Joking cousins

Journal entry 21st November, 1999

Yesterday all-American girls Molly and Margie took me to the market to buy material for a peigne (skirt). Bargaining was hilarious – three women all glaring at me, refusing to budge, then finally cutting up the material and forcing me to buy. I also got a good look at the market – one guy only sold belts with bullet holders, bandoliers and bullet-proof vests. Another shop sold huge bags of headache pills. We had to pick our way past a chicken ‘shop’ – five guys sitting in the dirt, mounds of half-dead chooks, then more being slaughtered, and even more being plucked, then cooked. The alive ones were regarding the dead ones lethargically.

Then we went to the swish café for icecream and aircon. Back at the Stage house we lazed around for a few more hours, then went to a Vietnamese restaurant for a girl who was leaving that evening. The restaurant felt so completely unlike Africa – it was half-full of expats and ‘functionaires’ – the rich people who live by the river and drive their Mercs crazily everywhere. After that, even weirder, we went to the local bar (Le Campignard) – where there was Western music playing, a restaurant and pool table. So all the Peace Corps were in there in a big gaggle, while outside were the usual group of taxis drivers shouting ‘Ay! Peace Corps!! Taxi!!!’. All v. surreal.

Subject: I-nih cheh
Date: Monday 22nd November, 1999

toh-roh-teh….eh dung?

The above greeting means:
How are you?
Fine. And you?

And this is only the preamble!!! Bambara-speaking people go on to wish each other peace, ask about the family, health, god and so on, with many complicated hand gestures, kissing and clutching the chest. It is très difficult for moi, as I am always with the Peace Corps people, so everyone we greet presumes I speak Bambara! What’s wrong with ‘ca-va’ for god’s sake!!

Walking to the bus station with Q yesterday we had to greet at least 20 people, whereupon I was introduced to the concept of ‘joking cousins’. Malians who share the same last name (this refers to their lineage: farmer, storyteller and so on) are quite welcome to go up to one another and start abusing them, saying they smell and are ugly and so on. This is done in a very jokey fashion, and occurs completely out of the blue. My Malian name is ‘Umu Samaké’, the last bit meaning elephant men of the north or something. I’m sure I have been abused several times for this, but luckily not knowing! So everyone here is very in your face, but not always in a bad way. Although at the bus station and also on the baché, Q was bugged at least 6 times by men asking him to ‘share your woman’ (!) As it was all very jokey and friendly, I was sitting there with this big, stupid smile on my face – IDIOT!!!

We were actually on the way to an African wedding at his village (Oueléssébougou) which starts at about 9:00 in the morning and goes all day, but unfortunately the minute I start to feel better Q contracts some full-on malarial type fever, and nearly passes out. Being Mr Hospitality, however we have to pop in on the wedding – which is in full swing by 11:00, crowded dance floor, music blaring, and some guy filming us the minute we sit down. Everyone shakes hands with us, and we meet the bride, who is done up in yards of tulle and lace like a Barbie doll, alas not meeting the groom whose name was Foxy!!!

So Q has to leave rather quickly to lie down. He is one of those bad invalids you hear about, refusing any help or suggestions to return to Bamako. While staggering around blindly with sweat streaming down his face, he is still trying to give me the spiel about the village – “It’s a shame we couldn’t stay longer…African weddings are so exciting….damn, it’s so hot….yeah they dance, have traditional ceremony….shit I’m so sick….then they dance until night…FUCK!”

Then he collapses on the bed at his house, still not grasping the concept that all he has to do is lie there while I bring him water, constantly leaping up to whistle to his neighbour to fill the tub, and apologising for being so ill!! He finally gets it into his head that he needs a doctor rather urgently, so we walk to the main road to hitch, trekking through beautiful countryside – all lily ponds and mango trees. We also have herds of cows streaming around us, with long curvy horns and herders shoving them along. Unfortunately for Q, he meets about ten people and has to go thru the whole ‘joking cousins’ thing, and here when people ask you how you are, everything is always ‘great’. We are able to flag down a passing minibus and arrive in Bamako again by the afternoon!

Back at the ranch, he collapses in the sickroom, but this does not bring on the concern you would think appropriate to the situation. Being a Sunday, the doctor at their office was not working, so Q had to wait until this morning!!! Alas he can’t come to Thanksgiving, but I am still going (o hard-hearted wench) tomorrow for another 7 hours on the train. And I have found a group of perky American volunteers to go trekking in Dogon country with afterwards.

The atmosphere at the house cracks me up – as there are about 15 guys in 140 volunteers in Mali, it has this sorority house feel to it. Two gals Cathy and Molly were shrieking over a copy of GQ last night, drooling over football players, and declaring them to be “SOOOO All-American!!!” I think this is a positive trait! And as they come from all over the states, there is a multitude of accents, which I am itching to imitate. I just bury my head in an issue of the ‘Texas Monthly’, biting my cheeks to stop chuckling.

They all very friendly, open people, and I have been out a few times to the local bars and a restaurant, a very surreal experience, as outside the door it is all open sewers, hustlers and red potholed streets and people washing their clothes. Right near their local is a ‘toubab’ supermarket, where you can buy anything imported at extortionate prices, while outside two women sell fruit and veg at rock-bottom prices.

There is an enormous gap between rich and poor here – the ‘functionaires’ (ex-pats) drive around arrogantly in their luxury Mercs, BMW’s and so on, one even splashing bright red mud all over me and my new sandals. There are even more beggars and crippled folk than in Dakar, yet the governent lashed out on a million bucks for a monument that quite frankly looks to me like a big phallus. What it’s for, no-one knows.

This morning I am hanging around for my Burkina Faso visa, which I hate, as all the secretaries at the embassies look at me with undisguised loathing, even before I’ve opened my mouth. Thank you Cazz, Bek and Anno for your letters. I don’t know the origins of toubab, but it is the sort of thing kids yell at you in the street in Mali and Senegal. In Djifer, Senegal, I had the oiliest omelette of my life in near darkness, while about 5 little girls stared at me, ripped up the bread on my plate, and murmured ‘toubab, toubab’ the whole time! It can be an insult, or just a means of identifying you, as skin colour is very important here. When I want bottled water rather than tap, if the vendor doesn’t understand me, I just ask for ‘de l’eau toubab’, and he gets the message!

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