Anil’s story-Chapter eight: Abject poverty of Mali- West Africa- 1979 to 1981

Amal Chatterjee
47 min readMar 20, 2023

Source : Google photo of the mosque in Timbuctoo, Mali, West Africa

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Getting out of the plane at the Bamako Senou airport in Mali, we were hit by the heat wave like a blast. Jasmine was certainly worried and covered up Jayanti some more lest she start dehydrating. We were all very tired after the long journey from Delhi via Paris and eager to reach a hotel.

The hotel we reached in Bamako was the Amitie Hotel, an old albatross of a featureless drab but huge hotel that dominated the landscape. It was the biggest building in town not too far from the placid Niger river. The thing that one never failed to notice in the Amitie hotel was the elevator wrapped in boa skins. I do not know how many poor creatures were slaughtered to obtain all the skins, but I assure you the elevator was big.

We were met by a fellow called Jeff who was a middle-aged person who never could decide whether to smile or frown so I suppose he tried to do both at the same time. But he was helpful in settling us down temporarily and had my personal car driven up from Dakar the next day. We had to stay in that hotel for a few days because it happened to be a Moslem holiday that closed all the offices in town where we had some business.

So patiently we waited and took all the food in the shelter of our air-conditioned room. Ashis at that time a small baby himself ran around the room and often got a shock by touching the doorknob due to build up static on the rug so he soon learned not to touch it.

The official tour guidebook describes Bamako as a dainty town, but we saw nothing dainty about Bamako with open sewers, garbage piled up by the roadside and obnoxious flies everywhere. However, people were not obnoxious like in Dakar and women selling beautiful tie dye clothes in rainbow colors smiled innocently. Kids smiled too but for a different reason. They often hanged around the few department stores where the foreigners did their shopping of imported chocolate or ice cream.

It was shocking to see the priorities in a desperately poor country like Mali, but the foreigners did not care. They had to have their chocolate and ice cream. The kids often picked pockets if you thought they were just innocently smiling at you, but the worst were the gas station attendants who distracted you while pumping gas and quickly set the meter to zero telling you that your tank is full.

Just behind the Amitie hotel we found scores of weavers squatting in the dirt in the shade of trees who made colorful strips of clothes on their looms made of bicycle spindles and wood. They never could make the strips wider than about 4 inches, so they had to stitch the strips together to make a bigger piece. These weavers sat there in the heat sweating it out on their primitive looms day after day to make a living but judging from the rags they wore or the houses they lived in, it was doubtful if they made a good living. Only the blanc made a good living in Mali. I felt a bit ashamed for the first time being in the category of blanc although my salary was low by the international standard.

Mali is a huge country with the land area greater than France and Germany combined but with only about five million people. The northern half of the country was desert with little or no rainfall and was inhabited mostly by the nomads tending their herds of cattle, goat and sheep. The southern half was greener due to more rainfall, but we were to go to Sikasso in the southeast corner of the country some 400 km from Bamako. I had visited Sikasso previously and had some misgivings about bringing my family there, but we had to make a start somewhere.

The drive to Sikasso was boring and tiring but the road was straight and flat with a great number of potholes that cut through the featureless African brush country. Large herds of cattle could be seen crossing the road with Fulani herders not far behind. Scattered villages could be seen where the mud houses were either rectangular or round with conical grass roof clustered together under occasional baobab trees. Some villages had crumbling mud walls around them as fortification.

The only fair size town if it could be called a town at all was Bougouni halfway down the road. Jasmine was disappointed as I could see it in her eyes, but she put up a brave front. Women with goiters, children with swarms of flies on their faces and people in homespun cotton rags were all around us to liven up the spirit but it did not help much. I had written a bit about Bougouni previously so I will not add to it except that outside the town one saw the signboard of a Missionary compound. They were there to bring the light of Jesus to the heathens.

We would later meet many of them in Sikasso as well but more on them later. We stopped in Bougouni to get some gas and food, but the former was easier. The only restaurant in town was owned by an old Lebanese. It was dirty and full of flies, but we sat there trying to ignore the outstretched hands of beggars who appeared as soon as the car stopped. But they were not aggressive like in Bangladesh or India and left after a while.

One could not fail to notice the mango trees everywhere. Mali was known for mangoes and those who never had tasted good mangoes before said that it was the best in the world. We found many roadside village markets where Fulani women sold milk and butter and others sat with piles of vegetables and meat. We stopped at one of them just to see what was available. It was not much as compared to Asian markets, but Mali was Mali.

Sikasso was not any better either as we settled down in the only hotel in town chasing the cockroaches and rats in the room. Soon the word got around that I was a doctor meaning a medical doctor so many people came around asking for help. The very next day we started hunting for a house and took the first house we came across to the disappointment of Jeff who had lined up a few houses for us to look at. But we were living in hotels too long and were anxious to settle down.

Our house was a concrete pillbox type of a house, but it looked better than a hotel room, so we unpacked, and she was soon busy cooking. The yard was big and a few mango trees. The wonder of wonders, the house had electricity and a hand pump for water. We also had a night watchman living in the yard. British people are horrified when you say yard meaning a garden, but it was more like a yard full of gravel and no garden.

The night watchman had a young wife and another woman who looked like his mother but Jasmine after observing them for a few days declared that she was his first wife. Most Malians are Moslems and practiced polygamy. The first few days were spent looking for the things we needed to set up our household, so I found some crude furniture made of trunks of palm plants and held together with leather thongs.

To our dismay we found the only grocery store stocked with old cases of Heineken beer and not much else. They also had champagne, but we did not know who drank champagne in Sikasso and were not eager to find out.

The local market assembled once a week on a Sunday where farmers brought in their produce of fruits and vegetables etc. to sell and buy what they needed in return. Mostly it was a women’s affair. They came in their colorful clothes, and some wore headbands or a turban of sorts. Men wore boubous or homespun cotton clothes.

We were warned that Sikasso was a Malaria zone so I fixed up the wire screens on doors and windows and bought mosquito nets .We also started taking Nivaquine tablets and gave the kids the powdered form as prophylactic. Jayanti and Ashis were miserable because of the heat in the pillbox of a house that we had and soon their tiny bodies filled up with rashes.

We were helpless because the voltage was too low to run the air conditioners, we had installed so we just sweated and tried to cool their bodies with wet towels. We were all miserable but felt sorry for the babies.

We were lucky if we had electricity more than a few times a week so bought a few kerosene lamps and lot of candles. It was not very reassuring for a new family like ours with so small children but somehow, we managed.

Our first job was to get a domestic help so soon a boy was found. He was called Abou which is a common name but his sense of propriety offended Jasmine. He walked around the house in his brief and did not know how to babysit although he made an effort. In Mali such tasks are always given to girls or women. Jasmine was baffled when he started doing some strange calisthenics everyday sitting on a mat, so I had to explain that he was a Moslem and had to pray five times a day. She had never met a Moslem in the Philippines and was totally unaware of their religion or culture.

But calisthenics or not Abou had to go because he was totally hopeless. He also did not know how to count so I had a difficult time explaining his wages. Soon we found the White Fathers who were mostly French, Belgian or Spanish priests who ran a Catholic mission and the only church in town.

There were also White Sisters or nuns who ran orphanages and taught women some skills in homemaking. They were very friendly and loved Ashis and Jayanti. We soon found a maid through their help. Baby care came naturally to women here, so we were greatly relieved.

She carried Jayanti on her back the African style and went around the neighborhood where Jayanti soon became popular. Ashis was a toddler and could walk around the house by himself, but we had to watch him all the time because of his propensity to put anything in his mouth, food or not.

By this time Jasmine was learning the word patience by heart. We had to make do under the circumstances which must have been hard on her with two small kids to look after round the clock but at least we were settled and found a maid . It was not a bad start considering.

One day we found the new maid crying but not knowing the Bamanakan which is their language, we could not understand what her problem was. The white fathers said that she was suffering from Malaria, so I took her to the hospital and proper medication was given. Many Malians suffered from malaria but could not afford the medicines. They did not know what preventive medicine or measures that they could take.

We were amazed how quickly the kids responded to medication of any kind. Often, we found them with scabs or some festering wounds to which we attended, and they recovered fast. We noticed that their parents did not care much about tending their kids so simple sickness went uncared for until it developed into something more serious. Often children died.

You could see kids with huge belly buttons the size of your fist which they explained was natural because everyone had it. Malians did not agree that it was due to faulty severing of the umbilical cord at birth. I soon found out that the Malians seldom accepted that they did not know something but then are the Bengalis or the Arabs any different?

The goiter was another example. Their food lacked iodine so something as simple as iodized salt was the cure or prevention was beyond their comprehension. They thought that goiter was something most women had. They took great pride in dressing up in embroidered boubous and certainly looked very elegant in them, but they ate only cornmeal or sorghum gruel and little else. Dry catfish smoked to last long was a delicacy, but it stank to high heaven. Meat was a luxury for the most.

Men too wore boubous of colorful silky materials with a great deal of embroidery, but the emphasis was more on show and less on substance. The once-a-week Sunday market in town was a riot of colors as even the poorest showed up in their finest making the scene a photographer’s dream as long you did not look too closely at the mountain of garbage left behind or the sores.

Most of the buying and selling was done by women in Mali as elsewhere in Africa. They came from outlying villages with huge bundles on their head walking for miles. They sold their produce in order to buy what they needed but some barter also took place as money was in short supply.

The few toubabs as we were called were an oddity in town. Women often touched Jasmine’s shiny long hair to admire although we found kinky hair beautiful that they braided in many different ways. A young Malian girl with beautifully braided hair was a person to behold. Many top models in Europe were West African girls who had a grace and a poise unseen elsewhere. But often they did not appreciate their own beauty like their almost silky and shiny black skin. To them being of fair skin was better. Just like the Bengalis or the Filipinos.

Part of it was due to the introduction of Christianity and Islam in a country that was to a large extent animist. They were told that being bare breasted was uncivilized, so they wore bras with wire that cut into their breasts and developed festering wounds. They were told that singing unholy songs or dancing was sinful, so some women covered themselves up entirely with black veil in case of the Wahabite sect of Islam. But you could also see young bare breasted girls pedaling bicycle carrying a boy in the front.

On the whole the Malians loved to sing and dance and were exuberant people. We would get to know them more closely when we moved to a village later but the pressure of religion whether Christianity or Islam was relentless so perhaps it was a matter of time before they lost their exuberance. Certainly, the mollahs and the missionaries were working overtime to change all Malians.

It was quite apparent in Mali that the spread of Islam was faster than that of Christianity. Mosques were sprouting up in every village like mushrooms. The mullah from the big mosque in Bamako could reach every corner of the country on the radio five times a day.

The Catholics were no less lacking in their zeal and at one time provided the Malians the only occidental education in math, science and social studies in their church run schools until they were closed by the government. Now the Catholic church was providing health care, running orphanages and teaching women how to sew or embroider. They often organized sport activities and helped the community in many ways, so a small catholic population was slowly growing.

Not to be outdone, the Protestants also set up their shops run by the North Americans, but their activities were restricted to a lot of singing hymns and chanting in their crudely built churches or translating the Bible into the local language which was a very difficult undertaking. There were also Canadians in Bougouni and elsewhere running missions. The pastor in Bougouni was a very friendly and outgoing person but his wife was suspicious and very unfriendly.

In many rural areas people remained rooted to their animistic past and fetish worship. They enjoyed the freedom of singing and dancing to the sound of balafon which is a xylophone. The Malian balafonist is a true artist but they also made many homemade musical instruments from tin cans, sinews and animal skins that they played exceedingly well. In fact, one of the best-known vocal artists in Africa was a Malian who also gained fame in Europe.

In Sikasso we settled down to the routine of living and caring for baby Jayanti and Ashis who were growing chubby day by day. Jayanti enjoyed her piggyback ride to no end and Ashis joyously pedaled his tricycle around the house often with Jayanti sitting in the back. But they had no other children to play with. Every Sunday, we brought them to the church where the nuns would fall in line to cuddle Jayanti and Ashis. They also came to the house if we failed to visit with them. Jasmine did not speak French so remained outside the conversation but welcomed the friendship of the religious community.

I still waited for the project to start. I did not know who the coworkers were or where the office was going to be. There were some Dutch people who worked in one of the villages near Sikasso collecting data on sociology and would later superficially integrate into our project, but they remained aloof to us. We always felt that they remained apart willingly, so we never got to know them in three years we spent in Mali.

I do not know what I can attribute their indifference to but perhaps they were uncomfortable with us being a married couple and they being bachelors. Or perhaps it was something else. We never knew. One Chinese French was a bit more friendly at first but later we hardly ever saw them. Among the two Peace Corps volunteers, one would later move elsewhere and die of some causes while the other, a young girl remained in Sikasso where she did animal science projects. I do not remember any of their names.

I had learned over the years not to expect any friendship or social mixing from the few foreigners who lived in isolation, so it was no different here. Infact smaller the town and fewer the toubabs as the foreigners were called, less likely it was that they would say hello or want to get to know you. Do not ask me why it is so. This pattern repeated itself in many countries where I had lived. The European missionaries were the sole exception.

The Malian counterparts did the same. They came to our house often but never returned the courtesy. In three years, that we spent, we never knew where they lived. Perhaps they were hesitant because they lived in poor houses or there could be other reasons. We just did not know.

There were many dangers of living in Mali but one that we were unaware of was right in the house where we lived. One night Jasmine dropped the bottle cap and bent down to pick it up in the dim candlelight when the cap squirmed in her hand. Her very quick reflex spared her from the sting of an African scorpion. We were horrified. What if the kids had stepped on it?

We started searching the house everywhere for more scorpions and found several of them. They were also found under rocks in the yard. It was a very disturbing development that I was not at all prepared for.

Then there were rumors going around the town that there was a fanatic fellow who was cutting off the ears of unsuspecting people, so everyone was scared and alert. It so happened that one morning just near our house we heard a women scream in distress, so people came out quickly and found a fellow with a knife in his hand and beat him senseless. Soon the policemen came and took him away to be shot.

It was learned that a marabout that is a Moslem priest or hermit had ordered the fellow to collect the ears for some secret ceremony, but no one really knew the truth. Mali was a dangerous country. People came from the Ivory Coast to collect heads to be buried whenever some important village chief and such died there. I heard that there were regular suppliers of such things for a price because the business was brisk. Many Malians who worked in the Ivory Coast as farm hands disappeared whenever someone old and important was about to croak. They did not take any chances.

The number of heads buried with a person signified the importance of that person. I had seen very gaudy mausoleums of people there where reportedly many heads were buried. It was scary. No one could say that the Africans were not enterprising. But in the old days it was worse. We saw many villages with crumbling mud walls that in the old days protected them from marauders and bandits. Slavery was still practiced here not too long ago, and people were abducted by the enterprising traders. People still knew who the former slaves or their children were and looked down on them.

The Fulani people who were racially different from the rest could be always seen walking with their herds of cattle and their women wearing big gold earnings that were so heavy that they had to support them with heavy cords tied to their heads. They did not believe in banks and carried their valuables on them. Such women would not last ten minutes anywhere in Asia but in that respect Africa was safe. Or perhaps their men folks defended their women and their gold with all their might.

They also loved amber jewelry and one could see the biggest amber beads on them which are quite valuable. Amber is petrified resin, and it takes a few million years to make amber by mother nature, so it is quite valuable.

They stained their face around the mouth black with some permanent dye to make them look beautiful although other Malians did not share their sense of beauty. These were the nomads and cattle herders of West Africa. They never settled anywhere and made crude temporary grass huts outside the villages.

They sold milk and butter in the market on Sundays, so we had abundant supply. The Americans were very prejudiced and warned us that the milk probably came from cows with tuberculosis, but it was just a prejudice based on ignorance. We never had any problem with the milk or butter.

However, I did encounter problem buying fresh mutton. The butchers whacked the meat anyway they wanted and mixed intestines and other unsavory parts with it . Malians were not particular, but we were. One day the matter came to a head when the butcher refused to weigh the meat and charge me the correct legal rate, so I took the matter to the mayor’s office.

He was a very nice gentleman and promised me that the justice will be done swiftly. He then sent two of his assistants to fetch the butcher, his meat, balance and took him to the office of trade that regulated such matters. There my purchase of meat was weighed, the over price refunded, and the balance and the rest of the meat confiscated. The poor butcher sat there the whole day trying to sort out the mess he had created himself.

The result was that from that day on, he always sold me meat by weight and charged the correct amount. Later some foreigners complained of the same problem so I said that they should just mention my name. I always tried to fight injustice. I had earlier written about the problem I had in Saigon when a dishonest shopkeeper had sold me a faulty camera. I also fought injustice in Washington when that language school was ripping off Nicole.

The Peace Corps volunteer was a young girl who had great trouble buying eggs in the market because most of the time she found them spoiled so I suggested that she let the eggs in a bucket of water. The ones that sank were the good ones but the next time we saw her she said that this time all her eggs were spoiled. She said that she followed my advice strictly and picked the ones that floated. So much for the advice. She had majored in animal science.

She used to come to the house so Jasmine finally had someone she could talk to. One day she took us to a village where there was a cave. This was the village where the fanatic marabou had come from, so we were a bit apprehensive going there but what was interesting was that the mountain had an unmistakable silhouette of Richard Nixon. I am sure Richard Nixon would have been very pleased to know that mother nature did not forget him even if the rest of the world did.

The caves were not interesting at all and stank of batshit, so we got out fast, but the infernal flies kept following us until we ran back to the car and rolled up the windows quickly. Maybe they suggested that we needed a bath but the heat in Mali was oppressive, and you sweated no matter how often you took a bath.

There was no place to go in Sikasso but soon we found a mudhole near Farako where we went to swim once in a while. The British had built a small dam there to tap water for the town, but we were not reassured when we saw the source. Our landlord had in the meantime put in water pipes, but they rattled like machine gun at night due to high pressure scaring the babies a lot. Nothing was perfect here, but we had water. I bought a water filter and Jasmine started boiling the filtered water. It was a very wise thing to do.

Near Farako there was a tea plantation set up by the Chinese in spite of the misgivings of the French who had misgivings about anything that they did not suggest themselves, but the Chinese proved them wrong and produced tea. Now no self-respecting tea drinker will say that the Malian tea was good, but the Malians could not care less. It was their national drink.

Now let me explain how they made their tea so that you may have an idea. First, they boiled the tea and drank the first cup with a lot of sugar so that it looked like syrup. Then they added more water and boiled some more and drank their second cup with more sugar. Then they added more water and boiled some more for their third cup adding more sugar. By this time the tea was bitter and tasted like quinine. I wondered what their reaction would be to taste a cup of first-class Darjeeling tea, but they had never heard of Darjeeling and could not care less. They had their tea thanks to the Chinese.

We longed for the pure Darjeeling, but it was not available. The Malian tea was prohibited in the Ivory Coast where they saw it as a threat to their coffee, but some tea was smuggled anyway and fetched a good price there. But smuggling was not restricted to tea by a long shot. We often saw captured herds of cattle or sheep in the customs office but for everyone they intercepted perhaps nine got away. The border between Mali and Guinea was porous and had myriad of trails running through the bush that the cattle rustlers were very familiar with.

At this time, we had spent nearly one year in Sikasso but more and more we were unhappy there because our yard became the communal washing ground for the neighborhood. Women brought their kids, their wash and their infernal radio that they played constantly while making tea under the mango tree. On top of that we found out that our night watchman was making money from them by selling our water. This was too much so I started to look for another place.

Then the idea came that we should find a village near Sikasso where we could build our own house the African style. So soon a village was found at a distance of 10 km where I met with the village chief whom they called dougou tigi and asked his permission to build a house there .He in turn called the village council meeting but after long discussions nothing was decided because it was so unusual for a toubabou to live in a village.

Toubabou is a term they used for all foreigners. They then went to see the governor to seek his advice. The governor was a military man who received us warmly and said that it was a splendid idea and would like to see the house once completed. This was then settled so we began in earnest to draw plans for the house and the location in the village. Finally, a wonderful site was given to me for free because no one buys land in Mali. It belongs to the village and the chief decides who makes his house where or which field to cultivate. The site was surrounded with mango trees loaded with fruits.

I then drew up a plan of five round huts in a semicircular fashion and interlinked by passageway to make it one house. This was never done before but the masons with my encouragement and guidance built five perfectly round huts and joined them with wide passageways. They were very proud of their accomplishment and showed off the house to everyone.

The walls were coated with shea butter to give it a hard coat and the roof was perfectly conical made of straw of golden color. All the rooms had cross ventilation and screens on windows and the semicircular arrangement made a perfect inner courtyard which was then enclosed by high walls. The toilet was a deep dry well covered with logs and the bathroom next to it had huge clay jars that was filled with water drawn from a well nearby.

The floor was hard packed earth that Jasmine coated once a week with cow dung to give it a hard dust free surface while I decorated the interior walls with Khajuraho figurines that I had brought from India. The kids’ room was adjacent to ours. Then was the living room, kitchen and a spare guest room. I put the more erotic Khajuraho figurines in our bedroom wall, but the visitors insisted on seeing them anyway. You should have seen the expression on the face of the nuns who peered at them closely.

In short it was a sensational house that Malians came from great distances to see. They did not know that round huts could thus be joined and made fly and mosquito free. Women came and wandered from room to room and finally laid down in the living room to sleep. This went on for about six months. We were amused and did not disturb their sleep.

We planted papaya trees and an orange tree in the inner courtyard, but Jasmine and I planted pea nuts in the front of the house that was the best pea nut patch one could find anywhere. It was planted in neat rows that we kept weed free. We also planted pigeon pea as a fence. I cemented the bathroom floor and the toilet only. Near the main door I fixed a stone statuette of some African style and told the kids that it came alive during full moon and guarded our house. They were afraid of their shadows so to speak so the idea of an ogre coming alive sowed endless fear in their hearts.

We even had a baby deer and a very naughty monkey called George as pet but the deer died of strangulation by turning around the cord during a fierce storm but the monkey stayed and destroyed plants and papaya leaves for fun. He also looked for lice in my hair while I slept under the mango trees.

Girls went crazy during full moon and always ran around our huts giggling and chasing boys or boys chasing them hence the idea of the stone ogre near the front door. That cooled their ardor drastically but not totally because some of them older girls did not quite believe my ogre story.

Ashis and Jayanti wandered off somewhere, but we never worried about them because the old people sat under the mango tree keeping a watchful eye on the kids. One old man called Tiecouroba was very fond of Ashis and Jayanti and came every morning to wake them up by calling ini sogoma meaning good morning.

Jayanti rode piggyback that she really liked, and we often found traces of food on her mouth because the village women fed her something. Jasmine was really very happy in our new and spacious house that was cool during the summer and free from insects. We enjoyed living in the village because the villagers sort of adopted us and invited us to their festive occasions as well as funerals.

I brought them to the hospital in case of emergency day or night and often I gave them ride into the town 10 kms away. In return they would bring me a chicken or a basket of oranges as a sign of gratitude. We bought fresh milk, eggs and vegetable at our front door. We also had constant stream of visitors, but the foreigners were the most nagging type who would look for a refrigerator or generator. We explained that we did not need a ref or a generator and were perfectly happy with our five kerosene lamps that I lighted and placed in rooms. It burned all night and the yellowish light was very soothing to the eyes, but they did not believe us.

I was happy to see that Jasmine was so well adjusted and obviously enjoying the village life. She was happier than she had been in that awful house in Sikasso, but some people could not accept that we were happy. They surmised that Jasmine must be going through terrible hardship and told others that it was a shame because we could afford better.

One of our well-wishers was a fat and ugly American woman who had arrived in Sikasso to join her husband. He was working in our project and had one day arrived with his huge dog totally uninvited and moved in with us in the village. Jasmine was very annoyed by this unwanted intrusion and had to feed his big dog as well although the fellow kept on saying that he had some dog food somewhere. I am sure we could never move in with an unknown American family without invitation, but they felt condescending towards Asians as I had earlier mentioned. We were taken for granted.

We did not know how long the fellow was going to stay because he kept on saying that his house was not yet ready. The fact was that he was not used to take care of himself and the dog, so he stayed until one day we decided to go to Mopti in the north and left him to fend for himself and his dog. That did it. He finally moved into his own house where he impatiently waited for his huge wife to arrive.

Soon after her arrival this woman declared that Sikasso was a great village. I do not know how many Malians were offended to hear that the second city in Mali was a village, but the woman was totally ignorant and full of prejudices. She walked around in tight shorts exposing her gigantic thighs to the dismay of Malians who took a dim view of women showing legs. She would also say “I am not home “ to visiting neighbors who were baffled by this expression.

This woman became a pain in our neck as she told everyone how poor Jasmine was suffering living in a hellhole like that. Soon a Swiss woman arrived in our village carrying a basket full of food and canned goods because she had heard of the poor Jasmine. When we explained to her that we enjoyed living in the village in our own house, she was clearly embarrassed. We insisted that she take back her food basket.

Then I went to the husband of this fat woman and told him that we are doing quite well, and they should mind their own business. We had never been friends but now the break was complete. She made a great deal of her own trouble by ignoring the Malian culture and her rude behavior toward them so we avoided this family like plague and predicted that she will not last long.

She complained about just about everything from day one and one day finally packed up and left the fellow and the country for good.

She was not the only misfit though. There was another American woman who lived across our street in Sikasso. Once I saw this woman with painted lips, nails and high heels and predicted that she will not last long in Mali and was looking for an excuse to leave. The excuse was given one day when her black cat wandered off and was promptly beaten to death by the kids.

In Mali a black animal is considered evil. It mattered little whether it belonged to someone or not. It was cultural and culture is always based on beliefs and superstitions. Like in America there is a superstition about the number 13, so they do not have hotel room number 13 or the 13th floor in the elevator etc. Mali was no different. Here it was black animal among other things. But this rattled the woman who promptly packed up and left her husband high and dry.

The American missionaries were a tenacious lot although they went through a great deal of culture shock and built in prejudices. They looked down on the native culture and took a very patronizing view of everything. Their sole mission was to convert the heathens to see the light which they firmly believed only they could show . I began to form a very negative impression about the American missionaries .

I had made no attempt to learn the Bamanakan other than saying Ini Tie or Ini sogoma although the language is not as difficult as Vietnamese. There simply was no great need to learn the language as my colleagues all spoke French and they interpreted for me if I needed to talk to farmers. Malians took great pride in telling you that they spoke French correctly although it was not true. They also showed great contempt for the uneducated and illiterate peasants although our project was set up to work with farmers.

In a farming System’s project there was no getting away from the farmers but no one in the project showed any great concern for the rural folks and hated to visit the villages that were remote and far from Sikasso. They were a product of the education system dominated by the French teachers who molded them in one way while the situation in Mali demanded otherwise.

They were very proud of their methodology of selecting farmers base on how many hectares of cotton they grew although the project had nothing to do with cotton. This made the choice of Gladie, Monzondougou and Sakoro logical in their mind. These villages were hundreds of kilometers from Sikasso and some in very remote areas so do any meaningful work, we had to go and stay in those villages from Monday to Friday.

During the rainy season the goat tracks we used to follow in the featureless bush country were covered with very tall grasses that made driving very difficult. We never knew if we were on track or off and sort of went by guesswork towards the villages. Often, we bogged down in deep mud and spent hours extricating the heavy Land Rovers only to get bogged down again down the road. There was always the danger of sharp spikes or roots that could puncture the tires.

At first the village chief provided us with a shelter and the women prepared hot water for our bath and cooked our meals, but the food was mostly dry catfish and rice or corn gruel. The farmers at a porridge made of pounded sorghum dipped in a slimy green sauce but it was always mixed with some sand or so it seemed to me. Perhaps they added a bit of sand to make it taste better. I do not know. I often survived on this porridge called To.

I could never eat the dry fish that stank to high heaven so prepared my own meals on a small kerosene stove. Jasmine packed me a provision of vegetables and other things for the week, so I managed to prepare a simple meal, but the effect of such primitive regime started to show after a few months in the bush. I had to leave her in the village to fend for herself and the kids, but I had no choice. The work came first.

After a year or so I decided that each village should have our own quarters so that we will not impose on the villagers and held meetings with the village chiefs on this matter. As a result, the mud houses were built in two villages for us but never occupied. Do you know why? The project leader who was a Malian said that there should be feast to properly inaugurate the lodgings but never gave the money to organize the feast. He in fact never got around to doing much of anything and was often absent .He did not like to mention where he was going and how long he was going to be absent and seldom visited the project sites . He was supposed to be my counterpart but that he wasn’t.

I was left alone . The project was filled with people who did not know the first thing about agriculture although it was a farming system’s project meaning agronomy and animal science. They collected data on genealogy which had no relevance to the project but they would not listen. These volumes of data collected at great expense collected dust and were never analyzed or put to any kind of use .

Many thousands of questionnaires were filled by these people who often did not know what they wanted to know and what to ask the farmers but to admit it was out of the question. They discussed for hours what should be the coefficient for a child, a woman and a man doing the same work and never could come to any conclusion after 5 hours of meeting. They were great talkers, but it did not help the project or advance the cause.

The Dutch went a step further. They wanted to know each and every franc the poor farmer spent and for what purpose every day of their life and piled up massive questionnaires that they said will be analyzed later in Holland. They said that an agronomist like myself did not know anything about social science and only they were qualified to do such work. It did not matter to them that I had training in agricultural extension methods at a graduate level.

They also had nothing to do with the farming systems project in the three study villages, but they always sat in the meetings that lasted no less than 6 to 7 hours each time and contradicted anything I proposed or discussed. They, however, were very defensive about what they were doing. I found that nobody wanted to do any agronomy work that was supposed to be the primary focus of such a project because no one was an agronomist.

They also loved to talk. I had never known people who could talk for hours and say nothing. They never could agree on a single agenda or topic. The decisions were always put off or hedged like organizing a simple feast for the villagers who had helped build the houses for us in two villages due to my sole effort. I often went home angry and tired due to my inability to the do the work I was supposed to do. The employer also felt the disappointment but the project was run by the Malians so we could do nothing.

The Malians always had a pat answer. They said that they had to first understand the problems of the farmers before they could do something about it so more questionnaires were made to collect more data. This was the dead end. Jeff often came to Mali and brought with him some “experts” in order to brainstorm as he put it but a Malian brain could not be easily stormed. He said that I should visit other international centers of research but did not approve when I was invited to a Farming System’s symposium in Tanzania. Professionally it was going nowhere.

At least our personal situation had greatly improved since we moved to the village where Jasmine felt happier. The village life was unhurried and peaceful. Our bare breasted maid did most of the chores but proved difficult when we did not give her gifts all the time and told others that we did not take care of her and she did not get to eat what she wanted etc. which people who knew us did not believe. So we had to find another maid. This one was a bit younger and preferred to play most of the time than to work.

One day she came running saying there was a sa in the well. Sa means a snake, so I went to see what kind of snake was in the well. It turned out to be a baby boa, so I pulled it out and let loose. A few days later the boa was back because the well had many frogs. Again, I pulled it out and drove to a dry riverbank to let it go. Perhaps it would survive as the boas usually did in the brush country. But there were many dangerous snakes in the village.

We often saw their tracks in the dirt, and I was worried. One night I went out behind the house and saw a huge spitting viper and chased it into the hollow of a tree and called some farmers. But they all ran away when they saw what it was. People are very afraid of this particular snake that spits venom into your eyes and causes blindness. The trick is to corner it so that it cannot stand up and take aim because it is too late once it stands up and takes aim.

Jasmine was worried that I was messing with this venomous snake. Anyway, the farmers later killed a spitting viper near our house, but I do not know if it was the same one I saw. No wonder Malians girls made so much racket during full moon. I think it was their strategy to scare off snakes.

In December we decided to have a Christmas party, so we invited the balafonists .A balafon is a xylophone that has the calabash or the African gourd as the resonance chamber filled with spider webs that they hang below the platform. It produces a wonderful sound . The African balafonists are great indeed and can play for hours by rote. They are illiterate and do not have musical scores so they play by memory .

Jasmine decided to cook some meat and rice while I blew up hundreds of balloons for the kids that made my cheek hurt for days. But the bigger kids lost all self-control and pushed and shoved the younger ones to get to the food first as a result of which the food turned over into the dust. The kids then fought over the food and ate the dust covered meat and rice like animals. It was truly pathetic. Jasmine was shocked to see such chaos. All our efforts were in vain. The smaller ones got trampled and kicked in the process and wailed.

Later when I gave them the balloons, they quickly removed the air and put them in their pockets. I still had a lot to learn about their culture. In Mali you have to always ask the elders to discipline the kids when there is food. They did this with a long cane. It was our mistake that we did not ask the elders. The balafonists came in the evening and played for hours and the whole village gathered under the mango tree so that part went well.

Some of the villagers were expert dancers who showed us their traditional dance in which they mimicked the movements of animals or insects . It was wonderful but the younger boys and girls did not like the traditional dance. They preferred shaking their buns to the sound of cassette music.

We also noticed that the women took scarves from their head and put them on some male dancers perhaps to show appreciation. Some women danced with babies tied to their back to the sound of fast balafon. The babies were thus shaken like rag dolls by a dog.

The crowd got thicker as the hours got late and they danced all night. The balafonists never quit. After a while you got the feeling that the sound was monotonous, but it was very traditional and very Malian. Balafonists demanded a lot of money so we could afford only twice but there were other distractions in the village as well.

Once we heard the muted drumbeats late at night and went out to see what it was all about. I found hundreds of people under the tree making a tight circle in the middle of which danced a magician or sorcerer and his sidekick. These itinerant black magicians as I was told later were feared people because people believed that they could do many bad things. They danced around in the circle singing and often stopped to peer into a small mirror intensely. Villagers said that they could see the future or the past in the mirror. Perhaps they were clairvoyant .

They wore outlandish costumes studded with small mirrors and feathers in their headgear and paint on their faces. No one in the crowd smiled or even talked as they watched the ceremony intently. Even the normally whimpering kids were silent. I felt something sinister in the whole affair that made me uneasy and left. Jasmine did not bother to see it.

It was true that the Malian rural society had many secrets that remained secrets to foreigners no matter how long one lived among them, so I never pried to learn what these secrets were. I had a feeling that some of them were quite unpleasant. I had heard rumors that some people were cannibals but there was no way one could know such things. I did not want to know, and we learned only about the nicer aspects of their culture.

On another occasion in another village called Sakoro, I happened to see the mysterious bird dance in which a fellow was completely covered with feathers and chirped like a bird which his sidekick then translated. No one was supposed to know who the person under the feather cloak was because it was a strictly guarded secret. Photography was not permitted although the village chief allowed me to take a few shots.

But normally a village dance was a jolly affair and was held around a campfire in the village square. During such dances the village griot or the bard danced around playing his home-made musical instrument singing about crops, weather or village happenings and entertained people. They were very good at improvising as they went along. The griot was followed by a string of apprentices or future griots who repeated everything the master said and played the cymbals or other instruments creating quite a racket. The villagers enjoyed such dances enormously and often joined in verbal duels or songs themselves.

But the musical talents were not limited to griots only. Infact there were many farmers who were very good at improvising, singing and dancing. Once in Monzondougou I remarked that the village was very quiet so something should be done. Soon some musical instruments appeared, and the crowd gathered in the square. One old woman brought out a basin full of water on which she banged her calabash making a booming sound while others rattled cauri shells. They could make do with simple things to make sound and have a good time. Distraction was rare in the villages where the life was hard specially for women.

They had to get up before dawn to pound the millet or corn, then fetch water and firewood which often meant a walk of several kilometers, then prepare meals all the while carrying babies on their back or suckling. Then they had to go out and work in the fields and bring food to their men folks at noon time. The fields were often very far from the village. They also had to gather shea nuts in the forest to extract butter which was their cooking oil so to speak. So, women indeed had to work very hard.

They looked old at the age of 30 due to constant childbearing and overwork without rest. You could never tell the age of women by looking at their withered breasts although most of them were young by Asian standard.

They nursed their young as long as they could because they knew that a weaned child was a malnourished child. Their basic food of corn gruel or sorghum to was lacking in protein and meat was a luxury.

I saw their fingers permanently crooked because the way they held the heavy pestle to pound the grains every morning. Men seldom had toenails and kids often had festering scabs. Medicines were hard to find so they searched the forest for herbs and roots to cure minor ailments. Anything serious was indeed serious because the medical facilities were hundreds of kilometers away and the remote villages were hard to reach even during the dry season let alone wet season.

Many did not have money to pay for medical treatment in faraway hospitals so many people died of infections of wounds. A kid could be accidentally gored by a cow and die before help could be found in such villages. But their major problem was lack of water during the dry season. The Swiss people had installed some hand pumps in some villages of an Indian design that was sturdy and popular, but the need was far greater than the resources.

Jeff was a very insensitive fellow who would often ask the villagers what their problems were as a matter of conversation not realizing that the villagers pinned great hope on such queries and were disappointed. Jeff did not mean to do anything about their problems. He would also take the Africans for granted and made them wait needlessly when they had done him a great favor. He said that he did not want to meet with some people whom he had asked for appointment and kept them waiting because it was a waste of time. He ignored lunch saying he ate too much so you could go hungry if you were with him. Canada hired such people as program officers.

We lived in Mali for nearly two years now, but the project was not doing well and not a single agronomy trial had been set up anywhere, so I was getting more and more irritated, and this showed. I had no one to share my troubles with except Jasmine. She listened and often said that we should return back to the Philippines because she also felt that our stay was not as meaningful as it should have been.

We listened to the BBC every night and enjoyed the play of the week or we just sat around playing with Ashis and Jayanti. Ashis had memorized a great number of rhymes which Jayanti also listened to and picked up. Our favorite was this little pig went to market. which Jayanti finished by saying all weli home instead of all the way home.

We found great joy in watching them grow up day by day, but they also caused problems once in a while. Like the time when Ashis playing with Lego set thought it would be good idea to insert a piece up his nose. This was late at night, but we rushed to the hospital and woke up the Chinese doctor who took out the piece with a pair of long tweezers.

Or the time when he came home bleeding from his head because he had been hit by a bicycle in the village. The wound was superficial, but we were worried and cleaned up the mess with hot water and disinfectant. He was accident prone and would cause more trouble later on in Mexico and in the Philippines, but I am getting ahead of my story.

We had to be always alert and ready for such emergencies but on the whole, they adjusted well and were healthy. Jayanti loved spaghetti and forked it up into her puffy cheek making a mess on her bib, but Ashis liked other food. Later they would reverse their roles when Jayanti would become the fussy eater.

Many people often visited us in the village, but none returned the courtesy except the white fathers and the nuns who came in their mobylettes or 2CV. We often picked up people in distress and brought them home for a meal. Others just came and stayed a while because they had heard of our hospitality to strangers.

Once I saw an English woman walking down the road with a bag and asked if she needed any help. She was on the verge of tears as she narrated her tale of woes. She spoke no French and was trying to get to the Ivory Coast, so she bought a ticket to ride in the taxi de brousse that plied between Sikasso and Korhogo. The driver promised to leave soon which he told everyone in order to sell more tickets but left only when the taxi was full. This could take whole day as the few passengers trickled in. She not knowing Africa at all believed the driver and had waited since dawn until noon already.

So, I brought her home where she washed up and rested. Later I brought her back to the taxi that was still waiting to fill up and in no hurry to leave. At the station there were small children who sold water by the glass, but the English woman thought that the water was for washing so she started washing her hands in it. The kid let out a wail because she had fetched the water from quite a distance for selling to thirsty passengers and although the water may have looked a bit unclean, it was perfectly potable so far as the Africans were concerned. I asked the woman to compensate the kid.

Another time in Sikasso we picked up a Zulu with his German wife or girlfriend I never knew which. He said that he could not cash his traveler’s cheques so needed to go to Korhogo in the Ivory Coast. We were also going that way so gave them a ride. At the border the drunken border guard gave them a hard time because he did not like black men going around with white women, so I had to placate the man somehow. The fact that he was a Zulu and from South Africa did not help the matter much.

In Korhogo more trouble was waiting. I managed to get them a room in a hotel although the manager was very reluctant and wanted to get paid upfront because he said many such people left without paying their bills. Jasmine said that the poor fellow had no money for anything so we should go and give him some money, so I went very early the next day to the hotel. The room was empty, so I too tiptoed out. Who knows what their story was or whether the Zulu had infact told me the truth ?

Once a Swiss fellow came to my office and said that he needed a place to stay for a few days . He was pedaling his bicycle from Dakar to Europe via Mali, Niger and Algeria. I greatly admire the courage of such people and brought him home . He sent me a post card from Algiers saying that he had crossed the Sahara without problems and was on his way to Morocco.

Jasmine has a golden heart and jumps to help anyone in trouble. She never asks questions and tries to help as much as she can so soon the word gets around that we always help no matter where we live in the world. Some people have taken advantage of this hospitality like that American with his huge dog, but it has been our policy to help and not ask questions. I hope someday our children will also learn to help others in distress if they can.

The project was another story. They were in distress but accepted no help. Worse they did not even acknowledge that they were in distress, but Jeff knew that something was wrong. That is when he brought in some “ experts” to brainstorm the Malian brains but that had no effect although it lasted a few days and even nights exhausting everyone. I had never heard so many people who could sit around and talking so much that could be said in a few words, but they were the experts who wanted to prove their worth.

The Malians always said that they did not understand the problems of farmers. This was sad but it should be understood in the context of their education which required a lot of rote and little practical experience. In a country of illiterates, it was a great privilege to get some education, so the so-called educated Malians never let anyone forget that they were privileged people. I called them pseudo intellectuals.

Their problem stemmed from the fact that France that had colonized Mali for so long exerted strong influence on their educational system that they had in fact devised and encouraged Malians to go to Montpellier or Dijon for further education. They did not learn the hands-on approach of the American or Western education that I had gone through in the States, India and the Philippines.

The Malian Franc was tied to the French Franc, and they were the buyer of the Malian cotton at cheap rate to feed their mills .They heavily financed the cotton company called the CMDT that was the monopoly in Mali. They often bought first class cotton and gave the farmers a low price by saying that the cotton was not first class, it was dirty etc. The cotton farmers had no choice because they borrowed money from the CMDT to buy the seeds and fertilizer etc. and were obliged to sell the cotton to the company.

Cotton was the only cash crop for the Malian farmers and the Malians had no other buyer other than France so they could not get away from France no matter how hard they tried. The Malian franc was weak and caused rapid inflation. Eventually the Malian franc was abolished, and the CFA reintroduced which was controlled by the central bank of France.

The agricultural research was no exception because one could not get away from the French and their methods that they had insisted upon in their schools. It made little difference whether a Malian was educated in Katibougou or in Montpellier because they learned the same thing. Such graduates felt very ill at ease when they were asked to solve a practical problem in the field like calibrating a seed drill or adjusting the depth of ploughing. They only learned the theory.

Their classical approach to research was always to start off with questionnaires but that was not helping the farmers at all. A great deal of project money was being spent on collecting useless data that had no direct relevance to the problems the farmers faced.

In the third year I was able to do some work in three study villages where I introduced the cultivation of upland rice which was greatly appreciated by the farmers. I also tried to build a cheaper plough with a wooden beam to be drawn by a pair of bullocks, but I did not succeed due to lack of time now.

I also looked after a weed infested research station at Tierouala where 30 hectares were worked by few laborers and fewer resources. People who came to visit the station often said that it did not look like a station but never increased to manpower or the budget to fix the only dilapidated tractor. When I tried the Chinese to manufacture the broken part for the tractor, the project leader refused to pay the bill. He also dillydallied about fixing up the residence for the manager of the station until one day I put my foot down.

Although the project was funded by the Canadians and I was their employee, it was tightly controlled by the Malians. I never had funds for anything and often had to argue for it to buy a sack of fertilizer or seeds.

Mali is a destitute country. You have to live in their villages to understand the gravity of their situation. They not only have no roads, no schools, no health clinics or potable water, they also have no money to pay for the medicines if they got sick. They do not eat what they do not grow so their diet is very limited leading to malnutrition in children and also among adults. Their agriculture is totally rainfed so very risky if the rains fail or do not come in time or not adequate enough to grow crops.

What precious resources they do have is poorly used and managed like hundreds of hectares of perennial weed choked rice land in Mopti where they once had good irrigation system. Their waterways are in disrepair and in need of thorough rehabilitation. It is a big country with a small population but most part of Mali is not suitable for agriculture. Only the south and southeast corner is where they can grow crops, but they have to clear the brush manually to do so. That is very very hard.

People live in round houses with thatch roof in villages and suffer from malaria and a host of other diseases like the river blindness or TB. Skin ailments are also common as is goiter. Many children die at young age due to lack of medical care. The untrained midwives do not help the matter that much so many women develop complications after childbirth.

But the Malian researchers met once a year in the Amitie Hotel where they read their research papers and made resolutions after resolutions to do this or do that to improve the lot of the poor. The minister came in his flamboyant boubou and made speeches and agreed that the resolutions be implemented but it just remained a futile exercise. The resolutions passed the years before still were not implemented because there was no budget.

The farming system’s project was designed to help poor farmers in agriculture by testing new varieties of crops, introducing new crops and technology to increase crop yields. How I wish I could bring some of these farmers to the Philippines to show them what was possible, but it was not the farmers who needed a tour. It was the project manager, so he was packed off to see the latest in technology at IRRI and elsewhere in the world. It was he who attended the conferences in Tanzania but that did not help much either.

I participated in a meeting in Dakar, Senegal where I discussed my results on rice and other crops like peanuts with the international scientists but what was needed was a drastic change in attitude on the part of the Malians. This did not happen while I was there so my frustrations boiled over. The project people instead of helping the farmers became an impediment to the progress so I realized that my time could be better spent elsewhere in the world.

The Malians thought that I had landed another lucrative job somewhere, but it was not true. I had no other job, but I could not stay there any longer. The Canadian employer could not object because I had stayed the three years that I had signed up for but they asked if I could suggest a replacement for me. I did not know anyone who could speak French and deal with the obstinate Malians and said so.

Now the Malians were very eager to buy my things cheaply or get it for free. Jasmine gave away most of the kitchen things to the village women and a few things were sold. No one asked for our address to keep in touch that in itself speaks volumes about people. We made a few friends in Mali but they were not Malians. The packing and getting ready to leave was a hard job but one day it was all done. Jasmine managed it wonderfully.

My employer made some difficulties about paying for our shipment, so we shipped at our own cost. The last part was also tragic. One American fellow who also worked in the project asked us to have lunch with him to which we agreed but on the appointed day we found to our surprise that he had forgotten about it and asked why we had come to his house. This was the ultimate in uncivilized behavior, but we had to move on thankfully never to meet these people again.

It was amazing how little we felt for the country or its people now that we were leaving for good. Mali was already in the past for us. There was no nostalgia, but we did like the village where we lived so we donated our house to the villagers to do what they would with it.

Jasmine and I would never return to Mali and never look back. I suppose one day the Malians would be able to solve their own problems in their own fashion. I just did not know when or how.

Note : The following links are given here for you to read Anil’s biography in French,Japanese,German, Spanish and Russian languages as well.

Anil’s biography in French.

Anil’s biography in Japanese

Anil’s biography in German

Anil’s biography in Spanish.

Anil’s biography in Russian

My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese languages at the following links :

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Originally published at http://aumolc.wordpress.com on March 20, 2023.

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