Malian Islam Meets Western Christianity On A Bench in Mali, West Africa

I’ve never felt the tension much, but I’m certain it’s there. From both camps there are a few who seem to fear dialogue with the other. Thankfully, they are few. Generally, Malians have a tremendously generous laissez-faire approach to life and faith. Most people here seem to assume that any white westerner is a Christian, anything but a Muslim. To date, I have never directly sensed any personal hostility because of this assumption.

Faith issues in Africa are often the first wake up call for many new, and particularly younger international workers who have come to very few decisions about their own faith. In the west it’s kind of a taboo subject. Universities certainly do not give any credence to formulating coherent ideas or beliefs about the spiritual world. It’s often portrayed as a kind of silly life-hocus-pocus, that is best not talked about openly, keep it a private journey.

So when we come to places like Mali, West Africa, or Asia, young international workers are stunned to find a people deeply tuned in to their spirituality, who accept spiritual reality as a normal part of society and life, who think this reality should be acknowledged and accepted. It’s the same for the Muslim, Christian, or Animist here.

In Africa, the reality of a spiritual realm is rarely questioned. It’s understood that this spiritual portion of the universe has great bearing on the daily lives of our village, our people, our family, and finally, on ME.

A western secularist, atheist, or skeptic actually misses understanding much about the world view of Malian people. A Western Christian sitting under a palaver tree with a Malian Muslim or Animist actually shares a tremendous common ground with them. I would even forge in to suggest that a western Christian actually has more in common with most Muslim or Animistic Malians, than with their own same culture, but secular, skeptic neighbor in Canada, Europe, or America.

Generally, most West Africans can articulate their beliefs about that spiritual realm very well. Certainly, like us all, they have huge gaps that are not filled, things they do not have answers to, even inconsistencies. But this is not threatening to them, and makes them no less bold to speak, live, or follow it. These subjects are on the table for discussion, with no hesitation, and many westerners coming here are very uncomfortable with that. We are not accustomed to tabling our spirituality, or lack there of. Religion is a taboo in western society, and we bring that cultural attitude with us.

I say pull the cork and explore it with your Malian friends. But don’t just seek information from them, table your ideas too. Have those intriguing conversations and you will learn so much about them, and yourself, in the process.

Along comes the shiny young western boy or girl, fresh out of school, ready to change the world. And the first thing they encounter is this people with clearly defined customs, beliefs and traditions that have a religious nature touching every part of this peoples world. It startles us westerners when we are asked what we believe about these things… they see us squirm in our disbelief. They can smell it, as we look on wide-eyed, with a wrinkled forehead from raised eyebrows of unveiled disbelief. They can hear the downright scorn and ridicule of an audible scoff, see our slouching lack of interest and contribution. I’ve actually seen every one of these reactions on the face of a westerner in West Africa. We can’t help but have a reaction to the myriad aspects of life unfolding before us in an African village that reflect a deep spiritual belief or understanding.

The westerner is often silent offering few spiritual answers, or insights. We have come with programs and technology. We have come for money making, health producing gimmicks, to fix their “real” world problems. For many a humanitarian westerner, life is not a spiritual journey, so we find it hard to acknowledge this in our people or our world.

So the young, confused, unresolved, “never took the time to think about these things” westerner is silent, humbled, and sometimes lost even, among the very faith-oriented Malians. For the first time in their lives, they realize that they have never sat down and thought or talked about such things much, the local people have, and it makes us westerners squirm.

I live on a second story floor in Sikasso, and I park my bike down below under my stairs. So it is sitting out in the dust all the time, and after my daily trips into the bush, setting up gravity feed drip irrigated gardens with elderly women, my moto and me are covered in red dust and dirt. As soon as I get home, I go to the shower to get the dirt and grime off my body from driving as much as thirty to 160km round trips to various villages where I work. It’s a hot, sweaty, and dirty drive to work.

After I get myself cleaned up, I head downstairs and push my bike around the corner to the local “Car/Moto Wash”. I have no outside hose to wash it myself. Besides, I’m all done in after the days work and i just don’t want to do it. They wash motos for 150 cfa (25 cents), so why bother. They make a living doing this, so I am glad to help them out.

What is more, I enjoy my evenings there. I get to sit on benches with a bunch of Muslim men from Northern Mali, and chat on the side of the main road in Sikasso. I enjoy the sights and the conversations with these men as the sun goes down.

Four of these men are originally from Gao, and one from Timbuktu. One of them says he is an “Arabic teacher” which probably means he is a Koranic teacher, teaching students the Arabic Koran, and helping them memorize it in Arabic.

We certainly had much to chat about last term with the bombing going on, and the French trying to extract Al-Qaeda from their very own home towns in the North. They were not happy to see what the rebels were doing up there. People getting killed, schools closed for over a year, women raped, hands cut off, women beaten for not wearing a veil, etc. . I never probed them about their beliefs to see how radical they might be. I simply let them guide those conversations at their speed. I try to build relationships and talk openly and honestly with them in return.

The actual “car wash” owner has several younger men who do the actual washing, while he sits in a chair in front of his Moto parts cubby hole, watching the kids work. I park my bike and he, or the men from Gao, offer me a bench to sit on. Mr Car Wash man does not understand French much. It’s almost impossible to have a coherent conversation between ourselves with his poor French and my poor Bambara.

One evening, I arrived for a bike wash and he offered me a bench, the Gao and Timbuktu guys were not around that evening. This was about the time the Canadian Embassy was going bananas wanting us all to evacuate Mali. Most people already had evacuated by now. But we stayed, and that is another story to tell some day. All of these men knew I was getting a lot of pressure to leave from home, and the embassy.

Anyway, I can’t recall what happened in the north that day, but I commented generally on all the people being killed, displaced, women being beaten by these radical groups, etc. There was a daily flow of sad and bad news, and we were all hearing it and talking about it in the South. We wanted Al- Qaeda and the two other jihadist groups gone.

Then an interesting thing occurred. Mr Car Wash Guy came out of his Muslim shell, and in his broken French, mixed with Bamabra, he tried as best as he could to say something. What he said was good, what he said was wise.

I remember commenting something like, “You know my friend, there are people who have the word Allah (God) on their lips, they say his name, but they don’t really follow God (Allah). Then there are people who not only use his name, but follow him too. Are those people doing these things really following Allah, or are they merely saying his name?”

In his broken French and some Bambara he said, “It makes no difference if we are a Muslim or a Christian, people cannot do such things. If we do such things, we are not a true Muslim nor a true Christian. Because God would never allow a true Christian or a true Muslim to do such things to people. They know Allah is not like that”.

I had nothing to add to that observation. All I said was, “You have spoken words of wisdom, my friend.” And we sat there in silence, reflecting, as we watched the evening sights from the side of the road.
Yes, Mr Muslim Moto Wash guy….. God is not like that, indeed.
I only wish people were not like that also.

I’m not “pushing religion on you”. I’ve reads dozens of Peace Corps books and enjoyed them all, for they tell great stories. But all of them have missed recounting a major part of the life story here.

Just a heads up; If you are coming to Mali to live and work, you might take some time to consider who your “God” is. They will want to know, they will ask you what you think (believe) about these things. You can bet your booties, no matter what you say with your mouth, they WILL be observing you to see if there is anything spiritual actually guiding your life at all.

You get to understand the people and culture better because this stuff is meaningful and important to them, from the Muslim, to the Christian, down to the Animist. This is a huge aspect to understanding Malian life and community. Don’t miss out on it like many a field worker does. Don’t be afraid, here spiritual things are on the table. I’ve learned much about them, and about myself too. I like to think that what I shared in those conversations may have helped some of them on their journey too.

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