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 I feel like a country bumpkin most days next to Malian girls, trying to make it in the city, wearing outdated fashions in the wrong sizes.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.


  1. Hi Cassady, I liked your entry. A few words about men: we are adventurous. Even if you turned out the least-beautiful girl in your village, they would still come after you; that's right, it is about the pale skin which sets you apart.
    Besides, you would be a priced economic 'catch' - a visa to the US which many people dream about, and would pay an arm and a leg to get!
    Have fun, girl!

  2. Oh, by the way, them Malian girls are tall, graceful and beautiful!
    I fell for not just the beautiful faces and figures, but also for the smooth skin exposed by the boubou forever sliding off their shoulders!
    But I couldn't stand the heat wave that I saw, yes, saw, at the airport in Bamako in January 1992!

  3. Oh Cass! I just loved this post! You are so eloquent. You've always had a way with words - no wonder you're published! I'm so curious to hear the reasons why your suitor/stalker felt he was worthy of your time! I'm just imagining someone listing off all of the reasons they've fallen for you and I'm loving it! Miss you my dear! xoxo Lo