|Giving a sample lesson at PHARE's booth at the Festival sur le Niger February 2011|
A cursory glance around the office leaves you with a few significant first impressions: 1) There is a lot of education work going on and 2) There are a lot of men doing it. While the chief-of-party of USAID/PHARE is an (American) woman as is my direct supervisor, there are only 5 Malian women, 3 of whom are secretaries, part of PHARE's staff of about 40. The first friendly female face I fell upon was Fatoumata's. We got to chatting about her kids and she told me how she had story time at her house each night before she sends her kids off to bed and that I should come by to hear them. 'Story time!' I thought, 'who doesn't love a good story?'
Since our story time last September where she recounted traditional Malian fables for her cute kids (and even almost put me to sleep!), I have continued to admire Fatoumata's gumption around the office. After spending her childhood moving around Mali (her uncle with whom she lived was in the military and moved every year for his work), Fatoumata settled in Bamako for her higher education. When I asked if she thought moving around had an affect on who she is today Fatoumata said of course! She recounted a story of how wherever she moved she would have to learn a new way to make porridge. Some of her aunts liked their millet porridge with small millet balls, others preferred larger. Fatoumata said this is symbolic of adapting to wherever you are and situations you find yourself in. I agree!
Fatoumata attended high school at the Lycée de Badalabougou in Bamako at what she and her friends called La Colline de Savoir - the Hill of Hope – before entering University where she studied Anthropology. Her studies eventually focused on gender roles in Mali namely the problems of implicating women in politics. Her thesis is quite fascinating (I haven't read it but from what I learned during our interview the topic is quite interesting). If you'd like to know more, let me know!
After completing her studies Fatoumata began working for radio stations in the Koulikoro region. Her first show was called “Plumes d'Or” - Feathers of Gold – where she discussed poetry and music. Then she moved to a station in Kati where she had multiple shows including “Waati t'a bolo” - The realities of our time – where she discussed topics such as excision and HIV/AIDS; and “Niè ta kènè” - All ahead for progress – where she interviewed NGOs in the region to talk about the work they were carrying out and their successes thus far and with whom they worked, etc. In 2001 Fatoumata left radio to teach French at the Center for Industrial Training of Torokorobougou. Then, in 2009, USAID/PHARE scooped her up as the only female script-writer for the interactive radio instruction shows. Fatoumata also writes for a locally published paper, La Nouvelle Patrie, where she writes each week on various topics including poetry, the news and stories and fables.
While Fatoumata and I haven't become best girlfriends, work schedules and our own obligations at the root, I have enjoyed getting to know her little by little around the office and through work trips. She has a lot of interesting stories to share and is a part of some interesting socially oriented groups in Bamako. I learned a lot about her during our question-answer session for this Talk of the Town Tuesday interview and I hope you'll enjoy learning some more about her as much as I did!
Name: Fatoumata Keita, Madame Niare
Birthplace: Farakoro-opération-thé, Mali
Birthday: October 27
Marital status: Married, 3 children (2 boys, 1 girl)
Occupation: Script writer, USAID/PHARE
Langauges spoken: Bambara, French
Langauges spoken: Bambara, French
What are your three favorite places in Mali?
- Where I was born, for sure! Farako-opération-thé, Sikasso. It's a paradise on earth. It's beautiful and contains, of course, many of my earliest childhood memories.
- Timbuktu. I visited the city and region on a work trip and love the architecture and sandy dunes.
- Banko. It's a small village near Koumantou that reminded me of home (see #1) with a peaceful life and lots of mango trees
What are two ways that are easy and difficult to be a woman in Mali?
First, I'll discuss the difficulties. It's really hard to navigate the acceptance of relations between women and men in Mali. To not be judged, discriminated against, underestimated etc. It's only compounded living in such a traditional society. Second, the social organization. I'm a writer and therefore need my solitude. But being a woman in Mali, even though I hold a professional job, doesn't mean I relinquish my traditional responsibilities as a woman. I still manage my household and am expected to respond to family obligations and welcome friends and family at any time at my home. It can be hard to carve out the private time I need to write. One could say I've been Westernized but I need my time for me!
As for the ways in which it is easy to be a woman in Mali – I appreciate men's respect for women. If I come into a meeting and all the chairs are taken a man will get up right away and offer me his seat while he looks for another one for himself. I appreciate that respect. I also appreciate and depend on the strong family bonds here, especially as a professional woman who is also a wife and mother. I have people in my family on whom I can always depend. For example, just last week I returned from a 13-day work trip – during Ramadan no less! Normally it's not a problem to leave home for work trips but during Ramadan the cooking responsibilities are much higher. I had to call a sister of mine and she dropped everything to come to my house and look after my children and cook and clean for my husband. It's not everywhere you could do that!
Who are your favorite authors?
I have a lot! When I was young I liked Victor Hugo. Especially his quote “Je veut etre Chateaubriand ou rien,” it's really inspired me in my own writing since obviously Hugo surpassed Chateaubriand! I also like David Diop and his series of poems entitled Coupde Pillons. I like Ahmadou Kourouma not for his style but for what he could do with the French language translating African life into the French language. It's not easy to translate both language and culture and he succeeded at both. Then there is Isai Biton Coulibaly who is simple and concise – most of his works have been turned into films. I also like, of course, Amadou Hampate Ba for his inspiring, rich, traditional tales. His works contain many teachings and life lessons.
Do you have any favorite female authors?
Certainly! I enjoy Adam Ba Konaré, the wife of former president Alpha Konaré, and former first-lady of Mali for her work.
What country would you like to visit?
I'd love to go to the U.S.A and visit Cleveland. Cleveland? Yes! I have a friend there and I'm curious to see what it's like. I'd also love to go to the Caribbean islands and feel what it's like to be on land surrounded by water.
What do you see yourself doing after USAID/PHARE ends in 2013?
A lot of things! I'd like to spend more time researching and writing – there's a lot to discover here in Mali. I would also like to pursue a doctorate.
What do you like about your work at USAID/PHARE?
I love how it's a creative outlet. I use my imagination and work is never the same. I am also learning a lot at once – budgeting for work trips, learning how to write educational radio scripts – it's never monotonous!
What's your favorite proverb?
I be se k'i pan musokoroni bo kunna o te fen ke. Nga ni I panna dalla kan kunna I b'o ye I nie la.
Il faut suivre des conseils des vieux/sages.
You can jump over an old woman's pile of poop and it doesn't do anything. But if you jump over her advice – you'll see the consequences.
Listen to your elders! (this is one of the funniest proverbs I've heard!)
Thank you Fatoumata! I really enjoyed learning more about you!