I bought some food for dinner and made a very ordinary pasta for Yea and Q. Yea insisted he would never forget the meal for as long as he lived! Malians tend to overstate things a little. He also quizzed me closely about Australian men and got confused when I jokingly said they don’t often wash. He thought that I meant they expected their women to do it for them!
It’s very hard to draw or write at the moment, I don’t know why.
Letter to my one year-old niece, Lucy
Bougouni, Mali, West Africa 5th December 1999
I thought I would take a pause in my hectic schedule of reading in the shade of a mango tree to wish you a happy first birthday, my red-fur niece!! I realise you are not quite old enough to understand this, but when you are, your Mum and Dad can read it out to you. As for me, my crazed adventures have slowed somewhat, and I am in the excellent care of a Peace Corps volunteer, Q, an American citizen for 10 years, Vietnamese in origin and French and Bambara speaking – in his own words a ‘citizen of the world’!! After leaving Bamako (the capital) about a week ago, I toiled up to Q’s village (Ouelessebougou) with some trepidation. I am still unaccustomed to the notion of dropping unexpectedly. In Mali this is expected, and if you do so around dinnertime all the better, as you should be prepared to eat.
So I jumped off the bus, laden with 2 huge backpacks and a big bag of fresh veggies, surrounded by the usual band of touts and hustlers trying to grab my stuff. These guys are so eager for your custom that they will often try to pull you aboard their van, even when they don’t know where you want to go! Shouldering my huge load I trekked off into the wilderness, making friends with a little boy (Hami Kone) on the way, who tore into the bag of cakes I offered him!
The people here, particularly the children, are more unreserved and open than in Australia, and will come rushing out of their houses to greet you. Sometimes you will see a kid with bright red hair, or even an albino – alas not looked upon favourably here, and sometimes shunned for being the ‘devil’s children’. Belief of evil spirits is alive and well – there are enchanted forests, shooting stars are ‘bad’ and in some villages women are not allowed out at night, luckily not Ouelessebougou.
Thankfully my arrival was greeted with joy, and the vermicelli stir-fry I cooked looked upon with approval. I whipped up this meal by the light of an oil lamp and two candles, listening to opera on a stereo powered by a car battery – Q’s house (called a ‘concession’) is completely without water or electricity. To have a bath, you draw water out of a deep well in the yard (often chasing frogs out of the bucket!) and splash it over yourself in the ‘n’yagen’, the toilet/shower where everything drains into a hole in the floor. After a dusty day in the village it is quite pleasant, particularly when you leave the bucket of water on the porch to be warmed by the sun.
After dinner, we popped in next door to Q’s guardian’s house (all Peace Corps people have a family next door to look over their concessions). Under a very starry sky, the guardian’s family had set up a campfire. They were cooking yams, and pressed us to eat as they had harvested plenty that day. After a day’s farming this is the Malian’s leisure time – uncles, aunties, children, parents all sit around a campfire joking, talking and making tea. Sometimes if they are lucky, the father would have shot a bushrat that day, or maybe a snake – a source of protein, as there is never any money for meat.
When we arrived the best seat was offered to me, and a glass of tea thrust into my hand. Immediately I was quizzed as to my marital status, and of course my relationship to Q – Malians are obsessed with matchmaking. Owing to the large number of female Peace Corps volunteers and the accessibility of Q’s village to the capital, he is regarded as a bit of a playboy in Ouelessebougou. After 15 months he still cannot convince the villagers that all the girls who stay with him are just friends! So when Grandma realised that I was single she regarded me warmly and barked (in Bambara) “You are very beautiful. I would like to give you to my husband!”
We spent about 3 hours here, lounging about, joking about beans, farts and sex – all number 1 topics in Malian humour. And I received a crash course in Bambara, with the local English teacher shouting:
“Oumou! Oumou!” (my Malian name) He would point to the sky.
“Lolo!” I would cry.
Grabbing the teapot, he shook some water in my face.
Then he seized one of the yams.
“LOGO!!” I shouted, nearly hoarse, and the whole family cracked up.
Although I intended to stay in Ouelessebougou for 2-3 days, after 5 I was still hanging about, wandering around the market, planning breakfast, lunch and dinner and drawing water out of the well like a good Malian woman. I met Q’s friend Yea, a local chap who lives with his extended family in the centre of the village. We spent hours there playing chess, listening to the Muppet show on a tape deck powered by a car battery, drinking dubline (hibiscus) tea and watching the family work. Lucy – you would not be too happy in this culture; from a very young age girls work all day – pounding millet in a large mortar and pestle, cleaning clothes on an old washboard, cooking, sweeping the yard, often with a tiny baby perched on their backs.
Yea’s family spent most of their time outside in the yard of their compound, which had goats and chickens running around, a soak pit (sewerage system built by the Peace Corps) and a constant stream of visitors. I would keep Yea’s Grandma (Mama) amused by learning a new Malian benediction every day, which would keep her in fits of laughter. Here’s one for you:
ALA KA HERE CHAYA = may God grant you peace of mind
Although they were a poor family, their hospitality was incredible – every day I was pressured to join them for lunch (rice and meat sauce) and dinner (toh, a bizarre, mushy concoction of pounded green millet, eaten with the hands and dipped into pepper sauce). After lunch one day I started to doze off in my chair and Yea and Q leapt up, insisting I should sleep. So I was stretched out on an old banana lounge under the mango tree, while chooks ran under me squawking, and kids played ball near my head. Believe it or not I actually slept, only woken up by Mama whispering “Oumou, Oumou”, insisting I take off my sandals to be more comfortable!
The highlight was definitely Friday, when we paid a visit to the local radio station to see Yea at work. He even wrote me a few sentences to say in Bambara:
IH NI SUH
NE TOH GO OUMOU SAMAKE
NE BE BO AUSTRALIE
OUELESSEBOUGOU KADI KOSSEBE
(Good evening, my name is Oumou Samake, I come from Australia, and I think your village is great!)
I was so nervous that I cleared my throat into the microphone, but I think I did OK! The radio station was interesting too – just a tiny concrete room, one cassette player and one technician, a wall of tapes, one microphone and a wide open window through which you could hear kids playing and trucks pulling up. At the end of the hour, the next DJ shoved his way through the curtain and plonked down, while we were ejected into the night!
At the moment, Q and I are staying at a very beautiful stage house in Bougouni, 1½ hours south of Ouelessebougou. Q and Yea are going to a local goldmine to see about some paid work, while I am going to see another village with a volunteer called Christine. This evening, I had another lovely American-style meal with the Bougouni stage house people and a big chat over tea. I think it goes without saying that I have been v. spoilt in Mali, and that it is a totally different experience when you are with people who speak the language, know how to get around, what to do and what to see.
So Luce! I hope you had a great birthday! I also hope that when you are old enough you appreciate this letter, and that it makes you want to travel to different places. I can thoroughly recommend it – don’t believe what people say about Africa being a ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous’ place – the people are the most hospitable I’ve met. X Aunty Boo
Subject: Dad’s view
Date: Friday 10th December 1999
The only thing to report about politics is that Steve Bracks is desperate to be as popular as he can. The Age in true form are running sick-making articles about how nice he is and what a great Dad he is. A UFO (or something mysterious) has crashed in a dam in Armidale NSW. The papers have turned it into a Roswell area 51-type story, it’s a cover-up of some kind, and it’s probably just a bit of space junk. Thrills for dills! Look after yourself my love, Dad x