Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Liar Liar

It is customary here to invite passersby to come eat with you if you are eating. The appropriate response is invariably some form of “I’m full,” or, “Gee whiz, I just ate, but thanks!” Before I understood the rules, there were many occasions when I offended people by not “inviting” them to eat with me

Similarly, on an almost-daily basis I get invited to go to the fields with someone, which usually goes something like the following:

Them: “Tomorrow, let’s go to the fields together to cut millet.”
Me: “Sounds good, but... ooh, I’m all booked up for tomorrow. How about the day after tomorrow?”
Them: “Okay, that sounds good.”
Me: “Ooh… I might be busy that day too, but definitely the day after that.”
Them: “Okay, see you then.”

Anytime I have been in Bamako, people ask me where their present is (bread is a popular one). That goes something like this:

Them: “So you were in Bamako - how is everyone there?”
Me: “They’re all great, and they all said to say hi to you.”
Them: “Where’s my present?”
Me: “It’s coming.”
Them: “Okay, great.”

If I’m feeling creative, or trying to entertain a crowd, the following ensues:

Me: “You see, it was too big for me to put in my bag, so I hired a donkey cart and driver to bring it here. I’m sure it will be here soon.”
Them: “Great, so tomorrow?”
Me: “Maybe… for sure by the day after.”

If they’re persistent, two days later they’re back at it:

Them: “My present hasn’t come yet.”
Me: “It hasn’t! That’s unbelievable! The donkey cart driver must have run off with it. I’m so sorry.”

Another popular one is for people to ask for my stuff. I’m a little less crafty with that one, because it’s hard to separate the people who are just kidding from the ones who are simply shameless. They often ask for my watch, my glasses, my water bottle, or my shirt.

In that circumstance, I have a variety of distasteful options. If I’m pretty sure they are actually kidding, I can call their bluff (I’ve not yet gotten my shirt fully unbuttoned, but I’ve come close). I can pretend to not understand what they said for long enough that they simply give up – though someday soon that one won’t work anymore. Finally, if I’m pretty sure they’re not kidding, or if I’m simply sick of them (I’m a volunteer - not a saint), I can tell them that I’m not giving them my watch because I don’t like them, and if they want one like it, they should get a job. I try to avoid that last one, but hey, we all have bad days.

For the most part, it’s all cute and playful and fun, and it’s great language practice. The trouble is that I’m starting to know people enough that they’re not all kidding anymore. I’ve been invited to tea a number of times recently (the correct response is always “Yeah, this afternoon sounds great”), and clearly offended people when I stood them up. I’ve gotten so accustomed to blowing people off that I’m doing it out of habit now. They’re forgiving, but that’s particularly damaging for a new guy who’s trying to make friends.

Dogon Christmas

This was my first Christmas away from home. I got a couple phone calls from home to "check in" (as in, "we hope you're not hungry, alone, and crying in your mud hut this Christmas"). To be honest, I was a little concerned too - despite my fierce independent streak, my family is important to me, and there's no time like the holidays for feeling far away. It was really nice to hear from family and friends, and I certainly appreciated all the love sent from various corners of home.

But in the end, I had a fantastic - if unconventional - Christmas with a number of Peace Corps volunteers in Dogon Country. We celebrated Christmas with roast pig and millet beer, and hiked for a few days around the cliffs. For those worried about the condition of my soul out here in Muslim-land, you'll be glad to know that I found a Church for midnight mass. Though the language was Dogon (I speak Bambara), and the mass was quite foreign, there were a handful of volunteers there, so it still felt comfortable.

The Dogon people have an incredible history. About a gazillion years ago, Tellem pygmies lived in the cliffs, which were replaced maybe half a gazillion years ago by the Dogon people. Apparently they lived in peace together (the Tellem in the cliffs, and the Dogon just below), which is evidenced by the average height of the Dogons. Because of their inaccessibility, they were incredibly insulated from the various empires that conquered other parts of Mali over the centuries. That preserved their culture and way of life through some very tumultuous times, and makes it a window on the past for tourists adventurous enough to make the journey.

In one of the villages, a man who is older than dirt sits at the entry. I was told that he is the oldest man in Dogon country, and that he is one hundred and six years old. In a country where nobody knows their birthday (even now), I doubt that this guy is actually a hundred and six, but for a moment, lets give him the benefit of the doubt. He has lived through two world wars and a cold war. Since he was born, the airplane, the radio, the telephone, the computer and the internet have come into the world. I looked at his gnarled hands and feet, imagining the life that he has lived. Not only has most of the last century not affected his way of life - I'm not even sure if he's aware of it. For a few minutes, I wished I could speak Dogon.

The Dogon people are known for their incredibly intricate doors and masks, and for their unlikely dwellings. I can't do them justice in words, so here's a few images to help:

... this is a people-sized house

... a classic model of Dogon door

... mask dance - one of the highlights

... this guy's mask is like twelve feet tall - he touched it to the ground in front of him and behind him, and whirled it around like a helicopter - it was pretty unbelievable


The Peace Corps requires that we stay close to home for our first three months of service. For me, that ended on the twelfth of December. Within days, I was packed and on a bus, headed northeast, towards Djenne and Bandiagara.

The whole day's journey getting to Djenne was, in a word, harrowing. I was once woken from something like sleep when the cargo door (previously under the bus) flew past my window. It stopped the bus for at least an hour as close to the middle of nowhere as this adventurer has ever been, but wasn't anything that bubble gum and bailing wire couldn't fix.

There is also a "transfer" to get into Djenne at a fork in the road where everyone's a bandit and I was the only white guy. The more upstanding of those bandits threaten tourists with the possibility of having to spend the night on the side of the road to cajole them into paying exorbitant sums for a half-hour car ride. The game there is to get out as quickly as possible without having to pay your life's savings to do it. Though I didn't end up resorting to hitchhiking, I can't say that I didn't consider it.

Since I was officially on assignment as a photographer for the Djenne Office of Tourism, I got a couple "extras" that many tourists don't get. Also, in a place that's accustomed to tourists, my Bambara helped me to get around in ways that impressed even me.

Djenne is known for its incredible mud mosque, which is reportedly the largest mud building in the world. The town has a long and incredible history as an important stop in the trans-Saharan trade, then rivaling Timbuktu as a center of Islamic learning. After only a few hours in the city, its long Muslim tradition was palpable.

One of my favorite things was a tour of the Djenne-Djeno archaeological site. I was accompanied by the archaeologist who opened the site in the 1970's, and who has made it her life's work to begin to understand the people who once lived there. Djenne-Djeno was the site of the original fishing village which quickly grew into a trading hub and subsequently moved across the river to the town's current site. The ground there is literally covered in pot shards that easily date back hundreds of years, and the few feet under the ground are filled with clues about the evolution of trans-Saharan trade, and the societies that occupied all ends of that trade when it was central to human civilization. Having a personal, guided tour with unlimited question and answer with the world's foremost expert on the site was a real treat.

The other, obvious highlight of my Djenne tour was the mosque. Since I was "on assignment", I went to the mosque one morning well before sunrise to document it as the sky changed colors. I stood in the refreshing morning chill and watched as the mosque changed from a barely-visible silhouette against the night sky to a deep red as sunrise hit it's face, and then faded to it's natural mud color. It's always beautiful, but in the eery stillness I was able to sit in the center of Djenne, unbothered by the usual players who are invariably looking for tourists' money. I heard the beautiful, lilting call of morning prayer that acts as the town's alarm clock. I saw the comings and goings of the mosque as the truly faithful shuffled in for morning prayer.

Because of its isolation and the people who refuse to leave tourists alone, Djenne is a punishing place to be an outsider. But in that still moment, it was apparent to me why people brave the drive, the heat, the sand, and the kids to sit in front of this building of mud and appreciate its beauty and the human history it represents.

... the mosque at sunrise

... inside the mosque