Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Double Culture Day in Bamako - 2001

The day started off peaceful enough, but soon emerged to be a day filled with culture. In the morning, I heard some drummming (which is not unusual). First it sounded rather novice, as if someone was simply plunking on the drum. I continued what I was doing in my home, continuing to keep an ear out just in case there were further developments. Later,the drumming sounded more significant and refined, peaking my interest. With a small digital camera in my hand (just in case), I proceeded to start walking towards the nearby-sounding drumming.
After the second turn, I heard my name called out. Here it was Wasa, the downstair teacher's housekeeper. It was not the Wasa I was accustomed to seeing though. Instead of the plain purple overlay that she typically wore, Wasa was dressed up in her finest. A dark green dress (West African style) with multicolored ornamental decorations and a U shaped neck was worn. Around her shoulders draped a white veil-like scarf. Most impressive was Wasa's head. Each small section of hair was wrapped in glistening black coils, forming a decorative pattern. By the ears the coils also revealed small golden-yellow small balls, about 4 or so cascading down in an ornamental fashion. In her ears were beautiful gold earrings and around her finger was a matching ring. A headwrap from the same fabric as the dress covered a fair amount of her hair. Around the headwrap was a woven band that I had seen before. Instantly, I knew Wasa was involved with a wedding. Wasa invited me to join her at the wedding and asked me if the downstairs teacher was awake.

I quickly went home to the duplex to get the downstairs teacher and her 4th grade daughter. This time with two cameras, I went towards the source of the music. Like Wasa, the women were all wearing their finest clothing and jewelry, with the addition of a special hairdo. Underneath the large tent, women began gathering for their portion of a wedding celebration. After we were introduced to several women, Wasa encouraged us to sit down. For the next several hours, I witnessed women celebrating their portion of the wedding celebration under the tent.
I will need to find someone who can explain all what occurred, but I will now present my observations. Several other women were also wearing the striped woven band, just as Wasa did. The middle part of the long narrow band which was tied around the forehead revealed the woman's name, carefully woven in capital letters. The bands were golden yellow with another contrasting color such as black, purple, or maroon. Two female singers and three male drummers provided the music. I am assuming that the singing was either general wedding music or words specifically directed towards the bride, etc. Women would get off their chairs and join a procession of women, already forming a line towards the music. Typically the "train" would repeat its course and go towards the music a few times before the women once again took their seat. Sometimes a few women would then begin doing the energetic West African dancing. It appeared as if the main drummer's hands and the dancers were talking to each other. Typically one woman danced at a time, before the next woman took her short time in the spotlight.
Interspersed throughout the time of celebration that I witnessed were a few women who directed some words towards the crowd. I think they might be part of the griot family, which does the storytelling and recounts memories/events. During this talking, the arm of one of the women wearing the bands would have their arm raised by a neighbor, evidently recognizing that person. There was a lot of socializing occurring, women "sharing" the darling little ones with other women, and even some passing of money to a select few women. Some of that money appeared to be given to the drummers, but I'll have to inquire more.
I'm sure a lot of the subtleties (and perhaps the not-so-subtle parts of the ceremony) passed by without my knowledge of what I was seeing or perhaps not seeing it at all.

Well, I better sign off for now. Tomorrow or soon I will email the second cultural happening. Ahh, such a culturally rich society here yet. I sure hope that they retain it even if technology and outside influences increase.
No sooner than 10 minutes after I left the wedding and arrived back at my house (the wedding celebration was still going on), did I begin my next adventure. I was invited to go with a fellow teacher and her family to a Malian Christian family in a village about a half hour away from Bamako.
The village
As you turn off the main paved road (the road from Bamako is actually MUCH better than many of the roads IN the main part of Bamako itself), you start heading down a maze of narrow dirt roads/paths. The house compounds are quite near each other, clustered amidst a vast area of savannah and some fields. The houses are small, many perhaps only one room. The houses are made of mud bricks. There are no glass windows, but there is a large metal door. Cooking is done outside. There is no electricity, but recently wells have been upgraded- mounded slightly with concrete and secured with a cover. These two factors have helped in reducing the amount of deaths due to children accidentally falling in open wells.
Each house has a wall around its border, providing some privacy - and helping the chickens or other animals to stay in the yard. Sometimes there are several homes, inhabited by extended families. Next to the house of the family we visited was a small chicken coop, again made out of mud bricks. Also present: an area for trash (sort of a compost heap), a small garden, and a shade tree or two. Most villages of any size have a mosque, however small and humble in appearance. Children could be found throughout the village, rolling a tire with a stick, playing soccer, or riding a bike. As usual, women and girls were more typically found working hard, preparing meals, gathering food, washing clothes, etc.
The Father
The father of the family recounted his early beginnings in life. Like so many others in Mali, he had to deal with death at an early age. In fact, he never knew his father. Unable to provide for her many children, the mother dispersed her children to live with family members or others of the village. He was sent to live with the village chief. Like many in his village, the family held more traditional, or animist beliefs. A mission church settled in the area, spreading the Gospel in the native language of Bambara. The church also began to teach people how to read and write, a luxury not offered by the village. He took advantage of both, learning to read and write as well as learning more about Christ. The teachings appealed to him. All was well until one of his uncles converted to Islam. This uncle suddenly had no tolerance for Christians whatsoever, including his on nephew. At first the young boy did learn about the Islam religion, but soon realized that Christ was the One. Warned of the possible consequences if he did not recant his religious decision, the young boy held firm. One day he found his few belongings outside the house entryway, a direct message that he was to leave and go on his own - at the age of 10.
Even now, the father and his family faces persecution (abeit sometimes subtle). They are the only Christian family in the village. The oldest son went and earned a degree in civil engineering, but can't find a job in that profession- the only jobs available are with the government, and they wouldn't hire a Malian christian. The father is also without a job, and spends a fair amount of time providing food for his family by planting and harvesting fields of millet and other items. Plowing is done with simple plows and a donkey, but the harvesting is done by hand.
Despite their many hardships, this family has extended its hand to people even more needy then they. When a child of a relative lost her parents, they took her in and adopted her. More recently, the family took in a large family (children and a widowed mother) who were homeless. And no matter how little food they had, Malian families always make sure that their guests have plenty to eat.
For supper we sat on some benches and a small table, sheltered from the sun by a tin roof upheld by wooden poles - their family worship area. After handwashing, everyone gathered around the large bowls of food - some millet cuscous, lentil beans, and some chicken smothered in peanut sauce. The mother began scooping heaping portions of the millet in two bowls. The rest of the food was heaped in the middle of each bowl. Gathering around one of the bowls, each person proceeded to eat by scooping with their right hand, eating the food that was in the area just in front of them. The sauce, when poured over the millet, gave the dry textured food some flavor and moistness. More helpings were provided until everyone had their fill. Just when I thought it was finished, they brought out a watermelon grown locally and began cutting it with a rather dull looking small knife. On top of the tender chicken and tasty sauce, we were presented with a large slice of watermelon to eat!
Shortly after all had their fill, we packed up to leave. Kind words were exchanged and photos were taken. Soon the sun would set; much needed to be done yet in the available light. Thanking all for their generous hospitality, we left the small village and headed back towards the sprawling village of Bamako.

Although I've seen it before, this visit once again reminded me how people can be happy even though they don't have material things. Family and faith held this man and his family together and made it prosper. While he could have easily given up either as a child or as a adult, this man did not give up and held fast to his faith and family. How blessed we are in the US that we are not persecuted for our beliefs - that we are free to believe as we want! And the family's generosity, extending out a hand to the orphaned girl and a homeless family - when they themselves were poor and on hard times! Indeed, there are many things that I and others in a modern society need to work on. We can learn so much from people in poor, developing countries.

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