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Conversations with Men : a pas de deux quotidien (or, gender roles à la malienne)

“C’est madame ou bien c’est mademoiselle?” is most often the first question I am asked when I get into a taxi. Madame or mademoiselle? Are you married and if no, why not? (If you are, where is your husband and why isn’t he here with you?) At market last week, in my (very) broken Bambara, I explained to the inquiring woman that my husband was at home. Because her question didn’t allow for the possibility that I don’t have one.

Every afternoon I get a phone call in my office from Lala, the accountant, telling me that lunch is here. I grab whatever I’ve brought for the day (usually some sort of avocado mixture); the rest of the staff orders food from a local resto. We all settle in and Lala serves it up. There is a kind of dance in the daily lunch-time ritual, which extends beyond the walls of the office, and reflects (pretty accurately) on the relationships between men and women in this country in general.

tôh - classic malian dish of millet and okra

The men come downstairs at their leisure, wash up in the kitchen, and sit down around the table. The women (I don’t know how things would work if a woman weren’t around, because my presence always obviates that situation..) serve out plates of rice and sauce, themselves last. We all dig in. And then the women clean up, clear the dishes, wipe down the table, take care of the leftovers, and organize the kitchen a bit before the femme de ménage comes to clean.

The past couple of weeks at work, I’ve been feeling a little snarky. That’s not to say I want to pick fights, but, ok, I’ve sort of been picking fights. The conversation about men and women and the role of each one in the house is a delicate one. I don’t really know how to have a discussion about gender roles with someone who probably thinks it’s ok to beat his wife, or wives. And was raised in a culture where maybe 95% of his male counterparts are of the same mind.

I don’t know how to address an audience of men, one of whom has two wives, and another who insists he is going to take Lala as his second wife. In a country where a man has the right to up to four if he can afford it, it’s hard to talk about consensual relationships of mutual respect – monogamous or not. The choice to marry is more a cultural one than anything else, and a woman without a husband is like a car without wheels.

one month old baby and back to work

One of my colleagues (admittedly one of the more chauvinist men I’ve ever met) insists that, because he is the one who brings home the paycheck, his wife’s contribution to their household is nil. I asked Bourama how he would qualify the work she does in the house – taking care of their child, cooking, cleaning, shopping – and he intoned that this was not real work, and that she spent most of her time at school anyway. I asked how much it would cost if they were to hire someone to do all that work for them – a cook, a housekeeper, a full-time babysitter – and was told that to hire a bonne* in Bamako only costs 7 500fca (about $16US) per month. Granted, most people acknowledge that this is exploitation bordering on slave labor. But I was not winning this argument.

When the conversation turns to women in the workforce, there are certain jobs that a woman just can’t do. And certain things that a man won’t do either. A man doesn’t answer phones. A woman doesn’t drive a taxi. (Granted, that’s pretty rare in the States too, but there has only been one female taxi driver in Mali since independence. And I think she was Lebanese.) It is inconceivable that a woman be the primary breadwinner for the family, because the man would be completely emasculated. In conversations with female cooperatives, where women are ostensibly the decision makers and running their own business, it is often some man (perhaps the husband of one of the women, or a member of another co-op) that does most, if not all, of the talking.

gender mainstreaming training

Bara, another male colleague of mine, had my back. His wife and children live in Mopti, about a ten-hour drive north of Bamako. He sends money to the family, but all of the responsibilities of ‘running’ a household fall on her. She’s the chef de famille, as opposed to most families where it is incontrovertibly the man who is the haut responsable. He argued that things are changing – slowly, indeed, but undeniably. The cost of living is going up in Bamako, less families can afford a bonne, more women are working, and the chores of the household will inevitably fall on men as well.

When talk of change – or dare I say revolution – in Mali was on the table, Bourama said that he welcomed change. As long as it was nice and slow. I retorted that most people who insist on change being slow don’t really want things to change at all. His response was that he would be happy to “allow” his wife to work, and that he always plays with his son when he gets home from the office. (So I can’t say he doesn’t help around the house.)

Alas, catalyzing a shift in mentality might take more than a couple of lunchtime conversations.

 

*Possibly derogatory term to refer to the (usually very) young girl who keeps house for a family. In most cases, she lives and eats with the family she works for.

The Quest for a Waterfall (and the Source of Life)

Saturday night – or, more properly speaking, Sunday morning, I dragged my sorry butt into bed at around 3am after some excellent live music at the Savana club in downtown Bamako. (At least, the closest thing resembling a downtown.) Sunday morning, 8:30am, I get a cheeky text, “You awake?” which I know comes with a chuckle and the certainty that, no, I am not truly awake. A few minutes later, I climb into the back of the 4×4 pickup, squeezed in between an agriculturalist from Borko (Dogon Country, Mali), a jewelry maker cum tour-guide from about the same region, and an animal scientist from Kenya.

We set out for Siby, about 45km from Bamako, with the promise of waterfalls and beautiful rock formations, and the certainty of a lot of interesting conversation. Hiding behind my sunglasses, I quickly realized that sleep was by no means in the cards. Instead, I got a history lesson in both the official sense and in the mythological sense.

about 1/2 way to Siby, still on good roads

In Mali in particular, and in West Africa in general, there is something that not-so-secretly rules over the relationships between people – politically, culturally, socially, romantically. Referred to as cousinages de plaisanterie, it means that one person, based on their ethnic group or last name, has the right (even the obligation) to tease, mock and harass another person of a different group or name. À titre d’exemple: in Senegal, an Ndiaye can come across a Diop and call him a thief, claim him as his slave, or tell him he’s nothing but a bean eater, and no one would be shocked. It’s all just part of the relationship.

The most well known example of this ‘joking relationship’ in Mali is between the Dogon and the Bozo, two ethnic groups towards the north of the country. Bara, the director of the program I work with here, told a story that sheds a bit of light on the origins of this relationship.

A long time ago, there were two brothers who went hunting to find food for their families. After days with no success, the older brother began to worry about his younger brother, noticing that he was quite hungry and becoming weak. Because it’s traditionally the responsibility of older people to take care of the young, the brother knew he had to find a way to feed his younger sibling. Slipping off into the woods, he decided to cut out a piece of the meat on his thigh to cook for his brother. Totally famished, the younger brother didn’t ask where the meat came from, and ate to his satisfaction. It wasn’t until later that he noticed a trickle of blood on his brother’s leg, and realized that the meat he had eaten was his brother’s own flesh. The younger brother, realizing what a dire situation the two found themselves in, decides that they should go their own ways, and see if survival wasn’t easier on their own. The one brother went deep into the woods and began to work the land, becoming an agriculturalist and the first of the Dogon people. The other eventually found the Niger river, settled there as a fisher, and so began the ethnic group Bozo.

As the story goes, because the older had sacrificed so much for the younger brother, the two ethnic groups Bozo and Dogon have sworn to never harm one another. If a Bozo somehow injures or harms a Dogon, or vice versa, the repercussions are endless. Marriage is also strictly forbidden between the two – the ties are so close, that it’s almost seen as an incestuous relationship.

my backseat companions, we haven't yet found the waterfall

At this point, we’re in the middle of the woods, passing by Foulani cow herders and wild zaban trees (strangest fruit ever that tastes exactly like a Lemonhead), two hours in to what should have been a 30 minute drive to the waterfall. Barry, our ‘guide’ admits that he hasn’t been to the waterfall in over six years, and we turn the truck around.

The ‘road’ is basically just a semi-cleared path between trees, over rocks and dried stream beds, and I am sure we are going to pop a tire. Dieu merci for Bourey, our driver, who never broke a sweat.

false alarm: we thought we had found it.

In Kenya, there are forty-two tribes that populate the country – only one of which, incidentally, is known for its running capabilities. Our animal scientist consultant, Charles, is from the Luo tribe. He was charged with telling the creation myth of all forty-two tribes (I think we knew we were in for a lonnng ride) but we only got as far as a story about the Kikuyu and the Luo.

The Kikuyu originated from the north, settling around Mt. Kenya, but spreading out around the country eventually to become several distinct ethnic groups. The ‘Adam and Eve’ of what are today known as Kikuyu – Gikuyu, and his wife, Mumbi – lived in a place called Mukurue wa Gathanga (very loosely translated as the Kikuyu Garden of Eden) and had nine daughters. Gikuyu was upset at not having any sons, and pleaded with the god, Mbai, who presented him with nine men to marry his daughters. The daughters married and had children, and thus became the nine clans of the Kikuyu tribe. As the story goes, the Kikuyu were originally a matriarchal people, with these nine women reigning over all of society. As time went on, the women became more dominant and the men were less than ok with that. They plotted to get their wives pregnant at exactly the same time and take over control of society. From that point on, the Kikuyu became a polygamous society characterized by one man with several wives rather than one woman with several husbands.

Apparently the myth continues that if you so choose, by walking around Mt. Kenya seven times a man becomes a woman and a woman becomes a man. According to Charles, this is an early example of a democratic society; if you aren’t satisfied with your lot in life, you can elect to change it.

The Luo story is more one of treachery and intrigue:

Luanda Magere was a great warrior who lived on the shores of Lake Victoria. He was extremely powerful and strong, and it was said that he could not be killed – that his flesh was in fact made of stone. The traditional enemy of the Luo, the Nandi, had had enough of being slaughtered by Magere and his people, and plotted a way to infiltrate into the ranks of the Luo. The elders of the Nandi conspired to give the prettiest Nandi girl to Luanda to marry, claiming it to be a peace offering, but with the real intention that she discover a way to defeat him. They married, despite the warnings of the Luo elders. After many years of marriage, the girl had still not discovered his secret. One day, however, Luanda Magere fell ill, and needed medicine. He instructed his wife to cut his shadow in order to administer the medicine. In following his instructions, she noticed that his shadow bled when she cut it. That night, she ran back to her Nandi village and told the elders of Magere’s vulnerability – that it was his shadow that was made of flesh. The next battle between the Luo and the Nandi was a bloody one. Luanda alone killed many Nandi, and they were forced to retreat. As they were retreating, however, one soldier remembered what had been said about Luanda’s shadow, and threw his spear into the shadow. Luanda – true to the rumor  – fell and died, turning into a stone. This stone still stands in Kenya along the river Nyando.

finally!

At this point in the story, I won’t keep you in suspense any more. We finally found the waterfall. Two hours and seventeen kilometers later, we tumbled out of the 4×4, and stumbled down the rocks to see the waterfall.

Maybe it’s because I haven’t really seen water in five months, or maybe it was the journey that made it so good, but it was worth it. Arguably one of the most secluded, serene, beautiful spots I’ve ever seen. I think we were all surprised that there was actually water there, given that it hasn’t rained here since last October, but lo and behold, la chute d’eau.

I won’t belabour the trip back to Bamako; suffice it to say, my bed greeted me with open arms upon my return.

bko, you got nothin on this.

Reference Points for Dirty Feet

The name Mali has its origins in an ancient language that roughly translates to, “perpetually filthy feet”. Maybe this has yet to be proven, but I’m developing a theory on the subject.

dirrrrty feet. pretty nailpolish as a diversion.

But this is not something that really bothers me. What irks me the most, is the inconsiderate cockroach that has decided to make a home out of the cabinet underneath my kitchen counter. I am not ok with a 3-inch cockroach who has nothing better to do than surprise me in his cheeky cockeyed way when all I want is a little snack before going to bed.

Alas.

Cockroaches (even a solitary one) in my kitchen isn’t something I want to get accustomed to. On the other hand, there are certain things that make me feel a sense of home or belonging wherever I am. No matter where I am, as long as the sky is clear I can always pick out Orion’s Belt in the sky at night.  Humor me here; I know it’s not the most difficult thing to be able locate three bright stars right in a row, but it has a soothing effect on me somehow. There are some things, all across the world, that remain the same. Orion’s belt is one of them.

my point de répère...

Friday night I went out with a couple of friends to a comedy club in my neighborhood. Over the course of the night, only two of the jokes were in French, so most of the humor was lost on me. (I was enjoying my Pastis enough to make up for it.) One of the jokes I actually could understand, though, was an Africanized version of this joke I had heard back home about different heads of state making phone calls to God (Allah, whomever) for advice, and the rates they’re charged for the phone calls. In this instance, the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, is incensed by the fact that Obama and Sarkozy each paid hundreds of thousands of francs CFA to speak with God, while his call only cost 250F CFA. “What, just because we’re an underdeveloped country you think we need some sort of charity??” (Funny, because Wade probably would say something like that..)

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a comedian. The punch line is something about how it’s a local call and I know I’ve just totally killed the whole thing. But the part that’s really funny to me isn’t the joke itself, but the fact that I heard someone tell it about two months ago, while sitting at a friend’s house in DC. Only the heads of state were Obama, Mahmoud Abbas, and Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s kind of like how several civilizations across the entire world invented the wheel all around the same time, without ever being in contact with each other. A little bit less evolutionarily significant, but you get my point.

Sitting in that club, not understanding most of what was going on, I still had my Orion’s Belt. Everyone was laughing, and I knew that if Bambara was within my grasp, we’d all be laughing about the same thing.

The Politics of Food and How to Ask Questions

Yesterday, 5:30pm. I found myself sitting in a stuffed leather chair, lit cigar in one hand and a glass of rum in the other, freshly brewed espresso (and the rest of the bottle of rum) on the table in front of me. With the purchase of the cigar you get the accompaniments gratuit. Ad libitum. This Senegalese-owned haven is most likely either run by drug money or mafia money. Or both. Either way, it was the unlikely (if slightly unfitting) site for a conversation that I’ve had many times in different iterations and permutations over the last months and years, and to which there are few (if any) answers.

The politics of food in any given place, be it Mali or your grandmother’s living room, plays a huge role in peoples’ interactions. The way they are treated and treat other people, they way they perceive and are perceived, the ways they show and accept love and care, how they feel about themselves and how they identify themselves. A peace corps volunteer I know here told me how she had stuffed herself full of about two days worth of food over the course of an hour while visiting a family that had hosted her for a month; it was simply not ok to say no. After the welcoming ‘snacks’, they all sat down to dinner. In the village she lives in now, she vacillates between not wanting to eat the entire (enormous) quantity of rice and sauce put on her plate so that the kids in the family could eat a bit more, and not wanting to offend the woman who cooks. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, it’s sometimes easier to just eat.

salade is délicieuse

I remember having this problem when I lived in Dakar. Not only was I vegetarian, but I simply couldn’t eat an entire plate filled with rice and mafé (tomato peanut sauce), no matter how delicious. Binta – a rather corpulent woman herself – always scolded me for not eating enough, if a bit jovially, but the message was clear: my not eating to her heart’s desire, was a direct insult. Not eating (enough) at dinner was offensive; eating food without sharing with anyone present was rude; eating with your left hand was unheard of; eating from a shared platter that which was not situated directly in front of you was gourmande. Rules about food and eating are not unique to Senegal or West Africa. (Don’t talk with your mouth full; you must ask to be excused; wait until everyone is served; make sure to eat Aunt _____’s casserole so she won’t be offended; and you get the point.)

My not eating the chicken at dinner the other night when I was invited by a colleague to his childhood friend’s house, while not hugely problematic, didn’t synch well with the Malian tradition of offering a chicken to a guest to welcome them. I accepted the chicken thigh on my plate as a garniture. And snuck it to Bourama’s plate the first chance I got.

It goes beyond “food as love”. Women are caregivers, men are the money makers. If a man has a maraîchage, a market garden, I’ve been told that most of the produce he grows is sold for profit, rather than used to feed his family. A woman’s garden is first and foremost a source of nutrition for her family, and secondarily a source of income. Women are most often responsible for feeding their families, and men are responsible for making money. Both of these roles, however, ultimately aim to care for the family. It would follow logically, then, for a garden to be used as both a source of nutrition and a source of income – whether owned by the man or the woman. A simple economic cost-benefit analysis would most likely show that, over time, the improved nutrition of the family would obviate the need for other medical expenses.

I am in no way positioned to lecture on a subject for which I have only a cursory and surface level understanding. Food and nutrition are complicated subjects and rooted in much more than just gender. Politics, sociology, economics, history, geography, meteorology… the list goes on. I know my understanding of these issues will broaden over time; maybe I’ll look back and read this a few months down the road and think about how naïve it all sounds.

Which brings me to the second theme of our smoky and slightly (both caffeine- and alcohol-) buzzed conversation. How To Ask Questions. I am currently grappling with how to frame a research project on urban agriculture in Bamako. Having read a lot on urban ag and the urbanization of African cities and cities elsewhere, I feel like I should have a ready-made question right there in front of me. But I don’t. I walk around and talk to people – like Aoua Coulibaly, who has been tenant cropping next door to my apartment since the 1940s, but a series of anecdotes and experiences of a few individuals dotted across the city does not a research project make.

growing sweet potatoes for over half a century

How do you frame a question so that the answer will be worth something? Even in asking that, I am assuming a certain audience or target group for the ‘worth something’ part. What am I aiming to achieve? I am obviously not going to write my doctoral dissertation over the next five months, but I also don’t want to just have a digital collection of photos and a legal pad full of notes. I want my question to somehow contribute to something. It’s the “somehow” and the “something” that I’m stuck on.

In the meantime, cigars and rum and espresso might just have to be the muse for my (lack of) brilliance. Not only do Cubans make excellent cigars (and rum), but urban agriculture is flourishing and vibrant in Cuban cities. So who knows, maybe the answer to my question – or the question to get my answers – lies somewhere between a glass of rum and a lit Montecristo.

No, I’m not going to Bali

Surrounded by tote bags full of clean laundry, bottles of vitamins, books that I hope I have the desire to read in three months, and a travel backpack stuffed with my yoga mat, sunscreen, and a first aid kit, among other things, it still hasn’t completely registered that I step on a plane in less than twenty-four hours.

DC was hit with an ice storm earlier this week. The city woke up to a shiny (and rather beautiful) coating of frozen water over everything. Temperatures had been in the twenties, the wind wailed through the night, and I was woken at 5am by my (admittedly quite responsible) neighbor chopping and scraping away at the ice on the sidewalk. Next time this week, I will probably be praying for anything resembling ice; temperatures in the twenties – even centigrade – will seem cold and unusual. Par for the course.

Anyway, this week – my last in Washington – I’ve made a tetrus board out of my schedule in order to hang out with everyone I love, I’m running around getting all of my errands done, using up the miscellany of food cleaned out of my pantry (which, I should note, has been quite the success, if not the impetus behind some bizarre and inventive recipes!), and in general trying not to think about what next week’s meteorologic predictions mean. A month ago or so, I made a DC ‘bucket list’, to motivate me to do things in DC that maybe I wouldn’t do if my time here wasn’t so limited. Two Fridays ago I took a personal day from work and hung out at the National Gallery (an amazing place to wander around) and the Hirshhorn.

on a power box somewhere near logan sq

Monday I spent walking from Columbia Heights to Logan Circle to Dupont to Penn Quarter and back again. It’s been wonderful to have a few days to myself – it’s like winter vacation when I was in elementary school (minus the obligatory uniform of snowpants and mittens) – I finally have the time to explore the city I’ve lived in for almost three years!

cute little thing

It’s funny trying to pack and deciding what I will wear and use and hopefully need over the next several months. I got a two week free subscription to an audiobook website and downloaded The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith; books I might not have the time and/or impetus to read in print form.  Other books I am bringing with me include:

  • Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
  • Markets and States in Tropical Africa by Robert Bates
  • Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Morrison
  • What is the What by Dave Eggers
  • Teachings of Rumi by Rumi
  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Bhagavad Gita, the brilliantly insightful Indian scripture
  • La lenteur by Milan Kundera

I also fully plan on spending more money than is advisable in the Paris airport to buy a few more books to round out my stock. And maybe a trashy magazine or two.

Everyone keeps asking me if I’m excited. My response is, of course, ‘yes’, but to be honest, it’s hard to be excited about something that is completely unknown and somewhat abstract. I don’t know who my colleagues are; I don’t know what my office or apartment will look like; I have only a vague idea of what my daily work will consist of; I don’t even know what language I’ll be speaking on a regular basis. My excitement is completely abstract. I’m excited about the potential facing me, about learning and experiencing and seeing and doing things completely foreign to me.

I walked all around DC again on Wednesday – Columbia Heights to Foggy Bottom to Logan Circle and back up 18th St, taking pictures of the most random things, but things that seemed beautiful in the moment.

i love the texture of these

Moss growing on the walls of Malcolm X park; a puddle in the sidewalk reflecting the trees; a statue juxtaposed against a beautifully colorful mosaic; the fire escape of a building behind my brother’s apartment.

not so many puddles in Bamako

Nostalgia isn’t quite the right word since I’m still here – is there such a thing as anticipatory nostalgia?

 

retrospectives and moving forward.

Today is December 16. Thursday. It’s 27 degrees outside (Fahrenheit) and snowing. This is the warmest it’s been all week. I wore two coats to work, completed my outfit with leg warmers over my tights, and swathed myself in two scarves. Arguably, it’d unseasonably cold for DC for this time of year, but arguably again, I should at least be partly acclimated to this kind of weather, having grown up in Syracuse, NY. It’s practically Canada. The fact that since I left home when I was 18, I’ve spend more time on the Mediterranean and in Africa than I have back in Syracuse notwithstanding.

In less than forty days, at 4:30pm, I’ll be sitting on a plane headed in the direction of Bamako, Mali. I sat down to write this in the spirit of the other posts I’ve written: that’s to say, a sort of retrospective. Because I’ve done this a lot, left from wherever it is I’m calling “home” to go live somewhere else. Every time I leave, I go through a similar cycle of neurosis. My head is overrun by questions and self-analysis; the perfect excuse for a mini-existential crisis. (and I don’t use that term flippantly.) This time in particular, not only am I moving across the world, but I’m quitting my job (which might not be the most fiscally sound decision I could make) to work for an agricultural development project for a few months and then embark on a (7-year) path toward three little letters called P, H and D.

In 2003, as a freshly minted highschool graduate, I left my mother’s nest to go to Marseille, France and then to Hamburg, Germany.

best friend in Marseille

In 2006, it was Berlin for three months. Technomusik, Tanzparties, turkische Pizzas… the summer of fun.

Wir Sind Park: weekend long park parties

In 2007, Dakar. The place where feet are never clean.

verrrry dirty Dakar feet

In between there’s been a lot of travelling, visiting family, friends, cities, volcanoes. I should have started planting trees years ago because my carbon footprint from nothing but the flights I’ve been on is enough to rival that of a small nation.

All this to say that I am used to leaving. I’m not used to coming back, however. I don’t know how to come back. Someone once said to me that even when (if) you are promised to return to the same life (friends, loves, work, whatever), the question then begs itself whether or not that will be enough. Leaving now, and setting myself on this trajectory of 95 degree weather, sand storms, farms and farmers, Joloff rice, Sékou Touré and Amadou and Miriam, will I be able to come back? Can I reinsert myself into a life I’ve left? But perhaps more importantly, will I want to come back, so-to-speak, to a life that I am making a conscious decision to leave?

I’m used to leaving but I also don’t know how to leave behind. People, places, faces, familiarities: do we lose our aptitude to reacclimate at a certain point? Does age prevent us from the flexibility to recreate our lives in a different setting? Every time I do this, I question myself more and more. Every time I leave friends, loves, work, whatever, it feels like I also leave a part of myself behind. Maybe that’s true, and inevitable; maybe it’s how we leave our mark on others. Eventually, I am going to have to stay in one place and keep the people I love around me in a tight squeeze. My bank account certainly isn’t thickly padded enough to bring all of them with me.

Coming back to leaving. I know it’s the right thing to do, and don’t have reservations, just a lot of esoteric musings. That mixture of fear and excitement – stepping into the unknown – makes it clear to me that it’s the right next step. A friend who’s been living in East Africa for the last year and a half and is back visiting for a few days said to me today that it feels “safe” being back. Safe and predictable. Things always go how you think they will. It’s the known variable, it’s easy.

I’m not saying that I searching for something difficult. I’m not sure that’s even the opposite. But there’s something about stepping outside life’s norm, creating a different box to put around yourself, living a life that isn’t always comfortable. Anyway, I leave in thirty-seven days. I come back in thirty-seven days and (about) six months. I don’t know what either of those statements mean. All I know is that it’s the unknown variable, and it’s scary and it’s exciting.