I step off the plane and take a deep breath of the smoke-tinged, Bamako night air. It is mid-January, nearing the end of the Malian ‘cold’ season, and the coolness has indeed slipped away since I left a month ago and been replaced by an almost sticky breeze. I collect my bags from the ever-changing luggage carousel and head home with friends waiting for me outside the airport. The next morning I tackle the dusty task of moving back into my apartment left vacant for a month. I unpack clothes, dust tables, clean my refrigerator and handle around town errands like getting money from the bank, restocking my pantry. After shaking the sleep from my bones and cracking the hesitancy out of my Bambara I feel ready to call Malian friends and family to let them know ‘ne gnuman sera’ – that I have made it back safe and sound. Saying goodbye to loved ones can wrench the heart. This trip to Mali I find it can be harder to come back.
Ameriki outfits lie in my closet – the smell of my Mom’s detergent still fresh in their folds. My Malian complets are transformed from an overwhelming mass on a shelf into a tidy row of white plastic hangers, courtesy of America. The kitchen cupboard is filled with American-bought chocolates and alfredo noodles. My phone buzzes and lights up with sweet, welcoming text messages and less than 24 hours back in Mali my weekend is booked with friendly dinner dates, a birthday party and plans to attend a concert downtown. I call Annie and Esayi to share the well-wishes from my family, ask how Jim, the current volunteer, is doing and to talk about an upcoming visit for baby Jean and Christine’s dual baptism. But Esayi’s voice on the other end of the line stops me in my tracks before we finish our greetings; something isn’t right.
After asking about the family’s health Esayi replies the standard ‘torro si té’ – no problems at all. But when I ask specifically about Annie and baby Jean he sighs ‘ehh, Djelika, den ma kenné deh!’ – the baby really isn’t doing well. Annie gets on the line and her voice cracks as she recounts the steady decline in baby Jean’s health since New Year’s. She holds him up to the phone and I hear a soft, sad whimper that clenches my heart. She says they have been to each of the health clinics nearby, multiple times, but to no avail. Baby Jean’s cough will not go away and even though they have given him the prescribed medicine he still will not breastfeed. ‘Mais aw taara San hôpitali la?’ I ask – have you been to the hospital in San? Her voice is weary and her speech strained. There’s no money to go, she says. I groan to myself, if only I had known sooner! I quickly wrap up the conversation and assure Annie and Esayi we will work something out and that I will call back this afternoon. I immediately call Jim and we decide that as soon as he gets back to village that afternoon he’ll give some money, about $40 USD, to Annie and Esayi for a trip to the hospital. I call Esayi and let him know. His voice brightens. We’ll leave in the morning, he says.
In the meantime I call my friend Jean who lives in San and we talk over baby Jean’s situation. I ask him to be my representative tomorrow at the hospital since it is too short notice and too long a bus ride to be there myself and I also know he will lend a sense of authority to their appointment. (hospitals here also operate differently than in the States – if you need food or medication of any kind, you have to provide it yourself or have family members bring it to you) Annie and Esayi will also be nervous to deal with bigger city hospital staff and Jean speaks French so he can serve as a translator in case the (Malian) doctor won’t speak Bambara. The next day Jean calls me with updates and I periodically call Esayi to check in on Annie and the baby. By the end of the day they have received a cocktail menu of medicines and instructions to go back to village to monitor the baby’s status before returning later in the week to San and maybe heading to Segou or Bamako for further treatment. But at 6 p.m. Esayi calls me and the optimistic tone that played in his voice just hours earlier as baby Jean began to breastfeed again is gone. He says baby Jean passed away on the ride home. His little body just could not handle all that was happening. I mumble blessings and sink into my couch as we hang up the phone. This news is not what I was expecting coming home to Mali.
I go to a friend’s house for dinner that night, my mind in a cloud and my heart feeling pulled in more than one direction. I talk to Jim and Jean in San – should I come ASAP to greet or is it better to wait? After discussing my options with those close to my heart I decide it is best – for all parties concerned – if I get back to village as soon as I can. I go through with a dinner party the next night, friends having already been invited; the food already bought. I buy a ticket from the Gana bus station to leave Friday morning at 6 a.m. and after the dishes are washed Thursday night, pack my bags and climb into bed at 2 a.m. with a heavy heart and a pulsing headache.
The ride to San is relatively quick and when I arrive at 1:30 p.m. Jean meets me at the bus station and we eat lunch before I collapse into bed for a much needed nap. The combination of jet-lag, moving back into my apartment, the crushing news of baby Jean’s death and an 8 hour bus ride on Malian public transport has taken it’s toll – though I can only imagine how Annie feels. I wake up that evening and after greeting a few people in San fall once again into a deep slumber – waking up at 11 a.m. Saturday morning. Jean and I head then out to village to provide what comfort we can to Annie and Esayi.
When I get to village I learn Annie has returned to her hometown, about 3 miles away, to spend two nights with her own mother where she later tells me her mom spent the whole time reassuring her things will be OK and that baby Jean’s death was God’s will. Esayi reassures me she will return tomorrow morning with her family. Her younger brother calls and says the same thing. While I am sad she is not there I also understand she needs to do what she needs to do. I enjoy the opportunity to sit and talk with Esayi and Jim and despite the nagging tug in my heart when I see baby Christine skipping by, a reminder she is once again the youngest child, the evening feels like any other in village. After a macaroni dinner and tepid bucket baths we sit by the fire and welcome visitors who have come to greet. They tease Jim and me about our Bambara and rag on me for staying away so long. Yacouba, Esayi’s younger brother, pours 3 rounds of tea and Batuma and Mama tug on the new puppy that lies curled up by the fire. Cold season breezes replace the warm ones that welcomed me just a few nights before and I snuggle into my shirt and pull my stool closer to the embers.
By 11 p.m. everyone is in bed but Jean and I stay up a little longer as he recounts what happened at the hospital in San. When he saw Annie and Esayi at the hospital, patiently waiting with the number taken from the nurse’s desk, he went to the head doctor and asked him to look at the baby right away and either recommend they wait their turn like the rest or see the baby immediately. The doctor took them right away. While I feared baby Jean had suffered from a very curable cough or cold gone wrong and therefore time was of the essence, it turns out he suffered from failing lungs and a bad heart. Jean urged the doctor to take an X-ray and they found that his lungs and heart were all shifted in his body cavity – and one of his lungs wasn’t even working. Also, the one lung that was functioning properly was pressing on his heart. Jean said he knew baby Jean was not going to make it when he saw him but that Annie was trembling with panic and Esayi was so worried he couldn’t bring himself to break the fatal news. Neither, apparently, could the doctor who sent them back to village, presumably to let baby Jean pass away at home. Having seen the X-ray I think that even if baby Jean had made it to Bamako, his chances would have been slim to none for survival. I will forever be indebted to Jean for his kindness as he navigated the complicated, user unfriendly hospital system for Annie and Esayi and later explained to me all that happened. If he wasn’t there I am sure we would not know the true reasons behind baby Jean’s death.
The next morning Annie arrives with her family on a horse-drawn cart. The lines around her eyes are more pronounced than ever and her normally small frame disappears under the folds of her colourful complet and white headwrap. I want to be here for her but what comfort can I possibly bring? Seeing her and talking with Esayi has already lifted a weight off my heart but I know the grieving has only just begun. The church bells ring and Jim and Jean stand up to go. I stay with Annie and cuddle with Christine. Annie sweeps her house and then comes to sit outside with me and Esayi. We pass the day in this manner, our conversation ranging from baby Jean’s passing to upcoming shea trainings and cereal bank happenings. I think it helps us all to talk openly like this – to talk not only about baby Jean’s passing but also normal, day-to-day things. At the end of the day I head to market with Jim, baby Christine tied on my back, Batuma and Emma leading the way. Earlier in the day Esayi reminded me the last time I was in village, to visit Annie and one-week old baby Jean in mid-December, it was also a Sunday and also a market day, like today. Market is every 6 days in our village and Esayi lets me know that from one same-day market to the next is 43 days. What a crafty calculation. How quickly life can change. We make the circuit in market greeting cute little old ladies and buying carrots before heading back to the house. Jean nods to me saying it is time to go and also time to share our blessings to Annie and Esayi. ‘Allah ka hiné a la’ (my condolensces) ‘Allah ka yaffa kan ma’ (may God pardon he who passed) ‘Allah ka dah yoro sumaya’ (may God prepare the deceased’s resting place) ‘Allah ka limaniya di I ma’ (may God give you the force to accept what has happened). Annie and Esayi respond ‘Ameena’ and ‘Allah ka doubab miné’ (may God bless you). I ask for the way to San from Annie and Esayi and they escort Jean and me to the road.
The frequency of death in Mali, and Malians’ subsequent reactions, can make it seem like they possess a callous acceptance of God’s will or a resigned response to the circle of life. As with much in life; the answer lies somewhere in the grey. While American and Malian traditions and culture may be different – often vastly so – in death there are many similarities. Family and friends come to offer their condolences. Large amounts of food are cooked and consumed (here, rice and sauce and porridge while in the States we eat a lot of cold cuts). And of course, the encouragement that either 1) the death was God’s will and/or 2) the pain will pass. In these similarities I find comfort. In the new traditions I have learned in Mali (the prescribed blessings, the separation of men and women in mourning and burial, the mourning process) I also find a new solace.
On Monday morning I head to the bus station with Jean and we flag down a Gana bus barrelling down the road with passengers from Mopti. I climb on board and choose a vacant seat on the non-sunny side of the bus and wave goodbye to Jean through the smudged window framed by a ragged, red velour curtain. The orange and grey upholstery of my chair is discoloured by layers of dust and the seat is in a permanent reclined position. I read and nap my way to Bamako and by the time I arrive at our destination, have finished the book I brought along to read. I chose a Christmas present from my own mother to read:‘This Child Will Be Great’ the memoir of a remarkable life by Africa’s first woman president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who is president of Liberia (not far from Mali in West Africa). The book is incredibly inspirational and by the end of the ride I felt motivated to start graduate school, be a politician, to make a difference! At the end of the book Sirleaf reflects on the decisions she has made and what she would have done differently (it isn’t much). She recounts a story about a time she was put in jail in Liberia for 9 months and muses that: “Whenever I was inclined to feel sorry for myself or afraid I would reflect, ‘Hey! Poor people go through this all the time!’” She then notes “Perhaps this should be part of the proper grooming of leaders: to be put into a position where you suffer what the common person suffers. How else can you really understand what you’re working to do?”
While I do not mean to liken my heartache in Mali over the loss of baby Jean to serving time in a Liberian prison, the development of my own empathy sometimes strikes me in a similar manner (though I would, for once, maybe use less exclamation points than Sirleaf). In my blog posts and conversations with folks about Mali I try to paint a picture of the invigorating and fun side of Mali I see - to show what a rich experience one can have in one of the poorest countries in the world. Afterall, don't we read enough about the tragic things that happen in Africa? Baby Jean’s passing brings close to home for me, and now, I hope, for you, the true fragility of life here and the helplessness with which parents like Annie and Esayi are faced in such situations. I came back to Mali ready to pick up life where it left off here in December but, only 43 days after visiting Annie and Esayi to celebrate baby Jean’s birth, I returned to mourn baby Jean's passing.