Friday, October 2, 2009

Give or gain?

Cassie, Esther and I sit on plastic lawn chairs as light spills out of the radio studio and Malian music pours out of the speakers. I begin to wonder when our radio show will begin and as if the DJ can read my mind, he starts playing a country song and Cassie says that’s our cue. We do-si-do our way inside, settle into our seats and adjust the microphones. On the other side of the glass the DJ rocks his head to the familiar twang, large headphones cocked to the side. He gradually lowers the volume, gives us a thumbs-up and a head nod to let us know we are on air in Mali.

 a griot from Cassie's village sings the praises of their mayor and village

For the end of Ramadan and Malian Independence Day Esther, another San volunteer, and I both made the trek to Cassie’s site to celebrate with her predominately Muslim village (Esther and I are with Christian host families). Cassie is a health volunteer who does a weekly radio show on various health topics and when visitors come to see her she makes a point to introduce them on the radio with their own show. The radio is a past project of business Peace Corps volunteers that came before and even though Cassie is “assigned” to work at the local clinic, she continues to work with the radio and former counterpart, Adama, of the Peace Corps volunteers she replaced. For tonight’s show Cassie and I have prepared a lively Bambara script on the importance of washing your hands with soap. The dialogue is short and peppered with giggles and line-forgetting-pauses but Adama comes in after we are done and quickly recaps our message just in case folks didn’t catch every word. We all greet our respective villages and families and then Adama asks us to sing a song from our villages. Cassie pulls out a piece of paper with the words to a song about the harvest she has learned from a friend in village. Esther has a song written down about bean cakes she learned in her Bomu village (Bomu is one of the 12 ethnicities in Mali, Bambara people are the majority). I have yet to learn a song and so Adama encourages me to sing a song from my “dugu yere yere”, my real village in America, and I choose an excerpt from my favorite lullaby from my mom about the moon and how even when you are far from the ones you love, even over the ocean, the moon still sees them and sends them your love. We wrap up our songs and greetings and Adama scoops in, takes up one of the microphones and with a radio voice announces the end of our show with blessings for a peaceful night. The DJ cues a song from Olivia Newton John’s Physical album and we exit the studio to go home for dinner and tea.

Posing in Cassie's compound (me, Cassie and Esther pictured)

Throughout our long weekend the people of Cassie’s village extended warm hands of welcome from around every mud wall and millet-stalk-covered hangar. Her numerous friends and host families kept a steady stream of heaping bowls of rice, meat, pasta and porridge streaming into the compound she shares with Banta, a widowed older woman who lives on her own and supports herself selling peanut butter cookies in town. As food arrives during the day and at dusk we peek under the covers and cheer for the tastiest dishes like zame, a rice dish made with hot peppers, oil and tasty spices. We wash our hands and then pull our stools around the communal bowl to dig in. Cassie and Esther are pros at eating with their hands. Cassie fully embraces the sticking of your hand in your mouth and Esther has experience from eating Indian food with her family. I, on the other hand, have yet to master the technique and frequently find myself throwing more rice onto my lap than into my mouth. Banta finishes first tonight and rises from her lounge chair, satisfied hands raised up and says “Ca c’est bien ca, Banta Traoure, champion!” and then goes into her hut to get her flashlight and radio as we giggle and continue to scoop rice into our mouths.

 Banta and me after Banta went to the mosque to pray

The next morning brings the first day of breaking the fast of Ramadan. After our breakfast with Banta we don our complets and troop over to the Dao family compound to eat with all the Daos of Cassie’s village. Last names are a big deal in Mali and the Daos are the Kennedy equivalent in Cassie’s village. Greetings and blessings spill from everyone’s mouths along with praises of our radio show and the songs we sang.

The big wigs of the village with their drums and fancy clothes

The last day of Ramadan this year, September 22, was also Malian Independence Day. After the Dao family breakfast we make our way to the paved road, giving and receiving blessings along the way that God will see us through another year together, and join Cassie’s host father, Lamine, along with the chief of the village, before heading over to the ceremony. The men and women are all wearing their nicest and newest clothes. Yards of fabric with embroidery and lace flowing through the streets of the village, djembe drums setting the tempo and motorcycles speeding dangerously close as they dart in between pedestrians. We let ourselves, the toubabs, fall to the back of the village parade and enjoy the view from behind as we try not to impose on the celebration. There is always a precarious balance (as a toubab) to strike here of participating in festivities and celebrations and not being the center of them. The Independence day parade enters the sous-prefet’s compound and we all shake his hand before Maffa, one of the mayor’s counselors, ushers us to our seats beneath a hangar under the shade of a tree. The irony of our presence does not escape us. Maffa’s voice crackles through multiple microphones about the importance of today. He talks about how 49 years ago Malians took control of their government and sent the French back home and then, in practically the same breath, he warmly welcomes “les cheres volontaires du corps de la paix.” We greet the crowd of children and respected elders and quickly deliver our prepared thoughts before taking our seats once again and enjoy watching instead of being watched. The event is well-organized and demonstrates the strong leadership present in Cassie’s village. Surrounding villages perform dances and youth groups sing the Malian national anthem.

 No one on the corner has swagger like Cassie's village: the mayor, sous prefet and Moustaffa

Tired from the heat of the day and full from a delicious rice lunch we leave the ceremony, greet family we missed earlier in the day, and then make it home in time to take our bucket baths as dusk falls heavily around us. The last night in Cassie’s village it is just Cassie and me; Esther returned home to celebrate Independence Day with her village (mine didn’t celebrate). We pretend to eat dinner with Banta but after a few bites retire to Cassie’s hut for girl talk. In the distance there is a radio playing and as we eat lemon drops and dried fruit from Cassie’s care packages, I realize how much I miss conversations like this. Fluid, mother-tongue conversation that covers a breadth and depth of topics unattainable in Bambara. From relationships and parents to development, our work here in Mali and post-Peace Corps life (the big question mark!) we discuss our work at site, our successes, our frustrations, our joys and our sorrows.

Sucking on our lemon drops as we let the silence between our thoughts do the talking I think about a conversation I had with one of the men in my village, Daniya, the week prior. He asked me why I had come to Mali and I explained I wanted to live in another culture, travel and do some good if I could. He shook his head and asked how I could leave America with all its good food, big houses and easy living to come here. He said, “Djelika, you’re giving up so much.” As I sat in Cassie’s hut, the sliver of moon and a votive candle leaving us in amber shadows, the generosity and fun of my visit to Cassie’s village fresh in my thoughts, I can only think of all I am gaining.

More pictures from our visit here.

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