Tag Archives: language

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.

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sunugaal (our boat) or where it’s less hot than mali.

After four months in Mali and living through the apex of the hot season (read: 105 degrees or more every day), I could not have been happier to board a plane to Senegal. Five days of temperate, ocean weather, amazing food, old friends and colleagues, and my family! Perfection embodied.

Senegal, especially Dakar, is not exactly what might come to mind when you think of vacation destinations, but it is one of the more beautiful places I’ve been. It’s also still very much lacking on the development scale. So when you plunk a group of foreigners in the middle of the city, you create an instant target for anyone who has anything to sell (which, in Dakar, is everyone.)

artisan talent on Gorée

On our first full day we went to the island of Gorée, which is the old historic slave departure island, but also home to a small community of artisans. The artwork is beautiful – if a little bit overpriced – and the intensity of entrepreneurial sweet talk is impressive. At least three women made friends with us on the boat over, ending the conversation by making us promise to visit their boutiques, which we were more or less forced to do. S’ok, though, Mom and I got some really pretty earrings, and we bought a batik table cloth to serve as a beach blanket for the rest of the trip.

I had promised my brother giant mangoes – and actually lugged three of them with me because Mali is rather famous for the size of its mangoes – so we feasted on mangoes and avocados, delicious Lebanese food, and some of the best ceebu jën, mafé and yassa I’ve had in a long time.

i'm not mad, i promise.

The Marché Sandaga delivered on everything it is known for: guys who follow you and guide you around for no other reason than boredom and the vague hope you will buy something from their boutique (or their father’s/cousin’s/aunt’s boutique); music blaring from CD (and cassette) shops; people shouting left and right; buses running down the narrow streets constantly threatening to run you over; back alleys filled with beautiful artwork and anything else you could ever think of. As annoying as it can be, and as much as I know we paid too much for most things, there is a big part of me that was so nostalgic for it, that it was nice. The little bit of Wolof I know got put to good use, much to the amusement of anyone within earshot, and joking around with the Dakarois about the differences between Senegal and Mali was hilarious – mostly because the insults are the same from both sides of the border. A few small paintings, six yards of cloth, a t-shirt and a few statues later, we were all so exhausted, we went back to the hotel and didn’t reemerge until dinner.

We visited the Renaissance Africaine monument (absolutely ridiculous), ate dinner with my Senegalese family (absolutely delicious), went to a few different beaches, and admired the sheer beauty and color of Dakar and the people that live there. Not to generalize, but Senegalese – and especially Dakarois – are some of the best and most colorfully dressed people I’ve ever seen.

35% of the ticket sales go directly to President Wade

Although I hadn’t been there since 2008, it was like I had never left. Dakar has changed a lot over the past few years, and parts of it weren’t even recognizable, but walking around felt sort of like going back home, and seeing old friends and family was wonderful. I think it was a bit overwhelming for my family, but hopefully the delicious food and beautiful beaches made up for it a little. My mom is already talking about our next vacation somewhere in Africa; I am dreaming up something involving gorillas, the Eastern Congo, and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

karl and khadija eating binta's best!

On Monday morning I got back to my apartment in Bamako after only 4 hours of sleep, losing my favorite ring down the drain at the hotel, and being ripped off by the cabbie on the way back from the airport. I was greeted by 100 degree weather coupled with the humidity from the previous week’s rains, and a hamper full of dirty laundry. Awesome.

So today I skipped work, went to the market, talked to a jeweler about making me a new ring, bought some avocados and mangoes, and tried to ignore the sweat running down my back…

some of my favorite things.

Frustration comes easily, living somewhere that’s not entirely familiar, where the simplest things are often misconstrued or misinterpreted. Not greeting someone in the morning; eating with the wrong hand (apparently the left hand is pretty tabou outside of Senegal as well, and you don’t want to know why); or any number of small little things that I have yet to pick up on. Conversely, there are plenty of things that make me smile for no reason whatsoever. Simple, seemingly silly things, that – thankfully – are pretty consistently present :
  1. Fancy Friday, or “boubou Friday” as some would have it. Whereas in the US, Friday is almost universally known for being a dress down day, here people do it up. It’s the day where all the men go to the mosquée, and men and women alike walk around in their best bazin for me, it’s a celebration that the weekend is actually here.
  2. When I needed flour last week (to make my ‘steamcake’), there was none in any of the grocery stores in my neighborhood.

    steamed to perfection

    Not entirely surprising. So I stopped by the boulangerie next door to my apartment, and, seeing at least ten 50-kilo sacks of flour behind the window, I asked the guy if he could sell me some flour. Of course he said no (what baker will sell you just the flour and not the bread?), but after explaining my situation, I walked away with a small black sachet full of wonderful white flour. For free. The cake was delicious.

  3. Avocados. Everywhere. At first I was skeptical, not gonna lie. I’ve had a few iffy experiences, and one really bad one. But this week, they hit the mark. I think I’ve eaten avocado every day, sometimes twice.
  4. Mangoes are even more prolific than avocados. And the two combined is better than you’d ever imagine. With a little hot pepper mixed in.
  5. the foam is the most important part

    Tea. AttayaThé. Whatever you want to call it. People drink tea here from sun-up to sundown. There is an entire process that goes along with it. Drunk from a small shotglass-like cup, it’s incredibly sweet, incredibly bitter, and if I’m *really* lucky, has some mint mixed in. Most of the time, I pass, but if it’s just right, it’s just perfect.

  6. Greetings. It takes about 45 minutes to greet anyone here, and basically goes like this. “Hi, good morning, how are you?” “Fine, thanks be to God, how are you? And the family?” “All’s well, thanks to God, how is work? And your family?” “Family is well, thanks be to God, how is your health? And your wife and children?” “Thanks to God, all is well. How are your children?” Etc, etc. This continues, the same questions being repeated over and over. It has this amazing back and forth rhythm, like a call and response, and I aspire – by the end of my time here – to have mastered it. For now, I can get about two lines in before I trip over my own western tongue. I’ve got three months to find my rhythm.

not sure what's going on with my hair here, but me voilà, and Bara in his bazin best!

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.