Which Mali?

© Janet Goldner, 1998

1. Which Mali shall I tell you about?

Which Mali shall I tell you about?
The one of the almost indescribable peace
and beauty
and pride
and kindness
and determination against all odds.

Or shall I tell you
about the odds.
The poverty, the hunger, the illness.
The politics, the currency devaluation, the pressures from inside and out.
How will I get the balance right?
and not leave you without the joy?

The odds can be seen from the air,
from the quick read
or a quick trip.
But the peace and beauty
take stopping and
opening your eyes and
perhaps changing the lenses on your vision
on what you think you see.
Is that a pile of dirt or is it clay?
What do you see in this picture?

Do you want the struggle or the endurance.
the poverty or the spirit?
the disorganization or the flexibility?

Which song of Mali shall I sing for you?
Which story of Mali shall I tell you?
What picture of Mali shall I paint for you?
What will you listen to?
What can you see?
What can I describe?

2. Crying

I stood at the top of the stairs
after more than 20 years of longing
I saw the land and the trees,
felt the sun and the wind,
smelled the wood smoke,
but that’s not why I cried.

Actually I cried three times while I was in Mali
The second time was on my way to be introduced into the pottery village
riding on the back of a motor scooter on the other side of the river from Segou.
And the third was much later in the village itself.

All three times, it was gentle and spontaneous
It wasn’t the color of the earth
or the bright warm sunshine
or the smell of earth mixed with wood smoke
or the people around me
It was more like a sign
a welcome
some sort of passage
it wasn’t about blood, or poverty, or even knowledge
it was about spirit

You don’t see it,
you feel it
or you don’t

I told you, 1973 was a bad year.
Drought in the Sahel; very resistant type of virus.
You should have visited for the first time in 1976.
Lots of rain. Soft type of virus.
Then, it would have vanished once you were back in the US!

I love this explanation although I don’t totally understand, of course.
Perhaps I caught it when the truck was broken down in Nocara for those three days.
Maybe it was in the milk I was so afraid of drinking
Or maybe it was in the griot’s songs outside the village
where the camels were going in the wrong direction!

3. Houses made by the hands of the people who live in them

The base of the walls of the house are newly painted
with earth from the bottom of the well
of a neighboring village- ochre
Newly painted floor- black –
a mixture of clay and cow dung ,
left to decompose for 2-4 weeks
And spread by hand by Ba
It will be dry by the end of the day.
Moullay working on the floor of the verandah–
going abit out of the village to get the clay.
Its home improvement week – the end of Ramadan/Karem
A kind of self reliance and independence
that is unknown in the west except by very very few people.

4. An outing to the clay mine

The four of us, Alima, Bahumu, Omouru and I, left the village behind and walked a couple of hundred yards to the deserted clay pits.  It is not the normal day of the week for hacking the clay out of the earth so none of the other women were there.  This afternoon, this excursion was one of the high points of my entire stay in Mali.  Sunny, blue sky, giant trees, and birds, lots of birds. and just the four of us– some of my favorite people in the village- hardworking Alima the first wife in a strict and prominent family in the village, and her 4 year old daughter — my beloved Bahumu and sweet 4 year old cousin Oumoru.

Once we got to the clay pits Alima began the hard work of hacking the clay out of the earth with the axe she had carried with us from the village.  I sat for abit on the ground at the edge of the hole that had been made by the labor of the women extracting this clay from the ground.  Then I went walking off.  The ground looked hard but I was sinking as I walked, sinking ever deeper into the soft clay underfoot.  I promptly got my feet and sandals covered in clay.    The 2 children rescued me and tried to show me where to walk to wash off my feet and sandals.  They could walk there but since I am much heavier than the two four year olds, I sank when I tried to approach the water.  They motioned to me to take off my sandals. Bahumu and Omoru washed them for me and when the sandals were cleaner than they had been to begin with, they began to sweetly and gently wash my clay-covered feet.

All this time Alima was working, hacking the clay out of the earth.  Hard, back breaking, sweaty work.  And she looked on and smiled as the children took care of me.  It was especially sweet when Oumoru was washing my feet.  I do best with the 4 year olds except they do more work than I do.

I had an experience of absolute presentness there at the clay pits with the 3 of them.  The kids imitating Alima’s work.  Bahumu using a stick to pound as with a mortar.  At one point Omouru and Alima had a rhythm going.  Alima hacking at the earth and Omouru thwacking the earth with a stick in time.

Omouru, a boy, showing that he could rocks throw further than his cousin, Bahumu, a girl. And in fact it was true that he could throw the rocks further than she could.  But she tried about half a dozen times anyway.

And there were birds, beautiful birds singing.  And just the four of us. Perhaps it was that sense of absolute presentness that I came all this way for.  And perhaps I need to be this slowed down to find it.  Happiness.

Something really shifted in me when Umoru was beating the earth with a stick in rhythm to Alima’s hacking the clay out of the earth. Open, open– I heard/thought to myself.  Breaking some block, open like shafts of grain to get the kernels out.
Open, open
don’t resist
open, open
Don’t resist
open, open

5. Miriam Kane

After 2 months in the village
it felt strange to hear my other name

A miracle happened
after about 10 days in the village
somehow a few worlds of bamanankan flew out of my mouth
And made a tiny sentence
Ne be ta yaala yaala dooni.
with many thanks to Bôh
who has taught many children to speak.
a baraka

6. Literacy

Reading and writing in the village is difficult. Every time I take out paper and pencil to write or draw, or a book to study bamanankan, everyone around is very curious about what I am doing. And its hard to write or study much bamanankan from the book because the subject becomes literacy. That I can read and write. Almost no one in the village can. Only one man can read and write and speak educated French.
There is a Koranic school in the village which some children attend and a gov’t school in Farako, 7 km away, but no-one sends their children. Since there’s no transportation, the kids would have to live in Farako.

Alima is watching me write. She understands. Amazing what an issue literacy is . Bahumu sits very close and I want to give her the paper but I dare not with Bôh here. Bahumu can barely contain herself when she sees the books in the morning. At these times, Bahumu pulls her chair or stool right next to me, practically on my lap. It would be okay with me if she did sit on my lap, but I think its not appropriate. I think a child as old as 4 or so is considered too old for that kind of babyish attention.

Gradually I tried to get Bahumu to take the pencil, to make marks. First she made little timid sketchy marks and then I tried to teach her to make bolder marks, holding the pencil and bearing down hard. She’s only take the pencil when we were alone or at least when her father or grandmother, Bôh are not around. Yes, I gave Bahumu the paper with Bôh here and showed her that Bahumu could write. I tried to show Bahumu to press hard, she’s very timid with her marks.

I wanted to show Bahumu that these marks on paper could be used for things other than letters, since she will never go to school or learn to read or write. So one morning, I traced her hand onto a sheet of paper in my notebook with a colored pencil , wrote her name on it and tore it out and gave it to her. She was thrilled. She danced around with it and brought her sister for me to do this for her as well, which I was thrilled to do. And the next morning she brought many of the kids for me to trace their hands as well. All this was communicated in sign language and mutual good will and curiosity. At the end of my stay, two months later Bahumu asked me to trace her hand and everyone else’s hand again.

Amadou Kane is watching me write. He is a very bright little boy, the son of Miriam, Bôh’s daughter. He has his own paper and pencils and pens. He show s me that he too can write. He goes to the Koranic school in the village and can write Arabic. He is trying to teach me some words in Arabic. I kept trying to tell him that it is bamanankan that I am struggling to learn.

7. Human Activity

I walked a couple of km outside of the village, down the road, for several hours. I listened to the birds, greeting people on their way to and fro. Close to the village in the direction away from the river is a small pond. I walked across the dry earth on the strip of ground between the raised red dirt road and the pond. There are many trails mostly for mopeds. This is the direction that I almost always walked in. Perhaps it was because Bôh’s house is near this edge of town and the mine is in this direction as well. The earth had low ridges and the ends of stalks cut close to the earth, the remnants of millet fields, like corrugation that took some effort to walk across. I liked to sit by the pond and watch and listen to the birds that coasted on the wind. I could see cows and cow herders on the other side of the pond towards the river. I could be alone here. I could read and write and think. It was here that I felt the deep peace and presence and fullness most profoundly.

After my first visit to the pond, I re-entered the village at about 6pm, mid-way through a pottery firing. I listened to the sounds of the bush vs the human sounds of talking, pounding grain and the high point of the week’s activity which was the pottery firing. As I approached I could see the smoke and then hear the chatter and activity and then see fires and the women with their pots. As slow as I had thought the village was (since there is no electricity, running water, cars or other mechanization), re-entry from the outside the village into the midst of a firing, the noise and energy of human activity, was quite startling. The increase in the activity between the countryside and the village and between the village and Segou. amazing.

8. Medicine

One evening in the pirogue coming back to Kalabougou with all the women from the Monday market in Segou, Modibo asked me to read the instruction sheet for some medicine for a little baby. Not only is the medicine expensive, but the instructions are useless since the mother can’t read. It was an anti-throw-up medicine for a newborn baby. The mother had bought it at one of the pharmacies in Segou. A major purchase. The instructions were written in English and in French. It said something like 10 to 15 drops three times a day. There were also a notation written in pen on the side of the box. Someone had tried to explain to the mother how to administer the medicine, probably at the pharmacy. There were five lines on one side and three lines on another side of the box. At first I couldn’t figure it out. I read the instructions in English, spoke them to Mobido in French, who translated them into bamanankan for the mother. The child had begun to cry and the mother gave the baby ten drops as I had read. But I was troubled by the hand-written notation. I looked again at the box and decided that the five lines meant that the proper dosage was five rather than ten drops since it was a newborn and three times a day. It would be easy enough for the drug company to also give instructions through drawings –ten drops three times a day. But they don’t.

9. The shock

I went back to the village at the end of my stay in Mali to say good bye to my family and friends in the village. There is something shocking about being in the village which I especially tried to pay attention to this time.

The shock is the slow pace
The shock is the change of diet.
The shock is the gnawing illness- colds, flu, coughs of malnutrition

After 1 day, I have a headache
The shock is the neediness within all this self sufficiency
within the ability that I will never have,
to know how to survive/live without services
beyond the network of direct services of my neighbors.
One is trained for one’s environment from childhood.

The shock is not being able to talk to people
who have none the less become friends of a sort.
Slow, slow: I could get stuck here.
They want to come to America with me
to be rich, or send their children with me.

The shock is the boredom
Days are long.
I had surrey for breakfast
a few noodles at Mah’s
Tô and lots of smoked fish for lunch with Bôh
And a bit of bassi porridge with Moullay’s brother.
I’m hungry.
When I’m eating I think I’m full
but eating is purely functional,
not pleasure,
So its hard to tell when I’m full,
there’s not the incentive of pleasure.
Today I yaala-yaalaed around.
Told everyone hello and good-bye.
Amazing how many people I don’t recognize.

Starvation and disease?
Hunger and illness
Malnutrition and fatigue
chronic not acute
but acute in seriousness
How to help?
No one knows.
Or rather, no one is willing to ask.

Yes, the shock of the pull
Get me out of here quickly
before I get involved in an odd kind of way
without understanding language or culture
but with compassion
and mutual good will
I need to leave right now
or stay forever.

10. My last day in the village

The last day in the village
I’m awake early.
I’m glad to be leaving
and I’m also sad to be leaving.
I’ll miss people.
I want to take them with me.
I want to see the children grow up.
I want to go the Modibo’s wedding.
I want to know what will happen  next week.
Its not true that nothing happens here
Small things become large.
The new granary.
A shelter for animals against the sun.
A wall repaired.
A week with alot of pots.
People come and go.
Babies are born.
It gets hotter.
The tomatoes grow and get ripe.
I will miss this village
and hope I’ll be back.
Speaking more bamanankan
and with a friend.

11. The first trip was to ask permission

I stood at the top of the stairs
I saw the land and the trees
and felt the sun and the wind but that’s not why I cried.

Its a skill I learned on my first trip
from my own self that first journeyed here so many years ago.
she sat on my shoulder
no distrust, and no trust
wild but she didn’t know it

that’s how I knew how to do this
Do what?
Know how to live in the village without language
without comfort, physical or emotional
alone but never alone

The first trip to the village was to ask permission
I suppose the first trip to Mali served the same purpose
and permission was given.
The old women said that it was part of their culture to be welcoming of strangers.
As I left the village after that introduction,
I looked around me
at the scrawny, dusty, fragile village
(That’s the last time I saw it with my western eyes)
having just eaten my first few mouthfuls of green colored tô
and thought oh Janet
what have you gotten yourself into this time.

The whole time in Mali
I alternated between feeling totally there,
totally present,
totally at peace
and the next instant
I would find myself wondering
what the hell am I doing here?

When I got back to NYC after 8 months in Mali
I spent 13 months wondering
what the hell am I doing here.