Monday, November 23, 2009

Bee toga ye I ko: Everybody leaves their name behind

It is 9 a.m. and I am sitting in my new courtyard. Watching the children chase each other around, I'm realizing that if I had any hopes of ever sleeping in they've just been stomped on by fourteen pairs of pint-size feet. Michael Jackson videos are playing loudly in Pedro's room across the compound.* The memorial DVD is a permanent fixture here; I have now resolved to teach the kids a better phrase than “beat it, just beat it!”....I think “Annie are you okay?” might be equally disturbing, but unfortunately “ABC, 123” didn't make it onto Michael's best of list.

So, here I am. I moved to Ami Keita's compound last weekend, excited to fully settle in somewhere a bit more permanent. I now live in Sourakabougou, distinguished from Sikoro by the longer hike up rocky hillsides and thus the greater inaccessibility of basic services. My water, for example, now costs 20FCFA per gallon (double the 10 FCFA I paid Chez Gaku) because the ji-tigis have to push a cart full of bidons up a rocky path. And while the MHOP clinic waits to open, the nearest Centre de Sante Communautaire (CSCOM) is roughly a 35 minute walk down nearly impossible terrain for someone critically ill.

But oh the view! It is gorgeous up here, looking out over the valleys of Bamako. You can even see the new MHOP clinic in the distance!

In the morning, the sun rises (really, I'm not kidding about the sleeping in bit) over the hill to the east and bathes the houses in a soft glow. Partway up the hillside, my home is nestled between two winding paths with compounds above and below. Like most things, this has its pros and cons. The view is expansive in all directions and being able to see other people certainly helps me feel connected, but to be honest, is this really necessary while showering? Two girls got a good view of a naked toubab yesterday afternoon, and so I think I will be taking the rest of my daylight bucket baths sitting down. Still, with the early morning sun peeking over wall, even the view from the nyegen is as gorgeous as the rest.

In my first weeks here, I have taken my first tentative steps towards family integration: learning names (oh there are so many – Ami alone has eleven children!), helping with the laundry (did you know toubabs can scrub and rinse?), chasing the little kids, causer-ing with the eldest while making dute (Bambara's version of du thé) and yes, even demonstrating my painfully awkward moonwalk. I don't consider myself a funny person, but here I can't do anything but make them laugh.

Basically, I like it so far. And it may be preemptive to say, but I think living here is going to make my work here more meaningful and more effective. I will certainly learn Bambara much faster with nineteen (twenty? twenty-one?) children hanging around! Perhaps more importantly, however, I have a feeling that living in Sourakabougou will help me stay connected to the people that we intend to serve. I have learned more about this community in the two weeks I've been here than I had the past two months.

I learned, for example, that the secteur-tigis actually do things for the community. My only interaction with dugu- and secteur-tigis thus far has been at ceremonial meetings to kick off MHOP projects (like our javelisation campaign) or to get their formal support for our programs, so I had a sense that perhaps the post was more symbolic than anything. Not so, at least not in our secteur. The day after I arrived Ami took me down the road to (re)introduce me to ours, and he was in the middle of organizing a road construction crew. Of course, the toubab got taunted to come help; but she certainly enjoyed laughing at their shocked faces after stealing someone's hammer and driving in a big spike.

I have also had the chance to learn more about traditional family structures and their health care concerns, something I have been hoping to do since I arrived. Ami's story is not unlike that of many women in this community: 44 years old, Ami has given birth to fourteen living children. She has seen twelve of them survive past age nine, and then lost her eldest son to an unknown illness. As I pressed her for more details, Ami simply told me that he went to the clinic and they could find nothing wrong – he died three days later, at age twenty. Her eleven surviving children age from three to twenty-five or twenty-six, three of whom have married and begun to have children of their own.

I met one of these grandchildren the other evening, a tiny boy tied onto the back of his mother in a customary sling. Shocked to learn that he was five years old, I listened quietly as Ami explained that he had recently suffered from a mysterious illness that left him six inches shorter (I didn't believe it until I saw a picture) and unable to walk or lift himself up. Polio? Non. Meningite? Non. Paludisme? Non, non, non. There have been (thankfully) few times so far that my poor french has left me completely bereft of words, but this was certainly one of them. Even English words would fail me.

After detailing her family's history, Ami launched into a confusing tale involving a local witch and the death of a young boy in the neighborhood. Though I may have missed a critical element of the story, I think she was insinuating that her children's deaths were also precipitated by witchcraft of some sort or another. Coming from a woman who has had some formal medical training (she nearly received her nurse's aide diploma, and has been trained as one of our community health workers), this story made me realize how deeply embedded animist beliefs and traditional medicine are in this community.*

For all the perseverance of these practices, Malian culture is still dictated by and large by Islamic traditions. Thus far I have not been privy to many of Islamic rituals, save the prayers that men practice five times a day; my female (and non-muslim) self is not allowed into mosques. By the grace of living with a large and welcoming family,however, during my first few days with Ami I had the honor of witnessing one of the more sacred rites of passage: the baby naming ceremony, or denkonli. While Islam does not have a baptismal ritual per se, the naming ceremony serves to welcome a new child into the community in much the same way that a Christian baptism does.

It wasn't until the eve of the ceremony on his seventh day that I was even aware that the little boy had been born. I was quasi-introduced to his parents (tenants in the compound) when I arrived, but the babe was kept in their dark room until he greeted the world with a proper Muslim name. Pale and tiny, the women joked that he could be my son as easily as one of theirs. I christened him Toubabu, and we laughed. I was told that the baptême would take place the next day. The morning was for the men, who would arrive to offer gifts, prayers and to choose the child's name; the afternoon would be celebrated by the women.

Much to my surprise (though I should have learned by now), morning meant morning: at 6:00 a.m. I awoke to the sounds of gravelly voices and shuffling chairs. They are getting an early start, I thought. By 6:30 a.m. I bolted upright in bed, realizing that the voices had reached a critical mass. There have got to be twenty men in my courtyard! I quickly got dressed (forgoing my paigne-clad morning trip to the nyegen), threw a scarf on my head, and peeked out the door. Twenty men? Try forty, sitting beneath our beautiful big tree and already partway into their first prayer. I tried to slip out my door unnoticed, but I'm not sure I have done anything unnoticed since I first set foot in this country. This time was no different. Thankfully, the men just smiled, the griot gave me a handful of dates and told me to take pictures, dammit! So I did.

Fifteen minutes and a baby naming later, the men filed out the door and the real denkonli began. I was invited into the mother's room where she and the baby had awaited the official seal on his existence on this planet. Baby Adama is here to stay.

In Bambara, denkonli literally means “baby head shave,” and certainly lives up to the name. The grandmother (in this case an adopted one) bathes the baby and then puts a razor blade to his soft little head. After his head was bare, they collected the hair and wrapped it up with the umbilical cord for safekeeping. And if he hadn't been crying already, he was about to – she swiftly gathered his tiny hands and feet as if she were tying a hog, tossing him into the bath. Then she picked him up by each of his limbs and shook him out as if he was a ragdoll, deftly ensuring that each of his joints was properly aligned. Of course she had a practiced hand, but I have to say it was a little frightening nonetheless. I think I am beginning to understand why they say being born in Mali is a dangerous thing.

*Pedro's real name is Amadou (or Mohammed, or Mohammadou, Mamadou, Madou...) but apparently was so nicknamed because he was a hefty child. I, personally, am thankful that he has a unique name, and I am willing to bet he is pretty happy that Pedro stuck rather than “Michelin,” as he was first called.

**The hills of Sourakabougou are widely regarded as some of the most sacred animist sites in the region; I was not surprised to learn that we have a few sorcerers in our midst! Our newest stagiere, Awa Ouattara, is currently conducting a field study on the relationship between traditional and western medicine with a young woman from Portland State University (yay PDX!). Stay tuned for a special post on this fascinating topic in the near future!

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