Saturday, May 22, 2010


The word I hear more than any other in Mali is, without a doubt, 'toubabu!'*  Children shriek 'toubabu' as I bike past villages and fields on my way into San.  Vendors yell 'toubabu' as I pass their stands in efforts to draw my attention to their spread of produce or appliances.  Annie shakes her head and sighs 'ah, toubabu' when she hears about customs in America or outside of Mali to which she is not accustomed.  Hearing the word so much makes it lose its meaning for me and at times 'toubabu' begins to feel like another way of saying 'hello'.  But at other times, like when I listen to the BBC or catch up on the news at the internet café, I am reminded of what 'toubabu' means to a Malian.  It means someone who is different and not of this place.  Someone who does not belong.  I have this strange sense of duality: being a 'toubabu' in Mali and trying to fit in but also seeing and hearing the news as a toubabu while living in Mali.  With only a few weeks left here before touching ground in the States after an absence of a little under two years I have started to think more about what it means to be a 'toubabu' in Mali and also what it will mean to be an anonymous Jennifer in America.

Listening to the BBC one evening a couple weeks back while whipping up a Laughing-Cow cheese white sauce on my bunsen burner stove the correspondent announced that the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, a recent subscriber to Twitter, tweeted an official statement concerning the failure of a government project that had opened the week prior and subsequently failed.  My jaw literally fell open as my super-processed cheese tried to melt in the pan.  Have I been away that long that official announcements are made via Twitter?  I found myself muttering 'ah, toubabu' under my own breath, à la Annie, and feeling both disconnected from (the) America(s) and pondering what other novelties have developed during my absence.  News like this is shocking to me here in Mali not because I live in a 1,000 person village without electricity; Mali is connected with cell phones, internet and satellite TV (in bigger cities) and even has it's own version of Twitter (something called Orange Chat).  It's shocking because the story represents how many things, potentially, have changed since I have been gone and make me wonder what else is different and how will I feel being back home again in a few weeks. 

Chavez's story reminded me of similar news that reach me via packages, internet or the BBC and that make me feel like (the) America(s) are much further than the 5,000 or so miles that already separate us.  I took back a People magazine to village a few months back and gave it to the kids in my host family to look through.  The kids discarded the magazine after looking through the pictures and Annie, who normally ignores such things in favor of her knitting, asked me to explain the picture on front.  I took back the magazine and proceeded to try and explain the meaning of transgender and then how it is possible for a man to give birth to a baby; I had neglected to take care about what was on the cover before passing on the magazine.  Mind you, this conversation was all in Bambara which is not even close to my native language and on a subject that is awkward for most Americans and especially in Mali.  Annie shook her head, true to form, said 'ah, toubabu' and then said how every man should have to go through child birth at least once.  I've learned a lesson from Annie - even though things like the man giving birth to a baby and Chavez's Twitter story shock me here, they are also just stories and Annie's response reassures me that adjusting to strange news once I am stateside again will not be so hard.

In a small village 5 km from mine I slow down my bike on my way into San to take a corner and two children exit a compound.  The older girl takes the younger one by the hand while the little one opens her mouth and screams 'DJELIKA-AHHHHHHHHH!' as though I jumped from around the corner to scare her.  I laugh out loud and keep on biking after greeting them both, my name still ringing in my ears and my smile still beaming that she did not call me 'toubabu muso-ni**!!!'. 

I am 'toubabu' to Malians who don't know me, Djelika to those who do and Jennifer to those who know me best.  All that to say that after my plane lands in DC and my Djelika complet is tucked away in the suitcase and my Jennifer dress is taken out of my carry-on I'm sure I'll look around, take in all the once-again familiar sights, tastes and sounds and say, 'ah, toubabus!'.  If you're not there to see it, don't worry, I'm sure I'll Twitter about it later!

*The definition of toubabu is vague to me.  Some say it's a general term for a white person or someone from the West.  Others say that it comes from the 'tout' in French meaning all and 'babu' in Bambara which means to talk and together meaning one who talks a lot or asks many questions.  Either way, I fit the description!
**Toubabu musoni is funny too because it's like saying 'little foreign woman!!!'  The muso=woman and ni means little. 

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tailor made= A+grade

Before moving to Mali in July 2008 and beginning my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer I had a number of questions that plagued my preparations.  What will I eat in country? What language will I speak?  What work will I do? But the question that gave me the most cause for pause was the 80 pound weight limit on baggage and what I could/should pack and what would be left behind.  Moving to a predominately Muslim country in the Sahel I was concerned about dressing modestly while staying cool and comfortable.  I searched the racks of outdoor stores, thrift shops and friends' closets for linen tops, hardy capris and long skirts that could handle the wear and tear of two years roughing it in a West African country.  Almost two years later, most of the clothes I stuffed into space-saving zip-lock bags and squeezed into my two suitcases are tattered and on their last thread or forgotten on racks in my house, hanging under bolts of Malian fabric. 

After a month or so in country we were let out of our training site on the outskirts of Bamako and into the city and I saw that my REI wardrobe was woefully sub-par and even inappropriate.  While I had been concerned with sun protection and comfort I should have been more prepared to embrace Malian culture through clothes because of Malians high value on appearances.  Now I  cringe at the same outfits I religiously rolled and tucked into my bags and also the short shorts, midriff baring tops and safari outfits of toubabs seen in bigger cities.  It's not because I think their outfits are bad (from a Western perspective) but because they demonstrate such a blatant disregard for the high esteem Malians place on appearance. 

And so, in honor of Mother's Day and all the stylish moms in my life, I have made a 6 step plan (see below) for anyone planning to visit Mali.  Wear a nice outfit on the plane and then get yourself to 'sugu-ba' (big market) ASAP and get ready to rake in the compliments and feel at least a degree less foreign!  I kenne ka koro!
Step 1: An occasion! Annie's brother and his wife with their newly baptized baby girl

Step 2: Pick out your fabric - this is the San fabric for a fish festival in June 
Amadou Niangué, a fabric seller in San who always gives us a few CFA off the final price :)

Step 3: Visit tailor Mom hems one of the napkins we got made - Abu got a real kick out of seeing her at the sewing machine

Step 6: Our special occasion outfits - this is the uniform for a village wedding 

To re-cap
1. Determine the occasion for your outfit
2. Purchase at least 3 'tafés' of fabric in market (anywhere from 3,500 CFA - 12,000 CFA = $7-$24 USD)
3. Decide on the 'modèle' with your tailor with the aid of his/her photo album of outfits
4. Talk about style ad nauseum with said tailor to make sure you both understand what you want
5. Pick up outfit 1-2 weeks later and get alterations
6. Celebrate and/or walk around town relishing in the compliments from Malians and toubabs alike! 
See pictures from April in Mali here
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