Report From Mali – Part Three

View Report from Mali – Part One & Report from Mali – Part Two

After a productive meeting of the core team with Ousmane Koita at the University, during which many of the remaining details about the intake of HIV positive participants in the program were discussed, Carine said she wanted to visit us at the hotel before we left. She arrived with Ibrahima and Tounkara, a travel agent friend of his whose English is excellent, to discuss the need for more medical equipment for the Project. We were not ecstatic about adding the $5,000 to the budget, but there was little choice. As the meeting wound down, Carine lifted a black plastic bag she had set down discretely by her chair and said she had some gifts for us. The sudden movement into the ceremony of celebrating the honored guests is an important part of both the Muslim and Bambara (Mali’s indigenous culture) but we were still caught completely off guard–and that was before we even saw what was in the bag.

First she pulled out a small cloth pouch and gave it to Jaquelyn. Inside was a lovely necklace with large amber and ebony beads separated by small blue and white spacers. “Ebony represents purity,” Tounkara offered authoritatively and we all smiled. “She is the essence of the pure feminine,” I offered and the men nodded vigorously. Carine blushed. A few moments later, Jaquelyn found ebony earrings that matched the necklace hiding in the bottom of the pouch. She was delighted with her gifts!

Next Carine took out a roughly framed picture—well, actually it was a sand painting done on Mali cotton that looked like a figure eight with a circular disc emerging from the left side of the upper loop and a similar disc on the right side of the lower one. Both discs looked the head of a cobra. The sand painting was done in various shades of brown using sand dyed with natural colors. Mali is the second highest producer of cotton in Africa, after Egypt, Tounkara explained, as he went on to tell us how the sand paintings are done in a ceremonial way, a way that very much resembles the work of traditional artists that have come to The Ojai Foundation over the years.

Then Carine pulled out a small instrument—actually a beautifully detailed model of a traditional Malian 21-stringed instrument called a “cora.” Tounkara explained that the instrument is widely used throughout the “Mandingo Empire,” which includes Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Gambia and Senegal. He said the songs sung with cora accompaniment are both sacred and popular throughout these countries. Ibrahima promised to get me a CD of cora playing (and did on the last day of our visit). He told Jaquelyn to put it on the phonograph every night when she was cooking dinner. When she told him that Jack did all the cooking, Ibrahima shook his head in disbelief and, laughing said, “The man is not to cook in Mali.” Then he looked at me with a teasing light in his eyes and said, “Then you put the CD on every night.” I promised him I would.

By this time Tounkara was on a roll now and couldn’t resist going on about the cora. “In the 12th Century there was a King called Soundiata Keita who was paralyzed for 14 years. He arose finally from his paralysis while listening to the cora—and since then the instrument has been played for Kings down through the years.” The conversation then turned back to the cobra and the meaning of the snake in the Bambara (Mali’s indigenous) tradition. Carine filled us in on this one: “The word for snake is “sa” in the Bambara way, she said, “and means a baby is coming, a new creation is coming.” We all agreed that the baby was the LDN/council program. There were hugs goodbye between Jaquelyn and Carine and effusive handshakes among the men. The gift –giving ceremony left us feeling royally treated.

The following day we toured the laboratories at CNAM that are involved in the Project and talked with the project staff whom we still hadn’t met. Joseph and Carine took us around, slowly from the Infectious Disease Clinic to the Pharmacy and finally to the Intake Clinic specifically for AIDS, where all the participants for the Project will be screened. The slow pace of the tour soon made it clear that we were all prolonging the inevitable farewell. We stopped at one point to take pictures of a group of children who spend a good part of their life at the Health Center because they are part of families that are dealing with leprosy or some other infectious disease (see photo on this home page). A pang of sadness accompanied that realization and we told Carine of our feelings as we stood finally at the rough iron gate at the entrance to the Health Center. She smiled a strained smile that I couldn’t resist and asked her if I could give her a hug goodbye. She nodded; it was a hug of mutual gratitude and respect. Then she looked at me and said, “The GECP is a good program; thank you.” I could have wished for nothing more as I watched her embrace Jaquelyn vigorously and then added two kisses on both cheeks.

Motobou, our loyal driver, took us from CNAM to the University for a look at the computer equipment that had finally arrived in Bamako from America. It was just before noon, now on our last day in Mali, and the mid-day traffic was at least tolerable. Motobou zoomed through the narrow, market-lined, dirt streets, using the few wide Boulevards in the city whenever he could—very unlike what we had experienced two days earlier on our return from the farm at rush hour. On that day, we actually lived through a real live gridlock—the kind one imagines will happen someday in Los Angeles, when cars fill the streets in such a way that no one can move. The gridlock happened just a few blocks from the hotel and it finally took Motobou getting out of the car and directing traffic himself to extricate us from the full Mali Mess that lasted almost an hour.

Jack & Jaquelyn with Motobou
Jack & Jaquelyn with Motobou

We must tell you a little about the visit to the “Farm,” for it was the only time we had the opportunity to get out of the city, both during the current visit and the one of last December. (We had already promised Tounkawa that we would spend a week with him travelling on the Niger, camping out in the desert and visiting Timbuktu when next we returned to Mali.)

Our host family, the Nafo’s, owns the Farm and is Alfa’s place of retreat from his banking business and the smoky intensity of Bamako. It’s about a half hour drive west of the City, through Bamako’s suburbs and then a rural village whose homes are made of mud and topped with thatched roofs. We drove, slowly this time, through the village near the farm, avoiding chickens and children playing in the dirt streets with old tires and soccer balls. We could feel Motobou’s pleasure in returning to the village, anticipating the opportunity he was going to have enjoying a few cigarettes with his friends under the mango trees that surround the Nafo farm house. He had bought half a pack of Pall Mall’s near the University, the vendor giving exactly the number he wanted and putting the rest in another empty carton for the next half-pack customer.

We were greeted at the Farm by Bouba, the oldest son of Alfa and Mimi Nafo. Bouba—32 is married and has a handsome young son. He lives on the Farm most of the time and was covered in mud from working with the irrigation system when he greeted us. “I can stay here for months and never miss going into the City,” he told us many times as he led us around the Farm’s twelve acres, planted in citrus, maze, onions and eventually rice as well. They also have both dairy and meat cattle—the variety that has long curved horns and are native to Chad. Farming is a tough business in Mali. The cost of seeds, planting and labor, not to mention the land itself makes it hard for small farmers to compete with major importers from the Far East. Rice from Indonesia, for example, is cheaper in Bamako than Mali rice. Nevertheless, Bouba and the Nafo family plan to do their best to improve this situation over a period of time and become competitive. While Bouba was giving us a tour and primer on Mali agriculture, his wife was having her hair braided, a ceremonial event that Jaquelyn captured in the photo below. Water is not a problem, since the farm lies along the Niger. The River is deeper west of Bamako, perhaps 20 feet in spots according to Bouba, and still as wide as when it snakes its way through the capital city. The entire Farm is irrigated by means of a complex system of concrete trenches and an old pump that was leaking badly but still loyally bringing the river water to the tress and paddies. The afternoon taste of the world outside Bamako made us hungry for more.

Mali Village Beauty Shop
Mali Village Beauty Shop

Our Friend and Hostess, Mimi Nafo
Our Friend and Hostess, Mimi Nafo

Mimi Nafo finally overcame the Air France strike and the Bamako Airport reopened just in time for her to return from Paris and for us to see her on our last afternoon. We shared a joyous few hours with this significant member of our Mali Family—and, once again, received gifts as is the custom in the Bambara and Muslim traditions. Early in the morning on the ninth of November we left for the Airport, only to find that the plane that would take us to Casablanca for the long Atlantic flight from there to New York was going to be delayed several hours. We decided it was our sadness about leaving Mali that conspired to keep us on the ground and dozing in the airport until six am. The city was just awakening as the plane took off at dawn. The Niger was just visible through the haze.

Jack standing at the bank of the Niger River
Jack standing at the bank of the Niger River

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