Political Briefs
Mali Journal

Mali Journal: The Family

My wife, my daughter and I also wrote up our impressions of Mali:

Paul wrote:

On my fourth and final night in Africa, I was walking the 20 steps across a courtyard from a three-room mud-brick building with a tin roof to an open air space. In the United States the brick hut would be called an outhouse or privy, but in Mali, the landlocked Francophone West African country that once ruled Africa, it is now known as a Nyegen. On the way to the Nyegen, I doused my flashlight and looked up at the sky. So close to the equator, the constellations are mostly unrecognizable, but I could see the Milky Way. (1) I had an unusual experience; although I had read the phrase many times, it was the first time I had experienced the emotion, complete with the cliché adjective: I swelled with pride. M is living a quotation, “Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.” (2) She is a Peace Corps Volunteer. Her presence here validated every parental decision we ever made.

Paul and V and wrote:

 She has suspended her life and livelihood to serve the 1,200 people who live in N’tjilla, a commune capital that has no running water or toilets, no electricity, no cellphone service, Internet, and –probably hardest of all – no privacy. As a visitor, your biggest problem quickly becomes the lack of toilet. (See the viral video, you poop in a hole) She has also had to redefine her identity from a privileged American to the only white person among 1,200 poor black Africans who continue to pursue a life style which has hardly changed for centuries. Everything about what she is doing is amazingly selfless, especially when you consider the grim statistics. There is no way to calculate a precise statistic, but whether her chance of success is 0.1%, 1% or 10%, the odds are against her. She is putting everything she has into initiatives involving shea butter, a mobile bank, hand washing and sanitation in general, library, and starting a girls’ soccer team. The thing is - the Peace Corps invests capital, but not the usual kind that builds dams and roads. It is human capital, and the Peace Corps’ goal is to invest human capital to change behavior, because that is the only change the will be lasting. We wish her God Speed.

We spent two days and three nights in N’tjilla, 118 km west of Bougani on National Route 7, then hang a left and drive 7km on a dirt road. Her “Quartier” is on your left. NR 7 is in pretty good shape for an African road, since it has been recently repaved by the Chinese; they are investing heavily in the country because they plan to exploit its natural resources. We rented a car and driver for the week, which increased our mobility.

We got an up close and personal look at the world as it was before electricity, in a place with no ports (and so, no access to whale oil). Unlike 1930 rural America, there are LED flashlights, but the cost of batteries restricts their use. The lack of artificial light means everyone is up at dawn, hits it hard all day and is in bed shortly after sunset. In village, this time of year, that yields a 12 hour day, from 6am to 6pm. It was so dark in M’s hut at night that we literally could not see our hands in front of our faces.

The mosquito netting activated Paul’s claustrophobia. The netting is, however, also a good idea to keep out the creepy crawlers like scorpions and snakes. If we were in the first world in that situation, we would have slept outside in a chair. In Africa, that’s a bad idea. It was also deadly quiet, in a way that very few places in the first world are quiet; the nearest regular traffic is 7 km away (and even the regular traffic in Mali isn’t much), and there are no planes flying overhead, not motors on refrigerators, no fans or furnaces. An occasional animal (and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a donkey go off at night), but that’s it.

The people follow a relatively relaxed form of Islam, as demonstrated by their tolerance of our decision to decorate M’s Moringa tree with Christmas tree bulbs; in fact, the villagers helped. They do pray five times a day, and now that the mosque has a solar/battery powered PA system, you can really hear the 5:30 am prayer call. If you miss that, chances are that you won’t miss the elaborate and repetitive bird calls that immediately follow; it is a riot of sound.

It is a very different society. There is an elaborate greeting ritual and if you are visiting from America you must go around, “Yaala Yaala,” and, at the very least, greet all the elders, starting with the males, of course. It is the job of the small children to carry around chairs for the guests because they – the chairs, not the children - are in short supply. For the occasion of our visit, M gave us African names: R was Oumou; V was Worokia; Paul was Braman; M had been given the name Fatoumata on arrival nine months earlier; all these names are from the Koran. Because she had already been adopted into the Fane family, the name of her host family, we also became Fanes (blacksmiths). The other major clan we visited, the Diallos (cow herders), kept insisting we were Diallos instead. This was a constant source of amusement. Another joke was to call the other clan “bean eaters.” We were constantly entertained by their sense of humor and their friendly, good spirits. V had worried that it would feel very strange, even threatening, to be a white in a black county (something she had experienced travelling alone in Kenya).

M had beautiful native outfits for us to wear when we arrived, particularly for greeting. It solved our need to have clothes for the 90 degree days in Mali before we went to Paris which was 35 degrees when we arrived there a few days later. M has had many outfits made there because the designs on the fabrics are beautiful and fun. She has one with a black Jesus on it, another with symbols like “@,” another with hands one black and one white hand shaking, etc. It is definitely one of the best things to buy there and the different outfits and designs make the villages very colorful. R’s and V’s outfits were abstract patterns with matching scarves to wear around our heads (women are expected to cover their heads) and Paul’s had red ducks on it.

 With all the groundwork laid by M, we felt immediately included – part of the clan. M amazed us with her command of Bambara, the language of W. Africa, after only 9 mos. there. She spoke easily and naturally in directing our driver, haggling in the marketplace, greeting everyone, joking with the villagers, etc. There is much to be said for visiting people in their own element. Americans deprived Africans of their dignity in the US, but Mali is their own and it shows in their relaxed attitude and acceptance of us when we get to know them (because they do not share our unfortunate American history). We will not forget Mariam and Yakuba who are respectively her host mother and father. Mam is lovely, quiet and dignified, yet approachable. Yakuba is outgoing and helpful and also a talented handyman who does repairs on M’s hut. He led us as we visited various important groups. We met Djenebou, the lovely and shy 20, Jennabu, year daughter of Mam who has a 6 month old daughter (Adam). She is married to a man who works in a restaurant in France and sends money back to her. We met Lala who was immediately friendly and eager to teach us Bambara. We planned to visit Mineta who had just had a baby. We were informed at the last minute that she had lost her baby that morning. Mineta was upbeat and friendly and little mention was made of her loss as is the Malian way. Loss of old people is mourned more openly, but little importance is given to the death of a baby. Batauma is an eight year old girl who works for the host family which has more to offer her than her own family. She carries Adam around on her back all day as she does other chores. She will even fetch water for M and make the very short trip to M’s hut with food, etc. M is particularly fond of Batouma and sometimes takes her places like the local marketplace and buys her small gifts. Musokoroba (which means old lady) was the most fun of all when we went to a dance put on in our honor. She is provocative and in your face (they call her crazy, but she is not; she has “tude”) as lead musician in a three lady combo. She seemed to make up the lyrics as we went along. There is a circular line dance that ends with those who are brave enough to go into the center and dance very fast with your posterior out. The four of us took turns doing this, including Paul who was the only male present!

M has the greeting ritual down pat; Paul learned the all- purpose “N’ba” response which amounts to “I hear you,” while V and R responded “Nse” – the female equivalent. Works OK for most things, but sounds silly if they just asked where you are going or how old you are. R worked much harder on speaking Bambara which thrilled the dozens of people we greeted over two days. They repeatedly asked her to stay, offered a marriage partner (one man literally said he had many cows!), and V was once offered a new husband. Some women offered to change places with R; R would stay and she would go back with us as Paul’s second wife. (??) All this was done tongue in cheek, with a lot of humor.

The village grows cotton, corn, millet, sorghum and shea for cash. Of course, people who grow commodities are the bottom of the economic food chain, getting very little return for their effort. Among her projects, M is trying to help people further process the shea butter, so they can earn a higher profit. Although she spends time working on other things, her main focus is on economic development and literacy. God knows the people of Mali need it.

Paul notes his general impression of Mali: it sees a country mired in hopelessness, disease and early death. Escape is difficult, if not impossible, especially for women. Even education is not a ticket out. However, R pointed out that these are people who have nothing, yet are willing to share it and seem generous to a fault to those who visit briefly. V adds that even might be said that is has utopian characteristics: the immediate clan embraces everyone so the raising of children is shared and widows continue to be active members, and if one has a skill you need, it is offered without cost. The lack of technology means that socializing is everything so that people are close. Okay, sometimes too close. M’s hut is at the entrance and we had constant visitors looking over her wall, especially from the children. The women carrying a lot of wood invited V to fetch wood in the Broussey (bush) and then laughed knowing this was probably not one of her skills. Ordinarily, M tells us, there is not so much interest in what is going on at her hut now that she is one of them. And yes, they get into each other’s business as people typically do in a small town. But we were impressed by the seeming lack of loneliness and lack of emphasis on materialism and, of course, modern technology which although is out of lack of money, it emphasizes more important human values.

Paul’s mother, who had a rotten Great Depression experience, frequently pointed out to him that her family was dirt poor, but scarcely noticed because everyone around them was poor too. In a country plagued by illiteracy and innumeracy and the other trappings of the first world, there is precious little to which you can compare your life (like North Korea, except the starvation may be less in Africa). They are basically operating a co-operative, socialist, non-money economy at the village level. Apparently, you can run a society on the basis of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” if you are poor enough. P feels the rigid gender roles of the country mean they are wasting half their population. (3)

  P’s footnotes:

1 Very little light pollution in West Africa (see the famous shot from space of the world at night). I grew up in Portland, where the street lights wiped out the sky. Orinda, where I live now, doesn’t have street lights, but Oakland 10 miles away and San Francisco 25 miles away more than make up for it. I did see the Milky Way 20 years ago when we camped in the Trinity Alps in northern California, and four years ago on a walking tour of the upper Yosemite Valley, but this seemed even brighter than that. (return)

2 I first heard the quotation in a LBJ speech on March 31, 1968, when he announced he was not running for re-election. “Of those to whom much is given, much is asked.” I was so impressed, I used the phrase in my MIT application essay. As viewers of the PBS documentary “Secrets of the SAT” may recall, there is video of me advising M to use the phrase in her UC application essay. I heard it was from the bible; before the Internet, I tried to use a concordance to find it, but was not successful. Since then, I have discovered it is in Luke 12:48; the King James version is, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more. (return)

3 That’s my opinion; I’m Paul Schindler. (return)