. We feel so uncomfortable with a half million Guinean francs each, until we realize that everyone is standing around with thick stacks of cash, inflation has risen so high in Guinea that all these bills are worth nothing. It is easy to be deceived, to think that 10,000 francs is a lot of money, when really, it's barely two dollars. Later, we'll treat ourselves to a nice dinner out in Conakry. We'll leave the house with about 200,000 francs. We'll enjoy pizza and beers until late in the evening. And it will be only as we open our wallets after we've asked for the check that we'll realize 200,000 francs doesn't get you very far, that we don't have enough money to pay the bill.

Mohammed is our driver from Conakry to Freetown. He's savvy and knows how to cross the border, how to treat the guards and policemen. He knows which soldiers must be bribed, which men have donned a uniform but are not actually soldiers (like the man who stops our car in a Canadian policeman's uniform). He signals to us with a shake of the head or a finger to his lips when then the police approach our car at checkpoints. When we approach checkpoints, Mohammed's hand is already out the window, bills pressed into his hand. He drops them on the ground and speeds off, or hands them to a soldier with whom he does not make eye contact.

The pavement ends at the border to Sierra Leone, but the soldiers and checkpoints don't. One soldier pulls us over to ask Joe for his book. At customs, the men ask Jennifer and I for our hand in marriage. They are not joking, they tell us their qualifications: one has dual citizenship in Guinea and Sierra Leone; another is willing to move to Mali. I tell them I'll mull over their offers for a week and let them know on our way back to Mali.

Crossing into Sierra Leone

We reach Freetown at sunset. It is loud and bright, the streets are narrow, the buildings colonial and skinny and tall. Freetown is perched at the top of a hill, overlooking the ocean. Especially after we've seen the beech, it's easy to forget why Sierra Leone hasn't become a tourist hotspot. But the signs are there. In the morning, we walk to a grocery store, and I see a man with both his hands cut off ("No hand, no vote); at the beach, hotels stand in ruins: It was the war that did it.

We set up camp in a fishing village, Tokeh Beach. Mountains rise up behind us and the ocean stretches out forever in front. Fishing boats with names like Talk Back Beautiful Woman and Time is Money dot the water, and men repair their nets along the shore. Kids run naked and shouting into the water with us. I float on my back and wonder how I'll be able to return to the stark landscape of Mali, to the dry, forbidding heat.

After days spent on the beach, we'd wander into town for snacks and the catch of the day.
Mountains meet the ocean

One day we take a trip to Banana Island. Our captain is Scott. He worked at a French-owned hotel before the war, and now makes his living mostly from fishing. There are few tourists these days. Downing a sachet of gin, he maneuvers our pirogue, pointing out the small villages that line the peninsula. At Banana Island, we are invited up to the retreat of two ex-Soviets, Yuri and Caesar. They are building a campement on the island, a break, as far as we can tell, from their efforts in the diamond mining business. Caesar arrived in Sierra Leone during the war, and Yuri is younger, the owner of a diamond polishing factory, with a fierce mustache and cocky soldiers. They have been drinking all day and keep our drinks full with heavy hands. Yuri holds forth on the diamond business and the lies of the film Blood Diamond. He tells us diamond smuggling is rampant and begins in on off-color remarks about the native population and the hypocrisy of Americans. As Caesar's hand travels from my back to my shoulders to my thigh, it is time to go.

Ashley, Joe, me and Jennifer on Banana Island

Leaving the pristine white sand and cool of the Atlantic is hard to to, but we hop into a car again, back to Guinea, this time to the Fouta Djalon, where a man named Hassan Ba runs a small campement for hikers, leading day hikes. Driving in, we begin to wonder if the long journey and hours of bargaining to get to the tiny village of Douky have been worth it. It's beautiful pasture and farmland, but there doesn't seem to be anything too special to see. It is when we begin our hike, descending into a crater and then up and around huge cliffs spotted with cascading waterfalls and monkeys that we realize the beauty of this place, so carefully hidden from the untrained eye.
Shoots and Ladders

Hassan speaks in acronyms and walks fast: We are BP's (Back Packers), he says, not BT's (Back Trackers). Hassan sees shapes in every cliff and rock formation. There is George Washington, there is an elephant, there is a woman brushing her hair, there is an advertisement for Viagra. The next morning, Hassan is busy getting ready for the next hike, running around in a peach colored boubou. "You're a vision in peach, Hassan," she tells him. "Yes! I am an early pigeon!" he cries back.
Hassan Ba, ready to BP

One of the hikes we did was called Indiana Jones

Hassan waves us goodbye and it is time to start for home. The greenery flashes by us, and slowly, slowly, the ground dries out, the water dries up, we are returning to the Sahel. Mud huts replace concrete houses with glass windows, and we can no longer by fresh pineapple and the biggest avocados I've ever seen on the roadside. But crossing the border back into Mali, I'm comforted to be speaking Bambara again. And this time, when the soldiers ask to marry us, they just laugh when Jennifer tells them they'll have to give Joe a whole lot of goats and cows in exchange for her. We're on our way home.

Sunset over the Fouta