In the 1980s black people became African Americans, but I don’t think we really knew much about the place. Just where were we talking about when we said Africa? And how did we really feel about being products of it? Was there even anything left in us that was truly African besides genetics? The Irish had their saints and struggles; Italians their Renaissance and Mafia; Greeks and Poles kept their food; Koreans and Chinese kept their languages. But we weren’t like other hyphenated Americans because we didn’t actually know where we were from, not really. Africa is a big place! The “Africa” part of African American I suspected at first mostly existed in the imagination.
Imaginary Africa has a tough job on its hands. After hundreds of years of being treated as inferior, every black person can’t help but hope that the Motherland will provide a source of pride, history, or at the very least a few food items to make you feel like you’re part of a people who did things besides being slaves. That’s the hope for Imaginary Africa. It’s hard to reconcile that with Actual Africa, though. Ever since the We Are The World music video, negative images of Africa dominate the idea most Americans have of the contitent, black Americans included. Imaginary Africa was a place of proud kings and warriors and Afrocentric purity. Actual Africa as most of us knew it was all about war, famine, disease, brutality, lawelessness, heat. We African Americans, back when we were just black, had done a lot of work in the 60s and 70s on de-colonizing the mind with Franz Fanon and being Black & Proud with James Brown. Who wanted to then turn around and join a team with a losing streak?
But eventually, every African American has to come to grips one way or another with the first part of that term; though most are not as fortunate as I am and able to take a trip there to do it. So I packed up my privileged self and set off to Mali for my first encounter with the Motherland.
It felt like an exam I had been putting off for a long time; and so Mali was the trip I prepared for the most. I had visas, various immunization shots, expensive malaria pills, bug nets, spare food, three different types of wet naps, mesh sneakers, a new working proficiency in French, cash in various currencies. Everything I had been carting around in my backpack and for a while on my bike was geared toward making Africa as easy as possible. I was even hooking back up with my friend Cody, who had just spent three months volunteering and traveling in Central/East Africa and would be an old pro at traveling Africa by this time.
For Mali we opted for the first time to do an actual fancy person tour. We were going to have a driver, a tour guide, an air conditioned 4×4, and stay in hotels. I took Royal Air Marok down to Bamako, a city in a country my bank officers at Charles Schwab had never even heard of. Having always existed as a minority, I was finally going to get a taste of what it felt like to look like everyone else.
On the plane I got my first taste. It was the first time in my life that I had been on a plane where everyone was black. This was scarier than being on the plane were everyone was Indian; but less scary than being on the plane where everyone was Arab. I looked around at the faces and thought to myself: my God these people are beautiful, well made, and very dark. I looked at every face expectantly, with a vague hope that I would see something of myself. Someone who maybe looked like my Uncle Manny or something like that. But the people looked just as tantalizing foreign as the French, Indians and Thais had.
We arrived at immigration in the middle of the night; it was humid and dark. Nothing to see so far. We get into the gate and it was small, smaller than the airport at Madison, Wisconsin. I showed my printed up temporary visa d’entree that the tour guide had arranged. It wasn’t gonna work; they sent me to the visa office. I didn’t see my ride and I started to get scared. If my ride didn’t show up, I didn’t know what I would do here in the middle of the night in an African airport. I was far out of my comfort zone.
Luckily, I quickly found Cody and Hamma, our guide’s man on the street, and we went about negotiating our way into the country. We spoke to the smartly dressed lady at the immigration office. She said that since it was Saturday there was no one in the town immigration office to give us an official extension on our temporary visas, but for double the normal price and as a favor to us she would give us the visa extension right there. My first African bribe! She was so laid back and good natured about it that I was ready to pay. But then Hamma called Aly and passed the phone to the lady. In a flurry of French and Bambara something was worked out and we left the airport without having to pay anything else.
We proceeded directly to a night club, as it was only 2AM. Local guitar legend Baba Salah was playing. On the dark ride you couldn’t see much of Bamako because there weren’t any street lights. It looked like one floor tin roofed huts and storefronts as far as the eye could see. We parked into an alley and entered one of the huts. Inside it was dark, sweaty and alive. All the peeps were out in thier club finest: a mix of African, westerner, and wedding dress attire. The dance floor was packed and few were drinking anything other than soda. We pressed our way into the middle and danced and watched. The men danced with an elegant, rhythmic swaying and the women shook a little more hip, but there wasn’t any grinding. They seemed to find a rhythm in the syncopated pulse that I couldn’t even clap to, le alone move with.
But the music was infectious and you soon forgot about that. Our local guy Hama warned us, though. Be careful, he said. The next song Baba plays makes the people go crazy. Okay, we nodded along, indulgently. Then Baba broke into a grove that was positively evil; dark, grimy and sexy. It was hipnotic. Suddenly a woman in the front of the dancefloor fell to the groound, convulsing. There was a commotion, people all around her leaning in swaying over to have a look, pulsing in and out as we alternately leaned forward to see what was going down and then leaned back to avoid getting trampled. Africa was a dangerous place: was this a medical emergency we were witnessing? What was going on? With no frame of reference, we kept dancing, mouths gaping. Baba played on, impassively, with the woman still convulsing at his feet. Hama explained to us that this song makes demons come out of women in particular. It was much safer for Baba to play to the end of this song at this point than to stop. Ooookay.
We reached the end of the song. I got a soda pop that was more sugar than water. Happy patrons came up to the stage to stick CFA notes on Baba’s head as tips. His expression never changed. Soon we saw the woman who had fallen, back on the dance floor as if nothing had happened. We danced until we couldn’t take it anymore and left with the party still in swing.
First night in Mali, back and forth between sick fascinated voyeurism and on the ground intimacy. It stayed like that the whole trip. In Mali we saw many things were you wanted to look away but were unable to; and other situations were you got charmed into being a part of it.
The first full day in Bamako we decided to walk out for some lunch and didn’t get very far. We were introduced first hand to the fury of nature here and how unforgiving it is, even if you have money. You can’t protect yourself. We were walking over the bridge over the Niger river, a very wide river, admiring the view. It was rainy season and we were emotionally prepared for that. Storm clouds, plump and delicious looking, were coming in from the right. We felt certain we had the time to make it over the bridge. As we shared a narrow pedestrian walk way with motocycles and bikes, ten minutes later the deluge was upon us. Fierce biting rain like hail whipped at us as we ran for some shelter. The closest option was a highway overpass. We huddled in with about 200 other drenched and bedraggled Maliennes, trying to wait it out. Surely it would be like summer storm and pass in five minutes? It lasted and lasted, with fresh boughts of wind whipping us, making the collective hiss and groan. There was no possibility of getting one of the taxis to stop for us; they weren’t stopping for anyone. We just had to stand there, shiver and wait like everyone else. Later we would wade through overflowing streets and backing up sewers for a few feet because there was no other way to cross the street.
Mali lacks infrastructure and you can’t by municipal services with tourist dollars, they either are there or they aren’t. And no kind of fancy rain gear would have protected agains the gale force of the clouds wiping down the Niger. We were reduced in material circumstances, for one hour at least, to the circumstances of locals, wandering around wet and wondering if any cafe would be open and kind enough to let two dirty, wet patrons in to warm up with some Nestcafe.
The next night in Bamako we wandered the dark streets in the fashionable area in our best going out clothes. There were not many street signs and not many street lights. The people we asked for help where unfamiliar with the official names of the streets. We were lost and many of the places in our guidebook were closed. We could not find the party. Resigned, we cabbed it back to the hotel. There, we ran into some young white female aid workers (the naive lifeblood of the African aid industry) who had friends in town and who knew where to go. They proved to be good company, smart and wry and with some perspective on thier place in the whole thing, and with good French. They took us to a place that was night and day to the dark, hopeless streets we had been wandering in. A cute inner courtyard where they served wine and beer, and had an okay toilet and lights and a clean feel. The expats were out in full force. And who was playing that night except the one and only Baba Salah! But this time it was a very different show. He was subdued, the powerful music of the night before put away and playing here instead was its pale cousin; suitable background music to expat conversations. No one danced. Many drank. Not many locals. It was still a fun night, but it was sanitized for Western consumption. Mali could show a different face if it wanted to.
The next day we drove to Djemne. Djenne is a World Heritage Site and its mosque is the world’s largest mud structure. The soft curved lines of the mosque and the whole town are made with mud bricks surfaced over with mud. This is a terribly impermanent building material and every year the whole mosque and many of the buildings in town have to be rebuilt in a huge community wide service project. Everyone pitches in, bringing mud to the masons. It seems Sisyphean to me, especially since the residents aren’t allowed to make modern improvements to their homes like electricity and plumbing for fear of loosing the World Heritage designation that brings in all their tourist dollars.
Our local guide introduced us to the concept of Sweet Islam. Mali is a very religious nation, he explained, and Djenne is a holy town of worship and study, but Islam in Mali is not like it is in the Middle East. Islam here, he explained, was sweet. Not too many rules, not too strict. Then he told a story of Djenne in the Middle Ages. At one point for two hundred years Koranic teachers from the trading desert class of Tourags came to rule Djenne and imposed strict rules on the women. Here as in many parts of west Africa, women are the ones who sell the goods in market and manage the family money; thus they have a great deal of autonomy and freedom. But during this particular period, the rulers said the Koran forbade high class women from engaging in activities out of the house, and also decreed that all women needed to be covered. Our guide said that many women lived almost as prisoners during that time. Since none of the local population could read the Koran, they believed what they were told. But then a new spiritual leader came to town from Timbuktu to question this. He could in fact read the Koran in the original Aramaic. He asked the town leaders to show him in the Koran where it said women had to stay in the house and be covered. They could not. The town was so incensed (and also at the fact that the mosque was being used for Friday dancing) that they destroyed the mosque. Well, actually, they were too superstitious to do it directly; instead, they stopped cleaning the storm gutters of the mosque and allowed it to wash away that year, the roof collapsing under the weight of the rainy season water. From that point forward, women in Djenne did not cover themselves.
We also passed by a Koranic school. There were many in this town town. This one was little more than a hut, with dirty, cheerful, underfed looking boys of all ages clutching little woodden tablets. In Koranic school the object is to memorize the whole Koran, written in Arameic. On each tablet, the teacher would write in ink the verse the student was to master that day or week. When it was committed to memory, the tablet would be washed and the process would start over. In this painstaking way, several hours a day before or in place of regular school, Maliennes would learn thier faith. Our guides and many of the people we later met had attened Koranic school. In a life with few luxuries, this extra schooling every day was not considered one of them.
Next we drove eight hours out into the Sahel to reach Dogon Country, the famous cliff villages on the other side of the massive central plateau that bisects Mali. The sky here was so big. Just ten minutes out of town its like there is no town or city anywhere, no trace of the red dusty plastic strewn streets, just green shrub, lean looking cows grazing, trees, fluffy white clouds, baobab trees.
Dogon was the most beautiful place I had ever been to in my life. The car dropped us off a few hundred meters from the edge of the cliff and we decended down a surface that looked like the face of the moon, into a heartbreakingly beautiful valley. Love the colors of this continent. Deep inky blues, bright almost neon greens, burnt oranges, dusty beige. From a distance all was pastoral purity. Fields stretching off as far a sea horizon might, just open space below the sheer drop of the plateau cliffs, impossible to capture on camera. This place is at the edge of the world. You cannot describe how vast the view is, with very little man made either in sight or anywhere near coming into sight. We drove for six hours to get all the way out here, through emptiness: shrub and dry grass, tiny subsistence plots of millet, occasionally a village the size of a postage stamp. Now, at the edge of the plateau looking down into the first Dogon village, we are at the end of the world. Literally there is nothing more left of the human world, just the flat uninhabited plains for miles and miles and miles. But you could still get cell phone reception.
We toured the little villages, sleeping in encampments with squat toilets and cold water showers, on roofs under the stars. More garbage at the ground level view, but still quite beautiful. We woke up and went to sleep to the sung call to prayer echoing off the cliffs and the sounds of the sheeps and goats getting it on.
I was struck by how hard the women work. You read about it, but the emotional impact when you see it is intense. The procession of women carrying heavy baskets balanced perfectly on their heads, up hillsides and scaling the rocky cliff passes, often with children tied to their backs and no shoes, coming to and from market. I even saw one woman do it while simultaneously breastfeeding. No wonder the men don’t want the job. And pounding the millet into floor. Aly our guide got me to try it out. I could barely lift the heavy stick to pound into the mortar. What about a hand cranked millet machine to make everyone’s life easier? Why couldn’t some aid organization donate those?
Dogon life was very simple but it made relatively luxurious concessions to tourists. The locals had no electricity and no running water, but showers were rigged up for the tourists. There was no famous mask dancing going on unless by appointment, but plenty of masks on display for purchase. We eat local sauce for every meal, but instead of millet we get couscous. We sleep on a roof with a bug net, on a thin dirty mattress with a thin dirty blanket. At night, there are stars in between the stars that are in between the stars, it’s so clear.
The vibe is happy and laughy in Dogon. The way people greeted each other was amazing. The Dogon version goes like this. Someone asks you how you are. You say well. Then they ask about your wife. You say she’s well. Your kids. Well. Your parents. Well. Your livestock. Well. Your neighbors. Well. Then you may start at the beginning of the routine and ask them the same. It all goes down like a call and response song, and it takes forever and is very charming. You could also do the French version. It is basically the same. It goes? It goes. It goes well? It goes very well. And your mom? She’s well. And your wife? She’s well; and you? And so on and so on.
The children here are beautiful, bedraggled & dirty, friendly and numerous.Such long curly eyelashes, perfect dark skin and wide slanty eyes. Dirty children with red dust covered hair and Obama tee shirts, no pants, run out to great you and touch you and hold your hand. They like to give high fives and say bonjour ca va bon bon? Saying hello and asking for candy in one breath. They have use for the plastic bottles so after you are done you can give those away too. The children play in big groups of ten or twenty, without adult supervision. They seem to outnumber the adults three to one.
That night the children do a show for the tourists. It’s one they have come up with on their own, no adults seem at all connected to the performance. They dance around in a circle and then stop to enact little skits. Aly explains what is going on. The first one is about a man being robbed. He goes to call the police and then they come and take his money back from the man who robbed him. But then he has to argue with the police officer to get his money back, and the police officer keeps some of it! The second skit has a young girl screaming at a young boy, arguing with him and occasionally hitting him. The plot is this: the man is the old medicine man of the village. He is peddling his wares, and the woman is loudly accusing him of being a charlatan and a liar, and asking to see the proof of his cures. From the mouths of babes.
Mopti & Segou
Next we went to the fishing village of Mopti, a small city of about sixty thousand. It was low rise and burnt out like much of urban Mali that we saw, cheerless concrete structures that looked like they had been built once in the 1950s and not a wit of care had gone into them since. Mildew on thier ancient pastel paint jobs, plastic garbage everywhere and herd animals crowding the streets. Open sewers. And the Niger, a kilometer wide swath through it all, with scores of low little thin boats piled as high as African buses on its shores. The boats rode so low on the water that you questioned why they didn’t sink. Probably many of them did.
We toured the docks, dirty and crowded with activity. People selling slabs of salt, smelding iron spikes for the boat construction, carving wood to make fishing boats one at a time. You got the sense that things had been done this way here for a long time. People were making a boat by hand that surely could have been bought for less than the price of a low end laptop computer. Kids working too, making charcaol. And fish coming in, big piles of the smelly raw stuff out in the open.
Segou was similar, except we also took a boat ride over to the other side to see a true fishing village. It was as poor and basic as a Dogon village, but without all that open country side to relieve the oppressiveness of it all. Nobody was laughing or giving us high fives here. As we walked through the backyards of what must be people’s homes, I fought to keep the shock and sadness off of my face.
After all that land I saw, and all the young people, why was it that this country was so damn poor? No really? I want to know, I can’t understand it. If I was here by myself I might have felt something different, but at that moment I was embarrassed. It was hard to look at all those black people doing so poorly. Yet I know all of Africa is not like this. Mali is one of its poorest countries.
I decided I need more facts and started reading Cody’s huge book, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. It’s written by British journalist Richard Dowden. This man has covered almost forty years of current events in Africa and is deeply sympathetic and loyal to the continent. His telling of the stories is fifty percent sociological, fifty percent anecdotal.
Reading this here proved overwhelming. There were a couple of main themes that I couldn’t tell if I was seeing for real or just pretending to see because I had read about them in the book.
Basically it broke down like this: due to the way colonial lines were drawn across natural geographic and ethnic boundaries, the impoverishment of local social structures from natural disaster and economic exploitation by Europe (including but not limited to slavery and Cold War related manipulations), and the natural passive/superstitious deference Africans have to those Big Men in power; well functioning western style nation states that provide predictable public services to people were unable to develop here. Instead, a rotating cast of horrible Big Men used the state apparatus to enrich themselves and thier cronies.
As a result, infrastructure lays in ruins, wealth through natural resources continue to flow out of the continent with no benefit to the average person, fierce tribal warfare occurs with severe brutality over resources, political instability is ever present under the surface and local economies for regular people’s welfares cannot develop. Aid only exacerbates the problems as it further removes any incentive for Big Men rulers to develop the apparatus of the state as a means to protect and grow their own countries; and sometimes even feeds thier armies.
After a brief spate of development in the 1950s post colonial liberation, most African countries have actually gotten poorer and in many areas you find the jarring reality of remnants of the 1970s Soviet or capitalist financed projects alongside Iron Age style living; goat herding, millet pounding, cell phones. This creates an especially ugly form of poverty where modern garbage like plastic is everywhere and modern conveniences like hot running water are largely absent. Half formed cement multistory buildings lay abandoned, partially painted, going back to seed. Even million dollar houses sit next to garbage dumps with goats eating out of them. There is very little middle class. India is lurching forward in a crazy, half late, half retarded, ramshackled way. You fear what the world will be like with India soon to be in charge. But in Mali it seemed things weren’t moving at all, or were even headed slowly backward. These people never have been and never would be contenders for power.
Add to that the AIDS crisis with its 25 million HIV positive people in Sub-Saharan African and with some countries having infection rates as high as 20 percent; and it becomes hard to see Africa as anything other than hot, dirty, young and hopeless. It’s hard not to also see some strains of pure evil in there as well; Sierra Leone’s murdering, raping child soldiers finances with blood diamonds; Rwanda’s genocide; Somalian warlords; Angola’s civil war. While the West seems content to take the last part of wild Earth and drain its life and biodiversity dry to finance petrol-soaked lifestyles of plastic and consumerism in its glittery cities, nobody gives a fuck about what happens to the actual people of Africa sitting on top of those natural resources – least of all the powerful Africans themselves. Certainly not the sort of thing you make floats about when you do your ethnic heritage parade; not much gold to gilt the African American image with here.
I thought I had inoculated myself pretty well against identity disappointment, however. I couldn’t be so naive as to be making this into some sort of false homecoming, could I? But I couldn’t help it as I strained simultaneously to recognize and to not recognize myself here. In India, I could safely be annoyed and expasperated by Indians and feel proud of myself for eventaully coming to feel a little like one of them. How big of me. But here in Africa, looking into black faces, one takes it all a bit personally. It was like when your alcoholic uncle gets drunk again and falls down at a family party. Everyone says you look just like him and that makes you wonder about yourself.
At the same time, a few things stand out about Mali that are amazing. Things I didn’t encounter in Asia or France and that I hope do also take some form in African American culture. First of all, people see you here. They look in your eye, they greet you, they walk right up to you, they shake your hand, they ask about you and your family, they smile at you, and they offer you something; and all of this goes down long before they start to hustle you to buy something. In India, people would just stare at me, expressionless. Here, they may laugh at you and call you Toubab (yes, even if you are black this can happen), but it lacks hostility.
People are polite. They line up properly in lines, they don’t all mob the counter at once. You don’t get pushed out of the way as often. They talk slowly. When they give you directions, they are specific and accurate; not just “go straight”. There are social skills here and an easygoing positive fatalism, just a frank niceness that was not widely present in France where you have that pessimistic, argumentative no-can-do fatalism. There seems to be a lot of harmless flirtation on all levels. I found myself staring at people the way I used to get stared at in India. But they just smiled back.
It’s hard to reconcile this soft friendliness with the nightmares listed earlier. It’s not the poverty here that makes people so pleasant; it’s part of the ethos. It makes you wonder how African Americans ever got viewed to be so dangerous and hostile at home. African rap videos have bouncy music and sometimes groups of children dancing in a cameo and titles like “Oh La La”. African American rap videos have lots of unsmiling thugs and thier unsmiling women, perched on top of sports cars with lyrics trumpting how much they love money and how they don’t care about anyone. I kinda think that mean-spiritedness has alot more to do with being American than any sort of residual African heritage. Southern people, white and black, are renouned for thier friendliness; maybe some African ethos found a way to live on there.
Also there is the music. Great gobbling tons of music, everywhere. We always had music playing. Aly hooked us up with a huge dump, four gigs of Ali Farko Toure, Amadou & Miriam, Oumou Sangare. The delicate way the men dance with thier arms out, just barely moving thier shoulders in this small shimmy to the beat. The twelve stringed lute instrument. The talking drum where you can change the pitch seperately from the rhythm. The simple gord played with the impact of the ring on your finger. Impromptu singing while working. The music makes it seem like people here are happy.
Our guide was an interesting dude. Little by little it came out that he was highly educated, from a rich family in Timbuktu and had many businesses himself. He was a dapper guy with a shart outfit change for evening dinner. Yet he was also somehow unschooled in Western ways. He showed us around very poor places with not a hint of emotion, all professional solicitious concern for the time we were having. He held my hand to help me up rocks.
Aly was an enigma to me. Tall, handsome, impeccably groomed, soft spoken; he had the air of a diplomat’s son. His spoken English was very good, and every town we went to he seemed to speak the local language and was greeted by many friends. He never showed annoyance and patiently used down time to explain to us many contextual facts about Mali culture and history. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of himself and what he thought of us, riding around in this air conditioned 4×4 through some of the worlds poorest villages. I was here to feel and see these things yet I had chosen a protected, less immediate route – I wanted to experience Africa, but not too closely. And Aly was paid to make to possible for me to seperate myself. With the money he earned, he could then also seperate himself. But did he feel any conflicts or qualms about making money from people essentially entertaining themselves with his country’s poverty?
I didn’t have the guts to ask. The most I would do was tease him on some of the very hot days in Dogon, where we sat around for hours at lunch waiting for the heat to die down and continue our walking. “Is it hot today?” I would ask. Invariably he would respond “Not hot yet.” He seemed to not sweat. Finally one day after lunch, we were so hot we couldn’t move. We all lay back on these amazing Malienne chairs that are so reclined and so low to the ground that you can basically just collapse on them and never have to, want to or be able to get up again. I turned my head to Aly. “Is it hot yet?” I asked. “Yes, today is very hot.” I laughed at him, thankful I wasn’t a total wimp and even locals were feeling this heat, happy to crack Aly’s cool demeanor for a moment.
Last night, back in Bamako. Aly takes us to the casino which is full on this Ramadan evening, with even a few Chinese blackjack players; and then to the nicest club in town. The nicests club is full of Eurotrash dance music, terrible glasses of wine, hoed out local women dancing with themselves in the mirror and a bowling alley. We sip our drinks, dance as a trio, and play a little machine basketball.
The next day Aly takes us to visit his sister in Bamako for lunch. From his demeanor and description of his father as a rich man and his side business of a small hotel, I expect a rich (for Mali) suburban home. But Aly’s sister lives as simply as anyone else in a one floor small concrete structure like any in Bamako. We have a great lunch and the kids flirt with us. We show Aly a few things to help his business online and on Facebook.
Perspective, Part II
This was a very sheltered trip and yet it was hard to be here. I am tired emotionally from just glimpsing what it’s like in Africa for regular people. It’s harder to build up that wall or say like you can in India “things are improving”. They may very well not be.
I can’t say what I learned about “Africa”, but I learned alot about Mali. I feel empathy for it and I will buy its artists albums and follow its news, route for it and its football team. I can locate it on the map now too, which is more than the people at Charles Schwab can say.
As for locating myself on the African map, that’s going to be bit more complex.