Monday, March 16, 2009


Yesterday, we buried my host sister's three-week-old daughter.

Her name was Fatoumata, and she was, of course, beautiful.

The details of her death are still too raw for me to share.

Among those she left behind are: her mother, Nana, who only cries when nobody's looking, and her twin brother, Lassina, whose odds of survival increased with her passing, but remain daunting.

And me, who is trying to find sense and meaning in something that simply has no reason.

I am sad, but mostly angry - and I hope this marks the low point of my service.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A follow-up on stars

There's always more to say than there is time to say it, and especially so this time. This trip to Bamako was almost entirely business, but I couldn't leave without sharing this story:

So the other night, like many nights, I'm hanging around and chatting with my host family after dinner. With no television, internet, or electricity, it's not like there's much else to do.

I don't recall exactly, but somehow we get on the subject of NASA. My 28-year-old host mom, Sayon, who is the least educated adult in the family, asks what it is. I pondered for a minute how I might explain space explanation, satellites, and other NASA creations. I don't have words for those things in Bambara, and I suspect she doesn't either. So I tell her that they make things that fly. They can fly really, really high, and go really far. Yes, higher than airplanes. Yes, sometimes they put people in them.

She nods, and immediately I know that my first attempt didn't quite deliver the impact of "exploring outer space". So I tell her that one time, they made an airplane that flew to the moon, and that a man got out and walked around.

She looks up, ponders it for just a moment, and then looks back at me and asks, "Like at night?"

* * *

... I know its good for a laugh. Hell, I laugh every time I think about it. But I hesitated to post that story. In America, if I had that exchange with a non-child, I would consider them incredibly, hopelessly stupid. I know that in releasing this story into the wild, I risk caricaturing Malians in a way that mocks them.

In approaching Malians in their own environment, and on their own terms, I can appreciate the ways that they are smarter than me. Indeed, nine times out of ten it is "this guy" who asks the juvenile questions. When I go to work in the garden, I am usually assigned a seven-year-old, who makes sure I am pulling the right plants, and then adds insult to injury by working circles around me.

But after months of wondering what they see when they look at the stars, I'm finally starting to get it.