“We may not have much, but we are sewn together by the fabric of each other,” said Mouktard Kone, the esteemed griot (oral historian) Jon and I had the pleasure of being introduced to our first night in Bamako. It’s statements like these that will always keep the Malian people close to my heart. While I thoroughly enjoyed Belgium, there was something in the back of my mind that whole week that really just wanted to be here. I couldn’t help but seek the warmth. Not just in terms of weather, let’s face it, Belgium was cold, Mali is hot; but in terms of being surrounded by people who at their core are kind, generous and radiant.
So what is it about this place that is so special? Hmm, complicated. Yes, Mali is a very impoverished nation, but here money isn’t where happiness lies. To give you an example of what very impoverished means – garbage service comes once a month – maybe, and it doesn’t come to everyone’s home, it comes to a drop off spot in each neighborhood. Where that spot is, I have no idea, because trash is dumped all over the place. There isn’t infrastructure to support garbage service, trucks, fuel, people, a place to process it all – it just isn’t there. If you stop and think about your weekly garbage service, you begin to realize all that goes into it. Imagine that going away. How would you improvise?
It’s easy for westerners to spot the economic poverty – to tie it to money – but Mali reflects a different way of life, where everything isn’t based entirely on your net worth. It’s based on its people – people whose lives are stitched together, a real community of people relying on each other.
Take for example Abdou Karine. Abdou is a well-digger by trade. Wague tells me he’s dug over 370 wells in his lifetime – by hand. No machines, no fancy equipment, just Abdou. Um, what?? But Abdou is poor, he has nothing in the ways of material goods and even though he is highly respected and skilled at what he does, he remains poor, with no means for improvement. But Abdou has the best smile I think I’ve seen in a long time. He came to the Center yesterday to receive a gift from Wague – who sold his pottery in the States to give $200 worth of cash and food to 15 families in the neighborhood. I came out to see them and Abdou was smiling and raising his hands and laughing, throwing his head back with that smile – like a big Stevie Wonder smile when the music is particularly at its peak. I sat down with Abdou and just watched him talk with Wague, mesmerized by how sincerely happy this man is, it’s a kind of being at ease, of truly being happy without attachments that I only hope I can have a taste of in my life.
Of course it’s not all roses and ponies. Jon, Wague and I were planning to go downtown to the grand marche (main market) to pick up some things today or tomorrow, when we received word that we are not to go downtown for a few days. Spontaneous protests against the government and military quickly remind me that beloved Mali is unstable. While things seem as normal as ever in the neighborhood (we’re about a 30-40 minute drive from downtown), we are still in a country deeply wounded by religious fundamentalists that have taken the North, and a dysfunctional and extremely underfunded government that can’t really do much about it without international help.
Over the course of a day the situation has changed. All schools are cancelled for at least a week. Apparently in a town just north of Mopti (2000 miles from where we are in Bamako, yep that's like the distance from Portland to Chicago, it's not close to us) a group of islamists went to a school yesterday (totally independent of the protests that were going on downtown) and the soldiers had to tell them that unless they dropped their weapons they would be forced to shoot – which could have resulted in hundreds of children being injured or killed. Fortunately the islamists were disarmed, but the government is now worried that some may be trying to instigate similar events in Bamako, and so gatherings, especially school, are cancelled.
This brings the heartache I feel about this situation full force to the front of my mind. Mali. Benign, kind, poor and happy. A country infiltrated by foreign extremists with no care for that sewn cultural fabric they are pulling to threads. I still feel safe here, almost protected by our neighbors, although the prospect that nightly jaunts to the music clubs, and days wandering the Artisinal (artisans market) is long gone. It’s a stark reminder that Mali is already changed from the place it was 3 years ago, even 1 year ago. This makes me sad.
Wague must have sensed it because after our morning tea he suggested going for a walk around the neighborhood with the lovely Batoma, a kind teenager who lives across the creek. Wague says that Batoma and her family actually used to just live under the banana tree because they had no home, and they gardened mangos and beans to get by. Through the kindness of visitors, Wague and neighbors they’ve moved into a home and Batoma became one of the sponsored students through Ko-Falen. Just a few years ago, Batoma wasn’t in school and now she’s at the top of her class in high school, and by hanging out at the Center, has a good working knowledge of English. She inspires me.
On our walk we explored the neighborhood and the creek banks, which are home to mango trees, papayas, pomegranates, bananas, and the crops, which are harvesting beans, mint, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, bitter eggplant and others. Since no one is in school there are kids everywhere, and we quickly make friends through the use of the camera. It should be noted that when children see a white person, they call out “Toubab!!” which just means “white person”. But when they see us interacting, just being people, not confined to fancy cars and hotels, an older kid says, “no, call her tanti” (aunti) and just like that, I’m transformed from some anonymous white lady to their aunti, and friend, not a stranger. All I can do is respond with thanks, photos (which they never get to see) and smiles. It’s not much, but it’s what we can do to be part of the fabric, to respond with the same kindness that has been bestowed upon us. My spirits are lifted, and I can't think of any other place I'd rather be than in sweet Mali.
ps: click on the photos for a larger image