As I mentioned in my first post from Mali, I am now living in a relatively large city located on the Niger downstream from the capital of Bamako. One of the main income generating activities here, besides fishing itself, is fishing for sand. Sounds odd, but everyday people drag sand and pebbles from the river to be sold later and used in construction. They heap the sand into canoes and then onto donkey carts, moving back and forth between sand bars and the bank of the river. These ‘pirogues’ or dug-out canoes dot the riverside, punting along like one does for fun on the River Cam, but here its for their livelihood. There’s this one hill top that I reach on my bike ride into town, and from this point, I look out over the river with all the activity of the pirogues and I swear I think I’m in some medieval European city...or The Merchant of Venice. Probably an inaccurate description, but that's just what comes to mind.
At my new home, in my little suburb set back in a nook of hills, there's kind of an interesting juxtaposition going on...little mix of modern and traditional living. While I have electricity and my family has a tv, a refrigerator, and a tap with potable water, I'm still 'going' in a hole in the ground, taking bucket baths in the open air, and eating out of a communal bowl with my bare hands. Well, technically, I’m eating with my right hand solely. Like in many other cultures (that tend to be Muslim), the left hand is considered the dirty hand and should never be used. I still haven't quite gotten over the one time I accidentally stuck my left hand in the millet bowl. I am sure the Malians haven’t gotten over it either….everyone around me froze, wearing the most horrified expressions of shock and disgust. I wanted to explain that I didn't wipe my behind with my hand, that I used soap besides. But I couldn't do anything except go red in the face. I knew the custom, but I just had this moment of rational thought that said, ‘you've licked your right hand at least ten times already while eating with it, your left hand is actually clean and saliva free and thus that is the one that should be used to add millet to the communal bowl.’
In an attempt to better understand the culture here (and stop making such embarrassing mistakes), I’ve been attending lots of cultural festivities. Last post, I talked about the village wedding where 14 brides were married at once and people danced to jembes and xylophones without stopping until the sun rose. I’ve been to a Spirit Possession, where people, inhabited by their demons, collapsed into convulsions or into people’s laps. At a baby naming ceremony or baptism, I found myself in the middle of a courtyard jam-packed with beautifully and colorfully dressed women…and me, in my dirty jeans in the middle of the scene, getting photographed with the newborn. I have been to my share of 'soirees' here and felt like I was almost leading a normal life. The first one I attended was a bit like a high school dance, no alcohol and a highly social parking lot scene outside the dance. Of course, it was full of motos instead of Mustangs and everyone could actually dance, except me…and as if I didn’t stand out enough already as the only white girl… the dj had to point out over the mike that a ‘tubabo’ - white person - had entered the building. The few I’ve attended since have been much more fun. I’m starting to let go, really enjoy their fast-paced pop music, and, now, that I know a few people, the shout-outs over the mike are not 'tubabo,' but rather my new name: Aminata Fofana.