Monday, October 20, 2008

Name, Age, Location?

This is one of the many Baobabs (and two women) that I pass on the way to my village each week.
The next picture is my host sister Batuma (if you're named after your grandmother or mother you aren't called your name - her real name is Miriam - you're called Batuma) and my host brother Emmanuel.

A few crucial aspects of the Malian culture revolve around last names and the married (or unmarried) state of women. Being a foreigner, these aspects are amplified as the people I live with are eager to learn everything they can about me (and I them). But this information isn't relegated only to the people with whom I live and work - sharing my last name and whether or not I have a husband is a daily occurrence when I'm at market or just walking around town. This has become so normal to me that when I talk with friends outside of Mali via email or skype - I forget that these are not things people share as they meet strangers. I'll try and give a concrete example starting with a little background anecdote.

There are a finite amount of last names in Mali, sort of like everyone being a Jones, Smith or Davis - except they're Malian so it's Diarra, Coulibaly or Dembale. When the French colonized Mali, legend has it the only clan of people who ran to hide rather than fight back were the Coulibalys thus making them the brunt of many jokes because of their lack of bravery. What they have here is something called "joking cousins." It's sort of an on-going inside/outside joke where when you greet someone for the first time (asking all the required questions for every greeting, new or old: Did your night pass peacefully? How is your family? How is your husband? How are your children? How are the people of your village?) you ask, and what is your last name? If you're a Coulibaly meeting a Coulibaly you laugh, and say a ka ni (that's good!) and maybe even shake hands. But if the other person is a Diarra or Dembale (or two-handfuls of other last names) they frown and say oohhh, a ma ni (that's bad! - but with a smile and a laugh) and then say, You're a bean eater! (Implying, yes, you guessed it, that you fart a lot) Or, You eat donkey! (Implying you're a country bumpkin I suppose, I haven't quite figured out why you'd call someone a donkey eater)

As crazy as this may sound, every time I go out to buy something I go through this ritual and since I'm a Coulibaly (and proud of it!) I'm constantly being railed on for eating beans and donkey. It's wonderfully amusing how Malians never tire of this joke and it's an instant way to connect with a stranger. Even if you don't have the same last name as the person you're greeting you can still laugh together and call the other person a bean-eater.

As for whether or not I have a husband, I always say yes to avoid offers of marriage so they can come to Ameriki (America in Bambara). But even when I say that I am taken the men will usually offer a "proposal" just to get a rise out of me and see how I react. I put the fire out pretty quick though when I say that men and women in Ameriki share responsibilities and that men cook, clean and take care of the kids alongside their wives (at least that's what I'm expecting!) and the Malian men balk and say, essentially, keep your extra plane ticket! :) I've also tried to explain the concept of a weak American dollar and a bear stock market but I don't think my Bambara has reached the level of economic discussions just yet.

I've learned a lot about patience in the short time I've been here and I'm sure to learn more. Malians love repetition and since I clearly stick out as a foreigner I constantly have to repeat what I'm doing here and the afore mentioned facts which can get a little tiring but is worth it. When I remind myself why I'm here - to live and be a part of a different culture - I leave with a smile on my face and a laugh on my lips. I'm going to relish these interactions for the next two years because when else will I be called a bean-eater because of my last name or receive endless marriage proposals because I'm a foreigner?

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