Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Garibou assillaaaaaama!

I often write about the concept of solidarity. But there is one aspect of Malian culture that’s not so “solid.” Talibizey as they are called in Gao, are garibou, or young students of the Koran who study under a Maribou. To learn humility and to gain their daily bread, they are forced to beg door to door for either a portion of cooked food, some grain or a few coins. Whatever they earn they are instructed to bring back and share with all the other garibous and of course so that the Maribou can take his share. Certain harsher Maribou will chain hands or feet of garibou who ate from their bowl before returning to the house, which makes it all the more difficult for them to beg the next day. They are often filthy, and I was particulalry appalled once when, for lack of a hand washing bowl, a group of men filled a garibou’s bowl with water, rinsed their hands, and began to eat.

Garibou literally means “foreigner” in Arabic. In Islamic teachings, Muslims are to feed, house, and clothe any “strangers” who come by. Though, it is understood that if you stay longer than three days, you are considered to no longer be a foreigner.

The problem in Mali, aside from harsh treatment of legitimate garibou, is that there are many children (almost all boys) who are sent away (or who run away) who know nothing of the Koran yet beg just like the garibou do. This is why often Aliou would demand the garibou to recite the Koran before giving anything. Non-garibou would then be comically teased until Aliou thought they had earned their dinner. For example, Aliou would ask Dave if this was the little punk who threw the rock at him today (untrue of course) and Dave would exclaim, “Yeah, yeah that’s the one, get him!” The garibou would promptly run out of the courtyard. Similarly, if Aliou would call to Zubbu to bring a nice, sharp knife, for garibou liver is what would cure his child’s sickness, the garibou would also run (screaming sometimes) from the courtyard. Because, even in Ansongo, most of the garibou were originally from Gao gourma (the villages on the right bank of the river or as it flows between Gao and Ansongo, the West bank), Aliou would quiz them on exactly where they were from or who their father’s father is. Once, a garibou thoroughly confused by the barrage of questions, ended up telling us he was from both the West and East banks of the river. Right. Once, Aliou found a garibou from his village of Boya (commune of Gabero in the gourma), and began to feed him well. He was surprisingly a legitimate talibize.

When I was at restaurant recently in Douentza, coming back from Timbuktu with CARE, ATN Plus, and Nouveaux Horizons staff, we were appalled by the behavior of the town’s garibou. These were surely not students of the Koran. When one table had finished their bbq’d meat, the server held up the pile bones on a platter to keep it from the groping hands of almost 20 garibou. Almost each one got a bone that they started to happily gnaw on. Mahamane turns to me and says what a tragedy these garibou/beggars are. Why can’t an NGO (or the government) build centers to house and feed them and teach them a skill. Another colleague commented that if the system continues, these beggars, once adults, would also send their children out to beg. I understand certain families cannot afford to take care of all of their children, or in the case of an orphaned child, take him or her in because their parents were relatives. It is the norm, but it is not easy. Therefore, though to most Malians it is culturally appalling, I find it necessary to started building orphanages/vocational training centers for these unwanted kids. In the case of the talibizey who are trying to learn the Koran, there needs to be a system of community involvement to support the Maribou in taking care of his students. Buddhism also promotes begging and a simple life in order to learn humility; nevertheless, in learning this lesson, these children shouldn’t have to act like dogs. 

Thursday, July 9, 2009

At peace in my skin

One of the most important things my fiancé has helped me to understand is why people call me anasara or tubob. Greetings are incredibly important here. So important, if you don’t greet someone, they think you are mad at them, not just that you forgot to greet them or didn’t notice them passing by. Even before buying something you have to go through the greetings—from their spouse and children to the state of their cows. Additionally, ethnic identity is still very strong here—and relatedly, family names carry much more significance than they do elsewhere. Often when greeting, people address each other by their family name. If they don’t know the person’s name, they’ll address them by the name the most common to the ethnic group (Bambara = Coulibaly, Peuhl = Diallo, Songhoy = Maïga). If a person greets someone not from their ethnic group, they will call out the name of the ethnicity. Therefore, Diallo is often greeted as fula ce ! (among Bambaras) and fulan aru ! (among Songhoy). And I am greeted equivalently as tubob or anasara. It’s not meant to be a slur because I’m white, but merely a way to classify and greet me. 

During the lunch break of the training I was in Monday and Tuesday, one of the trainers asked me if I get bother by people refering to me as anasara (just before my colleague had told the server the anasara doesn’t eat that much, so don’t fill her plate). I said it used to bother me but no longer does because I’ve come to realize that everybody uses certain terms to identify and refer to people here. I think it only becomes a problem when people use the terms to generalize about certain ethnicities and do so out of the context of joking cousins (for example, the artisan who made our wedding rings is a Peuhl of the blacksmith class of forgerons who joke with Peuhls, so he joked about the significance of my fiancé’s small fingers and the fact that all Diallo’s are traitors). Sadly, two groups excluded from the joking cousins/ethnicities (Diarra’s joke with Traoré’s, all Dogon joke will Songhoy, etc) are the Touaregs and the Bella. These are the only two groups I’ve heard being seriously slurred against here in the North. And they are the ones you hear about most on RFI. 

Monday, July 6, 2009

West African French, quoi

The more time I spend around French people (or other Europeans who speak French) the more I realize I speak very West African French. And evidently the mélange with local languages is even more noticeable in Côte d'Ivoire. 

On est ensemble, the subject of my last entry, is a quintessential West African French phrase having largely to do with the fact that it represents the Neighborhood Watch aspect to the culture here. It’s not really used in France in this sense, probably because the system of solidarity isn’t as strong in the West (I know, I know, France is in fact north northeast of Mali).

Présentement  is widely used to say "currently" but French people find it awkward. Maybe this too is a result of me using the equivalent to "presently". Usually, when searching for a word I don’t know, I say the english word with French pronunciation (especially if the word is more than 3 syllables long) and it works. In this case, it doesn’t.

On est où là ? Literally meaning "One is where ?", has become a greeting or a way to warm up a crowd. It doesn’t really mean anything. But it became popular in the West African hour of guests and music on RFI at 21H10 because the Sénégalese host uses it profusely. 

Peinturer  in West African French means "to paint". However, they took the actual verb peindre and made it into an easy to congugate regular –er verb. So instead of being lazy and saying Le nouveau maire a coupé tous les arbres dans la cour de la mairie et peinturé le batiment conformément à son hôtel (true story), you should say Le maire a peint la mairie desagréablement.

Often, to designate an event or action that has not happened yet but is expected to happen, West Africans say, Je n’ai pas fini à préparer d’abord. I thought this was perfectly acceptable French. It is not. I have now learned that the construction comes from Bambara (or the more widely spoken sister language of Dioula), in which for an action that has not yet occured you simply tack on folo to the end of the sentence. Folo translates best to d’abord. But, a proper French housewife would use encore to say she has not yet finished cooking : Je n’ai pas encore fini à préparer. 

Quoi is added at the end of phrases so often it's become a habit, quoi. Similar to "like" in English. While watching Bienvenue Chez les Chtis, I found that it is also used in this north northwestern French dialect. To the point where a southerner gets quite confused and the two actors get into a loop much like a "Who's on First?" bit. Quoi literally means "what" and therefore, with the intonation of the Chtis, it is as if you are always asking a question rather than confirming a statement. Here, there is no confusion over intonation, so it becomes an extraneous word at the end of phrases, as in, Je vais terminer ici, quoi. 

Sunday, July 5, 2009

On est ensemble

On est Ensemble is a West-African French phrase which literally means « We’re together » but more figuratively speaks to the system of solidarity that is deeply imbedded in the culture.

For example, when I forgot to grab money out of my safe for the week, I found myself broke, 4km away from home, and with a blazing sun outside. Lunch costs 500F ($1,20). But I didn’t even have a 5F piece on me. So when I went to our usual restaurant, I asked the lady if I could pay tomorrow. She gave me a heaping plate of rice and red-fish sauce and said, On est ensemble. You don’t let your neighbor go hungry here. It’s one of the aspects I like most about Malian culture—even if it may cause a certain level of indolence.



Friday, June 26, 2009

Human Universals

First rain in Gao and I discovered another human universal: kids love to puddle stomp. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In the Road

Though it is tiring to be going around town on a bike—from my house along the river to work one way is over 4km—I enjoy how it allows me to observe and interact with people, especially the kids:

"Ni go foonda ra !" I said to a toddler IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD, he looks up at me and starts to bawl. A young woman comes over and says his mother was out and there was no one looking after him.

"Nice rhythm" I shout over to a kid, who, surely sent by his mother to get water, was sounding out beats on the 4 over turned 20L water jugs strapped over his shoulders. I sure hope he wouldn’t be the only one carrying that load back…

One toddler pulling another out ofthe way of a speeding moto by the back of his oversized shirt.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pays Dogon

The Dogon are a people unique to Mali. It is said they sought refuge from wild beasties in the cliffs of the Bandiagara Escarpement when it was still a forested region. Now, you can see the desert approaching once you descend the fallaise into the plain where dunes encroach from the northeast. The Dogon chased out the Pygmies (who liked the forest and therefore ran off to the Congo River basin) and settled in villages along the 200km escarpement. With the Peuhls to their west, on the top of the ridge and in the plains beyond, the Dogon were introduced to Islam but have generally held fast to their animist beliefs. Many villages still retain their traditional religious chiefs who are in contact with the Creator, Ogon (all this I learned from our guide and from what my fiancé had learned in school, so forgive me if there are errors) ; though, in nearly every village we visited there was a Catholic mission and often schools supported by the Church. Still, we chanced upon a traditional mask ceremony for two funerals. 

When there is work to be done in the fields, people who pass away are burried but there is no passing ceremony to recognize their accomplishements. These two elders were very accomplished and therefore merited an elaborate ceremony. Women born during the Dogon fête of the year become the master of the ceremony. They hold large, decorated calabashes (gourd spoons) and are the only ones allowed to dance along with the masked men. Each mask represents either fertility (these male dancers are equiped with breasts), rain, hyenas, lions, hunters, and life (the tallest of them all…this dancer must have an amazingly strong neck to raise and lower the tree-trunk of a mask attached to his head). The men drink millet beer before starting the ceremony and a few dancers had to be removed from the circle for drunkeness. I was amused by certain more modern decorations on the masks : colored plastic mirrors, « Nihe » sneakers, and other « chinoiseries ». The rest was made from Baobab and monkey-fruit wood, grass and natural dyes. 

The Baobabs of Pays Dogon are huge and numerous. You can see the scars from where bark was harvested for masks and uses in the home (rope or baskets). The trees really do resemble a tree pulled up roots and all and planted upside down. One of my favorite quotes from the trip was to Diallo as he sat under the shade of a Baobab : « Hey, does this thing that resembles a Peuhl speak Fulfulde? » (a Poullo woman passing by selling milk). He responded in Fulfulde, of course, and we decided to buy some milk. From then on we refered to him as « this thing here ». It was interesting to see him playing tourist in his own region. He had never visited Dogon Country before and enjoyed himself. 

The hiking wasn’t so rigourous, but on the way back you end up scalling the escarpement quite quickly (it’s no more than a 1km climb) so a few in our group got vertigo. The force of the wind made some passes precarious, particularly how it has over the years carved rocks down to perfectly round boulders wedged into crevasses just waiting to fall on the innocent passerby…we had difficulty imagining how the Dogon lived in the cliffs (the oldest villages were literally caverns dug out from the cliff face)—how would they have transported water ? How did they use the toilet ? We joked how the sleep walkers of the tribe most certainly had been selected out. Our guide explained the Dogon knew how to fly and therefore the height of the cliff posed no problem. That was how they beat the former Pygmy dwellers of the region. To us, it was certainly a task to climb through the villages to reach areas reserved for the religious chiefs. Each village has a meeting shelter/hangar (still used today) to settle disputes and discuss village matters. The roof is so low no one can get angry and abruptly stand up to intimidate others. Plus, most of these structures were carefully constructed along cliff edges to be more visible to passerby ; therefore, making a ruckous would also result in a tumble. I was amused by a c.1904 French oil canister turned into a drum. There were often signs explaining local laws such as « No widowers allowed for three years » and you have to wonder what dispute that sign settled. We also noticed the Dogon sensibly had houses for the women to retreat to each month. I wonder what has changed in society that women no longer get 5 days to themselves each month?? 

The populations were very accostommed to tourists. Especially the children. We were left alone for the most part, though were still asked to buy things or to give them things. Craig enjoyed beat-boxing with the kids, leading them in rhythms and songs as we hiked along the base of the plateau to our campement. We asked a few students to show us their notebooks. A 4th grader couldn’t answer simple questions in French nor write clearly. It seems they focus on local language and teach it orally reminding me if Mali wants to truly be independent of aide they need to improve basic education first. We especially enjoyed observing the daily work : drying and pounding onions into balls to store them all year (a Frenchman introduced this type of onion to the area and it grows in abundance); watering of gardens with gourds ; pounding millet ; cloth dying (I bought some indigo) and guiding. We ran into many other tourist groups with their guides. I hope to go back and hike for more than two days, possibly towards Sangha and the north part of the escarpement. There is certainly more to discover, particularly about the regions geology. The guide explained it was underwater, then a forest, and now it is slowly being turned into desert. But much of the rock and its coloring led us to believe there was volcanic activity. Pumice and other igneous rock doesn’t just fall from the sky. But, to support the guide, there was a lot of evidently sedimentary stone with bits of shell and evidence of sealife petrifed. I can believe why Pays Dogon is the most visited area of Mali : beautiful terrain, interesting culture and great trails. The people for one, yeech ! A bunch of donkeys ! 

I’m sorry, as a koyraboro, in the name of joking cousins, I just had to. 


All tales, opinions, and attitudes are those Joanna has experienced and subsequently composed. This Blog does not reflect the ideas or policies of the U.S. Peace Corps, its employees and volunteers, at large.