Part Four: Falling Mangoes
Finally, I would like to leave you with a few of the lessons I learned while living in Mali. Many of these are ideals with which most of us would readily agree, but we could all take a cue from Malians in actually acting on them. I myself am trying to remind myself constantly to take these to heart. Without further ado:
1. Respect your elders
There are lots of different kinds of chairs in Mali, and some are quite clearly more comfortable than others. To the best of my knowledge, here are some of the most widely available options, listed in order of perceived “sitability”: butt-floss chair (doesn’t sound comfy, and it really isn’t that comfy, but it is deemed the most prestigious of common chairs); bamboo bench (no back, must be shared, but offers the option of lying down and nodding off if you get tired of the conversation); simple mahogany bench; parked motorcycle; parked bicycle; round wooden stool; bucket; a digging hoe; tiny child’s stool. If ever you are in a situation where a group of people is seated, all seats taken, and someone elder to the group arrives, you are obliged to give the elder the nicest chair. A quick game of musical chairs ensues. This is a long description of one of the ways in which Malians show extra respect for their elders. They go out of their way to make sure that their elders are comfortable and included. It is not just because of a sense of obligation, Malians truly revere the wisdom of those who are their senior; their advice is sought out for all major decisions. I believe that we could learn from this. A wise man once said, “The greatest wisdom is not always found on the Internet”.
2. Ask about family
In Mali, the first thing you do when you run into someone, familiar or stranger, is ask about their family. How are your children? How is your mother? How is your great-uncle? Sure, it is something of a scripted nicety, but it is still important. Rather than the cold, brisk, “How are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?” this gives the conversers a real chance to connect, and it forces each one to worry about more that his or her own, individual well-being. Family is important to people, why not ask more often about how each other’s family is doing? I think you will be surprised by how much this means to the people you talk to.
3. Joke with people
I don’t think Americans could try the types of jokes Malians tell and get away with it (see “You Eat Beans”), but I do wish we could joke around more. Maybe what we really need is to take ourselves a little less seriously. Tensions couldn’t be higher leading up to this next presidential election, and everyone seems to be at their wit’s end with everyone else. I think most people would agree that the Democrats and Republicans could really use some common ground, and couldn’t that common ground be some inside joke that they shared? If you can joke around about one thing with someone, I suspect that you are way more likely to even want to work together on anything else.
4. Be the best host
I am still trying to figure out exactly what this means, but I can tell you one good example of being a good host in the context of Mali. It is called “ka sira d’a ma” or “to give him the road”. All you do, when it comes time for your guest to leave, is begin their return journey with them. You could walk with your guest to their car, or a block or two in the direction they are walking. Maybe we already do this sometimes, but it is a nice gesture and one I try to remember.
5. Invite others to your table
Another principle of Malian hospitality is inviting others to your table. As most meals are eaten outdoors, you will rarely sit down (squat down) to a meal without seeing one of your neighbors pass by. If you do, you have to ask that person to join you for the meal. It is incredibly rude not to do so – I was scolded more than a few times for forgetting to call someone over to join me. Even if the food that you have is barely enough for your own family, there are always others less fortunate than you. Most of the time the passer-by will refuse your offer, but you never know when someone is in need. Now that I am back in the United States, eating in privacy, I don’t have to worry about the passerby. I do, however, try to be thankful for everything that I have, and I think about other ways in which I can make a contribution to those less fortunate than I am.
6. Wait for the mangoes to fall
The last morning, waiting for that white Peace Corps SUV to take me away, I sat for a long time at the bus stop by the tall old mango tree. The first mangoes were just starting to ripen, and the tree was heavy with them. There was an old hunter and a young girl, a pair of Fulani cow herdsmen were there idly chatting, and Surun was there making food for the Fulani men passing through town. They all had one eye on the tree, and every once in a while a mango would fall from the tree and there would be a race to see who could get to it first. Someone could have gotten a tall stick to knock down the ripe mangoes, I suppose, but by waiting they could be sure that only the ripest mangoes would fall. When the Peace Corps vehicle finally did come and take me away, I watched the tree in the rearview mirror disappear into a cloud of red dust. The image of the people under the tree stuck with me. I think this final lesson is to be patient and be present – but when the time comes, and the perfect mango has fallen, don’t hesitate – go get it.
I would like to thank everyone who has given me courage and support from the beginning to the end of this journey: my parents and sister of course, and friends and family who kept in touch with me throughout, even when I wasn’t the most “level-headed” version of myself.
Special thanks goes out to all my blog readers, who gave me the encouragement I needed to continue to write about my experience – I learn, process and grow so much just from writing, and I am so grateful to have had people to share the journey with;
I am also grateful for Mali Peace Corps staff, whom I couldn’t say nice enough things about. We must have had the best staff in the world. There was never a moment when I felt uncared for or unsafe, and I felt I had the individual support I needed. That support continued even just after the coup when I was applying for grad school and had about three days to get a letter of recommendation, whoops!
I would also like to give a shout-out to all the other Peace Corps Volunteers, especially “Kita Kaw”, who taught me so much about compassion, passion, patience and ambition. Aw ni ce, aw ka n’yenafi be n’na kujugu.
I was also truly grateful to everyone who generously donated money to help fund the primary school renovation project for my village. I was overwhelmed by the amount of support I received for the project, and I was devastated when I realized that the project could not be completed due to the coup. I honestly believe, however, that people in my village were heartened simply knowing that so many people cared about the education and the future of their children.
Finally, I would like to thank everyone in Mali who welcomed me like a favorite old daughter, sister, friend or aunt. No matter how badly I butchered my Bambara, no matter how sweaty, cranky or frustrated I was, no matter how many cultural norms I failed to adhere to and probably just unknowingly stumbled all over, you were always there for me and you never gave up. I will always hold you all in my heart, and I promise that I will come back to visit someday soon.
Aw ni ce, aw ni baraji
Ala ka here d’aw ma
Ala ka torro dogoya
Ala k’awn deme