I realize that I have not been very good at this blogging thing, and I apologize to those of you who have been curious about my experiences. These past couple of months since my last entry have kept me extremely busy with a number of significant events from learning about traditional African dance and music at La Maison des Arts, to having Christmas lunch at the Ambassador’s house, to taking a few camping trips and exploring small villages. I will start by summarizing some of these important experiences and discoveries, and then will end by giving some finally thoughts on my semester abroad before I finally leave this Sunday.
1) La Maison des Arts
At the beginning of December, the four other American exchange students and I spent a day at La Maison des Arts, which is a dance studio, art gallery, hotel, restaurant and home all rolled in to one. That morning, I was one of the first to arrive, so I got to spend about an hour or so with the owner, Makan, talking one-on-one about what this beautiful place meant to him. He told me how he had created this place with his French wife as a way to preserve and rejuvenate traditional culture in Mali. However, he also stressed the importance of accepting modernization, thus his house and his art demonstrated an interesting dynamic between the old and the new. We began our stay by learning a traditional African dance called dégou-dégou (I’m not sure of the meaning of this Bambara word), which is the first dance that his students learn when they first begin to study with him. After jumping, twirling, and flinging for the better part of the afternoon, we retired downstairs to eat up a delicious Malian meal before beginning our drum lesson. I had learned how to drum at my elementary school in Ohio, so I found that the rhythms and technique he taught us were rather simple and easy to follow – however my hands were thoroughly sore and swollen by the time we finished. As our day came to an end, we finally sat back and watched the professional dancers rehearse. They performed for us a long, theatrical piece called “La Lumière”, or “The light” that was about a traditional Malian family forced to face the difficulties of their children growing up in a modern world. The dance was extremely moving and thought provoking, and afterwards when Makan explained the meaning of the dance, we were all taken over by the sad thought that with modernization, many dances and traditions like this would one day be lost. With this in mind, I am glad to have spent the day at La Maison des Arts, and now, I can bring back a piece of Mali with me and even help to preserve this beautiful culture.
2) The holidays
Previously, I had been kind of dreading the holiday seasons because this year would be my first spent away from home, and I knew that it wouldn’t be the same. However, it turns out that the holidays proved to be far more meaningful than ever this year.
I spent Thanksgiving with the other four American exchange students, a few Fulbright scholars, and diplomat MEGAN and her family. I could tell that many of us were a little sad to be away from our families, but we all gave our thanks to be able to spend time in such a wonderful country and we ate a delicious dinner – turkey and all!
Christmas was even more special to me, because I hadn’t initially expected to celebrate it at all, as my host family is Muslim. However, they invited over our Christian next-door neighbors and we spent all Christmas Eve feasting on delicious food, dancing, and light-heartedly joking. It made me feel extremely grateful to have been welcomed into such a generous family who was open and accepting of my culture and traditions. Then, I spent Christmas Day at the ambassador’s house. Again, we had a delicious feast, and we even got to sing Christmas carols and bake Christmas cookies.
New Years is a big deal in Mali so I spent the entire day cooking with my aunts, neighbor, host-sister, and host-mom in preparation for our New Years Eve Feast (yes, we have a lot of feasts in Mali, to simply call it a meal would be a large understatement). At the strike of midnight we all ran outside and shot of fire works (which are perfectly legal here. From the rooftop of our house I could see fireworks for miles in every direction, a beautiful scene that looked like millions of tiny exploding stars hovering over Bamako, and the happy cries of “Bonne Année!”
3) Sounkalo’s Wedding
Congratulation’s Sounkalo! Our program coordinator here in Mali, Sounkalo, just got married and we were lucky enough to have been invited to participate. We had special traditional costumes made from bogolan fabric, which is naturally dyed from mud and plants. On the eve of their marriage we had (yes, another) feast and we were sort of treated as the “guests of honor” as we got to sit at the front of the room with the bride and groom for all to see. The following morning was the actual marriage. We arrived at the town hall and waited around for a few hours until the official ceremony had been done (disappointingly, we didn’t actually get to see it). Then, we drove around from house to house to visit all of the large extended family of the bride and groom, eating and drinking at each stop. The bride then went into her house to remain unseen for 7(?) days, during which she would receive advice on how to run a household and how to have a healthy relationship with her husband and children from an older female family member.
We actually went camping twice, the first time outside of Kangaba, a small African village, and the second time on the beautiful rooftop of a house in the city of Ségou. Camping in Ségou was particularly memorable because of the setting – surrounded by a beautiful garden below, a wide-open sky filled with stars and an almost-full moon, and a number of mosques spotting the skyline around us. I was awoken early in the morning by the echoing of the adhān, the Islamic call to prayer. The sky was still dark, so between the mixture of the stars, the crisp air, and the chillingly beautiful songs of the muezzins, the scene felt extremely magical.
A final highlight of our trip to Ségou: We got to ride camels!
In addition to our many escapades throughout Mali, I have spent the majority of my time improving my French (I finally have made significant growth in my speaking abilities!), going to school, and getting close to my host-family. I am extremely saddened to leave, but with all of the friendships I have made over the past four months, I have the feeling that I will return one day.
I would just like to thank the YES Abroad Program for providing me with this amazing opportunity – it has truly changed my life and I think that it is safe to say that it has also changed the lives of many people here in Mali as well. We have proven that differences can be overcome, and that people of conflicting viewpoints can live together happily and peacefully. I truly believe the world would be one hundred times more peaceful if there were more programs like YES Abroad.