Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Where Everyone Knows Your Name

I would like to talk about what it's like to be a white person living in an African community. I've never lived in a real community in the US. I've never been able to walk down the street and see people I know and people who know me. In the US, I live in obscurity. My communities are scattered: work, school, family, dancing, etc. And they mostly don't overlap. Here, I live in a community. As I walk down the street, everyone stops and says hi, how's your wife, how's your family, did you sleep well? They know me. The know what's up. They know if I've been to the neighboring village. They know my wife is in the US, and that I'm living alone, how am I eating, living? They know I have a garden. They know me, even if I don't talk with them, even if I don't know their name, even if I've never seen them before. Even when I go to the other villages of the county, they know me and they ask how's the work, how's the wife, how's the family? The kids who don't see me every day will follow me if I pass by, chanting "tubabu, tubabu" (pronounced 2-Bob-oo) which means white/French person. The kids who do see me every day chant "Oumar Kone" (my Malian name) and ask me how's my cat doing, "where's Mamine, how is she?" (Nicole's Malian name). They peak through my fence every time they walk by, hoping to get a glance of the tubabu. As I was sitting in my yard, shelling shea nuts, I suddenly realized that I'm like a zoo animal. With the fence closed, I feel comfortable enough to go about my life as normal, and they feel comfortable to stand at the gate and gawk, and that's mostly ok. If the child isn't chanting "tubabu," he or she is running away or hiding, having fear of the white guy. I liken it to the kids who don't like the big Mickey Mouse at Disney land, he's not for everyone. It usually takes 4 months for a child to get over their fright of me. Usually halfway through, the child can be in my presence, we just can't make eye-contact or touch.

The kids all want to touch me, like I'll bring them luck or something. I hate it when I walk down the road, there's a group of kids playing in the street next to the trash pile, then they suddenly thrust all of their dirty hands out at me to shake. I usually cross my arms or rudely avoid the hands, but politely greet them. I have no problem saying "hi," but I hate when the kid sticks out his hand as if to say "touch me, give me your luck," like I'm obilgated to shake their hand. Sometimes the kids will stroke my arms as I'm avoiding the hands, just so they can have a touch. It sounds silly, why would you refuse to shake a hand? I don't know. I don't like the expectation, the obligation that I have to shake the hand, especially when it's out of context. I especially don't like it when parents castigate me for not shaking their child's hand, because some parents think I am obliged to shake hands. These are the same parents who teach their kids to follow white people screaming "tubabu" and "give me a quarter." I hate that phrase, too, but luckily only get that when I'm out of my village. Donne-mois cent francs: give me one hundred francs. Not "may I please have a quarter," but "give it to me, now, because you're white and I'm poor." I typically respond by saying "no" or just ignoring it. Nicole once responded by saying, "NO, you give me a quarter" and the kid did (of course she gave it back). Apparently, in the 70's, missionaries would give out quarters to everyone who asked, so the parents taught their children to say that phrase (often the only french they know), and those children taught their children, who are currently bugging me. I refuse out of principle.

Overall, I like living in a community. I like knowing the people that I walk by. I like that I can ask how there new baby is doing, or the new wife, or the sick brother, or their peanut field. I feel like a celebrity, a movie star. If I'm hungry, I could go to any house in the village and eat. Imagine you're sitting down to eat lunch when the door bell rings and there's Morgan Freeman at your door, asking to have lunch with you. Imagine how you'd treat him. That's how I'm treated. "Would you like some water? Don't sit there, that's the bad chair, here take mine. Are you tired, would you like to rest? Still hungry?" I like going to a school meeting, and seeing the same people for the town budget meeting and at the meeting when an NGO comes in, and at the weddings and baptisms, and in far-away cities. There is definitely a development community separate from the village community. The development workers hang out together and usually know the other development workers throughout the area. The reason they're everywhere is because they're involved. They're not satisfied with just farming, they want to make sure the town is budgeting correctly, or that the NGO can do good in the village, or to get the training that is offered in another city. This leads to different recurring discussion topics. The villagers are always talking about how they want to go to America, the promised land, or the "manque de moyen" (lack of means); whereas the development workers are always talking about how screwed up the country is, who's at fault, how they would fix it, how their current attempt at fixing it isn't working for some reason or another. I am definitely part of this development community. Others include the teachers, the mayor and other bureaucrats, agriculture and livestock agents, the doctor and midwife, and certain entrepreneurs in the village (only a handful). I try and mingle with the other community, but they don't speak french, often not bambara, only their local malinke, which is to mumbled and too quick for me to understand. I find I don't have much to say to them. They tell me I'm going to come and help them plant peanuts, or sorghum, or I'm taking them to America, or I'm giving them my bicycle when I leave, or I have to "monter un projet" (create a proposal) to get funding for their sick child or to give them a well and a metal fence for their garden. Often I just pretend not to understand, or just say yes to get them to shut up about it. They think like I'm here to help them or something, bizarre. I'm often conflicted. I do want them to be helped, but I don't personally want to help them. Maybe they were rude, or are just looking for handouts, or are asking me to do something beyond my means. Most likely they are just trying to interact with me the only way they know how. They do need help, they do have problems, but they're not solving them in the right way. They've been jaded by all of the NGOs and government projects and white people giving gifts. Their culture is also one that demands those with means to give to those without. Here, a great salary is $200 a month, a low salary is $20 a month, the average salary is $66 a month, and most people don't earn salaries, they just sell what they harvest. Nicole and I each make $200 a month, which probably makes us the best paid family in our village (excluding money sent home from those in France, etc). There's an important thing to know about the agent who's worked for 20 years and is earning his well deserved $200 a month: he's got a family. I don't mean just a wife and kids (usually 2 and 8 respectively); I mean he's got a brother who needs a cell phone, another brother who's sick and has to go to a hospital in Dakar, a sister who's husband left her with three kids and now relies entirely upon him, a third brother who needs money to buy a wife (about $300 to $3,000, depending on price of cows and whether she's a "noble," "caste," or "slave"). He's got his mother and another brother living with him, and his brother-who's-in-France's wife and kids are with him. So where a peace corps volunteer has to support one person on a meager $200 a month, the local has to support 15 to 30 people. They all have to eat, they need clothes, they need medicine. In the US, you can just be an asshole and not give your brother money to buy a phone, but not here. If your brother dies, his wife, his family becomes your wife, your family.

Another thing that bugs me is that I'm known as a stranger, not just as a white person. They treat strangers differenlty than real locals. Many of those other development workers are strangers. They are Malians, but maybe they're a different ethnicity, or from a different county. What bugs me is that whatever the stranger says or does is then only applicable to strangers. All of the words of advice, of encouragement, of support... sure, all of that works in stranger-land, but it won't work here. Maybe soap prevents sickness in America, but not here. Maybe having less kids means an easier life in America, but not here. Maybe a traditional well works in the east of Mali, but not here. The skepticism and fatalism is insurmountable. The only thing I can do, and do do, is find those who don't believe that strangers are fundamentally different and work with them, care about them, and leave the rest to wallow in their willful ignorance.

What do you think? Does this life sound appealing to you? How would you handle these situations? I'm interested to know, because I'm sure you'd do some things differently.

Nicole will be in Mali soon. I can't wait! You lucky devils who've had her the past two weeks.