Mali Journal: The Family
End of Jan. 23 Column

Mali Journal

My older daughter, M, is in the Peace Corps in Mali. Here's her version of our Christmas visit:

I got access to the car and driver, Mo, on the 21st so I could start running errands before my family got there. I went to Azar and the Fourmi where I bought all the food for every meal my family was going to be eating for all 4 days. It was heavy on canned foods, which I know was bad for dad’s cholesterol problem, but it was hard to get around since I wanted to keep my family from all raw vegetables and fruits the whole time they were in country. I also stopped by Mali Chic (a boutique of Malian crafts I have been meaning to check out for some time), the suguba (big market) and Artisana, and Vietnamese food for lunch. None of these things would have been impossible to do without a car, but it was so much nicer to do them with a car. Everything went smoothly, but I didn’t get eggs, bread, or water until after my family arrived.

The Bamako Radisson was insanely nice. I took many showers, and enjoyed watching CNN international coverage of the death of Kim Jong-Il and the ascension of Kim Jung-un. I could have read about it later, but it was great to be able to see all the footage of the North Koreans wailing in the streets in real time. It turns out only Mary Horn and Tabitha were staying at the stage house, since everyone else who was going to leave for the holidays had already gone or their families had already come in. I thought it would probably be a zoo. I’m still happy I got the hotel room, because even though I like both of them, it was nice to have my own space. I also ordered room service like crazy. There were only three waiters, and they seemed more than amused that I could speak Bambara. They all had to speak at least a smattering of French and English, but they were thrilled to switch to Bambara.


December 22nd

My parents arrived at the airport at 9pm. I got there early with Mo and ordered a coffee at the Broadway Café express so we could sit at an actual table to bide our time. It felt like my family were the last people off the plane, in part because my mom veered off at the last minute to use the bathroom before they emerged from security, but I was just happy they were all there and made it through security without problems. I’d been having a minor panic attack that day thinking I hadn’t emphasized to my father the importance of bringing their up to date WHO cards with proof of Yellow Fever shots, but it turns out the expediter he used for their Mali Visas double checked all their documents before they left, and they had everything they needed. Everyone was in surprisingly good spirits and had high energy for just having come off one domestic and two international flights. They did long lay-overs in both NYC and Paris, which I guess really helped.

With Mo there, getting them out of the airport quickly was a breeze. He ran to get the car and bring it around as soon as I saw my family. We drove straight to the Radisson Bamako without incident. I gave everyone the clothes I’d had made for them, and the other little presents I’d picked up in the previous days and months. We made a plan to meet for breakfast the next day in full Malian regalia and parted ways for the evening.


December 23rd

Everyone but me ran a little late for breakfast, but that was fine since we weren’t in a rush. Everyone looked great in their Malian clothing. It felt a little weird to be wearing it within the Bamako Radisson, since there were other white people there, and all the Malian staff were dressed in western-style clothes, but all the Malians in the restaurant loved it. They all greeted in Bambara rather than French and told me how great everyone looked. One waiter even got so excited that he brought out his camera and asked to have pictures taken with us. Someone asked if we were going to a wedding, and I told them no, just to my village.

We went to Mali Chic and my mom and sister got some jewelry, of a quality much better than anything else in Mali, and I bought some bougalan (a scarf and an elephant), and mom got some little baskets. We took pictures with the masks outside, and again I fielded compliments on everyone’s outfits from every Malian who saw us. My family got their first taste of joking cousins, as everyone faked distaste that such a handsomely dressed family should be Fanes (blacksmiths), when obviously we should be Fulani or Bambara.

We picked up 24 bottles of water, 30 eggs, and 10 loaves of bread and headed towards N’tjilla a bit after noon.

We stopped in Bougani and did a little impromptu picnic next to the car in the shade while Mo wandered off to find a rice and sauce lady. We attracted a crowd of kids, obviously. I gave my family a lesson in Malian child crowd control, and the okay-ness of handing your trash to a child as if it were an actual gift. They took our empty water bottles and used Vache Qui Rit wrappings with pleasure. My mom got a good picture of some of the guinea-fowl-selling 10 year olds.

We got into village before dark, but still pretty late in the afternoon. Everyone was there. It seemed like the whole village was there to greet. The kids helped us carry all the food and luggage inside, and I broke out the Christmas decorations for my American and Malian families to hang up on the Moringa trees in my yard. That kept it from being too awkward initially. I excused us by saying we were tired from the road and that everyone wanted to bathe, and that we would cook our own dinner, and everyone cleared my yard. However, I was the only one who actually wanted to bathe. My family was weirded out by the idea of bathing with a bucket in the negen. I made a fancier than normal version of my pasta with cheese. Every meal we made I made sure we had enough extra for my homologue, and D, or whoever they wanted to share it with since so many people were staying at their compound to greet my family.

Things were slightly awkward with Mo. Obviously, there are no restaurants or hotels in village. I’d warned my homologue repeatedly that there would be a driver coming with us and that he would need to eat and sleep somewhere. She had seemed to understand, and said it wouldn’t be a problem, but then when we were actually there, she started asking me where he was going to sleep and what he was going to eat, as if these were new problems. I just turned the question around to her, and she finally agreed that D would cook for him and he could sleep at V’s compound. The next day we didn’t even need the car since we were going to walk around greeting, so he spent the whole day drinking tea and yaala-yaalaing with the men folk or sitting at S’s moto repair area. While I wanted him to be comfortable, my main focus was my family, so I didn’t pay too much attention to how he was doing, figuring he’d sort it out himself. He’s from Segou, and now lives in Bamako, so I think he was a little out of his element in village, but he never complained.

As we were finishing dinner my homologue came in. When I tried to give her food she took it back to her compound to eat, too embarrassed to use a fork in front of my American family, and then the former mayor and a bunch of the ladies who had come from farther away quartiers and even neighboring villages came into my compound to greet again and chat. We discussed the schedule for the next couple of days, including the dance party the next afternoon. One of the old ladies did a dance so my family would understand. When my family started yawning they took the hint, which wasn’t even necessarily meant as a hint, and excused themselves.

I gave the big bed to mom and Rae. I thought it would be too small for mom and dad. Dad got my single mattress and the mosquito net I got from the USAID campaign, and I slept next to him in my exercise room in my bug hut with my sleeping pad. No one was entirely comfortable, and no one slept well for the whole visit, but it was the best I could offer. I think my family would have had trouble sleeping in village under any conditions. Dad felt claustrophobic under the mosquito net. The night is incredibly dark with no ambient light. The donkeys braying and the 5:30 am call to prayer can be disturbing if you’re not used to them, and then there are all the birds that come out as soon as the sun rises. Everyone kept up good energy the whole time despite everyone complaining about not sleeping.

Christmas Eve

The old men, including the dugutigi and former mayor, came to our compound to greet us first thing in the morning. It was pretty incredible. They brought in two mats and gave us rice and a chicken. There was lots of greeting, and lots of saying how excited they were to have my family visiting and how happy it made them. I probably should have come up with some set response, but I did my best to stumble through an equally nice response from my family about how happy they were to be there, which my homologue fixed up for me. The whole pattern of having someone say something to someone else to say to someone else to say to you worked to my advantage because my homologue was the conduit in both directions, so I wasn’t forced to talk directly to the old men or to have to understand them directly.

We then spent the whole morning greeting in Maserena, Kumela, and at the school. I hadn’t bought kola nuts for the old men, so I gave out cash instead. We saw the old men who had been too old to come to us, and greeted everyone my homologue told us too. My family started to see the pattern with the joking cousins as everywhere we went I was asked to introduce my family, who I had named Oumou (R), Worokia (mom), and Braman (dad). I gave them all the same last name as me, Fane. And since we were visiting Diallo and Sidibe-heavy quartiers, everyone insisted they change their names to become Fulani. Y was beaming with pride when they started to learn to say “ayi” on their own without my prompting and repeat that they were Fanes.

We did tours of the CSCOM with Bakkary, maternite, the women’s literacy center where we hold the bank meetings, and the butiki so they could see the cabine and meet Chaka.

We went back to my compound for lunch of bread and nutella or cheese, and mom and dad took naps while Rae and I sat up reading magazines and chatting.

In the afternoon we had our dance party with the old women. Y came at first, but he left after awhile and Dad was the only guy. Everyone was a good sport about getting up and dancing. The women sang songs specifically about my family. Dad got two songs dedicated just to him, as an important old man. We took a bunch of pictures. Rae wore the ridiculous sequined outfit I had made for her, which she ended up leaving behind with me, understandably so. I’m glad she had the balls to wear it to the party though. Several of the women asked her to give it to them. It was a little over-wrought for a village party, but she wore it well.

When the old women asked for the road, we went back to my compound to make dinner and take baths. I had bought a bunch of green beans and carrots in Bamako, so we did have some food that wasn’t from cans. We made falafel and couscous, and I also bought some chick-pea paste and we made some humus too. I was pretty happy with all of the meals. It is the best I’ve consistently eaten in village.

D was sick, so she wasn’t very active during the whole visit. When we went over to the compound to make s’mores, I had to request that she come out and join us. The s’mores were a success. Dad started freaking out a little when he remembered that gelatin, an ingredient in marshmallows is made from pigs. We proceeded anyway. The kids loved them. I didn’t have graham crackers, but I’d bought butter cookies for the occasion. When one of the marshmallows fell in the dirt you could see the kids wanted to grab it anyway, but one of the adults stopped them. My family excused themselves early, and I stayed to chat a little longer and make sure everything was going well, that everything was going as smoothly as it seemed to be. We smoothed out the few wrinkles that needed smoothing out, and then I excused myself as well.


Christmas Day

The next day we went to Niena to see the market, and everything else there. I wanted a Malian chaperone to go with us in case anything weird happened. I didn’t expect trouble, but I also didn’t know what to expect because I’d never gone into town with a car or with my whole American family. I asked M if she wanted to come, but she demurred saying she didn’t have any money so going to the market would be torture because she wouldn’t be able to buy anything. I asked D if she wanted to come, but she had to spend all day cleaning and cooking the guinea fowl that I’d bought to help celebrate Christmas (for my homologue’s family and myself not my own family since I didn’t want my own family eating any local meat prepared in village, even by D). My homologue started to see that I was fishing for someone to go with us and offered up B (9 years old), and then M2 (16 year old boarder in her compound). That worked. They put their market best on and hopped into the back of the car and we were off.

We wandered through market early before it was too crowded. I showed them fabrics, and food, and the Fane area where I leave my stuff when it gets too heavy, where they sell water cisterns, little ceramic stoves and baskets. M2 helped me haggle on some nice fabric to give to Ysince we’d given M1 a bunch of American presents in front of him, and I could tell he was kind of miffed all he got was a shirt, even though it was a really nice shirt my mom had picked out. Then we went to the tailor and I had mom and R help me go through the design books to pick a design for my paint and paintbrushes fabric. They decided on a ruffled design inspired by one of the old lady’s outfits from the dance party the day before. R got more into the right spirit, mom wanted me to do something under-stated. We stopped by the post office where the post master and Mo got into a tiff about where he parked the car, but everyone shook it off quickly enough.

We were back before 1 for lunch and naps.

In the afternoon we drove to Sibirila. I liked the idea of showing my family another village, even though I’m sure it largely looked identical to N’tjilla to them. Everyone was thrilled to have us there. We greeted and greeted. I’d wanted to go to Sibirila rather than Bougoulaba because M3 had just had her baby a week and a half before, and I thought I was going to miss the denkundi (baptism) because I was in Bamako. When I got back though I heard from my homologue they hadn’t had it yet because the child was small. I don’t know if that means premature or sick, but I still wanted to greet her and the baby. We greeted in the first quartier in Sibirila, and O insisted we join him for some beans. I begged off for the rest of my family, and my homologue helped me explain that they weren’t eating village food, but I ate some myself. Lots of women were working on shea butter, and men were working on cotton, so there was plenty to take pictures of. It wasn’t till we got to M3’s quartier that O told us the baby had died that morning. I’d had my sister and mom practice denkundi blessings, which were now irrelevant. I gave money to my homologue to give to M3 rather than the baby wrap and soap we’d brought, which seemed insensitive to give and I offered my two funeral blessings. M3 looked sad and tired, but she did a good job of playing the host anyway, as M4’s wife did the day I greeted her the day after her baby died. It was an unintentional good lesson for my family in the harsh realities of Malian life.

On the way back we stopped at the school so I could show my family the future library. The school director was still at another village for a boy’s soccer game, but Teacher got the key and let us in.

We cooked dinner, same as the night before, and B brought over my servings of guinea fowl. I think she brought enough for me to share with my family in case they changed their minds, but I just ate it all myself. I had also bought onions, oil, vinegar, and mustard for D so she could cook it in the same grilled delicious way she had made the lamb for Tabaski. While it was delicious, I did not offer it to my family.

After dinner we set off fireworks I had bought in Niena the week before. I decided we’d just do half of them, and I’d leave the other half for them to use for New Years while I was in Paris. The doctors were there, as was the former mayor. I thought V or A or D, one of my host brothers, would do the honors of setting off the fireworks, but the doctors were eager to do it, so I gladly let them. Some of them were much more powerful than I’d expected, and one of the most powerful ones they set off upside down, while another got aimed straight into a mango tree. All the women, and my American family, and myself, ran as far away as possible from the doctors while they were setting off the fireworks, but I think it was a success. Everyone liked the sparklers too. While it seemed dangerous, no one got hurt, and I got some great pictures. Not exactly a normal Christmas tradition, but whatever, it was fun.


Dec. 26

Mo slept in, so we got a slow start to the morning, but not too bad. We went to Numula fitini to greet Yakuba’s people. We stopped by the mayor’s office on the way, and greeted M4 and his wife.

The Fanes gave us a bunch of cute little baskets and ceramic stoves. It was the first time my family was surrounded by Fanes, so no one asked them to change their last name, although they did get told they had to stay and couldn’t leave that afternoon.

We also visited Numula ba, where the boys were loading the cotton from the magasin into the big orange container left by CMDT.

My family was starting to get the pattern of greeting, just as we were finished doing it.

We went back to my hut and gathered up all the luggage and packed up the car to go. We were going to be in Bamako ridiculously early, but that’s what my dad wanted. We headed back to the Radisson, because as far as I know it is the nicest restaurant in town, and they have tigedegena (peanut sauce) and yassa (onion sauce) on the menu, so at least my family got to try those local specialties once, in a sanitized environment, on plates, with forks. We ended up getting a room for the afternoon. While extravagant, it was nice to take showers and naps and use the internet and electricity.

Mo looked refreshed too when he came to pick us up. He had also obviously enjoyed having water and electricity again. His phone had died in village because he had nowhere to charge it, which I overheard him tell several people who had obviously been trying to call him for days, and he looked well-scrubbed too.

I hadn’t realized just how nervous everyone had been in village, although I’d had an inkling, but when we got back to the Radisson, it was like everyone sighed a huge sigh of relief. They made it. No major illnesses, no major injuries, no one was offended by their decadent American or Christian ways (uncovered hair, celebrating of Christmas, etc.). Success.

We caught our plane to Paris no problem. The airport was much less intimidating than I remembered it from eleven months ago. I’m still not thrilled about flying in by myself on my return from Paris, but now I know I’ll manage.