Lest you think this "White Girl in Africa" thing (as one reader so bluntly put it) will go on forever, I only have one or two more Mali posts in me. I've had so little time to write these days - apologies that this is dragging out a bit. I'm also completely distracted by what's going on in the Middle East and Japan that scribbling in my trivial little blog seems a bit beside the point. At any rate, here we go:
Outside a shop selling bags of reeking fertilizer, Rasta and I sit drinking tea on the sidewalk, watching people pour out of the market in Mopti. Tea is serious business in Mali. Rasta makes it the way his mother taught him to as a child: two pots, one with gunpowder tea and hot water, one with mint. Let the tea brew, pour into the mint pot, repeat about half a dozen times. Add a preposterous amount of sugar. Pour tea into a shot glass, then pour tea back into the pot. Repeat about fifty million times. The process takes fifteen minutes and makes three pots of tea - the first pot is intensely potent, the second less so, and the third is sweet and mellow (like love, he says). The entire operation of making and drinking tea can take hours, but time is an abundant commodity, especially for the young and unemployed. I ask Rasta what he does when guide work dries up during the off-season.
"Well, you know...I sit with friends, we drink tea, we chatter..." His voice trails off for a moment. "There is no work."
Without work, Rasta's prospects for marriage are iffy at best. He tells me that he tried to marry his sweetheart, meeting her father three times to present a kola nut as tradition dictates. He got negged - no work, no money, no women. He was devastated when she married someone else. He wants desperately to have a companion and a family, but without steady income his current girlfriend will most likely look further. He's stuck.
"Shit," I say, unhelpfully. We talk about ways he can set up his own tour guide business instead of forking over his wages to his shiesty boss. We talk about setting up a blog, marketing online, gathering testimonials from clients. He nods enthusiastically and seems cheered by this momentary distraction from reality, this daydream of entrepreneurial-ism and economic opportunity. We fall into a protracted, gloomy silence and Rasta lights up a doobie.
A Fula man wearing a stiff brimmed hat stops by to chat. He has the elastic, comic face of a court jester - eyebrows with a life of their own, a plastic mouth so animated it tells its own story. He takes stage, launching into a half-mad monologue that prompts our companions at the fertilizer store to shoo him away. Rasta hands the stranger a thimble of tea, refills the glass, presses it delicately to his own lips, and passes it to me. I glance anxiously at Rasta, who looks on with a benign smile, his kindness and generosity of spirit radiating like particles of light.
* * *
Bozo villages line the shore where the Bani river meets the Niger. I rent a pinasse at the chaotic port in Mopti, where fishing boats unload woven baskets containing the day's haul. The captain immediately offers me tea and a taste of his lunch of rice and fish, which is cooking on a small stove in the middle of the pinasse. We pass fishermen casting nets, women drying fish in the sun, boys bathing, girls scrubbing pots by the shore. As we pull up to a village, a group of children mob the boat as I attempt to climb out, dumping me (and my camera gear) into knee-deep water. They laugh at how awkwardly I recover and, feeling supremely annoyed, I suppress the urge to knock their heads together.
Cadeau cadeau cadeau cadeau cadeau cadeau cadeau they call out, running by my side. It is the not the sly, playful game of "cadeau" I've played with kids before - it's insistent, aggressive, marked by desperation. The village has fallen on hard times. An old woman tells me (through the captain) that the fish are unusually small this year, there is no money, and they are struggling to get by. As I wend my way through the ramshackle village, everyone I meet tells the same story in the same careworn way. Some of the children ask to have their photographs taken, and I snap a few shots, feeling somewhat ill at ease. Posed in their dirty Obama t-shirts and ripped shorts, they look like little adults hardened by a life of scrappiness and deprivation.
Back in the pinasse, I question why it is that I am drawn to countries in the developing world where, as a traveler, my position of privilege and prosperity can sometimes stand in sharp relief against a backdrop of economic hardship, social immobility, public health crises, autocratic governments. Recent comments from a reader raised this very question and touched a nerve in a way that suggests that I haven't quite found the answer. Am I a voyeur to other people's suffering? Do I reinforce this dynamic by giving what I can when asked? Do I romanticize? Patronize? Simplify? No doubt I am guilty of some of these self-accusations, though I hope my intentions are good. This is all I know: Beauty and mystery and marvels are found in unexpected places, in difficult places, in places where struggle is part of daily life. Perhaps they are even more beautiful and marvelous to me because they exist in spite of (or indeed because of) these difficulties. I'll let you know when I figure it out. In the meantime, I have one or two more Mali posts to share with you.
Next stop: Timbuktu.