I Learned My Greatest Life Lesson in Rural Africa
And my teacher was neither well-educated, worldly, nor wealthy
I walk up two mismatched wood boards to enter a shop that’s shaped like a boxcar. Its walls are built from more mismatched boards clothed in corrugated metal. No insulation, no sheetrock; this is rural Africa, after all. Just wood and metal. The roof is constructed of the same material; in a rainstorm, the sound inside would be like a rhythmic pop of fireworks. One entire wall on the longer dimension has been cut open and flips up to form a window, bringing in the light and greeting the street.
The middle of the shop is bisected by a long counter, and behind it, shelves of goods fill every square inch. Bottles, jars, and cans form patches of color to brighten the dark interior. The shop is like a lasagna carefully assembled over many hours by an amateur chef: lovingly crafted and a bit lop-sided.
Behind the counter stands the proprietor, his back to his wares like a pharmacist protecting strong medicines. The only products accessible to the customer are the sodas in the bright red Coke cooler, assuming one of the few sockets in the store. (Another powers one florescent tube light which hangs over the proprietor’s head.) I overlook the sodas on this visit because I’m still scoffing at how they bulge with sugar, but soon, I’ll greet the cooler each week like an old friend. I’ll bike from my small village of Kuncila, which lacks electricity, to this town, Niena, for market day, the thought of an ice-cold orange Fanta propelling me along the last couple of hot, dusty miles.
As I walk to the counter, I make a mental note to pick up a bottle of the rose-scented lotion when I’m back in town, though later in the year, I’ll realize it’s been giving me a rash. I’ll spend the rest of my Peace Corps service rubbing shea butter, made by the women of Kuncila, into my cracked feet instead.
On this day, I come for a bottle of water only.
“I ni ce,” I say to the man behind the counter who has his back turned now, straightening jars of whitening cream. “M be ji belebeleba ta.” Hi. I’ll take a large water.
He neither turns around nor says a word.
I try again, wishing there were a word for please in Bambara, so I append the French. “M be taa Bamako. M be ji min, s’il vous plaît.” I’m going to Bamako. I drink water, please.
I know I sound like a Neanderthal, but after six months in Mali, it’s the best I can do. I’m unfamiliar with the past tense, and the future is fuzzy too. People frequently laugh quietly at me, whether due to my word choice, accent, or both, but I tend to be able to get simple points across. I’m certain that big water translates to ji belebeleba.
I’m a bit anxious as my bus may come any minute, so I’m feeling rushed. My purpose for the visit to Bamako also brings anxiety: I’m to receive more vaccinations.
After a beat, the man turns, looks me in the eye, and holds out his right hand. I take it, and his grip is soft, his fingers laying over my hand like a thin blanket. He moves his left hand to his right forearm as if to strengthen the handshake, lending it weight. We’ll remain like this for several minutes.
He says to me very slowly, his eyes looking purposefully into mine, “I ni ce. I ka kene, wa?” Hello. How are you?
I know immediately I’ve made a huge mistake.
Several months earlier, our group of 29 Americans had landed in the capital city, Bamako.
We disembarked on the tarmac, and the wind on our faces felt like a hairdryer on its highest setting. Later, we would learn that we arrived during “cold” season. We were shuttled in a minibus, three to a seat, to Tubani So, or House of the Dove, which was to be our school for three months. Most members of our group had just graduated from college, though a few were in their 30s, having paused careers to join Peace Corps.
It was 1998; the internet was sparsely populated and wasn’t a destination one visited when trying to learn about a new country. What I knew of Mali upon my arrival I had gleaned from a collection of stories by Peace Corps Volunteers serving in similar countries and a memoir about two men who kayaked the length of the Niger River. I listened to Ali Farka Touré and Salif Keita to absorb the feel of the place, but essentially, I knew almost nothing about the country that would be my home for two years and three months.
I took comfort in our three months of training, depending on it to prepare me for village life.
By day, our group moved from classroom to classroom at Tubani So, learning the Bambara language, discussing history, examining the social and environmental issues plaguing Malians, learning how we might help in our work, and absorbing the ways in which Islam and animist beliefs threaded together. The heat of the African nation forged strong friendships.
By night, we stayed, two by two, with host families, practicing our Bambara, trying Malian foods, and putting into play all we learned about how to eat with our hands, compliment the cook, wash dishes with no running water, take bucket baths, and prepare our mosquito netting for bedtime. Our hosts were patient guides. They also performed a more critical task than supporting us through daily habits: they named us.
During a ceremony, our host families bestowed us with Malian names to help us integrate into society. Surnames were incredibly important in Mali: they not only denoted your ethnic affiliation, but they were used to gel people together, diffuse tension, and sometimes hint at a passed-down skill. Just like Smiths were once blacksmiths, and Coopers once made barrels, Koités were griots or storytellers, historically, and Bagayokos were blacksmiths. With only several dozen surnames in Mali, people identified with them strongly and mentioned them with pride.
I became Mariam Samaké.
I borrowed the first name of my host mother during training and the surname of my host father. Samaké was a solidly Bambara name, and it meant bull elephant. When living in my permanent village for my two-year stay, my community would only know me only as Mariam Samaké. Stephanie Tolk would disappear.
One of the first tasks of our Bambara language training was to learn how to greet properly, and within that greeting, we honored surnames. The Bambara greeting was extensive, and in other parts of Mali, where one might speak Dogon, Fulani, or Tamasheq, the greeting process was also lengthy. In Bambara, it might look something like this; imagine two people meeting:
I ni sogoma! Good morning!
Nse. I ni sogoma. (I acknowledge you.) Good morning.
Here sira? Did you have peace last night?
Here doron. Only peace.
I ka kene, wa? How are you?
Tooro te. No problems.
I bamuso ka kene? How’s your mother?
Tooro t’a la. She has no problems.
I face ka kene? How’s your father?
Tooro t’a la. He has no problems.
I ka mogo bee ka kene? How are all your people?
Basi t’u la. They have no problems.
Ala k’a here chaya. May God/Allah bring peace.
Ala k’a here d’i ma. May God/Allah give you peace.
Ala k’a nyogon ye nogoya. May it be easy to see one another again.
Amina. Ala k’a dubaw mine. Amen. May God/Allah answer the blessings.
I Samake. You are Samake.
Nse. (I acknowlege you)
This is only HALF of the blessing. After this, the person answering begins to ask roughly the same set of questions. In rushed or urgent situations, the blessing process is curtailed, but some version always takes place. The proper questions bring up family members who may not exist — husbands, brothers, children — and even so, the appropriate answer is always “no problem” or some form of “good.”
I immediately judged this process as inane. In English, asking “What’s up?” “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” also yields a fairly generic, “Good,” “Fine,” or “Okay.” I always deemed this as a vapid pleasantry used prior to getting into the meat of an issue, like a polite knock on a door rather than a barge in. Rarely do we answer these questions honestly.
However, like the dutiful student I’d always been, I learned the greeting through gritted teeth.
In the shop, the man awaits my answer.
“Tooro te,” I tell him. He proceeds through the lengthy greeting, holding my hand despite our mingling sweat while maintaining eye contact. It grounds me. I momentarily forget about the bus to Bamako or my need for a bottle of water for the journey. I tell the man that my family has no problems, that the village slept well, that we have peace. I inquire about his family, his wife, his children, and his village. I ask his surname. I wish him peace. He honors me as a Samaké. I honor him as a Diakité.
After the ritual, he lets go of my hand and touches his heart. Then he asks, “I be mun fe?” What would you like?
Minutes later, as I sit on the bench waiting for the bus, the meaning of that interaction bursts into my brain all at once like a zap of electricity. My mistake had been considering the greeting tradition from an American perspective. The customs weren’t at all related.
What happened in that shop was that two people, holding hands and making prolonged eye contact, recognized each other as human beings first and foremost, inextricably linked because of that truth. That fact had to be recognized and honored above all else, above any other relationship like shop owner and customer.
In other situations, I would later come to understand, the greeting can bring rich and poor, police officers and the public, and individuals from traditionally warring ethnic groups on equal footing. The greeting, rather than being vapid, reminds a pair of people of their mutual humanity and maintains peace.
As I sit on the bench pondering what I experienced, I feel grateful for the opportunity to immerse into this rich culture and recognize that travelers who come to Mali for the imposing Dogon cliffs or the sandy streets of Timbuktu likely never learn this lesson. I take it into my heart and keep it there: at the heart of all interactions, we’re all humans on this planet, and any dynamic that set us above or below or distant from one another is merely a construct.
I have quite a bit of time to think through this experience as I hold my ji belebeleba and gaze at the little shop across the street because, as I’ll learn over the coming weeks, Malian buses are never on time.