Friday, July 16, 2010

Fever Pitch

The vaccination Tata received on Tuesday didn't account for her fever. Wednesday morning, I stopped by Soté's house on my way to the well. I found Soté dressing three-month old Tata and spraying her with perfume.

Tata is Soté's sixth daughter. It is fair to say that everyone had been praying that Tata be born a boy. Soté has yet to give birth to a son, and her husband, Lahmine, married his second wife, Bébé last year. When Soté gave birth to her fifth daughter, Banta told me Soté was close to tears. The pressure was on, and I'll admit to being worried about what Soté's reaction would be when she gave birth to Tata in late April.

Maybe its how pretty Tata is. Maybe its her straight(ish) nose. Maybe its that Bébé gave birth to her first child -- also a girl -- last month, so Soté feels vindicated: finally she's proved that its not just her that gives birth to girls. I don't make the baby, Soté keeps saying, Allah does. Whatever it is, Soté adores Tata as if she were her first daughter, not her sixth.

So when Tata wouldn't stop crying on Tuesday and Wednesday and her skin grew oh-so-hot, Soté was worried. It didn't help that Soté was on cooking duty. Later that morning, I stopped by the family compound to find Soté rushing around, trying to get lunch ready, Tata screaming in the background. Soté had laid Tata down on a mat inside the house (imagine pounding millet with a sick baby on your back), but Tata was now willing to cooperate. I picked Tata up and rocked her in the shade, trying to ignore how hot her skin was.

That evening, I walked back to Soté's, lighting my way with my headlamp. The last moon I'll see in Mali has risen, but its just a sliver yet. Tata was still crying, but there were louder cries in the compound now, too. Lahmine's goat was sick. A small black goat Lahmine bought a couple months ago to fatten up and resell, the goat was weaving around the compound, squealing with horribly. Lahmine sat with his flashlight, eyes on his goat.

Tata kept crying and Soté passed her to me. All day she spent cooking, but she needed to start another fire: it was her night with Lahmine and she wanted to serve him something special.

Lahmine got up and walked over to the goat, examining her. He reached into his pocket and then forced medicine down the goat's throat. She screamed louder. He hadn't found the time (or money) to take Tata to the doctor yet, but there was medicine for the goat.

But Lahmine seemed to relax a little after giving the goat the medicine. He reached over and touched Tata's forehead. She is hot, he said. We sat talking quietly, Soté busy poring water and setting the evening's tea on its charcoal fire.

the goat's cries were weaker now. They had lost some of their desperation. Lahmine got up when he realized the goat had wandered outside the compound. He came running back inside with her, yelling at his daughter to bring him a knife. The medicine had hurt instead of helped, and Lahmine was in a hurry to kill the goat before it died. If he didn't cut the goat's head in time, the meat would be inedible.

The knife wasn't sharp, but it is big. It makes a dull sawing noise, but finally the goat's head is off.

Lahmine left with the goat and Soté sighed. I knew it was too much medicine, she said. Tata had fallen asleep in my arms and Soté picked her up. Her fever was down a bit and she was sleeping soundly.

We waited for Lahmine in the darkness. Soté brought out his food and began pouring the tea. We waited.

Monday, July 5, 2010


For two years, I have tried to become the perfect Malian women. I wear Malian clothes and cover my shoulders and knees. I refuse help at the well and convince myself that I can carry just as many buckets of water home as the women dropping their well bags into the dark hole beside me. I take pride in the perfect pattern left in my compound after I sweep the leaves and trash from the dust every morning. I have learned to cook every Malian dish and ignore the smoke of the wood fire. I know to kneel to give someone water and I think nothing of rising to give my chair to a man. I've worked hard to become the perfect Malian women, but as I near the end of my time in Mali, I've realized this: I don't want to be the perfect Malian woman.

I don't want to have to give up my chair every time a man approaches out of duty. But its not just because I want the good chair as much as the man I give mine up to does. The physical work is exhausting. I don't carry a baby on my back while pulling water, I don't pound millet, I take vitamins every morning and am just 24 years old. Even so, I can feel the strain in my arms and back. But its not just the physical wear of being a Malian woman. I want to travel outside of my home without first having to obtain permission from my husband. I want to have a career. I don't want to worry about whether my husband will take another wife or whether I will give birth to a son.

When Aissa is happiest with me, she gives me the following blessing: May Allah give you a good husband, one who has money and does not bother you or beat you. I want to hope for more than that in my husband.

As I prepare to leave, I would like to say goodbye to my village comfortable in the knowledge that my friends and family here are living good, full lives, and that I can feel comfortable leaving to live my own good, full life. For the most part, I do believe those in my community are doing just fine. They are making money and love, working and playing, laughing and crying, eating and drinking. But what makes saying goodbye so hard is that I know that the life I will be returning to is full of opportunities many of my Malian friends would jump at, if only given the chance.

Its not just the opportunities I'll have, its the security my American family and life provide. Security is perhaps the biggest difference pushing its way between me and my Malian friends. Their lives are much more volatile than anything I have experienced, with little to fall back on. I had a reminder last week when I purchased four 100-kilo bags of rice to give to the four families who have kept me happy and fed over the past two years. Each bag cost about $70 and was loaded onto a small cart and sent to each family's house. How would you feel if someone gave you a 100-kilo bag of white rice? Adama couldn't believe the rice was for him and insisted that the boy who had brought the rice take it back and away to its true owner. Finally understanding it was meant for him, he spent the afternoon vrooming around on his moto, going too fast. Aissa couldn't stop looking at the huge sack, a smile breaking out on her face. And Banta -- she thanked Allah that she wouldn't have to worry where her next meal would come from this year.

It all comes back to this: I don't want to be the perfect Malian women. And if I don't want to be a Malian woman, then I know something is not right. Something is not fair. I will leave my village in a little less than a month sure that the lives my Malian friends and family are living are good, full lives. I will also leave knowing that they deserve much more.

Every evening, before it gets dark, I bike over to Aissa's and, after pulling her water, head out over the hill to the next village on a run. As I near the neighboring village, I run into three or four women. These women have spent the entire day, under the sun with no shade, bending over piling rock pebbles one after another into a pile that will be bought for construction work. Its back-breaking work, and everyday, it hurts my bones to see it. Yesterday, sweaty and tired after my run, I told Aissa about the pebble women and how it breaks my heart everyday to see them working so hard. She looked at me quizzically. They're making money, aren't they? she said.

I remember meeting a professor who travels yearly to Mali early on in my time here. He said he teaches an African studies class, and that every year, his students wonder if Africans are living simpler, happier, less complicated lives than Westerners. I was unsure how to respond to the professor when he asked for my opinion, but now the questions seems almost laughable. Lives are different here, but the stresses and joys people experience are the same. There is just as much gossip and stress, even if there is also more time to sit and drink tea. The Malian life in my village is not a simple one, as much as we might wish it was.

*Please remember that the sentiments in this blog are based on one experience in one village in Mali and do not represent the wealth and opportunities of many Malians (including women). After all, it always comes down to access to opportunity and wealth, doesn't it?