Also, as a supplement to the disclaimer at the top of this site, it’s important to note that the following description (flowery and tasteless as it is) isn’t all that accurate; not for lack of effort but because few words can describe just how strange and wonderful this place is. If you want to find out what I mean, send me your mailing address.
The airport was quiet and either side of the terminal was sparsely populated with jet-lagged passengers waiting for their connection to arrive. Each of us probably made somewhat of a spectacle, whimsically spending the last of our $140 allowance on all the modern niceties we would soon live without: “my last cheeseburger”, “my last issue of the New York Times”, “my last premium coffee”, “my last cold beer?” I even found myself craving a variety of indulgences that I’ve never been in the habit of consuming: “Coca-Cola!” “McDonalds!” “Cigarettes!” This hedonistic compulsion continued and actually evolved to include increasingly novel items, particularly when we made a brief layover in Paris: “I can’t believe this is going to be my last Choux à la Crème!”
(As it turns out, with the exception of McDonalds, you can find all of that stuff here if you look hard enough. Also, as a former French colony, Mali has no shortage of Choux à la Crème).
Upon exiting the plane, I got my first breath of moist African climate as it clashed with the cold, sterile air inside the cabin. It was dark and a number of uniformed men hastily directed the foreign passengers onto a large bus waiting at the bottom of the mobile staircase. The airport employees wasted no time in confusing me and every other American now tightly packed inside the retired commuter bus. For reasons that no one has been able to explain, our trip amounted to nothing more than an immediate U-turn across an adjacent gravel pathway, a cumbersome journey that took no less than five seconds. We were immediately shuffled off the bus and into the baggage claim area where a mob of over 300 people crowded around a single conveyor belt that was only capable of producing one piece of luggage every five minutes.
We were then loaded onto another bus which took us to Tubaniso, an agricultural research center donated to the Peace Corps by the Malian government. The staff showed us our rooms (a series of brick huts with thatched roofs and, surprisingly, electricity) and introduced us to the latrines (fascinating facilities that, perhaps, deserve their own post at a later date). That first night seemed to carry on forever and those sleepless hours in the sky started to catch up to me. The last thing I remember from that evening was waking up in the middle of the night to pee. The latrine wasn’t far from my hut but the path was dark and the only available light came from a small florescent bulb attached to a distant tree. I kept my eyes fixated on the ground and moved quietly. Pouring through countless outdoor survival guides did nothing but establish the illusion that deadly exotic insects were conspiring against me, lurking underneath my every footstep. But the ground was barely visible and, in the obscure glow of that single light bulb, I could only make out the silhouettes of fist-sized rocks dotting the pathway. As I strode closer to the latrine, the rocks started moving. I walked faster and they started jumping. I ran. I ran so fast that I almost failed to notice that those gravity defying rocks weren’t rocks at all—they were frogs. I ran faster. What followed was an energetic chain reaction of leaping reptiles, a collective panic (myself included) inspired by the frantic pounding of my own footsteps.
The first week of training ended quickly. After a lot of “cross-cultural training”, maybe two technical sessions and an hour-long sprinkle of language tutoring, a convoy of white land cruisers were arranged to take us to our respective homestay sites. Equipped with a 100-word description of my site and the limited capacity to say “hello”, “goodbye” and “I feel sick” in Bambara, I went off to Kabe with seven other volunteers.
Out of the ten or fifteen homestay sites selected by Peace Corps, Kabe was, by far, the least accessible. About 60k outside of Bamako, we turned off the main road and traversed a 7 kilometer stretch of mud and dirt. I’ll spare some details here but the roads are pretty horrible in Mali (especially during rainy season). I can now appreciate the reasons why Peace Corps spent so much extra money to equip their vehicles with enormous treaded tires and exhaust snorkels.
When we arrived in the village, all 800 residents were waiting near the entrance to welcome us. As our bags were being unloaded, the village elders greeted us. Luckily the deafening drum and xylophone arrangement was enough to drown out the clarity of my words, allowing the locals to conveniently infer intelligible phrases—even when there weren’t any. The dense mob consumed our vehicle and we were totally enveloped in a blur of clapping hands, dancing legs and wide eyes. I could see my backpack and guitar case floating over a sea of outstretched arms. My luggage sank abruptly before becoming objects of a frenzied competition. Eventually, an eager few won the dubious privilege of carrying my shit.
The celebration continued with a series of dances (performed almost exclusively by Kabe’s new guests) and an exchange of translated greetings and benedictions. Our group offered the Dugutigi (village chief) ten cola nuts and the village gave us two live roosters (tomorrow’s lunch). We were introduced to our host families and quickly sent off to our new homes.
My new home is located at the far Northern edge of Kabe, nestled between two expansive fields of sprouting millet. My house was built using an unusual blend of local resources and modern utilitarian design (no doubt mandated by Peace Corps specifications). The walls are made out of creped, mud brick and the floor is a cracking slab of concrete. It is a near-perfect cube except for the top, which is covered by a slanting sheet of corrugated aluminum. The door is made out of rotting wood and other materials that were probably left over after the roof was finished.
I was impressed and also a little disappointed. I think I would have preferred to have a round hut with a thatched roof just like everyone else. Also, as if I had to be even more of an exception, my house was the only structure equipped with a lock; mine happened to be an oversized deadbolt made in the good old USA.
After my belongings were secured inside my “hut”, I sat in the concession with my new family. A note on what I mean when I say “my family”: The entire Samake clan lives together in a tight cluster of huts and my present company grew to include my host father, his two wives, their children and a vast array of grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins—at least eighty people who are all related in one way or another (I’ve been living there for over a month now and I’m still confused about their tangled family tree).
The children gathered around my chair, competing for a glimpse at their new, remarkably pale toy. My host father was sitting next to me and a cozy six inches of moist air separated our faces, which, by now, were both twisted in mutual curiosity. Everyone spoke quickly and all at once. They were trying to tell me something. They kept repeating what sounded like the English word “self” but every other word seemed to bounce off my stupefied expression and fall lifelessly to the ground.
Then, a stern whisper sliced through the unintelligible noise, opening a space for one brief moment of clarity: “You are Salifou Samake.” It was my Malian name, bestowed on me minutes earlier by the Dugutigi (I guess I just wasn’t paying attention). Given the context, English was the last thing I could have expected to hear. Things became even more bizarre when I discovered the source of the utterance. It was a thirteen year old boy with, apparently, a very elementary understanding of my native tongue. It was only after I said, “You speak English?”, that I realized just how elementary his understanding was. Panicked, he responded, blurting out the extent of his vocabulary in a rehearsed, monotone voice: “Hello-fine-thanks-how-are-you-no-thanks-I-don’t-like-fights-I-have-a-lot-of-shopping-to-do”.
So far, homestay has been wildly productive both linguistically (total immersion is super effective) and culturally (total immersion is endlessly frustrating). The days are filled with highly structured language sessions as well as quality time with my family. Quite a bit has happened since that inaugural day in Kabe but the details are sketchy and because, at the time, I had almost no frame of reference that would have allowed me to comprehend those first few weeks, I’m not even going to attempt an exhaustive description (i.e. my journal entries dated between July 9th and August 3rd are a series of overexcited, semi-intelligible ink splashes). I can, however, report clearly on the present.
A week ago I visited my permanent site; my home for the next two years. Starting in mid-September, I will live in a remote village that dangles about 100 kilometers below the city of Sikasso, making me the Southern-most volunteer in Mali, just a bike ride away from the Ivory Coast.
There. Now you’re all pretty much up to speed. I think in the future I will have more opportunities to update my blog but you’re not likely to see a day-by-day account of my daily life here (that would be boring). Instead I will try to write thematically about my work, the people, food, wildlife, transportation, language, humiliations, victories, tea, weddings, magical trees, taboos, music, nyegans, gardening, strange encounters, the value of water, hospitality, livestock etc. The only things I’m not allowed to talk about (as per my contract) are politics and other volunteers (see my “supplement to the disclaimer at the top of this site”).
Also, please ask questions. I’ll be happy to entertain ANY curiosities (it’s also a good way to see if anyone is actually reading).