Ça va?

The first words out of your mouth when you meet anyone from Mali, are “Ça va!” That’s how they begin all conversations, asking how you are. No matter how casual the encounter. This is followed, in French or some tribal language, with an entire catechism along the lines of how is the wife — fine — how is the eldest son — fine — how is the second eldest son — fine — how is the 48th sheep, the one that had the croup — eaten — Nobody has robbed us at gunpoint yet but if it does happen, I am sure they will start the transaction by asking how we are, and if we are married and how our wives are and if our daughters commanded excessive dowries.

Yesterday we spent a few more hours being mobbed by children, first at a Bobo village of animists (though a new mosque has been built at the edge of town; between that and World Vision International, the franchise will be shut down in a few years and the pigs will have to go live somewhere else and the dogs will have to find another gig than being eaten and their skulls hung up on the edge of houses.) In the evening we visited Kaakolodaga. In between we walked through a pretty horrific slum where ex-slaves of the Fulani people, “freed” in 1848, live on top of a garbage dump.

The procedure is usually the same: The tourists show up in groups large or small; the guide checks in with the chief and slips him a few thousand CFA, the tourists walk around the village and check out a way of life they would never otherwise have seen, and everybody under the age of about ten tugs at his coat tails (except it’s much too hot to wear a coat) and asks for a Bic Pen and money. What is it with the Bic Pen? That has been the standard currency of begging since I was a little kid and reading National Geographic for the penises. Isn’t there anything else they need? What would they do with it if they got it? Surely World Vision International can keep them in Bic Pens.

You have to ask yourself, who are the kids who mob you? The total retards, that’s who. Somewhere in these villages, a large number of kids have already seen white tourists with cameras checking that their wallets are zipped into their pockets, five or ten times a day, and they are in their rooms playing with a Game Boy or futbol or herding goats or studying the Koran or whatever. The people who have absolutely nothing to do are the ones you get to meet. I want to take a village tour where you walk around a software development house peering into the cubicles and taking pictures of the Human Resources ladies doing their nails. And middle management follows you around asking for Bic Pens and further rounds of venture capital.

Kone actually dreads going into Kaakolodaga. It is so completely over the top, mobbing kid wise. He asked us, do you really want to go in here? It’s on an island in the Bani River next to Mopti, where the Bani and Niger rivers meet; he could have fulfilled his contract by having the Bani boatman, a Bozo named Baba, pirogue us around the island and head back to the hotel. I said yes, wondering if there would be something else. I think I am going to pass the next time I get these cues. I’m not looking forward as much to Dogon country as I might have forty years ago when I first heard of the people who worship the Dog Star and live on cliffs. I fear they have become a complete self-parody, Navajoland without the casinos, playing themselves year in and year out and the most ambitious leave to become tour guides.

Or restaurateurs: when in Mopti, make sure you eat at Restaurant Sigui. It is managed by a man named David from the Dogon village of Nonburi and the food is good and he and his staff (also from the village) are friendly and show you the murals they have painted on the walls, depicting their village.

A continuum

I think we travel too fast and don’t spend nearly enough time on vacation. This is a constant theme: it gets to me when random expats in bars say that we’re “doing it wrong” because we haven’t spent weeks or years in Zimbabwe or wherever, to actually get to know the country, the people, raise a few kids, that sort of thing. But on the other end of the spectrum — Kone told us last night over dinner, that there are “tours” of “Mali” conducted in the following wise: a group of tourists in a big chartered plane flies in at midnight to Bamako. In the morning, they tour Bamako; fly to Mopti; tour Mopti 2 hours; fly to Timbuktu; tour Timbuktu 2 hours; fly to Dogon Country; tour Dogon country 5 hours, fly back to Bamako and are on their way back to Europe on the midnight flight. This reminds me so much of the Mad Magazine satire on super fast vacations, published some time in the 1960’s. If Mad Magazine is on line, somebody google it. Mad Magazine’s staff was pretty prescient. I expect a lot of their most over the top material from 50 years ago reads pretty much like the newspaper does today.