Posted by: kristinej | June 4, 2010

June 3rd

As the one year mark approaches, it has been weird to see the landscape, the weather, and the fruit and veggie selection all return to how I remember it being when I first got here.  The kids will soon be let out of school for the summer, which means no more of the quiet mornings that I had gotten used to since October.

Nothing too exciting has been going on here, I’ve mostly been spending my free time reading, chatting with friends, or knitting gifts for people.  I’ve also had the occasional pool, hamburger, and trivia day at the American Club, which is always fun, though our Project Muso team doesn’t put up the best score.  It’s hardly fair when we’re competing against Embassy employees who passed the Foreign Service Exam!

We have a new volunteer coming in who will be replacing Becky when she leaves July 1st.  Amber is also a Peace Corps volunteer and so has already spent 2 years in Mali.

The issue of race has come up in various ways during a couple of recent conversations.  The first was with my host sister, who one evening asked me to put lotion on her back.  I first asked what it was and she confirmed my suspicion that it was skin whitening creme.  I already knew that a lot of Malian women use this creme, and I knew that at least at some point Assou had used it because she once told me that the scars on her arms, that a lot of Malian women have, were caused by the creme.  I didn’t know that she still used it, though, and when I asked why she still did if she knew that it was dangerous and caused scarring like that, she said that if you stop using it your skin actually becomes blacker than it was originally (don’t know if that’s true) and that besides, most Malian women think that lighter skin is more beautiful.  She said even her naturally lighter-skinned friends use it to become even lighter.  I didn’t ask her if that perception of beauty had anything to do with the colonial legacy in Africa, but it’s definitely a possibility.

At the same time, and I explained this to her, white women in the US actually try to get darker skin by sun bathing or using tanning beds or even cremes, even though we know that we could get cancer doing it.  So in some ways it seems the same, and it seems hypocritical to judge them for using whitening cream. I don’t think she realized that the sun makes our skin darker, so I held up my arm to my stomach (the color difference is a bit shocking!) and she seemed surprised.

The second conversation was with Nana and some members of her family.  Becky and I were trying to explain to them why we don’t like the word “toubab” and Nana said, “Well, we can’t tell Americans apart from French apart from Russians apart from Chinese…ok, well we can tell the Chinese because of their slanted eyes…but we can’t tell the rest apart so we just call them all toubab, and it’s not meant to be an insult or anything.  It’s like in the US, you probably can’t tell a Malian from a Nigerian, so you would just call them African.”  We agreed that we probably couldn’t tell them apart, but because of our history of racial segregation, and because we are such a diverse country, we also can’t just call someone African or black to their face, as if that’s their name.  They then asked if we saw a group of Africans walking down the street, what would be say to them.  I said, well, if we even greeted them at all, we would just say, “Hello,” not “Hello, Africans,” which is what they would do here.

That is one thing about Malians – they are very blunt and don’t bother glossing over obvious things.  For example, on the sotrama the guy taking your fare might say to an old woman, “Here’s your change, musokoroba (really old woman).”  That seems rude to me, but here that’s actually a sign of respect.

Or, as another (though not-so-respectful) example, the other day our sotrama passed by a larger woman waiting for a bus and our ticket taker said, “There’s no room for her, she’s too fat.  I can only fit someone skinny.”  Later, when the car was emptier, we picked up 2 rather large women, and one of the men in the car said, “Prendticket, I thought you said you weren’t going to pick up any fat people?”  Right in front of those women!  They smiled good-naturedly, but I think I would have wanted to punch him the face.  Although that’s not to say that similar things haven’t happened to me:  I once had someone doubt that I could play soccer because “You’re fat, how can you run?” or another time someone informed me that I was less likely to get malaria from mosquito bites because I was fat.  Just one in a string of endless lessons on patience and humility…I’ve learned that it doesn’t really help to get mad because they think they’re complimenting you and get upset when they realize they’ve really offended you.

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