Friday, October 12, 2012

Off the Beaten Track: A Year in Mali



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?

18 comments:

  1. Wow! What an experience! Being sick must have been scary for all of you, I'm glad it all worked out. And it's great that you're pulling on that time for your novels. Thanks for sharing, Edith. :)

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    1. Thanks, Lisa! We went back seven years later for another West Africa year, that time in Burkina Faso, so the good overruled the bad.

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  2. Thanks for a trip to a place I'm pretty sure I'll never go. The places I'd most like to visit are Egypt and the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.

    I wonder how your boys remember that time? The younger probably remembers your second trip a lot more, but Allan might remember both.

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    1. Thanks, Kaye! They do both remember the second trip better, but pictures help jog their memories. I couldn't find the album I was looking for (it's still in the POD since the move to our new house this summer) but we do have pictures from the year.

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  3. The closest I got to Mali was standing on the bridge in Victoria Fall. We were warned that if we stepped over the border, we'd be dragged into a small medical room nearby and given shots for things we already had taken before we left the US. Thus my view of the falls was a misty haze at best.
    We were driving into Botswana to stay at Chobe and the Okavango. We say female lions that had manes.
    Patg

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    1. Mali is a dozen countries away from Victoria Fall, but you were on the same continent, Pat! I'd love to visit southern Africa one day. Thanks for stopping by.

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  4. Oh, I'd love to have the time and money to visit all of Africa! Am tentatively planning a trip there next year (Zanzibar's been calling) but it's such a huge trip to plan with two young kids. Then again, you lived there with two young kids! Hope to continue to experience the continent through you. Thanks, Edith!

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    1. Thanks for having me over, Supriya. You all have a wonderful blog here. Long, long flights with little ones are not easy, as I'm sure you know, but the payoff is good.

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  5. While reading I became curious--after your protagonist and the waitress finished the greetings, was her food still hot? That must be a struggle for first-time visitors to get used to! It sounds like a beautiful and complex culture. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Beth, it really doesn't take that long. And her food was probably too hot to start on, anyway! Thanks for the read.

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  6. Lovely post, Edith--as was your book. :) I had a long weekend in Mali in 1965 (mostly spent traveling). Timbuktoo was magical, a city made of sandcastles and filled with indigo-wrapped Tuareg and camels; the heat was dry enough to shrivel your nostrils; and in the Bamako airport, when we told a bunch of young Russians we met that we were in the US Peace Corps, they said, "Oh, yes--spies from the CIA!"

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    1. Liz, I think that was a common idea about Peace Corps people. I never got to Timbuktu myself. The indigo-wrapped Tuaregs and the camels I experienced more on a trip to Niger. Truly impressive. Thanks for stopping by!

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  7. Lovely post, Edith. Thanks for letting us share that magical time.

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  8. Very vivid, post, Edith. Thanks for sharing your story with us!

    I've never been to Africa but I have a long-standing invitation to go to Senegal from an old family friend. He was a student when I was a kid and lived with us for some months while learning English. We've stayed in touch all these years.

    It great that your kids were exposed to such a different culture at such a young age. You mentioned that they got fluent in French, but how much Bambara did they pick up? And do they still understand any of it today?

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    1. Heidi, sorry I missed your comment last week! A good friend of mine goes to Senegal frequently and loves it. You should go.

      They could do simple conversations in Bambara, but have retained only the greetings, I believe, which is largely due to their father keeping it active in the home and having Malians to visit. Any early second (or third or fourth or on up) language exposure is so good for the brain.

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  9. Thank you for sharing such great memories. Travels to Africa? Only North of Africa--Cairo, Alexandria. Would love to go to Lome, where our wonderful friend Edith Bedou-Jondoh lives.

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