Mali stories

The Netherlands 28.4.2006

Return to NL

Sorry for the big gap in my reporting. First I have been busy with field work and I couldn’t find time to write. Then Heidi and Aino came to visit, and I imagined that their weblog would already give you enough Sinsibere information. Now it has already been more than 3 months since I have written my last e-mail.

Since a week I am back in The Netherlands. At this moment I am sitting behind a computer at my parents place, with a view over the Dutch flat landscape, the green fields and the grey sky. To create my own little Malian world I have put on a cd of Salif Keita, and to get even more nostalgic I have read through all the e-mails that I have sent to Dodo over the last couple of months.

It started with my first impressions of Mali, the colourful and beautiful people and the vivid life in the streets of Bamako. Then I read about my first visits to villages, how everything was new and strange, and how I was surprised and sometimes shocked by poverty, gender and power relations and all kind of cultural differences. During the last months I didn’t have so much to write anymore, because my life in Bamako had become almost as normal as my life in The Netherlands before.

During the last months there were still cultural surprises. I got some close Malian friends, who explained me things about the Malian society that I did not see during the first few months. Of course there is still much more to find out if I would stay even longer, but it was time to go back.

In the months before I left I was already thinking a lot about going back. One nice thing was leaving the heat, the temperature went up to 45 degrees during the last month. I have spend quite some time just lying on the couch, at home or at the office, with no energy to do anything. Olivier, my new housemate, found that I slept a lot during the day, but after a few weeks in the heat he slept more than I did.

Then finally the last few days of saying goodbye. First I prepared myself to leave on a Wednesday morning, but then Point Afrique, le sotrama du ciel, decided that it would be one day later. So I had one more day to say goodbye to Mali and the people here. It was good, as if Allah had wanted it like that. The morning I finally left it started to rain. It was the first rain since the end of the rain season in October. It felt like a special goodbye to Mali. In the last e-mail that I wrote, I said that I would cry when I would have to go back. And there I was, finally at the airport in the rain with my big bags full of souvenirs, thinking about my time in Mali, all the people I am leaving behind, and crying.

My first impression of Europe were the people at the airport: grey clothes and angry faces. I had to spend a couple of hours at the airport and luckily there were still some Africans who were working there as cleaners. They helped me making a phonecall and I we had a nice chat. In the bus to Amsterdam I met an African man, who immediatelly gave me his adres and asked me to write him. I still could not escape from the attention from African men! But now I am staying in the small village with my parents, and there are only white people around.

During the first days I realised how good the roads are, that there is always electricity and runnig water, that you can drink the water from the tap, that the vegetables in the supermarket look as perfect as if they were made from plastic, how well-equipped the houses are, that people are staying inside all the time, and that there are no motorbikes and no children. It is even more strange is to see what kind of problems people are worrying about. The quality of the Dutch school system decreased (literacy rate: 100 percent), the number of traffic jams increased (accessibility of any place by car: 100 percent), and life expectancy went down, I think from 82 to 78 years old on average, or something like that. It seems to me that there are no real problems in The Netherlands, except perhaps for immigrants who cannot get a residence permit.

For the moment I am still enjoying Dutch bread, cheese and coffee-culture. I will finish my minor thesis this summer, the subject will be something like ‘the influence of project intervention on the empowerment of women in Mali’. If there are people who are interested I will send you a copy.

So I think this will be my last e-mail to Dodo and I want to wish you all very good luck with the continuation of Sinsibere! Who knows I will run into some of you later on. I am thinking about visiting Finland and sometime I definitely want to go back to Mali.

As I learned to say in Mali: Allah ka kile heere caja (I hope that Allah will let you make the right choices.)

Bamako 25.1.2006

Tabaski in the Village

It becomes more difficult to write something interesting, because life here becomes more normal. Like the start of today.

This morning I was having my breakfast at my house. Four children were gazing inside through the window all the time. I gave them peanuts last time, now I didn´t give them anything except a plastic bag with garbage. Excited they ran away with it.

Then I went on my way to work, decided not to take my motorbike but the sotrama, the little green bus. I squeezed myself in, between a northern looking man with a lighter skin and a big blue shawl around his head, and a big woman with a child on her breast. I almost forgot to get out on time. Then I walked the last 500 meters to the office, on the way responding to several men who were greeting me.

´Ani sogoma.´

´Mse, somogö´

That really goes without thinking. When I arrived at the office I did the whole greeting ceremony with most of my colleagues, shaking hands, I asked how they slept, they asked why I came by foot, how I slept, if I`m in good shape and how my family is doing. Suri was offended that I forgot to greet him, Abdul did the whole rasta-greeting thing and Bengali just gazed at me and tried his sweetest voice. That was about the first two hours of the day and it has become a routine just like going on my bike to university in the Netherlands.

Surely not everything has become a routine. Like two weeks ago, I went to a village to celebrate Tabaski. There is a woman, Kama, who is working at the gas station close to my house and I usually have a chat with her when I pass by. She invited me over to her village for Tabaski and of course I wanted to go there. It was really nice not to be ´on duty´ for Sinsibere in a village, but just for a visit.

A little green bus took us out of Bamako and this one was so full that some people had to sit between the luggage on the ground. There were many mothers with small children, and of course I was the only white person. People looked at me a bit curiously and Kama told them proudly that I was her friend. The ride was hot and took a couple of hours.

Once we had to stop because the bus was too full, once we had to change and then we arrived at the village Tinkele. It was already dark, we got out and were standing on the side of the road with nothing visible. I was already wondering if we had to walk for a long time, but then I couldn´t imagine Kama making a long walk. She is the kind of woman with polished nails, a lot of work on her hair , a lot of parfume, and many bags with clothes, which she is not going to carry by herself. She just called, and out of the darkness came a man who was living in a small house just by the side of the road. We had to sit down, greet him, greet Kama´s brothers who came shortly afterwards and they took our luggage to the house of Kama´s family. Obviously they were surprised to see me, but I was welcomed very warm, got a place to sleep and a bucket of hot water to wash myself. The house was like a normal house here. A couple of clay huts that belong to different members of the family, a hole in the gound with clay walls around as a toilet, and because it was evening there was a fire to sit by.

Kama´s father is a big man who is teaching at the local school and he has two wives. Most of his children have left to other places to find work and they came home for Tabaski.

That evening there was a party and of course we had to go there. This village was definitely more modern than I have seen until now, maybe because it is next to the road. There was electricity in some houses and also for the party there was light and a dj who was playing Mali´s greatest hits. It is an interesting combination of traditional life and modern Mali. Young married women in traditional clothes with babies on their back were dancing next to girls in cool hiphop outfits. Anyway, everybody was dancing, that is one of the things I love here. We were dancing under the stars until it was almost light and I really couldn´t breath anymore. Before the end of the party Kama and me went to sleep, in our little clay hut next to each other on a small bed. 

The next day the real Tabaski started, with as the most important event the slaughtering of the sheep. A few men were responsible for that job, and they did it just outside the house on the ground. The boys were assisting, and I was making pictures as a real white person. But how often do you see the slaughtering of a sheep? The women prepared the animal and it tasted delicious. One man even couldn´t wait for that and took a piece of raw meat to start with. I am a vegetarian in Europe and not too much used to eating meat, but this time I had to. They gave me the best parts, especially on a plate with cutlery and pushed me to eat as much as possible. Then I had to eat with the other women with our hands out of a big bowl. And then Kama wanted to eat especially with me together. We were using cutlery and a plate again, she finds it more suitable for me than eating with the hands. In the end I really couldn´t eat anymore.  

The rest of the time just passed easily. We slept a bit, went on a round through the village and greeted people at every house.

One old woman ran away when she saw me, I have never experienced something like that. She was afraid. The other women encouraged her to give me a hand, she turned around me like I was a dangerous animal, put her hand forward, draw back again, and finally she carefully gave me her hand. I said ´I ka keene´, the standard greeting, and she almost jumped when she heard that I spoke to her in Bambara. She quickly ran away. Later her son explained that she is afraid of white people. When there was another white in the village a couple of years ago she had locked the door. He told me that people used to believe that the devil is white. 

We joined some young people who were drinking tea. They are usually sitting together with a group, drinking strong tea with a lot of sugar out of little glasses. One prepares the tea by boiling, adding sugar and then pouring it all the time from one pot into the other. Then he pours it from as high as possible into the glass. Somebody drinks, the glass is filled again, the next person drinks and this goes on until the tea is finished. We spent a lot of time drinking tea like that, talking about politics, the economical situation and differences between our countries.

It was an easy time, eating, sleeping, talking a bit, eating again… Nobody minds when you get tired somewhere during the day, then you just take a nap, no problem.

The other day we went home and I had quite a bad cold. The driver of the bus insisted that I would sit in the front, again being the only white. I was quite happy with the offer because I felt ill, but later I felt embarassed. Everybody was squeezed against each other in the back, old women, pregnant women, women with little children and I was enjoying my spaceful seat in the front. The driver asked me if I couldn´t help him to go to Europe. Of course, everyone wants to go to Europe. But me, I´m not so sure anymore. The longer I stay here, the more I know that I´m going to cry when I have to go back…

Bamako 6.1.2006

New Year in Bamako

I’m kind of tired and sleepy sitting behind my computer. Last night we went out dancing in Bamako, with some Dutch people, some Malians, a girl from Zimbabwe… The club where we went was pretty quiet, except 5 of us going crazy on the dancefloor.

My life in Bamako is just kind of quietly going on. I haven’t been on field trips lately, because I have been working on my internship report and research proposal for a minor thesis. Unfortunately, I will spend the coming weeks mainly behind my desk.

Christmas has been quiet and very nice, at Johanna’s place and another dinner with some friends. On New Years Eve I went out for the first time with one of the Malian guys from the office. I had assured him beforehand it was not a date, but still it felt a bit like that being with him and another couple, who were dating obviously. A normal friendship between a man and a woman is very rare here.

Jumping into the New Year here was nice. We went to a kind of square in town where there was a mass of people. I even felt a bit strange, being so obviously white in the big crowd. But then again I felt very cool and integrated…

Everybody arrived with their cars and motorbikes to the same place, so the chaos was complete. And then at twelve, the moment supreme, everybody just started to leave. There was no counting, no wishes, no kissing, no hugging, crazy dancing or drunkenness… Some Malians explained me that New Year’s Eve is a party for the young people, but that it’s not so much in the Malin culture because it is a Christian celebration. I guess everybody will get loose with Tabaski, the 10th of January. At that day the big numbers of sheep that I have seen walking around in town for the last couple of weeks will be slaughtered. Poor things.

Bamako 21.12.2005

Work, marriage and stories under a tree

Christmas is almost coming and I’m far from home. Instead of white winter snow it is sunny here as always.

Still funny how people experience temperature in a different way. When I was with Sekou in a village last week there was a soft wind blowing. Finally some fresh air I thought, still wearing my summer clothes. Sekou, on the contrary, was sitting close to the fire and wearing a thick winter jacket and a winter hat, because the wind was so chilly.

I visited the village Tafele once more last week and I stayed there for four days. It was a very interesting time and slowly I get to know more and more what life is like here for people in the village: far not easy.

I got the impression the women liked my presence, and they dared me all the time to join them in the hard work they have to do. They want to show that it is not so easy. On the other hand, I often have the feeling people see me as some kind of sugar dole who is not able to do anything. When I told them I have worked in a garden before they were quite surprised. ‘not only with machines?’ No, I told them, all by hand. When I wanted to walk to the field they were all afraid it would be too far for me (perhaps a 20 minutes walk). When I was there Draman, the animateur, was asking all the time if I wasn’t too fatigué and if I wouldn’t want to rest.

I joined two women in gathering wood for cooking. It takes them quite some time, walking to the bush, chopping, and walking back with the wood on their head. I carried some as well, although I must admit that my portion was even smaller than the one of a 12 year old girl. When we came back of course everybody was laughing when they saw me walking with the wood.

Another activity I tried was getting water out of a well with a bucket. The women have to do this a lot, to water the garden where they have just started to grow some vegetables. It is quite heavy work, but I think I managed quite well. But of course, after 5 minutes they took the bucket out of my hands, because obviously I would be fatigué.

I still didn’t get to preparing to, which they make from millet. To with sauce is the most common food in the village. It is a kind of greyish or brownish substance of which people make small balls which they dip in the sauce and throw into their mouth. It is not exactly a specialty I will miss when I go back to Europe. Honestly the first time I had to surpress my disgust while eating, but slowly I got used to the taste a bit more. Il faut manger, the others were saying all the time, so there we go. I closed my eyes and swallowed as quickly as possible, assuring them that I liked it very much, but that the food is just a bit different at home…

I had the feeling that almost half of the time in the vilage was spent on greeting. In the morning we had to greet the father of Draman, where we were staying. Every day we went to greet the presidente, the oldest women of the village. And every once in a while we had to greet the chef de village, who appearantly appreciated that so much that he wanted to marry me. He is slightly older than me, perhaps 50 years, but the men assured me that he would be young again if he would marry me. I politely refused.

I can assure everyone that finding a husband here is one of the most easy things. The other day, when I was having my breakfast close to my house in Bamako, a boy passed by and immediatelly proposed. To get away with it I told him that I was already married and I asked another man if marriage proposals always go that easily. ‘Yes’, he explained, ‘but if a girl is already married, it can not happen.’ Aha. Makes sense. And then thinking about all that fuss Europeans have to go through.

There can be some other complications too, as from the one story which a young man told to Sekou and me as we were sitting under the big tree in the middle of the village. The man just got married, but he was not satisfied, because his wife had fooled him. The problem was, she had no breasts. I asked how it was possible that he didn’t notice before. He said that she had put some cloth instead, to hide it, and now they were married already.

It is such a nice thing, just to sit under a big tree and telling this kind of funny stories. In the meanwhile, the boys are always making their tea in little blue and red pots. They pour it from as high as possible into little glasses and then drink it very strong with lots of sugar. They are just lying there, sleeping a bit, and telling stories that make everybody laugh. But notably, this easy African way of life is only for the men. Somebody in the office explained me the men’s year rhytm: they are harvesting for several months, working on the house for several months and then have several months to relax. For the women there is no such relaxation. They are cooking, mushing millet, getting wood, working in the garden and taking care of the children. They are the first person to get up and the last to go to sleep. And they have to be available for their husbands at all times.

First it makes me realise how lucky we are as European women and what a battle has been fought! Then I am happy that the Sinsibere project is aimed especially at women, to try to support them somehow. And also it just frustrates me. Even the men here at the office can say with a smile that il faut bien frapper! (you have to beat well)

What can you dö Maybe just hoping that things will change little by little and trying to contribute my little bit.

Bamako 11.11.2005

Orders and Onions

Time is passing quickly. Not even two months have passed since I arrived in Mali, but it feels like I have been here for ages. Sometimes I get emails and letters from my friends and family in The Netherlands, today I heard it´s snowing there. I can´t believe, it seems to be so far away.

There are many things that I found very surprising in the beginning and that I find quite normal now. The way people look, the way the streets look and the houses in the villages, I got quite used to it.

A bit more slowly I´m getting used to the customs. A while ago I had lunch at our driver´s house, we were all eating rice from the same pot. You are supposed to take it out with your right hand and to squeeze it to a sticky ball that you throw into your mouth. Of course I wasn´t very much used to that and the others were laughing while my rice ended up in many places, but not too much in my mouth. It was good that I didn´t use my left hand by accident, because that would have been even more funny to the others. With that hand you are supposed to wipe off your ass.

Well I don´t mind to adapt to eating with my hands, but I´ve got more problems with cleaning my teeth with a wooden brench. I think I´ll stick to my toothbrush.

Something else that I don´t find easy to adapt to is the way people get along with each other. There is such a strong hierarchy! A couple of weeks ago I was visiting a Dutch friend of mine in Sikasso and we stayed with a Malien colleague of hers, Madou. He is the oldest son, which gives him the right to command the others of the family. When he wants something to eat or drink, or he would like, for example, his bed being made, he just shouts and a younger brother comes and does it. The position of the women is the lowest. The mother of Madou usually just came in to put the food there and take it away.

Also in the office I have noticed that there is much more a culture of hierarchy than I´m used to. Sometimes I find it difficult. If somebody orders me something in an unpolite way, am I supposed to just do it because it is the culture? I don´t always know how to handle these things.

The last weeks I´ve been mainly in Bamako, working on the Sinsibere website, going out once in a while and writing some reports. There have been two Sinsibere happenings, a meeting at the office with representatives from all the villages and another visit to Tafele. The meeting was very interesting. It was very nice to see everybody and it gave me a better overview of the project, what is happening now and the situation in the different villages. I think it is not always easy. Sometimes things don´t go as planned. In some villages people cannot get their loans together, in one village the trees that were planted burned down, in another village the chicken breeding doesn´t go as planned. I´ve come to realise that it is not so easy to do something here.

The last visit to the village Tafele also made me realise that. We went to Tafele to have a look at the new garden. The women have started with gardening, it works quite well and they want to enlarge it. Now they have a new field with a fence around it, and it needed to be devided in equal plots for all women. Measuring the field and deviding it in equal plots is quite a mathemetical challenge for the people in the village who haven´t had much education. It is something that I found difficult to imagine, that these simple things are not so easy without basic education and that it makes any work in the village quite difficult.

But then again it was great to see the women on the field. They taught me a new Bambara word, jaba, which means onions. They want to grow onions and asked me to come back next time to take pictures from the onions that they will grow. They seem to have such a great motivation and they are having so much fun and joy despite the hard work they have to do.

I really hope to spend more time in the villages, until now I liked it very much there. Also there are still so many things that I don´t know and that are strange and different. Time to find out.

Bamako 26.4.2005

First visit to a Malian village

I would like to tell you about my first visit to a village. It was an experience I think I will never forget. Last Tuesday I went to the village Tafele with my colleague Awa, we stayed there for one night and returned yesterday.

Before I had only seen the villages from the bus and they looked so nice. So I was quite excited to finally leave the big city Bamako and visit a village in the brousse.

The village Tafele is not too far from Bamako, but because of the bumpiness of the roads it still took us quite a while to get there. I asked if they were expecting us, but of course they couldn’t because there is no phone. We stayed in the house of Darman Samati, who is the animateur of Sinsibere in Tafele. I liked very much to see the Malian way of living, probably you know it if you have been here or if you have seen pictures. His house consists of 5 small houses that are made from some kind of clay stones with roofs of reed. I think they are quite comfortable. Inside it’s relatively cool during the day and warm in the night. Darman has two wives, who both have their own room and their own kitchen, where they take turns in cooking. His 5 children were hanging around the house a bit, while the wives were out working on the field. In the evening, when everybody was back from the fields and was finished with cooking and eating, we had a meeting with all the women of the Sinsibere group. They were about 40 altogether. All the women were gathered together in a circle and first all kind of greetings were exchanged. I am still amazed by the way of greeting people have here. One person starts, asking if you are in good health, and what about your husband, your children, your family etc. The other one murmurs an answer to everything: torote, toro si te, torote, torote…. Then they exchange roles and the same questions are asked. And then there are all kind of wishes, I can recognise them now because it always starts with Allah. The suitable answer is Amina. I think in total at least 20 questions, wishes and answers are exchanged before any other conversation starts.

During the meeting there were mainly two women speaking, apart from Awa and the animateur. He is actually a man, so he was sitting aside a bit. Of course I didn´t understand a thing, but I wasn´t bored at all during the meeting. I found it great just to look at the women. They looked beautiful in their dresses and also proud, the way they were sitting together. The eldest woman, who is the president of the group, was talking a lot. I found here very friendly. Also another woman was talking, Awa told me that she was chosen as a spokesperson.

Later she explained that the meeting was about gardening. They discussed which crops they want to grow and all of the women could say there preference. Almost all women wanted onions. The next day I also saw the garden where the women work together and as well the trees that have been planted. Everything looked very good and they are now preparing another field to grow more crops. Now that I´ve seen the women working, the whole Sinsibere project comes much more alive. I like buying vegetables on the market in Bamako even more than before, because I have seen how hard the women have to work for it. They seem to be very motivated. After the meeting they started to clap their hands, to sing and to dance. It was a wonderful experience, to dance in a circle with all the women in a Malian village.

So this was the first trip and I hope many will follow. I have an impression now, but I also hope to get more information and to talk more with different women. And I have to learn Bambara!

I hope you are all doing well. By the way, I’m also very interested to hear what your group is doing. I must admit that I haven’t even looked on the website, so I will do that today to start with, if I will get the chance.

Allah ka duomini.

Bamako 27.10.2005

Information from the field

I would like to introduce myself to you. My name is Janneke and I am from Wageningen in the Netherlands, where I am studying International Development Studies. Since 3 weeks now I have moved my seat to Mali, to do a traineeship at Mali Folkecenter where I will work for the Sinsibere programme.

Step by step I´m getting to know what the programme is about, and I also heard about the support that it gets from Finland. I think it is really great that you feel connected with women in rural areas so far away. By writing you once in a while about my impressions here I hope I can make the distance less and keep you informed about what is happening with Sinsibere.

I will tell you a little about myself. I am 22 years old and, to great surprise of many people here, not married. I have lived in Netherlands for most of my life, except for a voluntary year in the Czech Republic. I will stay here in Mali for about 6 months, until the middle of April (when it will be very hot I heard). I am a rural sociologists and I am very interested to see how people live here and sustain in their livelihoods, especially on the countryside. I hope to learn from them. That about me so far. Maybe you´ll also be interested in my first experiences here in Mali.

There is many things to write about, I am full of impressions. When I am walking or driving through the city I just don´t know where to look. The streets are so alive. The people are beautiful, walking around in the most colourful clothes, the women very often with a baby on their back and something to carry on their head. Everything is happening on the street in what seems to be a big chaos of traffic and people. Motorbikes are being repaired, somebody gets a haircut, women are selling watermelon and bananas on the street, men are sleeping under a truck or next to their little shop, somebody is walking around with a couple of cows, colourful minibuses are passing by and everything happens in a heat that is overwhelming. Through this crowd I am finding my way to the office every day, which is about half an hour to walk or less by bus.

Also in the office I was very surprised in the beginning how things are going. A very nice thing is the ´welcome ceremony´ in the morning. When you arrive, you have to greet all your colleagues, shake their hand, ask how they slept last night, ask about their family etc etc. To walk in and to start to work immediately is considered to be quite rude. Sometimes I was sent back, because I forgot to greet a colleague. All these greetings are usually done in Bambara, the language that is most spoken here. So at the same time I am improving my French and learning some Bambara, now I only have to try not to mix everything up!