Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Bamako???

The Gates - Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005.  Christo and Jeanne-Claude
 Bazin - Steets of Bamako, Bamako, 2010.  

walking the streets of bamako
i hear
flapping fabric asking to move slow.
crisp, dyed, fresh on the line.
bazin for the taking - none of it mine.
vibrant purples, oranges, amber and gold.
barika b'a la? i'll take it - i'm sold

 Bazin - Steets of Bamako, Bamako, 2010. 
Bazin - Steets of Bamako, Bamako, 2010.  

Friday, November 19, 2010

Mali matters

The night before my photo session with the Malian photographer Malick Sidibé I find myself tossing and turning, staring at the ceiling and thinking about my pose for the portrait.  Since writing my senior art history thesis at Mary Washington in the fall of 2007 on Malick Sidibé and the 2007 Venice Biennial (he won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, the highest award offered at the exposition) and then moving to Mali as a Peace Corps Volunteer in July 2008, I have wanted him to take my portrait.  I've visited his open-to-the public and in-business studio with all of my Mali visitors - Marija, Mom and Sarah - and we've taken self-portraits each time.  I met Sidibé in February 2009 with Joe and Ashley and even got a picture with him, but not one by him.  That all changed last month.  The whole process - from making the appointment to walking to the studio to the actual portrait - has encouraged my reflection on my time in Mali.  Pictures in Mali, as in the States, are illuminating evidence of people's lives that tell us 'I was there; that time in my life mattered; I want to remember.' 

I've taken an embarrassingly large amount of photos while in Mali and while I won't print them all, I am glad to have a lot to choose from when I finally do make an album of my life here.  If you spend long enough with a Malian, or even not that long, you are bound to get a glimpse of their treasured photo album.  Plastic covered collections of pictures with Malian singers or griots on the front and back of the album and moments from your host's life in between.  When I lived in village Annie would break out her small stack of photos from time to time and tell me about her past - her weight and children indicators of place and time.   'See how fat I was?' she would ask.  'I ate meat everyday then - look at me now!' she would remark, pointing to her noticeably smaller frame.  Through her photo album I met people from her past and learned things about her like how she came to read and write Bambara thus becoming one of the only literate women in village.  Sometimes I would bring out my own photo album and chuckle at the (admittedly insulting but ultimately comical) comments people dropping by would make.  Comments like - 'Is this your mom?  She's much prettier than you,' which, I mean really, what can you do but laugh and say thank you?   

On my way to Malick Sidibé's studio, however, I get nothing but rave reviews.  After careful deliberation I decide to wear my 2010 Panafrican Women's outfit - the last complet Abu made for me in San before I moved to Bamako in September.  Before I leave the compound I stop by Ma Diallo's room, my landlord and Bamako host-mom who lives downstairs, where she gives me an approving grunt and elevator-look-head-nod  - careful not to interrupt her prayers with words.  As I navigate the uneven roads to get to the Koulikoro road I receive a few thumbs-up coupled with 'C'est comme ça!' and 'i para-la deh!' (you're looking good!) before the Sotrama prendstigi ushers me into the coveted passenger seat - unobstructed views of the road, room to stretch my legs and plenty of fresh air to breathe. 

I meet Ryan and Kevin, two RPCVs who also want to get their portraits taken, at the artisanal market near the big mosque and we walk together to the studio.  On time for our appointment, we nonetheless wait a few hours for Malick to arrive - you can't rush greatness, right?? - and in the meantime take a number of practice shots.  Two of Sidibé's sons run the shop for Malick and while we wait for their dad to arrive we chat about their father's photography and what they do here.  Karim, the older of the two, repairs cameras and handles the appointments.  Dia, in his mid-twenties and who dresses à la American, accompanies Malick to international exhibits of his work and sells flashy watches and musky cologne sent by an older brother in the States in between.  After perusing Dia's inventory - Ryan and Kevin somehow both muster the will-power to say no to Dia's wares - Malick finally arrives.  Approaching his mid-seventies, Malick walks with a cane and the enduring and endearing smile of a man who has lived a full life.  Sidibé shuffles behind his camera and, ladies first of course, I move in front of the lens to get my close-up.  Sidibé positions us all - my previous night's worries about poses a frittered use of time - and then, as quickly as the portrait session begins, it is over. Sidibé, fatigued from traveling to the studio and our portrait session, retires to a chair on the front porch of the studio.  Another group of toubabs, waiting to pick up their signed portraits taken earlier that week, seat themselves next to him as we quietly slip away.  Coulibaly jokes from the peanut gallery outside the studio our farewell as Dia and Karim nod their goodbyes.

Ryan and I return the following week to select our shots to be printed from the negatives.  The negatives are transferred onto photo paper - tiny prints of me, two of Ryan and a few of Kevin to choose from; it doesn't take long to make our selections.  Included on our negative sheet are two negative prints of a Malian man in a white boubou holding prayer beads as though offering them to the viewer.  We ask Karim about the man - humble, old and pious.  Karim says the man came to Malick after making his pilgrimage to Mecca and wanted a portrait to recognize his achievement of one of the 5 pillars of Islam.  Looking at this man's photo next to ours I am struck by the different reasons that brought us both to Malick.  I came to Malick to have my portrait taken by one of the most famous Malian photographers - a man I spent an entire semester of college studying.  The man in this tiny frame on the top-right corner of our negative sheet wants a tangible representation of his hajj.  However, upon further reflection I see that our reasons for getting our portraits taken by Malick aren't so different.  While my pilgrimage hasn't been to Mecca - my time and integration in Mali has been a special and heartfelt journey.  And when I frame this portrait and hang it in my home, like the anonymous, pious, old man will do with his own, it will hold the same significance.   It will say I was there, that time in my life mattered, I want to remember.

Dia and Ryan

What matters to you?  Do you have a favorite picture that helps you remember? 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bamako Bucket List- Part I

 Fletcher and me on our way out of the office
While on our Dogon hike with Sarah in August, Ryan and I put our heads together to make a list of things we wanted to accomplish while in Bamako.  After living in the big city for a year and anticipating a new job in Bamako, Ryan knew how easily the time can slip past and you find yourself wishing you had done all these things.  And so, under thatched roofs and in between Dogon cliffs we put together a living list of things to accomplish in Bamako.  Two months in and we're making progress.  Here's my latest attempt to work on the list.

After running a few miles at the park, Fletcher and I collect our things from the PHARE office and brave the streets of Bamako.  Bikers with 20-kilo orange-mesh bags of onions stacked 4 high on the back of their bikes pedal precariously close to the edge of the road and Sotramas filled with tired legs and colorfully wrapped heads cough past us.  Normally Fletcher and I walk together, in the direction of our respective homes, while I crane my neck behind us to try and read the neighborhood signs posted on the commuter buses indicating who is going where to try and catch a ride home.  But today is my first Modern dance class - improving our dance moves being a mutual Bamako goal of Ryan and I -  at the school near Fletcher's place and so I forgo the neck yoga and keep my eyes on the road ahead.

Known for its large variety of 'dead toubab' (read: thrift store) clothes and fresh produce, the market near the PHARE office is always bustling.  However, with Tabaski next week the palpable buzz of action has risen to a vibrating roar as truckloads of produce unload morning, noon and night on the sides of the road - piles of yams, onions, tomatoes and cabbage spilling over themselves asking to be bought.  In between produce women sit on low-lying stools fanning charcoal fires that heat crackling pots of shea oil and fried cakes or silver platters with sliced watermelon - appealing to both humans and flies alike!  Fletcher convinces me to pass up some questionable watermelon and since we're cutting it close on time we take a short-cut through a school yard to get to Fletcher's street.  I make it to the dance school just in time to see the previous class - ballet for toddlers - release.  Roly-poly two-year olds in mesh tutus and high ponytails - I hope I am only half as cute coming out after my own class!

I called the dance school the day before to confirm the class offered (Modern), the time (18h-19h30) and the cost (5,000 CFA/class - a little steep - but less if you get a carnet).  I wanted to make sure I was prepared and so asked the helpful French man on the other end of the line what to wear.  He paused and asked if I had ever danced before.  I mumbled something about a college class and, reassured that I wasn't a total debutante, he told me to wear nothing fancy, just shirt, pants and shoes.  Guess I'll have to save the sequined leotard for another class.

While I think the dance class I took in college was Modern, I wasn't sure what lay in store at this particular 'école de danse'.  Fletcher said his sister took a Modern dance class once and it involved a lot of Britney Spears moves.  The class I took in college, and the definition I found online, prepared me to be expressing my inner feelings which, for me, doesn't typically involve a lot of Britney Spears-esque moves.  I also did not know how I would feel about expressing my inner feelings with strangers or how I would be at following the class in French.  Fortunately, thanks to mirrors which make it easy to follow moves and dance names being in French anyways, both concerns turned out to be moot points.  Fletcher, tempted to stay when he saw the handful of ladies waiting outside the dance studio (sorry Fletcher - they turned out to be the unavailable moms of the toddlers) continued home and I headed inside where I met Fonfon, the dance instructor and man with whom I spoke on the phone, and the 4 other women in the class.  For the next hour and a half we stretched, chasséed and kicked the air which cumulated in a dance routine with only a few moves Britney Spears would envy.  I left the class with a flushed face and excited for the lesson next week.  The pursuit of the Bamako Bucket List continues!
Coming home to protective tomato paste cans and patio furniture

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

All better with a bean sandwich and more

 papaya/banana/peanut butter smoothie and new patio furniture

I came into work yesterday with an overnight packed and ready to go for a 3-day trip to Kayes only to find I would no longer be going on the trip I had been looking forward to for a week due to a miscommunication.  Frustrated, I walk over to Ba's breakfast stand which faces the PHARE office to buy a bean, plantain and french fry sandwich.  Safe under the shade of her umbrella stand I find Fletcher, another Peace Corps Volunteer at PHARE, in line to buy his own breakfast delight.  He offers to buy my bean sandwich and I feel my tenseness melt a little.  Bean and plantains - this boy knows the way to my heart! 

After work I put my book, camera and wallet into the coral beach bag my sister-in-law gave all her bridesmaids at her wedding in June and head across the street to the National Park.  'Djelika, i tununa-deh!' calls Doumbia, one of the security guards, from a low-lying stone bench.  I smile and wave and continue onto the stone pathway leading through the center of the park.  At the end of the path I find a bench by a tiered pond and set-up shop.  I look up every now and again and see cute couples walking slowly around the park and men jogging in track suits on the gravel paths.  Two ducks jump into the pond right by my feet and I find myself smiling at their little duck feet flapping in the water. 

While I am still disappointed about not getting to go on the trip I am also trying to keep my mind open that everything happens for a reason and maybe I am supposed to be in Bamako this week.  I gather my belongings at a quarter to 6 and leave the gardens to head to the French cultural center for a free dance performance.  I walk there from work and get to see the sun set on Bamako as I walk over a bridge that extends over the train tracks.  The dances (3 solos) at the CCF are interesting and I enjoy sharing them with a group of Canadian students here for a teaching practicum.  I leave happy to have shared in the experience with folks I truly enjoy.

A quick taxi ride and 1000 CFA later I arrive home where I greet Ma Diallo, my landlord and host, and explain to her why I am not in Kayes as I told her I would be this morning when I left for work.  I head upstairs and fish in my coral bag for my house key to find it is not there.  I think back to this morning when I was in a rush to gather my overnight and work bag and remember dropping the key in the wrong bag - the one I left at work so I would not have to tote it around the city after work.  I sigh -  sometimes the frustrations of the day add up so much it's comical.

an afternoon shadow on my stairs

I return downstairs and tell Ma the situation.   She gives me her 'Ehhhh!!??' face and tells me to go back to work to get my keys, vite-fais!  It is almost 9 pm and I explain the doors are locked and the guard-on-duty does not have the keys to the office.  I ask if I can sleep next to her - I will try to keep on my side of the bed!  She nods her approval and then begins to tell me a story about her husband.  Her husband, a militaire now living in France, often traveled for work.  Once, while they were living in Kayes, he was slated to take a train to Bamako but, like me, his name was left off the 'ordre de mission' and so he stayed at home.  That morning they heard on the radio that the train he was supposed to be on derailed (not uncommon here) and she said 6,000 people died!  While I don't think her numbers are accurate, I understood what she was telling me and appreciated it.  She said things happen for a reason, Djelika.  You weren't meant to go.  I fell asleep smiling, Ma snoring next to me, because even though days can be filled with frustrations, days are also filled with tender moments, from bean sandwiches to duck feet to snoring landladies, that make it OK.

See some more sweet moments in Bamako here
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