as i am.

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Tea and Traditions, Among Other Things

Posted on by chrissy

My first weeks in village contained a lot of tea. I didn’t mind so much, because adjusting to village and my new diet of millet and more millet was a lot easier with caffeine. I was still a novelty, so everyone wanted to come sit and chat, which of course required tea. It took a while to reassert myself into the routine of village life. I guess we can just say I got a lot of reading done.

The good news was my village was exactly how I’d left it. The kids were two years older, but generally even wore the same oversized worn t-shirts as they’d had before. My mom still went to market on Saturday and Monday. Awa still hadn’t seemed to have seen an idle moment since I met her. Seydou was still on top of his responsibilities as keeper of the toubab. And I seemed to slip right back into things, sometimes forgetting I’d ever left. This time, though, everything was easier. In Peace Corps, I had felt I had to prove myself to my villagers and find some worthwhile project to improve their lives to repay them for the hospitality they’d given me. This time, I came back as a friend, no more, no less.

Initially, I’d felt I had planned my trip all wrong. Anyone with sense would come to Mali in the fall, enjoy peanut harvest and then watch the world slowly descend into the blessing that is cold season. No one in their right mind would start a trip in hot season. But here I was, and I was so thankful, because it turns out hot season is the best time to come back. All the work of harvest was over and most of the wood was collected for the year. The women were slowly rebuilding their garden walls with sticks, and the men were sometimes remudding houses, but otherwise, no one had very much to do. Which meant they had more time for me.

I made every effort to venture out of my house each morning and evening to see the women at Dubala, while they susued, or pounded millet. However, figuring out what time the women tended to susu was harder than I’d remembered. In the mornings, I often showed up late, finding empty kolons, or mortars, and nothing to do but return home and wait for the tea brewing to start. I had better luck in the evenings, though evenings were a little more raucous, as all the girls helped when they came home from school. In the mean time, I drank tea, chatted, read my kindle, and spent my evenings at Dukurala, watching the stars, and chatting with my mom and my sisters.

It took five days for me to feel useless. I had forgotten the general pattern of my life in the village: each day starting with so much promise, then stalling as I failed to accomplish anything. Then the feelings of guilt for having come all this way with nothing to show for it, and then of course wondering why I didn’t do more. But in the end, always a redemption.

I had spent my day surrounded by teenage girls. Ten of them, to be exact, with an additional ten to fifteen smaller children also in my courtyard at any given time. The girls descended on my yard like a flock of crows, their voices loud and crass and never ending. I wanted to engage with them, wanted to enjoy their company, as I liked all of them individually, but as a group in the tired afternoon sun, they were more than I could take. I sat reading my kindle while they gossiped and teased and braided each other’s hair.

In the evening, I went to Dubala as usual, sitting on a tiny wooden bench next to my family’s kolons. BaHawa and Jelica were there susuing, but so were half the girls who had been at my house, the ones I was so tired of. I sat quietly, distracted by my thoughts, only half paying attention to the conversations around me, until BaHawa rested a minute from her pounding and said, “Bougourie, I heard there was a plane that just disappeared and no one can find it. Do you know about this?”

I looked up from my bench, speechless for a moment, before telling her I had heard about the plane, and as far as I knew, no one had found it yet. She nodded and continued her susuing.

“Huhhh?” Jelica said, the Malian noise for surprise, “A whole plane disappeared? No one can find it?” Now, it was Jelica who paused in her susuing.

I elaborated with what I knew, that it was going from Malaysia to China, and that they thought it might have fallen into the sea, or else maybe it crashed somewhere else. No one knew.

“Well, that’s why you don’t ride airplanes,” Katou said, matter-of-factly, and everyone agreed. I smiled. I was amazed. I sat in the dusty nothingness that was eastern Mali, surrounded by women who have rarely ever seen anything else. And yet this tiny piece of international news intrigued even them.

Before long, the conversation shifted to what it’s like to ride on an airplane, culminating with the question, “Are there roads in the sky?” My bambara explanation of air traffic control was less than adequate. But these simple conversations, they were my reason for being here. They were what I had to show for my day, and they were enough.

That night a man in my village passed away. He’d been old, never married, which was almost unheard of in Mali, and drank a lot. His death was somehow alcohol related, though I got no further details. My women insisted I knew him, though no matter how much they described him, I couldn’t picture him. “The old man that always wanted to drink from your nalgene,” they’d said. I had no idea.

The next morning, I walked to Dubala with my mom Batoma and found Jenaba and my aunt Hawa susuing. Batoma was wearing her bright blue prayer scarf over her head, as women did when they went to pay their respects at the house of the deceased the morning after a death. Soon, all the older women in my family—my other two moms, my aunts Seli and Fatoumata, my grandma Baba—all appeared at Dubala, prayer scarves in place. They left in a group to greet the other groups of women at the man’s compound. I sat and chatted with Jenaba and Hawa until they were done with their susuing, and then Jenaba said, “Bougourie, an ka taa.” Let’s go.

I always felt uncomfortable going to greet after people passed away. I had never learned the blessings and didn’t know the protocol. I had felt like an intruder the two other times I’d gone to greet. We didn’t get far past Dubala before the men of the village were coming towards us with the body, headed to the cemetery for burial. Jenaba grabbed my wrist and I followed her lead. We stopped as they passed and lowered our heads. The sound of shuffling feet was all that intruded on the silence.

The man’s compound was lined with prayer scarf-clad women, each scarf bright and almost shimmering in the sun. A woman was wailing in grief in the middle of the compound, while other women supported her and helped her walk towards the door. As she passed, Jenaba and Hawa pulled me with them to stand against the compound wall, heads down, backs turned slightly away. I was grateful to Jenaba and Hawa for ensuring I was acting appropriately. We stood there for a while after the woman had left, and other women started coming up to us and greeting, normal morning greetings. I can handle normal morning greetings, I thought to myself. We never ended up giving any blessings. Perhaps the wailing woman was the one we were to give them to. After we’d greeted most of the people, we left and as I returned home, I realized this wasn’t as awkward as it had previously been. Mali was always getting easier.

I spent the rest of my morning at home, and in the afternoon, when Awa had finished washing clothes, she stopped by to chat. Awa was tiny, like her father Brahman, but also like him, it wasn’t the first thing you noticed about her. She was fast, always thinking quickly, and running late. She squeezed more into a day than most of the other women I knew, which says a lot in Mali. She was just less than a year older than me, and our friendship had started early in my initial stay. One day she had jokingly asked if I wanted to go help her in her garden and I had answered yes. She had been surprised, but then said, “Ok, an ka taa,” and at that moment a friendship was born. I had spent a lot of time in my first few months at site following Awa around, sitting nearby and watching, as she completed whatever task she was doing. (I was generally thought of as incapable of actually helping.)

Today, we didn’t chat for long before Awa asked if I liked onions. I answered yes, a little apprehensively, as I’d already twice been given bowls of cooked onions in oil, which was by far not my favorite snack. “I want to cook onions. Would you have some?” she asked. I was hesitant, but she seemed to really want to, so I agreed. She jumped up to get everything she needed from Dukurala, and returned with the furneau (the square metal thing on which the pot sat over the fire) a large bowl of the tiny onions my village grew, four tomatoes, and a cube of msg. We sent a kid to the store to buy oil, and soon we were busy peeling onions. When the onions were peeled, I was instructed to chop them, along with the tomatoes and some garlic I was contributing. Awa placed everything in a pot over the fire she’d built in my yard, and then sat down to chat while it cooked. It took a while, but when it was done, we had a pot full of tender onions in a tomato sauce that we ate with a loaf of bread Seydou had brought me from market the day before. It was delicious. However, more than anything I was amazed that this was how Awa chose to spend her afternoon. Her days were always full of work, and when she was given an idle moment, she insisted on filling it with more work. As soon as we’d eaten our onion sandwiches, she left to go pound millet for the night’s dinner, followed by pulling water from the well and filling up various water containers at Dukurala, followed by more tasks well into the night.

Another evening at Dubala, while Jenaba and our neighbor, Mamou, were susuing. Jenaba asked what I had done during the day and I told her I had done some reading. “Will you teach me to read?” she asked with a sly smile, clearly an impossible request.

“Of course,” I replied, trying to be encouraging.

“Don’t you think I’m too old?” she asked laughing, though she was likely only in her early thirties.

“No, you’re not old, you’re like a kid! You could certainly learn to read,” I told her, though I knew the likelihood of her actually making time to learn was very slim.

“Do you have Bambara books?” Mamou asked excitedly.

I shook my head. “Only English and French,” I told her, sorry to disappoint her.

“Oh,” she said, “I used to have some Bambara books, but they were ruined in the rain.”

“Can you read?” I asked, and she nodded with a wide smile.

“Yep! I like to read. It opens the mind,” she said. I was shocked. This village was always full of surprises. I made a mental note to somehow find some Bambara books to give to Mamou.

A while back, an NGO had come to provide adult literacy classes to my villagers. My uncle Amedou had been trained as the Bambara teacher. Seydou, BaHawa, and apparently Mamou had all learned to read Bambara. I asked Jenaba why they didn’t do that again. She shrugged. “People do study here now. At ngoh,” she said.

“Ngoh?” I asked, repeating the unfamiliar word back to her.

“Yeah, people study at ngoh on Thursday and Sunday nights.”

“Which people?” I asked, trying to get a better understanding, “Do women study there?”

“No, just men.”

“What do they study?”

Jenaba shrugged. “You should just ask Seydou. He’ll explain it to you.” With that, she looked down at her kolon and returned to her susuing.

I was intrigued that men spent two nights a week studying something that Jenaba couldn’t find the words to explain to me. I had a feeling it had something to do with Islam, but wanted to see how it was explained to me without me using the word. The next morning, Seydou and I sat under my gwa, a pot of tea bubbling away on hot coals between us, and I explained about the previous night’s conversation.

“What is it?” I asked, and Seydou smiled.

“They study Muslim things,” he said, and I smiled at his explanation, clearly simplified Bougourie-Bambara.

“Why do they study Muslim things?” I asked, also smiling at the silly questions that my limited vocabulary produced.

“It pleases them.” he said plainly, and I wished there was a Bambara equivalent to touché.

Since my return I had noticed a few changes in the level of devotion among some of my villagers. I’d always perceived my village as a pretty moderate village in terms of religion. The villagers identified as Muslim, and the adults tended to pray each day somewhere around the appropriate times. However, many more people than I expected were deemed either too old or too young to fast during Ramadan, and the oldest generation still held spirit festivals twice a year, where a dog was sacrificed and its meat placed in the mud oven-looking structures that sat outside of Dubala and a few other places throughout village. My grandma Ba made and sold millet beer to the other elders, so the Koran’s negative stance on alcohol was also clearly ignored. Before, no one went to our mud mosque on Friday afternoons, and the explanation I’d been given was that it was too small for everyone to go, and thus no one went. Now that I’d returned people were making a point of going to mosque on Fridays, and apparently, men were gathering to study Muslim things twice a week. I asked Seydou what was prompting this change. He shrugged and told me essentially that it’s good to try to be a better Muslim.

“But people still drink millet beer and kill dogs,” I said.

“They’re not Muslim,” he answered, and I was surprised. I’d thought everyone in my village was technically Muslim. Seydou saw my surprise, and continued, “Mama, your grandmas, BaMusa. When everyone else decided to be Muslim, they felt it wasn’t for them. So they drink and sacrifice dogs.”

“When did everyone else decide to be Muslim?” I asked.

“When my dad was younger,” he said, pouring the tea into the tiny shot-glass sized tea glass, a long stream of tea making foam at the bottom of the cup, then pouring it back into the pot then into the cup then into the pot.

Wow, I thought. The older people in village could remember a time when there was no Islam in village. I’d always assumed it had been around for generations. But here was Mali, teaching me not to assume again.

“But all the younger people are Muslim?” I asked. Seydou nodded. “So when they die, no one will sacrifice dogs anymore?”

“Nope, they’re the last ones that do it,” he replied.

“What? This is terrible!” I said, “What about the spirits?” The night I’d spent in my village during the spirit festival, I had been told by my very concerned sisters not to go outside in the night. No matter what happened, I was to stay inside until the morning. When I’d asked what would happen if I went outside, they said matter-of-factly that I’d die. So I diligently stayed inside all night, and not a person in my neighborhood came out of their houses until after 7. How could all these people be non-believers?

“Those spirits aren’t real. Nothing will happen if people stop sacrificing things,” he said, his look of ‘silly toubab, don’t you know this’ was very clear in his eyes.

“And no more mud ovens?” I asked? He shook his head while passing me a cup of tea. I didn’t know the word for tradition, but I tried to explain that rituals are important, that in America our traditions are to put a tree up at Christmas, to eat turkey at Thanksgiving, and watch fireworks on the fourth of July. That those were our traditions and it would be very sad if we lost them.

Seydou nodded. “We have traditions here, too. They’re to fast for Ramadan and kill a sheep at Tabaski.”

We fell into silence and as I sipped my tea I pondered what it was that I liked so much about the spirit festivals. Maybe I felt this was the real Mali, and that with the loss of those traditions, a piece of the past was dying. Maybe I just felt it was exotic and somewhat cool, and was sad to see it falling away.

My brother Dao joined us and our conversation dipped and curved in other directions until a long silence enveloped us, something not uncommon in a place where the same people sat and chatted in the same place every day. Finally, Seydou looked up and said, “You know circumcision?” using the french word for circumcision, as he tended to do with health topics.

“Circumcision? Yeah, I know it. What about it?” I asked, not quite sure where this was going. Female circumcision was common across Mali, but it was generally a pretty taboo subject, one I’d never discussed in my village before.

“It’s bad to circumcise girls,” he said simply.

“Why?” I asked, searching to see what he knew, not wanting to put words in his mouth.

“It can lead to infections, which can cost a lot of money,” he said, which was a very good point, among others.

“Why don’t they stop circumcising girls then?” I asked.

“Eh…” he trailed off, before continuing. “They don’t think it’s a problem. There are campaigns on tv and radio trying to educate people, but in small villages like this, people don’t listen. They think it’s done everywhere, but that’s not true.”

“No,” I affirmed. “We don’t do that in America.”

I looked up to see Le Vieille, Seydou’s five year old nephew walking into my compound. “Na Seydou,” he said, “Ko I ka taa.” Uncle Seydou, they said for you to come. This was a common practice in my village: if you wanted to find someone, just send a kid to tell them to come.

“Who?” Seydou asked.

“Ba,” Le Vieille said. His mother.

Seydou stood up, stretching. “Bougourie, I’ll be back in a while,” he said, ending our circumcision conversation, and leaving me confused about the idea of traditions. I’d spent my morning saddened by the eventual loss of sacrifices to spirits in my village. But how could I tell anyone that they should continue sacrificing dogs twice a year, while condemning them for their tradition of circumcising their little girls? Who was I to think their culture would be losing something if the sacrifices slipped away? It was their culture. They would certainly do with it what they pleased. As for circumcision, I strongly believed that when a child’s health and well being got in the way of cultural traditions, that it was a good indication to change the tradition. Perhaps both would be lost. Perhaps that was a good thing. At least I had a lot of time to ponder.


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  • About Me:

    I am a Peace Corps Volunteer working in Mali for two years promoting sustainable agriculture and environment development.

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    Christina Scheller
    B.P. 02
    San, Mali

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  • What I’m Reading

    King Leopold's Ghost - Adam Hochschild
  • What I’ve Read

    High Tide in Tucsan - Barbara Kingsolver All the King's Men - Robert Penn Warren Half the Sky - Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn Prodigal Summer - Barbara Kingsolver Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization - David R. Montgomery Everything is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee The Education of Little Tree - Forrest Carter The Rodale Book of Composting Team of Rivals - Doris Kearns Goodwin The Jungle Book - Rudyard Kipling The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver The History of the House of Representatives - Robert Remini East of Eden - John Steinbeck Three Cups of Tea - Greg Mortenson, David Oliver Relin The Imperial Cruise - James Bradley