Ramadan ended with a feast, one of the two biggest holidays in Mali. Excitement flourished in the days leading up to the feast. Preparations were made; new clothes were purchased at market; meals were planned. The feast was called Seli Fitini [Little Prayer], or Seli for short. On Seli-Eve I let my host sister Fanta and Seydou’s little sister Warakia henna my feet. Seli-Eve night, Shitan and I went to Seydou’s to hang out and eat meat and macaroni. An evening rain had left the moonless night cold and muddy. I wore a fleece and still had cold hands and damp feet, which was more frustrating knowing it was probably only around 80 degrees.
Shitan was quiet and submissive in the presence of Seydou’s male friends, and I was quiet and exhausted as the night inched along towards morning. It was even harder to follow Bambara conversation when I was tired, and though I was leery staying up late the night before a holiday, I knew I couldn’t leave until I ate. I alternated between dozing in my chair and keeping myself company with my wandering thoughts. As the time passed, I frustratingly wondered how long it could possibly take to make pasta, something that cooked in mere minutes. It wasn’t until I realized that it was like the American joke in slow restaurants: ‘What, did you have to go kill the cow before you could make my hamburger?’ They actually probably did have to slaughter the goat before I could receive my meal.
It was around one in the morning when Seydou’s sister-in-law arrived with two large bowls of macaroni and meat. I sleepily ate, feeling guilty with my frustrations that surrounded something that was such a treat to the Malians. Meat and macaroni meant special occasion, and I should have been grateful to be included in this small pre-feast, even if it meant less sleep.
The next morning I woke up early as usual, and was soon the lucky recipient of more meat and macaroni for breakfast, this time from Hawa. The village was quiet as the men and older women went to the mosque to pray and the younger women cooked lunch. I took advantage of the quiet to sleep a couple more hours before getting ready for a day that would prove bipolar from a combination of too little sleep and too much time with Malians.
I got dressed up in my finest Malian outfit and spent the rest of my morning at Seydou’s brother’s house, drinking sugary Lipton tea and watching an international track and field competition. An American won a gold medal, and I chuckled at the jarring juxtaposition of the Star Spangled Banner infiltrating the heavy morning air of the dusty mud compound. It felt like a lazy summer Sunday in America—if I blurred my eyes, I could almost be on my mother’s couch watching track as she went through the Sunday Tribune. As the time passed, though, I grew anxious, not knowing what my family’s plans were for the day, and not wanting to miss anything. I was enjoying watching the competition, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing.
After eating rice and tigadegena with more meat, I left and ventured to dubala to see what my family was doing. I arrived just in time to find rice being dished into the many bowls that would feed my large family. I walked with Hawa back to my house, as I was still not allowed to eat at dubala (their reasoning was always that there were too many people; I’d given up my protests). I was left alone to eat my generous portion of rice, tigadegena, and meat.
Not long after Hawa left, Shitan stopped by with one of my host moms, Batoma, and my host brothers Tijani and Yunisa. It is customary in Mali to invite people to eat with you if they stop by while you’re eating, and with an abundance of rice and having already eaten lunch, I invited them to join me. We crouched around the bowl, enjoying handfuls of rice. Eating with others always made me feel like part of the family.
After my second lunch, I went in my garden to check on recently planted thyme. My presence in my garden drew the attention of passers-by, and before I knew it a crowd of people ranging from kids to teenage boys had gathered to look at the toubab’s garden. Some simply looked over the wall, asking me what was what, and others walked around my house and entered my garden to get a better look. In the middle of explaining things, a teenage boy I did not know walked across the garden, leaning on the wall, and started yelling over it to someone a ways down the street. In doing so, he obliviously stepped on my tiny thyme sprouts.
I couldn’t spew Bambara fast enough; instead, “What are you doing? Get away from there!” came out in English. Everyone laughed at the silly toubab inexplicably speaking English, which frustrated me even more. I kicked everyone out, knowing I’d reached my limit for Malians for a while. I shut my door and sat by myself, relishing the quiet, but also feeling guilty and frustrated for not being with Malians on their second biggest holiday of the year.
By the time I felt refreshed enough to enter the world again, I returned to dubala to see what everyone was doing. I ran into Jelica as she was leaving, who told me they were all going to Jenaba’s to hang out soon, and that I should come. She told me to wait for Hawa to finish the dishes and to go with her. Hawa was taking forever, though, so I decided to visit Cekoroba [my host dad’s brother, who is called ‘Old Man’] because he can’t walk well enough to leave his compound and I thought he might enjoy the company.
We sat and talked for a while, and I quickly came to the realization that he was one of the few people in village I had little trouble understanding. He finally looked at me and said somewhat out of the blue, “Well, are you going to take my picture?” I took my camera out of the small case I had it in, and said of course I would take his picture. He told me he had to get his hat, and so we waited for his wife (who we call Baba, the same thing we call my host dad) to return so she could fetch his hat from inside his house. Much to his delight, I took a very distinguished looking picture of Cekoroba. I promised him that if I went to Bamako, I would get it printed and give him a copy.
Leaving Cekoroba’s house I wanted to go to Jenaba’s but knew I’d promised Shitan I would go on a walk through village and found her just in time. Shitan, Shata, Arijatou (all teenage girls), and I went walking through town sembe sembe-ing. It was customary on Seli to go around town visiting different families and giving them blessings in exchange for candy—almost like a Malian trick-or-treating. I quickly realized I had not been properly prepared for this endeavor, though, when Shitan, Shata, and Arijatou spewed off a few minutes worth of “May God give you a good year; May God give you good health, etc.” in unison, while I could do nothing but stand silently by hoping no one noticed my silence.
I got frustrated when people would notice and ask, “Can’t you sembe sembe?” I didn’t have the Bambara skills to say, “No, I don’t know all those blessings, no one told me beforehand that this was something I needed to learn, I’ve never had to sembe sembe before…” As the day wore on, my patience was dwindling in frustrating cultural situations, and while I knew Malians just had no concept of the challenges I went through adjusting to their culture, it didn’t make it easier.
We walked to the far reaches of the village, and I alternated between feeling out of place and appreciating being included in this Seli custom, despite my shortcomings. Finally, I felt I’d given sembe sembe-ing sufficient time, and told the girls I was going to Jenaba’s house.
It had been hours since Jelica had told me they were going to Jenaba’s house, so I was very glad when I found Hawa, Mamu, and Jenaba still there. I sat down and immediately my frustrations vanished, replaced instead by a feeling of relief. While I found Shitan to be immensely helpful, she was only 16 and functioned more like a little sister than a friend. I enjoyed her company, but sembe sembe-ing with Shitan I felt like a guest. With Hawa, Mamu, Jelica, and Jenaba I felt like a friend. They were my own age, and they were the people in village with whom I felt the most comfortable.
Overall, I enjoyed myself on Seli. It was certainly a nice change of pace from normal village life, and the increase of protein was much appreciated.← Progress Where to begin? →
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