Tag Archives: tradition

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.

Thunder and Lightning Nights: The Rainy Season has Arrived

It’s a really good thing that I have (mostly) gotten over my terror of thunderstorms. I no longer go diving under the closest bed at the slightest rumble of thunder, and can even appreciate the beauty of a uniquely great storm. Most of my evening yesterday was spent securing down items in my apartment (papers, books, lamps, rugs..) that otherwise would have flown away like Mary Poppins, but with much less grace. No measurement of how strong the winds were or how much rain we actually got, but it definitely ranked among the top five I think I’ve experienced. I live on the second floor of a building, and my front “patio” was flooded from rain coming in, and is still wet almost 24 hours later.

When it rains here, contrary to intuition, I open all the windows. The crosswind is amazing, and the temperature drop is a godsend. I guess that can get categorized under “habits I’ve picked up in Africa that will most likely get left behind”. (Along with: using my freezer as a pantry for dry goods, sleeping in DEET, and showering more than three times a day. Two is highly sufficient.)

sitting in front of the Niger River

Saturday, Bamako celebrated fête de la musique – one of the (rare positive) traditions passed down from ye olde French coloniser. Music emanates from every street corner. This is the third time I’ve celebrated fête de la musique in a francophone country, and I must say, France has got nothing on Malian music.  We went to Palais de la Culture to listen to a bunch of different groups play, see the Niger River by night, and inevitably, get rained on. The thunder and lightning started at around midnight, right as Amazones de la Guinée were finishing up, and the skies finally opened up for real an hour or so later.

What happened next was a chaotic mass exodus of thousands of people, all trying to get in their cars and on their Chinese “djakarta” motos at the same time. Classic Bamako style, everyone became a traffic director, shouting and waving in different directions, only adding to the chaos. After sitting in a quickly flooding parking lot (read: mudlot), we ended up at Amandine, a Lebanese-run 24-hour resto/bar/club with hot beverages, hamburgers (West Africa style : fried egg, fries, the works..) and mussed up hair. Not a bad way to spend the fête.

it's like the pac-man of burgers

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.