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 …