Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lions and Chimps and Johnny, Oh My!

Up the hill from the National Museum in Bamako is the zoo. I didn't know where it was before I came, so I told the taxi driver to take us to the wara so, the lion's house. It worked, and here we are, my brother and I, the first member of my family that I've seen in over a year. We walk over a bridge, straining our eyes for the first sign of wildlife, but there doesn't seem to be much in the water except algae. But then, there it is! A small elephant, sleeping, somehow oblivious to the fact that here we are, Johnny all the way from America and me with my love of elephants, and the little guy won't even look our way.

We march on and Johnny points us towards the chimpanzees. We stare at them fascinated by how close the chimp's hands are to ours, his ears so similar. Two boys come up to us holding hands, wearing shorts and ratty t-shirts. Have you seen the serpents yet, they ask? And the lions? It's clear they spend every penny they have on trips to the Bamako Zoo, and they become our tour guards. We see ostrich and hyenas, lions and monkeys. Most of the animals are behind metal bars, in stark concrete cages. One lion sits atop a cement block, curled up, his tail tucked in. In every cage lie slabs of meat, pork, we guess by the naive pigs wandering around.

The animals we spy on from outside the bars are not animals from the bush of Mali. They are from the golden days when elephants still passed through my village every year and everyone prayed that the huge animals wouldn't step in their fields. When Banta was a girl, lions roamed the bush and at dusk it was time to leave the fields for home in case of lions. Lahmine brings his gun into the fields with him now, but he only brings back a bird or a rabbit, and that's if he's lucky. Boys in my village hunt lizards. Johnny is so excited over them at first, pointing them out to me at the zoo as if they're one of the exhibits. He has not yet realized their ubiquity, how they're everywhere, including inside your house, on your chair, under the map you've hung from the wall. If you're not a lizard hunter, the only thing to find in the bush are djelis, Lassine tells me, devil creatures that harass people at night if you run into them in the fields. The lions at the zoo are as foreign to the Malians as they are to Johnny and me.

There is an aquarium at the zoo too. It's inside and cooler, and the room is filled with small fish tanks, just like the one that little kids in America keep in their rooms and feed once a day. The fish inside are nondescript, no bigger than the dried fish I see at market every week, but the Malians at the zoo with us find them fascinating, and the boys who are guiding Johnny and I point out each one to us, searching our eyes for an amazed expression that will match theirs.

The star attraction to the museum among Peace Corps volunteers is a dead manatee. It's all I heard about before coming, nothing about the lions or the elephant, just that there was a dead manatee. We stumble across it under a tree after we've seen the hyenas. It's in an elevated rectangular glass box, but the box is broken and the manatee has been eaten by various insects or birds or who knows what. If we didn't know it was a manatee, we'd have know idea what it was, it'd just be some sort of gross black carcass. But Johnny doesn't seem disappointed, he snaps pictures and the two boys lead us onwards.

The next day, Johnny and I take a bus up to my village. It's cooler out, it rained yesterday, and so I only have to fan Johnny a couple times during the trip to keep him in good spirits. We step off the bus in my village and I'm nervous. I have been talking about his visit for months; I have told everyone that my big brother, my koroce is coming. But as we walk into my compound the knots in my stomach relax and a smile spreads across my face. I hear Banta running towards us, "Eh Alah! U nana!" Lahmine's girls, all of them, come running and already everyone is testing Johnny's Bambara, laughing, anxious to shake his hand. Men leaving the mosque after four o'clock prayer hear the noise and come running to see what's going on.

We spend the next couple of days parading Johnny through the village. The chief of the village has named my brother Lahmine Daou, the same name as my jatigi, my host. Malians have special relationships with those who share their name, and call them n togoma. Johnny is Lahmine's togoma and Lahmine is constantly checking in on Johnny. He calls me, barely says hello, and then asks to speak to his togoma. When he comes over in the morning, he asks for his togoma. When he gets back from market, he has fruit for his togoma.
Johnny sporting a gift from his togoma

On Friday night, I drag Johnny to the radio station. He's nervous for his first on-air performance on Radio Benkadi, but I know our show will be a success. It's a drama: we're two mosquitos, flying around looking for people to bite and pass malaria on to them. But when we reach my village, we can't find anyone to bite because they're all sleeping under mosquito nets. Johnny stumbles through the Bambara, but the results are in: my best radio show yet. We walk out of the studio to find that everyone has been recording it onto their cell phones. The next day at market everyone makes mosquito noises and crows over how Johnny couldn't bite them last night because they were sleeping under nets. We make our way through piles of dried fish and baskets of rice and beans. We buy sweet potatoes for Lahmine, bananas for Adama and Moustapha, VivaCafé for Banta. And everywhere we go, hands reach out to shake Johnny's, everyone says that we look alike and, thanks to being introduced to Johnny over the radio, no one calls Johnny my husband.

Johnny and Moustapha. Johnny's shirt is made from bogolan, mud fabric, a gift from Moustapha.

My brother is showered with gifts. A shirt from Moustapha, another from Lahmine, special dishes from Banta and Tata, a hat from Aissa, grilled meat from Adama, fruits and all the delicacies Mali offers. The night before Johnny is to leave, Mapha delivers a chicken to our house. Banta is anxious about making sure we'll have a chance to eat it before Johnny leaves, but women don't usually kill chickens, and Lahmine's not home. She walks back and forth between Lahmine's compound and ours, waiting for him to come home. Finally, we hear the sounds of the chicken dying in the lane behind my house and rush outside. Banta is quick to begin taking out the feathers and she's up long after we've gone to bed, cooking Johnny's chicken so he can eat it for breakfast.

On the way back to Bamako its hot, and we've managed to find the only seats in the bus with absolutely no wind. I hand Johnny his own fan and neither of us put our fans down until we reach Bamako. We have dinner in Bamako and reminisce about the time we got locked out of the house and Johnny climbed the tree and went through the skylight above my bed to open the door. We laugh at how I used to run after Johnny when we were little, begging him to play games with me. And when that failed, how I bossed and bossed and bossed him until he cried. Who could have guessed he would visit me at my home in Mali? Who would have guessed I would teach him Bambara and we would sit in my compound, looking up at the stars, asking his togoma, Lahmine, what stars mean to Malians?

See you next year, brother, old pal.

For more photos of Johnny's visit to Mali, go to

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Road

Whenever I leave my village, I pack up my bag, shutter my windows and lock my door, and take leave of Banta. She calls out blessings for my safe return as I head out of the compound, and I walk out to the main road that runs through the center of the village. It is a cement road, a Malian freeway, really, that runs all the way from Bamako to the far reaches of northern Mali, through Segou and San, Sevare and Gao, right up to distant Kidal.

Some Malians must ride their bike 30K from their village, take a crowded van along a dusty and pot-filled dirt just to reach the main road at which they will sit for hours waiting for a bus to come by. Others, without a moto or bike or even a donkey cart, walk miles to the main road from their village. When I want to catch a ride out of my village, I simply walk to the road, take a seat near friends, and drink tea until a bus comes zooming through. The doors of the bus will open, the prendtigi will shout at me, asking where I want to go, and I, hurrying to get my bag and take one last sip of tea, will shout out my reply, running to jump on the bus. And just like that, I'm off.

The road is not wide, but it is powerful. The width of an American one lane street, this Malian freeway is the size of the dead end road that runs into my parents' home in Oregon. But unlike North Grand Street, which hosts traffic such as old VW Buses and small Prius', the gidron running through my village sees semi-trucks filled with charcoal and millet, countless Land Rovers with aid workers basking in air conditioning, buses piled high with mattresses and bikes, donkey carts and Peulh women carrying calabash bowls of milk on their heads, motos zooming in and out of it all. It is thanks to the road that my village is growing and prospering. It is thanks to the road that I am even there.

Before the road, there were only two donkey carts in the whole village. They were cumbersome affairs, unable to travel through thick sand, and they traveled neither far nor frequently. In those days, Banta tells me, no one had heard of Bamako much less traveled there. The farthest they traveled was to Baramandougou, for their market once a week, on Sundays, a distance of 20K. Travel was often by river, and Baramandougou, on the banks of the Bani river, was the hub of the area. Boats travelled up and down the river, to Djenne and Mopti, trading millet and fish. Mali's major hubs fell along river routes: Bamako, Segou, Mopti, even Tombouctou.

The road came shortly after Independence, in 1961 or 1962, at the same time that kids started going to school. The leaders of Baramandougou recognized how influential the new road would be and pushed for it to be built through their village. But their appeals went unheard and my village made its name on the map instead, another stop on the road from Bamako.

A paved road means progress. It means income and trade and markets and wealth and resources. It means easy access for government officials and NGOs and donor agencies. It means a school and clinic right their in your own village. It means that your children will not have to walk three miles to school. It means that your wife will not give birth in a donkey cart on the long trip to get to the clinic. It means the clinic will not have run out of vaccinations for your children by the time they make it out to your village. It means not only knowledge of Bamako, not only trips to Bamako, but years spent working or studying in Bamako. A paved road means that when ATT, Mali's President, travels north, he will throw money out the window of his car and it will be your family and neighbors who will pick the money up. A paved road means fresh fruits and vegetables; fresh fish and meat. It not only means fresh food, it means there will be money to buy that food.

My village is now a destination: people stop to buy lunch and dinner; every Saturday buses and donkey carts come from miles around to buy and sell at market. Business is thriving and bricks are being made for new buildings and houses.

As urban areas in Mali become richer and rural areas become poorer, Malians are flocking to urban centers. While my village is by no means urban, it too is growing. The mayor's office hopes that the village will one day become a circle capital, a sub-regional center and hub for commerce.

Baramandougou, the village by the river, has shrunk. It still hosts a market on Sundays, but almost no one goes. Many of its villagers have moved to my village. The road has passed over Baramandougou, surpassing the power of the river with its force, moving as fast as the trucks that zoom along the pavement to supply money and resources to the villages blessed to have access to it. For those villages on winding dirt roads, miles from pavement, the road and the progress that comes with it continues to evades them.

The new mayor of our commune, Moussa Daou, took office in June, and almost every village in the commune has demanded a paved road connecting their village to ours during Moussa's term. These villages, too, have taken note of the power of the road.

In the evenings, once the heat of the day has dimmed, I leave my bike at Aissa's and head out for a run on the road, up a hill towards the village of Bora. Fields stretch out beside me, and now that the rain is beginning, I pass farmers hurrying to finish their work before the sun sets. Buses breeze by me on their way to Bamako and vans head back into my village from market. The road is narrow, and when I see a truck coming towards me, I jump off the road and run on the edge of fields, crickets jumping out of my way. I turn around and run back towards my village and what I see is this: a village stretching out across sand and dirt, separated by a winding mass of concrete. I see a road that is skinny and worn, crowded and overflowing. I see a road that is the best single mean of escaping poverty for my community. This is the real thing: a road to progress.

From Day to Day

Members of the Peulh population held a masked dance in my village. I was entertaining a representative from World Vision when Banta came running to find me, out of breath and breathing hard: "There's a masked dance! Come Quick!" Good thing we hurried, the dancers could not be seen after sunset.

Aissa has a month of vacation from her work at the clinic. Her daughter, Tata, has come to visit, along with her three children. Aissa is relaxed and spends her time napping and ordering Tata and the grandkids around. Above, we sat around dranking tea while Aissa worked on taking the tight braids out of her granddaughter's hair.
Banta makes her living selling cookies: namti and dedegé, made with rice, millet, peanuts and sugar. I have become her apprentice and she swears that once I return to America, I will make millions selling Banta's own cookies.