Sunday, January 24, 2010

Speaking the language

So, after the burst of reflection on my trip to Mali, I had an epiphany of sorts. It occurred to me that I need to learn Bambara if I want to understand anything about the culture of the Bamana. So, on Friday, I started with Bambara lessons with my friend and drum teacher. And you know what? I am totally excited about it. All day yesterday I was listening to the recording he made for me. I wrote up some flash cards and practiced for a long time, over and over again, trying to get the accent right, the sounds, the rhythm. Like drumming, sort of.

God speaks to us in the language we understand. Shouldn't we try and do the same?

I will be so happy to be able to speak the language of Mali and not just the colonial French.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

I should have known better

I somehow thought that being friends with a Malian would help me understand the culture of Mali. Or that because I loved the music and could hum along with Habib Koite or Salif Keita, I would feel at home in West Africa.

I should have known better. My own experience told me that this was not the case.

In Vietnam, standing on the bridge in Nha Trang, not only did I not know Vietnam better for having been married to a Vietnamese for 20 years, it was, in fact, the opposite.

On that bridge, I realized that even after 20 years of marriage, 2 children, countless rolls in the hay and late night conversations, there was a part of my husband that I would never be able to fully understand. And until I was standing there looking at the South China Sea, I didn't even know that part of him existed.

So why did I think that a friendship with a Malian would be a cultural passport to another world? Why did I think that playing a drum, or soaking a goatskin or eating sauce and rice would give me an inside scoop on this other world?

I should have known better. Really.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

4 am

We arrived before dawn, after 24 hours of traveling. Shuffling past security, I handed over a scrap of paper with Sidy's father's business address as my contact information. I was waved on by a man in a military shirt and a beret.

A long line to retrieve our luggage. Then, finally, out the door, greeted by young men offering cab rides, cell phone calls, God only knows what else.

Sidy and Ali were in the crowd. No hugs. A brief introduction to Ali. A black Toyota that was big enough to hold our copious lugguge. Lisa and I piled in the back seat.

It turned out to be a remarkably short drive to our house. We pulled up to a big metal gate. Lights were blazing. Sidy shouted for the hired man to open the door. We hauled our things into the courtyard... and then into the house. Sidy showed us our rooms. They were simple, lovely. Mine was in the front of the house. It had a foam mattress on the floor. A sheet. A mosquito net. I also had a bathroom with running cold water. (There was some debate over who got the bathrooms. Sidy, of course, had one. I lucked out and got the other. There was a third, outside, that Rusty used most of the time.

The main room of the house was lit by overhead florescent lights. There was a coffee table, 4 heavy metal lawn chairs with the year 2002 woven into their backs. A little dish rack on the floor with plates, spoons, knives, forks and glasses and cups. A freezer.

We sat in the lawn chairs and Sidy brought out some food. I can't actually remember what it was. We talked about our journey. About Morocco and about Rusty missing the plane because he hadn't gotten his visa in time. I think I might have pulled out the bottle of scotch I had gotten in the Duty Free shop in Casablanca.

And then, finally, we said goodnight and crawled into our mosquito nets and slept until late the next morning.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Travel warnings

The brochures at the travel clinic are clear. Don't eat raw vegetables. Don't drink the tap water. Don't go out without your sunscreen and bug lotion. Don't go out at night. Don't go to nightclubs. Don't rely on ATM machines: there is only one and it doesn't work.

The truth? I did avoid the tap water. I did wear my sunscreen and bug spray.

But I also went to nightclubs and danced until 4am and took cabs home through deserted parts of the city. I ate salads made with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes and carrots, doused in the best tasting dressing I have ever had.

I followed the ATM machines around the city, laughing every time we found a new one. Evidently the warnings were outdated.

I walked along the street and was greeted by every person I passed. Good morning. How are you? I am fine, and you? All smiles.

Fresh fruit. Melons and bananas and avocados. Bread bought from a guy at the nearby gas station. Baguette folded neatly in half and placed in a dusty black plastic bag. It was the breakfast of champions, with a big mug of coffee.

Mosquito netting, tucked carefully around the edges of the mattress. And retucked. And tucked in yet again as I got up in the night to pee.

The sorry little gecko, found dead under my suitcase. A casualty of the high powered insect spray that Sidy bombed my room with at night.

No one warned me, though, about the broken heart. The sadness I would feel when I left. The sense of loss as I got on the plane home. And the crushing grief when one of my friends died, unexpectedly, a couple months after I got back to the states. No one warned me that I would never be the same again.

I thought I knew

what generosity was.

I thought I had seen it before.

But it wasn't until I was leaving Mali and was given gifts, big and small, from the cook, my friend's mother, my friends,

That I finally understood.

We brought things

that my friends would have wanted.

Things like malaria tablets and high powered insect repellent and cipro for diarrhea.

She can't see you today. She is sick with malaria.

I felt overwhelmed by the fact that I, there for only two weeks, had enough malaria medication to get me safely through my time in Africa, but my Malian friends had no such thing.

I can't get a years worth of malaria tablets for even a single person, never mind the whole extended community of family and friends.

So next time I go back, it will be the same. I will take my medicine each morning

and rely on God to keep my friends healthy.

Call to prayer

Clean. Nose, mouth, ears, hands, feet. The plastic tessolet filled with water sat under the tree in the courtyard and several times a day my religious friends would perform their ablutions before unfurling their plastic prayer mats and laying them on the concrete paving stones to pray.

Then, stand, hands clasped, kneel, forehead to the ground, stand, kneel, hands together, words whispered silently to God.

I told one friend

'I think God smiles when you do that'.

The last time I saw Maze, was on the rooftop courtyard where he and Sidy's friends were recording Sidy's songs. After the recording was finished, Maze took a moment, as darkness descended, to walk off by himself on the other side of the roof. Overhead, the fruit bats were beginning to emerge from the giant mango trees and quietly make their way across the twilit sky. Maze's yellow shirt billowed a bit in the breeze as he turned his back to us, turned towards Mecca, turned his attention, towards God.

Later, saying goodbye for what turned out to be the last time, I remember seeing the yellow of his shirt as I leaned in for a final, formal, kiss on the cheek.

I don't know anything

I noticed that foreigners in Africa liked to assert what they knew as if it were fact. This is how the Africans feel about thus and so, an aid worker would say. This is what they think of this or that, or the other, over there.

We were driving along the streets at night and I noticed, over and over, brightly lit orange signs that simply said 'Orange'.

What is 'orange'? I wondered. Orange Juice? Orange Soda? Orange cigarettes? Candy? Gum? Condoms?

The signs were everywhere.

Finally, I asked Sidy. What is 'Orange'?

It is a cell phone company, he said.

Mali was like that. Most of the time I had no idea what I was looking at.

The connection was lost

I tried to type on the dusty keyboard. The internet cafe was about 4 blocks from our house and I had been meaning to take the short walk so I could reconnect with home, send an email or two, post a brief comment on this blog. But though I managed to negotiate the price and get online, I realized as soon as I started typing that the keyboard was laid out in the French way, with the Q and W and T all in different places.

So even that. Even typing, which comes so naturally to me now, even that was foreign. Required careful, slow, hunt and peck to circumvent the wiring in my brain that said that a 'T' should go there and a 'Q' belonged over here.

I had paid for 30 minutes. I assumed that would be more than enough time, even with the ancient computer on old fashioned dial up. But by the end of the 30 minutes, I had barely managed to type a paragraph or two.

As I was walking back to the house I realized I had nothing to say anyway.

Scenes from Bamako

I was riding in a cab. Sidy, Lisa and Rusty were in the back. I was in the front. The window was open and we were speeding down the main road, passing vendors with vegetables on their heads, kids selling phone cards at stop lights, guys with rusty blue carts upended on the curb waiting for someone to hire them. Green buses zig zagging in and out of traffic. Then the river, spread out clean and beautiful and serene below the bridge. Walled compounds. Beautiful people. Red dust and diesel fumes hanging in the air.

And I thought to myself, I don't understand what I am seeing. I am seeing it, but I can't interpret it. I can't imagine how I would possibly describe what it was like to be there.

Perhaps it is an American thing, to always want to explain things. To analyze them. To make sense or meaning from what you observe or experience.

But I knew at that moment, in the cab, that there was no explaining. All I could do was see.