Saturday, September 20, 2008

"Mishi b'i fe wa?" Yes I do have cows, thank you for asking.

I consider today a big success primarily because my first interaction with a baby didn't end up with her exploding into tears at the sight of me, which often happened last time I was here. Apparently I'm terrifying to small children. Well, not all children. Mainly the Senegalese, Guineen, and in this case it was Hawa's baby, Kadiatou, who is Malian. I think she even winked at me while peering from behind her mom's back, or it was a fly that landed on her eye.

Adjusting has been more difficult than I imagined it would be. I live in a gigantic house, my footsteps echo, and I'm alone. It's psychologically difficult, right now at least, to venture out into the public from behind the eight foot wall that surrounds the house, but in time it'll be alright. I'm a cultural chameleon. I only knew Mali as Issa Sidibe, a member of Papa Sidibe's family in Yanfolila. There I'd eat from a bowl with five other people, using our hands to eat, stay up till the early morning hours watching the one TV channel with a lot of the neighbors crowding around the TV set, pull water from a well, and pass morning till night together. There was never time to be alone. These first few days have been quite drastically different. But then again, it's the adjustment period. I have to remember how to handle a severe lack of communication, eyes staring at me from every direction, kids screaming "Toubabou" from a mile away, and lots of other psychological hurdles to be dealt with, like venturing out to find food for myself. I'd prefer eating with my hand with five other people all clawing at the same piece of fish than have a waiter deliver me a coke in an air-conditioned restaurant. I need to make good with the family next door so they invite me to eat.

So this brings me to success number two. After being granted the opportunity last night to complain about my somewhat lonely situation to a friend, via gmail, I pulled myself together and remembered everything I learned/endured the first time I was here and spent the day sitting under the tree out front with the neighbors and passers-by. I'm starting to fall back into stride. I spent the majority of the time trying to decipher what they might be talking about by listening for the few words and phrases I do know in Bambara, then watching body language and other context clues that might tip me off to the rest. Then when I heard something I could repeat, I'd ask what it meant. I remember it being much, much easier with Wolof. It was easy to distinguish the beginnings and ends of words, but with Bambara they all kind of run into each other, and there are a lot of small words like be, ka, ke, bo, ra, so, bi, ni, fe, which, when used in different combinations or attached as suffixes to different words, can mean a variety of things. That's hard. When I started studying French I couldn't understand a word anyone said, but it was only a matter of tuning my ear to how the language wants to work. I was used to Spanish, which seemed much clearer and defined not so annoyingly throaty. As soon as I became accustomed to how French is phrased, it was easy. Maybe I learned Wolof so well in comparison to Bambara last time because I invested so much energy into tuning my ear to Wolof that by the time I arrived in Mali, I was too tired and unwilling to go through the painful process again. This time around, fortunately, I studied Bambara a little bit and I don't have Wolof messing things up. I can devote myself to Bambara. I already saw some progress today out front. That being said, tomorrow I am going to try to find my old Senegalese friends. They moved but I know where they used to work and I can probably find a phone number for them as well as practice Wolof again.

A third success today was realizing that people prefer not to call me Tim, as Tim is short for Fatima, a woman's name. That gave me the opportunity to present myself as Issa Sidibe, the name given to me in Yanfolila last year (I think only 3 people in Mali knew my name was actually Tim last time). I like this because as I said, I was only known as Issa before, so to be called again gives me a sense of comfort in the craziness that is Bamako. So frequently, when people learn that I'm a Sidibe, my conversations go like this:

= I togo be di?
= Ne togo ko Issa.
= E jamu?
= Ne be Sidibe.
= Eh?!?? E be fula-ke??
= Owo.
= Fula a man nyi de!
= Aich! (while waving a finger at them). A ka nyi.
= Mishi b'i fe wa?
= Owo, mishi be n'fe.
= E Sidibe.
= Nba.

It's pretty fun. They ask me if I have cows (mishi) because often times the Fula are cattle herders. The Fula, or commonly, Puehl, are from the Wassoulou region in the south. Yanfolila is the main town down there and where I spent the majority of my time in Mali last year. Once I remember who the Sidibe's can joke with I'll be able to respond to people telling me that Sidibe's are no good ("Sidibe a man nyi"), by telling them that they're no better than a donkey (fali). That always gets a good laugh because it's so unexpected from me. I think I remember that Sidibe's and Diakite's and Sissoko's can all joke with each other. But a Sidibe can't have the same playful relationship with Konate's or Koita's.