A month or two ago, Mike, Leona and I decided to spend a Saturday night watching a dance performance put on by several local high schools. I was interested in seeing what a Malian dance recital looks like and happy for an opportunity to take out my eldest (but younger) sister, Batuma, since the event was respectably close to home. Like pretty much everything I have experienced so far, however, I really had no idea what I was in for when we took our seats before the performance began. The room was hardly full, people were milling about.
Being the awkward, entitled toubabs we are, we chose good (comfy) seats in the front of the stage and proceeded to ask each other about every five minutes when the show was going to start. After a painful two hours (!) of atrociously loud music and no dancing, things were starting to buzz and a slew of VIPs waltzed in, stopping in front of our seats and looking at us expectantly. Immediately we realized we were sitting in the "invitee" section and hastily jumped up to give them our spots, only to be waved back down. "No, no," they said, "you must sit here. We will find more seats."
We argued and tried to move, but instead they just asked Batuma to give up her seat and sent her to the back of the room to stand. I was horrified and embarrassed so I tried to go stand with her, but was requested to sit down again and so I slunk back to my choice spot. As the show began, the emcee started collecting money from all the invitees -- a standard Malian practice that includes singing to each invitee and sufficiently shaming them enough to throw money on stage (or raining it over the emcee's head, depending on how baller you are). We started to get uncomfortable because we really did not want to pay money to the emcee considering that we'd paid an entrance fee and that we didn't want to be sitting in their seats in the first place! Then, the man who appeared to be in charge waved me over and so I awkwardly blurted out something about how we didn't know they were the VIP seats, that we weren't sure if we were supposed to pay more money, that (again) we would move if that was the case. Much to my surprise, he said, "Oh no, no that's no problem at all. I'll reimburse you [for your ticket]. You're going to be a judge! " and shoved a paper and pen in my face. Excuse me? A judge?
None of us had realized this was a competition, and yet all of a sudden I am sitting on the judges panel, peering over my neighbor's shoulder to copy down his scoring matrix. I didn't even know the names of the competitors or the order in which they were to perform, let alone criteria to score a Malian dance performance! I was stunned. To make matters infinitely worse, the emcee then grabbed the mike and introduced the first round of competition -- POETRY!
Oh dear God.
Full disclosure everyone: I don't speak French that well. I can get by in most situations, but to understand mumbled poetry over a poor sound-system in a room full of teenagers who would much rather be watching their dance teams perform is waaaaaaaaaaaay above my pay-grade. In fact, I could't even be sure it was in French! Frantically, I peeked over my neighbor's shoulder again to see what I should put down for a score...10?.. 5?.. 2? ...I honestly had no idea. I couldn't see his sheet, so I decided to give 7s and 9s depending on the loudness of their voices and prayed to God that we weren't going to have to share our scores publicly. We didn't, thankfully, because after all the performances were over the judges huddled and everyone strongly agreed that the poesie was shit so they weren't even going to choose a winner; the kids got lectured instead. I, of course, agreed as vehemently as the others, quickly hiding my scores.
The dance portion of the evening was a little less stressful seeing as it didn't require a monumental amound of effort to understand what was going on. Each high school was represented by a dance team, ten to twelve girls and often a few boys, and I was required to give them a score from 1 to 20. What the scoring was to be based on remained unclear, as all the dances looked pretty much the same to me. After the performances, we shared numbers and chose the winners, and I was relieved to find out that I was in the right ballpark. I had managed to fool everyone into thinking I was totally competent.Finally, it was over and no one had found me out! As I made a move to sit down, the head man called me back up in front of the crowd of three hundred kids so that I could award the first place prize. Thankfully it was the high school from my cartier, so at least I knew how to pronounce the name. Oh oh, so awkward!
And why me?? The theme of the night seemed to be "honors that Alex would like to turn down but does not know how."
After this uncomfortable evening, and many other similar events, I have decided that buying a plane ticket to Bamako has bought me credentials I never even knew I'd want or need. To be completely frank, I am hardly qualified to be coordinating a pilot program for a community in Mali, let alone to be judging incomprehensible poetry and traditional dance performances! Of course, the stakes for the high school competition were limited to a small prize and my pride. With MHOP, however, the stakes are inconceivable. I can't think about the potential impact of this program (be it a success or a failure) without feeling my stomach turn. In fact, when I first agreed to join the team here, I immediately wanted to take it back. And now that I am here, with the pilot slowly taking shape and making splashes in the Malian government, the implications of my work are stretching far beyond what I had imagined on that day. I was terrified -- and still am -- that I'm not cut out for this work, that I'm just an imposter, a poser with nothing but a bachelor's degree and some good connections. I mean, seriously, who would put me in charge of an actual pilot program? And why in the world would a national Ministry of Health take me even the least bit seriously? Should I be honored? Then why do I want to run and hide?
Mali is a humbling place. I suppose that is an odd thing to say considering that I am constantly singled out, celebrated, given the time of day, simply because I am educated (and perhaps more so) because I am white. Of course, that may be cynical and completely off-base. Its hard not to feel that way, however, when every day someone draws attention to the color of my skin, the fact that I am oh so out of place. My whiteness makes little children cry (no joke) and young men propose at the drop of a hat. My whiteness is power in a place where many feel powerless. It is the power to get you a visa, to send your kid to school, to find you a job.
With all of the privilege that comes with my position here, then, why should I claim to feel humbled? After that night pretending to understand what the hell was going on during the dance competitions, and many subsequent conversations with my co-workers, I think I've figured it out.
Mali is humbling for three reasons.
First of all, I've worked hard for a very long time to build a resumé justifying my year working for a public health NGO, and yet, no one here even questions it. Characteristics completely out of my control (i.e. my color and my relative wealth) seem to automatically give me a Pass Go card. I have access to places, meetings, and partnerships that would be much harder to get in the States because there I blend in, I have to compete. Secondly, Mali is humbling because despite how much I stick out, many people in my community are still unable to distinguish between me and all the other white females they've ever known. I'm celebrated but reduced.
Most of all, however, Mali is humbling because even I -- with my limited expertise -- can have an impact as long as I am willing to jump in and play along. I can judge a dance performance, and I can direct a mobile medical records pilot, if only because I have been asked to and people seem to answer my questions when I ask them in turn. It is humbling because many many many people could do this work (most better than I), and yet I am here muddling along, doing my best because there is no one else to do it. Working with FrontlineSMS:Medic, with MHOP, and now with the government of Mali, has apparently never been about me and my qualifications but about the incredible need for these projects to happen with or without my help.
There. My current definition of humility: to be less committed to your sense of self and how that defines what you can or cannot do, and more committed to doing what needs to be done.
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