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…]

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Malian Love Stories - Part 1

My neighbor Moussa lives next door with his mother, his wife, and their children. His wife is beautiful, and the mother to his two daughters and toddler son. Like him, she is Peul. She has a nose that is long and curved, and the longest eye lashes ever, as do all of her children. I don’t encounter her much as she usually is inside her house. But when I do, we greet each other warmly and speak a little in French about the day’s events or the weather or her children. I just know her as ‘Madame Moussa’.

One day, as Malé was leaving in the morning, she asked him to take her to the clinic with her toddler. He was feverish, and she wanted him seen by a doctor. When she was seated in the car, Malé inquired about her health and how things are with the family, the usual greeting formalities here. As soon as he said that, she began pouring out her heart to him, as if she had been waiting for that opportunity. Oh, she told him, she is suffering greatly. Had he noticed how Moussa’s mother treats her? Never a kind word for her, nothing but scorn and criticism. She does not like her daughter-in-law, never did, and does not like the children either that she has given Moussa. Has Malé noticed that Moussa’s mother is never holding her grand son? (He had in fact, it was very noticeable.) Madame Moussa revealed to Malé that her mother-in-law has been pressuring Moussa to take a second wife. Apparently Moussa had been married to another woman before and had a young son with her. Things did not work out and they got divorced. But now Moussa’s mother wanted her son to re-marry that woman as his second wife, and move her into the house where he lived with Madame Moussa. Madame Moussa was desperate. She stated how much she loves Moussa, and how she did not want him to take a second wife. They were struggling as it was, she confided in Malé. If it wasn’t for her family helping them out, she does not know how they would make ends meet sometimes. Would Malé be so kind and try to talk to her husband? He must make him understand that it would not be wise to take a second wife at this time, given their financial difficulties.

Malé dropped her off at the clinic and, when he returned at the end of the day, told me about Madame Moussa’s words. He was saddened by her story and her obvious distress; it made him think about all the other times that women had been hurt by their mother-in-laws or traditional customs. He attributed part of the problem to the custom here in southern Mali that the mother-in-law lives with her son and his wife, something that his people, the Songhaï, do not practice. Often the mother-in-law will treat her son’s wife worse than a servant. He also feels that women in particular tend to enforce and uphold these ancient practices (of polygamy for example) to ensure that the following generation of women suffer as much as they had. (We knew that Moussa’s father was living in Ivory Coast with another wife, which is why Moussa’s mother was living in Bamako with Moussa.) He decided that he would try to talk to Moussa.

The next day he spoke with Moussa early in the morning, when it was still quiet in the neighborhood. Moussa told him that he knew about how his wife was suffering, and that he, too, did not think that it was a good idea to take a second wife. However, his mother was absolutely insisting. He had already sent several of his male relatives to her to speak on his behalf but to no avail. His mother had made a decision, and he as her son was not going to dare to disobey her. He did not feel that he had a choice; there was no way out for him. The second wife would move in a couple of days.

A couple of days later I heard loud voices, women’s voices, in front of the door, yelling at each other. Later Malé found out that tea had been spilled in a scuffle between Moussa’s mother and his wife. The second wife was due to arrive that evening and move into the second floor of the house, and Moussa needed a mattress for them. His mother suggested taking the kid’s mattress and letting the kids sleep on the floor. That infuriated Madame Moussa, and it came to a shouting and shoving match between them. But nevertheless, later that day the second wife arrived, and presumably slept on the kid’s mattress with Moussa on the second floor, while his first wife slept on the first. The kids slept on the floor. Things would be different in their lives from now on …