Thursday, June 25, 2009

Life As I Know It

When you are a 23 year old white American girl living in a small village in Mali, do not sleep late. If it is cold enough that you can sleep inside, be up when you hear the morning call to prayer. If you're late, you'll wake to Lahmine calling your name, and you'll stumble to pull a tafé around your waist and unlock the door, stubbing your toe on the concrete floor on the way.

At the well, do not let one of the other women pull your water. If you don't pull your own water, well, what kind of woman are you, and you'll never be respected by any woman in the village. Push your glasses up on your nose and make sure your feet are steady before lifting the 20 liter bucket. If it is a mud well and you have a baby on your back, be especially careful.

Carry the water home and wash your laundry. Be sure your compound walls are high, or else you'll find men and women critiquing the way you wash your clothes and dishes and how you spend your time at all hours of day. Ah, Samouhan, they will say, why don't you pay me to wash your clothes! Ah Samouhan, they will say to you, you have gotten so fat here! Do not be alarmed. Do not cry. It is a compliment.

When you hop on your bike and head to work, greet everyone you see. Ask them how they slept, how their family slept, how everyone in their compound is, and the people in the house, and the children and their wives or husband. Do not forget to inquire about their mothers. The children will shout Bonjour Toubabu musoni! Donne moi un cadeau! Their arms will grow tired but their voices won't as they call after you. In time, they will learn your name and all you will hear will be Iniché, Samouhan! I te i ka negeso di n ma? (Won't you give me your bike?)

Watch out for hop-ons. Some of the more vigorous and bold children will run after your bike and try to hop on to the fender. Be stern and swat them away. If someone gives you a chicken, hang him upside down from your handlebars and ride on. He will not squawk.

At the clinic, weigh babies until one of them pees on you. Some days, you and Mapha will ride out to the surrounding villages. Keep calm if you go out to a village and the town crier starts running around telling everyone the white doctor is here to give everyone free medicine.

On your way home, stop to chat with the old men sitting in the shade and passing the hours. They will tell you that all Daou's are bean eaters. Vehemently deny this and respond by asking them if their wives are cooking beans to feed them for lunch. They will laugh uproariously. If you are a Daou, never, ever, admit to eating beans. If you are a Coulibaly, a Konaté, a Thera... Well. What can I say. You're probably eating beans as you read this.

When the sun gets too hot to move, lay down on the mat under the tree with Banta and listen to the latest gossip about how Hadjara is treating her help. Shell peanuts until blisters form on your thumb. It is rainy season and soon peanuts will be planted. Grab a handful of peanuts and slurp small sips of tea out of a shot glass to go with them. Participate in the gossip but be careful with your Bambara. If you call a baptism a baby's beheading instead of a baby's hair-cutting, be ready for laughter to explode and for the women around you to roll around on the mat.

In the afternoon, once the heat has died down, it's time to go out again. Drink more tea. Deny being a bean eater. Give health talks. Arrange meetings. Plan projects. Push away the bit of anxiety in the pit of your stomach that makes you wonder if you'll leave in two years with nothing much to show for it.

When you receive marriage proposals, agree on the following conditions: that you will be your husband's only wife; that your husband will help you pull water and do the laundry; that you and your husband will take turns cooking. You will hear many marriage proposals, but no one will accept your conditions.

When the sun begins to set, it is time to head home. You will need to sweep your compound, and it will be so dusty that you'd best be sure to tie a scarf around your face or you'll end up choking with the dust. You will need to pull more water. You will be tired after pulling your fourth bucket, but do not lose courage: you will look at little Banta, Banta's granddaughter, who has a bucket of water on her head and another hanging from her arm and she's got a big round belly because she's seven months pregnant in 110 degree heat.

When Banta leaves as the call to prayer starts, take your bucket and step into your open-roof latrine and look out over the rooftops and up at the palm trees and wonder how far America really is while you pour scoops of water over your head and wash away the salt that covers your body.

Millet, millet, and more millet will be your diet. Escape it by sneaking away to fancy lunches with Aissa so that you can eat rice and a piece of meat and even couscous now and then. Plan cooking lessons with Sitan so that you do not have to eat to every day. But dinner will always be millet-rice with a Shea butter sauce. Wash your hands with soap and hand the soap to Banta to wash her hands, and then Banta will say Bisimillah, and then you will eat. Start with small handfuls until you have practiced eating with your hands. Never touch the food with your left hand. Do not touch the salt with your left hand, do not touch the serving spoon with your left hand. Do not offer your left hand in greeting or accept anything with your left hand. When you are full, curl your hand around your last bite and lick all the sauce off your fingers.

If it is one of the nights of your radio show, carry a flashlight. If you do not carry a flashlight and you are walking in the dark and you come across an old woman and greet her, she will run away from you with both arms in the air, screaming bloody murder. She will think that you, so white and bright, are the devil.

After your radio show, Adama will play it back to you and you will cringe at your Bambara. In several months, listen to one of the old tapes and let yourself be astounded by how much better your Bambara is now. Adama will be nervous to let you walk home alone because your village is a truck stop, and you will walk home together analyzing the last show. Adama will be upbeat, bouncing like he always is after he's been on-air.

When you're ready for bed, hang your mosquito net next to Banta's mattress. Sleep right next to her for safety, so that no one can steel your headlamp while you're sleeping. If you have a theft problem, it is the only solution. Mapha, Moustapha, and Adama will take turns keeping guard over your compound after the latest theft, but they will stop after Mapha and Lahmine catch each other: each man thinking the other was the thief, Mapha with a brick in his hand and the two of them jumping each other until Mapha will break the silent night with his laughter once he's realized it's Lahmine.

Lay down under the mosquito netting with Banta next to you, and if it is still early and you are one of the first to bed, look up at the stars and listen to the sounds of men and women boiling tea and listening to the radio and boys whistling in the field and the donkey in the next compound braying. Fall asleep only after rubbing shea oil into your callused hands.

Tomorrow morning, wake up early. Be ready for Lahmine. Greet everyone you see and ask about their mothers. Do not eat beans or admit to liking beans. You will do all this and you will be surprised by how fast the days go by. Though you will miss so many things about home, the idea of leaving here will create a pit in your stomach and your tear ducts will grow full. Blink, grab your buckets, and head for the well.

Post Script: To Have and To Hold

When I returned to my village, I came home from the clinic one day to find Soté, Lahmine and Bébé having lunch and making tea. Lahmine was reclined in his chair, his youngest daughter, Barro, on his lap. Bébé and Soté were making lunch together and everyone seemed relaxed and at ease.

Another day, Banta rushed home to take me to a masked dance, where I found Soté strapping Barro onto Bébé's lap.

Perhaps I can never understand, I thought to myself. Perhaps marital bliss is possible even if a man does take two wives. Perhaps my Western perspective just doesn't let me see how life really is here.

Days later, I'm sitting with Soté as she makes the macaroni she sells at market when Nba, her eldest daughter returns from Bébé's compound. Immediately, Soté asked her everything about it. How many pots did Bébé have? How many chairs were at the compound?

Lahmine is never around anymore. He is always at Bébé's compound. Sometimes he comes just for a minute or two, and Soté and I know he's not staying if he leaves his moto outside the compound walls -- easy access for his trip back to Bébé. I don't know how Soté couldn't be upset. I'm not even married to the man, and I'm upset that he's disappeared. "Did you get lost?" I ask him when he shows up just to say hello after I haven't seen him in days. Barro has started running out to the road and calling for Lahmine at random times, even though there's no sign of her father down the road.

I know it's getting to Soté too. When Lahmine comes but doesn't stay, Soté starts to pick fights with him, and I sit between them wondering if this is what it feels like when you're parents are getting a divorce. One night, I'm with Soté and she makes me call Lahmine to ask when he's coming home. When I call, I can hear laughter in the background. Bébé's compound is a great hangout. Their are not babies running around sick and crying. There are plenty of chairs and one of Lahmine's friends shares the compound. When I ask Lahmine when he's coming home, I feel like the unwanted rock around his neck and I hate Soté for making me call and Lahmine for making Soté feel lonely and desperate.

Now that it's been a month, Lahmine has started to spend a couple nights at Soté's house again. On those nights, Soté gets dressed up in one of her prettiest complies and does her eyes. She makes Lahmine something special to eat, and I can't tell you how comforted I feel to come home and find Lahmine's moto settled in for the night in their compound. All is as it should be.