Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Profile: Diarra Kone

I have waffled between calling Diarra my landlord and my host-dad. I pay him rent and therefore he is, in fact, my landlord. But I also eat dinner with him every night, and we often drink tea together after dinner, making him something significantly more. If I ever have a problem - things often don't work here the way I expect them to - Diarra can usually fix it.

At fifty-seven years old, Diarra's body could easily be seventy-five. He began working in the fields when he was very young (his own recollection places it somewhere between seven and ten). Every year since he has spent a considerable amount of time doubled over, face close to the ground, working a short hand tool called a "daba", which has the blade of a hoe, but the short handle of a hatchet. His hands are rough and calloused, his feet cracked and hard. He can’t see very well, but I only know because sometimes he fumbles a little when he reaches for a glass of tea, and I think he struggles to recognize faces as they approach him. From up close, his eyes are visibly clouded with something that I'm sure, in the States, would be treatable.

At his age, he only makes the four-mile walk to his field a couple times a week. The rest of the family goes out at least double that. When he does go, he returns hot, dehydrated and weary. I always know when he's been out because he's much less jovial over dinner, and excuses himself to rest before tea is done. One day I went with him, and despite doing about half the work that he did, I returned in similarly poor shape.

Most days, Diarra can be found sitting in the shade in front of his house, greeting neighbors as they pass and occasionally shooing away chickens or goats that are getting close to the night's dinner. He enjoys a good belly-laugh, and his gift for finding comedy in daily occurrences allows him to sneak one whenever he can. His three-year-old grandson, Mamadou, is one of his continuing sources of pleasure and entertainment. I suspect there is nothing he would rather do than to pass the day drinking tea and talking with Madou. I often watch with glee and a hint of longing for my own grandfather as they compete to tell each other tall tales.

He speaks French at least as well as I do, which never surprised me until he told me he had never been to school. "Not one day in my life," he said.

One evening, as we sat waiting for dinner, I was feeling particularly curious about the details of this man's life, and so I asked. He has been married three times. His first wife died about seven years ago, he tells me with a hint of tenderness that is rare in a culture where marriage is more an economic arrangement than a life partnership. When I ask about his second wife, he asks if I know the term "divorce". It's uncommon here, and when he doesn’t come forward with the details, I allow him to leave it at that. His third wife, Sayon, is twenty-eight. Just to be sure, I ask if any of these marriages overlapped. He replies that they did not and, as if to assure me, he asserts that he never really understood how one man could provide for more than one woman and that many children.

I follow that line to ask him about his children. He has had ten - all by his first wife. I live with two of them, one twenty-one, and one nineteen. When I ask about the rest, he gets quiet. It's a fact of life that a lot of times kids don't make it here, and I assume that Diarra's family is no exception. I wait for him as he holds his head in his big, calloused hands, and assume he's trying to put a timeline on what must have been major events in his life. Six of them died before age five; "Sumaya," he says - malaria. Every illness here is malaria, but it's never a bad guess. "The other two?" I ask, praying that they are working in Bamako, or cab drivers in Europe. One, a boy, died at thirteen, he says. The other, a girl, died about five years ago, at seventeen. He takes a moment and looks me in the eye. "Ça, me derange," he says. I can't tell if his eyes are teary or just the usual cloudy.

Later, I go back to my French-English Dictionary to make sure I understood "derange", but "upset" doesn’t quite do it justice. I wonder if there are words in any language for that.

Election Special: Malian Punditry

My host family was particularly interested in an issue of Time magazine that my mom sent me, so I handed it to them to check out. I was struck by the way they looked over it. They were unable to distinguish the ads from the stories, and navigated different texts, sizes, and graphics in a way that seemed totally unnatural to me. Without exposure to mass marketing on a regular basis, they are "fresh" in a way that Americans could never be. Long before American children have the skills to actually read a Time magazine, they can navigate it in ways that are more organized and predicable.

I could barely contain my amusement and delight when they turned to the election coverage that was packed into Time's pages. Having never been subjected to the 24/7 barrage of worthless election coverage provided by much of the American media, and with only the candidates' pictures to work from, I thought they summed up the themes of the election well.

Our discussion of American electoral politics went as follows:

John McCain...
Dad: "His hair is all white. He's really old."
Me: "Yeah - he's seventy-two."
Dad: "Wow, he's ancient! America can't have a president who's that old."
Me: "... yeah."

Barack Obama...
Dad: "This one's a little kid."
Me: "Well, he's forty-seven."
Mom: "But he looks so young. And handsome."
Dad: "He's black."
Me: "Yeah, his Dad is from Kenya."
Dad: "But how can America have an African president?"
Me: "Well, his mom is American, and he was born in America."
Mom: "Yeah, he's not really black."

Sarah Palin...
Dad: "Wow - she's hot."
Me: "... yeah."
Dad: "Maybe she will be my second wife."

Joe Biden...… did not appear in this issue of Time

*Special thanks to my Mom for sending the magazines. Also thanks for the Oreos. One night, I locked myself in my house with a book and ate the whole box in you honor.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Quick Update...

I'm in Bamako to go to the bank, and internet is scarce, but here are a couple morsels of life in Narena while I have a second:

1) It's watermelon season. When I discovered this, I split a watermelon with another volunteer for dinner, accompanied by the necessary seed-spitting contest. I also brought one home to my family the other day, and we dug in with reckless abandon. After about fifteen minutes of quiet interrupted by occasional slurping, there were six sticky, smiling faces and a whole watermelon had been demolished. I am hoping to make a habit of this, as watermelon is significantly tastier than to.

2) I am starting to learn the names of people around town. The mayor has a small grandchild (at least I think he's a grandchild... these things are harder to sort out than you might think) whose name I asked for the other day. Their response sounded like "nahmbadr wahn". Go ahead... say it out loud. That's right, this poor child with a large, funny-shaped head has a nonsensical English name: Number One. Hearing them botch English in a big way in the middle of streams of Malinke is an unending source of pleasure for me. Some of my readers may also appreciate the unintended Star-Trek reference (Mike, Dad, this one's for you).

3) Ramadan is over (see previous post about the feast). People in my village are tremendously more affable now than they were when I arrived. Good thing, because that was rough.

4) I found an afternoon card game in the middle of town under the hugest Baobab tree I've ever seen. About ten men gather there every afternoon to play a fast-paced game that I still don't understand. There's about two hours of play, characterized by lots of arm-flailing, table-hitting, finger-pointing, and loud disagreements followed by high-fiving and back-slapping. For now, I just watch. It is going to be a great way to get to know people, and to learn some colorful language.

5) I'm starting to appreciate some of the people here on a personal level. My host dad (or landlord) is a really cool old man, and I spend most nights after dinner drinking tea with him, and shooting the breeze. He reminds me a lot of my grandfather, and we enjoy each others' company despite the communication barriers. I always leave laughing, and feel a little bit like I've just been to Texas. Hopefully more on him another day.

There's plenty more to say, but that's all the time I've got for the moment. I'll be back to Bamako in early November to watch the election results roll in through the night. I should have time to write then.

Until then...
- D

The Feast Of Ramadan

Ramadan ended with a big feast that reminded me of a cross between Thanksgiving and Halloween, but with the stress of Christmas. It's officially a three-day feast, but the days of the feast get decidedly less intense as they progress. Everyone goes home, and public transportation the day before the feast (which I foolishly took) was packed with tired, stressed out people.

Since the month of Ramadan is all about fasting, the feast is, well, about feasting. On my way out of Bamako the day before the feast, I saw a large number of four-legged creatures slaughtered on the side of the road. I'll spare you the details, but rest easy that I'm not a vegetarian yet.

We ate non-stop the first day, consistently the second day, and a little more normally on the third day. This was the first time since I've been there that my host family has bought meat. Not a morsel was wasted, and we all enjoyed it thoroughly.

The kids all go around finding adults to sucker into giving them money. They start by showering you with a series of special blessings: "may you have many years, may you have many wives, may you have many children, my you have many grandchildren, may they all live forever..." This goes on long enough that it starts to feel a little ridiculous. At the end, you're supposed to give them some small amount of money. The kids make a business of this. Just like I used to map out the best neighborhoods for Halloween, they map out their richest relatives and acquaintances, and prioritize their precious time over the three day holiday. I think there's a run on candy at the general store in the following week.

I guess for the adults of the community, this is a cute thing. I, however, get hit up for money by kids I don't know on a nearly daily basis. It doesn't happen all the time in my village, because once they know me, it's decidedly more difficult for them to shamelessly ask me for money for no reason. Nonetheless, it happens often enough that I've developed strategies and vocabulary to deal with it. Because of the feast, kids who normally leave me alone suddenly found me to be a great target (which I wasn't quite ready for on the first day).

The Peace Corps encourages us to participate in festivals, ceremonies, and other cultural events as a way to integrate into the community. But I took a moment to ponder the lasting consequences. In a small village, what happens if word gets out that the white guy is giving money away? I decided to sit this one out.