“N togoma!” – my namesake – I hear shouted from across the street. After carefully stepping off a Sotrama I situate myself, and my overflowing activity bags, on the pavement and I turn my head towards the voice. It is 9:30pm on a Wednesday and I am making my way home from an English lesson in a neighborhood on my side of town. Djelika, my namesake, stops arranging her bowls, buckets and bags – the empty, stackable containers tactile evidence her business selling brochettes and fried treats today was good – and waves me over to join her where she stands in front of a closed motor-parts shop. The amber light from a nearby street lamp casts deep shadows on her precariously stacked pots and pans piled next to a fruit stand where I can buy grafted mangoes and sweet pineapples. “I sigi yan,” she says and gestures to an already occupied plastic chair on the sidewalk in front of her and her pile of bowls. The occupant of the plastic chair rises and relocates to a wooden stool close at hand and Djelika resumes the rinsing of her silver serving bowls. I gladly accept the hospitality, resting my bags on the cement beside me and stretch out my legs. Balmy night breezes wrap around me as I tuck my dress between my knees to avoid my freshly painted henna. “Wait here for the next Sotrama, n togoma,” Djelika encourages me, knowing what I am here for, “Sooni a be na.”– it will come soon.
“Sooni” is a nuanced Bambara word. It literally means 'soon' but what it often actually means is “be patient, what's the rush?” Etant Américaine – this has been a difficult concept for me to grasp – even after having lived in Mali close to three years. “Sooni” is pronounced “Soh-knee” but is often drawn out to sound like “Sooooooo-kneeeeeee,” the onomatopoeic form echoing itself. Take long enough to pronounce it and maybe what you are waiting for will come soon.
I pass this corner, where my namesake now stands with her empty pots, each Wednesday as I change transportation from a public Bani bus (which has a terminus on this corner) to hail a taxi the rest of the way to the computer center where I teach English once a week. On this corner a group of ladies, like most corners in Bamako, preside over fruit stands and charcoal fires that sizzle under the pressure of large black woks filled with crackling shea and peanut oil. The mouth-watering smells of sweet plantains and seasoned brochettes fill my nostrils as the women yell out “namasa be, brochetti be! Na ka do san ça!” – Bananas here! Brochettes here! Come on and buy some! – as I try to make my way from point A to point B. Sometimes when I pass this corner on my way to class I buy a kilo or two of bananas to share or to use as a vehicle to practice counting (and to have a snack!) during our English lesson. Sometimes when I pass this corner on my way to class I simply wave my greetings and continue on to the center. While I always share greetings and compliments of complets with the women on this corner, and we have obviously shared our names, I have never stopped to sit and wait with them until this evening.
I do not usually make my way home this late at night either. Nor do I usually make the journey back alone. Abdoulaye works at the computer center and participates in my English class, which ends at 6pm, and then we usually share a taxi home. But this month Abdoulaye is in Guinea finishing up work on his veterinary thesis and Aissata, a girl my age who interns at, and lives near, the computer center invited me over for dinner and to do henna. I jumped at the invitation (and may or may not have invited myself!)! After our English lesson I followed Aissata home on foot and sat with her and her cousins as they speed-talked with one another in Songhai, a language from northern Mali. We ate dinner – avocado salad and mangoes, yum!, and I asked for the road home. “Su kora!” – night has fallen! – I pleaded as Aissata encouraged me to spend the night. She eventually conceded that night had indeed come and walked me to the road to catch a Sotrama to Boulkasambougou where the Bani bus dropped me off this afternoon. I thanked her for a wonderful evening and hopped in the bus headed towards my home.
Which is how I find myself, at 9:30pm on a Wednesday, making my way home alone. I am wearing a yellow linen dress I found in sugu kura – the new market – in a pile of thrift store clothes for 400 CFA (a little less than $1USD). When I picked it up and tried it on there in the middle of market I twirled around and thought, “how do folks let go of treasures like these??” before handing over my money and heading back home. The dress has sleeves that hit just above my elbow and a full skirt that ends at mid-calf. With a little black belt and a pair of red, peep-toe flats, the dress makes me feel like an American house-wife from the mid-twentieth century transplanted to Mali in the 21st. One of my American bosses said I looked like sunshine when I wear the dress. Another calls me Dorothy when I wear the red shoes. I love the way the crisp, light linen feels when I walk and how the wind plays with my hemline. A $1 dress from the fripperie and some red flats from Target – my thrills are cheap!
“Jabi nena-deh!” – your henna is great! – the ladies sitting around the fruit-stand squeal as I wave my left hand and wiggle my toes to their, and my, delight. I stand up and give a twirl, my yellow dress puffing out around me like a spin top. The women clap but then point out smudges lining the bottom of my dress. I stop twirling and notice what they are talking about. As usual, I moved too quickly and my not-quite-dry henna has smudged onto my new (to me) dress. Bummer! “A be se ka bo wa?” – will it come out? I ask. Some of the women shake their heads no, that stuff is permanent! Then, one women says I should try eau de javel, the watered down bleach I use to clean my vegetables. I hope it works!
Then, my phone rings and it is Bobo, a friend of Abdoulaye's and now mine, on the other end. “Can you still stop by our place tonight?” he asks and I remember – today is Bobo's and Aissetou's 4-year wedding anniversary! “I just need to catch a Sotrama and I'll be there as soon as I can!” I reply. I hang up the phone and bargain with the fruit-stand lady for two piles of mangoes, each one 500CFA, to offer as a gift to Bobo and Aissetou. My reusable bags are at home and so I am left with no choice but to begrudgingly accept a black plastic bag. I settle my newly acquired mangoes among my collection of hand bags and then look at my watch. It is close to 10 o'clock now. I drop my hennaed, and watch-bearing, left hand and look expectantly in the direction of the passing cars. “Sooni I ka Sotrama be na,” my namesake reassures me one more time.
A taxi from this corner to my apartment usually costs between 750-1000 CFA and takes about 15 minutes. A Sotrama, which makes close to the same trajectory but takes anywhere from 20-25 minutes, costs 125 CFA. While American time may be money, Malian time is about saving it and so I continue to wait. After all, won't the Sotrama be here sooni?
But by 10:15 the ladies manning the fruit stands and my namesake are really starting to pack up their baskets of fruit and empty bowls. “Why don't you take a taxi?” they suggest. Extreme disparity in transportation prices or no, it is getting late and I have to agree, a taxi sounds like a good idea. I open my change purse to count out my taxi fare and come up with 275 CFA. Just enough to get home on a Sotrama now and have enough bus fare to get to work tomorrow. Not enough, however, to take a taxi back to my apartment. I realize I have spent my last 1,000CFA on mangoes that are now sitting next to me, teasingly tranquil in their black plastic bag. “I have to wait for the Sotrama,” I explain to the group of women, “n ka waari baana!” – my money is finished! “What do you mean 'waari baana'?” they protest. I explain that while I do have some money at home, I currently do not have money on my person and therefore, unless I can sell back a pile of these mangoes, it looks like I will be waiting right here for my Sotrama. One of the ladies offers to give me a ride on her moto. I have to decline. “Baara-ka yoro sariya,” I explain. Work rules won't allow it.
Then, the fruit-stand lady gets up and offers me 500CFA. “Hohn,” she says. Here. “But I can't accept this!” I try to refuse. The fruit-stand lady and the others sitting around look at me and shrug. “Bassi-ta la, n togoma,” Djelika says as she encourages me to take the money. Don't worry about it. Before I can continue to refuse, she has flagged down a taxi heading in the direction of my apartment and has begun to bargain with him for the price. She leans inside the passenger door and I hear 'N terice, al barika!' – my friend, that's too much! – and my heart swells as this woman with whom I have shared maybe 15 minutes of my life, and mostly in passing, haggles with a taxi-man to get me home and another woman with whom I have barely spoken is giving me my bus fare – and not expecting to get paid back. Djelika waves me over and gives me a grin and a knowing look. “He wouldn't have given you this price if he'd known it was for a toubab,” she says. Then, she presses 100CFA into my hand and says to me, as she opens the passenger door, “a ko keme-ani-mugan” – he says the fare is 600 CFA. Before I can protest that I have 275 CFA with me, and can therefore spot the rest, she has shut the door and returned to the corner. Close to 45 minutes after arriving on this street corner I am on my way home.
I stop at Bobo's and Aissetou's and wish them a happy anniversary. They are a beautiful, young couple and I love listening to their stories about how they met and how their love, which started out as an arranged marriage, has only grown. Have you gotten the impression I am a sentimental person?? After chatting for a bit and handing over the bag of mangoes to Aissetou, Bobo walks me home. I talk about my apartment and what I am thinking about doing in October when my third-year with Peace Corps is up. He talks about the horses he is trying to send his family in Guinea and we both reminisce about missing Abdoulaye. I thank him for walking me home and enter my compound.
Finally in my apartment I slip off my red flats and sit on the bathroom floor, my yellow linen dress spread out before me. The backs of my legs stick to the cold, grey tiles beneath me. My hair, this morning pulled into a somewhat tidy bun, has long since come undone and now lies in plastered strands on my neck. I tug at my dress and notice the smudges of henna have not only found their way onto the hem of my frock but also the backs of my legs. I'm a mess! I take a bottle of diluted bleach and squirt it onto the henna marks. “Will it all come out?” I mutter to myself. “Sooni,” I think. The marks slowly fade to brown and after a few scrubs with an old blue rag, are barely noticeable. Success! I continue to scrub until I have removed all the errant henna – it's a wonder there is any left on my feet and hands considering how much made it onto my dress! I scoot over to the wall and peel off my dress, resting my back on the cool tiles as I close my eyes. I let my mind wander over today's events and find myself getting caught up thinking: how can I pay back all the people who have been so generous with me today? I shift my legs to cooler tiles and wiggle my hennaed feet. At least I have a guiding principle: Sooni.