Saturday, April 24, 2010

Banking on Defeat

Let’s say that an enterprising Malian farmer named Amadou invested his best field, his strongest work ox, that ox’s richest fertilizer, 1,000 francs worth of seeds, 5,000 worth of pesticides and two months of his family’s labor towards the cultivation of cotton. Let’s say that this year Amadou’s cotton crop was quite successful and he was able to sell 100 kilograms of raw cotton to the local textile mill representative, netting him the sum total of 20,000 CFA. Amadou was smart and collected all of the cotton seeds, his tools are all in good shape, and his work ox looks healthy enough to work the cotton fields next year – he has no need to put any revenues back into the operation costs of his cotton business. His 20,000 CFA of revenues this year translates into pure profits. And let’s say that Amadou is really, really responsible and he wants to save all of his money so that he can have something to fall back in case of an emergency, and he hopes to one day buy a millet-grinding machine to give his family another source of income.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that Amadou the farmer doesn’t have any good places to put his money. What looks like the safest option might be to stuff his cash in a tin can and to hide it behind the loose brick in his one-room mud hut. So Amadou hides his 20,000 francs behind the loose brick in his hut and resolves to not touch it unless he needs to pay for medical bills. But maybe a few weeks later, Amadou’s shady younger brother Mamadou sneaks inside Amadou’s hut, and since he knows the hiding space he pulls out the brick, opens the can and steals 5,000 to buy cigarettes and whiskey. And over the next few months a termite colony invades the mud bricks in Amadou’s hut, the termites find the cavity comprising his hiding spot, and happily munch away at the remainder of the paper bills. When Amadou has to send his wife to the clinic months later, he opens up his secret stash and all he has to show for his cotton harvest is a rusty can of termite poop.

What’s really tragic is that in countries like Mali, there really aren’t any better options for Amadou to manage his savings. At least if he puts his money in a tin can behind a brick in his hut, there’s only a chance that his savings will be stolen or destroyed. If he were to employ any of the other options available, that would be all but guaranteed.

If Amadou were interested in a more aggressive, growth-oriented investment strategy, he could do what most Malian men do and put his money on the horses. Yes, even though there are no race tracks in Mali, the inevitable has occurred and a group of exploitative parasites that calls itself PMU found a way to enable this largely illiterate, innumerate culture to bet on horse-racing in France. All they had to do was set up booths in every major city and hire local agents to distribute pamphlets and collect wagers in the villages, and most importantly to spread the word that people could win big money. I've been told by numerous investors in the horse market that "There is a man around here who won so much money from the horses that now he'll never have to work again!" - none of these investors know who this man is or where he lives, but they insist that he exists. So now every week when PMU distributes the next lineup of horses, the barely-numerate men of the village sit together and closely examine the odds as though they were stock quotes in The Wall Street Journal.

Since he bets on the horses every week, I asked an inveterate gambler named Alexandre – a poor subsistence farmer with 3 wives and 19 children – how much he’s actually won this year.

“This one time, my horse came in first place and I won 1,000 francs!”

“… Yes, but how much have you bet on all the other horses that didn’t win?”

“This year, I have put 8,400 francs on the horses.”

“…So you lost 7,400 francs.”

“But I won 1,000 francs!”

Given the performance of more reputable investment houses like Goldman Sachs as of late, one could argue that college-educated American investors are managing their money no more prudently than PMU’s illiterate, innumerate clients. The greatest difference between Goldman Sachs and PMU is that wagering with the more respectable American investment house carries much less risk, for if the value of Chrysler stock plummets then its shareholders only lose wealth if they sell their stock at that lower value and they can always wait it out until Chrysler stock rises again – but if Amadou puts his money on “Silver Bullet” and his horse comes in 7th place, then his money is unambiguously lost. Furthermore, there is hardly anyone in America who wagers on the stock market who doesn’t also have money sitting in the bank, accumulating interest at a slow and steady rate.

So why don’t Malians put their savings in a bank account? There are even banks in rural towns like Sanadougou – which has a two-room Kafo Jiginew office open on market every sixth day. Kafo Jiginew is a real bank in which men and women can open accounts, make deposits, take out withdrawals and even apply for small loans. But the money put in an account at Kafo Jiginew does not accumulate interest. In fact, this bank charges each holder of an account 5,000 francs (~ $10) every quarter. So if Amadou were to open up an account at Kafo Jiginew and deposit the 20,000 worth of profits from his cotton harvest, he better withdraw it all within a few months because by this time next year the bank will have deducted it all. That is why rural Malian villagers do not ever put their savings in a bank, and if they do have an account in a formal bank, it is simply for the purpose of taking out loans and repaying their debts.

Banking is only slightly better in the cities, where people can choose from opening an account at either Kafo Jiginew or la Banque de Developpement du Mali, la Banque Nationale de Developpement Agricole, EcoBank or Bank of Africa. Though urban banking is quite different, for people’s livelihoods tend to be based less on good production than on selling goods and services; with less people who need to buy new seeds and tools every planting season, urban banks rely less on lending to make a profitable business. Generally, the only people who have accounts at the urban banks are functionnaires who get paid via monthly, directly-deposited salaries; police officers, teachers, doctors, NGO personnel, those in management positions at textile mills, etc. And since there is more communications infrastructure in the cities, urban banks offer a wider range of services, most importantly in that they have access to computers and the Internet which allow clients to wire transfers to family-members in other cities and receive remittances from family-members abroad.

Urban banks are also more expensive; they charge 10,000 francs just to open an account, and another 1,500 francs just to keep the account open every month. Like Amadou’s money at Kafo Jiginew, the funds that I leave untouched in my BNDA account accrue no interest. Even in the supposedly more sophisticated cities, banking is a losing endeavor. In truth, these banks truly function less like banks in the Western sense of the term and more like those establishments where illegal immigrants go to cash checks and wire remittances via Western Union – they charge predatory fees for minimal services which a real bank would offer for free, and the only reason why people keep throwing money at these institutions is that they have nowhere else to go. Since they exercise a monopoly over the money market¸ these so-called banks do not even have to conduct the development-oriented lending which they were originally commissioned to do in order to remain profitable enterprises – they are making a killing by providing services that can be done just as efficiently by an ATM.

A fundamental departure from Kafo Jiginew is that some urban banks allow holders of a checking account to open up une caisse d’épargne; a savings account. At BDM, so long as an account-holder can put away 50,000 francs (~$100) into a separate savings account which they cannot touch for a year, they can earn 15 percent interest. So if Pascal the teacher can put away the exact minimum for a savings account, after a year he can accrue an extra 7,500 francs (~$15) and feel like a big winner. Compared to prevailing interest rates in American banks, this might sound too good to be true – because it is.

You see, no one can hold une caisse d’épargne for a year without also having a checking account, and though the savings account might have accrued 7,500 francs, over that same amount of time BDM will have charged Pascal 18,000 francs simply for keeping a checking account open. The effective benefit to Pascal of opening up a savings account is that instead of losing 18,000 CFA in convenience charges, he only loses 10,500 CFA. In fact, Pascal would have to be able to put 120,000 CFA (~$240) away in une caisse d’épargne for a whole year just in order to accrue enough interest so that his participation in the banking sector can break even. Therefore, in this country where per capita income hovers around 200,000 CFA (~$400), the mere act of holding a bank account can only serve as a profitable endeavor for the wealthy elite. And still, the despots of General Traoré’s kleptomaniac regime decided that it would be in their interest to tuck their pillaging away in Swiss banks…

As much as individual adults are responsible for their own fiscal solvency, it is hard to blame individuals for being bankrupt in this country where the banks are not facilitating sound money management. The banks in Mali as they now stand provide only disincentives for the rural peasantry, the urban poor and the middle class to save their money, and even if they can’t do math they understand that keep cashing around the house will make it liable to getting lost, destroyed or stolen – so they feel compelled to spend it as quickly as possible on fancy clothing and electronics they can’t afford, and before you know it they’re broke.

And as perverse as it is, the worse the people are at managing their money, the better it is for the bank’s short-term profits. In failing to offer better financial products, the banks are keeping the standard of this living in this country stuck in abject misery, because without savings people cannot pay for their children’s school fees and without savings they cannot pay their medical bills – unless of course they pay with borrowed money. And since the banks do not allow private individuals to collect interest in savings accounts, the only way for enterprising individuals to start or expand a business is by taking out loans and going into debt to – of course – those very same banks.

The fact that we in the developed West can so easily save our money, accumulate capital and invest it as we choose is what drives our relatively-thriving market economies. Conversely, the Malian banks’ collective failure to offer bona fide savings accounts to the middle class, the urban poor and the vast rural peasantry is more than just a burden on those individual consumers – it is one of the reasons why the economy of Mali is suffering from one of the weakest growth rates of any country in the world. Especially when you consider that Kafo Jiginew, la Banque Nationale de Developpement Agricole, la Banque de Developpement du Mali were established for the explicit purpose of offering financial services to stimulate the agricultural sector, the fact that these banks are actually discouraging small-scale farmers from saving is decidedly backwards.

Until Malian banks offer savings accounts that appreciate interest greater than the cost of merely keeping a bank account open, or until they eliminate outright their service fees which now make banking such a losing operation, individual Malians are never going to have any reason to save their money, capital will remain painfully scarce, and entrepreneurs will continue to be shut out from the investment they need to make this economy grow. Until they start offering modern financial products and reform the way they do business in a way that encourages private savings, the Malian banking system will continue to retard this country’s economic development.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Number Five

There are so many deficiencies in human capital which make it difficult for the Malian economy to function that one might be tempted to cast the blame on economic illiteracy. Very few people here understand that profits = revenues – costs because the Bambara language has not evolved different words for money to express those three distinct concepts. Quite often rural shops fail because the butigitigis purchase their wares in the cities and then resell those wares to their customers in village for the same exact prices – with every sale, they actually lose money. Most vendors don’t even bother to keep ledger books; they just eyeball how much money is flowing through their business in relative terms; “a little”, “a lot”, “enough”.

But economic illiteracy is only the tip of the iceberg; it has not been uncommon for merchants to hand me incorrect change – not because they are necessarily trying to cheat me, but because they simply cannot handle the math. Most owners of big shops in this country are able to invest 500 francs in a small calculator, and most are so uncomfortable doing subtraction in their heads that they whip out their machini every time they make a transaction – but that doesn’t mean that they know which buttons to push. The deficiencies in Malian human capital run even prior to arithmetic.

I myself never really understood how devastating ignorance can be on the local economy until I sat down one day in market to talking with a Malian vegetable-seller named Ma about the prices of the goods she sells at market. As we were discussing all of these numbers Ma stopped her own thought in mid-sentence, smiled radiantly and hunched over to trace her index finger into the dirt:

“One, two, three, four, five, six!”

And that is how I was introduced to the concept of “innumeracy”: the inability to read or write numbers. Innumeracy is a phenomenon causally related and integrally tied to illiteracy, of course, but it comes across to the numerate observer as incredibly more astonishing. In a society completely bereft of novels and plays or anything application of the written word more complicated than the labels on tea boxes, being unable to read does not seem to be all that much of a handicap. But numbers are an intrinsic part of material existence prior to their utterance by humans, and for an adult member of society to be unable to recognize or portray the visual representations of these numbers in any system at all means that they cannot possibly comprehend a base-ten system, that they can at best comprehend mathematical concepts as complex as the amount of digits they have on their two hands.

The sorry fact of the matter is that the Malian monetary economy is predicated on society’s inability to recognize and identify the numbers printed on their own currency. Back in the days of colonialism and the first two and half decades after independence, Malians conducted business with the sou – the smallest denomination of which was a 1 sou piece. But in 1984 the Republic of Mali joined the Economic Community of West African States and adopted the CFA as their new currency, and since this new currency had already depreciated in value from rampant inflation the smallest denomination in circulation at the time was a 5 CFA piece. Those who could actually read those numbers and speak a little French referred to the money with the proper French terms for each denomination: “cinq francs”, “dix francs”, “vingt-cinq francs”, “cinqant francs”, etc.

But very few Malians could make sense of the squiggles representing those concepts on their coins and bills, and even fewer could speak French. Though the different denominations of this new currency were easily distinguishable by size and color, the vast majority of the Malian population could make no sense of the “5”, “10”, “25”, “50”, “100”, “250” and “500” engraved on their coins, and they especially couldn’t decipher the “1,000”, “2,000”, “5,000” and “10,000” printed on their bills – that is, if an innumerate person could ever get their hands on a paper bill to begin with. So they referred to their new ECOWAS currency with the same names as the sou; since the 5 CFA coin was the smallest denomination like the 1 sou piece, innumerate Malians referred to it as the Bambara word for “one”, the 10 CFA coin as “two”, the 25 CFA as “five”, the 50 CFA as “ten”, etc. There were a lot of people who could in fact read those numbers, but if they read them correctly they couldn’t do business with the innumerate.

Moreover, this is a culture that regularly bows to the lowest common denominator - no matter how absurd. The older generations who came of age during colonialism were disproportionately more likely to be unschooled and innumerate, and Malian society is largely structured upon youth’s deference to elders; in this country, if Grandpa has no teeth, then no one can eat solid foods for dinner so as to not hurt his feelings. So just as the House of Habsburg purposefully mispronounced every “s” as a “th” to humor the grotesquely underbitten, dreadfully lisping King Carlos II, the entire population of Mali established the practice of misidentifying their currency to accommodate those who do not recognize that the numeral 5 stands for the number five.

As though Malian shop-owners don’t already have enough problems staying in the black without any accounting or arithmetic, there is a unique problem which besets those who are in fact numerate; the spoken terms used to identify prices are five times smaller than when those prices are written down – thereby making every transaction at least five times more confusing than necessary. If a shop-owner does know math and he knows that a customer’s order is 9,750 francs, he has to ask his customer for “one thousand, six five hundreds and sixty” no matter how nonsensical that is.

Even I have a really hard time converting between numeric prices and Malian illiterate prices, accepting the cognitive dissonance between seeing one value of numbers on budgets and currency but referring to it as something else. Let’s say I’m haggling over cement prices and the market price for 83 sacks at 7,100 francs a sack and the vendor’s starting price should be 589,300 francs, but I don’t have any scratch paper on me so I have to figure out in my head, what’s 589,300 divided by 5?... well, 100,000… then… what’s 89,000 divided by 5?... um… 16,000… plus 1,800… then 60… so 100,000 plus 16,000 plus 1,800 plus 606 equals… 117,860…

“The price for this should be '117,860', but since I’m buying so much cement here how ‘bout you cut me a break and cut it down to '100,000'?”

“ '100,000' is too low. '107,225'.”

'107,225' ... what’s that in real numbers?... multiply by 5… 500,00… plus 35,000…”

And even I have to give up and take out the calculator application on my phone and translate every numeric price into an illiterate price, and even though I and the cement seller can actually do relatively advanced math the negotiations take so long that we get confused as to what the other is trying to say and we completely lose track of each other’s offers because the only common language we share requires that we manhandle our numbers out of deference to all of those who don’t know what to make of the numeral 5. This is why – as much as I hate speaking to people in French in this country – Bambara and all of Mali’s other tribal tongues are wholly inadequate and the language of the former colonial power is in fact necessary for dealing in transactions more complicated than a few thousands francs.

If you can imagine how difficult handling money in this country is for people like me who can in fact do math, now try to imagine how much harder it is for the masses who need to use their fingers to count to ten…

It is pretty hard to find statistics quantifying the population of the innumerate – maybe that makes a lot of sense, actually – but if slightly more than 70 percent of all Malians are absolutely illiterate, and identifying individual numbers is significantly easier than sounding out combinations of letters into words, then the innumerate population must number at least a few million persons out of a total population of 13 million. But seriously, when is the average millet farmer eking out a hand-to-mouth existence going to interact with any amount of currency so complex that it cannot be adequately expressed with the illiterate numeral system? The fact of the matter is that most people living in countries like Mali are still living in a pre-modern subsistence level agricultural economy in which they farm the coarse grains that they eat, they eat the coarse grains that they farm, and there usually isn’t enough to feed the whole family to begin with. Unlike cash crop farmers, it is fairly rare that subsistence farmers can produce any sort of surplus that can be traded for currency, the whole question of money is a relatively minor aspect of their overall business plan.

And so long as they are illiterate and innumerate, Malians are extremely vulnerable to exploitation by the better-educated urban elite. There probably isn’t very much exploitation present when two rural peasants trade between themselves, like when Amadou the farmer goes to his village market and sells handfuls of tomatoes or onions to his neighbors. Though exploitation is certainly present if Amadou farms cotton on a third of his fields and sells it all to the representative from the nearest big city textile mill. Mills like CMDT and Comatex enjoy perfect monopsony over their respective local cotton markets, so they can still collect supplies of raw cotton year after year by paying the farmers only 200 CFA for a kilogram of cotton. A typical small-scale farmer will sell about 100 kilos after an extremely successful harvest – so for that year, they will take home a monetary revenue of 20,000 CFA (roughly $40). To an innumerate farmer who does all of his counting on his fingers, all of those zeros equate to a completely incomprehensible sum of currency – he will consider himself such a wealthy waritigi that he will spend without abandon.

But in reality, the innumerate farmer is getting royally screwed. The only reason why the textile mills can pay below market value for their raw materials is that no one else in town is buying – the peasants can either take the below-market value offer from CMDT or get nothing. Maybe the executive leadership of the textile companies knows about this disparity, but Amadou the farmer has no means of tracking global commodity prices, he doesn’t even know that he is being exploited. He understands so little about the value of money that he thinks that he is coming out on top, so the next year he is going to whittle down his acreage designated for cereal crops so he can grow even more cotton.

What exactly is Amadou the farmer going to do with the 40,000 francs he earned from selling cotton this year? Perhaps he will invest it in a new plough, another donkey, some better hoes and shovels. Perhaps he will hide it under the loose brick behind his bed in case of emergencies. But most likely, he is going to blow it all on tea, sugar, cigarettes, warm Coca Cola, millet beer and prostitutes. If he hasn’t already, there’s a good chance that he will spend 20,000 francs on a cell phone which he will use can play Tetris and the snake game – he will have to pay more for credit if he wants to actually make any calls. Amadou will spend hardly anything on better food, clothing or medicine for his family; taking care of the children’s day-to-day needs is generally considered the complete responsibility of the women of the family. There’s a good argument that such profligate spending could be reformed if women had more say over family decision-making or if men knew enough about science that they appropriately valued modern medicine– but there’s an even better argument that money would be spent more wisely in this country if people actually understood its value.

And while Amadou the farmer has blown all of his cotton money on toys and candy, the cotton he planted last year has mined all of the nutrients from the soil and put nothing back in, so the third of his fields used for cotton production have become too barren for food production in the long run. Amadou might have money, and he might have even more of it if he expands his cotton acreage the next planting season, but if this trend continues he will eventually be forced to purchase his food – and the 200 francs earned for each kilo of cotton will by no means suffice to compensate for the lost food production. So even though Amadou made what looked like a lot of money this year, the nutrition and health of his family will suffer from the paltry stores in his granary. If Amadou was duped into planting too much cash crops in proportion to food crops he will have to sell off some of his cows or donkeys, maybe even take out a loan at an usurious rate of interest in order to feed his family until the next harvest.

Maybe the typical Malian farmer could avoid such hardships if they could buy better fertilizers, high yield seeds and machine tools. Maybe they could be better off if they actually knew how to manage their finances. But neither can become a reality so long as the typical Malian farmer does not comprehend that the numeral 5 stands for the number five.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


I believe that it is impossible for any reality to exist so miraculous that it can authoritatively prove the existence of God. However, the fact that the United States government assigned me to live and work in Mali because of my background in French is so absurd, in fact, that it ipse facto proves that if there is a God, He must have a sadistic sense of humor.

You see, the general rule among Peace Corps Assignment Officers is that if an applicant has any knowledge of the French language, they get sent to Africa, anyone who can speak Spanish goes to Latin America, and that one linguistics major who wrote her thesis on Kyrgyz poetry gets sent to Kyrgyzstan. This rule generally makes a lot of sense, for it efficiently utilizes Volunteers pre-existing skills and places them in communities where they can most readily integrate. And when PC Washington was going through my application way back when, they were apparently very impressed by the fact that I took 6 years of French back in junior high and high school – so much, in fact, that they decided that I should be assigned to a country in Francophone Africa.

The fact that I do know French has been more of a liability than an asset here in Mali. When people like me arrive with a solid background in French in this officially Francophone country, we wrongly assume that we can communicate with the locals and that they will understand what we are saying. I am one of those pretentious assholes who spends his free time reading Camus and Baudrillard in the original, so when I first came here and bank tellers told me that they too spoke French and I reflexively told them what to do with my money in the conditional pluperfect subjunctive tense, time and time again I would become enervated when they mangled my instructions. Presuming that people here actually speak French only leads to situations in which the Francophones get frustrated, the locals feel lorded over, and everyone loses.

Even in Africa where each and every tribe has developed their own language which they have been speaking for thousands of years, there are some African countries which have wholeheartedly embraced the language of their former colonial masters. In Ghana where there are 47 traditional tongues, the government is promoting English as the single national language in order to mitigate tribal identification and shore up national identity. Some former French colonies like Senegal and Benin have also forged such a post-tribal national culture that parents raise their children to converse exclusively in the official, formerly colonial language. And such profound cultural shifts don’t just happen with a presidential proclamation; the reason why English is the common vernacular in Ghana and French is so prevalent in Senegal and Benin is that the governments of these countries have spent the past half century investing in the education of their citizens, particularly in literacy and language instruction.

Senegal and Benin are exceptions in that they truly are Francophone countries. In the bulk of the former French colonies like Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, there is an elite class of government officials, soldiers, gendarmes and teachers who use French for the workplace. And there is an even smaller minority of persons who do not work in government but can command the French language because they were born to such immense wealth to have attended private lycées. Though after decades of gross government neglect of the public welfare, the vast majority of adults have never received even a cursory elementary education, more than 70 percent of the population is absolutely illiterate, and they definitely do not speak more than a few token words outside of their local tribal tongue.

… But if asked, they will tell you that they do in fact speak Tubabukan ¬– the “language of the white people”. Of course, there is no such thing – the Tubabukan spoken here is a patois hybrid of French and Bambara we call “Frambara”; the nonsense that Malians who have never interacted with foreigners mislead each other into thinking is truly the “language of the white people”; usually, it is only Bambara laced with a few French nouns, maybe "est-ce que", "le voila", or - my favorite - "peut-etty". And likewise, most Malians are taught that if you see a Tubab, the proper thing to do is to address them in “their own language”:

“Bozu le Blanc!”

Here, the colloquial “Ça va?” – “how goes it?” – has transformed into functional equivalent of “Bozu”. People will shout “Sava! Sava!” and they think that they are greeting me. It is also common for Malians to greet Tubabs “Sava! Sava sava byen!” – which must have originated in the dialogue of an introductory French textbook “Ça va?”/ “Ça va bien!” and has now regressed into a greeting uttered by one single person. Thus it is thought that "Bozu sava sava biyen" is how we white people say hello.

The most entertaining phenomenon is how Frambara has taken certain phrases and so warped their meaning that they induce cringes in anyone with a rudimentary understanding of their etymological origins. For example, in Mali it is perfectly customary for people to come up to me at 8:00 in the morning and greet “Bo swa, Monsieur!”

Soir means ‘evening’. You cannot greet anyone ‘Bon soir!’ until the sun is setting.”

“No, when you see a white person you are supposed to greet them ‘Bo swa’.”

“That… doesn’t make any sense.”

“That’s what we do in our country.”

“… As I said…”

Other times I am greeted “Bo swa, Madame!” When this happens I like to think that these kids must have learned this phrase in the context of a female teacher, which must mean that at one point in their short lives they have in fact sat in a classroom. But there are other Tubabukan bastardizations that suggest more nefarious settings.

Children in the cities greet me with a bastardization of French with a mission: “Bozu cadeau? Sava sava cadeau?” When I am confronted with such obscenity, it is apparent that some asshole taught this kid that if they see a white person, all they have to do is say these magic words and the white person will smile and give them a lollipop. But when you’ve been living here for an extended amount of time and have been petitioned for a cadeau every single day by kids and adults alike who think of white people as arcade machines which will give you a toy if only you toggle the joystick and push their buttons the right way, these childlike Frambara-isms quickly become downright dehumanizing.

The absolute worst bastardization of French is when I’m in the city and I’m approached by one of the barefoot, tomato can-toting beggar children and they blurt out, “Tubabu! Do mwa cinq mille francs!” Initially, such an utterance impresses me in that it is in fact a complete sentence – a lot more than can be said of 95 percent of the "French" spoken here. However, in every such situation it is fairly obvious that if I were to reply “Préferez-vous un billet de cinq mille francs ou cinq billets d’une mille francs?” or even “Tu t’appelles comment?” the kid would have no idea what I’m saying. These kids are never going to be taught proper French greetings, introductions, how to ask for directions or the weather. “Do mwa cinq mille francs!” constitutes the entirety of that garabout’s French, because their “Quranic teacher” only instructs their cash cows in that one saying to finance their sedentary lifestyles. Accordingly, the marabouts instill the despicable misunderstanding that the language of Senghor, Césaire and Fanon is the language of humble supplication to white people.

The logic of a Malian greeting white people in Tubabukan is inherently racist – not necessarily a vicious ideology of racial supremacy, but at least the belief that all persons of a similar skin tone are indifferentiable. Of course, if a given Malian is walking down the street and they see person with pale skin, to the Malian it makes sense to greet this stranger in Tubabukan when 70 percent of all of the melanin-deficient they will ever interact with are in fact French, Belgian, Quebeçois or Luxembourgian. But there are also a lot of Americans, Germans, Spaniards and Italians who come here speaking no French at all, and according to Malian logic they too are greeted “Bozu! Sava sava byen!” because Tubabukan is “the language of the white people” – all of them. The term Tubabu refers to Aryans, Slavs, Arabs, Persians, Latinos, and all non-African persons alike. Even when Japanese or Korean tourists trek through Dogon Country with their brand new video cameras, they too are greeted by the locals “Bozu! Sava bonbon!” When Malians address each and every white person with what they think is “our own language”, it only demonstrates how profoundly unaware they are of the outside world and the crudeness of their racialism.

Even when the adult population addresses made in grammatically correct, polite French along the lines of “Excusez-moi, monsieur, est-ce que tu es perdu?” or “Je vends du pain du qualité superieur!” it strikes me as patronizing and just as innocently racist. When people speak to me in French, it means they assume that I am a lazy NGO worker or gold miner who is only here to interact with government ministers and rarely leaves the hermetically-sealed, self-contained expatriate biodome – or even worse: a tourist.

So when anyone in this country ever speaks to me in French, I instinctively reply in Bambara – and after a few lines of dialogue in which the Bambara is speaking broken Tubabukan and the Tubabu is speaking fluent Bamanankan the former eventually realizes the folly of their efforts and switches gears into their own language. Now that I’m starting to pick up Miniankakan – the really, really local language which only has any use in the tiny homeland of the Minianka subgroup of the Bambara tribe, around my home base I can show off how dedicated I am to integration with an even greater effect. The response is universally effusive, for these people have spent their entire lives thinking that they have to learn the language of their former colonial masters if they ever want to do business with the West – with much detriment to their collective self-esteem. Thus when an Occidental comes to live amongst an isolated culture and takes the time to learn to speak to them in their own obscure tongues, the symbolism is lost on no one.

When people ask me why I do not speak to them in French like all the other Tubabs do, I point out the ideological chasm between my country and the Old World powers:

Americainw Mali la kono be Mali kanw kalan tiyenna barisa folofolo Angleterre tun be an mara i na fo jonw ye, ni an ye keleke fo an ye an yere ka jamana mine. I be se ka fo ka an te fe ka jamanw were mara.

“Americans in Mali take the time to learn Malian tongues largely because of our own history of exploitation by the British and our War for Independence… You could say that our own experience has left a particular distaste for colonialism.”