Sunday, January 15, 2012

Quick update on life in Bamako

All is well in Bamako, and we are certainly enjoying the cold season weather! It’s been consistently 85-90 degrees everyday with a nice, dry breeze. It seems like it is just cold enough to make you not want to take a cold shower, but also warm enough to remind you that it’s not smart to walk around in the mid-day sun. The mornings and evenings, however, are perfect for walking, sitting outside, etc. I wish it would stay like this forever, but I’m nervously awaiting the start of the hot season (which several Malians and other Africans who are accustomed to the heat have told me is almost unbearable). Hope I survive!

Rock outcroppings near Siby
Anyway, things are going well and my research is progressing (even though it is always slower than I would like). I finally made a visit to one field site, the commune of Siby, where they have a large local convention (between 18 communes in total) that hasn’t really been that successful. Siby is about 50km outside of Bamako and is an area that is surrounded by large rock outcroppings. It’s kind of a touristy area where people from Bamako go for rock climbing or to visit the waterfalls in the area. I went on a Saturday, which is market day in Siby, so everyone was out on the street buying and selling various items (peanuts, various cereals, mangoes, oranges, sweet potatoes, firewood, clothing, and much more!). I met with the assistant mayor of Siby, who was very friendly, and we discussed the history of the local convention, its current status, and why he felt like it wasn’t really successful. His responses were interesting (basically that everyone was relying on the mayor too much for the enforcement of the convention and not doing their own share of the work to enforce it and that the NGO that helped them initiate the convention was no longer around for financial support). I also met with the sous-prefet (government administrator) of the circle (in Mali the communes are the lowest unit of governance followed by circles and then regions) and a Forest Service officer in the commune. His responses my questions about the local convention were also interesting. Basically he said the agreement was not followed at all and took on quite a different tone saying that local people were wrong to think that a local convention could supersede the law. He was under the impression that it was up to the Forest Service to “make the population understand” the national laws and that was as far as they wanted to go. Needless to say a very different perspective! I’m interested to go back and hear more from people in the villages because I’m sure they will have an entirely different perspective too. 
The road to Siby

I’m also planning a trip to the Sikasso region next week (hopefully!) to visit two more field sites: one local convention that seems to have worked and another one that worked for a time, but no longer functions. I’m crossing my fingers that all of the logistics will work out! It’s been difficult to coordinate plans with the professor I am working with and try to figure out the logistics of housing, transportation, etc. Hopefully it will all come together in the next few days.

Bassekou Kouyate at French Cultural Center
 In my free time I've been going to various musical events (including a great night of live music with Toumani Diabate at a bar/club called the Diplomate and a great concert by Bassekou Kouyate at the French Cultural Center) and trying to find some ways to exercise in Bamako. I’ve been doing some running through the neighborhood near the apartment, but it always more of a spectacle than I would really like. As I run down the narrow streets of the neighborhood I catch almost everyone staring at me; some people look genuine shocked and others seem to think it is funny (especially the children).  I often feel like I am in a parade (without all of the rest of the parade!), and the only thing I can think of to diffuse the situation is to smile and wave and shout out “bonjour” every couple of steps. I’m  trying to embrace the attention, but it’s definitely not something innate to my personality. And, it’s not only the people I have to contend with while running in Bamako, there are also dogs that chase me, smoke and fumes from many different sources, large puddles where women dump their washing water, and lots and lots of rocks. I even ran into 2 galloping horses on my last run!

Children's concert at the National Museum
I’ve also been trying to walk home from my office (which is on the other side of town) several times a week. It’s about a 90 minute walk, and along the way I have to pass through 2 markets and cross a bridge over the river. The path I have been taking follows a main road, so I’m often breathing in fumes from the cars and competing with the motos, bicycles, and people carrying various items on their heads for walking space. It’s certainly not the most peaceful of walks! I’m sometimes hassled about where I’m going and why, and I always seem to find things that I want to buy along the way (oranges, tomatoes, peanuts, etc.), so I’m not sure I’m really saving all that much money by not taking a taxi. But, it does feel good to be outside and walking and interacting with different groups of people. Some of the interesting things I have seen so far include: a stall in the market that sells only sheep heads and hoofs (I’ve heard they make a soup out of the sheep heads); a shoe market, where hundreds and hundreds of shoes are displayed on tables (quite a site!); and, several urban gardens with rows and rows of lettuce, tomatoes, onions and papaya trees.

Another interesting recent discovery has been the phenomenon of cracked eggs on the road. Several times I have left my apartment early in the morning to buy bread from the boutique up the road and have noticed several eggs cracked in the middle of the road. At first I didn’t think much of this (someone just happened to drop an egg on the road), but then I started to notice people going way out of their way to avoid touching the eggs (even in cars). Finally, after several weeks of this I finally asked someone why there were always eggs on the road. Immediately they said that I should not step on them and try to avoid touching them at all costs. They then explained that it was a way to get rid of evil spirits that cause sickness or bad luck. As far as I can tell, a person who is looking to for a cure for their sickness or misfortune or looking to prevent sickness and misfortune in the future will go to their marabout (religious leader) who performs some kind of incantation and then tells them to crack eggs on the road. It’s thought that every person that touches the egg will take a little bit of the sickness or misfortune of that person with them. So by placing the eggs in the middle of the road he is hoping that many people will touch it and take all of his sickness/misfortune away. Meanwhile, everyone else is trying to avoid touching the eggs because they are afraid they will get sick or have bad luck. I then found out they also do this with sticks and leaves that the marabout will tell the person to bathe in and then place somewhere where it is sure other people will touch it. Sure enough after learning this, I started seeing leaves and sticks bundled together in little packets and left on the side of the road, and as expected people going out of their way to avoid stepping on them. A very interesting practice, and a good reminder that even in big city Bamako  (where most people are Muslim or Catholic and claim not to believe in animism) there is still a lot of credence given to mystical practices and traditional spiritual leaders.  Another person told me that many people in Bamako still have gris-gris (charms for good luck/protection) that they spend a lot of money on, but then hide in their pockets or claim that they don’t believe in them. Kind of an interesting example of how traditional beliefs still endure in a modern society (even under the radar).

Anyway, those are just a few observations from life in Bamako! 

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