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The Fete du Tabaski was on Sunday, and is the celebration following Ramadan. From what I understand, the day is for asking for forgiveness from one’s family and friends, and sending good wishes for the future.
The day started early for me; I woke up at 6 am and donned my new bazin, which basically means fancy clothes. On Friday evening several aunts arrived with their children in tow to stay over until Monday, so our household was already full of children’s excited play at the early hour. All of the women had formed a great circle on the terrace and after exchanging the typical morning salutations to all, I was given a chair, a knife, and a basket full of yams. For the next few hours I listened their ebullient chatter and gossip whilst chopping yams and peeling garlic.
Once the sun was hot in the sky a few hours later, the excitement began when Salif, the father of the household, ascended from his chamber and announced that the sacrifice would commence. All of the children, around twenty in number, scrambled out to the street to watch the event. I looked on, a bit queasy, as Salif slit the throat of the goat and blood quickly turned the orange earth into a deep shade of red. This same scene was unfolding outside the houses of each neighbor simultaneously, and everyone was giddy, calling out good wishes across the street to one another. The young men of the house next strung up the goat to the garage door, cutting it apart and separating the meat. I looked on the entire time, something I must say I take pride in. The whole goat-cutting affair took around an hour, and afterwards, the preparation of food took on a rapid speed. Many of the women brought with them small grills to place over the charcoal clavicles, and smoke and the smell of crispy peppered meat quickly filled the morning air. All the children, myself included, waited impatiently for the meat to be doled out, for it was now ten o’ clock and our tummies were growling. After everyone had been well fed (and everyone had been, for the meat was plentiful), I set out with the younger girls to make sambe sambe around the neighborhood. Sambe sambe is an exchange of wishes for good health and prosperity, and after a child finishes, the expectation is that the adult will give them a small bit of money. It goes like this:
Child: E sambe sambe
Adult: Amiina (something of an acceptance, I gather)
Child: Sii tigi yala (may you live long)
Child: Ba tigi yala (may your mother live long)
Child: Fa tigi yala (may your father live long)
Child: Koro tigi yala (may your brothers live long)
Child: A la ka saw chaya (may we meet later in life)
Adult: Amiina may
This exchange can go on for a long time, but that’s all I was able to do. Everyone was really excited when I made sambe sambe to them, and after a while the girls began to exploit me by pushing me to the front of the group to say it, so as they would collect more money. The whole thing, though, struck me as very sweet. More often than not we would all just set inside some stranger’s house for a while, eating their goat hot off the fire and watching the older women prepare food, until we felt ready to go onto the next home. This openness that everyone offered up so easily is something I’m not accustomed to.
After perhaps two hours of meandering about the neighborhood, we returned home and ate cous cous, fried plantains, and of course, goat. I learned the phrase, N cono kera n bas a go ye, which means something like, “I’m so full that I have a child in my stomach.” I think that sums up how much I ate on Sunday. Food baby extreme. The concept of saving food to eat later is not one in practice here, and I have yet to enter a house with a refrigerator in it. As a result, what is cooked must all be eaten, and everyone readily tells me.
At midday all the men donned their traditional robes and, with prayer mats in tow, walked to the local mosque. I looked on from the roof of my house at the river of men that formed in the streets, all heading in solidarity towards the mosque. Soon after, the steady call to prayer rang out, and then all was silent again in the streets except for perhaps the faint mutterings of prayer.
The rest of the day was spent hanging around with the family, talking, resting, playing cards, making tea, and eating, always eating. In the nighttime, there was a party in my schoolyard that I attended with some friends. It was pretty crazy, and I didn’t get home until three in the morning! Two or three boys would go to the center of the field, and everyone would form a giant circle around them. They would dance fanatically until the crowd declared a winner by means of yelling and clapping. It was all very amusing, until my friends insisted that I go to the center! I eventually gave in and delighted many, I suppose, by showing off some American moves. I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole situation.
It was fascinating for me to observe this holiday, and I’m very thankful that I got to be here to participate in it. The only thing I’m not pleased with is the frequent severed goat tail that can be found in the streets, a dusty memory of Sunday’s festivities.
Hello, readers. It has been a while since I’ve posted, though I can’t say that I’ve been terribly busy. My life is feeling very Malian indeed lately, and it’s wonderful, and November is here! What a thing to behold.
I haven’t the organization this week to put together some large topic to post on, so I’ve decided to share with you some small anecdotes from my time here.
Why I Dislike Coal:
Often I am reminded of camping trips during the summer time in the US, when all of the kids are sitting around the fire, staring intently into the red coals before them. Eventually, someone cannot resist throwing some various items into the flames, to see them sizzle or melt or pop up and crackle like a tiny firework. Perhaps it is a paper plate, a soda can, or a serving of vegetables you can lie to your mother about having eaten. Thousands of miles away in Bamako this exciting experimentation with fire is a nightly routine, the coals that warm the tea being equivalent to the camp fire. First the items will start out small; the younger boys will throw in a few plants when their mom looks away. Next, perhaps some pieces of plastic, or your little sister’s favorite toy. Into the heat it all goes, and creates such interesting scents! Once the adults have surrendered against the muggy heat and persistent mosquitoes to retire inside, the games truly begin, and the tea is altogether forgotten. The final treat of the night is to pour cool water over the coals, what a delightful sound!
Despite how entertaining this is for the young population of my household, I honestly wish they would get some stovetops up in here, because it’s only fun when I’m camping.
Earlier this week, I went with the other Americans to a village close by which serves as a large orphanage for abandoned children. The tour of the various compounds, schools, and sports fields was impressive, and I enjoyed getting to see a bit of the Malian countryside. There is an interesting weather phenomenon here called Benea, which is a gray haze that coats the sky in every direction, enveloping the sun, sort of like sticky fog. It makes me think of the moments when you’ve just woken up and the lines are still blurred between your dreams and your thoughts. Anyhow, on the day I went to the orphanage, the Benea was pressing heavily down on the back of Bamako. Looking out the window of the bus at the endless fields of tall green grass and an occasional friendly tree as the Benea gradually melted away, I went very peaceful. I think that Mali is a beautiful country, even if I do not know her well.
After the tour was over, the head of the orphanage requested that us five American students each plant trees around the property. So, with a well-used shovel thing and some soil that was more like gravel, I got down on my knees and planted two small trees into the Malian earth. Though it was something very small, I felt happy about having left my mark, and perhaps I will return someday when the tree has grown tall.
Rice (it’s what’s for dinner)
Evolution at its’ finest, I have decided, is the tiny worms which crawl around uncooked rice, being the exact same color and size as a grain of rice. A job here which will never be finished is sifting through the rice, searching out these tiny worms and small pieces of wood that inexplicably seem to replenish themselves during the process of the search. Because rice is the major staple here, each night I go to my bedroom with chalky-white hands after having helped our cook, Mariam, complete the task. The members of my family seem to think it’s very funny that I can clean the rice at all, despite that it’s a fairly mindless job. I explained to my host siblings that in my home, we buy rice that is already clean, but I do not think that they understood. I will take home with me such interesting appreciations; for clean rice, for cool nights, for free smiles, and above all else for my family.
Rice is the base of most every meal, and is topped by some kind of sauce with meat. Sauce d’arachide, or peanut sauce, is the most common one, though doesn’t taste much at all like peanuts. Another thing I frequently eat here is a mixture of cut up yams and pieces of goat meat swimming in a sauce that tastes a bit like wet sauce in the US. Since there isn’t any rice to eat the sauce with, one eats this meal with bread. All of the bread here is the French-style baguette, and is crazy long! It is folded up and sold by the boulangeries early each morning.
We mostly eat goat meat, which I’ve gotten used to by now and enjoy. Sometimes we eat chicken, which is much different than in the US. One buys the chicken whole, and guts it out, cleans it with soap, and prepares it from there. This past weekend my host-mom thought it was hilarious that I wasn’t into cleaning out the chicken insides. Pork is never eaten, since the vast majority of Malians are Muslim. My 9 year old host brother was shocked when I told him that Americans eat pig, and thought that I was joking for a good while.
One eats with their hands for each meal, which was initially difficult but I think I’ve got it down pretty good now. The technique is to take a small bit of food, put it in the center of your palm, and roll it together to make it more compact. You then slide it up to your fingertips, and put all four fingers in your mouth to eat. This method of eating is very efficient, and saves a lot of dishes. I think I’m going to try and convince my family to take up this eating-style once I return home- much less dish duty! There’s one big platter for everyone under the age of twenty, which at dinnertime is around twelve or more people. Everyone here adores baby Moussa, but nobody wants to be the one stuck holding him for dinnertime. Holding a squirming baby and eating with so many other people (sort of scrambling for food) off of one platter is pretty tricky. The left-hand is never used, ever. I run into a problem with this when I’m trying to cut apart a piece of meat with just one hand. When the meat is tough, this requires a fair amount of coordination!
One of the first phrases I learned in Bambara upon my arrival was N Fara, which means, “I’m full.” It remains one of the most important phrases in my vocabulary. Everyone loves to grab my forearm or cheek to point out how little fat I have, and proclaim that it is their urgent duty in life to make sure that I eat as much as possible from here on out. While health-wise this renders me worried, it’s not too much of a problem because I absolutely love the Malian cuisine! The flavors are all so wonderful and hopefully I’ll be able to duplicate the meals upon my return to the US!
6:45 Wake up by means of our goat baa-ing, the neighbor’s rooster sounding off (which isn’t just a one-time thing at sunrise, like in the movies. I hear that rooster all day long), the call to prayer from the local mosque, or a baby crying. On the off chance that all of these things fail, my alarm clock is the final assurance that I’ll get up.
7:05 Head downstairs and take breakfast, which consists of a loaf of bread and warm milk. All the milk here is powdered, and it’s a big affair each morning as to who gets to mix the milk. I tried it once, and it’s pretty difficult to get all the chunks out and make sure that the final product is the right balance of water, powdered milk, sugar, and coffee.
7:20 Get in the car with Meena, Miriam, and Sidiki. First we head to the preschool and drop off Meena, and next drive to the market and let out Miriam, the house cook. She buys all the ingredients for the meals of the day there. Finally, we rush off to Ecole du Progres, my high school.
7:50 The students have all trickled in by now, even though school technically begins at 7:30. Typically there is one class that lasts for two hours, then a one-hour class. Some days, though, there is one three-hour class in the morning. If students in the United States have trouble focusing for a one-hour long class, I would like to see them try sitting through a three-hour class. Lots of idle time for thinking!
10:30 Break time, during which I head to the cantina with my friends. The cantina is the break hot spot for the entire school (about 200 students), and it’s comprised of a couple shacks pulled together. If you want to buy a drink or sandwich before the break is over, you have to be fairly physical about pushing your way up to the bar. However, the reward is so wonderful! They sell one of my favorite things here, a deep maroon colored drink called bissap, which is sold frozen in a baggie. To eat/drink it, you tear off one end of the bag and become blissfully cooled down as you consume it. The best part is, the fruity and gingery concoction costs only 100 CFA, which is equivalent to about 40 cents.
10:50 Class resumes and lasts for two hours. One of my tiny meditations here is watching the chalkboard being cleaned, until it is perfectly green again, like it’s brand new.
12:50 Return home quickly, in hopes that I won’t miss all the good food. The younger kids all get home just a few minutes earlier than me, and some days go ahead and start eating. Those days are not great, because then I’m stuck with some nice bland rice for lunch.
1:30ish Go upstairs and take a little nap, just like my mama back home. I’m always exhausted at this point in the day!
2:00 It varies, from here on out. Sometimes I do some laundry (I think I should get a badge that says “expert hand-washer”), and oftentimes I take a walk around the neighborhood with the older girls. If it’s a really hot day like today, we’ll all visit my friend’s pool, which is just a few houses up the street.
3:00 On Thursdays and Fridays, I go back to school until 5:00 for the evening class. On Mondays-Wednesdays, though, I have a French teacher who comes to our house and helps me with homework and my general questions and frustrations with the counterintuitive language that is French.
5:20 With all the Diarra kids forming a mob-like group, we march a little ways to the stand on the side of the road which sells patté, which is like a little pie stuffed with meat and eggs and mayonnaise. A quick word on mayonnaise: it is so big here! People put mayonnaise on everything. I submitted to dealing with eating it, after all the strange looks I got after flicking it off my food. Anyhow, we walk back home and watch Curious George on TV and eat patté, and everyone is a happy camper at this time.
7:30 Eat dinner while the light is quickly fading from Bamako. The second wife of my host-father, who is the mother of all the younger kids who live here, has recruited me to teach English to all her children. So after dinner, all of the kids gather around and dutifully repeat numbers, animal names, and simple phrases in English back to me. Even the baby has to listen in.
9:00 Wash up, brush my teeth, and quickly fall asleep.
And that is a typical weekday for an American girl living in Bamako, Mali! Even though I’m thousands of miles away from my home, life here is not quite so different as one would think.
Bonjour and I ni sogoma! Things in Mali are going really well; I find it hard to believe that October is already upon us.
This week has been as wonderful as any, though these past few days have been hot. After I returned home from school on Friday, I walked into the living room to find all the little ones sprawled out on the carpet, just laying there watching the fan’s lazy rotations. I said to them in French, “It’s a beautiful day, you guys! Go outside and play!” They all just gave me this look that said, you are a fool if you think people can actually function in this nonsense heat. However, they wriggled around to make a spot for me on the carpet, and I admittedly didn’t move for a good couple hours.
Lately, I’ve been taking walks around the neighborhood during my down time. I find that it’s a great way to see the area and interact with people. Most everyone I come across is just so friendly– the typical greeting here is to start with a “hello” and a few “how-are-yous?” and then move on to “how is your family?” and sometimes even go through asking about all the individual family members. The whole thing is a very sweet, good-humored exchange. When people on the streets find out that I have a little bit of Bambara knowledge, you would’ve thought they just won the lottery, they’re so excited. It’s not uncommon for me to have women laughing and shouting with glee after I say I togo Aleema (My name is Aleema, which is my Malian nickname).
Which brings me to another topic: the communication here. I remember before leaving the US, I was told to be conscious of indirect communication while I studied abroad, and that oftentimes my host-family or friends would not tell me that they’re unhappy with me. However, I have found the communication here to be quite the opposite- it is very direct. The people like to voice their opinions, and they want to make sure everybody is hearing them. Pretty much everyday at school there is some type of yelling-match between teacher and student about a difference of opinions, though it seems to me that for most of these disputes neither of the arguers really cares much about the subject at hand. For example, just on Friday, one of my teachers was talking to us about how the girls must always wear skirts going past their knees at school. One girl, Nana, started full-on screaming about how unfair this was, and it quickly turned into a battle-royale between student and teacher for a good fifteen minutes. However, I figure that neither really had much at stake in this argument, because no one conforms to the dress code, and the teachers don’t ever seem to care (except for the sake of arguing, in this case).
The amount of yelling that goes on here, however, is surpassed by the abundant laughter and shouts of delight. People here laugh loudly and honestly, and I can never help but join in, even if I have no idea what I’m laughing at. This kind of infectious, genuine joy that so many of the people here possess has made me quickly fall in love with this country and its’ citizens.