Friday, October 2, 2009


In Bamako, they call me toubabu.
The West African term for foreigner (read: rich white person), toubab is thought to be derived from the Arabic word for doctor.

Wait. They call me doctor?

The little children scream it as I pass by on my way to work in the morning, along with cries of “bonjooooo” or “bonsoir,” irreverent of the time of day. They chant "Hawa, Hawa, Hawa," the name of the most recent white girl to leave the Mali Health Organizing Project and laugh when I tell them my name is Fanta Simaga. N togo Fanta. N jamun Simaga.

I am writing this first post on the evening of my seventh day in Bamako, because after a week here I think I might actually have something to say about this place. My journey here has been long and full of doubts – when I wasn't consumed by the MCAT, I spent my summer agonizing over whether I am actually capable of helping MHOP and the community of Sikoro-Sourakabougou, or not. Seven days in and I am certainly no less sure, but at least I have a better idea of what it will require!

But before I launch into all that...don't you want to hear about my trip??

I arrived in Bamako last Wednesday morning at 2:30 a.m., after a two-day layover in Casablanca, Morocco. I also had a day in New York City, which I spent riding the subway, hauling my fifty pound carry-ons across Central Park, meeting Anna (our executive director), enjoying a delicious meal with the lovely Susan Matheke (an artichoke, a gooey cheesy omelet and perfect french fries, if you must know) and visiting her niece on the Upper East Side.

Casablanca was my first adventure traveling completely alone in a very foreign country. My French was timid and awkward but I managed to fend off “valets” who wanted to help me with the bags I couldn't carry or who offered to make “a special trip” to my hotel (despite the availability of a free shuttle). The airline put me up the nearby Hotel Atlas, with comp'ed meals and free weee-feeee – which made checking in with the family wonderfully easy! I meant to spend the second day in the city, looking at mosques and visiting colorful markets, but I accidentally slept for fifteen hours!

I had just enough time to get on the wrong train to Casablanca so that I could wander aimlessly around a very unpicturesque part of town. (I should have taken the one to Bab Marrakech. Be-ah-be, il m'a dit!) Nonetheless, I had a lovely, awkward time. I was able to pick up some spices and cheese for the MHOP folks, and when I was 5 dirham short I even managed to ask the lady to cancel the second box of vache qui rie. Thank god for small successes.

After missing the 5 pm train back to the airport and high on my recent brilliant performance in the grocery store, I decided to ask a gentleman if he could tell me where to find a post office. I've got to mail the rest of my thank yous! (FYI: For those too disorganized to finish all their thank yous before leaving on a year-long trip to a country with a shaky postal service, JFK will not mail anything for you once you get through security.)

Anyway, after asking for directions and telling him that I had a train to catch, he walked me around to four different stores unsuccessfully trying to find postage to the States. I thanked him, hoping to go on my solitary way. No such luck. He walked me back near the station where we spent ten awkward, silent minutes sitting next to each other on a bench and when he finally asked for my “MSN,” I had to make one up in order to exit gracefully. To the owner of my apologies.

  Casablanca: waiting for the train to the airport

At 2:30 am on Wednesday, Royal Air Maroc touched down in Bamako, Mali.

I gathered my 100+ pounds of luggage and made my way to greet Devon and Alex – my new colleagues at MHOP. Of course, I managed to get myself into a very sketchy situation on my short walk to find them! Sidelined by a man who I thought was Adama, one of the Malian coordinators, I almost went off with a nefarious taxi man. It was a blur of French and Bambara, but when he explained  that we were going to a hotel to wait for a call from the people expecting me, I quickly realized I had made a mistake! Thankfully, Devon and Alex came to the rescue.

The taxi man still had my luggage, however, which instigated a raucous debate between several drivers over who would drive the three of us back to Sikoro. After much screaming in Bambara and Devon's adept bargaining, we managed to break up the fight. Unfortunately, the winner of the argument was the owner of a clandestine taxi, which ensured that we would be stopped by the police on our long ride home. Bamako has an 11 pm curfew, after which you must carry proper identification and offten, I'm told, the police will ask you for whatever document you don't have, demanding a small bribe. This night was no different, but Alex and Devon skillfully talked their way out of a “ticket.”

By 4 a.m. we pulled up to my new (temporary) home across from le kare* in Sikoro.

le kare, or pig corner

The compound of Hawa Gaku and her son's family is relatively nice for the Sikoro neighborhood. They have a paved courtyard with a sideyard for some sheep and a ngeyen (latrine/bathing room). In a semi-circle facing the courtyard are individual living areas: Hawa Gaku lives on one side, Fanta, Mamadou and their three-year old, Papa) on the other. I am in the middle, with the family bonne, Masata, next door and Alex Ruby in the farthest corner next to Fanta. N togo ma – my namesake, Fanta Simaga gave me her name when I arrived.

my first night

My room has a cement floor and mud brick walls, and has a bed, net, and trunk that Anna, our executive director, left behind. About 10'x12', it is comfortably large and has an adjoining empty room that Devon sleeps in occasionally when her host family locks her out for missing curfew. Hawa Gaku is much more familiar with Americans than most Malian families -- when we arrive home too late and have to wake her, she just stands topless in her doorway laughing at our silly ways.**

Ahhh, Bamako.

   A new drainage system in Sikoro, built by a local NGO
I'm learning quickly that the comforts of the Gaku home–the electricity (yes, I love my little fan!), the clean ngeyen, the private trash pick up, the family bonne–are signs of wealth in Sikoro. In this northeastern corner of Bamako there is no sanitation service or municipal dump, making waste a  major public health issue. Neither is there running water, and so we buy tap water (bleached) in big kilo containers and pour it off into buckets for cleaning, drinking and cooking. Bathing with a cup in a 4'x4' latrine is by no means luxurious, but I am grateful that at least my water has been bleached! Many families in Sikoro do not have access to bleached (tap) water, making diarrhea and dysentery leading causes of child mortality.One of our current projects thus includes the javelisation des puits (bleaching of wells) for target Sigida Keneyali families.

I have spent the last week trying to get adjusted to life here. Many people do not speak much French, which makes buying food and getting around a bit more difficult! Alex and Devon have been extraordinarily helpful. Devon has been here a year and so she knows how to navigate the many blind alleys of existence in Bamako, and speaks French and Bambara with surprising ease. Alex arrived in July, and has let me become his sidekick during his work as clinic coordinator. We've had several adventures around around town (buying a cell phone, taking the sotroma and bani bus) and he has been helping me get settled at Hawa Gaku's home.

I haven't had a lot of traditional Malian food yet, because Devon, Alex and I cook at our office or go out for dinner. It's pretty easy to find baguettes, rice and pasta, and there are cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, peppers, peanuts and peanut butter, green oranges, and dried (or quickly drying!) fish in the Sikoro market right now.  Most of the restaurants in the area serve some mix of egg dishes (meat scrambles), Lebanese (falafel, humus), Vietnamese (spring rolls, bahn mi sandwiches), “Western” food (hamburgers, fries, pasta), and kebabs. Nothing extraordinarily exotic! I did try tô with okra sauce the other night at a Senegalese restaurant, and found it to be pleasantly Maggi-fied -- but still slimy, of course! Maggi is the ubiquitous salty seasoning that imparts a lovely MSG-umami to many Malian sauces. Yum!

cooking in the office
Tuesday morning, however, I joined Hawa, Fanta and the crew for breakfast. They were having moni, a very soupy millet porridge with sugar and lime. It tastes like a sweet and sour porridge tea with tapioca pearls. Don't worry, Annette, I still prefer lumpy cream of wheat with milk any day!

from left: random lady, Hawa Gaku, me and Papa, family bonne, Fanta

drinking moni

Afterwards, Papa and I played the “bite your finger and say ayi” game, and the “call the toubab names in Bambara that she can't understand game.” Great fun.

My other “firsts” of note this week:
  1. My first sotroma ride. The cheapest form of transport, sotramas are hollowed out 12 passenger vans that serve as a mini-bus system. They can be extremely hot and crowded, often carrying 20+ people!
  2. My first Bambara lesson:   I ni ce. I ka kane? N se. Somogo be di? Toro si tu la. K'an ben...(Hello/thank you. How are you? Good/damn right. How is everyone? No problems with them at all! Goodbye.)
  3. My first MHOP meeting entirely in French. Ay.
  4. My first “husband” excuse. My fake wedding band is working wonders.
  5. My first night of boite-ing. Devon, Alex and I went dancing at the “No Stress Club” with her boyfriend and some other Malian friends.
  6. My first ginger popsicle from the market. Gingembre glacee, you saved me from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Now just don't give me amoebas!
  7. My first sweltering Bani Bus ride. After waiting on the bus for 45 minutes, I was soaked in sweat and Alex's hands were pruny! (Need proof? Check out my Picasa photos.)
  8. My first clinic visit and CHAG meeting. Stay tuned for more details...

And finally,
     8.  My first real inkling that this project will be so much more than 
        what I had planned!

The group here is incredibly dedicated, but working in Sikoro presents many obstacles. There is so much history, so many intricate relationships between the members of this community, so many cultural differences and so few resources, that I am quite sure this challenge will be much more than I bargained for! In Sikoro I know I will always be a toubab – but over the next months I hope to become one in only the best sense of the word.

*Le Kare is Bambara for Pig Corner. The term refers to a nearby pig pen, which is highly unusual in Bamako. As a predominately Muslim people, most Malians do not eat pork; this family chooses to raise pigs because they are much less likely to be stolen, and can be sold to a handful of restaurantsaround the city.

** Malians take a very conservative stance on the upper leg, as showing skin above the knee is considered highly sexual. Breasts, on the other hand, are displayed relatively freely. Public breast-feeding is very common, and older women may occasionally be topless around the home.

1 comment:

  1. Alex , this seems like a really awesome experience. I know it probably seems like a lot now but its times in our life when we are plagued with uncertainty and challenge that we really find out who we are as human beings. I wish you the best of luck and
    I hope you have a wonderful year. Looks like all those years at
    lac du bois are finally going to be put to use. Be safe and keep your spirits high.