The taxi starts and stops in the heart of frenzied rush hour traffic. Motorcycle drivers pull precariously close to our yellow Mercedes taxi and make wordless supplications to our cab driver to join their game of Tetris. The rumble of their engines pours through our open windows as we try to catch a breeze in the steamy, afternoon heat. However, instead of cool breezes to soothe us, our sweating faces are met with a stifling wind that feels more like we have opened the door to an oven. I turn my head to see what is happening beyond the chorus of purring engines and see women weave quickly between the corral of impatient cars while balancing market wares on their heads and babies on their backs à la Africaine.
‘An ka taa!’ Haidara calls out from the white Land Rover parked in the PHARE compound. It is early February and we have spent the morning hurrying up to wait as we prepare for our trip to Segou to man a USAID/PHARE table at the music festival. Booth materials in the trunk and gas in the tank and we are finally ready to hit the road. As I buckle up Haidara coaxes the engine into first gear and says ‘before we leave we need to go by my house and pick up my bag.’ Are you serious? I think to myself. We spent all morning waiting to leave and now we are backtracking into what is sure to be a traffic-filled neighborhood to pick up your bag for this trip you knew we were taking the night before?? But just as quickly as I make these silent inquiries I admonish myself for being so hasty. Daylight hours lay before us and I am sitting in the front seat of an air-conditioned Land Rover. Things could be worse.
Haidara, one of the 8 drivers for PHARE, pulls our squeaky clean SUV beside a rusting, red metal door that looks like all the others on this cobblestone street. We lock each of the doors by hand, the automatic lock long broken on our trusty vehicle, and call out ‘aw ni ce!’ to the folks scattered throughout the interior of his family’s compound. Haidara’s mother calls out urgently to me ‘Toubabu!! Ca va?! Ca va bien?! Toubabu!’ while Haidara’s wife shushes her with a belly laugh as she directs me upstairs.
In the living room where I have been directed to sit and wait, Haidara’s younger sisters and nieces, who are about my age, lounge in their pajamas on overstuffed couches as they watch television and make and receive phone calls from fancy looking telephones. I sit awkwardly on one of the uncomfortable, empty chairs and feel, for once, overdressed in this room of pajama-clad women. Toddlers and teenagers wander in and out and look at me with question mark faces. After establishing that I speak Bambara, the rigidity of the room melts away. ‘Eh, I ye bamana-muso deh!’ they decide while choosing from among a selection of hair weaves a man has brought by on his bicycle. ‘Awo, n sonna,’ I say. I cannot help but laugh and agree. ‘When do you come back from Segou?’ one of the girls asks. ‘Saturday afternoon. In ch’allah,’ I reply. If God is willing. They nod their agreement and one of the sisters gets up to retrieve something from her room. ‘You must come to our koromuso’s wedding on Sunday. It is at the National Museum at 9 a.m. and we’ll just cry if you don’t make it,’ declares the sister-who-went-to-retrieve-something. She hands me an invitation printed on shiny paper with a pink satin bow tied through the top. I read in a script-y font about the joyous nuptials about to take place at one of my favorite places in Bamako. The bride-to-be is sleeping in the one of the adjacent bedrooms but nonetheless, without knowing her or really her family, I quickly agree ‘Ni Allah sonna-ma, n be na.’ If God is willing, I will be there.
The morning of the wedding I zip into a newly tailored dress and slip on a pair of shiny, black, peep-toe wedges. After twirling once or twice in front of my full length mirrors I step over my laundry from a week spent in Segou, collect my ID and some CFA and I am out the door. ‘Djelika, I para-la deh!’ Ma calls out as I pass her downstairs – you look good! I pick up a paté on the side of the road and munch on my fried breakfast treat as I walk with purpose, and try to look like a natural in my towering heels, towards the gates of the National Museum. I check my watch – it is 9:03 and, certainly for Mali, I am just on time. I scan the grounds for a wedding party and spy white satin and lace not far in the distance. My invitation in hand – it says after all, par invitation seulement – I approach the wedding party and ask for Fanta Haidara – the bride-to-be I have never met. The sister of a group of women I barely know.
΄Fanta? No, this is not Fanta΄s wedding,’ says one of the many on-lookers. ‘Come and take a picture with us, though. It will be a bon souvenir, quoi,’ the family implores. I take a picture with the bride, whose name I do not know, and her troupe of cotton-candy-colored-bazin clad bridesmaids and continue my quest to find Fanta Haidara – the bride for whom I have gotten up this early on a Sunday.
Seeing no other wedding parties throughout the park or museum, and after confirming with the guards there are no other weddings parties presently on the grounds, I content myself to watch the leaves fall as I sit on one of the many benches in the National Park which is connected to the museum. I periodically take a tour and check if any of Fanta’s wedding party has arrived. I have no one in the family’s phone number, not even Haidara’s, but the guards confirm that yes, Fanta Haidara is having a wedding here today. At 10:30 I spy a woman, entering the museum and dressed to impress, and follow her trail. ‘Are you here for Fanta’s wedding?’ I ask. ‘Yes! And I rushed to get here!’ she said, out of breath and with her head wrap slung over her shoulder waiting to be tied. Rushed? I think to myself… You’re an hour and ½ late… Brushing aside my American notion of time, we seek out the reception area and receive yet another confirmation that yes, Fanta’s wedding will be here but no, the wedding party has not yet arrived. My new partner-in-waiting and I decide, since we have the time, to take a walk around the Park. I learn her name, Worokia, and that she is 8 ½ months pregnant, something I could not tell at first glance due to her large, flowing complet. She talks about her increasingly large belly and some of her fears and delights as she looks forward to the birth of her first child. In the States I am used to seeing very pregnant women and hearing them share stories about birthing classes they are taking and whether they have decided to breast-feed or not. Here in Mali, however, pregnancy is more of a taboo topic and something you do not talk about for fear of jinxing the pregnancy. All that to say – hearing Worokia speak so openly about her own impending ‘accouchement’ took me aback and facilitated our speedy friendship. Once Fanta’s wedding party finally arrived – at 12:30 p.m. and 3 ½ hours after the indicated start time on the invitation – Worokia, a cousin of Fanta’s, took me under her wing and introduced me to all the family I still did not know and made sure I had enough to eat and drink and a shady place to sit. I should have been doing those things for her considering her baby bulge!
And all of that brings us to how I find myself in a taxi with Deeba on a Friday afternoon heading towards the crowded grande marchée for the baptism of a baby of a woman I just barely know who I met at the wedding of a woman I had never met.
Worokia (right) and a friend holding her baby girlDeeba takes my hand as we enter the narrow passageway of a home nestled in the heart of one of the biggest markets in Bamako. Old men sit outside on low-lying benches, waving their greetings to passers-by. Women hawk sweet potato fries and fried plantains from even lower-lying stools positioned behind tables covered with shiny metal serving trays of their afternoon treats. While the entry-way to this home is narrow – the crowd that awaits us conjures even more claustrophobic fears of where I would go were a fire to break out. Women and children, dressed in the crispest and waxiest bazin to be found, sit on all varieties of seating arrangements. Benches, plastic string chairs, stools, woven mats, metal chairs – a rainbow of seats squeezed into all available spaces. Worokia sees Deeba and I enter and waves me over to join her on her mat. My jaw drops at her make-up and outfit. Layers of tulle, eye-shadow and bazin before me – I barely recognize my new friend from the last time I saw her at Fanta’s wedding. I lay down gifts – fabric, soap and a baby outfit – at Worokia’s feet and squeeze out my own seat between an already towering pile of pagnes and boxes of safiné. Settled in, I let my eyes wander and am wowed by the glamour of the occasion.
I quickly scan the compound and estimate there are over 200 women and children – the only men a videographer and a drummer – crammed into this prime real estate with a communal space measuring maybe 50x100 feet. The women all clutch large handbags made from various reflective, synthetic materials on their laps and the children sport too-large-for-their-faces sunglasses and freshly pressed toddler clothes. I am one of maybe 2 other women in the compound wearing simple wax fabric – the rest of the crowd opting instead for the much more expensive and lustrous bazin option. And while I had selected one of my best complets this morning, I am starting to feel very plain-jane in this sea of shine.
Out of the sea of shine, one woman stands up and starts to shout. The praises of the griot have begun and I prepare myself to hear the accolades of Worokia and her new baby girl – as well as those wealthy enough to feed the mouth of the griot. As the praises begin, so does the trail of money between those being praised and those delivering the praises. Crisp 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and even the occasional 10,000 CFA bills, fresh from the bank, are passed over heads and hands and into the expectant palms of the griots – the one griot having now turned into 4 or 5.
Yay for me! Griot stands behind with her megaphoneAs praises continue from crowded corners of the compound, friends and family of Worokia count and recount the gifts received. Pagnes, soap, cash. ‘Nin waari boora Faransi!’ shouts one of the griots as she shakes 50,000 CFA above her head. There is even money coming from France. A Wall Street fervor coats family member’s voices as they cry out the mounting tally of presents. ‘50 pagnes,’ a sister cries! ‘70 pagnes,’ a griot shouts! I am having a hard time following the series of praises and money tallies while food is simultaneously passed around and am thankful when Deeba waves to me that a chair has opened up next to her. I pat Worokia’s hennaed foot and slowly unfold my legs from underneath me on the mat.
Just a little further... a griot reaches to receive some crisp CFA from Worokia after singing her praises
The final count of gifts puts Worokia, and her new baby, 70 pagnes (over 730 feet of fabric) the better and over 500,000 CFA (over $1,000 USD) richer. I keep asking Deeba to repeat the cries of the griots – their Bambara mumbled and jumbled through the crackling sound system and my ears untrained to catch much beyond the beginnings of the blessings ‘Allah ka…!’ – May God....
At baptisms in village, where I spent my first two years in Mali, I would offer the same soap and fabric to a new mother as I did to Worokia. If there was an official baptism, we would share rice and sauce with the women of the village and those same women would offer what they could monetarily to the new mother – just like at the baptism for Worokia’s baby girl. 100 CFA (about 25 cents) was an average donation – 200 CFA was generous.
The per capital income for a Malian, according to the State Department, is $470 USD and a skilled laborer’s annual income is $1,560 USD. There are more than a few shock factors present in Worokia’s Bamako baptism equation. First – the average income of a skilled laborer in Mali. Even with a much lower cost of living than say, in the States, that is not a lot of money to feed a family and live in a city. Second – that Worokia received more in one day than what most Malians make in a year. Thirdly, and to me the most shocking, is the incredible disparity between what a woman in village receives at your average baptism and what a woman in Bamako can receive. You know what is also hard to swallow? This disparity in income and standard of living frequently exists within Bamako – just next door a baptism may be taking place similar to those in village.
Listen to a griot shout Worokia and her baby girl's praises