The Process of Achieving Comfort
The compound was sun bleached and empty when I returned to S New for the third and final stint of homestay. The midday heat was intense, and those not working hard in the fields slunk out of the sun to nap. My grandmother slipped out from the shadows to greet me when I arrived. I put my bags down in my room, swept out the dirt accumulated by ants in my absence, and filled a bucket of water to filter. As I poured water into my filter, my mom approached, calling my name. Her smile was wide as we exchanged greetings and she asked about my trip. In any other culture, her excitement to see me would have been expressed in a hug, but hugs are not part of the Malian culture, so instead she rubbed my arm endearingly, her excitement still needing to come out in some way. It felt good to be back.
In a place where change comes slowly, there were some significant changes in my compound while I was at site visit. A big house is being built in my compound. When I left it was barely half a shell of crumbling mud used mostly by the kids to play in than anything else. When I returned, there were five distinct rooms, three rooms making up a house for Aby’s mother and father, and two rooms making up a house for one of my host dad’s dad’s wives. Within two days it had a roof and (!) electrical outlets, light switches, and wires sticking out waiting to be connected to something. It is unclear if these would be connected to a solar panel or a generator or how power would come, but Bakary is building himself quite a nice house. I told my mom that the house was looking nice, and she replied, “Yes, it’s nice, and it’s BIG!” She’s right, it IS big: 5 rooms for 3 people, when the majority of living is done outside anyways. With my new Malian perspective, my future 300 square foot studio will feel like a mansion when I return to DC.
Another big change was the acquisition of Polici the Puppy. He was quite small and followed the boys around everywhere they went. I had talked to Aby before about dogs and cats, and I knew dogs were not well liked in my compound. I was very surprised to see a puppy join the family. I asked Aby where it came from, and she rolled her eyes, saying the boys brought it home, but it couldn’t stay because my grandmother HATES dogs, did I want to take him to my new village? I laughed, both at the prospect of acquiring a dog, and at the universality of the ‘can we keep him!?’ scenario, and then politely declined.
My last two weeks in S New went by fast. The kids were out of school for their equivalent of Spring Break, and thus spent most of their time in the fields instead of hanging around the house with me. One night over dinner, my mom told me, “Tomorrow, there will be onions.” I smiled and nodded, but wondered what she meant. The next day at lunch, I returned from school to find assorted family members knee deep in onions cutting the bulb from the greens and sorting. When I returned home in the evening, the pile of onions was as tall as me. After dinner, I did my homework under the one light with Aby’s assistance. When my homework was done, Aby jokingly told me to come help sort onions, and I quickly agreed and stood up. Aby laughed, surprised that I agreed, not knowing whether to tell me to sit back down or let me join. “An ka taa,” I said, “Lets go.”
I followed Aby to the pile, and watched while she grabbed a ‘bellebelleba’ onion (pronounced billybillyba, meaning large onion) and put it in a bucket. I started gathering bellebelleba onions from the pile and placing them in the bucket. The pile was illuminated by flashlight nestled awkwardly between Aby’s shoulder and neck. I ran and got my headlamp—an invention that has yet to make it to Mali but one that would improve the standard of living immensely. Batuma, Boba, my mom and dad, aunts and uncles, and cousins all helped sort onions that night. It had to be done before the first call to prayer when my dad would take them to Bamako to the market. I helped until around 10:30 before slinking off to bed, proud of my contribution, and also proud that my family finally let me help with something, instead of waiting on me. For once I was just another one of them, not a guest, not a toubab, just another body to help sort onions.
Sunday was the day for weddings in S New, with one happening in my family and Christina’s family on the same day. S New was busy with preparations all week beforehand. Most of the women in my family went to Bamako towards the end of the week, to get their hair done an prepare the bride for the wedding. The compound was quiet for a few days.
I was unable to attend either wedding, however, because Sunday we all went to the National Museum of Mali and the American Club for cheeseburgers and a swimming pool. It was a small taste of reverse culture shock. The National Museum is shrouded in shade nestled next to some rock cliffs. Stone pathways curve through expanses of green grass, and a fake waterfall graces the entrance turning into a fake creek meandering through the park as well. I felt like I left my village and went to Southern California for the day. The actual museum was interesting to me, but limited in both scope and explanation, compared to my Western standards. The American Club was more or less what I expected, but I still felt overly self conscious revealing my knees in public while swimming, as conservative cultural norms are my new normalcy. Regardless, it was a wonderful day basking in my Americanness.
Upon my return, my compound was almost empty, except for the kids who I took pictures of while the sun sat. Just before dusk, the wind picked up, and the sky clouded, and the dust swirled, and big drops of rain pelted the ground, enough to bring humidity, but not enough to dampen much of anything. For over an hour, I huddled in my doorway, watching the storm, and watching the kids as they more or less frolicked in the wind.← The Dance The Training →