Wednesday, August 25, 2010

From Here to Modernity

Culturally speaking, the Bamako International Airport functions to serve foreigners. The majority of its patrons consist of German tourists, American diplomats, French NGO personnel and Arab oilmen. There is often a smattering of native-born Malians who somehow got hold of a visa to Spain or Italy years ago and have now returned to see their extended families luxuriating in their remittances. Usually the only kind of Malian residents you will ever see boarding a plane are the Bamakois elite who have salaried careers in government or banking and take in at least 1 million CFA (~$2,000) a month, who speak to their family exclusively in French, who wear stylish suits and closed-toed leather shoes, who are so proudly Western that they are – as Modibo Keita said of Leopold Senghor – “plus français que le plus français des français”.

In a country where the economy is all but defined by subsistence agriculture, travel by air is simply not something that your average Malian can even dream of. Very rare is the Bambara peanut farmer who can save enough cash to buy a $400 ticket to Tunis, a $800 ticket to Casablanca or a $900 ticket to Paris.

As I stepped inside terminal at Bamako International Airport to say goodbye to Mali for the last time, I was greeted by a very unusual sight: actual broussey Malians who were quite obviously leaving Mali for the first time. There was a troupe of 30 Bambara women taking the same flight as me to Tunis en route to their final destination in Mecca. Judging by their simple dresses and head wraps, their general lack of teeth, the facts that their luggage consisted of rice sacks and plastic buckets, these were obviously not the wives of the wealthy Bamakois elite.

As I later found out, some wealthy Muslim somehow paid for these 30 simple village women to embark on the hajj as a grand act of charity. To go on the pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam, and it should be one of the defining moments in the life of any Muslim who can afford to do so. Now imagine how exciting such an adventure should be for a simple Bambara woman who does most of her travel by donkey cart, who has maybe traveled on a run-down minivan to Bamako four or five times over the course of her 50 years. And now she is going to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia – by airplane!!!

Just try to imagine how wild an idea this must be for a woman from a society defined by a means of production that has not changed much since the advent of the Iron Age. The sighting of a pankuru – a “jumping boat” – was a very big deal in Sanadougou. As the Minianka villagers tilled their fields with simple iron hoes and picks, every couple of months someone might see a pankuru soar above the clouds across the baby blue sky. It would be the talk of the town for weeks on end. As I the fair-skinned American had obviously taken a pankuru to get there, they would ask me all about the technical matters of aviation:

“How does a pankuru jump so high in the sky?”

“How do people get all the way up to find their seats?”

“How does the driver hit the breaks on the wheels?”

“Where is the road?”

These ladies embarking on the hajj might have bitten off more than they could chew. From the moment they somehow got past the check-in counter, it was obvious that the process of air travel was such a foreign concept entailing such a long series of elaborate rituals for which they had absolutely no point of reference. With much difficulty the Bambara-speaking airport staff was able to guide them through the metal detector and security checkpoints, and even then they were confused and frightened by these strange futuristic plastic wands being waved around their bodies. Once they arrived at the gate – there is only one gate at the Bamako International Airport – they were in the hands of Tunis Airlines.

Once a passenger gets through check-in and security, the next step in boarding an airline usually entails waiting on line to show one’s ticket. There’s not much sense in rushing the gate, because everyone going on to a plane has an assigned seat. Though the broussey women could have only known the protocol of getting onto a Malian bus; a fierce gauntlet elbowing one’s way through a crowd of peanut vendors and beggar children, speed is of the essence because the bus drivers usually sell more tickets than there are seats and those who don’t have to kneel in the aisle, those ticket-holders who can’t find room to kneel are simply out of luck and have to wait for the next bus. So all of the Westerners and cultivated ruling class Africans recoiled in disgust as the group of 30 cut and clawed their way to the front of the line.

Naturally, by the time they clawed their way onto the plane the 30 broussey women on hajj all chose to sit together. However, this posed a problem as 30 other people held the tickets to those very same seats. Technically the French-colonized Malians and French-colonized Tunisians should be able to resolve their differences with a lingua franca, and the Tunisian staff did indeed speak beautiful French – but that meant little to a hoard of illiterate, unschooled housewives who knew little “white people language” beyond “Bo swa”, “Bozu le Blanc” and “Saba saba byen”. Also, provincial Bambaras tend to have a difficult time understanding the concept of other people not understanding what they say in Bambara.

“Pardonnez-moi, madame, mais quelqu'un d'autre a le billet pour cette place.”


“Madame, vous devez rester assis dans votre siège attribué.”


The rest of the passengers were held up from boarding for about 10 minutes until a native Malian who had expatriated to France acted as an intermediary between the Tunis Air stewards and the 30 broussey Malian women, showed the latter how a ticket worked and led them one by one to their designated seats. At this point the Mali musow were downright hostile. The airline staff realized that this was going to be a long night.

The flight was scheduled to take off at midnight, but due to passenger troubles we were already quite delayed. At about 12:20, as the plane was sealed and driving into position on the tarmac, not just the broussey ladies but just about every Malian on board whipped out their cell phones to make one last call goodbye before flying off into the wild blue unknown. Of course, dozens of passengers making phone calls can severely disrupt the pilots’ radio communications with the air traffic controllers, so the stewards and stewardesses had to tell the pilot to stop and wait as they proceeded down the aisle and one-by-one explained via miming and gesticulation that everyone had to turn off their phones.

The Malian ex-pat stood up and shouted, “NI HALI MOGO KELEN BE TELEPHONI WULI PANKURU KONO A BE NA PANKURU TIEN NI MOGO BE FAGA!!!!!” - "If anyone makes a phone call in the plane then this plane is going to crash and everyone is going to die!!!!" The cabin was filled with screams and shrieks and at least one broussey woman broke into hysterics about how she was going to die and never see her family again. We had not yet left the tarmac.

During this time I made friends with another surprising broussey Malian seated to my left; a Fulani cattle herder wearing an eye patch. Zoumana explained to me that one day an angry cow charged and gored him in the socket, he went to his village witch doctor who prescribed some homeopathic placebos. Over a few weeks his eye was only getting worse, so Zoumana built up the courage to see the real doctor who told him that the kind of medical attention he needed could only be found in an Arab or European hospital. So over the course of months he sold half of his herd and took out some loans and applied for a passport and visa and eventually raised enough funds to fly to Tunis and back. When I did the math I computed that Zoumana had been suffering from his massive wound for about 6 months, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the chances of his eye looked rather slim.

“May Allah make your pain be gone.”

“Amina”, he concurred. Zoumana told me that he had never been to Bamako before – let alone an airplane to Tunis. He was frightened by the fact that we were flying so high off the ground.

“Don’t worry, you’re only 6 meters off the ground. We’re still just driving around the runway like a car.”

"But isn't the pankuru supposed to drive in the sky?"

“Yes, but first it has to jump really, really fast to get off the ground. You know how sometimes cars can’t get into first gear unless all the passengers get out and push the car really fast? It’s kind of like that – only we’re going to go even faster because the plane is going to make a big fire!”

“WHAT?!?!? A FIRE?!?!”

“No, don’t worry – the fire is just in the engine like in a car. It is going to be all under control.”

As we did finally take off Zoumana was holding onto the armrests so tight that he was shaking. I encouraged him to shut his eye and get some rest, emphasizing how well-trained and experienced the pilot must be.

The rest of the flight went largely without incident – if only because most of the passengers sleep on the red-eye to Tunis. Though it was nonetheless amusing to watch as the first-timers tried to adjust to the ultra-modern airplane from an innocently Malian perspective.

All of the 30 village women made good use of the complimentary eye-folds. They were all wearing them over their mouths. You see, in Mali motorcyclists often buy black-marketed surgical face-masks to protect their mouths from all the dust stirred up along the dirt roads. And superstitious Malians think that sickness is contracted from exposure to the wind. Apparently they thought that the plane traveling at 510 miles an hour was going to churn up a lot of sky dust into the hermetically-sealed cabin.

Traditional Bambara/Fulani culture also collided with mile-high modernity as the food cart came down the aisle to serve a Tunisian meal of chicken and couscous. “I think it is Tubabu rice” one voice explained. The broussey women washed their hands in the plastic cups of water and shoved handfuls of the strange couscous into their mouths and licked their fingers clean. Zoumana made an effort to use Tubabu utensils and struggled to get the couscous to his mouth with the handle of the plastic knife, throwing a mess all over the floor.

Accordingly, some of the broussey Malians must have had difficulty on the other end of digestive track etiquette. All that I will say is that a Bambara villager who has only relieved his- or herself in a mud nyegen - i.e. a hole in the ground - must have been so confounded by the space-age modernity of an airline bathroom stall that… well… they did what they usually do in a mud nyegen. Upon discovering this vivid manifestation of cultural cognitive dissonance, I proceeded to notify one of the in-flight attendants who promptly locked the bathroom for the remainder of the flight.

As our plane began its decent into Tunis, I noticed that one-eyed Zoumana to my left was moaning in agony - it was quite obvious that no one had explained to him how to adapt to changes in atmospheric pressure. So I taught him to hold his nose and blow to equalize the pressure in his sinus and the rest of the cabin. As evinced by the screams and hollers throughout the rest of the cabin, no one had had the initiative - or the language skills - to impart this vital skill to the rest of the first-timers.

You can probably imagine how similar disasters awaited the 30 village women who threw a collective tantrum over the fact that they were being forced to leave the plane without their checked luggage - they thought that the airline had stole it all, and the pitfalls which trapped the multitude of absolutely illiterate passengers who had to write out their embarkation cards, etc.

The one last image which I would like to leave you with was one of the 30 Mecca-bound women who came to the luggage carousel and saw suitcases and boxes coming out one hole and back into another - she must have thought that once a suitcase went back into the wall it was gone for good. And she must have not been able to differentiate her plastic-wrapped rice sack from the other dozens of plastic-wrapped rice sacks, so she ran down the luggage carousel knocking each and every one of them down to the floor. After she eventually found the rice sack she wanted the poor lady realized that she had committed a grave taboo, so she tapped me on the shoulder and grunted and pointed to one of the rice sacks she had knocked to the ground. I grudgingly obliged and lifted it back to the revolving carousel. Then she grunted and pointed to the other three dozen rice sacks she knocked to the floor.

I tried my best to explain to her in Bambara how the luggage carousel keeps on moving in circles until each passenger identifies and removes his or her own bag. "Maybe next time you should sit and let the machine do the work for you."

For those who think I'm being haughty or mean, please understand that I recount these little anecdotes not because I wish to ridicule these poor simple folks, but because I wish to explain to relatively tech-savvy people like you why we have to make our modern ways more easily-understandable and accessible to those who live in mud huts, eat with their hands and exist in a world defined by medieval Iron Age technology. Airplanes are just the tip of the iceberg - the same kind of confusion and frustration and all-too-often outright dismissal often comes when people like Zoumana the Fulani herder are introduced to modern technology that could improve their day-to-day health and standard of living like the water pump, the toilet, the mosquito net and the condom.

The culture shock between simple African villagers and an ultra-modern airport is more than just something which causes awkward scenes of confusion and humiliation - it really is a matter of public safety and national security. Men who have never heard of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would probably see nothing wrong with boarding a plane with a box of matches so they can continue their hourly cigarette habit. Women who haven't the slightest idea who Mohamed Atta was might be surprised that they can't bring their knife or knitting needles on board. If a Malian man knows that he will be sitting down for an extended period of time, he is going to want to break out charcoal, lighter fluid, matches and a kettle so he can boil up a round of tea - on a number of occasions, passengers from tea-drinking cultures unaware of the physics of a pressurized cabin have initiated in-flight explosions killing everyone on board. Yes, security technology exists which should be able to prevent such scenarios from occurring in the first place - but anyone who has lived in Africa for any extended period of time would know that technology often fails, humans often err. And just because the airport puts up a poster with pictograms to represent the guns, grenades, nail-clippers and nuclear materials that one must not bring onto a plane, that does not mean that people from an illiterate culture completely bereft of symbolism or figurative language will understand what those pictograms are supposed to mean.

The aviation industry should try to find ways of making the tools of their trade and the convoluted protocol of ticket counters, security checkpoints, baggage claim and customs more understandable to first-time passengers. Even if they make up a small minority of their total clients, responding to these needy few is imperative to ensure the comfort and safety of all. One way to start would be to have the personnel at the check-in desk ask if their clients are flying for the first time - not to be stereotyping, but a Malian ticket teller can probably spot aviation virgins from a mile away. Institutions like Bamako International Airport - probably most other airports in Africa and the underdeveloped world - should have personnel employed to hold these special-needs clients' hands and walk them from check-in to the departure gate. While waiting in the passenger lounge, they could explain how an airplane works, how it takes off and how it lands, how a pressurized toilet works and how to properly use one without the aid of a plastic teapot. This need not be done in a way that is insultingly patronizing; I would imagine that someone who has never taken a taxi to the airport let alone a plane to Mecca would really appreciate some guidance on how to navigate the strange unknown.

Though at the present such professional airline passenger instructors don't exist. That means that this vital role must be filled by volunteers. So next time that you're taking a plane departing from anywhere in Africa and it's clear that somebody riding with you has never before left Sanadougou, act like you're a Boy Scout and that person who has never ridden a plane before is an old lady trying to cross the street. Be sure to teach them how to equalize their sinuses and fill out their disembarkation card. And most importantly, let them have the window seat - believe me, they will appreciate the view.


Alyssa said...

Sounds like a great start for your new adventure :) You should translate the Bambara in the post for those who can't speak it- it really adds a lot to the story.

Also, in the Casablanca airport, a Malian woman almost pushed me on my face taking a running start onto an escalator behind me and attempting to keep going (for some reason?)

Best of luck and keep writing!

Anonymous said...

This is a really, really great blog post. So well written and lots of good information for an outside who doesn't know what life would be like for an innocent Malian boarding a plane.Best of luck as you COS.