Monday, June 28, 2010

Portrait of a Patriot in Mali

I haven't been able to watch any of the World Cup games in my village, soccer being an activity exclusively reserved for men. When the games are on, all the men congregate at the different televisions around town, and I sit with Sitan or Banta, wondering what the score might be and keeping an eye out for Adama's moto for news of the results.

But Saturday found me in San for the America v. Ghana game, and a couple other volunteers and I walked over to the neighborhood bar to watch the game. Bars are also male-dominated in Mali -- in fact, during our training, Peace Corps reminded the male volunteers over and over again that the only African women they would find in bars would be prostitutes (many of whom are Nigerian women who have been trafficked here). Every single one of them. San is a bigger town, however, and although I wouldn't like any of my colleagues or friends from my conservative Muslim village to see me in a bar, its fairly acceptable for us to frequent the bars in San.

As Esther and I walked to the bar, I couldn't figure out which team to support. My own country or the last African team still in the game? Either win would be a victory in my book, but I knew how depressed my Malian friends would be if Ghana lost. Everyone had set their hopes on the Ghanaian team.

We arrived at the bar to find a mix of Malian and Ghanaian men already settled in. At first, the banter was friendly. But after Ghana scored its first goal and the men had downed a couple of beers, the environment began to change, and my sentiments with it. As the men grew drunker and more obnoxious, suddenly, I knew which team I wanted to win: America. They shouted and swore at America. One man put his face in front of Brad's, blocking his view. Ghana is going to win! He shouted. Ghana is the best! Ghana is a rich country, he continued, much richer than here -- there is everything in Ghana, he said, refusing to move. I had walked into the bar prepared to support Ghana, but as the game came to a close, I was on the edge of my seat, desperate for America to score again.

It was an experience not singular to Saturday's game. While I have never thought of myself as being particularly patriotic, whenever I am confronted by critiques of America and the West which seem unfair to my ears, I am immediately ready to claim that America is the best country on earth. I go so far to the other side that my words astonish even me. And yet sometimes I feel that taking such a contradictory point of view is the only way I can impress upon my community that we toubabs are not who they think we are. I adore Mali, but I don't think I have ever loved America as much as I do while living so far from her.

Tell me Americans don't know how to work, and I will swear that no one works harder.
Tell me Americans hate black people, and I will insist that racism is close to extinction.
Tell me Americans never say hello to each other, and I will assure you that we greet every stranger who walks by.
Tell me Americans are all rich, and I will do my best to persuade you that we all sleep on the street and starve.

Okay, maybe I don't go to quite such extremes, but its close. When I get that patriotic urge, there are two impulses going on in my mind.

The first is a feeling of defensiveness. I am the only American to stand up for not only an entire country, but also all of the Western world. I am also being evaluated by people based on their identification of me as an American and Westerner. So if someone says all Americans are wealthy and can afford anything, that means I can too. If someone says all Americans hate black people, that means I do too.

The second is a frustration over the incredible stereotypes that exist of Americans and Westerners in general. I can imagine that Africans would feel similar frustrations faced by Americans who assume that there are zebras and elephants running through their villages every day, that every African is beyond poor, and that they all practice voodoo.

After the soccer game ended, Brad and I walked out to the jeers of the those celebrating Ghana's win in the bar. We jokingly said we would support whoever played against Ghana in the next round. The impulse to be so defensive and patriotic is a fascinating one to me. Its an impulse that I can't quite believe I've experienced the next day. And its easy to see how powerful that impulse could be if you let it take over.

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