The rains are here and the crops are steadily growing along with the anticipation of harvest in a month or two. Corn, millet, beans, sorghum and rice fields rippling out from the center of villages as far as people can walk or bike to farm. August and September are known as the “hungry” season in Mali; the time when family granaries are emptying from last year before the harvest of the present one. And so, although the farmers must be at their best to weed their fields, they are at their hungriest because there is less millet and, as the laws of supply and demand guide with their invisible hands, millet is also at its most expensive. It is also the middle of Ramadan, which for Muslim Malians means a month of fasting, but for the Christians in my village it’s just a month where you eat less and don’t have a religious reason.
Kalifa with a test plot of ameliorated seeds from Bamako.
Nonetheless, Malians, like (dare I make a gross generalization?!?) everyone, everywhere, love any reason to party. (Please comment if you feel differently, and hey, even if you don’t!) Late night celebrations are springing up throughout village, the sound of drums pulling the young and young at heart from their straw and plastic mats to play cards, drink tea and of course, dance. Believe it or not, I often resist the temptation to roll out of bed at 1 a.m. to dance in a miniature dust bowl with teenage boys and young guys preening for the ladies. “But how, Jennifer?”, I am sure you are asking yourself right now. Well, it’s nothing personal. Teenage boys are cool and young guys aren’t so bad either. But I tell you, 1 a.m. is no time to start a dance party and so, aside from big celebrations, I often politely decline the drums’ invitation to come and dance.Publish Post
Christine likes to ham it up for the camera and Annie is knitting in the background.
But one night this past week, Annie, nodding off in her plastic string chair, knitting needles poised at the ready in her tired hands and Christine snuggled up in the crook of her arms, I decide I have the energy for a late night party and so quietly slip away and venture into the darkness that envelopes the village each day at sundown. I follow my headlamp into the maze of crumbling mud walls, side-stepping cow pies and braying donkeys to find the source of the thumping beats and laughing voices. This particular party was thrown by the “kamaleh” (young guy) association. They pool their physical and fiscal resources together each year to farm fields outside those of their families; they divvy up the proceeds but also put them towards parties to rent a car battery for little strip lights and to buy tea and sugar (alcohol is reserved for cute old men who wear leather satchels and are missing most of their teeth – the homebrew association is the one who made my fence this past June).
As I turn the bend into the party area I not only side-step mud puddles of questionable content but also young couples sneaking away from the party for a tete-a-tete. The fete was held in a clearing where, during the day, kids can be found making mud castles and women pounding millet into the fine flour that is the base of all their meals. But tonight the area has been transformed with desks and tables dragged from neighboring huts and mortars and pestles rolled to the side. By the time I arrive, the kamalehs and bogotigis (young women) are absorbed in their card games set up around the dance floor and barely notice the toubab with muddy feet. I sit down at one of the desks and start tapping my feet to the wailing voices pulsing out of the stereo still in its Styrofoam protective blocks and perched precariously between two desks pushed together for a makeshift DJ table. Ipods, vinyls and scratch boards are missing from this dance party and are instead replaced with an old cardboard box filled with tapes. Also, instead of a DJ with a rock-star lip ring and headphones cocked to the side, there is a guy who reaches over from his card game, dips his hand into the box of tapes and puts one in the tape deck before throwing down a spade to win the game. I am not a music connoisseur and do not claim to be. I also know shamefully little about popular Malian musicians like Ali Farka Toure and Isa Barayago, But the music that plays at these parties is not those musicians (I know that much!) and to be honest, it all sounds pretty much the same. The voices are shrill and, to my American ears, sound a bit whiny, but the kids here love to boogie and far be it for some wonky music (in my opinion) to prevent feet that want to dance!
Two little girls who live near me sashay over to where I am sitting next to two tuckered out boys who are slumped over one another and taking a party nap (pre-party naps key to the success of any party but I usually like to take them before coming to the actual party…). “Wuli, Djelika!”, they command, their cuteness turning into little girl ‘tudes as they implore me to join them on the dance floor. I’m not really feeling the song (you know, the one that sounds just like the one that played before it and the one that will play after) but surprise of all surprises, the DJ puts in a tape with a reggae beat that I can actually shake my toubab hips to and I follow my neighbors out to dance. Some of the kamalehs and bogotigis look up from their game and tease me for dancing, “Djelika, you’re going to dance?”, they holler and dissolve into giggles before shaking their heads and turning back to their cards.
The floor is divided invisibly between young guys showing off their fancy dance skills, pre-teen boys right next to them imitating their older counterparts in style and footwork and then finally the pre-teen girls (and me) giggling at the outer reaches of the dance floor, furthest from the stereo and the spread of the lights. Dancing in the near shadows, the girls teach me their dance moves and laugh as I imitate them while the peacocks near the stereo show off for the older girls bordering the dance floor, who try (and do a good job of it!) to look uninterested and unimpressed. The girls are beautiful; their dancing is subtle and more for their own enjoyment rather than to garner the attention of others. The boys on the other hand are dancing with moves so erratic and choppy I find myself catching my breath as they throw their legs around like they are disconnected from the rest of their body, keeping time to a rhythm I cannot seem to hear.
Then, just as I make my debut, the girls decide it is time to pull away and take a break. They funnel out and like at a middle school dance gone wrong, I find myself the only girl on the dance floor just getting into my groove. I keep dancing as my neighbors, once so eager to get me to dance, are now just as eager to get me out.
“I be se ka sigi sisan Djelika,” they say. You can sit down now Djelika. I laugh and, not wanting to embarrass them any more, retreat with them into the outer circle where we become the spectators. The girls forget I am there and turn to one another for little girl conversations. I look around and, as quietly as I slipped in, decide to quietly slip away. I murmur my goodbyes and retrace my muddy steps back to Annie, still fast asleep next to her kerosene lamp, hands still ready to knit. After giving her and Christine goodnight kisses on the cheek, I crawl into my own bed for my post-party nap before waking up to raindrops splashing outside and another day of muddy field and garden work.