Thanksgiving – Manintali

Subject: Do you eat beans?
Date: Monday 29th November, 1999

Apparently the above joke is considered HILARIOUS in Mali, as part of the whole ‘joking cousins’ thing I tried to explain in the last letter. Or if your last name is from the Bozo, this changes to ‘do you eat dog?’ as the Bozo ‘mange les chiens’.

I hope everyone is safe and well – this will be the last letter for about a month, as I am heading up north soon, and will have to resort to the old-fashioned methods of communication – ARG! Alas I am still a little malarial, but today I got the ALL CLEAR from the Peace Corps doctor, so will have to continue takin’ it easy. As you can probably tell, the Peace Corps are treating me excellently, and we had an ace time in Manintali for Thankgiving. Before I rattle on, I must take a moment to introduce various American terms I have been learning—

Sketchy = dodgy
Hooking up = picking up
Shady = same as sketchy, but refers to a person
Nasty = festy
Air Mali is known as Air Maybe
‘Random’ is derogatory, applies to anything African and chaotic, particularly public transport. For example, one driver with a broken-down baché in Manintali made 20 of us pile into the van in the blistering heat while he fixed the engine with gaffer tape for an hour. All the Peace Corps girls looked at each other exclaiming, ‘this is like soooooo random’.

I am also picking up all the Peace Corps abbreviations such as ‘ET-ing’ (to leave), and sad to say, am talking a bit like a valley girl myself, as many of the volunteers find it hard to pick up on my accent. The other day I asked if anyone had seen the torch, and was met by a wall of blank faces. So I had to say in California-ese ‘ has anyone seen the flashlight? I’m like DYING for a pee…’

But I digress. The train to Manintali was a snip at 9 hours, with an added 2 hours in the baché to the stage house (pronounced stargghe house, every region has one where volunteers can crash and pick up their mail). The house was a series of large African-style huts, with big couches, bookshelves, bunks and hammocks strung under awnings. Every morning I would drag myself out of bed and curl up with a book in a chair overlooking the river, while tribes of monkeys with long tails scampered about. Apparently there were hippo in the river, but no sightings while we were there.

Thanksgiving dinner was beaut – when the real ingredients weren’t available, local ones were substituted. For example, we had ‘dubliné’ (hibiscus flower) sauce instead of cranberry, chicken instead of turkey, mashed fresh peanut butter and a local squash rather than yams, yeh rather than mashed potatoes, and the same squash in the pumpkin pie YUM! In the middle of dinner, an entire Malian family rocked up on a motorbike, Dad in a suit, Mum in a hot pink sequinned robe and scarf, and 2 little boys! We had to go through the whole greeting thing (although luckily not the bit about the beans), and they sat down to join us, the parents eating first while the boys hovered respectfully behind them.

After this we hopped up for a boogie to ‘Groove is in the heart’, ‘Superstition’, and (I hate to say it) ‘Wannabe’ by the Spice girls – unfortunately the tackier and poppier the fad for this bunch the better. Their theme song is ‘Send me Somebody to Love’ by Queen. Then it gets weirder – the few boys of the group had been preparing a mud pit all day, which we were to have a tug-of-war over, in ‘the grand American tradition’???!!! Our local visitors gaped in awe (I just watched and took pictures) while 15 screaming, yelling twentysomethings pushed each other around and wrestled in thick, gloopy mud in near-darkness. GO FIGURE.

The next day, a group of us went bike-riding to a swimming hole, just above the dam, an enormous project being worked on by a Spanish group for the past ten years. We cycled past some wonderful villages, where kids rushed out to say ‘Bonsoir monsieur’ to me (it was morning, and my hair isn’t that short), and they didn’t even want any money! The water was warm and clear, and as one of the girls proclaimed ‘We could just be in Washington State!!’ That night we feasted on chili and corn bread (they eat well here), and rose at 5:00 the next morning to get the baché back.

I think I learnt a lot more about Africa from one of the guys there, collecting plants locally for his thesis. He has lived in Africa for the past 15 years, and still finds it hard to comprehend. He felt it was still very much a colonial system, with big international companies moving in, only building roads and infrastructure in order to exploit the land more. This isn’t helped at all by the low wages (about 50 cents a day) for farmers, and huge unemployment.

The Africans’ attitude is a lot different to ours, in that if you buy bread or a coke at a restaurant, they don’t charge any extra. The same goes for jewellers, you only pay for the cost of the silver rather than the beautiful craftsmanship. So while the Peace Corps work hard at introducing modern small business methods and farming techniques, there are only so many cultural attitudes you can change. This all comes to light when you wait 20 mins at a deserted coffee stall in the morning for your Nescafé, and condensed milk, and a crust of bread with mayonnaise. These guys have got all day!!
Tomorrow I will go to see the malarial Q in his village, and make him something nice to eat on his little gas stove. I hope he isn’t TOO unwell, as I am a hopeless doctor, and he is a terrible patient! For those of you asking, I met him in the youth hostel in Casablanca about 2 months ago, and we have been writing ever since! I was incredibly lucky to meet him, as Mali is a VERY hard place to travel around. I realise that only a few guys speak French (no women), and when they do, it is very fast, and they usually jam the word ‘quoi?’ on the end of every statement, like some people say ‘but’ or ‘ay’. This is TRèS DIFFICILE!!!

I have an invitation to stay at someone’s house in Sègou (a v. sporty, funny Californian called Kathy who travelled in Australia for a year and understands my speech, thank god), but apart from this I am ditching the Peace Corps for another month until Timbuktu. I may have said it before, but I get SO LAZY travelling with others, I spoke some French for the first time in ages today, and it sounded, like, soooo weird! I will be working my way very slowly up the River Niger. If I don’t find a computer – Merry Christmas (not to mention Thanksgiving) and happy new year!!!


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