Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Peace is a Full Belly

In my ongoing efforts to become a true Malian woman, I have been taking cooking classes.

Every Monday, I walk over to Adama's compound after I've finished with my laundry. I find Sitan starting the fire, a fan in her hand and Mamy, her four-month-old baby on her back. Sitan is a good cook, eager to try new recipes and create elaborate dishes. While most of the women in my village cycle through a never-ending routine of cooking the same dishes day after day (breakfast: millet porridge; lunch: to; dinner: millet rice), Sitan has both the interest and the means to prepare something a little different.

Adama allows Sitan full range in deciding what she'll cook. He includes her in his finances and while other women make meager sauces without nutrients or proteins due to husbands who refuse to hand over any cash, Adama's money -- for the most part -- is Sitan's money. Her mother taught her many of the elaborate dishes she whips up without consulting a recipe, but on Sundays, at 11am, Sitan tunes in to Mali's national radio station. Each Sunday morning, there's a cooking show, and Sitan has been known to try out the recipes she hears broadcast on the radio.

Sitan cuts the meat and I grind peppers and garlic. We make jaba ji (onion sauce), saga saga (sweat potato leaf sauce), basi (couscous-like millet), malo foyo (couscous-like rice), and faqoi (green-leaf sauce from the North).

When we started our lessons, Fatou, Sitan's three year-old daughter and I had about the same level of responsibility. But these days, not only am I wearing more complets, but I'm cooking a bit more like a Malian woman too. Mamy gets hungry and Sitan sits down to feed her, and it's just me, adding salt to the sauce and checking the rice.

When we're done, Sitan partitions the meal into three bowls: a medium-size bowl for Adama, a large bowl that Sitan will share with the four children in the compound, and a medium bowl for me to take home to share with Banta.

Banta looks forward to my cooking lessons: the food we cook is a treat -- a sauce she hasn't tasted since the days when she lived with the rich Army man -- or a dish she has never even heard of. Banta never tires of talking of food. When I accuse her of never thinking of anything else, she says, Well, when you have food and your belly's full, are you not at peace? Ah Banta, how wise you are.

Peanut butter sauce, or tigadegana, is a classic and one of my favorites. Here's the recipe if you'd like to try it out!


Meat (goat or sheep's meat, preferably)
Peanut Butter (1.5 Cups)
4 Tomatoes
2 TBSP Tomato Paste
Ground Pepper (several tsps)
4 large hot red chili peppers
6 onions
Cabbage, carrots, or other veggies if you have them
Salt (1 TBSP)
2 Maggi Cubes (similar to bouillon cubes)
3 Cloves Garlic
Okra Powder (1/8 cup)
White Rice (as desired)

1. Steam or boil rice as desired.
2. On medium heat, add oil to a large saucepan. Slice meat as desired and add to pot.
3. Once meat has browned a bit, add 1/2 Liter water and peanut butter to pot.
4. Once meat is well cooked, squeeze juice out of tomato skins and add juice and tomato paste to pot.
5. Add 3 of the 4 peppers to the pot.
6. Once oil has started to separate from the peanut butter, add 3/4 Liter water and stir.
7. Grind (or finely chop) 6 large onions and add to the sauce.
8. If you have extra veggies -- like cabbage or carrots -- you can add them to your sauce.
9. Stir in salt and Maggi cubes.
10. Pound/grind garlic and pepper together and stir into the sauce.
11. Once oil begins to emerge from the sauce again, you can add okra powder to thicken the sauce (it makes it a bit slimy).
12. Once sauce is well cooked, remove from heat and serve over a bed of rice. If you're eating Malian style, you'll serve the dish in a big bowl or platter. Now, wash your hands -- with soap -- and dig in. Remember not to use your left hand!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Unrequited Love and the Hurdles of Dating in Mali

The men are getting braver. Walking to the internet cafe in San last week, a man pulled up beside me on his moto. "Ooh la la," he said, "Where are you going?"

"Nowhere," I replied.

"May I come with you?"

Banta says the men of San have no shame. I'm beginning to wonder if the men of my village have lost their sense of shame as well.

There is a man who sits outside the boulangerie in our village all day everyday. I pass him constantly, but it wasn't until a month or so ago that I discovered he speaks English. He invited me to come talk with him whenever I liked to give him a chance to improve his English -- although middle aged, he hopes to take the TOEFL and GRE and to study in America. I never did take him up on his offer -- there are already so many people -- and I just never made the time or effort.

A few days after I'd started wearing the new running shoes my mother had sent me in the mail, the man outside the boulangerie flagged me down. He'd noticed the bright whites of my new shoes, had judged from looking at my feet that we wore the same size and wondered, could he have my old shoes?

I declined -- I'd already found a recipient for my castaways -- and pedaled on.

Yesterday, he became even braver. His arm was out to hail me, flapping as I rode my bike by, as if he wanted to tell me my tire was flat or that he was hoping to catch a ride. Instead, he asked if I was married. Because, as it turned out, he was not yet married and men and women belong together, he said. They keep each other from being lonely and maybe I'd be interested in that? I told him I didn't think so. "Well, he said, "I have courage." Courage for pestering me in the far-fetched hopes of obtaining my hand in marriage, I suppose.

When I tell Aissa these stories she immediately starts analyzing whether the man in question could support me at the standard to which se imagines I am accustomed. He sits by the boulangerie doing nothing all day, she muses, he can't possibly have any money.

When I tell the stories to banta, she laughs and laughs. If all the men were that brave, if they weren't scared, (if they had no shame), our compound would be full from morning to night, she says.

I just can't figure out what the appeal is. I feel like a country bumpkin most days next to Malian girls, trying to make it in the city, wearing outdated fashions in the wrong sizes. Malian girls my age look good and they have the bodies to back it up. Could it be my pale skin? Is it my wealth? Or is it my closeness to Barack Obama by virtue of being an American citizen?

Whatever the appeal, it seems to be getting stronger. There are fewer old men jokingly proposing marriage and more young men, almost desperate in their pleas for consideration.

Adama and Lahmine, Moustapha and Mapha are my overprotective older brothers. They keep tabs on me and my visitors. If anyone asks for me at night, no matter who, they keep that person from visiting.

On market day a few weeks ago, a young man approached me as I chatted with a friend. He asked for a word with me and refused to speak in Bambara, telling me of his desire to get to know me and become friends in French so that those around us wouldn't understand (that must mean he has some shame left). I told him what Aissata and Sitan have told me to say to these requests: "I don't make friends, I'm too busy." It feels like such a lie on so many levels -- I have plenty of time, wads of it adding up spent drinking tea and doing precisely what I've just told him I don't do: making friends. It's what I'm here for, after all. But I say it to the young man anyway. He insists he is someone I should get to know. He asks where my house is. I walk away. "May I at least know your name?" he calls out after me.

The next market day, there was a knock on the compound door. It was the young man from the previous week. He'd asked all around the village until he found someone to tell him where I lived. When he asked at the health clinic, Mapha told him he wouldn't find me at home. When he asked Adama, Adama shook his head and said he didn't know where exactly I lived. But someone had shown him the way and the young man spilled out his desires to know me, the reasons why he was worthy of my friendship. I said goodbye and shut the door, laughing about his visit with Banta.

Within minutes there's a second knock and it's Moustapha, just checking in. He won't say, but Banta and I know Adama sent him to check on me. Later, Banta tells me that Moustapha went so far as to alert the chief of the village to the young man's visit.

Part of me likes how protective they are. My own brother has never showed any interest in taking on such a role and it makes me feel safe and cared for.

At other times, I wish they would trust me to take care of myself. I can't have visitors or talk to anyone without arousing the suspicions of Adama. Moustapha is sure I'm sneaking off to San to see a man rather than to do work.

Tthere are plenty of volunteers who date Malian men and women, and more than enough good looking, eligible Malian men to date. I'm all for it, given the right guy, the right situation. It just makes things harder when every man you meet professes to love at first site. It makes it harder when you live in a tiny community where everyone knows your business. It makes it harder when you don't speak the same language. It is hard enough to try to bridge cultural divides in my every day life here without adding dating on top of that. And then there are my overprotective brothers and a delicate balance of convincing coworkers that I am serious and here to work.

Nonetheless, female Peace Corps volunteers here in Mali face a completely different experience than our male counterparts simply because we are, for the most part, single women of a marriageable age, living alone. Navigating our place within Malian culture is a constantly funny, flattering, and frustrating maze.

For now, I will take the men's loss of shame as a good sign. I'll take it as a sign that I'm looking more and more like I know what I'm doing, where I'm going, and where I belong.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Fresh Meat

Last Wednesday, Jennifer and I walked into San's market, basket in one hand, a grocery list in another. The list was long: potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, flour, sugar, canned corn, eggs. Market was packed, and we jostled our way through women haggling over fish, determined to get the best deal on potatoes, to find the freshest green beans. While we were busy preparing for Thanksgiving dinner, the Malians surrounding us were shopping for the biggest Muslim holiday of the year: Tabaski.

For months now, Malians have been preparing for Tabaski. A couple weeks ago, the trucks packed with bleating sheep heading for Bamako grew ever more constant and steady. Buses were empty of people but piled high with sheep on top, big and long-horned, certain to be sold at a high price. One such bus broke down in my village and I cycled past, piercing bleats of sheep with their legs tied together following me as I rode from one side of the village to the other.

The sheep are expensive -- especially if they're big and fat -- and Mapha spent over $200 American dollars on three sheep: one for him, one for his first wife, and one for his second wife. Adama was the lucky one, though. A group of French volunteers had passed through our village the previous month, bringing with them Goustav, the sheep that had been given to them by their friends from the village they had been in prior to coming to ours. Goustav was large with splendid horns and a clean white coat. A couple of the French girls, vegetarians, couldn't stomach the idea of seeing dear Goustav killed and skinned, reduced to meat in a sauce. But neither could they take Goustav with them on the plane to France.

And so, on the day the French waved goodbye to the village and headed for Bamako, Adama found himself the proud new owner of Goustav. He put down hay and built a shelter for Goustav to shield him from the harsh sun. Sitan fed Goustav the leftovers and I gave a shout out to Goustav on the radio. And yet -- Goustav never became the adored family pet that the French girls might have imagined. After Goustav attacked Le Vieux, Adama's youngest son, the family was practically counting down the days to the days to when Goustav's throat would be cut.

That day came last Saturday, the first day of the three-day Tabaski celebration. And while the French girls may not have intended such a fate for Goustav, perhaps they had seen something in Adama that told them he was an animal lover too. In fact, Adama has never been able to kill an animal. Not even a chicken, definitely not a small goat -- he just can't do it. When I arrived on Saturday morning, I found Goustav hanging upside down from the shelter that had once kept him safe from the sun, Adama standing by but refusing to participate as another man skinned the animal and removed its entrails.

A lifeless Goustav.

Goustav was soon reduced to hunks of meat that Sitan and I chopped and added to the pot, along with onions and garlic and tomatoes. Adama piled a good portion onto a plate and lifted it onto his daughter's head. After killing your own sheep, portions of the meat are given to relatives and family friends, and especially to the elder members of the community who may not have been able to buy a sheep of their own.

Banta is one of those old women. On Saturday morning, when I left for Adama's, she stayed in the compound, afraid to leave lest those wishing to give her meat found a locked door. When I arrived home from Adama's I found Banta and a bucket filled to the top with meat. There was more meat in the village than I had ever seen in my life. Dark red slabs everywhere. As I worked my way through the streets wishing friends another peaceful year, I came away with a couple of my own pieces of raw meat. I carried them awkwardly in my hand on the way home, presenting them to Banta to add to the pile overflowing from her bucket.

In my village, Tabaski is the time to eat well, greet family and friends, and dress up in your best clothes. I spend the whole weekend feeling underdressed next to women in fancy basin outfits covered in intricate embroidery. I second guess my decision not to get my hair braided. I pass the weekend rushing from house to house, worried I won't make it to everyone's house in time to wish them a peaceful year, many children, and good health. The smell of good food hangs in the air, but the bleating of sheep no longer follows me. "Ala ka ce ko nogoya" is the blessing I get the most, which translates roughly as "May God make this year easier to find a man." But the blessings that mean the most are the ones I hear from those in the village who have made me feel so much like a part of their own family. "May we be together this year," they say, "May you return safely to your family in America." "May we see each other in the years to come."

Mamou and Sitan Looking Good

A year ago, I wandered the streets nervously on Tabaski. I knew barely any blessings in Bambara and I remember stopping at Adama's to give them. "Aw sambé sambé," I said, "Ala ka san were jiranna." "Is that it?" he asked, "you're done already?"

On Monday morning, I wake up early to bike to San. The smell of meat beginning to go rancid hangs in the air. Banta hands me a bag of meat to bring to my people in San. And as I ride through the village, passing the still sleepy houses, I am thankful: to be here, right now. Thankful for a Malian family who has guided and welcomed me just as the Indians did the Pilgrims so long ago on a different shore.