Also, having never before been to Africa means that my body has never yet met the continent’s many exotic and variegated germs. This rude awakening to my poor body was like running into a brick wall, only the bricks themselves are composed of these very many exotic germs. What exactly the symptoms of my multiple ailments were I will leave to your imagination…
… But to prod your imagination along, let me explain how interesting the bathrooms are! Well, they’re not quite “bathrooms” per se, for that would imply the existence of a bath. In Mali, one goes to the “nyegen”, which is quite literally a hole in the ground. And toilet paper doesn’t really exist here; the method employed by locals is known as “bolo numan la”, or “the left hand.” And afterwards, Malians point their butt up in the air, taking a plastic teapot full of water and do a trick which after a little practice is like a makeshift bidet – you have to use your water resourcefully and do it perfectly each time, or else you’re stuck with a messy conundrum. Female Peace Corps Volunteers tell me that this is a great kegel exercise!
Like toilet paper, utensils are a rare luxury used almost exclusively by white tourists. People in Mali also eat with their hands. I don’t mean like a dainty little nibble – people just stick their right hand in the communal food bowl to grab a handful of rice, squeeze all the grease out, and then put their whole hand in their mouth and lick each one of their fingers clean. Needless to say, this is done only with one’s right hand. N.B.: If someone ever offers you food with their left hand, this is a grievous insult.
As you can see, despite all of these fancy ideas in my head about historical dialecticism and Solow growth models and the categorical imperative, I have had to forget about my utterly useless fancypants liberal arts education and relearn how to perform the basic functions of a gastrointestinal tract all over again. This ignominious process was shared by all 77 Peace Corps Trainees en masse, so one could say that each and every one of us has already bonded in a very personal way. One might even say that Peace Corps folk are so open and interested in each other’s bodily functions that squeamish civilians should not sit down at a table with two or more of us at the same time.
After teaching us to say a few rudimentary phrases of greetings and introductions, the Peace Corps sent myself and 4 other Trainees to the village of Sinsina about an hour’s drive from Bamako for some cultural assimilation shock therapy. Sinsina is a small agricultural community of roughly 4,000 people, very indicative of Mali as a whole. People spend most of their time during the rainy season farming millet – which is the staple crop, and to a lesser degree rice, beans, onions, mangoes, and peanuts. People also raise chickens, sheep, rabbits, cows and donkeys. This is truly subsistence agriculture; you eat what you farm, and if you have a poor yield due to drought or blight, then you don’t eat very much that year. Whatever you grow but don’t eat can be traded for soap, flashlight batteries, cell phone credit and individually-sold cigarettes, but other than that trade is for the most part very rudimentary. Keeping in mind that GDP only measures final goods and services, Mali’s GDP per capita is roughly $1,500 – which ranks it as the third-poorest country in the world.
The men in Sinsina are working in the fields just about all day, and the women are always busy either fetching water, chopping firewood, cooking food or cleaning. The first people whom we got to know were of course the children; about half of the population in Mali is under the age of 15. And since mom and dad are working all day, there is no school in session and no day care, the only people with whom we really interact during the day are little kids. They are enraptured by these strange, white “Tubabu” who have descended upon their village, and are content to stand and watch me brush my teeth in the morning. They also think that my "boloshi" - armhair - is quite fascinating, and are wont to pet and tug at it until I slap them away.
The families here are large and vibrant. By that I mean that according to the Bambara interpretation of Islam, men are free to have as many wives as they wish, so long as their original wife have consented to a polygamous arrangement prior to marriage - which is always. And each woman has an average of 7 children over the course of her lifetime, though that is tempered by a staggering infant mortality rate of 106 deaths for every 1,000 live births. People prefer to have many children, because it is seen as a sign of fertility and wealth, but paradoxically the more children one raises, the more mouths that millet and rice has to feed. For instance, I live in the compound of my host father Salif Doumbia, who is married to his two wives Kadjatu and Maryam. Amongst his two wives he has five children, which is relatively few for a 40-year-old man Malian culture – but as they can eat meat on a regular basis they are also relatively well-off.
Salif has christened me with a new Bambara name: I am named Mamadou, after his father. So in the village of Sinsina no one knows me as Zachary Mason – here my name is Mamadou Doumbia #5.
I am currently trudging along with my Bambara. It is a fairly logical language to pick up; verbs are not conjugated, and there are very few words to begin with. There are also a lot of words borrowed from French and Arabic, which helps – e.g. the word for mosque is “misiri”, which literally means “from Egypt”. Though it is quite discouraging going about my day and being stopped in the street to converse with people having the vocabulary of a precocious three-year-old. One day I belted out “N be dimogo caman faga!” – I kill many flies – and the kids in my host family cheered with delight.
One day the kids showed me their rabbit hatchery and pulled one unlucky bunny by the ears to show off – I tried to explain to them that that hurt the poor animal, and that they should cradle the rabbit from the bottom so that it is more comfortable. “E be Zhunzu fe?” – do you like the rabbit? – they asked. I replied, “Owo, n be zhunzu fe kosebe” – Yes, I like the rabbit very much. So when Salif came home at noon he snapped the rabbit’s neck, slaughtered it, and we had rabbit for lunch! The moral of the story is that in Mali, if you say that you like something that is because you like to eat it, so if you are particularly fond of a cute, cuddly animal, NEVER EVER TELL ANYONE!