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 …