Posted by: kristinej | May 7, 2010

May 7th

It’s been a while since I last wrote – I was first in Becky’s village and since my return have been mostly holed at home due to a sinus infection – but I have finally gotten around to writing about the trip.

I got back Friday from a great stay in Becky’s village.  The four of us arrived Sunday morning at the bus station, where we were immediately greeted by several of her friends, one of whom would be our driver.  He bought us breakfast while we waited, since the car wasn’t full yet, and another guy paid for the several loaves of bread we were bringing as a gift to Becky’s host family.  In a place that would normally seem overwhelmingly hectic, it was nice to have some people looking out for us.

After a couple of hours we were finally ready to leave, so all 20-some of us piled into the car.  It was pretty much an inferno in there, but as long as we kept moving the breeze made it tolerable.  In contrast to the last time I made this trip, during rainy season when we had to get out multiple times and wade through standing water, this time there was no water to be found, just lots and lots of dust.  When we made a pit stop I was surprised to see that our driver’s hair and eyelashes were now a light brown, so much was he covered with dust.  It was a pretty smooth trip, the only hiccup coming when someone’s giant tub of peanut butter fell off the roof and broke, and we had to stop and wait while about 10 people tried to salvage whatever hadn’t touched the ground.

We arrived in Becky’s village midafternoon, to the typical warm welcome of kids grabbing our hands, taking our bags, and men and women coming to greet us.  We spent the afternoon chatting with her host family and with her language teacher, Fode, who is one of the few villagers who speaks French, and who is one of my favorite Malians.

Monday morning we walked out to the mango tree grove to pick mangoes for us to take back home with us. Fode brought his bike and two large sacks for us to fill.  Because mango season is in full swing, you can’t go anywhere without seeing some trace: women carrying baskets of mangoes on their heads, piles of dried-out pits on the ground, and children eating them, with juice running down their faces.  To actually pick the mangoes we used a long pole with a blade on the end to cut the stem, and then we tried to catch the mangoes as they fell.  Sometimes Fode would climb the tree and pick the mangoes that way, but it was hard because both the trees and the ground beneath them were covered with biting ants.  We decided that we now know what the phrase “Ants in your pants” really means.

Once we filled our sacs we walked back to the village and had a quick lunch before heading out to the fishing festival.  The creek where the fishing would take place was several kilometers away, but we had luckily procured a ride on someone’s donkey cart.  As you can imagine, we were quite the scene as we plodded along the road, passing women carrying their nets and being passed by men on their bikes and motos.  Once we arrived, we walked down to the creek in time to watch the probably 2000 people there head into the water as the festival started.  Most people had nets which they brought with them into the center of the creek, but others stayed along the edge, the men using spears and the women using baskets that they held upside down and plunged repeatedly into the water.  What surprised me was that there was actually an organization to the afternoon – the fishers stood in circles and then starting at one end of the creek they formed a line and slowly moved downstream, theoretically pushing the fish into the nets of the fishers along the side.  The whole thing lasted about 2 hours.

For three days the fishers went out to different parts of the river, but it wasn’t until the third day that most people caught anything significant.  Apparently the past couple of years have been plagued by robbers who go to the river at night a few days before the festival and steal most of the fish.  So in general people seemed pretty frustrated, but luckily the festival ended on a high note and we got to share in the feast!  I had no idea smoked fish on top of spaghetti could taste so good!

Our other main activity for the week was to make mango jam, which ended up taking most of one day.  We first had to go back out to the mango trees and find as many ripe mangoes as possible.  By then we had started calling ourselves “jekulu mangoro” which means “mango group” in Bambara.  Fode was definitely a good sport taking us out there multiple times and enduring the biting ants for our sake.  Once we got back it took awhile to get organized, especially since we had to construct a makeshift shelter under which we could peel and cut the mangoes since it was the heat of the day.  In fact, we thought it would be interested to put my thermometer in the sun and were more than a little shocked to see it rise to over 130 degrees before we took it of the sun for fear of it melting!

After cutting up all the mangos we then poured them into our big pot over the fire and let them sit there until they reached the right consistency.  We then added some sugar and did some taste-testing before deciding it was ready to be canned.  We wanted to fill 5 jars, and were not entirely sure how to do it so that they would be correctly preserved, but we gave it our best shot and so we’ll see in a couple of months when I open my jar in the US if we did it the right way or not!  There was still a lot left in the pot, so we shared it with Becky’s host family who thought it was delicious and were just eating with their hands off of a plate.

One of the best things about being in the village was that I could get up in the morning and go for a run and not be breathing in pollution and not be stared at.  I honestly think it may have been the first time that I was completely alone since I got to Mali.

The trip definitely gave me time to reflect on the pros and cons of village life versus city life in Mali.  On the one hand, in the village it is so much more peaceful, and you know everyone there so there are no kids yelling toubab or men yelling out inappropriate things to you.  The people treat you as one of them rather than as this strange creature in their midst.  It’s also easier to participate in everyday activities of Malian life, such as helping with the cooking or doing your laundry.  The pace of life is slow, but it just feels like that’s how it should be.  On the other hand, life is definitely harder there, and it’s clear in the way that people dress, the state of their teeth, and size of the children.  You also lack many of the comforts that we have here in Bamako, such as electricity, a daily market, and an easily-accessible supply of fruits, yogurt, and cold drinks.  It definitely made Bamako seem “rich” in comparison.

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