Monthly Archives: September 2011
The amount that I have learned over the past 2 1/2 weeks in Mali is incredible.
Everyday I am challenged to think differently than how I am used to thinking, whether it be because of the differences in language, setting, or culture. Learning Bambara has been a challenge because it is similar to many Eastern languages in that it is so ingrained with customs that most often, a literal translation will not make sense to a beginner. For example, family is very important in Malian culture, thus the answer to a typical greeting is “n se” for females (literally meaning “my father”) and “n ba” for males (literally meaning “my mother”). This reference to one’s mother or father is very important because it is a way of showing your loyalty and respect to your family, even when speaking to a complete stranger who may not know your family at all.
Here is a typical dialogue when greeting:
Person 1: I ni su (Good evening)
Person 2: N se (Thanks to my father, or Greet my father)
Person 1: I ka kene? (How is it going?)
Person 2: Ka kene (It goes)
Person 1: Somogow be di? (How is your family)
Person 2: Tooro si te. (No problems at all)
Everything is a constant stream of new and exciting information; new tastes, new smells, new sights, new words, new emotions. I feel like a young child experiencing the world for the first time. I love the savory food, and the strong teas. I love the distinct dusty smell of the desert that is completely unlike any desert in the US. I love the way the Malians dress in the beautiful colors and patterns of the bazins in contrast to the endless red dirt of the desert. I love how big the sky is here, I can see for miles in almost every direction. And most importantly, I love the feeling of being in a new place where I don’t know anyone or the appropriate way to do the most monotonous of tasks from eating to even using the toilet. It is uncomfortable in a way that I think is necessary: If you never challenge yourself to step into new situations, how are you going to grow as a person? No one ever changes from standing still. I also think that stepping into a new situation is the only way to really learn about yourself, and thus your own culture. Often Americans (and myself included) claim that we don’t really have a culture of our own, we consider ourselves to be “normal” and everything else is foreign. But now that I am seeing myself through a different “cultural lens” (cool term from IB anthropology), I am realizing things about my own customs and traditions that I never really payed attention to before. These are just a few of the aspects that have made my trip so great: the constant excitement, the adventure, the challenge, and meeting new people who are excited to help me learn.
Everyday of my study abroad, I am faced with a wave of emotions. Despite all the fun and excitement, it can be pretty hard at times. Here are the two issues that have been the hardest for me and how I have dealt with them:
Missing home: Being home sick is primarily attributed to wanting to be back in your comfort zone. Studying abroad is definitely uncomfortable at times, so it is normal to miss those small comforts you have at home such as Frosted Flakes, or seeing your best friend every day, the kind of things we usually take for granted. The only way to really overcome homesickness is to make a strong effort to make positive relationships with your new friends and family, rather than sitting on facebook checking up on everybody’s status updates from home (which is sometimes very hard to do).
Belief Differences: I am a very open-minded person, so one of the few things I really cannot stand is intolerance. However, a few members of my host family have openly expressed contempt for gays. I know that this is because of their religious beliefs, but I could not help but be very upset by this. Without a doubt, this has been the most difficult issue for me to face. At first, I noticed that many of them made small jokes and remarks about gays that I thought were harmless. But, this evening my host brother started ranting horribly about gays. He asked me how I felt about the subject, so I tried expressing my viewpoint in a manner that wouldn’t lead to conflict. I explained that I believe that gays should have the same rights as any other human being, and that I have many friends and family members who are gay that I love just the same as all the rest of my friends and family. He thought it was ridiculous and quite hilarious that I believed this, and I just couldn’t seem to be able to explain myself in a way that he would accept. I was so upset that I had to leave the situation. It is very frustrating trying to express your opinion when the other party will not listen. The language barrier also made this conversation extremely complicated as he only knew so many English words and I only knew so many French words. As an exchange student it is my job to act diplomatic, so instead of arguing with him as I probably would have done anywhere else which would have caused further conflict, I told him I couldn’t talk about it anymore and I left the situation. As frustrated and upset as I was (I was literally on the verge of tears) I realized that by insisting on my viewpoint, I would be insulting his religious beliefs. I realize that you don’t have to give up your own beliefs or change your point of view, but you do have to be considerate and know when to keep your beliefs to yourself as to avoid unnecessary conflict.
Despite these obstacles, my stay here has been and will be very rewarding. I am learning many valuable skills every day, as well as learning about a culture and people I previously knew little about. I look forward to all of the knowledge I will gain, and I accept all of the challenges that may come along the way.
As of tomorrow, I will have been living with my host family for a week. I can’t stress how great they have all been to me. They are extremely welcoming, they are patient with my inability to speak French, and they are all very sociable and pleasant people! My integration into their lives has been easier than I ever imagined. While I am struggling with understanding and speaking French and Bambara, I am finding the cultural differences very easy to adapt to. First of all, their house is very similar to houses in the United States, so my living conditions are comfortable and familiar. My family is privileged in that we have all the luxuries (such as air-conditioning, hot water, wifi, etc.) that a lot of Malians don’t have. The only large difference in living-style that I have noticed, is that their kitchen is outside. They cook over a fire in the courtyard and then, except for my host dad, we eat outside as well. That is another cultural difference; my host dad will always eat his meals separately from the rest of the family.
Initially, I thought that I might have a hard time getting used to the food or that I wouldn’t like a lot of things, but I was wrong! Every meal that I have had has been delicious! A typical Malian breakfast (le petit dejeuner) consists of coffee or tea with a baguette. However, today we had a special larger breakfast that consisted of beef with some kind of sauce that was eaten with the baguette. For lunch (le dejeuner) and dinner (le diner) we have rice with some type of meat (usually beef or chicken), vegetables, and plantains or french fries. With my meals, I usually drink water or bisap, which is a delicious juice made from hibiscus flowers. Another popular drink is gingembre, an extremely spicy but sweet juice made from pure ginger.
Another thing that has made integration into Malian culture fairly easy is how sociable everyone is! Today, my host sister and I went to the park to meet up with a bunch of her friends. However, I didn’t realize that half the people I met tonight were meeting my host sister for the first time as well. They greeted each other and began conversing as if they had known each other their whole lives. The language barrier has made it a little difficult for me to interact with people, but it also makes it fun. One of the girls I met tonight really enjoyed speaking to me, knowing that I couldn’t understand her. She would try to act out what she was trying to say, and I would guess using the various words I know in French and Bambara until we understood each other. It made conversation slow, but it was also pretty exciting whenever we could understand what the other just said.
So far, my time here has been pretty relaxing. It is extremely hot during the day, so we mostly stay inside, eat a lot, talk, hang out with friends, etc. But, I have also done and seen a lot as well. I have been to three weddings, I have been to the museum and the park, I saw Transformers in French with my host siblings at the cinema, I have visited many homes of my host family’s large extended family and friends, and have done quite a bit of sight-seeing.
As I am beginning to settle into life here in Mali, I want to now primarily focus on improving my language skills. In case you are interested here are a few of the key Bambara phrases I have learned so far:
I ni ce (Hello)
K’an be (Goodbye)
N togo… (My name is…)
I togo? (What is your name?)
N fara (I am full: this is a very important phrase to know, as Malian will always push you to eat more and more food!)
A ka di (It is good)
Be tana (I am tired/going to bed)
N be taa… (I am going…)
And here are some pictures from today:
Many Malian children have never seen or have rarely seen Americans before. So, they are either extremely shy and a little frightened or they are really excited and want to approach you. These three kids were playing outside of our classroom on our first day in Mali. They would occasionally peek their heads in to get a look at us, and then whenever we looked over they would run away. They eventually warmed up however, and this is a video of me attempting to introduce myself and ask their names.
I took this video as we were driving on one of our first days. I know many people have been curious to see what Bamako actually looks like, and I think this gives a pretty good representation of what a typical (main) street looks like. However, Bamako is an extremely large city so their are many varying areas and neighborhoods that aren’t accounted for in this video.