Report from Mali – Part Two

View Report from Mali – Part One

The material below follows on the “Report from Mali” that has been posted on the home page these past few weeks. This first part of our blog can be found in the Archives Section of the Web Site—or just use the above link.

Towards the end of the council training, Abadou explained to us about cola nuts as he held two in his hand. One is the size of a large walnut and has beautiful brown and yellow-green markings. He said that was the female cola. The male cola nut is smaller with mottled dark brown and red markings. Apparently, both nuts grow on the same tree. Abadou and others explained that cola nuts are used in many ceremonies to bring good luck and to keep the bad spirits away. The discussion about cola nuts gave us a deeper glimpse into the practices of the culture we are visiting—and to whom we were sharing the practice of council.

Jesse and AmberJesse Jessup and Amber McIntyre- with Marten Turkstra translating–had traveled from Cape Town to Bamako last May to introduce council to the group here. It was a strong challenge for them, breaking ground in a culture that has forgotten that council started in the distant past in Africa as “Darè.” Now Malians are not used to speaking openly and honestly about intimate matters and the May training had to break new ground to open up the possibilities that council might play a role in stopping the spread of HIV infection through education and the empowerment of women. Our courageous South African Team left Mali feeling they had hardly made a dent in the cultural resistance of their trainees, but it turned out they had underestimated their own talents as trainers—and the power of the process.

After the Council TrainingThe ten people gathered around the table in CNAM’s conference room with us on November 2nd and 3rd had been meeting monthly since the South African trainers left and had all embraced council to varying impressive degrees, along with the Project Principal Investigator, Professor Kader, who was also with Amber, Jesse and Maarten in May. The opening check-in on the first morning made it clear that council was alive and well in Bamako. There was no candle and no talking piece when we started, yet the sense of ceremony was present. The good humor in welcoming us and the training opened our hearts and we soon plunged in to sharing the goals we had for the two days. Our translator was an eager young man in love with America, recruited at the last minute when the daughter of our host family here found herself stuck in Paris due to an Air France strike and then the temporary closing of the Bamako Airport for repairs. Abdoul wears two American flags in his lapel and yearns to continue his education in the States.

The first day of training focused mainly on how the council facilitators are going to invite people to join the council program. We broke up into pairs, with the “A’s” pretending to be new participants in the program who have just been told they were HIV positive and were being invited to join an ongoing council by the “B’s.” The pretending game was new to them, so it took a while to get rolling. With a lot of support from us, the game soon started coming alive. Playfulness, even when the situation is serious, is still a great ally of council. But the highlight of the day was when we broke the group up into men and women and went more deeply into issues of faithfulness, trust, and the shame associated with finding out one is HIV positive here. Our goal was to see how the facilitators handled the imbalance of power between men and women in the still polygamous Muslim Culture.
Although the women loved being alone, and immediately took to Jaquelyn’s ease with them and her feisty spirit, they still tip-toed around the big issue of the lack of ability of most women to shape their intimate lives. Without entering into judgment–a real challenge–Jaquelyn brought them back again and again to the gender unbalances inherent in the spread of HIV.

Meanwhile the men had a great old time, after a slow start. Jack decided to use the format of a response council, so he could encourage each man to go deeper with gentle questions. He was given ample evidence that men were not about to give up polygamy by the Muslim men present, although the discussion of sharing intimacy with two or more wives had its humorous moments that seemed universal and reminiscent of young men in the US talking about dating more than one girl at a time. The only Christian man present made a passionate plea for monogamy and the group ended with many affirmations about how important it was going to be for the facilitators to remain completely non-judgmental about the intimacy practices of their council members.

We enjoyed the harvest of the men’s and women’s circles the following day during the check-in council. The women all wanted to meet alone again and the men shared how new and useful it had been to talk about intimacy issues openly. When one of the facilitators picked up a pen and suggested we use it as a talking piece, we naturally thanked him profusely and used the moment to launch into a discussion about the kinds of ceremony with which they might all be comfortable. We spoke of creating a special and comfortable setting for council and we even talked about setting the Field. You might imagine that it took some time to translate that word, “field,” appropriately into French, but we did, and by lunch time we had recast the five intentions—confidentiality was elevated to an intention for obvious reasons—in a Malian way that worked well for us all.

Fishermen on the NigerSpeaking of lunch, they fed us all royally both days, with a huge catered meal that included fish on Friday and fried chicken the next day. The chicken was of another variety than we were not used to—it was actually biologically different—and had the texture of chicken jerky. The fish was Threadfin from the Niger River and was delicious. Fried yams, salad and good French bread rounded out the solid food. They also served huge bottles of zira fruit that is a specialty in Mali. The dried fruit is ground into a powder and when mixed with water is amber in color. When cold, it’s quite tasty—unlike any other drink we have ever experienced.

On Saturday we talked about other forms of council, conflict resolution and heard wonderful stories about everyone’s family. We even got into the coyote spirit that is so important in the Native American Council Tradition. It turns out they know the coyote energy well in Mali. This spirit is carried by the Koroduga—the little people of the Spirit World—that give you a hard time if you don’t honor your ancestors sufficiently. Malidoma Somè talks eloquently about these spirits in his wonderful book, The Healing Wisdom of Africa. In his Burkina Faso tradition (that country is just to the south of Mali), these other worldly spirits are called Kontomblè, We also discovered the analogous phrase to “Ah Ho” in the Native American tradition, which is a way of saying “Amen” or “I’m with you,” when someone says something that really touches you. The word in the Bambara language (the native tongue here) is “Awo” and means virtually the same thing. Council is truly universal.

By the end of the second day we felt like a family. The women were very affectionate with each other and included Jaquelyn in their practice as the training went on, holding her hand when they walked together, and greeting her and bidding her farewell with kisses on both cheeks. With Jack, hand shaking was all their enormous respect for elder men allowed, but calling him “Mister Jack” was their way to show affection and love at the same time.

It was at the closing council that Amadou had shared his cola nuts with the circle and, when we suggested we use both as a talking piece for the final round, everyone was delighted. We had come home, full circle, using one of their ceremonial objects as the talking piece. At the end of the council, both of us were hoping that Amadou would gift us with the two nuts—and he did!! We told them that council was in good hands in the program and really meant it. The group picture says it all. Awo!!

The other highlight of our second week in Bamako was an invitation to join the CNAM staff during a visit of the Minister of Health for all of Mali. We sat with the Staff around a huge table and heard ourselves praised (in French) for bringing the program to their country. Later on we were told he also praised the US Government for sending us. Needless to say, that amused us no end.

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