Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Fight the War on Terror - for just 10 Bucks!

Dear Friends,
We are saddened and shocked by the recent events here in Mali. In case you have not heard, five Europeans were kidnapped last month (a first), and one tragically lost his life when he resisted. One incident was in Hombori, a desert town in northeastern Mali, and the other in Timbuktu.

Mali is a poor country, with most young people either unemployed or underemployed. There is still a shockingly high rate of illiteracy even after decades of foreign and local projects and initiatives. In addition, too many people die young of completely avoidable causes: diarrhea, malaria, meningitis, and other diseases. This situation is even more prevalent in the North of Mali, where the encroaching desert threatens traditional livelihood, and decades of political and fiscal negligence exacerbate the situation. 

Living here in Mali I am confronted daily with these facts. I am often asked by visitors how I can reconcile this harsh reality with my conscience. And, equally often, I am asked what I believe will bring about change ... 

I feel strongly that the short answers to these complicated questions are: creating jobs and supporting education. Educated and employed people live longer, better lives, simple as that. And even in light of these recent tragic events I feel confirmed: gainfully employed, educated people usually do not abduct harmless tourists!

We try and create as many jobs as possible by bringing tourists to Mali with our travel business Mali Yaara ( In Timbuktu about 60% of the economy is based on tourism, and it is estimated that one wage earner supports about twenty (20!) family members. So even just one visitor to Timbuktu, who sleeps & eats there, rides a camel and buys a postcard helps feed a (big!) family. In 2006 there were 45,000 visitors, and each subsequent year the numbers declined. This year Timbuktu may not even get 2,000, further declining already substandard living conditions in the north of Mali.
We want to help children access education, and we had been looking for a small but impactful grass roots organization to partner with and to support. We discovered Caravan to Class ( ) earlier this year.  In 2009 Barry Hoffner was visiting Timbuktu and visited a nearby village whose school building was so neglected and underfunded that it was basically dysfunctional. Barry, himself a father of two young boys, believes that education is the key to durable change, and –once back in the US- he quietly raised 60,000 USD among his family and friends to build a new school building in that village, and fund teachers, support staff, school lunches and school supplies for one year.
Caravan to Class needs to keep this school going, and wants to build additional schools in the region. Barry was able to post his project on the website Global Giving (  for a fund raiser challenge. He has to raise 4,000 USD (and find 50 new donors) before the month is up.
We wholeheartedly support Caravan to Class, and we have already made a donation on the Global Giving website. We make a donation each time a Caravan to Class supporter travels with us and we support Barry with some logistics. And now we are asking you to support Barry’s program. Donate as much as you can, or as little as 10 USD, and help him build a school in another desert village! Just go here and click on ‘DONATE’ to help fight illiteracy and a host of related inhumane conditions, including terror and terrorism:

Thank you!

In peace,

Haike and Malé

(Malé, second on the left, in Mora, where Caravan to Class is hoping to build their next school. With him are the village chief (with turban) and Caravan to Class representative Hamandoun Toure, in the middle.) 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Thank goddess for Islamic full veils!

This is Ami. (It may not be her real name.) She arrives at our house every morning at seven. I open the door for her, she enters and empties the two laundry baskets that we have, and takes everything behind the house. There is a tiled basin, and that is where she does our laundry – shirts, pants, jeans, underwear, towels, bedding - everything. She then hangs it up to dry on a small roof above the car port. When she is done, she sweeps and mops the house. Around noon she is served lunch. And then we don’t see her again until the next day. 

We did not really know anything about Ami. The young woman who worked for us previously left approximately 2 weeks ago. She was about to have her first child, and she returned to her village to give birth there and be with her family. She introduced us to Ami, who was willing to take her place. We offered to pay her around 30 dollars every month, which is about double what she had earned previously. Ami seemed content, and has arrived punctually every morning since.

One day last week she did not show up. Unable to contact her, we had no choice but to wait and see if she would show up later. Sometime around noon a woman rang the door bell. She was wearing a full veil, only her eyes were visible. When she was inside the courtyard she lowered the veil and I recognized her – Ami.
My first reaction was, I have to admit it, negative. While there are women here in Mali who cover their head, and even some who wear burqa-type coverings, they are not in the majority. And they certainly are not the type of women that frequent our house. I did not understand why Ami, who had always dressed casually, was showing up in dressed like that. (Gasp!)

Ami asked to speak to Malé, and they sat down to talk, and Ami’s story emerged …

Ami says that she is about 18 years old. She is from a Dogon village, where she was born into a Muslim family.  When Ami was still a little girl, her father passed away, and, as is custom there, her father’s brother took over as head of family, and became her mother’s new husband. When Ami’s older sister entered puberty, she was given to an older man as his wife. Ami herself was still small, but she remembers her sister crying. A couple of years later her sister was dead. She may have died during child birth, or she may have been beaten to death for being ‘disobedient’ (maternal death, especially among teenage girls, and domestic violence are the leading causes of death for Malian women) – to this date Ami does not really know what happened, but she knows that her sister’s life was not good.  

When Ami was around 13 years old she, too, was to become a child bride. Her father’s brother had promised her to an older man who already had three wives and was looking for a fourth. Her mother - perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not – trying to save her second daughter from the same fate sent her to the nearest larger town, Douentza. The mother’s sister lives there, and Ami’s mother pleaded with the woman to help her save her daughter by hiding her. The woman agreed, and Ami stayed with her while her mother returned to the village. They never spoke or saw each other again.

Ami’s aunt tried her best to provide for Ami, the young woman and the older woman working in fields, and selling fruits and vegetables. But neither had ever been to school, and so their prospects were limited. In addition, the aunt did not feel that Ami was safe: any day somebody from Ami’s village could come happen upon her and betray her secret. They two woman scrimped and saved until one day, about 3 years ago, they had saved enough for Ami to take the bus to Bamako, where she hoped to find work and stay anonymous.

Ami easily found work in Bamako as a servant for Malian families. There she would work from before sun-up until long after sun-down, chopping wood and making cooking fires, preparing meals, hauling water, washing laundry, sweeping the court, taking care of kids, all while dodging unwanted sexual advances of the men in the household. For that she could sleep under the stairs or in the doorway, eat two or three meals a day, and earn the equivalent of about 15 USD. Often she did not get paid. 

And so she survived, moving from job to job, sometimes getting fired, sometimes leaving because it became intolerable, sometimes because she sensed that she would come across other Dogon who may know her, or know her family. Until one day she showed up at our house, looking for a new job…

All went well for Ami the first two weeks or so. But then she had been noticing a man lurking around where she and a couple of other girls shared a room. She tried not to look at him too closely when she passed him, but she suspected that he was somebody from her village. Increasingly nervous, increasingly scared, she had to find out who he was. One day she borrowed a full veil, and so disguised walked past the man as many times as she dared until she felt sure. He was the youngest brother of her mother’s husband, the one who had given her away. And there was only one reason he was hanging around her street: he was looking for her. It was equally clear to Ami what he intended to do if he found her. He would take her back to her village, against her will and by force. 

Ami told Malé everything. She needed a new place to stay, she no longer felt safe. Malé said that we will help her as much as we can, but that she could not stay with us permanently. He gave her some money so that she could visit some other acquaintances to see about staying with them. Ami also wanted Malé to call her aunt in Douentza, to see what she had heard. Yes, the aunt said, it was true; the youngest uncle is in Bamako looking for her. The aunt encouraged Ami to not give up, to keep hiding. She said to Maléthat Ami’s fate would be sealed if she were to be caught, and that she would suffer greatly once back in her village. She might even get killed, as punishment for her disobedience, and no one would ever be the wiser.

Eventually Ami found a place to sleep with some other women. During the day, after she has done the laundry for us, she stays in our yard, resting or just staring into space. When it is evening she dons her full veil and slips out the yard door.

You might see her walking down the street, a fully veiled woman. Or you may not notice her at all, since the veil has a way of making its wearer invisible. If you are like me, you see her and you feel sorry for her - another suppressed, disenfranchised woman. But every day that I see her now, with veil when she arrives and leaves, and without veil when she is on our property, I see a young woman who against all odds, without anybody’s support, has nourished hope that her future can be better, a woman who feels that she merits a decent life. A woman, who uses - of all things - the full veil to continue her daily, subversive activities of emancipation …

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Blog Revival

Bamako, Mali

July 14, 2010

It has been over five years ago that I first visited Mali. I was about to turn 40, and I felt that the occasion called for something out of the ordinary. A friend of my parents had recently become director of Peace Corps in Bamako, Mali, and invited me to visit. Since I knew nothing about Mali - had in fact never even heard of it - I decided that a month-long trip to Mali would qualify as ‘out of the ordinary’. I felt ‘stuck’ in my life, and I was hoping that visiting Mali would help me become ‘unstuck’, and offer new perspectives and goals.

The trip went well, and my friend Mary and I had a good time. The trip got me ‘unstuck’ and changed my life – and consequently affected my family and my friends – in the most profound way: Malé and I met, we fell in love, and we have been living here in Bamako since November 2006. (Which is when I started this blog.)

Life in Mali is challenging in many ways. Going from being a single, childless career woman to being a partner and mother to Malé’s four children literally overnight is daunting at times. In addition, we run three businesses, manage six cats, lots of house guests and visitors, and negotiate profound cross-cultural differences.

I want to blog again more regularly. I occasionally receive emails from blog readers who encourage me to write more. I have made friends with people who contacted me via my blog. And, most importantly, it is a good way to process some of my experiences.

So this is the official revival of my blog. It starts with my travel journal from that first trip, when I was still a tourist. If it whets your appetite and you are considering visiting Mali, check out our travel business: I can’t promise that you will meet the love of your life, but I can promise you an unforgettable vacation! (If you are considering staying in Bamako for a couple of months, we are always looking for casual English teachers for our language center:

January 4th, 2005: Depart Paris for Bamako

My friend Mary and I leave Paris for Bamako in the afternoon. Our flight is with Air France, and it is very comfortable, and feels quite luxurious after having taken American Airlines from NYC to Paris. I am thinking that this will be our last exposure to Western comforts for the next several weeks…. I am nervous and excited about arriving in Bamako in a couple of hours, and anxious to see if our one and only itinerary will work out: somebody is supposed to pick us up from the airport and deliver us to Francoise’s hostel, where we have reserved a room.

We land in Bamako at around 10pm, and I am struck by how dark the airport is. I can hardly make out the runway when we approach! The terminal is small and crowded, and we get in a semi-orderly line to have our passports checked. We jostle our way to the baggage carousel, and much to my relief I see a guy holding up a sign with my name on it. His name is Biton and he is a friend of Francoise. He speaks English, and he is here to take us to our hostel. The little car has seen better days (sometime in the 70’s….), and can barely fit our luggage! We arrive at the hostel, where we have a little room, a bed with a mosquito net, and a desk and a chair.

January 5th: Bamako

We have a lovely “petit dejeuner” on the rooftop: coffee, bread, butter, jam. There is a good view of the neighborhood, and all the early morning activities: women hanging up laundry, children on their way to school, and chicken, sheep, goats and donkeys foraging the streets for food. Women everywhere are beginning to prepare lunch over charcoal fires. We then meet Francoise, who herself arrived from Paris the night before, and very generously offers to spend the day with us. We of course welcome the offer, since we feel extremely clueless in face of all the errands that we have to run, and all the decisions that we have to make! Francoise shows us how to take a “Sotrama” (minibuses without seats or windows, instead with benches that run alongside the interior, squishing as many as 20 or so people and their bags/chickens/kids inside), takes us to exchange money, finds out about flights to Timbuktu (too expensive), finds out about the festival in Essakane (expensive), and takes us to lunch. We decide that we will take a bus to Mopti (646km), and then see if we can find a ride from there to the festival. Francoise takes us to the bus station to buy tickets for the bus, which will leave at 7:30am the next day. Later that night we have a lovely dinner at the hotel, on the rooftop, with Francoise and Dega, a girlfriend from Canada. Sengaré’s wife Fadouma comes by and drops off a cell phone, which we can use for the duration of our trip. That will make everything a lot easier for us. We feel that things are really going well so far…..The night is lovely: there is no moon, just massive amounts of stars, and the voice of the muezzin calling for prayer.

January 6th: Bamako to Mopti/Sevaré, and then on to Timbuktu

Francoise is too kind: to make sure that we get on the right bus, and to make sure that the driver knows where to deliver us, she gets up very early to take us to the bus station herself. People who have been sleeping at the station are just waking up, and there is a lively crowd of animals, taxi drivers, vendors, bus passengers, friends, relatives, children, and exactly three tourists, excluding us. I am not sure how people know which bus goes where (no signs, no PA system, no posted schedule …); that’s probably exactly why Francoise insisted on accompanying us. We find our bus, the driver is not there yet, but his “apprentice” is. Francoise tells him several times that he must make sure that we get off the bus in front of Peace Corps Baba’s store, not at the bus station in Sevaré. The bus is crowded, but quite modern and relatively comfortable. It also has a great sound system, and we are treated to tapes of Malian music throughout the trip, as provided by the passengers. We drive through countless villages, many towns, some major cities, but mostly we drive through the Sahel. It is the dry season – the next rainfall is at least six months away – and everything looks dusty and parched; the vegetation is sparse at first, then some baobab trees, then sparse again. Unfortunately, the landscape is littered with black and blue plastic bags. The traditional “sanitation workers” of Mali (= goats, pigs, donkeys, dogs, and sheep) are not capable of ridding the country of plastic bags.

We are delivered to Baba’s store at around 5:30pm, and are greeted warmly by Baba and his entourage (employees, relatives, random visitors). We quickly take a shower, and have some couscous in the restaurant next door. Baba tells us that he knows an American woman, Daphne, who is traveling to the festival, and she is looking for people to share the car with. We walk a couple of houses down the street to meet with Daphne, her friend Moussa, the driver Douda, and three other guys who want to get a ride. We agree on a price, and shortly are on our way to Timbuktu (410km) and the desert festival in Essakane!

It is dark, off course, when we leave, and so I break the first rule that I created for my trip to Mali: do not drive on the roads after dark. The roads are notoriously poorly maintained, speed bumps are plentiful and unannounced, livestock is everywhere, and the other cars may not have break lights, head lights, BREAKS, etc. But since I seem to be the only one concerned, and this is the only way to get to the festival scheduled to start the next day, I just surrender to the Mali-way.

The road is very bumpy and very dusty for the next couple of hours. Just when I get used to it, though, around midnight, we leave that road and veer North on a “washboard” road. This road is bumpier, and significantly dustier than the previous one, but it is the best road to Timbuktu. Our driver is very skilled, but also very fast, and we seem to be flying through the darkness. Good thing all the luggage is tied down. I am holding on for dear life, while all the other passengers are sleeping!

The driver stops at around three or four in the morning. We are at the river’s edge, he explains, and we have to wait for dawn, and the first ferry to arrive. Mary and I try to sleep on the ground, the driver on the roof of the car, and the other people inside the car. I can’t really see where we are, but I expect to wake up at a ferry terminal or so. When we wake up I realize that we are in the desert, among some dunes and donkeys, and the “ferry terminal” is a particularly tall dune, which has to be surmounted by the vehicle to get to the ferry. Good thing that there are some people camped out next to the dune, and able to help us when our vehicle gets stuck in the sand. (Why are they there? Are they there for that particular reason? They do not get on the ferry. They do not receive any money for their help. Are we of entertainment value? I never figured it out.) The ferry finally arrives around six, the camels etc. get off, we are able to get on, and we cross the Niger River towards Timbuktu.

January 7th: Timbuktu, and finally Essakane

But we are not there yet! We still have to drive about 20 km, since the river has changed its course in the last 20 years, and Timbuktu no longer is on the banks of the Niger. We finally arrive, and stop at a hotel for some breakfast, and to use the “chaise anglaise” (= European-style toilets). (I had been holding it since we left Mopti the night before. Mary went in the dunes earlier.) We go to another hotel to take a shower and get cleaned up a bit. We “tour” Timbuktu with Daphne, who has been visiting Timbuktu for the last 10 years, and Moussa, who is originally from there. They greet some old friends, and make arrangements for us to have lunch at a friend’s home. (In front of house I meet a particularly tall, charming and handsome man, who just arrived after having worked in the desert for four months. His name is Malé, he says, and we are meant to be together … (okay, he did not say that part, but he felt it, he told me later.) After a great lunch at Anna’s house (Malé’s mother) and the obligatory nap, we depart for Essakane. (I am quickly adjusting to the fact that life in Mali entails much fabulous food, and multiple naps throughout the day.)

My opinion of Malian roads is irreparably altered when I realize that all prior roads had been fabulous compared to the one that we were on for the next 2-3 hours. The only thing that made that terrain a road was the fact that we were on it in a vehicle. Driving 90km an hour, we “swim” up and down the sand dunes. I am prepared to meet death. The other passengers meanwhile are making small talk. (At least they were not sleeping this time…..)

We finally arrive at the festival. I am surprised to see that any other tourists had made it! There are many more Malians there, mostly Tamashek, who came by camel. (Now that mode of transportation makes sense.) Thanks to Daphne and her connections, we get a great package deal, whereby our admission fee also includes a Tamashek tent, and three meals a day. (None of us had brought a tent, and the nights were very cold and windy, so we were especially grateful for the tent.) By the time that everything is all sorted out, the car is unloaded, and we settled in the tent, we are all ready to go to bed, and we sleep through the first night of performances.

January 8 – 9th: Essakane

We wake up covered in sand. We are not real Tamashek women and do not know how to properly secure a traditional tent. Sand is everywhere, and becomes an integral part of this experience. (Local proverb: do not chew your food a lot in the desert. The less you chew it, the less you notice how much sand is in your food.) We all develop signs of respiratory disease, some sort of allergic reaction of our bodies, trying to cope with the sand.

Other than that, things are fun at the desert festival: we eat, we nap, we meet lots of people, we receive visitors at our tent, we walk around to see the vendors at the little market area, and we drink lots of African tea: an intricate ceremony that involves three servings of foamy tea, which starts out extremely strong and bitter, and gets sweeter with each serving. We see all of our “old friends” from Timbuktu again, and it makes us feel connected and part of. I am starting to understand that for me this trip is really about connecting with people, and enjoying the enormous gestures of hospitality that are being offered to us.

Malé also shows up. I appreciate his calm and kind presence more than I dare to admit to myself. He takes me on walks around the festival site. As we walk over and around the dunes, we can see groups of people scattered about. Tamashek are using this festival to trade, dance, and sing with each other, and we wander from one group to the next to observe the performances. Sometimes it is a group of women singing and dancing, other times it is a story teller who has his audience riveted. There are larger affairs, too: there are staged sword fights, which allude to the Tamashek’s life as feared warriors, and there is a big camel race, which allows the riders to show off their mastery over their animals.

The performances at night take place on a stage with sound equipment. Large fires are lit on a sand dune facing the stage, and we sit and watch. Many contemporary Malian musicians perform, and several European artists who are inspired by and incorporate Malian music into their own. The audience is enthusiastic, and dances and sings all night. Young men come around to offer African tea, which helps to keep us warm. Malé always makes sure that Daphne, Mary and I are comfortable, and then he settles in beside me, as if it has always been that way.

January 10th: Essakane to Timbuktu

We get up early in the morning. Many tourists and Tamashek have already left in the night, after the last performance. Bella women are waiting for us to pack up, so that they can take the tent down. We leave at around 9am, and even though it is the same crazy “road” through the dunes that we came on, it does not scare me anymore! I must be acquiring some of the Malian “No problem!” and “Inshallah” attitude.

We arrive at Timbuktu around 11am, and we treat ourselves to a shower in one of the hotels. We also discuss our travel plans: Daphne has changed her mind, and she no longer wants to return to Mopti right away, but instead wants to drive to Gao (424km) to stay in a friend’s hotel, and to visit some other people. She invites us to come along, and we gratefully accept. (We have already realized that we really hit the jackpot when we met Daphne, because she knows the country so well, and she knows so many people here.) She arranges for us all to have a special dinner at a friend’s house, and we can spend the night in Moussa’s house. (There are huge amounts of mosquitoes in that house, which has been unoccupied for quite some time. I discover that the Malian mosquitoes don’t know that DEET is a repellent.)

We spend the rest of the day with Isa, who gives us a tour of Timbuktu. He speaks English quite well, and he is very knowledgeable. He shows us the mosques, the library that contains ancient manuscripts dating back to 1216, the hospital, and the museum. He shows us how the richly decorated doors of the houses indicate how many children the couple is hoping for, and if they are still married or divorced. He tells me that the reason that I have only seen one cat thus far in Timbuktu is because they are considered a treat for the little boys, and they either hide or have been eaten! He later joins us for dinner (beef, not cat) at Yaya’s house. Bright red fire finches live in Yaya’s living room, as in many of the houses in Timbuktu.

Malé and I say good bye. He wanted to spend more time with me, but I was holding on to Africa Travel Rule #2: no hanky-panky with random guys from the desert! As soon as he left, though, I had this funny feeling: what if he’s the one …?!

January 11th: From Timbuktu to Gao, but not quite

We get up early, and we are ready to leave at around 8:30am. We have a new passenger in the car: Jean-Pierre, who is Italian, vegetarian, and traveling through Mali by himself. He sits in the cargo area along with Von and Jordan. Mary, Daphne and I are in the back, and Douda, the Driver, and Moussa are in the front. We also are supposed to meet up with Michele and his 10 passengers outside Timbuktu, by the river. We cannot find him at first, so we pick up Random Tamashek Man in the desert, who of course knows where Michele is, climbs on the roof of the car and guides us there.

When we meet up with Michele, he already has car trouble. Something that requires frequent motor oil refills, and leaves a huge plume of smoke behind the car. But, as usual, “no problem”, and off we drive, into the desert. Supposedly this trip will take about 7 hours……

About 7 hours and several incidents with Michele’s vehicle later, we are not even halfway to Gao. We are stuck somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Sahara, and the two drivers are basically rebuilding the 4-wheel drive on Michele’s car. It only takes about 20 minutes before Random Desert Inhabitant shows up at the scene. The Malians in our group have decided that they need to buy and eat mutton, so the man leaves and reappears with a sheep. Money is collected, and the purchase is made. Everybody is very giddy and excited: the prospect of eating fresh mutton meat seems to do that. Jean-Pierre, though, is a vegetarian, and even though he only speaks Italian, he is trying to convey the virtues of a vegetarian society, and the evils of commercial meat industry. Needless to say, he is not making many inroads with this group of meat-loving, mutton-killing guys! For effect, he is untying the sheep from the bumper, and he is walking off, pretending to take the animal back to its home. The sheep is not as dumb as one might think, and - realizing that Jean-Pierre has never walked a sheep on a rope before in his life - quickly slips the rope over its horns, and takes off! Good thing that the car has not been fixed yet, so that several guys can take off after the animal, and spend the next several hours looking for it in the desert while the rest of the guys can argue back and forth with Jean-Pierre, who is only minimally apologetic. BIG DRAMA. After a couple of hours I realize that overall everybody has a great sense of humor about the incident, and that the entertainment value of this incident far outweighs the financial loss for the Malians! For the next three days this story gets told and retold, and told again, always causing much screaming and laughter.

A while later the car is fit to drive again, and we continue our journey towards Gao. In the darkness, Michele’s car hits a rabbit. Our driver quickly stops, leaps out of the car with his knife, finds and kills the injured rabbit, and returns to the car with its headless carcass. He hands it to “The Italian”, and announces that even though the sheep is gone, Allah provided us with a rabbit for breakfast. Much screaming and laughter in the car!

Around 1 am, and still many miles away from Gao, Michele’s car breaks down again. We continue without him. Around 3am our car gets another flat tire. This time, though, we have no more spare tires, and we are stranded about 5 miles outside of Gao. We have to sleep there (in, on, and next to the car), and wait for dawn, hoping that our driver can get a ride into Gao, with the flat tire, and then a ride back to us.

Day break comes, and the guys make fire for tea ... and to roast the rabbit! Douda gets a ride into town, and we wait, and wait, and wait. Around 10am he finally returns, and we finally pack up to continue to Gao. The charcoaled rabbit carcass goes on top of the car, thank Allah.

January 12 – 14th: Gao, at last!

This dusty desert town looked so good to us when we arrived! We go straight to a restaurant, wake up the manager, who has to send for the cook, since he has the key for the refrigerator. We eat, we drink, we use the bathroom, and we celebrate the fact that we made it out the desert alive! (Well, I did. As usual, the others were not particularly stressed out.) We also rehash the “The Italian and the Sheep” story several times. We then go to Michele’s hotel, but Michele is not there, of course, since we left him behind in the desert about 12 hours ago. Later that day we all eat the rabbit, much to Douda’s delight.

We pursue the usual activities (eating, napping, relaxing) while in Gao. In addition, we visit the artisan market, and take a pinasse to visit “la dune rose”, a short ride up the Niger. It is a huge, red sand dune right on the river’s bank, and after we trek up the dune, we have a great view of the desert on one side, and the Niger on the other. We watch the sunset, and chat with our “escorts” Speedy and Jordan. The dune is one of Gao’s major tourist attractions, and we do see any other tourist while we are there.

While in Gao I also call Male. I tell him that I should have applied rule #2 in his case, and that I would like to see him again (… to find out if he is the one!), and we agree to meet in Mopti in a couple of days.

Michele and his group arrive two days after we did. It’s a great opportunity to celebrate the fact that we are all in Gao together now, and to retell the story of “The Italian and the Sheep” a couple of times.

My birthday is a “un-event”. Birthdays are not really celebrated in Africa anyway, so only Mary knows that it’s my 40th (!!!) birthday. I am content that I am not stuck in the desert anymore, that I can take a shower, and that I treated myself to having an unorthodox and adventurous experience! I also break Africa Travel Rule #3 (Don’t eat any salad): I am eating a big salad, with beets and cucumber and lettuce and tomatoes and peppers and carrots. After so many meals consisting of rice and meat, I decided to throw caution to the wind! Salad has never tasted so good.

January 14th: From Gao to Mopti (600km)

We leave Gao, and we leave behind the Italian, Jordan, and Von. We travel south-west towards Mopti on what must be the BEST road in all of Mali. It is black and smooth and wide enough for two passing cars … Mary and I are in awe.

Halfway to Mopti the landscape changes considerably: a mountain range in the distance breaks up the usual flat surface. Soon several mesas dominate the landscape, reminding me of the American South-West. These are the Hombori Mountains, the highest range in Mali. There are many native stories surrounding these visually striking mesas, the most famous of which is the “Main de Fatima”, which does look like a hand from a particular perspective. Apparently this is also a destination for rock climbers from all over the world, but we do not see any other travelers.

We arrive in Mopti at around 9pm. We call Baba, who had been worried about us because he was expecting us right after the festival. We both get a lecture from him. (We did not know that he was our “Baba”, [Baba=father] but he set us straight!) Well, he wants us to be delivered to his house, because that is where we will be staying! We arrive at his house, and we are greeted by his wife, Mariam, and shown to our room. Baba’s house is actually a large compound, where many of his relatives and their families all live around one courtyard. Baba and his wife live in their section with their seven children, their maid with her children, and pet birds. We get the guest room, and we sleep soundly until the next morning.

January 15th- 21st: Mopti/Sevaré

Mopti is a busy, bustling city. It sits on the banks of the Bani river, which is a tributary to the Niger. Each year, after the rains, it floods the surrounding land, and allows for the planting of rice. The road to Sevaré, a small adjoining city, is on one of several dykes that surround the city. Traveling on that road every day, as we travel between Mopti and Sevaré, allows us to get a sense of the enormous flood lands that dominate the landscape here.

We spend the next couple of days with Baba, either at his store in Sevaré, or with his family in Mopti. His wife, who does not speak French or English, presides over her family’s compound from the couch. We are amazed how many chores the children have to perform! Visitors and vendors enter the compound constantly, providing entertainment and merchandise to Mariam. Her main focus currently is our wellbeing, and she sees to it that we eat huge quantities of food every couple of hours, that we nap, that we bathe with water that the daughters have to heat up, and that our clothes are laundered.

Our guide around the town of Mopti is Ibrahim, who speaks English very well. He takes us to the mosque, the artisan market, and then on a pinasse, to travel to a Bozo village about 30 minutes away. The Bozo are fishermen, who live on the banks of the river, and dry or smoke their catch daily. Traveling back on the pinasse, we recline, sip African tea, and are lulled by the breeze and the waves of the river.

One of Baba’s friends, Elmaouloud, invites us to visit him and his family. He is Tamashek, and he lives just outside of Sevaré . Baba drops us of and –ironically- warns us not to eat too much meat. At Elmaouloud’s we are shown around the family compound, admire the live stock, and visit the women’s tent, where they work on decorating leather wares. We then settle in the men’s tent, which is beautifully decorated, its floors are lined with mats and pillows. We recline, and chat, and drink African tea. After a while we are served sheep heart in sauce, with French bread. We eat, we recline, we nap, and we chat. When I think that it’s time to head back, our host exclaims that we must have lunch first! Apparently the heart was just the appetizer. We are served rice with shredded mutton, and the famous Tamashek sauce: clarified butter and cheese, which is poured on top. We then have to nap some more.

Because Elmaouloud also has to get to Sevaré, he arranges for a taxi to take us all. The taxi immediately gets a flat tire. The driver has a spare, but no jack! Luckily we are in the desert, so within minutes Random Desert Guys appear to help. About 10 or so lift up the car, while the tire is changed! We continue on with our journey, but the car stalls on the road. While we remain in the car, the other passengers push. All of the sudden I can see flames shooting out the motor! Mary and I try to get out of the car, but the doors have no handles on the interior, and cannot be opened from the inside. Luckily the flames are so big that the men see them quickly, and open the doors for us. We leave the car and its owner behind, and walk the rest of the way.

Mary travels to Dogon for three days, while I stay behind in Sevaré to meet Malé. Unfortunately I am suffering from an ear infection that started in Gao, and to top it off I caught my first stomach bug. Not a good premise for a romantic rendezvous. It may be the fever, but after three days with Malé I feel like he is the one.

Upon Mary’s return, she tells me that Dogon was the highlight of this trip for her, and that I must one day return to Mali to see it for myself!

Back in Mopti, the town, no, the whole country is buzzing with anticipation: January 21st is Tabaski. On this day every Muslim man who has the means buys and sacrifices a sheep, and then feeds his family and those who are less fortunate. The occasion is the story of Abraham, whose faith is tested when Allah tells him to sacrifice his son, and the result is a three-day holiday in Mali. We are told that it is important to have festive clothes, and if we want we could get our feet decorated with henna design. Mary chooses some fabric at the market, and then has a tailor make her a beautiful outfit. I choose one of the dresses that are pre-approved by Mariam. We also get our feet hennaed the night before the fest, and sleep with plastic bags on our feet, just like proper Malian women!

The day of Tabaski we go to the stadium for Morning Prayer with Baba’s family. I have no intention of praying (obviously!!!), but after being nudged by the elderly women that I am sitting next to, I do not have a choice but to rise, bow, and raise my hands along with thousands of Malians. Baba had told us that there will be plenty of other tourists there to take pictures….we see one other Westerner. After prayer we drive back to Baba’s house, and everywhere men are slaughtering sheep in front of the houses by cutting their throats and letting them bled to death. (I have to admit that it made me feel quite nauseous. Worse: I was also thinking about all the meat that I would have to eat!) Baba kills his sheep once we arrive at the house, and shortly thereafter the sheep heart arrives for our eating pleasure!

After we nap, we get ready to visit Baba’s relatives. Everybody is wearing festive clothes, and we pile into the car to make the first visit. When we arrive, the greetings are long and formal: the two greeters take turns asking each other about the wellbeing of their wives, children, extended families, their health, their business, their live stock, etc. all in rapid-fire Bambara. We are ushered into the courtyard, and we are offered seats. I am totally mentally prepared for more sheep heart, African tea, etc. Much to my complete surprise, everybody gets up after 5 minutes or so, quick goodbyes are said, and Baba and his family are rushing out the door, Mary and I in tow. And that is the format for the next 10 visits or so. (It was the only time during my stay in Mali that something happened faster than I expected.)

January 22nd: From Mopti to Bamako

The day after the fest we travel with Baba and another person to Bamako. We say good bye to Mariam, all the children, the maid, the other relatives, all the guys who work with and for Baba at his store, and all the adjoining shop owners, our guides, drivers, etc. Once on the road we stop several times: to eat, to pray, to visit friends, and to visit a Bogolan (mudcloth) workshop, but we eventually get to Bamako. Françoise does not have any rooms left in her little hotel, so she takes us to another place in the same area. It is affiliated with an orphanage and an outreach project for street kids, and it is run by Mamadou.

January 23rd – 26th: Bamako

One other room is occupied by Jean-Marc and Isabelle from Paris, who are there to adopt little Tidiane. They are lovely, and so is the baby boy, and we spend the day just chatting with them, resting, napping, and eating the huge salads that Mamadou makes just for us. We also take two showers a day in the best bathroom that we have yet seen in Mali!

Now that I am in the capital, I want to see a doctor. My ear infection is very painful, and I cannot hear anything with that ear. Françoise refers me to a Dr. Sengaré, and has somebody take me there. Dr. Sengaré is very nice, and sees me right away. He received his medical degree in Germany, and we speak in German about my problem. He prescribes some drops and an anti-inflammatory medication. The visit costs the equivalent of $24.00, and the medication $6.00.

The next day we meet up with Jordan and Von, who were in Essakane with us, and several other people that we met there. They have been eagerly awaiting our arrival at Bamako, and now it is their turn to host us and entertain us! Jordan shows us around the Grand Marché, the Petit Marché, and the artisan market. We also visit the art institute, where we meet several very talented students, who study music, sculpture, and painting there. An impromptu concert in the courtyard becomes one of the highlights of our trip….

Later that evening we meet with Françoise. We want to take her out for dinner, and she suggests San Toro, a beautiful restaurant adjoined by a very lovely boutique. For the first time Mary and I see contemporary, stylized fashion and jewelry. We fall in love with several handbags and outfits, but because we are in Mali, the store does not take credit cards, cash only! We make an emotional pitch to the sales person about the importance of introducing the concept of credit cards to this country’s economy, and how there will never be more American tourists until they do! She either does not care, or does not know what credit cards are, and I leave the store without having purchased the coolest handbag for $250.00

Our last day in Bamako begins with us taking our luggage to the downtown airline office. We are amazed at how quickly and easily we check in the luggage, confirm our flight, and obtain our boarding passes! Freed of the burden of luggage, we spend the day with Jordan and Co. Today they are taking us to the National Museum (very nice), a prehistoric cave with some bats (Cool! Love bats!), and some concrete sculptures of cavemen and a dinosaur (cheesy, but our friends are very proud of the exhibit). But they are not done yet: we have to go to Sibi, which is a “beautiful village very close to Bamako”. We set off on a dirt road with very red dirt, which immediately cloaks the car and us. After 1 1/2 hours and stopping once for mangoes we arrive at the village, which is not particularly spectacular, but we are just passing through. Turns out that our real destination is a mesa; more specifically, the top of the mesa. We climb across some very surreal lava landscapes, and we arrive at a “window rock”. We have a beautiful view of the surrounding land. Apparently there is a beautiful waterfall at that location in the rainy season. The guide then leads us down to a huge cave, which is still being used for sacrificing animals. It’s all very fascinating and interesting, but now it is 6:30pm, getting dark, and we have a flight to catch. We scramble down the mesa, and gun down the red dirt road in our little car. Luckily the car does not brake down, nor do we get a flat tire! We take a quick shower, pack the rest of our bags, and Jordan delivers us safely at the airport.

It is the end of an eventful day in Bamako, Mali, and the end of an incredible journey…..

Haike and Malé in Berlin at the ITB, March 2010

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How I got my Malian driver’s license

My New York State driver’s license was due to expire on my birthday in January. Renewing it by mail presented with some logistical difficulties, and I got it into my head that I would get a Malian license. True, many bureaucratic procedures here are so convoluted that they make your brain swell up, but sometimes things are surprisingly easy (for example getting a visa). Getting a Malian license while having a current American one seemed simple enough, and Malé was going to set it all up for me. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, as I was letting my license expire, “it will not be problem”.

Soon it was somewhat of a problem: my birthday came, my license expired, and I did not have a new one yet. True, Malé had identified some Big Cheese from the Ministry of Roads and Transportation, and I had an audience coming up where “everything will be taken care of”, but it was still a week away. I had to get to and from work every day. (When in Rome do as the Romans, I know, but I refuse to join the ranks and drive around without a valid license. The traffic here is so precarious, and one is always just a millisecond away from running over a goat / child / donkey / pedestrian / chicken / moped / dog, and if that happens I would rather have a valid license on me, thank you very much.)

In preparation for my meeting with the BC I had to prepare my “dossier”. I had to submit four photos, a copy of my birth certificate, and also a Certificate of Residence from the police station in my neighborhood. No problem: those items were easy enough to supply. Once submitted though, I was told that since I was a foreigner I would have to get my birth certificate officially translated, and also go to my Embassy and get a ‘Residence Card’ from them. (The photos were fine.) I had my birth certificate translated, and then I went to the fort-like US Embassy. I was told that there is no such thing as a ‘Residence Card’. When told, the BC said that in that case they would take a ‘work certificate’, which turned out to be a letter signed by Malé, stating that I worked with him. Ok, so far no problem.

Meeting the BC kept being delayed for different reasons, and for two weeks I had to rely on Malé or my sister (who had just arrived from Berlin) or somebody else to drive me to work. Finally: the Big Day for my meeting with the BC! I had no idea what to expect, and neither did Malé, but I was really looking forward to getting my license.

We had to be at the MINISTRY OF ROADS AND TRANSPORTATION OFFICE OF LICENSES AND REGISTRATION FOR TRUCKS, CARS, MOTORCYCLES AND MOPEDS, INSPECTIONS AND TECHNICAL VISITS, AND MANHOLE COVERS at 7am. Apparently approximately 300 men and women also had the same instructions: the place was teeming. I still was not sure about what actually would take place, so I just followed Malé as he went around the building to the back door. The BC had just arrived with his entourage, and after a quick meet & greet I was ushered through some offices, and into a large room. The room had several metal benches and some random chairs, all facing the front of the room. Funny, I thought, what am I going to be doing here?

I waited for about 1 ½ hours. Nothing much to do expect stare at the bare, cracked, turquoise-colored walls, the stacks of papers and files on the floor, the dust that had settled on everything, and watch the wobbly ceiling fan … A good opportunity to contemplate the absence of 45 degree angles in Mali! When I was sure that the metal bars of the bench had left a permanent imprint on my behind, a second door was opened. People were called up, and one by one they piled into the room. Soon the room was filled up, all the seats were taken. I realized that I would have to share my little desk with one other person, and I scooted over for a young woman.

I soon realized that according to Malian standards the room was only half full, and more and more people joined us. Soon we were packed shoulder to shoulder. Matter of fact, we (me and the other three people sharing my little desk) had to turn our shoulders a little sideways, one arm on the desk in front of us, the other behind our back, in order to fit onto the bench and be able to write! By now I realized that I was about to participate in a full-fledged Malian written driver’s examination. In French, of course, and in Bambara for those of us not fluent in French!

The BC was the examiner that day, and he proceeded to explain the test taking procedure to us. There would be 30 questions based on photos of traffic scenarios projected onto the cracked, dusty, turquoise wall. We would have to get 20 correct answers in order to be able to take the road test. (Road test???) He would read the question and the possible answers (for those who speak French but cannot read and write), and then he would translate them into Bambara (for those who can neither speak French nor read and write). He did not specifically say what he would do for those who can read and write, but do not speak a word of Bambara, and only marginally speak French, and certainly not enough to pass a drivers examination - like me!

The BC began to project the images onto the wall. Nothing could have been further removed from what the street scenes look like here in Mali. There were photos of working traffic lights, pedestrian crossings clean streets, legible road signs, and cars with functioning head lights. I wasn’t sure how anybody was even going to relate to the images…?! When the slide showed a French pastoral countryside in dense fog, and the question was about using the fog lights, my mouth just dropped open. Fog??? Fog lights??? People here are barely using headlights, and there has never been any fog here. The smoke of burning garbage, maybe, or the dust of a passing herd of cows, but fog? The young lady next to me noticed my open mouth, and she nudged me and showed me her answer for that slide. Clearly she thought that I needed all the help that I can get. I tried to stay focused on the rest of the questions, but my mind was racing with ideas for a REAL Malian driver’s test, one with culturally relevant images and questions: What do you do when stopped by a flock of sheep? Which hand signal do you use to when your indicator signal is not working? How often should you honk your horn when a car stalls in front of you? What do you do when the ram tied to your car’s roof suddenly breaks lose …?

My behind was numb when finally I was able to step out into the court yard after sitting in that room for 4 hours. On my way out the BC approached me and told me to come back at 16:00 for the road test. I smiled tensely and told him that I would be there. But I had doubts: was I really ready for a Malian road test? Was I supposed to drive like I was taught, you know, like follow the rules and obey the signals? Or was I supposed to drive like everybody else here? What about parking? Should I show him how I learned parallel parking in Germany, or should I just ram my car headfirst into a space like the drivers do here? I just felt confused about the whole thing …

After lunch I felt much better. Yes! I was definitely up for the challenge. I would show the BC some awesome parallel parking, and my driving style would be eclectic: a little Bamako-cows and sheep on the street-death wish and a dash of New York-Dominican-cab driver-attitude, but firmly anchored in place by German-driver’s lessons-anno 1983!

We arrived before 16:00, and soon the BC emerged from the building. He settled into my car. I was eager and determined to impress him. My request to fasten the seatbelt was dismissed by the BC with a wave of his left hand. With his right hand he signaled me forward, pointing between the two trees that were in front of us. Aha, he clearly wanted to see if I get to the other side of the compound without running into the trees. (No problem, just wait until I show you my parallel parking!) Once past the trees we were heading towards the wall that surrounds the compound, so I decided to be proactive and ask him if he wanted me to turn left or right. A lazy wave towards his right told me all I needed to know. I decided to signal, but I had my doubts: was I overdoing it? (We were, after all, the only car here, the only moving object, except for some grazing sheep.) Well, I could always attribute it to my German obsessive-compulsive driving lessons… Now he signaled me towards where Malé was standing next to his car. I thought, oh good, now we will pick up Malé and head into town for some parallel parking and all that good stuff. But to my surprise (and disappointment) the BC got out the car, exchanged some words with Malé, and went into the building ...

And this is how I became the proud (?) owner of a Malian driver’s license, valid for life, all classes and categories: trucks, mopeds, bikes, etc. And when you come and visit me in Bamako we will take a spin, I will make sure to show off my parallel parking skills!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Customer is Queen

The customer is queen
I have a little raggedy gas stove in our kitchen, which is connected to a big gas container. Every couple of months the gas will run out, inevitably in the middle of cooking. Then we have to unhook the container and drive to a gas station to exchange the empty bottle for a full one.

This seems like a pretty straightforward process, and went smoothly for the first year or so. Then, one hot dusty day not too long ago, the bottle was empty after only two weeks! Right away I was angry, because obviously we were sold a bottle that was not completely filled. We went to the gas station where we always buy it and spoke to the staff there. They explained that since it is not them who fill the bottle, and since they just work there, there was nothing they could do. We should just buy a new bottle and take our chances. WELL. Before I could give them a piece of my mind, Male reminded me that we did not have a receipt that showed date of purchase. I was peeved, but ok, we bought a new bottle (about $28!!!), and I held on to the receipt.

Like clockwork, about two weeks later the bottle ran out. I was ready for them this time: I had the receipt. Male was in Timbuktu, and that actually suited me: he just does not have the same sense of entitlement that I have after having shopped in the USA for 23 years: I am the customer, therefore I am queen, and that’s all there is to it.

Armed with that belief (who says I don’t have any?) I returned to the gas station. I had the same conversation with the workers there as before, but this time I asked for the manager. He was not available, so I left my card, and they promised to call me when the manager was there. (They did call me, but just to say ‘Hi!’, not because the manager was there.) I refused to buy a new bottle, and instead I went to that gas station every day for four days, always with the empty gas bottle in the car, when finally one day I coincided with the manager …

I drew first. I began by recounting what loyal customers we are, and that we choose to take our business to that particular station because we trust the brand name (TOTAL). We were very disappointed when we discovered that twice in a row we had purchased a faulty product. I was there to allow him to rectify that situation. He responded with the predictable we-do-not-fill-the-bottles-we-just-get-them-delivered-so-it’s-not-our-fault. Then came his generous offer: but he would be happy to sell me another bottle!

This was not going to be easy, I could tell, but I had been preparing for this moment for four days. I strategically moved over a bit, and now we were standing in the full sun. The sun did not bother me, but I could tell that my adversary was beginning to wilt. I started again, telling him a bit about how I, his customer, do not care where the bottle comes from or how it gets there, that my only agenda was to get my $28 worth of gas! (I was still quite polite, but increasingly with effort.) And that, by accepting delivery and selling the bottles, they assumed responsibility for the product. And, anyway, if not, they needed to inform their customers that they do not assume responsibility. And if they did not assume responsibility for their product, why would I frequent them? And furthermore, I personally do not like to gamble, and I never do, so why would I start gambling with bottles of gas: full or not??? Also, if they have a problem with the supplier, they need to resolve it and not pass the problem on to their loyal customers. And while we are on the subject of loyal customers: we were prepared to stop frequenting that particular gas station if we felt that we were not being awarded good customer treatment. So there.

My strategy was working, it seemed: I was watching the sweat beads pool on his forehead, and the sweat run off his temples. Exasperated he asked me what it was that I wanted. (How do I shut up this crazy white woman, he was thinking.) I told him that I wanted a new, full bottle for free. Duh!!! He looked at me like I was out of my mind. I looked at him like that was the only way I was going to shut up and go away …

They loaded the bottle into the back of the car. He wiped of his sweat, and we exchanged the usual Malian pleasantries that precede one’s departure. I was smiling all the way home, having scored a small victory for all customers in Mali.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

Malian Love Stories – Part 3

Oumou was in seventh or eight grade when she met Reesa. Reesa was much older -he was her math teacher- and she was flattered by the attention he paid her. He was single, he came from a respected family in Timbuktu, and was always very polite and respectful towards her. Oumou’s girlfriends were impressed and envious, and by encouraging Oumou they revealed all of their own dreams and desires: he will marry you, you will be his first wife, he will buy you lots of dresses and shoes and jewelry, and he will take you to places … Oumou was ambivalent: yes, she was flattered, and he seemed nice enough, and of course she wanted to get married one day, but she did not want to marry just yet, so young, before finishing school. Oumou was not sure how to handle this situation; she wanted the courtship to just continue for now. Reesa, on the other hand, had already made his intentions clear to Oumou: he wanted to get married.

In order to ask her family’s permission Reesa send his uncle to the woman who raised Oumou, Male’s mother Anna. Anna was not going to give Oumou away against her will, and when she asked her, Oumou told her that she was not ready to get married. Anna asked Reesa’s uncle to give Oumou some more time, and that she will agree to marry his nephew eventually. Reesa, however, felt pressured. He was close to getting a new teacher’s position in Bamako, and he did not want to leave Timbuktu without Oumou. He did not understand her hesitation; after all, he was going to do everything to make her happy. He enlisted the help of another family member: the imam of one of the three mosques in Timbuktu. The imam himself went to see Anna, and requested that her granddaughter Oumou consent to marry Reesa. Now Oumou really had no choice anymore: she would have to get married to Reesa. Turning down the imam’s request would have significant social consequences for Anna and her family. So it was agreed, and the wedding ceremony took place.

Oumou remembers the first couple of years of her marriage as very difficult. She says that she was angry and resentful and sad that she was manipulated into marriage, and she decided that she was going to not be nice to Reesa. She refused to cook for him, and she would visit with her girlfriends instead of staying home. She speaks about refusing his advances regularly, and not wanting to sleep with him. Maybe she was hoping that he would just leave her if she was horrible enough. She stopped going to school, since it seemed inappropriate to be married woman and a school girl at the same time. Reesa, however, continued to be kind and patient with her, and he went to the market and bought groceries and cooked for the two of them. Eventually Oumou stopped being mad, and instead began to really fall in love with him.

A couple of years after their marriage they relocated to Bamako, where Reesa continued to work as a teacher. When she was 20 or so Oumou became pregnant. She and Reesa were really happy now as a couple, and to have a baby would just complete their world. Just shortly after her pregnancy was confirmed Reesa was asked by an acquaintance to travel to the U.S. and look into a family matter there. The acquaintance would pay for Reesa’s ticket and all expenses. Reesa discussed this with his young wife, and they quickly agreed: Reesa would travel to the U.S. and, instead of coming right back, he would stay there, start working, sending money to Oumou and their child, and eventually having Oumou join him there. Oumou was just 3 or 4 months pregnant when Reesa left on a flight to Washington DC.

That was in 2002. When I met Oumou in 2005 she had not seen Reesa in three years. Her daughter Mami was three years old and absolutely adorable, and she had never met her father. Oumou was still living in Bamako, having completed a vocational training program for beauticians, but her daughter was being raised in Timbuktu by Oumou’s mother. Oumou was excited about beginning her career (she just had been hired at a beauty salon), but her happiness was tainted by a sense of sadness and longing that she felt for Reesa. He would call periodically and give her an update of his job situation, but he never really had any specific plan or date for when they would be together again. Oumou did not really understand why it was taking him this long. She had a vague sense of him trying to get papers or documents so that they could get reunited, but not enough to feel that they had a plan. It touched me to hear Oumou’s love story. I had just returned to Mali to see Malé eight months after I last saw him, and I could not phantom what it must be like to spend years waiting, longing, hoping, dreaming …

In 2006 Malé came to visit me in the U.S. for a couple of months. On his “to-do list” was to contact Reesa, and, if possible, to see him. He was living in Baltimore, and we were planning on being in that area later in the summer. They had already spoken a couple of times on the phone, and Reesa decided to visit us in NYC. He had lived in DC, Maryland and Virginia for almost 5 years at this point, but he had never been to NYC. He came to NYC for 3 days and Malé showed him around. He also had not had a day off from work in the last couple of years, and he was savoring feeling like a tourist on vacation. He was eager to hear about Oumou and Mami, and he pored over the photos that I gave him. Eventually he told us all about his life in Baltimore, about working in fast food restaurants these last couple of years, making $5 or $6 off the books, working 7 days a week, sharing rooms with several other guys, being robbed, ripped off, being sick, being lonely. Every two weeks or so he can send $100 or $150 to his mother and his sisters, and less to Oumou and his daughter. He was telling us that he has been trying to get legal status for years, and his only chance was to get married to an American and apply for a Green Card that way. A marriage that he had counted on several years ago did not work out, but now he had found another woman who agreed to marry him. He told us that he currently was living with her and her son, and he was hoping that in a couple of months he would have legal status. He assured us that his relationship with that young woman was “strictly business”, and that he was doing everything he could to bring Oumou and his daughter here.

Later he spoke even more about his frustrations, and how he was feeling trapped. Here he was, a 45-year old math teacher, taking pizza orders, working from sun-up to sun-down, never having laid eyes on his daughter, never going out, never having fun, always afraid of getting caught. He mentioned that often he wished that he could just return to Mali, just give up, and resume his old life there. But he realized that he could not. He could not admit to defeat, admit to having failed to accomplish what he set out to accomplish. His mother and his sisters were counting on and benefiting from that $100, $200 that he was sending. He could not stop sending that. His unhappiness and loneliness was no justification for giving up. That sacrifice was a given, was so expected, that he could not even talk to anybody about that. He was not going to get any sympathy. He knew the rules: it was more honorable to die at this point, die from exhaustion or disease or crime, than to return without enough money for houses, cars, businesses etc. for the whole family. And then he mentioned something that came as a surprise to me: he said that often he would speak to Oumou about that, about wanting to come back, wanting to give up, and that she, too, told him to stay. To stay and to find an American to marry and to send for her. He would tell her that life was not all that good over there, and that they could have a good enough life in Mali, him working as a teacher and she as a beautician, but she would not want to hear that … So he continued to lie to her and his family, like they all did, and he would just say that everything was fine, he was fine, the job was fine, the life there was fine. “Oui, ça va très bien ici …”

Later that summer Malé and I traveled down to the Baltimore area. We went and visited with Reesa and several other Timbuktians, who all lived in Baltimore. The evening was spent eating and catching up on common acquaintances and family members. A young man missed dinner because he was held up at gun point when he was making his last food delivery. He eventually showed up, pistol-whipped and bleeding. The reactions of the others showed that this was just an all too familiar occurrence in this high-crime area. They all had stories about being robbed, beaten, cheated, ripped off etc. as they were working as cab drivers, delivery people, cashiers, or vendors.

We also met the young woman who Reesa had married. They were living together still, as they were filing for papers to change Reesa’s legal status. Reesa was hoping that it would all work out, but he had some concerns. It seems that the woman was changing her mind about the relationship being “strictly business”: she liked how Reesa was kind and caring towards her six-year old son, and towards her. She liked how Reesa was hard-working, and that he did not drink or do drugs. She told him that no man had ever treated her this nicely. She did not think that she wanted him to move out after all. Reesa was getting nervous: the deal was to just get married, file the papers, and once approved, move out and get a divorce. So that he could bring Oumou over. If he pissed her off in any way, she could just pick up the phone and call the cops or immigration. He was in a really vulnerable position.

Eventually Malé returned to Mali, and he talked to Oumou about Reesa, and he told her that it was really up to her, that she can decide to continue to wait for him, and she can decide to move on. Yes, he seemed to love her and genuinely wanted to be reunited with her, but, no, he did not really have a date or a plan, nor does he have any papers …

Reesa? He is still over there, chasing the American Dream. And Oumou is still here in Mali, with her sad love story. And one day soon she will have to explain it to her little girl …

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Malian Love Stories - Part 2

It was Sunday morning, and we were having coffee on the terrace. Malé’s phone rang, and as he was responding to the call I could tell –even though he was speaking Bambara- that the news was upsetting. When he finished the call he told me that it was Adama who had called, the husband to his younger sister La Veille.

[La Veille is really called Aramata, named after an old auntie. However, here it is never polite to call an older relative by their first name; instead, one refers to them as “le vieux” or “la veille” (“the old one”, or “der Alte/die Alte” in German), even to their face. So therefore, young children named after elder family members will be called “le vieux” from birth on. - Referring to a two year old as “le vieux” really takes some getting used to ….!]

Adama was upset with his wife and wanted Malé to help him by talking to her. He felt that she was being difficult and stubborn, and he knew that she would listen to her older brother Malé. It seems that La Veille became upset last night when Adama told her that he will get married next weekend, and that she will have a co-wife. He was counting on Malé to calm her down … Malé was taken aback. He had always really liked Adama and felt that he and La Veille had a loving marriage. (Above is a picture of them.) He could not believe that Adama would do something like this to his sister! He hardly made enough money to support his wife and their four kids, but he felt that he needed to have a second wife? Adama knew that La Veille would be hurt by his announcement, and now he was trying to enlist Malé to smooth things over? No, Adama was told, Malé was going to support his sister and not Adama.

Malé immediately called his sister. She was furious, but calm. No, she did not see that coming at all. He had never hinted at wanting a second wife. They hardly had enough money to cover the rent every month (about $80). Last night, at dinner, in front of the kids, he announced to her the big news. She replied that in that case she will leave him, that she will not accept a co-wife. The kids started to cry, fearing that they would be loose their mother. It was horrible. Eventually Adama left the house, shaking his head at his unreasonable wife. Malé told his sister that it really is her choice how to deal with this matter, but that no matter what her decision, she can count on Malé’s support. She should not feel that she has to stay with Adama because she is financially dependent on him. La Veille appreciated Malé’s response; she knows that she can count on him. Later that day, as her other siblings and her mother found out about this event, she received similarly supportive calls. She just had to make her decisions, and her family would support her.

[Other women are not so lucky. When their husbands present them with a new co-wife, they often feel that they have no other option but to accept their husband’s decision. Usually the woman does not earn any income, or just very little, and depends entirely on her husband to support her and the kids. In addition, they will get very little sympathy from their family (having a co-wife is not seen as a very tragic occurrence in the bigger scheme of things), and/or their family is in no position to take on the financial burden of supporting the woman and her kids. The wife could go to court and divorce the husband officially, but if she has no income, the husband will get custody of the kids. So leaving the husband really means either leaving the children as well, or living in poverty with them – her choice.]

Adama was not around all week. He was waiting to see what La Veille would do. And La Veille was waiting to see what he would do. The children were sad and scared, and waiting to see what their parents would do. I was holding my breath. I was glad that La Veille was angry, but calm, and that she knew where she would draw the line. I was so grateful for Malé’s position and support of his sister.

When we visited with her the following week, it was apparent that she had lost weight. She hardly spoke. Adama had married the other woman; it was official now. And La Veille had made her decision: she would not leave him. She was staying for the kids …

[Malé and I speak a lot about the institution of polygamy in Mali. Since it is unfamiliar to me I always have a lot of questions about it. For instance, in this case I really was wondering about Adama’s motivation. He seemed happy with his wife, even though they were always struggling financially. So why would he want a second wife and all the responsibilities that that entails? If he just wanted to sleep with another woman he could easily do so without marrying her. Malé feels that he did it just because he can: a matter of status, perhaps, feeling like it’s the thing to do, maybe. Finding a woman here that is willing to marry you is apparently easier than me finding a can of cat food! You don't have to be good-looking, successful, smart, tall or especially nice. And if you don’t have the money for the dowry … no problem: you get the woman on credit! You can pay later, or, if you are not happy, you send her back. And if you don’t have the money to set her up in a separate house, then you just leave her at your parents’ house, or move her in with the first wife (like Moussa did). Your first wife does not really have to consent; you just have to get her used to it afterwards. The government requires couples that get married officially (at City Hall) to declare if they will practice monogamy or polygamy, and so the wife has to consent to future co-wives. However, many couples never get married legally, and even if they do, the husband can always change his mind and marry a second time, and the wife basically will be in the same position as La Veille…]