Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Malian Perspective on President Obama

Though Barack Obama has yet to take the oath of office as President of the United States, it seems this election has already made immeasurable progress in America’s standing with the rest of the world. Why do I think this? Because people tell me so.

Now when I walk down the street, people randomly come up to me and say "thank you". Thank you for what? “Thank you for voting for Barack Obama! America used to be very bad, but now you are my friend!”

Despite the general disapproval of our foreign policy in the Middle East and our occasional kooky outbursts of Christian supremacy, every Malian I talk to has an effusive attitude towards America per se. A common conversation starter here is “America… it is… Good!” I try my best to explain in Bambara income inequality and xenophobia, but it seems that nothing will shake the belief that America is a virginal exception to the Old World tradition of colony and empire.

Though Malians have their doubts. A general rule of thumb is that the more literate a Malian is and the more they identify themselves with Islamic culture, the more likely they are going to have an ax to grind with America. If they can pronounce “Abu Ghraib”, I brace myself for an uncomfortable feeling of personal responsibility for the collective sins of my countrymen. Unlike most governments in African history, America is a democracy whose faults cannot be ascribed to one man – if the government does something bad it is all the people’s fault.

No one in Mali other than President Toure has ever actually met George Walker Bush, but they know enough about the archetypical Tubabu to have a very negative view of him. “Joje Boosh is racist!” I am told, “Joje Boosh kills Muslim people in Iraq and Palestine because he thinks that Jesus is the prophet and Muhammad is a liar!” We have eight years of serious damage to control.

Some people have a few kind words to say about the incumbent administration, “Joje Boosh buys chemicals to kill mosquitoes and kill malaria banakise – but he wants us to become Christians because he thinks that Islam is a terrorist religion!” I do not know how much of these views are formed by al-Jazeera a few madrassahs removed, how much they are simply products of homegrown prejudice, or how much they are based upon an objective analysis of discernible reality. But I can say for sure that the negative attitude towards the President who said that America was fighting “a crusade” is somewhat related to generations of Malian interaction with well-meaning missionaries whose handouts have been laced with ulterior motives.

But no matter how many bones they can pick with America, all eyes light up upon the mention of Barack Obama. “Barack Obama… is… Good!”

Part of it is simply because Barack Obama is black… well, he’s actually half black, but he’s more black than any other President of the biggest most powerful white country in the world. Also, many Malians believe that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim. You see, unlike America where calling someone a Muslim is tantamount to slander, in Mali it is a praise of a person’s ethics and morals. In an Islamic country, boys are regularly named Hussein after the grandson of Muhammad who rebelled against the Umayyad dynasty’s tyranny and injustice.

Some people here have an interestingly self-interested perspective on Obama’s victory; “Now that America has a black skinned president, America will give more money to black skinned Africans!” When I am told this I explain that yes, the Obama-Biden ticket did in fact pledge to increase the budget for foreign assistance – some of which might be allocated to Mali’s irrigation projects. But the understanding assumes more of an iron law of wages, “The black president is going to take money from the racist white people and give it to his brothers and sisters in Africa!”

Other people have a more comprehensive understanding of the history of American race relations. “You Americans used to own slaves from Africa, and then you freed the slaves. But you were still racist for many years…” I am lectured by shriveled old men. “But now you have a black President, and Barack Obama is going to smack the racists hard like a dirty old donkey!” Right on, brotha (terrorist fist jab).

I think there might be something a little more profound to what has happened, something with a connection to what I am doing here right now which I am still digesting. I think that after eight long years of insularity and fear of foreign-sounding Muslim people, America is – like Kevin McAlastair and the furnace in his basement – not afraid anymore.

I think that what America just did has something to do with why I left my comfortable, air-conditioned existence in New York and decided to spend the next two years living in a mud hut in a village of peanut farmers who eat millet porridge with leaf sauce and pray to an almighty Allah whom I can only begin to comprehend. I think that maybe it has something to do with the fact that instead of sitting by myself all day behind a locked gate, I have finally worked up the courage to invite my neighbors over to my garden to sip hibiscus tea and tell me their life stories. And the more that I hang out with the people in my village and listen to their fart jokes, the less anxious I feel about locking my gate all the time.

I think most of all, it has something to do with the fact that I spend each day walking the dusty, filth-ridden streets of my village, walking into people’s yards and simply having a chat about developing water infrastructure. People here think that their village is dirty and crumbling, though for years they have had the tools and the capacity to improve it. It just seems as if everyone has just always accepted malaria and gastrointestinal disease and poverty as immutable constants – and if anything could be done about it, it could only be done by white French people beyond their control. My job in the Peace Corps is really to explain to people that they don’t have to sit idly as they wait for the Messiah to return, that they have always had the power to change things themselves, so let’s turn off the boob tube, get off our butts and get to it.

If anything, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States has demonstrated to the people of Mali that change is, in fact, possible.

As I explain in Bambara, “Owo, an be se.”

Yes we can.


Unknown said...

Dear Zach -

From way out there in the hinterland to right here in Lewisboro we are all experiencing the same thing: in one, beautiful fell swoop, the world has changed, and we can only begin to imagine what happens next. Hold the fort out there for us, and we will do the same here.

Lots of love, Pat & Adam

Unknown said...

An acquaintance of mine from Mali tells me that they've put together a national song and dance in Obama's honor. Can you confirm?

-Will G.

Ashley F. said...

news from the otherland:
some of my students are sitting a little straighter and perhaps aiming a little higher and dreaming a little bigger because our nation elected a President with brown skin, who looks more like them than any other President in our nation's history.

And while, yes, our President-elect is biracial (mulatto is such a colonial term) in the States we are still very much on our "one drop" steez for better or for worse, on top of that we will soon have a black First Lady and a black First Family. Its a new day. The brothers and sisters on the Continent have every reason to rejoice!