We arrived in Mali at like 1:30 AM, de-boarded the plane and then took a bus maybe 50 feet to the terminal; yes, 50 feet. Why could we not have walked the 50 feet instead of queuing for a bus?…no idea, that’s Africa. This was an apt introduction to a concept that you just need to get used to in Mali from what I gather: It is that way because it is. Why do we ride the bus 50 feet? That is what is done; conversing on the topic beyond that is really just conjecture.
Mali is dusty, but full of rich smells. There is a smell of earth and life that is new to me…smoke, desert, humans, trash, long standing water, rich stews with African peppers, livestock, but mostly there is just a deep smell of something indescribable.
To a Westerner, the overwhelming thought while driving into Bamako is that this is a poor nation. Buildings are low, warn and filled with people; the roads dirt until Chinese made bridges driven mostly by dying Mercedes cabs, motos and well warn feet. The town is an impossible maze of streets and buildings/structures. Families live in large walled structures, usually with a small courtyard for pets/animals and making tea. This is really all one would get at 2 AM.
Come morning, the town comes alive with voices, cars, laughing, working and generally an overwhelming sound of many people living together. Malians are loud and very social; if not for knowing Wague and hearing Malians talk before, I would think that people were screaming at one another with demands. Nope, that’s just talking. At any time someone may yell your name from any hearable distance; you acknowledge them and if appropriate come together and talk.
*Side note* As I write this there are two horned cows eating garbage across the street and a small group of people just wandered by; I doubt they remarked on this. A herd of cattle wanders the street in town.
Beyond the looks and smells, there is one driving force to life in Bamako: The people here. These are the most open, straight-forward, happy people I have ever known. Everything seems to revolve around relationships new and old. We are lucky to be staying with a well respected member of the community and last night walked to several houses meeting friends of Wague. People just kind of walk the streets, checking in on old friends and distant relatives (there is a joke told with almost every encounter about familial relations, with one party asking us to take their family names and us stubbornly saying we are Diakete, Wague’s family; this always elicits laughter), or you sit in your courtyard and have people come see you.
I’m trying to learn some pleasantries in Bambara as I have no French, which can be frustrating and involves a lot of smiling and staring dumbly. People are really nice about it though. We laugh as they ask why I have no French. Surrounded in what we would call squalor, in a place where no one understands me and we are the only White people for miles, I have not once felt unsafe or unwelcome.
*Side note* A woman just threw garbage off her roof into the small “stream” outside the complex…a cow moans in the distance…the wind blows…there is the call to prayer.
In about 36 hours you stop caring what you look like. Maybe this is just me, but we stand out here so much it really doesn’t make any sense to worry about my hair or a small mark of dirt on my sleeve. Most of our day is spent just sitting around; reading, talking, eating the food that is made for us which is mostly stews made from bouillon, a small bit of meat and some veggies, and put on white rice.
Jess and I were able to switch our $1100 US into CFA today…we were handed like 500,000 CFA. This should last us at least the entire month we are here. When asked, Wague said that most people here make about $50 monthly, but he is always quick to point out that the quality of life here is really not about the money. The cynic in me thinks that this is exactly what is easiest said by those without money, but in reality he is correct: A great many people here exist day-to-day not in desperation, but as a life style gauged in terms of success by how you are thought of in your community. Wague is by no means the richest man here…far from it, but his generosity and dedication make people sing songs to him (literally, oral historians sing him praises and place him admirably with his ancestors). In three days, I have yet to spend a single CFA.
3 days in and Jess and I are still the only Westerners we have seen. You get used to people staring at you pretty quickly. I made tea today and people seemed to like it. The ritual of Atiya, green tea brewed and consumed very slowly amongst a group, happens throughout the day. We also went to the market, which was interesting. The market is kinda gross and smells pretty bad, but there was any number of random things to buy there. It was BUSY and maze-like so I am glad we had an escort (the wife of Wague’s brother). Everything was pretty much local, or at least I assume this as most stalls sold the same fish, veggies, and spices. I was in the market for some flip-flops for the shower, which I purchased for 500 CFA (or one US dollar).
*Side note* I’m sitting here with my computer writing this and the woman who cleans the center, Nana, is wiping down the mats around me. I resist the urge to get up and out of her way and my feeling bad that she is cleaning around me. She hums and keeps going. She cleans all day; every single surface every single day. She lives with Wague’s brother as she does not have family in the area. She is soft-spoken, gentle, and always smiles. She seems wise for her relatively few years, or maybe she is just content. I really like her…but have never had a conversation beyond some Bambara niceties because I cannot speak her language.
Unlike in Cairo or some other large markets, Malians are not aggressive sellers so the only hard thing is just staying out of the way of busy people. I guess in the city center the sales get a little more aggressive. We had planned to go today or tomorrow but Wague said there are large protest today with students clashing with police…throwing eggs and rotten food and the like. So, another day at the center which is not too bad at all.