Wednesday, January 27, 2010

With a knapsack on my back

Me and Mom looking fresh on Day 2 1/2 of our Dogon hike

Joelle and I wait anxiously at the airport for both of our moms, arriving on the same flight, to finally emerge from the terminal.  After 2 hours they finally appear with beaming smiles and gear bags and heavy suitcases hanging from their little frames.  We spend a few minutes hugging and then load into a 4x4 from the hotel and zip back to unload goodies and unwind from the long journey.  After a day of exploring Bamako, including the National Museum, we head to San on an afternoon bus with the Wollersheims , fingers crossed for no sickness and a lot of adventure.  

After packing and unpacking our bags in San, Mom and I are ready for village.  We strap baskets to the backs of our bikes and stop at Kadia's road side rice cake stand before heading out to village.  All the Malians around us, once we say we are biking the entire 15 miles, tell me I am crazy for making my bamuso (mother) bike the whole way.  This is a recurring exclamation throughout the duration of the trip from both Malians and Americans alike as Mom experiences my life here and how I navigate Mali from transportation to food to sleeping accommodations.  Mom brushes off their concern and assures me she will be fine, reminding me that she was a Girl Scout after all.  We spend 4 nights and 5 days 'en brusse' greeting those with whom I have grown closest in village and even those I do not know at all.  In between greetings and cat naps we gorge ourselves on Malian dishes Annie prepares including tigadega na (peanut butter sauce and rice), zame, koo (sort of like sweet potatoes that are not sweet), bean cakes and the numerous papayas various visitors offer as gifts.  As we say goodbye to Annie, baby Christine runs to Mom with her arms outstretched asking for a hug which you can only imagine helped to turn on the water works that much faster.   

It's amazing what a (cool/tepid) shower can do for you!  Here at Le Cheval Blanc in Bandiagara for a calzone and pizza with the Wollersheims
Safe in San once again with Mom's tears sufficiently dried away by the wind we celebrate Holly (another volunteer)'s birthday with a homemade carrot cake (including icing!) by Cassie and chicken and green beans.  Mom sits on the couch with her black-legging clad legs tucked under her, glasses perched on the bridge of her nose, reading trashy magazines as I dart between rooms collecting clothes and toiletries for the next leg of our journey.  We talk with Cassie, Holly and Bradley about our various Peace Corps services and their own visitors and vacation plans and it all feels so seamless - like Mom just belongs here.  

After a quick, but quality, day in Djenne to visit the largest mud structure in the world Mom and I head to Mopti and then to Bandiagara for a hike.  Once in Dogon country we let our conversations follow our footsteps as we navigate the tortuous trails through the cliffs of Bandiagara and the sandy paths in between the numerous Dogon villages.  We talk about Michael (my brother) and Courtney (his fiance)'s most recent engagement (we are beyond excited!!!), graduate school and extending my Peace Corps service to do a third year in Bamako.  While talking about all things American we also take the time to marvel at the carefully constructed stone huts at eye level and preserved Tellum villages nestled into the escarpments above us.  Mom's amount of communication is inversely proportional to our altitude and as we ascend into the cliffs to reach Indeli, where we will sleep for the night, we begin to silently (Mom) and aloud (me) question the shrewdness of this venture.  

Enjoying one of our last days in Mali together at Teriyabugu - a nature reserve on the Bani river

After a good night's sleep and a sunrise that lights up the rocks around us a terra cotta red we are reassured of our sanity and glad to be where we are.  With a breakfast of bread and jam in our bellies and our guide Samba leading the way we trek between Indeli and our final destination, Dourou, and Mom finally remembers the Girl Scout songs she has been trying to recall the entire trip. While she sings 'With a knapsack on my back', and 'Valderee, Valderah!' humming the verses she can't remember, I keep a close but comfortable distance between us and find myself in awe of this woman in front of me with her little white Keds and striped sun-hat.  Throughout our trip Mom sleeps on roof tops, squats to use the bathroom, squeezes into cars well beyond their expiration date with 8-20 other people - all without complaint.  Girl Scout training may have prepared her to pitch our mosquito tent and neatly roll our sleeping bag each night but it is my Mom's genuine heart and openness to others that made our time together here so special and truly a trip to remember.  

Monday, January 18, 2010

A quick picture update - Mom is in Mali!

poolside in Bamako
yay, we have money! can somebody tell me why I work so hard....thanks Johnny!

Mom did a little modeling at Malick Sidibe's studio
With my Malian and American mothers
sunrise at a campement in Dogon country - so proud of you mom for making it up here!

in the car on the way to Djenne - as you can see, i arranged for only the best transportation for my dear mother
making mud look good - the largest mud structure in the world, Djenne mosque
at one of our better moments on the Dogon was hard!

Mom and I still have a week left here in Mali together - the time is flying and we're having a blast!  More to come next week.

see more pictures from our trip thus far here

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Just because

Annie, Christine and me in my hut

As I continue on the integration continuum in Mali I find myself constantly questioning the heightened emotions living far from home causes you to experience.  In America when I want to express gratitude I say I love you, buy a gift or send a letter.  But in Mali I find myself speaking a language where saying 'I love you' (N b'i fe) feels like marbles rolling around in my mouth, where gift giving feels expected because of my relative wealth and where, in the mostly illiterate village in which I live, written words cannot serve as a means of expression.  But feelings are complicated no matter where you are and so I have to I ask myself, do I feel this way just because I am in Mali?

On Christmas Eve Annie and I lie down on her mattress, baby Christine curled in between us, for a pre-party nap.  Around one in the morning we wake up to the din of the loudspeaker at the church and, pressing the wrinkles out of our complets, pick up chairs and head over.  Entering the clearing in front of the pastor's house and beside the church, a cloud of dust so fine you could sense it by sticking out your tongue rises from the feet of the dancers circling the speaker stand.  A girl darts in between us with an overflowing bucket of water balanced on her head to calm the storm by splashing water onto the packed earth.  Annie and I gravitate to familiar faces and huddle together next to a fire to keep away the chill of the night and every few songs I go in for a circle dance/shuffle.  On our way home the mosque's speakers cough to life with the first call to prayer and I think to myself - my feet and clothes aren't too dirty, the church served chicory tea and the generator powering the speakers and lights didn't give out - that was a fun party - but is it just because I am in Mali?

I fall asleep with visions of Baobab trees and mangoes in my head and after a few hours wake up to get ready for Christmas morning church service.  Bucket-bathed and teeth brushed I carefully wrap and tuck my pagne around my waist and tie my head wrap to lie just so around my unbraided hair.  I give myself a once over in the 5x7 inch mirror that hangs precariously from a nail in my mud wall and, even though I feel like the Chiquita banana lady, head outside to join the family.  Esayi and Annie give me approving looks and say 'Eh, Djelika, i ka kan ka photo ta' - you have to take a picture!  I giggle at their attention and go to stake out a seat on one of the crumbling cement benches on the women's side of the church.  Once inside, fellow church-goers look me up and down and when our eyes meet give me an affirmative head nod - everyone here thinks I look great, but is it just because I am in Mali?

 Batuma and her girlfriends-
 these girls always look good!

2008                                         2009          
Christmas night I navigate over-turned mortars and wooden foot stools scattered throughout the compound to make my way to Annie's house for dinner.  She gives me a plate of steaming rice and we go to the outdoor kitchen, her 'gabugu', where she has cooked sauce in a mini-bathtub sized pot and which she begins to generously dole out onto my bed of rice.  Some pieces of pork slip through her careful pouring and I hold my tongue since, while I do not care for pork, it is an honor to receive meat and I know I should be thankful.  In the dim light of her flashlight carefully tucked in the crook between her neck and shoulder Annie notices the meat, looks at me, and says 'an ka'a nin bo, n b'a don i te le sogo fe' - let's get that out of here, I know you don't like pork.  Grateful to be eating meat free, I upright one of the overturned stools and hungrily scoop the rice into the palm of my hand and into my mouth before it can burn my fingers while the women tend to their chores around me.  Belly rumbling from a long day of giving and receiving blessings for another peaceful year coupled with garden work, I think, this peanut butter sauce and rice is delicious - but is it just because I am in Mali?

Annie and the pig that made it past Christmas...
Christmas afternoon I speak with all my parents on the phone and feel my heart swell with a mixture of homesickness and kindred spirit.  I hear John's voice go from gruff and grumpy to warm and loving when he recognizes my voice on the other end of the line and can feel the excitement in my Mom's voice when she says she'll be in Mali in less than a week (now only 1 day!).   Listening to Sheri talk about the latest party she and my Dad threw for their ever-expanding group of friends and treasuring shared memories with my Dad about past vacations and future adventures reminds me that it's not the things that can be sent in packages (nice as they are!) I miss most out here - it's the loved ones back home.  For a few hours after we talk, I sit with Annie knitting and think about what my family means to me and what living in Mali means to our relationship.  Is the nostalgia so overwhelming just because I am in Mali?

The Coulibaly kids on Christmas
Singing with Annie in church, Christine toddling up and down the aisle, I am reminded of Grace Covenant  in Virginia Beach where I stand with my Mom, Memaw and the Shellnutts on Christmas Day and belt out Christmas songs - suppressing laughs when we sing off-key and I think - it's no giggle-fest with Kate but being here with Annie is special too.  After the service I rush home to take off my cupcake-complet top and pull on a blue t-shirt, re-tighten my pagne and adjust my head wrap.  I glance in the mirror on my way out and I suddenly don't feel quite so goofy as I catch a glimpse of what the Malians in my village see - it's no skinny jeans and sassy going-out top but maybe I do look good.  As I hungrily gobble down the pumpkin and cabbage in the peanut butter sauce at lunch I think to myself - it's no kilbasa sausage or brie-en-croute but tigadegana (peanut butter sauce) can be pretty tasty too.  All these moments make me realize I do not need to spend my time here questioning whether the way I feel is just because I am in Mali or even comparing experiences to those in America - heightened emotions or not, I need to spend my time being intentional about my gestures that show I care no matter where I am and the things I do to show I care- just because. 

aw sambe sambe!  here, kids go around on Christmas (and Muslim holidays) to bless the upcoming year and get candy and money (kind of like trick or treating except dressing up instead of costumes) - allah ka san were yira an la! (may God show us another year!)
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