Thursday, June 9, 2011

Out of Village: Annie and Christine take on Bamako, Mali

Can you say Diva?  Why, yes, I can.  Grobinaid!!

Before moving out of village last September I spent more than a few nights talking with Annie about what my new life in Bamako would be like.  Electricity?  Running water?  Fans and/or air-conditioning?  The fantasy list of possibilities was endless!  Annie was my host-mom in village and not only nurtured my muddled Bambara to coherency with her patient enunciation but also my belly with rice, porridge, and toh – the staples of Malian cuisine 'en brusse'.   A true surrogate mother who has become a truly cherished friend. I can't insist enough on the integral role Annie played in my language acquisition and social integration as an off-the-boat-and-into-the-bush Peace Corps Volunteer in middle-of-nowhere-Mali, West Africa from 2008-2010. Her gentle demeanor, unique role as the only literate woman in our village and willingness to open her mind and heart to new experiences (I'm finding this is a singular trait the world over) all merged together to set the stage for success in both our working and personal relationships. Can you tell I kind of like her??

As I packed my belongings – pots, pans and tchotchkes accumulated over two years in a dusty, mud hut – into a Peace Corps car on my last day in village last summer, I made Annie promise she would come visit me in the Spring – the time of year when her work load is lightest and when people from village often emigrate to larger cities before returning in May or June to begin field-work with the rains. “Ni Allah sonna-ma,” she replied. If God is willing.

It therefore came as no surprise when I received a telephone call from her this past April via Esayi – Annie's husband, my former host-dad and chief of the village – and learned that God indeed was willing for her to visit me. After sharing greetings with Esayi, Annie came on the line. “Djelika?!” she shouted. I could picture her standing under their millet-stalk hanger, the only place Esayi's phone gets service, the phone on hands-free and Annie craning her neck as she spoke and then turning her ear as she listened. I imagined the subtle, crackling sound of termites eating through the branch supports above her and from which Esayi's phone always hangs, a ceaseless soundtrack to accompany the production of village life. “Can I come to Bamako the last Thursday of the month?” she asked. “Of course!” I replied. “And stay until the end of the month?” she went on. I quickly pulled up the iCal feature on my MacBook, “that's only two days, Annie – I sure hope you'll stay until the end of the month!” I shouted back, forgetting my phone was neither on hands-free nor hanging from a millet-stalk hanger. “Not the end of April, Djelika, the end of May!” she hollered back. “Oh,” I thought to myself, “that's quite a bit longer!” After a moment's pause and reflection I followed my gut, which doesn't usually fail me in matters of sustenance or sensibility, and agreed. “Come on down Annie, n be I kono!” – I'm waiting for you!

Annie and Christine, Annie's 3 year-old daughter, transitioned seamlessly into my Bamako lifestyle. Working a 9-5? No big deal, Annie knits through it. Braving cramped, public transport with a toddler? Annie holds on tight and keeps her cool. House parties with raucous dancing? Annie knits right through it while Christine takes a nap. And her only commentary on the party afterwards, aside from insisting that she loved every minute? “Why was that old man dancing like he was a young guy?” “Annie!” I exclaimed, “Old guys have got the right to boogie, too!” She hasn't met my father!

Having Annie and Christine around also gave me the opportunity to reflect on my pace of life. While I feel fully present in my life here in Bamako and love most minutes of it, sometimes I give myself a headache thinking about all the little things I would like to do; I think that's a problem folks have all over the world (or is that a by-product of my being raised in a capitalist society?? oy vey!). Before my routing would look something like this: Work's over – I'll go for a run! And since I'm heading home on the Sotrama maybe I'll stop and pick up some groceries. Well, while I am in market why don't I head over and sift through some thrift-store finds? Oooh, look at that! A shiny new store-front.... You get the idea! (after reading through that and all the references to purchases I'm going to have to go with my un-scientific labeling of being a by-product of a capitalist society) Having a grown woman and toddler in tote made me re-evaluate all those little stops along the way. Those errands had to wait during Annie's visit or I just worked to plan better so I wouldn't exhaust either of us.

Annie and her family also count themselves among the 4% of people that identify as Malian Christians (while googling 'Christians in Mali' I found this.  Maybe dated but still interesting!). My friend Ryan is also a devout Christian, along with a colleague at work, Catherine. Both invited us to join them for services while Annie was in town and we gladly accepted. Catherine's church was a Nigerian Protestant service with a sermon delivered in English, translated simultaneously into French and Catherine stood behind Annie, Christine, Ryan and I to translate it, also simultaneously, into Bambara. That's a lot of languages. And a lot of shouting for each one to heard. And there was near constant drumming/keyboarding/banging of other musical devices. Let's just say, Nigerian Protestant churches in West Africa are not for the faint of heart – or eardrum.
A photo-op on the grounds of the National Park - I like the man posing in the background, too
The week after, we visited Ryan's church which felt just like our village church despite being in the heart of the city (sort of – Kalabancoura, a neighborhood on the other side of town, is quite a haul from where I live!). Annie even found a friend from her childhood, another woman with whom she sang in the choir, whom she hadn't seen in 20 years! Leave it to Annie to make the social network of Mali even smaller! Afterwards we lunched with Ryan's host family on beans, bread and boissons which was just the icing on the cake. I sometimes do get overcome, in a good way, when I get to share in all these special moments like visiting your friend's church for the first time. Even more special when you throw Annie and baby Christine into the mix!

And talk about a mix! I lived next door to Annie and Christine for two years. But living next door to someone and living with someone isn't quite the same. Fortunately for me, living together was even better. Take for instance the opportunity to introduce Christine to watercolors. She liked painting the floor better than the paper (duh, Jennifer!) and then was more interested in pouring water from one jar to the next (duh, Jennifer!). Annie included toddler training 101 as part of her package stay. Christine convinced me that while toddlers are precious – at this time in my life they are definitely better left to the professionals!

All grown-up and putting on big-girl shoes!
While having Christine in tote could be a handful and I was constantly reminded of my own actions (Djelika taara! Djelika is leaving! Djelika kora! Djelika just took a bath! Djelika be sigi! Djelika is sitting!) it was also pretty heart-wrenchingly sweet to have her around all the time. I would do my make-up in the morning and have a little chocolate-ball shadow by my side asking me to do the same on her. After getting home from work one day I sat down on my terrace to relax and chat with Annie. Christine was, as I should have known, alarmingly quiet before she wandered out to join us on my patio. “I tun be min Tini?” I asked. Where were you? Before she had the chance to respond I noticed light pink splotches all over her chest and cheeks. Poison ivy, you may wonder? A bizarre rash? I followed Christine inside to show me where she had been and saw that she had, very carefully, squeezed all my cream blush onto a powder brush before marking herself with it. She even put some blush on the mirror in case it was feeling pasty. Make-up artist in the making!

Another most-precious and eye-opening event was when we visited the FrenchCultural Center for a Sunday night movie. They played a documentary on the ocean which, even for someone raised by the ocean like me, was pretty spectacular. Imagine for a moment Annie and Christine who have never left Mali (and rarely the 20km radius surrounding their village) and whose interaction with ocean-related paraphernalia has been, I am pretty confident to say, limited to none. But Annie is a tough cookie to impress and is pretty consistent with keeping a nonplussed demeanor. Skype? No big deal, talking on the computer with folks in another country and being able to see them is normal. My mango cutter that takes the messy work out of pitting and slicing one of the most-delicious products Mali has to offer? Of course someone would invent that. But the ocean – I knew I would get her with the ocean! She kept her eyes glued to the (really large) screen for the duration of the documentary. And Christine? She spent the whole time yelping, “Jege taara! Jacoma taara!” – There goes a fish! There goes a cat! on my lap while I tried to explain, in Bambara that those furry creatures (polar bears, seals, and not-so-furry penguins) aren't cats.  But by the end of the documentary I had to let it go. After all, who am I to say a seal is not a cat – those whiskers are deceptive! And do you know how to say polar bear, seal or penguin in Bambara?... Me either!

While I worked during the day, Annie would take my park pass and spend her day in the National Park of Mali across the street. I would meet her and Christine for lunch (rice and sauce and hibiscus juice – ginger juice for Annie) and finish out my afternoon at work before we would head home.

There are many things I am thankful for about her visit but none more than the quality time I got to spend with Annie talking about nothing and everything all at once and also the chance for her to get to know, through observation and sometimes conversation, my Bamako friends. And while living in Bamako with electricity, running water and fans is wonderful – it's sharing this life I am living here with others that makes it truly special. Abdoulaye, Massa, Valerie, Ryan, Alys, Jamie, Laura, Aissata, Bobo, Aissetou, Annasoura, Sonja, Gael, Kevin, Massaran and everyone else we hung out with – thank you so much for letting Annie and Christine into your lives! She loved every minute we all spent together – whether you could communicate with her or not!

On one of the last nights of her visit Annie and I were walking to a photography club meeting at the Comme Chez Soi, an overcast sky hanging low above us, when she called my attention to the barely-visible moon hidden behind a layer of stratus clouds. “It's already a quarter moon?” she asked as she shook her head. “In village, you never miss the rising of the new moon – it's always so dark out just before it appears,” she continued. How sweet, I thought. How nostalgic! The wide open plains of village, the sweeping skies, scores of stars on a jet-black backdrop – of course she would miss these things being in light-and-air polluted Bamako where you are lucky to see a handful of stars and the new moon each month. I nodded empathetically as she spoke, “I miss the dark nights and the starry sky, too,” I said. “Miss the dark nights?” she replied with a confused look on her face as though I had suggested we were walking on the paved streets of America rather than the packed-dirt paths of Bamako, “but here you don't have to search for your flash light or fumble around for pots. I don't miss the dark nights, I just said you couldn't see the moon!” I laughed at myself for assigning more meaning to Annie's words than she intended and we began to talk about other things. I asked, “So do you think you'll come back to Bamako to visit me next Spring?” “Ni Allah sonna-ma,” she replied. If God is willing.

See some more pictures from Annie and Christine's visit here!


Cassady Walters said...

What a great month! I do think, however, that while you are certainly a biproduct of a capitalist society, you are also just easily distracted! Which makes you all the more fun to be around!

Anonymous said...

I LOVE it! What a fabulous month for the 3 of you, indeed! And for your Bamako friends. Gotta' tell you, I laughed out loud reading this blog, and got teary-eyed, too.
hugs mom

Amber_D said...

Wow! LOVE your blog. I hope my children take a longer than average nap time today so I have time to read through more. The pictures are amazing!

I love to travel, but don't have the means or the freedom since having children. Instead I tend to read blogs of those who live and travel to far off places instead these days. So glad I stumbled upon yours!

What a gem!

Jennifer said...

Thank you all! Amber, I'm glad you found my blog and I hope you continue to enjoy it; thanks for reading!

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