Banta only wears one pair of earrings these days, but her ears are littered with a trail of holes from the bottom to the top of her earlobes. Oh, she'll say to me, you should have seen me when I was young! She was her mother's only child, and her mother doted on her. Not only were her ears filled with gold, but she had extensions in her hair and the prettiest outfits. There was just one problem: Banta's father died while she was only a child, and her mother remarried, to the chief of the village.
Banta's new stepfather, Coby Daou, wasn't the father figure Banta may have hoped for. At twelve or thirteen or fourteen -- most Malians have not kept track of their birth and age -- it was time to be married, and Coby picked Daraman Daou to be Banta's husband. Banta didn't like Daraman and resisted the marriage. When I press Banta to tell me what she didn't like about her future husband, she grows exasperated. Some people you like, she says, and some you just don't. I think Banta had bigger aspirations for herself, higher and farther than Daraman Daou. With all that gold in her ears, how could she not?
The chief of the village, however, cared little about the way Banta carried herself and the pretty clothes she wore. Without her biological father to stand up for her and refuse the marriage, Banta was powerless: she married Daraman and became pregnant with her daughter, Cissé. Banta never recovered from the birth -- it tore up her uterus and she had constant stomach pains. She tried traditional healers and was sent here and there by the state health care system to no avail: she would never give birth again.
While Banta cared for her child and searched for a cure, her husband disappeared. One day, Daraman, disappeared, and no one could say where he had gone. She was left alone, sick, with her baby, but rather than seeing it as a burden, it was just the opening Banta had been looking for.
As soon as Cissé was weaned, Banta packed her bags and left, too, leaving Cissé with her family in the village. She traveled through Mali and across Burkina Faso, here and there until she made it to Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast. A half-brother lived there and Banta made herself at home. She walked the streets selling produce and earning enough to buy soda for ten cents and sixteen big yellow bananas all for only twenty cents. She got fat and dressed up to walk down to the beach. Afraid of the genies and devils lurking in those blue waters, she never knew what the Atlantic Ocean felt like on her skin.
Through the Malian community in Abidjan, Banta learned that Daraman was living there too. No one believed that Banta could be Daraman's wife -- beautiful Banta, with that swing in her step and a mouth that never stopped.
After 7 months, Banta went home without Daraman. When she arrived in the village, she knew that she must remarry before Daraman came home and humiliated her by taking a second wife. There was a soldier posted to the village, living just at the edge of it, and he began to ask about Banta. With the soldier, it was different. With the soldier, Banta felt what she hadn't with Daraman.
Banta told her stepfather that she wished to remarry. He laughed in her face and said she would stay with Daraman. No, Banta said, she would remarry and she would be the soldier's wife.
You have no father, the chief of the village told her, no one will give you away if not for me. You have no father.
Allah will be my father, Banta said, Allah is enough.
She went to the soldier and they travelled to Banta's mother's natal village, where her uncle gave her away.
The following years were good ones. Banta and the soldier moved from village to village, post to post. She describes that time as an easy, luxurious time in her life. She ate meat every day. Sugar and tea were plentiful. She had a servant to pull her water and pound the millet. After lunch, she drank tea and played games with the soldier and their friends.
It didn't last. The soldier was sent to Kidal, far into the North of Mali, all the way in the desert where the disenfranchised Tomashek live. Before Banta could join him there, the soldier was killed. With few other options and her thoughts on her ailing mother, Banta returned to live under her mother's roof. Nine months later, her mother, too, passed away.
After the death, it was assumed by the villagers that Banta would go back to Daraman. Banta was convinced of it too, and I can't get a straight answer from her when I ask why, why now, she would submit to Daraman? Maybe she was tired. She wanted to be home in the village and she was getting older. Her daughter was there, now married and raising her own children, and Banta wanted to be there.
Daraman had long since returned from Abidjan and taken a second wife, Denba. But he accepted Banta back, and she moved into the house she lives in today. Daraman began sleeping at Banta's house -- two nights with her, two nights with Denba -- and Banta and Denba switched off on cooking duties.
No doubt Denba did not appreciate Banta's sudden reappearance after so long on her own with Daraman. Perhaps she resented Banta and the money and time that Daraman would have given to her instead if Banta had not come back.
One night, as Banta and Daraman lay asleep under the hangar outside of Banta's door, there was a noise. Slowly, Banta emerged from sleep and realized that Denba was inside Banta's house, sprinkling a liquid medicine around the house. A drop here, a sprinkle there. The whole inner room was covered before Banta realized what was going on and cried out. She lunged at Denba and grabbed her tafe, leaving Denba to cower uncovered in the corner.
Banta ran to the chief of the village. She rant o her uncle. She rant to Denba's family screaming of what Denba had done to her. She ran back to her house and was restrained from beating Denba.
While the village condemned Denba's actions, the medicine had its effect. Within a week, Daraman was sleeping every night at Denba's agian. This time, Banta did not resist. She never asked for Daraman again and he never asked for her. She stayed in the village, making and selling her cookies, laughing and talking just as much as before.
This is Banta's story. She told it to me in bits and pieces, interspersed as we drank tea, watered her papaya trees and ate rice. One day, as she sifted the flour for her cookies, she began to tell me the part about her stepfather and his lack of support for her. As she spoke, the flour spilled all over the ground and dirt. Eh Allah, Banta said. I shouldn't talk about heartbreaking things while I'm working.
Her life is shaped by a search for security, as all our lives are. When her stomach was full, when she grew fat, those were the good days. When explaining herself, she talks of her marriages. Unlike many of the women I know, her life has been a whirlwind of different places and people, wealth and poverty. She takes the punches, and while she talks often of the good days, she is happy where she is now too.
These days, Banta sleeps with her sugar box next to the bed. She is a storyteller, an entertainer above all else. The years passed have given her plenty of material. And the years ahead? I just wonder what stories she will tell of me.