Shared a conversation over coffee with a professor friend. I was explaining to him the importance of relationships and greetings in Malian Culture. Connections mean everything, because they run deep, and they endure time in a way that seems lost in Canada. He asked me to share some of these stories about connection and relationships from West Africa, and how they have benefited me. Of course, he and his wife are living examples of relationships that endure the test of time, and have also enriched my life. So here we go from the beginning in Mali.
Tunnel vision had sent in, but we were packed and ready to go to. Our agency wanted the Malian leg work ready on time.
However, the budget was not in place. I mean, they were struggling at that stage where nothing has started, so it’s hard to get support for it. The Board knew that as soon as the work began, things would change. So, in November 2010, my agency asked us how long it would take us to do the necessary preliminary work for them, for a full launch in Mali by October 2011.
My wife and I told them this would require three months.
“It’s not happening.”, was the reply,
“What is the bare bones minimum you require?” they asked, as they explained their financial situation.
“If we can not be on the ground for at least six weeks, it is a waste of time going.”, we responded.
They accepted, guaranteeing six weeks, but booked our tickets for the preferred three months, with all likelihood of a return back to Canada after only six weeks in West Africa.
So they handed us $900 Canadian (we converted to Euros) and our tickets, and we flew out on a Monday in early January with no pay check for the coming Friday… they were broke. That is how deeply they were struggling, and how committed we all were to getting the Mali start accomplished on time. We lived in $7 a day rooms and ate street food for $1, but we were able to stay the full term and lay a proper foundation.
However, with all the Christmas and New Year’s interactions before departure, I came down with a cold. As we flew toward Paris, and then down to Sub-Saharan Africa, my cold got worse. It developed into a full blown sinus infection the likes of which I never had before. I could barely walk when we arrived, my thoughts were incoherent, my speech was off.
I had been given a name for a taxi driver in an email: Armee. He was said to be honest and reliable. I sent him a text and asked him to meet us at the airport. We did not get out of the airport for 2.5 hours, because we lost one bag, and had to get a lost luggage claim ticket. He was there when we exited customs, holding a sign that said, “RAYNER CANADA”.
Armee, was a total stranger to us.
On the drive into Bamako we chatted, exchanged news, and I explained to him how sick I was, and that we are not like other expats here. We have no co-workers, we know no one. We are new here, the first from our agency. He said, “I am here to help you.”
I explained that we needed to get our phones charged up with local SIM cards and enough credit to inform the people back home that we have arrived. That was easy.
He stopped on the side of the road near a red light, at 1:30 am, and the young men were there selling all we needed. Armee inserted our SIM cards, added the credit, and taught us how to dial international calls. We made the necessary calls.
He took us to our place to stay and said he would be back to check on us in the morning.
My wife went to see an expat about my health, and what we might do about it. He gave her a number for French Missionary Doctor. Lynn called, explained the situation, and his reply on the phone?
“I am not here for you, I am here for the Africans.”, and told us to call some other place.
Yes, I’ve have been left with a bad taste in my mouth over exchanges with some expats. When you are in their circle it can be great. If not, wow. Some of them can be very cliqueish.
My wife told Armee what the French doctor said. Armee immediately loaded us up in the taxi and took me to a pharmacy in Bamako. I stayed seated and slumped over in the taxi, while my wife and Armee explained the situation to the pharmacist, and out they came with some serious antibiotics.
Armee asked me if there was anything else we needed, he would do it for us. I was not very confident because I’ve had strangers take advantage of me in Ivory Coast. But I was so sick. I would not give him any cash at this point, but I soon learned that Armee was different.
I said we need bus tickets for Sikasso the next day, a 3G internet stick from Orange to do our communication before we leave Bamako, and to exchange Euros.
Armee spent the day, cash out of his own pocket. taking care of all three things. He sat in line for three hours for the internet stick from Orange. Between the bus tickets and internet stick, plus his gas for running, he put out about 40,000 CFA of his own money to get things done on our behalf, over a month’s wages for a laborer in Mali
He took me home saying, “You rest, I’ll take care of all this, and I will pick you up in the morning for the bus ride to Sikasso. Tomorrow we will do the exchange.”
I mentioned to him about our lost bag. I would need to go to the airport at midnight to see if it arrived that night. Armee said, “Give me the claim ticket and I will go check for you tonight; I have to be there to pick someone up anyway. You stay in bed, and get well.” I was not so comfortable giving him my claim ticket, but I did.
The Next morning I was feeling slightly better. Armee arrived five in the morning. We did the money changing first, and then I was able to pay him for the bus tickets, internet stick, money for the running he did for me (Gave him $20). The bad news, the bag did not arrive the night before. Armee said he would keep checking and when it arrived he would call, and then put it on the bus to us 400 km out to Sikasso. (The bag arrived in Sikasso five days later.) Then he stood with us for two hours at the bus station to assure we got on the bus safely, bargained a good price for our bags, and told us to call when we arrived at our destination, and we did.
Armee bailed us out of many problems ever since.
Armee has been our taxi man in Bamako for five years now. I call him from time to time. If we have questions or problems in Sikasso that require a Bamako solution, Armee is there to help us, for peanuts.
Near the end of that first term 2011, Lynn’s mom passed and she had to go home immediately. I called Armee in the middle of the night explaining what happened. At the time, we had no one else to call, we knew no one else in Bamako. Armee said get on the first bus in the morning, I will have a place to stay for you, and meet you there. Where we usually stay for a reasonable price does not have an office open on weekends. But Armee knew were those folks lived, and drove to their homes to get the room arranged for us. We could not have done it without him.
Alu, whom we met only once, on our trip into Sikasso on Bani Transport, and whom I also called in the middle of the night, said we would have a place on the bus for us, no matter what, just come and he’d look after us.
In 2013, we were staying in a $7 room for a month or more looking for a building for Man Of Peace Development, We woke up in the middle of the night to the ceiling fan racing like an airplane propeller. There was a huge power spike in the night and it burned out the fan after spinning wildly for a few minutes. In the morning, we realized that this power spike had burned out not only the fan, but also all our chargers for the IPad, Blackberry, and phones. All but the IPad charger were replaceable locally, but the Ipad was important for Lynn to do our book work and reporting. One call to Armee, and two days later we met a bus driver in Sikasso who hand delivered us an original Ipad charger. It was 20,000 cfa ($40), and I had to send the money back to Armee somehow, plus 5000 for him tracking it down for us. I called and asked if he was certain he knew this bus driver, it is a lot of money for Mali. He told me to give it to driver, so I did, and it got to him in Bamako safely the next day.
We will be seeing Armee when we arrive in Bamako soon. Who would have dreamed in January 2011, that a stranger Taxi man like Armee would still be in our lives today.
Interestingly, over the years of interactions with us, Armee commented to me one time.
“Andy, you are a good man because you look after your wife. I can see you deeply love and care for Lynn. You put her first, you look after her well. Not all men are like that. Some African men treat women like trash in Mali, but my ethnic group is like you. We value women, if our women are well looked after it is our joy, and life goes good for the whole family.”
On another occasion we arrived in Bamako and needed to find a tabletop gas stove burner and a few pots for Lynn to cook with in Sikasso. Armee took us to the market to find what we needed. But it took a lot of walking and looking in the heat. Lynn was short of breath, exhausted from the days of flying, and rapidly loosing momentum. Armee looked at me and said,
“Andy, we need to get our girl out of the sun.”
Going to Bamako always includes Armee now.
I owe him my life. When we had no one else to call, when we were strangers, he took us in.
How about you? Do you have a friendship story to share in the comments.