Our guest this week is Edith Maxwell, the author of SPEAKING OF MURDER (Barking Rain Press, under the pseudonym, Tace Baker) featuring Quaker linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau. Edith holds a PhD in linguistics and is a member of Amesbury Monthly Meeting of Friends. She also writes the Local Foods Mysteries. A TINE TO LIVE, A TINE TO DIE introduces organic farmer Cam Flaherty and a colorful Locavore Club (Kensington Publishing, June, 2013). A mother and technical writer, Edith lives north of Boston with her beau and three cats. Find her at http://www.facebook.com/EdithMaxwellAuthor, @edithmaxwell, and www.edithmaxwell.com. Tace Baker can be found at www.tacebaker.com, @tacebaker, and http://www.facebook.com/TaceBaker.
Mali. Home of the legendary Timbuktu, tall and gracious people, searing heat, the Niger River.
Bamako. A city of red dirt, crumbling colonial buildings next to Chinese-built skyscrapers, a winding and mysterious Grand Marche, open sewers, batiked damask cloth in gorgeous colors.
|Edith and her boys|
I spent a year in Mali twenty years ago with my (now-ex) husband and two small sons during my husband’s sabbatical from Boston University. We found a Belgian preschool for John David, age 2 ½ when we got there, and a French kindergarten for Allan, age 5. By the end of the year they were both fluent in French. We all picked up some Bambara, too, the first language of many Malians.
What did I do there? It was at a time in my life when I was home with my children and studying to be an independent childbirth educator. I worked on my course, taught a class to two American couples, and helped my children through culture shock. We, as most ex-pats do, hired someone to cook and clean for us. Doumbia, a wonderful local man, coaxed amazing meals out of the ancient Russian stove and washed our clothes by hand. He kept the red dust off the floors and entertained John David after his carpool dropped him off. If I had a year off at home in the United States, I’d be cleaning out closets, maybe picking up the cello again, organizing my life. But in Bamako I didn’t have those options and hadn’t yet realized I was a fiction writer.
I felt self-conscious walking our neighborhood streets. It helped immensely when I began exchanging greetings in Bambara with people who were staring at me. Ritual greetings are very important. You never just walk by and say the equivalent of, “How ya doin’?” I’ll let the book show you. My protagonist in Speaking of Murder, Professor Lauren, who served in the Peace Corps in Mali, has just ordered a meal at a Malian restaurant she discovered:
A plate laden with steaming chicken, onions, and rice arrived in front of me. I inhaled the scent of lemon and oil and thanked the proprietress. “Iniché!”
“Ntse! I ka kene wa?” The woman laughed heartily, grabbed my hand, introduced herself as Fatoumata Kone, and started the round of ritual Bambara greetings. They bounced back and forth between us until we had inquired about how the other had passed the night, how the other’s parents were, and so on, ending with a salutation of “Herebe.” Peace among us. Followed by “Here doron.” Peace only.
We all got sick a lot. In my first month there I was quite ill with an amoeba and then from the medicine. The boys came down with the local strain of chicken pox and had silver-dollar sized blisters on their backs. In January, the month John David turned three, he contracted both giardia and malaria despite the fact that we boiled and filtered our water at home. Luckily he was a sturdy boy and recovered well from both.
When the dry season hit in what in New England we call wintertime, the temperatures soared well over 100 every day. I learned to wear loose cotton clothing—the local garb of wide caftans is perfect for that climate—and walk slowly. The Harmattan winds came down off the Sahara. They blew fine red dust into all our closets and sucked the moisture out of our skin.
I was grateful to be able to travel out of town alone in the spring for a few days to visit a group of traditional midwives a full day’s journey from Bamako and hear their stories of childbirth. One of the midwives even urged me to adopt her tiny granddaughter. The baby’s mother, the midwife's daughter, had died in childbirth. I seriously considered the offer until I asked about the adoption process at the U.S. Embassy on my return to Bamako and decided, despite longing for a daughter, that it was way too complicated for our family.
|The Grand Marche|
The year enriched all of us. My children experienced something completely different from the rather small (and 98-percent white) Massachusetts town they were growing up in, and they had their brains stretched from learning a second and third language by immersion. I grew to love the gentle, generous, striking people we met, the flavors of hot peppers and spicy vegetable stews, moderated by the cool of a homemade ginger drink, the traditional music with djembe and kora. My husband renewed his friendship with people he had known a decade earlier when he wrote a Bambara-English dictionary. And you know what? It’s all background material now that I’m a writer.
Thanks for having me over, fellow travelers! I’d love to hear about others’ experiences in Africa, or answer questions about my stay there. Where in Africa have you always longed to go?