Seeing Mali

By John Auchard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 20, 2001

There had been some suggestion that I might be met at Mali's Bamako-Senou airport, but I had slim hopes and was bracing for another solitary attack on another Third World city, this time in the fourth-poorest country in the world. But instead it went like this: I have a friend who lives in Charlottesville. His wife knows someone there named Bruce, and Bruce has a Malian friend who lives in Silver Spring, and that friend, the musician Cheick Hamala Diabate, has a brother, Karim, back home in Bamako. A month before I left for West Africa, I telephoned Bruce -- I still have not met him -- and then eventually spoke with Cheick Hamala about my plans for the Sahara and the far reaches of Timbuktu.

Several weeks later, when I showed my passport at customs, the agent looked up and said, "John de Washington? L'ami de Karim?"

Although my plane had arrived several hours late, five people, in two cars, were waiting for me. A dazed American friend of a friend of a friend of a far-off family member, I was swept through customs and past packs of cabbies and touts bracing for their prey. We were moving fast, as if there were some special urgency, and an aunt took my hand and the first thing she said -- she said it as if she meant it -- was that for the time I was in Mali I should never forget that Karim was my "frère malien" -- my Malian brother. I grinned back, but in the rush of the moment, I wasn't even sure which one of the guys fighting over my duffel bag this Karim was.

Before they would take me to my hotel, I had to meet the family. Pictures of Lagos, Nigeria, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, show apartment blocks festering in the sun, and that's what I expected in Mali's capital city. But Bamako is a one-story village of a million people, and the house to which I was taken was really an immense and immensely populated courtyard around which six or seven buildings clustered at haphazard angles.

I never got a sure count of the people of every age drifting, sitting, standing, staring, talking, pounding ginger root, frowning, smiling, waiting, watching TV, wandering vaguely or moving with zeal in and out of the kitchen, but the first number given me was 39. Later someone decided on 37; someone else insisted on 43, but in any case, the accretion was dazzling.

One time when I was in India, a troop of schoolchildren had surrounded me outside the city of Udaipur. "What country? What country?" they cried, over and over. When I answered "the United States," they remained blank. "America" -- nothing. Nor "Washington," "New York," "California" or "Florida," until I hit the word that did the trick: "Disneyland." So before I left for West Africa, I bought some tops that spun neon rings as they microchipped the Disney tune "It's a Small, Small World."

Although I understood no Bambara, as the children poked the gift and conferred about it, I could easily tell that it opened no door to any magic kingdom. My French served me well in the former French Sudan, and almost everyone addressed me in that language, yet an older woman really had to coax Karim's little boy to say "merci." But he was not convincing, and I judged the gift as both a patronizing and a blighted choice, with batteries that would soon run out -- but not before the cheery theme-park dirge was incised onto everyone's brain. Yet that night Karim seemed pleased, and I went with that.

The next day I met mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, but at meals everyone broke into groups that forgot those ties. Off to one side, 10 young men of varying degrees of relationship sat together in a circle to talk and eat rice and capitaine fish from a communal bowl. So did the young women, as did the children, as later did the older women.

I ate with the men, and they complimented my comportement when I asked for no fork and ate each item offered -- except at first for the glistening clefted miniature eggplant I had judged to be a fish brain. "It is a good way," one of the older men said when I commented on how the amorphous family had suddenly settled into clearly articulated groups. "When I pass a man on the street," he said, "I say to myself, 'I ate with him for 18 years.' "

Although the family can be repressive and probably always is, as this huge household expanded, contracted and kept moving, you saw no signs of tension and certainly you never spotted Todd sitting sullenly across a table from Mom and Dad as they grilled him, cheerfully, about his plans for college. And although the lives of the women are harder than those of the men, they are in it together and perhaps they do feel a sisterhood. In any case, they live in a household that comprehends every phase of life and makes some sense of growing old -- mothers, wives, aunts, unmarried cousins, widows, grandmothers -- with random children clutching randomly at their random legs.

Karim seemed to know everyone in Bamako. Through him I was welcomed into other homes, and another one was also middle class, or at least I assumed it was because of the government job of the father. And yet in a country as poor as Mali, such class-markers are tricky. The 24 people (they told me before I asked) living in that group had nothing fresh or lustrous in sight -- no object, plate, cup, bowl, chair, mat or scrap of wood that was newer than 20 or 50 years old, and nothing -- no patch of wall, floor or ceiling -- that was not blasted with cracks and the seething red Malian dust. The space that loosely united their three small fragmentary buildings was here less of a courtyard than a mounding heap of earth where men sat and talked, while several women chatted as they prepared food. Beneath the work table, two frenzied chickens, each with a leg tied to a different table leg, were frantic to escape.

Mali Family

I met a wife and a son and a daughter who loves basketball, then several small children (I distributed more blighted spinning tops), and then a cousin visiting from the provincial desert town of Kayes, said to be the hottest city on Earth, where the temperature often exceeds 120 degrees. Concerning the heat, he said he was "habitué" and smiled with indulgence and patted me when I asked if he had air conditioning. Half-brothers, then other cousins and nephews and nieces appeared. Some told me they wanted to go to "Zoto" one day and that they had relatives there who would help them. Zoto, it was explained by a young man who dreamed of making bread in New York, is slang for the United States.

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