Saturday, October 23, 2010

The People I've Met

Since I’ve been in Mali, I’ve met a lot of different people. Since I greet just about everybody I pass by in the street, I meet some interesting people and some that are not so interesting. Some just ask me for money, some pass by me just after greeting, and others are genuinely interested in why I’m in Mali, what I plan to do, and where I come from. Daily, I pass by store owners, butchers, street food vendors, tailorers, taxi drivers, bums, imams, bread sellers, the entire market, students, many people who have jobs I don’t recognize, many others that I question whether or not they actually have a job, and quite a few that actually tell me they don't have a job.
One of the more memorable people I’ve met in Mohammed Mahoud Haidara. The last name Haidara implies that he is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. He lives across the street from my concession and has a store connected to his own concession. We chat often and I’d say I hang out more with him and his son than anybody else. Knowing him has led to more than I would have realized before. He had told me many times that Boue Haidara was a Sherif (I hope I spelled it properly). This means that he is an Islamic leader. It turns out that he is the most prominent Islamic leader in all of Mali, Mauritania, and essentially all the countries around Mali. One day I was having a bad day and I spent almost all day in the house. I came out to hang out a bit and Mr. Haidara flags down a car. He introduces me to this guy named Cheik Haidara, a direct son of the Sherif, and tells me that he spent time in the States. After talking about where I was from, I find out that he’s a wolverine and did both his bachelor’s and his master’s degree at the UofM. He spent 15 years in the States and is currently working in Bamako. The only reason he was in Nioro was to visit his father, or his “old man” as he liked to put it. So for the next week we’d hang out for a few hours at night. I took the opportunity of knowing somebody who spoke English to propose going to meet the Sherif himself. I put on the duloki-ba (literally large shirt, but it’s the robe that the Moors wear) that the Hairdaras gave me and met one of the most influential religious leader in Mali. I essentially just told him who I was, what I was doing and that I had come just to greet him and tell him that I was there. He seemed very happy with that and told me that I was now under his protection and that if I had any questions or any problems, to come talk to him and he would help me out. I expected him to give off a presence or an aura, but he felt like a regular 75 year old man. He was very calm and reserved and very tolerant. It seemed that he would legitimately answer any questions with understanding and never get offended. But it was the people around him that were taking in every word he said, that had this constant awe when around him, and could not wait to have the honor of speaking to him that demonstrated the respect and influence he carried. I had never been in front of a religious leader and was very nervous because I didn’t want to make any cultural mistakes and really didn’t know what to ask although I was assured many times that he wouldn’t get offended and would be more than willing to ask anything I wanted.

I’ve met a guy that only speaks to me in Spanish. He claims to have been to Spain and lists off the cities where he was, but everybody says he’s crazy. The weird thing is that I’ve been focusing so much on Bambara that even though I understand everything he is saying, I can’t think of words or respond in Spanish (rather embarrassing). Another guy I’ve met that everybody says is crazy is this guy who thinks he’s a king. He comes to the store across the street every afternoon and hangs out with Mr. Haidara. While there he likes to mumble to himself, often talking about how all the vendors at the market stole everything from him and that they refuse to compensate him for their wrongdoing.
I have met Fulani, Bambara, Moors, people from Mauritania, Ghanaians, people from the Ivory Coast, Senegalese, people from Burkina Faso, a Frenchman, a Belgian, people from every region of Mali, a Prime Minister, the U.S. Ambassador to Mali at swear-in, and lots and lots of kids.

Working with the CAP, I’ve met a lot of mayors and even more school directors. Every year the Prime Minister of Mali goes to a different city to make a big show of starting the school year. This year he chose Nioro. Although we didn’t get to have a prolonged conversation, I did get to meet and shake the Prime Minister’s hand, which was pretty cool and he seemed genuinely pleased that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.

One time, during my first week or two at site, two girls came to my concession and told me that there was someone planning on breaking in to my house to steal my tv. I responded by telling them I didn’t have a tv and why would be want to rob me? They didn’t really have an answer and my Bambara wasn’t good enough so they just repeated that he said he was going to break in. So I asked them what his name was and where he lived. Then I asked if they could take me to his house. Once I got to his concession I walked in and greeted everybody and we just started chatting. We talked for the next 3 hours and then he walked me back to my house and said that we were good friends and had to talk again. For the next week or two I made a point of stopping by his house every once in a while to chat and brought him tea once. My original plan had been to confront him and ask him why he wanted to rob me, but he never brought it up and I realized that there wasn’t really a point so I left it alone. But just by going over and meeting this guy I was able to diffuse a situation that could have led to a lot of frustration, a really scary night, and possible later isolation in the community depending on my reaction and how easy it was for him to break in.

The social culture here essentially forces me to greet many people every day. For the most part it’s integration and just trying to get to know the community, but every once in a while, someone says something or is part of an organization that I will work with in the future, or that I understand is necessary to my safety in a foreign community. When I tell the people here that we don’t greet strangers in the states just in passing, they always comment on how lonely it is. We always seem to be running around in the States so it’s hard, but you never know who you’ll meet just by saying hi.

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