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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.

I’ve avoided writing on this space because it became such an overwhelming challenge as time went by. When I first arrived in Bamako and Nossombougou, not only was everything such a remarkable spectacle and the culture shock so profound (more of a seismic jolt), I also felt like I had a handle of it all; not that I understood everything I was experiencing but I was sure that I would in due time, that I could find a place to store my emotions and observations and come to clear headed conclusions to share with the world in bite-sized morsels.

But as time passed, the more I saw of Malian culture the more I realized how deeply naïve I was. If I could’ve written a book about my first 2 weeks, by the midway point I could’ve written perhaps an article without feeling entirely fraudulent.

By the end, I could hardly write anything at all.

Before beginning the program, I had read as much as I could on Mali, West Africa, development, and before arriving in Bamako I had lived with Ahmadoou, my personal African tutor for 3 months. Yet, despite being what I thought was “well prepared,” it was only after living in Nossombougou for several months that I came to realize the bottomless arrogance of my presuppositions.

____

After rereading my first post about Mali and seeing how woefully inadequate an attempt it was to describe my Malian life, I won’t try to make up for it entirely in this message. (I’ll be writing some more detailed and focused short pieces in the months to come)

What I’ll say is that my Malian experience was often a study of contradictions; There was the simplicity of a largely disconnected rural life – electricity free, having several hour conversations over tea and taking the time to not only know your neighbours but also their 13 children – but it was also an exploration of profound cultural and social vastness – questions of caste, ethnicity and tribal traditions melded with modern issues of structural adjustment, trade and development.

Here are some quick vignettes to paint the picture

Radio Walena– A two room World Vision sponsored community radio station which had a radius of about 30km, reaching all connecting rural areas and also the closest city. It specialized in playing traditional music and diffusing communiqués important to the community- vaccination programs and harvesting advice for farmers in the local language of Bombara. Long story short – The group of fascinating, nutty characters running the radio invited me to be their fill-in host for their international music show, and so was launched my Saturday night feature, “Balades Musicales” with Samba Konaré (me) and Boubacar Coullibally (the most eloquent of the Malians of our group, who served as my Bombara translator). Every week I’d learn a few sentences in Bombara (as you’ll hear in the video) and picked out a song list from the collection of CDs the Canadians had brought along ; It was simply a tremendous, exhilarating experience, and I still have trouble believing I hosted a show in rural Mali and that Nossombougou millet farmers were listening to U2, Black Eyed Peas and Nirvana in their courtyards.

Segou– Visited the City of Segou, about 300km from Bamako;. The high/lowlight was when we attended an alleged “concert” for Malian/Ivorian pop sensations “Coupé Decalé”, who arrived 3 hours late, sang 2 songs, and then proceeded to invite young girls on stage to compete in a dance-off, with particular attention paid to posterior gyrations…for the rest of the friggin night. No, really. I need to show the clips from this show because words alone cannot describe how remarkably bizarre a night it was.

Embassy Visit– We went to the Canadian embassy , had a nice chat with the Canadian ambassador who talked about Canadian development programs and economic interests in the region, later invited us to a party for ex-pats that evening where we felt about as out of place as just about any scene of stuffy professionals one could conjure up in Canada.

Swedes in Nossombougou– One day we were told that there were 2 new white people in the village- we hurried to find that two crazy Swedes, Pedar and Lina, had arrived in our little village, after – believe it or not – biking from Stockholm! They had been riding for six months, camping out and staying in villages, and intend to do another six or so months to reach their ultimate destination of Cape Town, South Africa. They stayed in the village for the night and we went out for warm millet beer in the least shady of our two village bars. (check out Pedar’s blog, with mention of his Nossombougou visit)

Hearing Pedar’s travel stories and how much we had in common, got me thinking about an interesting transcontinental divide – It’s strange to think that there are people like us who are from the Very Privileged World, where meals or medical treatment are rarely a worry, where employment and amenities are plentiful, only to escape from this comfort and security, this maddeningly lifeless predictability, in search of adventure, intrigue, thousand year-old tribal traditions, an understanding of how hundreds of millions of people live…”Humanity”, as I named this blog somewhat tongue-in-cheekly. And then on the other side, those living in Least Developed / Global South/ Majority World countries like Mali, where food supplies are unstable, work is rare, government support all but non-existent, where the greatest dream for just about anyone is to be able to see the glorious paradise that is The West, and thousands risk and lose their lives on rickety boats for the privilege of working miserable jobs in this oasis of opportunity, so perhaps one day their children can hope to live past what we call “middle age.”

I suppose we always want what we can’t have.

______

I was first drawn to Canada World Youth, to Mali, by some mixture of idealism, curiosity, wanderlust, sentimentality and escapism. When I think of myself taking the train to Montreal in June, the whirlwind of hope, expectations and considerable uncertainty buzzing in my head, it’s hard to believe that was me; It feels as though that was a wide-eyed naïve little kid I once knew, who was well-intentioned but generally full of shit.

Arriving back in Montreal in December was remarkably, painfully hard- greetings to passers-by on the streets were not quite as warmly received, and massive Christmas light displays erected around stores offended our every sense.

I also had mixed emotions about being back in Toronto (albeit for a few days); It was certainly great seeing my family after 6 months, but home didn’t have the same comforting feel I remembered; when I entered 1 Royal Orchard, got to our door, the one with 3 locks and 2 keys which simply aren’t necessary, I wondered if I had ever really lived here at all. Being in France to unwind has helped give me time to make sense of my thoughts and emotions; I think it will get better from here.

I know my life will likely one day become rather predictable once more, that I will at some point care about traffic, dry cleaning or, mercy, a “day job.”

But I will always remember when I would rise or retire to the sounds of djembe drums and ballophones pounded in the distance, make mint tea in the shade of mango trees and tease my little Malian brothers about how many wives they’re going to have.

When all I had to do to live life to its fullest, was open my eyes and breathe.

Best wishes for the Holiday season,

Samba

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Comments»

1. Daniel - January 4, 2007

Amazing stuff, Nima. Looking forward to speaking with you when you get back.

2. Bruno - January 29, 2007

Merci beaucoup Nima pour tous tes récits et le partage de tes expériences et réflexions.

3. Peder - July 25, 2007

Hey Nima! Great video! But Irish music to Canada and something about Dakar to Mali? 😉 good to see all u smiling faces again… to feel our common dreams of meeting… great people all of you! take care, -Peder (that fella’ cycling with Lina – ps cool that u actually notet us here!)

4. Peder - July 25, 2007

Hey I forgot the most important: thx for the underwear! still on at this very hour.. well i guess i still havnt got that much to choose from… but canadian underwear lasts for years, uh? cheers! -Peder

5. Julia - May 9, 2011

Hey! just stumbled upon your blog as i was googling “cwy mali.” im about to head off on the same 6 month cwy adventure at the end of june. I was just wondering if there were any tips or advice you could impart on me?
Cheers!


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