Sunday, December 4, 2011

Djelis, Thanksgiving, and more!

Happy Belated Thanksgiving everyone!
My neighborhood 
View of the Niger River from the hill of Badalabougou

Looking towards centre ville 
Sorry, I’ve been a little slow with my blog updates! These past couple weeks have gone by quickly with many cultural outings, holidays, sightseeing, and, of course, research! First, to start with the cultural events: a couple of weeks ago I got invited to a concert at the Palais de la Culture. I didn’t know too much about it, but thought it might be interesting to go anyway. Little did I know that I was going to be on TV! It turns out that almost every Friday night they have a big concert with all of the up and coming jelis in Bamako. Jeli is the Bambara word for griot (a West African singer/storyteller who recites the history of a person’s family upon request and for money). The women of Bamako are crazy about the jelis and many watch the television program religiously on Friday nights. The Palais (which is a fairly good sized concert hall) was full of very well dressed Bamakoise- it was quite a sight! The concert consisted of one jeli after another coming on stage and singing/telling the history of someone’s name. When their name was called or when they wanted the Jeli to sing about their family, women in the audience would approach the stage and start throwing money (bill by bill) at the jeli. It was kind of incredible to see how much money was given, and I’m pretty sure some women gave well over $300. At one point in the night women were even giving gold jewelry to the jelis. When the jeli was done singing he/she would gather all of the money and leave the stage and another jeli would come on. This continued until 2:00am! It was really quite a spectacle, and seemed kind of gaudy and wasteful to be throwing money around like that, but the people I went with explained that it’s not just anybody who goes up to the stage and gives money to the jelis. Often times they are jelis themselves or they are in some way connected to the jelis, and it is assumed that if you give money to them, at some point they will help you with your baptism or marriage.  So it’s kind of a closed circle with money being transferred between parties at different points in time. But, it is also certainly status symbol, because everyone is watching how much you are giving and to whom. Quite an interesting cultural event!

Fishermen on Niger River
Thanksgiving was also quite an event here! I actually got to celebrate two times. The first celebration was on Thursday evening with a mixed group of Americans and Malians. There were two turkeys and several delicious side dishes and desserts! Every Thanksgiving I spend abroad (this is my 5th Thanksgiving in Africa!) I am amazed by the dedication of Americans to cooking turkeys in very difficult circumstances. It’s certainly not easy to cook a turkey in an oven that doesn’t have a temperature reading and without a meat thermometer, but turkeys still came out well! I tried to contribute to the festivities with a modified green bean casserole. It was similar to what we normally have, but a slightly different texture because I had to substitute crackers for fried onions. The second Thanksgiving took place at the Public Affairs Officer’s (Embassy) house on Saturday afternoon. It was great to celebrate with other Americans in Bamako and fun to watch some American television!

Modified Green Bean Casserole
I’ve also had some fun excursions to the National Museum in Bamako (which is very well done for a museum in Africa with a very interesting exhibit of Malian textiles) and the new arboretum/national park in Bamako. The arboretum, which just opened about 3 months ago, is gorgeous! The landscaping is wonderful, with fountains, walkways, traditional medicine garden, and plenty of open space for picnicking. Hopefully I can take advantage of the space more while I am in Bamako.
Mali National Museum in Bamako

Entrance to the Mali National Museum
My research continues to progress slowly. I’m still going to the research institute most days to meet up with professors and students and just work there. I’m realizing how lucky I am to have a comfortable work space where I can go most days. I’ve also started going to Bambara class in the mornings 3 days a week. I’m making slow progress learning the language, but I can tell that it’s going to take a lot more effort before I can get to the level where I can really communicate well. I know it’s going to help me in the long run, so I’m going to try to dedicate more time and effort to learning it in the next month. Unfortunately I still haven’t met up with the professor I’m supposed to be working with. He returned from Mecca and then promptly left for Togo….I think he travels a lot. I’m hoping I’ll be able to meet up with him next week, but I’m realizing that I might have to start finding some other contacts and setting some things up myself.

Fountain in National Park

National Park in Bamako
Traditional Medicine Gardens in National Park 
In other news, Mali experienced some troubling events last Thursday with the abduction of 2 Frenchmen in Hombori (near Douenza in far northern part of the region of Mopti) and then the killing of a German and abduction of 3 other foreigners in the city of Tombouctou the following day. While the regions of TombouctouGao, and Kidal (all in the far north of Mali) have been off limits to Americans for a while, and we have been warned several times that we should be cautions of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in northern Mali, it was a little bit of a shock. I think it was especially concerning how brazen the attacks were; the attacks in Tombouctou were in the middle of the day and the abduction in Hombori was one of the first in the region of Mopti. There have been lots of discussions about the impact of the fighting in Libya on the recent abductions, because many people from northern Mali traveled to Libya as mercenaries for Khadafi. Now that the fighting is over, many have returned with weapons and money. This combined with the general lawlessness in northern Mali and the connections with the AQIM have created a dangerous cocktail. However, I want to make sure to let you all know that I still feel very safe in Bamako (Hombori is more than 900km north of Bamako!). I was originally planning to go to the southern part of the region of Mopti for my research, but with the recent events I’m considering changing locations or at least waiting a couple of months to see how everything shakes out. I certainly don’t want to be caught up in the middle of all of that, but it’s also kind of a bummer to have to change plans already. I’m trying to stay flexible and hopefully it will all work out in the end. Regardless, I’ll keep you all updated as the situation unfolds. And just to reiterate, it is still very safe in Bamako and southern Mali, so please don’t worry!

Until next time! 
Map of Mali (note how far away Tomboctou and Hombori are from Bamako!)

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