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An attempted explanation, brief revisions and odd memories from this fantastical, improbable chapter of my life December 31, 2006

Posted by Nima in Africa, Bamako, Canada World Youth, Mali, Uncategorized.
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Now, first the explanation; Why exactly keep a blog if you’re going to write once every 3 months? Well, surely I would’ve liked to have written in this space more often in Mali but that was severely limited by lack of internet access and electricity in general…but that’s not the whole story.

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Mali v. Togo madness December 31, 2006

Posted by Nima in Uncategorized.
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Greetings Folks- I’m sorry for not updating for the last 3 months or so, but I’ll explain in the next post. I’m currently in France near the Atlantic Coast city of La Rochelle where my sister lives for the holidays and remebered my promise to fill you in on my travails before New Year’s. So first a message I had written a long time ago and never got around to posting.

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The Mali/ Togo match was simply the most stunning sporting event I have ever seen, which had nothing to do with the magnitude of the game itself (an early round qualifier for the 2008 African Cup), but the emotions and sights and sounds of the sheer mayhem of that day. Mali sought to avenge last year’s loss to their arch-rivals, and every time you would ask a Malian about the game they would instantly burst into hysterics. “ Oh they played horribly that day! They were a disgrace to our country! And to TOGO? Little Togo? Are you kidding me!?”


There was such intense rioting after that game that the Malian team couldn’t leave the stadium until 1:00 a.m. Perhaps this should of worried us, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity of seeing such an anticipated game.
 
The streets of Bamako leading to the stadium were closed by mid-afternoon to prevent overcrowding, so we arrived several hours early as about 50,000 fans filed into Stade 26 Mars, so named for the date of the 1991 coup d’État that overthrew dictator Moussa Traoré, who ruled Mali for 23 years.
 
The crowd was absolutely wild; chanting, screaming, singing songs…and that was during the warm-up. The game started several hours later than normal to account for the Ramadan fast; at sundown  thousands got up from their seats, gulped plastic bags of water to quench their thirst and prayed for a convincing Malian victory. (While I waved my Malian flag instead) Also, the presence of several hundred riot police around the grounds added a special ambiance to the proceedings. (Side-note- Of the 50,000 in attendance, about 12 were women)
 
The home team dominated play from the start, coming very close to scoring a half dozen times, but the game remained scoreless late into the second half. At this point fans started growing more restless, heckling longer and louder and, as Togo brought the ball dangerously into Malian territory, that’s when I wondered for the first time what would actually happen if Togo were to score; and that very instant, at the 90th minute, they came very, very close to doing just that, and everyone in the stadium held its breath (I have a feeling the Canadians a few seconds longer), but alas, the strike was mercifully turned aside by the Malian keeper.
 
That’s when our driver decided to mention that even if the game were to end in a tie, “They’ll probably still riot.” Oh, good.
 
(Quick backtrack- In the Paris airport, on our way to Bamako, the Malians had bumped into Dramane Traoré, a player on the national team who plays in Moscow. It was quite an event, and they took pictures, chatted…anyway…)
 
In the 94th minute, at virtually the last possible second of the game, on a harmless looking attack, who do you think scores for Mali? That’s right, M. Traoré himself.
 
The crowd absolutely erupted into a piercing, disorienting decibel of jubilation, causing several riot police to drop their cigarettes and look menacing. From there the crowd never really calmed back down, and things got a bit frenzied – everyone dancing and hugging and shaking hands, bags of water splashed in the air, home-made fireworks popped right next to our ears, as fans streamed towards the exits.
 
The scene in the parking lot was of even grander mayhem, with occasional cars and scooters speeding down the middle of the mass of thousands, who continued dancing and celebrating. When we eventually did take to the road, the festivities grew more intense; thousands of people filled the streets (for this the women were all out), people were dancing on speeding cars, and many tried to hop on our car as our driver negotiated through remarkably narrow spaces, chains of people surrounding both sides for kilometres.
 
It was a tremendous outpouring of joy, and while we chanted and waved our flags as well, we were wondering how exactly we were going to make it back to Nossombougou through all of this. After several hours of delicate driving through some crazy partying, we eventually hit empty roadways that lead back to our village; and the instant the sounds of singing and screaming faded into the darkness…. we all just laughed uncontrollably. 
 
Because it all seemed so surreal, not just to believe that any of this had happened, that it wasn’t a dream or a romanticized vision from an escapist novel, but that we had actually lived it.
 
Which is much like my entire Malian experience…

 

Bamako, a primer on Nossombougou and the birth of Samba Konaré October 8, 2006

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Greetings folks,  One month into my Malian stay and this is the first time I’ve had access to the Internet, actually any form of non-generator powered electricity supply since our first few days in Bamako. A tremendous amount has happened in this time so I won’t even attempt trying to cover it all – it would be impossible even if I had an eternity in this cozy, mercifully air conditioned cyber cafè, but alas I have a limited amount of time before we head to watch an important soccer qualifier between Mali and Togo, so I’ll do my best to give you all a taste of what life has been like here. (look for the tell-all novel in stores next year) 

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Adieu Québec and the Malian sun beckons September 3, 2006

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Tuesday we fly Montréal-Paris- Bamako and I find it almost impossible to believe we’re already here. Our time in Québec has been a whirlwind, which I must say far surpassed my original expectations.

Ahmadou’s initiation to Canadian cuisine

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Abu: The Pig King September 3, 2006

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 Greetings folks, Apologies for falling off the radar for a while: Things got busy around the farm and the programme. So here are my last two posts from Québec to satiate your blog desires.  

 

Abu is the Pig King (more…)

Tumult in Pierreville and within a Centre-du-Québec minute, I become an organic cattle farmer in Sainte-Monique August 5, 2006

Posted by Nima in Uncategorized.
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Greetings folks, 

Last we spoke I was beginning to settle in to my Pierreville nook, my renovation gig with Marie Joceline, and looking forward to opening the first chapter of my fan club in the St. François region.  

Man alive, a lot can change in a few weeks.

It has been the most tumultuous yet intriguing time in my Québec experience and while it was entirely unexpected, I’m glad I’m facing new challenges and getting to know a way of life which is even further removed from anything I’ve ever lived.

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The Loincloth Chronicles, Volume 1 July 17, 2006

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Yesterday we filmed the first scene of the epic as yet unamed film depicting the history of St.Francois and Pierreville. The last few days I’ve been getting quite nervous about the shoot, not because of the acting or memorization it will require to play the Iroquois Chief (typical line: Iroquois Chief shrugs his shoulders and grunts) but because of the amount of fabric I was anticipating my loincloth to be missing. About a week ago we had a costume fitting during one of our activity days in Nicolet and after being handed my alleged “garment”, I certainly had reason to worry: there was barely a handful of fabric, but this was supposedly all I was scheduled to wear during the many scenes of attacking and kidnapping little French kids.

I wore the cloth on top of my jeans and I was still blushing. I told the costume designer “Even if I was alone in my house, I would still be embarrassed to wear this.” She laughed, but really didn’t seem to realize the gravity of the situation. Me in this costume alone would give the movie an NC-17 rating. Seriously, it was friggin tiny.

Fortunately they heeded my request and alas some pants were tossed under the loincloth, in the process saving the community thousands of dollars worth of treatment to child psychologists.

(Sidenote: While you might think I could pass as a relatively decent Iroquois when we’re in a community of only white people, I should point out that I live a good 3 minute walk from the Odanak Abenaki Indian reserve. Apparently they couldn’t find a single person who was willing to act in a local history film made by a white man, even an openminded one)

The first scene called for me and my Iroquois counterpart (a 14 year old boy with the physique of a 9 year old girl) to attack a French settler, hog tie him up and drag him to the back woods. The first few scenes the settler boy kept laughing when we attacked him, so we kept having to redo the entire long run up and pounce sequence, which I was frankly getting tired of in the 30 degree heat so I decided to really start to drag him a little harder each time until he had nothing left to smile about and well, it was a wrap. Although not before I was slightly injured by the blunt end of my own dagger jamming me next to the eye.

It’s not easy being an Iroquois superstar

Malian Euphoria in Trois-Rivières July 10, 2006

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Greetings from Pierreville.

The past several weeks me and Ahmadou have been working at Mary Jo’s house (where we live) to prepare the house for renovations so that it can be turned into a community resource centre. Considering the house is over a hundred years old and certainly looks it, preparing to demolish a cabin attached to the house which is barely held up by modly wood planks and filled with a remarkable amount of rescued wood and windows that Mary Jo truly believes may be useful in renovations at some point and that previously the most “handy” thing I’ve ever done in my life is make a laminated plastic key-fob for my grade 8 Design and Technology class, well, it’s been a bit of a challenge. We’ve generally been working full days removing all the excess stuff from the cabin and organizing things around the house in anticipation for Demolition Day; I never before appreciated how heavy anti-fire doors are and how annoying removing rusty nails can be, but me and Ahmadou keep each other motivated by finding ever greater ways to tease each other with the random paraphernalia which we keep finding among the chaos. (recent find: 5 kittens)

While we are part of a larger group of 18 participants, for all but one day of the week we’re working with our respective families in our respective villages and besides from Brianna and Nakany who live in St. Francois on the other (uncool) side of the river, me and Ahmadou generally spend our time together in Pierreville. I’m starting to get used to living so closely with someone else- I’ve never even had a roommate before, but not only do we sleep in the same room but we also work together all day, prepare our meals together, start up random conversations with locals together. While we do have a occasionally have disagreements over things – which I imagine would even happen if I was roomed with another Persian Thornhiller with a predilection for poking – we don’t get upset too easily and Ahmadou has got to be the most smiley person on the face of the Earth.

It’s fun to be able to wake up and have such profound conversations with someone on a wide range of topics and be able to educate each other in ways we never knew we could be educated. The other day we spoke of the African debt crisis; how pointless the cycle of Western countries/ financial institutions lending money to countries which can’t repay them and then subsequently write-off the debts a few years later as a heroic gesture of international development. Ahmadou shared a Malian expression which I think sums up their stance quite well: “When a white man hands you 5 Francs in front of your face, he takes away 25 Francs that you can’t see.”

Despite this inherent distrust of much of the West, Ahmadou is remarkably pro-French. He loves their political system, culture and the development work spearheaded by France and the EU; this despite almost every one of his friends and relatives being virulently anti-French, which I would’ve expected from inhabitants of a former colony. Ahmadou’s late father was among the first Malians to study in France after independence and loved the country (which confuses me since he was deeply Islamic, but anyway) and he thinks perhaps his affection for a country he’s never seen may be a way of staying close to his memory.
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Maybe the highlight so far of the trip was last Thursday when the entire group went to a Amadou et Mariam (aka Absolute Malian Music Superstars) concert in Trois-Rivières. (After spending a month in Pierreville, Trois-Rivières felt like Paris to me). Amadou (not to be confused with my Ahmadou) et Mariam are a blind husband and wife singing duo which are known around the Francophone world for their traditional Malian/funk/blues rhythms and have won a bevy of prizes throughout the years. Of course, before I sound like an international music critique, I should point out I had never heard of them before last week, but all the Malians assured me they were a big deal. I didn’t know what to expect from the music but I was interested to see what a modern version of Malian beats would sound like.

What I got was simply the most electrifying night of music I’ve ever experienced in my life (with due respect to MUZO). From the minute they stepped on to the stage, all the Malians, even the most subdued of them, went absolutely crazy. I’m talking gyrating every ounce of their existence and jumping up and down and screaming at the top of their lungs…and well, it was quite contagious. It turns out Amadou et Mariam do get quite remarkably funky and the amount of energy they provided along with being alongside our Malian buddies having the time of their lives, made it a remarkable experience. Even the Malian supervisor, Tie Koro Coulibally, a 48 year-old bureaucrat from the Ministry of Agriculture was in the front row jumping up and down the entire concert. At one point our entire group held hands while jumping and dancing and singing, and eventually others at the concert joined in until the entire section of several thousand people were connected hand in hand, being moved by the sounds of Bamako and the spirit of some twenty-somethings having the time of our lives.

And then after the concert we managed to talk our way back stage by explaining the program we’re in- and that was truly an amazing sight. Malians meeting their absolute favourite superstars, holding their hands and hugging them and speaking rapid fire Bombara. (Amadou met Ahmadou and said “I think there’s  another Ahmadou for my Mariam tonight”) Seeing how excited they were, thinking how unlikely it is that 9 Malians would be in Trois Rivières for this concert and get to meet their heros the first time most of them have ever been out of their country, realizing what absolute joy can mean – it all didn’t seem real. These types of things don’t happen in the real world, I kept wondering. Frankly even I had to fight back tears thinking about it all, wondering if life can really get any better than this.

The Mega Post June 26, 2006

Posted by Nima in Uncategorized.
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Well greetings folks- I know I've been neglecting this space for a while and I've been getting some slack from my legion of adoring fans (unemployed people who don't understand soccer) so I figure the only way to get everyone up to date is to bring you the "greatest hits" of the time so far.

So sit back, relax, lower your standards and enjoy.

                                                                                                                  

The entire Malian and Canadian troupe at a welcome party hosted by the City of Nicolet. Bloc MP Louis Plamondon far left, Nicolet Mayor Alain Drouin back row centre, Handsome Devil smack middle. (more…)

Canadian bonding and Meet the Malians (or I Ni Sogoma) June 15, 2006

Posted by Nima in Uncategorized.
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So as it turns out, finding an internet connection in rural Québec isn’t as simple as I thought. In any event, here are is a rundown of a quite packed first 10 days or so: I’m going to do my best to summarize the most essential developments, but I reserve the right to come back and comment on things I forget now because of the pressure of having to type before dark, rendering my hour-long walk home in the country quite interesting.

I arrived in Montreal at the Canada World Youth office on Sunday, and there were already quite a few of the 8 other Canadians there. From there we boarded a good old yellow school bus and headed north for our orientation camp in La Visitation (the actual name of the village) in the Centre-du-Québec region. This was certainly the smallest village I`ve ever spent any time at (officially the population is 180, but I swear they must be counting cows and horses). We were staying in the village community centre/dormitory/ city hall/ banquet hall…pick up joint…help me out people. Essentially, not too much to do in La Visitation. The Canadian participants spent the first few days getting to know each other and the program, preparing for the arrival of the Malians and reinforcing regional stereotypes.

The other Canadians come from across the country, different types of backgrounds and each very interesting in their own way. We all have different motivators for joining the program. For the experience; for travel; Goals we’re chasing or ghosts of ourselves we’re trying to outrun.

There`s Claudie from Gatineau, Québec, heading into her last semester at University of Ottawa. There`s Pirmin, originally from Halifax with a Swiss background, he spent the last year in Vancouver. (He also reinforces every Maritimer stereotype I could have; a heavy drinker, loves to tell jokes and laugh his hearty laugh, stresses his Caaaars and Baaars just to get a rise, says “Get `er done” and hums Missy Elliot…alright, the last one I don’t get but I now assume this is what every Maritimer does) Brianna van de Wijngaard (only she gets a last name because of coolness) from Victoria, who’s roughly 6” 3, self described “whitest person you’ll ever meet. Ryan from Midland, Ontario, a guitar playing student in forestry at Lakehead, at 20 he’s the baby of the group but avoids being teased because he looks like an American Gladiator. Sonam from Belleville, a Glendon grad who spent the last year teaching English at Victoriaville, a stone’s through from Nicolet. Sebestien from Québec, Québec, the only pure francophone of the group. Sara from Edmonton, who wears a turquoise cowboy hat at all times and was quite heart broken to miss most of the finals. Then there’s Fallon, a fun-loving Ojibwa from Massey, Ontario (near Sudbury); before the end of the week she decided the program wasn`t a good fit for her and headed home, which did leave us a little shaken; it was sad to see her go but we wish her nothing but the best, and she’s promised to meet us at the airport upon our return.

Then there’s Martin, our 26 year-old Québecois supervisor who has to be the lankiest, goofiest person this side of the St. Lawerence. But he’s very silly and loves to tease and be teased in both languages, so I don’t think things could’ve turned out better.

We spent a few days reflecting on Canadian identity, going over what the purpose of the community program is, listening to former participants testimonials and the like…Actually very interesting and quite enjoyable (at least for me). We even snuck in a few beers over a camp fire before the Malians arrive (they’re generally Muslim and don’t drink)

After a few days getting to know the Canadians, we then hurried to prepare for the arrival of the Malians to La Visitation by learning a few words of Bombara (the main language spoken in Mali, although all participants speak various degrees of French) and plan out a “soirée Canadienne ” a night of traditional Canadian theatre, dance and music. (yeah…I know) We were all quite anxious to see the Malians and to see how the relationships would work. I remember feeling overwhelmed (first day of school butterflies times 100) as the bus pulled up and they debarked.

But things were remarkably smooth from the start. They’re very easy to talk to, very warm, innocent and full of interesting characters. They’re all Muslim with the exception of one Catholic girl, but none of them are particularly religious. They all study at an agricultural centre in Mali and the program counts as their apprenticeship. Within the first few hours I was having long, fascinating discussions with them about politics, economics, marriage plans, social norms…I learned more in those few hours than I would’ve in an average year.

(Sidenote: I keep thinking that this experience would be an excellent premise for a reality TV show or documentary. Granted we`re missing a natural gimmick, but we have all the other ingredients: intrigue, culture clash, laughter, tears, frustration, flirtation, miscommunication. The only thing missing? The textbook nightvision lens love scene.)

For the soirée Canadienne I was suckered into being the MC, and managed to learn as many silly Bombara phrases and Malian cultural tendencies I could within a few hours. It was the closest thing I’ve had to a stand-up set in French, and it remarkably was a big hit with the Malians (although they were quite supportive even of the jokes which bombed)

The next stage was to select our counterpart for the program: this is the Malian who we`ll be living with and working with for the next 6 months, while we`ll only be seeing the rest of the group roughly once a week. From the beginning I had a strong connection with one Ahmadou Denon, 22 from the capital of Bamako. He loves international politics, knows France intimately well despite never having visited, loves to smile at everything, is a huge soccer and sports fan…a great fit quoi. We’re both the babies of our families: although his father had 3 wives (thank you Islam) and so he`s the youngest of 24…Twenty Four! He has sibling who are in their 50s.

There’s a world more to say including where we are now, what we’re up to and some other silly stories along the way. But it’s getting dark and I don’t feel like sleeping among the cows tonight.

Until next time…

Nima