I couldn’t conceive of this country in the absence of tea. Tea is the catalyst of conversation. Any conversation outside of tea is mere small talk, or, simply, the recurring, obligatory greeting (how’s your family, your husband, your wife, your siblings, your children, your neighbours, etc). Malians in my town will joke sardonically that no one can find work so there is nothing else to do, but make tea. But, they’ll also tell you seriously that tea offers the occasion to have more meaningful conversation, it opens the table for discussion. I feel that we are often told as Westerners that there are many taboo topics in Africa, particularly in regards to sex. There is always the concern that these taboos hinder development in areas such as health. I’m sure this has been very true in the past and is still very relevant in the bush. In my large town, when I sit down to have tea with a group of people, I’m asked first if I’m married as a way of gauging where the discussion can lead – in the presence of a married woman, there are topics to steer clear of, out of respect. But, I do want to point out that ‘sex as a taboo topic in Africa’ is a bit of a blanket statement. Deep in the bush, in very traditional villages, NGO’s carry out theatrical skits against female genital cutting (FGC) - or female genital mutilation, the not as politically correct term. Furthermore, in my town, when tea is present, far from finding the topic of sex taboo, I find it’s exactly what I’m often asked about. People ask me about HIV/AIDS or condoms (which pleases me because contraceptive use is something around 7% here according to a UN stat.). Or, for example, the other day I greeted a young man in passing who invited me to tea. I sat down with him and his two friends. We exchanged names. The second boy asked me ‘I furulendon’ Are you married? ‘N ma furu folo’ No, not married. (Note: all topics open for discussion.) The third gentleman asked me with sincere curiosity (and in French now), “Do you know what causes impotence in men?” Not sure if that falls under my ‘expertise’ as a health volunteer.
In addition (in this little attempt to invert the common notion of a taciturn sub-Saharan Muslim country), I should add that I can pose any question to people I feel close to. I’ve had very detailed discussions about religious beliefs, conceptions on love, opinions and practices in relation to FGC, on polygamy and relations between multiple wives. And I think I have yet to cause offense. The only barrier hindering my curiosity is my lack of proficiency in French and Bambara.
Back to tea….Malians have a very unique way with their tea. They use little glass cups, two small tea kettles, and a tray. They pour the tea into the glasses from about a few feet in the air. Then, they pour it back in the kettle, and then back into the glasses. This is repeated over and over again to create a frothy, bubbly top layer. There are 3 rounds of tea (each consisting of about 2-3 sips per person) usually over a couple hours before starting with fresh leaves. The hum of pouring, the little clank of the glasses and kettle on the tray…these sounds are so constant, that sometimes when I’m dozing, I hear them in my head even when there tea is not present.
Most afternoons I’ll take my tea in one of two places. If I’m at home, I sit outside with a couple girlfriends. I never make tea because I don’t have the technique or a steady hand. Therefore, one of my friends will make the tea, while the other shifts shells over a woven mat predicting our futures and discussing problems occurring in the present. Quite comically, not one thing said has ever been true, unless it was something that I knew was prior knowledge. More often, I spend the afternoons in my second home, with my second Malian family (just a short bike ride away). It has been my safe-haven from my first week at site. I realized recently why I feel so at home there. It's a bit of a circus; a home for misfits like myself. First of all, a female is the head of the family, which is very rare. The 63 year old slightly physically handicapped woman was my first friend here (I’ll call her Ami). She has two adult sons; one is an existentialist/humanist/Rastafarian, the other, a conservative Muslim knowledgeable in the mystics of Islam. He’s convinced I know the real name of Moses’ mother, and that if I just shared this truth, would convey onto him such power as the ability to teleport (or ‘apparate’ like in Harry Potter). Ami also has four adopted children (one, I’m told, was found buried in the dirt with just his foot exposed). Ami’s orphaned niece lives there as well; she’s a little person. Another female tenant, clearly well into her third trimester, is still denying she’s pregnant. Ami’s 80 year old mother, who recently lost her husband, is confined to the house for 4 months and 10 days (as custom dictates for widows) wearing only navy blue cloth. And finally, the latest addition to the family, a deaf mute sex worker who was arrested by the police for nearly throwing her newborn into the river. Of course, Ami has adopted her newborn as well. Then, there’s me...as I practically live there. I’m still mystified by the forces at play that have led to this random American girl to share in the life of this particular Malian town.
...one last addition...homosexuality really is a taboo topic, as are masks (that ones takes some further explanation on superstituous beliefs particular to my region). It's hard to get any opinion on the former. I asked my friend Ami her thoughts and she said she had none, that was the first time she had ever talked about it.