Monday, June 29, 2009

Sticking out, trying to fit in.

The cute old men who got right to drinking and contributing their sideline advice :)

I take down the gauzy mosquito tent strung from the hangar in front of my house and as I do, I see old men stumble over my front “gate,” a criss-crossed tree trunks that keep out the wandering goats, cows and donkeys from my compound. The sun has just stretched it’s first rays onto another day in Zana and these men are here to break ground on a tree-branch fence in my front yard. I saw the homebrew association (my name for them) put up Kadia Dembele’s fence and asked if they could do the same in my area. Their requests are simple and few. 500 cfa (about $1) per donkey cart of branches, enough millet beer for the crew, kola nuts and tobacco snuff. Not unlike a moving party in the states except instead of take-out pizza and beer we have millet homebrew and caffeine-rich kola nuts. Eight donkey carts of tree branches are unloaded in front of my house. Bundles of dead and dying wood lying like tired skeletons on the ground waiting to mark the border of another garden.
Taking a break drinking millet beer by my house.

The old men ask for the millet homebrew before the hand trowels have made a dent in the hard, packed dirt. I’ve been asking them to build this fence for about a month and a half and only recently got a confirmation it would happen. Once the rains really get going here I know I won’t be able to get anyone to come help me around the house since everyone will be farming. But soon enough my weeks of nagging will be validated and the work will be done. I expressed to Annie that maybe the old men’s association didn’t want to build the fence since my repeated requests were going unanswered but she insisted that’s just how Malians are, that you have to ask 3 or 4 times for things to get done so people know you’re serious. I told her Americans would call that kind of persistence annoying. Every moment an opportunity to share our cultures! ☺
The uniform of the day are old man skull caps, loose t-shirts, tattered pants and leather satchels made from goat skin. The bags are worn soft from years of farming and sitting under mango trees drinking tea and millet beer. They’re my favorite old man accessories and even though I’m a young, single woman I got one made by the village tanner and sport it to the weekly market and when I wander from compound to compound. A few men have biked to my house this morning and their trusty one-speeds lie tired and rusted against the mud walls of my house; their muted colors and chipped paint blending with the sepia wash and natural colors of, well, everything around me.
The younger of the homebrew club are on labor detail and as soon as they’ve all assembled they begin to delegate tasks while the older men settle in by the millet beer jug and proceed to make peanut gallery comments and dole out the sweet, heady chimmy-chammy (Bambara nickname for homebrew) to those thirsty from hard fence work. The smell of the millet beer is intoxicating at first and brings to mind warm cider on fall days. But be careful you don’t inhale too long as the rubbing alcohol undertones sweep into your nostrils, making you recoil from the harshness and wondering what volume of alcohol per calabash bowl we’re talking here.
Digging the trench for the fence

I peek in on the garden work with my camera glued to my hands. The men speak quickly and animatedly with one another, one story blending into the next and interruptions and addendums frequent. I don’t bother to ask folks to slow down anymore when they talk to each other – I’ve rescinded my unquenchable curiosity concerning casual conversations in favor of the don’t-need-to-ask-they’ll-tell-if-they-want policy. If they want me to understand what they’re talking about they’ll be able to read the lost look on my face and will retrace the steps of the conversation until I’m caught up to speed. If that doesn’t work, they can always call Annie over to translate their old man, mumbled and jumbled Bambara into what Annie fondly calls her Toubab-Bamabra.
I weave in and out between the men working, sitting, drinking and talking, snapping pictures and trying to get the lighting and composition just right in the mid-morning sun. I lend a hand when heckled by one of the old men but do so knowing they’ll ask me to stop as soon as I reach for a tool or to pass over a bundle of branches. They make such requests to get a good laugh and dissolve into themselves with their chuckles and guffaws when I try to show that I actually can pass sticks and contribute to the cause. They wave off my efforts and instruct me to sit in the shade or refill an empty (gasp!) calabash bowl with more homebrew.
Adama fashions fence ties from tree bark to keep my fence in line.

The work is well under way as I plop down next to Yacou Coulibaly. He’s wearing a pill box hat with a blue circle-brown square pattern and is fashioning fence ties out of freshly stripped and soaked tree bark. Yacou and Adama are working on the ties while Dramane delegates the fence tasks to the younger men– you, go to get more tobacco, you, start digging the trench over there, you, haul over another load of branches. A seamless operation of tasks that, once started, couldn’t be better organized by a Ford assembly line.
The number of men working on my fence is proportionate to the amount of homebrew left. As the supply dwindles, Dramane, Adama and Yacou are the only ones who remain at work. What was once a crew of 20 men has now decreased to 3 and the work that started with the rising sun is now, 2 hours later, all done and I have another garden to cultivate! Another protected parcel of land to try out leafy experiments and technologies for farming in the Sahel.
Chuckles erupt from the bellies of men finishing off what’s left of the chimmy-chamma. Girlish giggles and hearty old man laughs as calabash bowls are passed. The jokes, I don’t understand. But the laughter; that is universal and while I don’t catch the punch line of most jokes (hey, kind of like in the States!) I’ve come to feel that having a complete understanding of life here does not, cannot in fact, matter in a place where I don’t truly belong. Trying is what matters here since I’ll never be a seamless fit in this complex, yet inviting, culture. No matter how much I study Bambara or how many Malian outfits I get made I’ll always be seen, at first, as the Toubabu muso (foreign woman) and Djelika Coulibaly, second. I’m like these branches being stuck into my lawn – from the same material as everything around me but sticking out in a place I don’t belong. As I look around my front yard at the finished fence, emptied calabash bowls and tipsy old men I’m OK with sticking out like the branches as long as these men keep laughing at my efforts to fit in.
A throwback to Marija's visit:
Marija and I in Malick Sidibe's studio


shaun said...

a very enjoyable read!

Carolyn said...

Love the twin costumes and learning about the cultural habits.

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