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Baby Elephants?

The title of this post might suggest that we saw a lot of elephants.  We did not.  Rather, the title is a reference to a metaphor we discussed at one point while performing our medical relief services in Mali: the metaphor of an elephant that never grows to know it's own power because its spirit was cobbled as a child.

Kathleen Brehony recounts the story eloquently in her book Living a Connected Life, so I'll share her rendition with you:

Trainers teach baby elephants to stay by tying one of their legs to a short rope and attaching it to a stake in the ground.  At first the baby elephant pulls and pulls against his restraint, but to no avail.  No matter what he does, he can't get away.  When the elephant is grown, all a trainer needs to do is tie a small rope -- attached to nothing -- around the elephant's leg and he is now held to the spot, not by a stake but by his own beliefs.

As I traveled and met more and more people, and saw the conditions in which they lived, I couldn't get this metaphor out of my head.  It was a shared experience.  During one conversation, a colleague extemporaneously offered, "Africa seems like the continent of restricted dreams."  From an American, drenched from birth is the ideology of boundless dreams, that's a powerful observation.

Perhaps reporting such sentiment here is bit too raw; my intent is certainly not to indict an entire country or culture.  It's more a feeling than a set of statistics.  All I am trying to point out is that anyone intent on making a contribution to the country -- not just touring and taking photographs -- should contemplate this observation and make sure that their choice of contributions does not inadvertently perpetuate any sense of overwhelming limitation that may be festering just below the surface.

No CadeauBy way of simple example, let me take up the issue of child begging -- something any traveler in the region will encounter.  During the three weeks I traveled in Mali, I must have gotten a hundred requests for a "cadeau", which is the French word for "gift".  On the one hand, encountering a beggar's request knowing that you have so much and the request is so minuscule makes giving a cadeau seem trivial. 

But on the other hand, is it really? 

If you begin to explore the situation more deeply, you might ask yourself if you're not actually doing harm.  I did.  In light of the above observation, I couldn't escape the feeling that by fulfilling the request for a cadeau I was tying another small rope -- becoming an active participant in the limitation of dreams.

Incidentally, I found it no coincidence that the national word for hand out is a French term given the country's colonial heritage.  Yes, the country became independent (again) in 1960, but in the grand scheme of things, that's only 48 years -- less than a generation of liberty to rekindle a sense of boundlessness, a sense of true opportunity.

Like with most problems I observed on the trip, I have no specific answers.  Not yet anyway.  But, at least now I'm thinking about them.  Perhaps you are too.  As every recovery program points out, the first step in solving a problem is recognizing you have one.


Progress Calling

When it comes to communication in Mali, you can check your western sense of assumed technological superiority at the border.  The profusion of cell phones in Mali is staggering.  Almost everyone we encounter in the cities have them, not to mention a strong minority of people we met in the bush.

The benefits of this profusion are fairly obvious: communication facilitates commerce and serves as a valuable lifeline in a desert environment.  And speaking or desert, the flat, open spaces are ideal for cell phone tower performance; we found connectivity in almost every location we visited on the trip.

That service is provided by either Orange or Malitel, but Orange is the overwhelming marketer in the country.  In fact, the Orange logo was more ubiquitous than any other advertised brand I saw throughout the country.  Orange makes Coke look like rank amateurs when it comes to marketing here!

One travel tip: most, if not all, Malians use pre-paid services.  "Top up" time cards, which look like little lottery tickets because of their scratch-off access codes, are for sale everywhere.  Instead of dealing with your phone service from abroad, cozy up to a guide or driver and offer to top up their card in exchange for usage.  USD$40 kept me in sufficient call time back to the US over a three week trip.


Something Fishy

Yaya with LunchWhen you get to Mali be prepared to eat fish.  In particular, be prepared to eat "capitan", a white fish endemic to the Niger River (hence, its English name of Niger Perch).  The Niger bisects northern and southern Mali as it runs acoss the country from Guinea on the southeastern border to Niger on the western border.  Its waters are plied daily by Bozo fishermen to extract life-giving sustenance.

Capitan is tasty no matter how it's prepared.  And they've learned how to prepare it in a variety of ways: boiled, stewed, smoked, fried, dried and, in my case the favorite, grilled.  

The first place I encountered Capitan was at Le Santoro restaurant, a tourist-oriented restaurant and cultural center founded not accidentally by a former cultural minister of Mali.  Le Santoro is located off of Koulikoro Road in Bamako.


Bamako in a Day

1773977-1109729-thumbnail.jpgPretty much all visits to Mali begin and end with Bamako, Mali's capital city.  The city is home to over 2,000,000 people and displays the hustle and bustle common in any capital city.  One look out the window, however, and I knew I was not in the Western world.  Motor scooters were the preferred form of wheeled transportation and donkeys the un-wheeled; kids playing soccer on the same field as livestock; streets lined with makeshift market stalls; and Mosques.

Bamako is the country's largest and most developed city.  There appears to be strong commerce in the capital city, albeit few I asked could explain what business it is that is taking place.  Our exposure to commerce is limited to tourist-focused establishments such as the Artisanat -- the city's bustling craft market -- and restaurants.

 For the culturally inclined, the National Museum of Mali is a must-see stop.  Here, one learns the basics of Malian history through artifacts.  Items on display range from earliest human implements from the region, all the way to modern examples of the country's impressive fabric artistry.  While the country grows cotton, it exports it to other countries (Europe and increasingly China) for the making of textiles.  Once loomed, however, Mali re-imports the finished goods to produce impressive dyed and printed fabrics.  These fabrics, many finished by hand with wax, are exceptionally beautiful and coveted for making clothing.

Antelope Headdresses, Bambara TribeThe Museum trip will also start to give you a sense of how very connected the Malian people are with the land and their environment.  During a tour of ancient artifacts, for example, our guide explained why you see so many gazelles and antelopes portrayed.  To this American, the answer seemed obvious: Duhh!  Becuase they ate 'em.  Not so, although he did admit they are quite tasty.  The real reason, he explains, is because God sent them to the people to teach farming!  (Um, excuse me.  Farming?  Take a moment to think about this idea before moving to the next paragraph...)

Gazelles and antelopes taught farming because, as they run, they churn up the dirt under their hooves, then poop in the depressions.  And, as everyone knows: poop + hoove marks  = trees.  Because there's seeds in the... well, you get it, I'm sure.  The broader point, however, is quite intriguing.  When was the last time you stopped to notice, much less analyze, how exactly the plants around you came to be?  Shouldn't you?  The early Malians perceived the grazing of an Antelope as an act of God.  No matter your spiritual path you're on, you must respect the intense connection that early Malian animism brought to these humans. 

We ended our day by returning to the Hotel L'Amitie, a modern hotel catering to foreign visitors.  By the plethora of outside signage on the building, it's clear this hotel has changed hands many times, most recently to Moumar Khadafi, who has rechristened it "Hotel Libya".  The Hotel experienced only one brown-out during our stay, making it a clear 5-star leader in the region!


Parle Vous Francés?

12427-1475712-thumbnail.jpgUpon landing, one of the very first impressions was not visual, but rather auditory: no one speaks English.  This is a bit unsettling if you aren't expecting it and I really wasn't.  Despite all the prep about the trip, including reading about Mali's French colonial history, I never quite brought into consciousness that very few people in Mali would speak English.  Not hearing English, nor being able to communicate in French, made the country feel more foreign than even initially expected.

As the trip progressed, I came to learn that there are several other languages spoken in Mali and that many speak them at the exclusion of even French.  These languages include Bombara and Tamasheq.  The profusion of different languages, and the inability to rely even on French alone, made me long for the mythical Babel Fish -- the sci-fi parasite imagined by Douglas Adams that, once embedded in your ear, will translate any language.  You can get many parasites in Mali, but babel fish are not among of them.  Therefore, having a guide and translator is essential for an enjoyable visit to Mali.