Saturday, January 31, 2009

Me... only different

You know how when you hear your voice recorded it sounds totally foreign and strange? When I catch the sound of my own voice on a recording, I am always mortified to realize that that is how I must sound to others.

But here's something funny:

As I have been listening to the recordings of the drumming in Mali, I have caught a few bits of my own voice speaking French and for some reason, it is far less dorky. And though the French is fairly horribly fractured, in the recordings I realize that I didn't sound that bad while speaking it.

Who knew?

Spectacle Ballet du District de Bamako

Spectacle Ballet du District de Bamako
Video sent by pazonote

Thanks to my friend Bubudi at Djembefola forum! Here's a video of some of my friends from Mali. The second group to perform is the District of Bamako Troupe. My dance teacher is the man in gold with the dreadlocks. My drumming teacher is the soloist.

Friday, January 30, 2009


Bear with me. I am working this out as I write.

I think when friends say that a relationship or situation is 'complex', it is a code word for something else: Conflicted. Angry. Hurt. Damaging.

I remember having breakfast once with a woman who practices 'polyamory'. In other words, she has multiple relationships going at once. She was a Christian and we were at a conference together and when I discovered that she was living with two sexual partners, I decided to ask her if I could ask her some questions about it. She seemed kind of grateful that I was willing to talk about it with her, so we had breakfast.

In my head, I was trying to figure out how Christianity and polyamory jive. She gave her explanation, which was basically that she believed God created her to have more than one partner. At some point in the conversation, though, she told me that polyamorous relationships can get very 'complex' because your partner might be having a relationship with someone else and that person might be having relationship with your other partner and there might be yet another person waiting in the wings.

And it was at that moment that I felt that all this complexity can't possibly bring you closer to God.

The longer I am a Christian, the more I strive for simplicity in all of my relationships and dealings. If I start to get a sense that a relationship or situation is pulling my attention away from God, I seriously consider whether I need to make some changes. Keeping my eyes on the creator keeps my head clear.

Love God with all your heart and soul and mind.
Love your neighbor as yourself.

It isn't easy... but it sure is simple.


I got sick on the way home from Mali and have been in bed nursing a bad cold since I got back.

On many levels this was a major bummer. Obviously there were lots of things that needed to get done. Nguyen's patience was already tried mightily having the two boys for two weeks while I was gallivanting around Bamako. For me, too, being sick was no fun at all. It has been terrible to miss work for yet another week. I missed church on Sunday and felt utterly exhausted by the simplest things.

The last time I was bed ridden was 3 years ago when a mysterious auto immune response to a virus left my left knee blown up like a water balloon. For weeks I was in agonizing pain, with no idea what on earth was wrong with me. The only light in the midst of that dark time was that I had started to read the bible with the intention of finishing it in 3 months. Because of all the down time, I was able to do it, coming to the end of Revelations on Maundy Thursday of that Holy Week.

This time I had no agenda, but there has still been an upside to my enforced downtime. It has given me some time to reflect on and process my experiences in Mali. I have turned over the moments like precious jewels, sifting through rust colored dirt to find them shining forth in my heart. My time in bed this week has been a kind of transition back to my life that I think I am mostly grateful for. I am not sure what it would have been like to just jump back in with both feet.

Tonight I was supposed to go on retreat at the Society of St. Margaret's in Boston. Due to my fragile health and the busy schedule of the rest of the group, we ended up canceling the retreat. And while I would have loved to pray and eat and be silent with the nuns, I think in a way, I have already been on retreat this week.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

My Favorite Words

I spoke French in Mali.

My French is 18 years rusty... and was never that good to begin with. On paper, I studied it for 7 years or so. In reality, I never really 'got it'.

So in Mali, a few things came back, but it was painfully frustrating much of time. I would go running to my friend Lisa's dictionary to find that crucial word. The word that would open the whole realm of meaning in a conversation. It turns out, a conversation really can pivot on a single word.

Here were some of the words that I needed to learn:




I will miss you
Tu me manquerai

I miss you.
Tu me manques.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Nothing gets wasted

My new Malian sister gave me some beaded bracelets as a going away gift. They were tied together with a little scrap of plastic bag.

Each morning, when our housekeeper started a charcoal fire for the tea, she used a bit of black plastic grocery bag as a firestarter. It worked like a charm.

Nothing is wasted in Mali. Not the bags, not the food, scraps of metal or bits of this or that. Everything, it seems, is put to good use.

Friday, January 23, 2009


I have tried to start this post several times, but get halfway through the first sentence and abandon it.

Maybe it is because there is too much to tell. Maybe because I am still processing. Maybe because I am still grieving a little for having left Bamako.

I cried on the plane ride home. Not because I wasn't happy to be coming home, but because I was overwhelmed at how much joy I felt while I was in Mali. I expected to have a great time. I did not expect that I would experience such miracles. I would be going about my business, enjoying myself, when suddenly, I would be struck by what an absolute miracle was taking place and was inevitably (and embarrassingly) reduced to tears.

It happened in the night club at 2 am when I looked out at a dance floor stuffed to the gills with Africans dancing to 'Obama Obama' by Lil' Wayne.

It happened when I finally figured out that I was in the middle of a surprise birthday party.

It happened in the cab, always in the cab, when I looked out the window and thought about how I would describe what I was seeing and realized I didn't need to describe it... I could just experience it.

It happened when I took Sidy's mom aside to tell her that no matter what, he has family here in the US. And that now I feel I have family in Mali. We just held each other's hands and knew that some kind of miracle had happened to bring us together across oceans and continents and the big wide Niger river.

It happened everytime my teachers washed to prepare for prayer. Nose, ears, eyes, mouth, feet, hands. Then, facing East, the prayers. I imagined God smiling at such devotion. I smiled too.

It happened when the fruit bats came out at dusk. Huge, like winged foxes, silently crossing the darkening sky.

And when I got a rhythm right on the drum and knew that, even though he didn't show it his face, my teacher was thrilled for me.

And when I walked through Sidy's neighborhood in the dark and felt completely at home.

Showing a friend my rosary and explaining how it worked.

Sharing a loaf of french bread and some coffee with my teachers every morning.

It happened when I realized that my teacher's drum fit perfectly into my bag... and that yes, I was bringing it home with me.

Lying in my darkened room, under the mosquito netting, listening to Malian music drifting through the window.

Hundreds of moments which were little miracles, each of them.

I cried on the plane home.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It's a beautiful day in Mali

My posts will remain short because it is so difficult to type using the French keyboard... but I just want to check in and say that life here has been very very good. We are thouroughly enjoying our time. Every day we study dance and drumming, then perhaps go out to some street party to see other drummers and dancers.

My birthday was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my entire life. It started at a nightclub the night before. The place was packed and the music fantastic. Believe it or not, there is a pop song about Obama. We went wild when it came on. I danced like a crazy person.... and was completely suprised when I heard the dj dedicate a song to me from Sidy. We didn't get home until 4 am, but since the next morning was sunday, we were able to sleep in. ( Church didn't seem like an option, Peter... otherwise I would have been up for the feast of epiphany.)

Later in the day, Sidy and Lisa went out to run some errands while Rusty and I hung around the house and relaxed. It was very nice. In the afternoon, Mazze, one of my drum teachers, showed up. I was kind of suprised because it was Sunday, but Rusty and I happily sat down for a short lesson. Then Makan and Ladji arrived on motor bikes. Perhaps they were planning to go out with Sidy later. Then Lassi arrived, and Ali. I saw a cab pull up with Sidy and Lisa. Sidy got out of the car with dinner, so we all went into the house to eat. I was suprised when Lassi moved the bench to the end of the room instead of next to the table. All of a sudden, everyone began to sing bonne anniversaire a vous.... and in walked Sidy carrying a birthday cake. When I turned around, I realized that everyone was here to play for me. They lined up on the bench and began to play the drums, while Ladjie and Lassi danced. It all happened so quickly I was utterly unprepared for the emotions I felt. I was completely overwhelmed by this outpouring of love and couldn't stop weeping, which I am sure must have mortified my dear friends, LOL. Truly the most memorable birthday I have ever had.

Africa is extraordinary. I am sure that the relationships I am building here will be the friendships of a lifetime. Every day I feel such a sense of joy for being here. I am deeply grateful to all of you who have been so supportive of this trip... and for your continued prayers.

Love to all of you, especially the kids. I love you, guys.

A bientot.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Where to begin

Today is day three and I feel like I have been in Africa forever. Except that the keyboard is different, so typing is very slow and laborious.

Food- unbelievable.
Bed- Very comfortable.

Africa- I don't know where to begin. Perhaps there is no way to begin. Except that before I came people said that this would be a life changing experience... and I think it would be more accurate to say it is a life expanding experience. And certainly a life giving one.

Every day we study dance with Ladji Diakite. Then Rusty and I study djembe with Makan Kone while Lisa studies dun dun.

I miss my children and husband, but feel such joy at being here, too. Every day I cry for joy. Sidy makes relentless fun of me for it, as he should.

I can't get over how kind everyone is. It moves me deeply that we have become members of Sidy's family. I even have been given an African name: Tinoyé Maiga. I am named after Sidy's grandmother, which is a great honor.

Mali is beautiful...mostly because the people are beautiful.

My French is improving. Next time I come I will work on my Bambara.


Sunday, January 04, 2009

A few random thoughts before I leave the continent

I am on my way to Mali tomorrow.

We are driving to JFK Airport and parking the car there. Our ride fell through at more or less the last minute and we decided that driving made the most sense. So I got an oil change yesterday, checked the tires and updated the maps on the gps.

In my bags: The usual stuff- underwear, tee shirts, capris, a couple pairs of sandals. Lots of toiletries because I really don't know what, exactly, is available in Mali. Plus some trail mix and granola bars, just in case.

I took my first dose of anti-malaria medication a couple of hours ago and haven't noticed any side effects so far.

I have noticed something about this trip. When I tell people I am going to Africa, they respond with their deepest fears and/or prejudices about it.

People are afraid of it. They are afraid of the diseases, the poverty, the culture. I get lots of comments about my personal safety or health issues. I have even had comments about sexual health issues and not catching AIDS. Uh, I don't think that's an issue. Really.

So there is still something kind of mythological about Africa. It seems to embody people's darkest fears.

Part of it, I am sure, is that the only media attention ever given to Africa is negative. We learn of Somali pirates and cholera outbreaks, dictatorships and malaria, AIDS epidemics and ebola. This drives my drumming teacher crazy, sometimes. He gets frustrated that most Americans think Africans live in jungles and have bones through their noses. (Not that there's anything wrong with that....)

For me, the information I have about Mali is different. It is a place inhabited by people I know and love. I have friends there... and family, of a sort. I listen to the music of Mali and am transported to a place of joy and beauty. I feel like I am reaching back to a distant past and far into the future as I listen to the music of our collective ancestors.

And when I hold a drum, play the skin, smell the remnants of the barnyard the goat lived and died in, I am connected to that past and that future.

Tomorrow I am getting on a plane and I am putting my life and faith in God's hands. He is with me here, in Morocco, in Mali, and everywhere. Forever. I am leaving my preconceptions behind and open my heart and mind to the experience of Mali, first hand.

Allons y.