Monday, August 24, 2009
It is easy to forget what it's like to take a scalding shower and sleep cuddled up under blankets. It is easy to forget that it is not normal everywhere to spend four hours waiting for a bus. That bananas should be yellow and oranges orange is quickly lost. You begin to believe that all women in short skirts are prostitutes and wonder why you had ever thought them appropriate. The smells of pine trees, folded laundry, and freshly cut grass are too foreign to hold a spot in your memory. So, too, you forget the ease of tap water and the bitter, sharp taste of real coffee.
But you do not forget what it is like to be surrounded by those who knew you before you became Samouhan. You do not forget the ease of talking in your native tongue, nor the liberty and comfort in speaking to your mother without a calling card beeping to remind you of the minutes ticking away too fast.
And ten days in Tunisia with my parents was a better reminder than I could ever have asked for. After settling down for our first cafe and gazing across the wide avenue and at the high heels streaming by, I had forgotten. As fast as I forgot how much I had missed my father's detailed stories and my mother's never ending enthusiasm, I had forgotten what it was like to go without in Mali.
Dipping into the blue Mediterranean, I did not think of how I had once shown Aissa a picture of the Atlantic for her to glimpse an idea of the great expanse a body of water can hold.
On the bus to Bizerte, a picture of Lahmine holding onto the side of the van on his way to another market did not enter my head.
Passing the fields of melon and corn, grapes and olives, pears and plums, I did not wonder whether the drought had ended in Mali.
When I turned the screws and opened the taps to wash off the salt water, I did not ask myself who had pulled water for Banta with me gone.
Walking through rich cork forests in the cool air of Ain Draham, looking out at the Algerian border, I did not consider how my village might go about replenishing its own dwindling trees, the consequence of cooking over charcoal and wood fires.
Invited to lunch at the home of a Tunisian family, I did not marvel at the splendor of a home made of cement instead of mud; I was not surprised that the meal was served with bread, drinks, salad and appetizers, rather than the bowl of rice Sitan would prepare for her family to share.
At Carthage, gazing out towards Italy from Dido's hilltop spot; from the height of Antonin's Baths; past the tall whitewashed houses draped in bougainvillea and the insulated presidential palace, I did not think of the view over the village at sunset from Adama's fields.
Bathing in the hammam with my mother, surrounded by generations of women racing back and forth with buckets of hot and cold water, enveloped in steam, I have forgotten Tata shouting directions as her daughter, Azy, takes her bucket bath in the open air.
And while sipping cafes in the Medina and wine in La Marsa; while strolling the streets of Tunis in jeans with my hair down my back, I did not feel Mali holding onto me.
Oh, sure. I talked about Mali non-stop. I gave my parents the rundown of everyone in the village. I compared everything in Tunisia to Mali. But it slipped away so fast, that sense of closeness and belonging.
Aissa called while we wandered the web of streets in Sidi Bou Said, the sun setting. Bambara sounded thick and blunt on my tongue, but there Aissa was, slipping Mali back into my consciousness and under my skin.
If it is so easy for me to leave for ten days and forget, no wonder most of us had never given Mali a thought before I became Samouhan. Small surprise, then, that the Tunisian family with whom we lunched had no idea where Mali was on the African continent until we opened up the map. It is so much easier to talk of what we know and where we are. One day, a day which promises to come faster than I am prepared for, Mali will become only memories. All I can hope is to retain the immediacy and understand the reality that I will leave behind. And I can hope for Aissa's voice to call me away from self absorption now and then, too.
The morning after Aissa called in Sidi Bou Said, I spent my last few hours wandering the streets. I stopped in a bookstore and a French publisher approached me. He asked if I lived in Tunisia. I said no, informing him that I was living in Mali. "Jesus Christ," he replied.
At the airport, I approached the desk to check-in. "This flight is for Bamako," the Air Tunis representative informed me firmly, clearly sure that I was lost and had wound up at the wrong counter. After reassuring him that I was in the right place, he asked me if I knew I needed a visa for Mali, as if still questioning my clarity of mind in going to Bamako.
Before my plane boarded, I sat down for one last cafe. Thrown together by too many people and not enough chairs, I was joined by a Tunisian man, Said, who was awaiting the arrival of a friend. He too was surprised to hear that I lived in Mali. "Life in Mali is difficult, n'est-ce pas?" he asked.
Yes, is the simple answer. But, oh, the wonders! Oh, the joys! Because, after all, when you have forgotten about espresso and indoor plumbing, it's just life in Mali.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Travelling in style: Jennifer all set for a weekend of fine dining and shopping in cosmopolitan Bamako.
Give that child some ameliorated porridge!
The sun in Mali sure is strong.
Hiking up to this waterfall, we came across a woman climbing too. In fliplops. With a huge basket of laundry on her head and a baby on her back.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
I know it's just a dream. Aissa will probably never board that plane, not only because of the logistics of obtaining a passport and visa and buying her ticket, but also because Aissa is terrified of America. She is sure that the minute she stepped off the plane in America, she would freeze to death. It is not something she jokes about, she is sure it really will happen, because she knows that in America, it is always freezing and snow is always falling.
Aissa takes advantage of a hot afternoon to nap and get her hair braided.
The weather is not the only reason Aissa would refuse to go, she also believes that white people are often violent and that war is frequent in the west. Looking through a Newsweek once, we came across a photograph of a mother crying over the casket of her son, killed in the Iraq war. Aissa was shocked to see the photo and asked me what what the picture showed. I explained it to her and she cocked her head and said, "But I thought Africans were the only people who don't like war, who cry over death."
While you and I wonder where the next war in Africa will break out and whether there will ever be peace in the Congo or the Sudan, Aissa tells me that Africans hate war.
This entry is about misperceptions. The ideas that you and I have about Africa and Africans and the beliefs that Malians hold about Americans and the West in general. There are many of them and they are often just as far from the mark as the stereotypes we hold of Africa.
Do you remember the last pair of pants or t-shirt that you gave away to Goodwill the last time you cleaned out your closet? Well, there's a good chance it ended up somewhere in Africa. On market day, piles and piles of cast-off clothes from America are sold. They are cheaper than buying Malian fabric and having it tailored. And here, Malians call them "dead toubab clothes." Because why would you ever give away clothing that is still in good condition? It only makes sense that the toubabs must have died first, and their clothes sold after their death. Aissa however, puts a little twist on this story. She is convinced, that not only are the t-shirts and dresses and skirts from dead toubabs, but that toubab soldiers rape and pillage toubab villages just so that they can steal their clothes and sell them to African markets. No wonder the woman shakes her head rapidly from side to side in a fierce negative at any suggestion of going to America.
Tata doesn't care to go to America either. She has seen American pornography and is highly disturbed by it. Why, she wants to know, don't Americans chase porn stars out of their villages and force them to create a village of only porn stars so that the rest of the population aren't bothered by them? Tata assumes that people watch porn in America in the same way that t.v. is watched here in Mali: where there is a television, there is a crowd. To Tata, Americans must gather in public, in large groups, on the streets, to watch porn. She wants no part in that.
Others would do anything to make it to America. They have heard about the money that grows on trees. And since Americans don't have to pound millet or pull water from the wall, they must just sit around relaxing around the clock. They have seen pictures of Americans and they know that there is not one single ugly American, let alone a poor one. White people are all skinny, I've heard, and only eat one egg for lunch.
You don't have to go all the way to America to meet this cute American! Jennifer in Bamako for a weekend of fine dining and shopping.
Last week, Becky came to visit, another testament to the belief that there are no ugly Americans. We trekked around the village greeting and stopped at Djennaba's house for tea. The woman boiling the tea looked at the two of us laughing and smiling together and asked who Becky was. I replied that she was my good friend from home and the woman put her hand to her mouth in surprise. "Eh?!" she cried, "Toubabs have friendships?!"
Some of the misconceptions are eerily similar to forgotten stereotypes of Africans held by Westerners: When I first got to my village, Banta, walked up to me laughing. She stuck her arm out and began rubbing at her skin, demonstrating to me that the black pigment does not, in fact, rub off. And no matter how many times I try to convince her that I already knew that before I arrived, that there are lots of black people, even Malians, in America, every time a new white visitor comes to the village, she performs the same demonstration. One by one, she seems to think, she will prove to white people that the black does not rub off.
Getting rid of these misconceptions isn't helped by the fact that all white people, no matter where they come from, are called toubabs and they are all assumed to speak toubabukan, or, white-speak. In fact, toubabukan refers only to French, leading to much confusion when a white person who does not speak "white-speak" comes to Mali.
I cannot blame Aissa or Banta for their misconceptions of the place I come from. They have had little contact with foreigners up to now and have few resources to investigate whether America really is covered in snow year round. Most people in my village have not traveled wide and far, and what they know is what they hear, what they see.
But as Americans, we do have the resources to find out whether our stereotypes of Africa and Africans are valid. We don't have to be left in the dark, but it seems we often choose keep the lights off. Before I left for Mali, my father told me he had absolutely no stereotypes of Africa or Africans. "Oh, Come on, John," my mom said, "we all have some." But he refused to admit that he had any such preconceived notions. Not long after I had arrived, however, my dad called. He'd read in one of my emails that I was running in the fields outside my village, and he was worried. Wasn't I scared, he asked. What about all the animals -- the elephants, the lions, the hippos. I calmed his fears and told him the only things bothering me on my runs were mosquitos: a run in Mali is not an African safari.