Last Update: 8/6/2014 6:37 PM
by Heather White Mali (2003-2005)
One of the greatest coping strategies I developed while living in Mali was learning to lower my expectations of what I could accomplish. More specifically, I learned to find satisfaction in accomplishing one thing a day. Travel days were great sources of achievement in my memory due to their lack of predictability and their simplicity of focus. The task was simple: get from Point A to Point B before bedtime. The task required no less than the endurance of a world-class marathoner and the mental fortitude of a chess grandmaster.* Whether it was learning that I’m pretty okay with babies spitting up all over me, that goat piss is warm but refreshing and oddly comforting as it runs from the roof of the bachée1 and on to my head, or that it’s possible to feel both totally grossed out and as though I’m part of a larger purpose—like the time that one stinky, possibly drunk guy kept falling asleep on me and snoring for four hours—on travel days, guaranteed, something interesting was going to happen.
Ok, no. That’s not entirely true. Mostly one is rewarded for their hours of waiting and being told throughout the day that it wouldn't be a good idea to leave the gare to get food right now because we really are leaving sisan sisan!2 with being squished into a bachée until everyone’s hip bones touch and upper bodies are being held upright by the crush of people for a long 4-6 hours of doing no-thing… unless you can do it in your head, of course (see: lyrics for a song I began writing in the middle of an epic bout of boredom heading to Boré from Sevaré—all about Stephen Hawking as inspired by his own description of his pre-bedtime routine3).
But things going wrong make for better stories so why not draw from the depths of experience I’ve had in pushing my bike through the bush, somehow always arriving at Point B despite my talent for quite literally, not taking the easy road.
What Road? or The Problems With Deep Sand and Cardinal Directions
It seems like a simple thing. Head east from Teté-Ompto, kinda sorta follow this line in the dirt that looks a bit like a trail, and surely you’ll reach Kyro in a couple hours time. Right? Well after a couple hours of following an elusive trail that disappeared each time I had to dismount to push my bike through deep sand, I came upon a woman working in a field, who I greeted in bamanakan and asked to point me in the right direction while her small child, no older than two, cowered behind her legs, shrieking in terror and crying uncontrollably. Boy howdy! Moments later I found myself approaching a village I had never seen before (even though surely I biked past it that morning on the way to T-O?). At most there were a couple dozen mud houses and plenty of wood smoke to indicate the women were home. I entered a compound, the big smiles on the women cooking over a fire belied their veiled attempts to keep it together as I approached greeting them and asking if they spoke enough bamanakan to understand me and tell me where the road to Kyro was—this time, emphasizing my dumbness to ensure they sent a child with me to the edge of town in order to put me on the right path by which I arrived home safely and just in time for dinner.
What Road? or The Problems With Deep Water and Perseverance
The day before, it had rained all day long—not aggressively, but steady and thick, like the rains in England where the clouds unhurriedly dump everything they’ve got as they mosey across the sky. My host family cautioned against my leaving, telling me to wait another day, but no worries, I thought, I had biked through mud before, and besides, I had Places To Be. Biking out of Kyro went relatively smoothly, but as the road entered into the depths of our village’s fields I couldn’t help but notice that increasingly, I was having to walk through deep waters up to my knees… and then suddenly… deeper… and now… I’m not sure there’s a shallower end to this wash and I’m an inch away from having wet underwear and oh my god! there are tadpoles slipping between the footbed of my Chacos and the bottoms of my feet. Pride and compulsion to stick to my schedule made it impossible to turn around. So, standing there in muddy water filled with all manner of manure, I absorbed the enormity of the task before me—I am one bad decision away from the grossest, most uncomfortable bus ride of my life—and that’s saying a lot. In this moment of zen, I noticed that in occasional spots, the tippy tops of grasses could be seen above the water. Salvation! Where the grasses were visible, I figured, the ground must be higher. One delicate step at a time so as not to guess wrong or lose my bike, which carried my bags, to the deep wet, I inched my way across the vast flood plain (okay, so at this pace it felt vast, I think the reality was more like 100m and half an hour of seriously anxious tip-toeing followed by a half mile of good old fashion trudging before being able to hop on my bike to ride the rest of the 18k commute). Once on the other side, my elation from having escaped with unsoiled undies and dry gear carried me like the wind to the main road where everyone I met joined with me in laughing at the very obvious tribulations I had overcome to make it through. Laughing because they had been there? Or laughing because white people are dumb? I’ll never know. As a bonus, I had made it just in time to catch a passing bus on its way to Sevaré. I’ve never been so happy to be sitting on a hot bus in wet pants.
Bonus Adventure! or What Happens On The Way To Ghana
After I COSed, I made the trek to Ghana for a second time. On the bus between Ouagadougou and Accra (a 24-hour journey), I overheard two men speaking bamanakan and struck up a conversation with them. They were contractors headed to Accra to speak to a wholesaler who was selling tole for cheap and would I mind tagging along for a meeting since they don’t actually speak any English? Let’s forget for the moment that I had no idea where I was going to sleep that night or where this meeting was to take place because after two years in West Africa this sort of thing was my new normal—ever in the present moment, ever surrounded by my extended family—off we went. Upon arriving at the office and about half an hour of translating to the very confused Ghanaian woman who couldn’t quite seem to make sense of the dirty white woman mingling with two Malian men in button down shirts and pleated pants, we discovered that my new friends hadn’t quite grasped the rate at which the cidi (Ghana’s currency) was declining in value and that by the time they had arrived in Accra from having heard the good news, the price had soared again to meet the latest exchange rate. Blanket disappointment settled in and we left. After two days on a bus, these two men went straight to the gare to get on the next bus back to Bamako. The mysterious lack of fuss of the West African traveler… does this mean I can go get some fufu before grabbing the first tro-tro to Kokrobite?
*exaggerations not to scale.
2 figuratively translated as “right now”
3 Grumpy Frumpypants had thoughts always cutting off circulation to his head
“Get drunk!” “What you need is sex.” All of Grumpy’s friends meant well but didn’t get it…
That Grumpy had hunches he questioned in the right direction and
“The world,” he said, “seems better when we leave our senses in bed,
sleeping while we get undressed, and answers sneak out with our breath.”