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!)


Martha said...

Beautiful post Jennifer. Love you!

Kate said...

i did laugh in church this year with corrie, even though we were in texas. some things never change.

stay positive, jennifer! enjoy your visit with you mom. love you.


Laura said...

your christmas dress is gorgeous!

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