One Small Dogon Stares Malian Apathy in the Face

In the Eastern region of Mali is one of the most mystical ethnic groups worldwide; the historically smaller-sized Dogon people live in the sandstone cliffs in the Eastern plateau of central Mali, from the Badiangara Escarpment east towards the border with Burkina Faso.  They are known for their incredible sculpture, mask, and animist practices that include incredible knowledge of the universe and star systems.

   

But due to increasing economic pressures, Dogons are becoming more numerous in Bamako, where they can earn more money than up north in their villages.  Four years ago, a small Dogon teenager decided he would follow them, leaving behind his home and heritage in pursuit of money for his family.

When Amadou Djiguiba was about sixteen (we have to approximate his age, which he keeps secret), he got on a bus to Bamako with nothing but a few CFA and his proper clothes, leaving his family and culture in Badiangara behind.  Amadou didn’t know Bambara or French, one of which is essential for communication in the capital city, but he still managed to make his way from the final stop at the bustling Bamako market of Sugukoura to the only Dogon he knew, in Boulkassoumbougou on the other side of the city.  Here, he could begin to learn Bambara and look for a job.  And, just a few months later, having earned the respect of everyone in his compound, a boy named Ibrahima Coulibaly came looking for a guardian for his uncle’s new house. Amadou was immediately given the job.

      

Amadou on the not-so-cliffs in Badiambougou (Bamako), and all dressed up with his keys in the courtyard.

Amadou continues to gain the respect of all those who meet him.  More of my time in Mali has been spent with Amadou than with Djibi, because it is us two who take care of the house – we split the dishes, the sweeping, the cooking.  When people ask me on the street, who taught you Bambara?, they expect me to name a local teacher or translator, or Djibi – not a small Dogon who only started learning three years ago.  But he was the one who sat with me and pushed me to keep trying, mimed and play-acted ridiculous scenarios, taught me not to be ashamed of my mistakes, and slapped Djibi when he laughed at me.   He translated difficult sentences into words I understood when annoying boys yelled things on the street to embarrass me.  He was never too busy and never too tired to help.

                     

                        Amadou & I sharing chicken, spring 2010

Amadou sleeps on a small mattress in a room just off the courtyard, but hardly gets more than four hours of sleep a night.  Yet each day he is cheerfully bantering with the women on the street, making tea for Seydou’s guests, scrubbing the sheep/goat, and cooking up his infamous chicken spam for me, even when I insist I can cook for myself.  And on top of his small wage, he has found ingenious ways to boost his income – he buys and sells cell phone credit, is known on our street for his artistry in fixing shoes, and recently managed to acquire a fridge to sell ice to the thirsty neighbors during Ramadan.  Every month, he sends half of his earnings home to his family.

Also, thanks to his mysterious Dogon senses, he can always tell me when it’s going to rain.

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Yesterday, after three summers now spent in Bamako with Amadou, I saw him get angry for the very first time.  And though I should have been provoked to write about him in more detail earlier, this one particular event affirmed his character so specifically that I’m glad I waited until precisely the right moment to share just how much he means to me.  The event proceeded as follows.

You would think with Americans coming to stay at the house every year, and with the amount of whining Malians do about how they want to go to America, that people might make some effort to capitalize on the opportunity and grind away at some English conversations.  People like Ali and Djibi especially, who have had multiple people interested in helping them get visas and placement in the US, should probably pull their fingers out of their butts soon.  Instead, the only person who fights to communicate is, of course, Amadou.

Amadou doesn’t speak a lick of French, and his traditional Dogon tongue prevents him from pronouncing almost all sounds in English correctly.  When he repeats words, they become garbled and barely understandable.  “Good morning” becomes “Goo mawfnig!” “See you later” is “syoo lucktarr” and, infamously among visitors, “Popcorn” is “Foffkoyyn.”  But every single morning when the Americans are here, he marches into the kitchen and proudly exclaims “GOO MAWFNIG ERBAWD!!” 

Each afternoon, he asks me to translate a new phrase into English, and he repeats it all evening so that he can use it the next day.  Last year, I was asked to teach an English class to various Coulibaly kids and Yeredon teachers.  The teachers forgot everything, the Coulibalys became disinterested, and Djibi never even showed up.  Amadou, who spent the classes cleaning and preparing tea in the background, silently remembered everything. 

Flash forward to last night – myself, Ali, and Amadou were sitting at the door drinking tea and chatting in Bamanankan.  The rain had ended earlier and everyone was happily enjoying their post-fasting meal fullness.  In the middle of some joke, I slapped myself a couple times, hard.  “MOSKYO!” yelled Amadou.  Ali erupted into a fit of laughter.  “Moskyo?!!”

Amadou’s blood boiled, and the hot air outside became cold as ice.  He turned to Ali, opened his mouth, and drove five minutes straight of scolding into Ali’s astonished face.

“Who do you think you are, laughing at me?  You and Djibi think you’re so great, huh? But when have you ever actually used your English?  You don’t even practice, or try to learn.  You have so many American friends and you’re too lazy to try.  How is anyone supposed to do anything in this stinking country if we laugh at each other when we’re learning new things?  How am I supposed to get any better if I’m too embarrassed to practice?  And treating me like you know better, you don’t know English either!  You’re no better than me!  Just because I’m not learning from a book, I’m actually speaking out loud, that makes you allowed to laugh at me?  Good luck to you, you’ll be stuck here speaking French and Bamanankan for the rest of your life.”

And he’s damned right.  Amadou, of all people, will not leave Mali.  He doesn’t know how to read or write, never went to school.  He won’t be sponsored for a visa, he won’t marry a white woman.  Ali and Djibi, and the dance and drumming teachers at the school – they have connections in the States and real possibilities of future travels.  And yet they’re too embarrassed or too lazy to try. 

“Actually, Ali,” I said, “When we speak English fast, the “t” sometimes gets quieter, and it could actually sound like ‘MOSKYO.’”

                                                                  ————

I once asked Amadou what his dream was.  Surely it couldn’t be cleaning and guarding an American house in Bamako for the rest of his life.  “I want to have a restaurant that serves Dogon food.”  Where?  “Here.  With lots of space outside for people to park their motos.”

Mali deprives people of change.  The obstacles, in most cases, are too great:  poverty, health standards, immobility, lack of education.  There are great factors at work slowing personal and national development.

But the first and greatest obstacle here is attitude and motivation, which has been stifled in most.  In Amadou’s case, I hope that Mali can see an exception, and can clear some space in the country’s future for an unexpected restaurant.

(originally written for my personal blog, "Sophie Safiatou," under the title World, Meet Amadou)