Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Visit to the Marabout

I joked around in my last post about petty fights and the rumor mill that is my town of Koulikoro. But, there are more serious disputes/problems and I say this in reference to gender relations. I’m not going to hide the fact that gender roles are deeply entrenched here and men hold the power unquestionably. I'm sure it's the first thing that makes an impression on every liberal Western visitor. Men often have multiple wives. This usually causes the first shock (after seeing people eat with their hands). Certainly, this kind of societal organization must have had its advantages and maybe still does in the bush. But, in the cities, it’s hard for me to see that a practical reasoning still exists behind polygamy. People will say that the wives of one husband get along wonderfully as well as their children. But, from my experience jealousies abound in all directions.

The male domination is not just confined to the marital realm. The same friend I’ve discussed before (the one who threw the punch) I'll call 'Awaha.' Awaha had been staying at my house since the day she called me at 5 in the morning, crying, asking me to come outside my concession. She was there covered in dirt and belt lashes. Her ex-boyfriend had beaten her up and when he’d dropped her off at her home, her mother had kicked her out of the house for turning up in the early morning hours. Violence against women is a reality here as it is everywhere. I just don’t think I’ve ever come across it so openly and publicly before. I’ve been chatting with a friend on more than one occasion during the day while listening to a man beat his wife for all to hear. Just the other evening, I heard a whiplash break the silence of the night and turned to see a girl sprinting towards me. She practically knocked me over in order to hide behind my friend and I, as a shirtless man pursued with a belt raised over his head. There's not much gray area to this issue: men are allowed to hit women, but a woman should never lay a hand on a man. I can say the majority of people I’ve encountered, male and female, agree with this concept fundamentally. Perhaps, someone will say in a particular incident a beating was unjustified. But, he always retains the right.

So, back to my friend who turned up on my doorstep at 5 in the morning shaking, not knowing what to do with her arms...hold them together against the slight chill of the fading night or continue pointing out to me her various wounds. Like anyone would have done, I tried to be a good friend. She stayed with me for a few days. I listened, I made her feel at home, I kept her company. When this situation had occurred in the past, I tried to get her to talk to someone, a counselor of sorts, but to no avail. I thus resigned myself to play the simple role I was playing now.

There were other things I did to help, one of those ‘only in Mali’ ways of helping. Malians always use a third person intermediary for most disputes. Therefore, I was to go with another friend to talk with her mother and plead on her behalf to allow her to come home. But, even before that, there was a step to take to increase the probability her mother would concede; that was to go consult a marabou, Muslim holy man. One dusk, Awaha and I walked towards the outlying hills and found the Marabou she trusted. The Marabou sat across from us on a mat, surrounded by prayer beads, Quranic pages, fetishes, and traditional medicine (leaves and little soda bottles filled with anonymous concoctions). He was very serious and silent as he unfolded a binder filled with columns and columns of hash marks. He asked us to breath and whisper onto his pen, then asked our names and wrote them in Arabic. Beneath our names, he started to drawing columns of hash marks that flowed into more branching columns of hash marks. It reminded me of drawing evolutionary diagrams in life science. Then, he started telling us things concerning our finances and love lives and it started to remind me more of MASH (not the tv series, but the game we girls used to play mostly to predict who we would marry).

In order to realize a wish of mine, I was told to buy candies and peanuts for children and chew on one white kola nut. I helped my friend follow the instructions she was given to drive away her woes. The following evening, I built a fire so she could burn 6 red kola nuts and an old pair of shoes. All the items had been inscribed with lines from the Quran by the Marabou himself. When her mother conceded a couple days later, you know what she credited for hastening her return home. Her ex has also become less of a stalker and much friendlier in meeting. I’ve politely cautioned my friend that this probably isn’t a change for the long-term.

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