Mamadou Discovers The International Space Station In Mali

img_20130112_091545-01.jpegIt was the usual long, hot, dusty day working in the bush region of eastern Mali. I was getting back from the village way too late, much later than I should have, having been warned that this bush road was prone to robbers at night. I was warned by locals that some time ago even Sikasso’s Chief of Police was stopped up by thieves in broad daylight, stripped naked, and deprived of his car.

As I emerged from the dry savanna, just on the far fringe of Sikasso, I entered into cell reception that sent my cellphone into a beeping frenzy, notifying me that I had missed seven phone calls, every one of them from a very frantically worried Malian friend named Mamadu Traoré. Mamadu left several worried messages hoping I was still not in the bush at this time of night. Mamadou knew I went into the bush today, having seen me pull out of my courtyard in the wee hours of the morning for the brutal journey to Nanduma. But, I was indeed still in the bush after dark, and I still had another four km of dirt road before I actually reached power, lights, and our mutual courtyard.

Finally arriving, I pulled my 125 cc Chinese Sanya moto into the courtyard, climbed off, slapped the dust off my jacket and pants, removed my helmet, unstrapped my bag.

Before heading into the house I scanned the courtyard, but there was not any sign of Mamadou in the evening star light. So unlocking the house, I dropped all my village bags just inside the door, stripped down on the spot,  wrapped up in a pagné cloth, grabbed my shower fixings, filled a bucket with cold water and headed for the outdoor shower.

Beside the fact I really missed hot water, I do enjoy bucket showering outside in an open air shower consisting of four low wall’s, no roof, totally open to the stars (And a view on to the dusty back streets too). You get to hear the sounds of the neighbours, town, various wandering people, animals, and that open view of the evening stars. I can’t explain it, but African towns and villages actually take on a very different sensory experience at night, and I like the serenity, sights, and sounds. Evening bucket showers are one of those joyous African experiences that my wife does not share in common with me. Showering in an outdoor shower-bathroom combination at night means that you have frequent visitor cockroaches climbing up the “squatty potty” drain hole, over the floor and up the walls. (The hole should be sealed with a cover to keep fly’s from dispersing human filth. But mine, like most was built as an open hole). The cockroaches have sent my wife off on a screaming hysterical tirade in the shower too many times,  to the great bewilderment of any Malian within hearing range. So Lynn dutifully has her shower routine complete before sunset sans les cafard (without cockroaches) leaving the shower all mine in the evenings. After scrubbing down a days dust and sweat, I poured cool and refreshing  cups of water over my heard and toweled off. I threw on my boubou and headed to the house.

However, as I headed back to the house I noticed that Mamadou was now lounging under the mango tree with some old man who was reclining with an audible snore. I diddled in the house a little, and then went out to chat with them under the mango tree. I was introduced to the elderly man, quite old for Mali with the mean life expectancy being forty seven years in Mali. He leaned forward from his slumber to shake my hand, as we exchanged greetings in Bambara. He was staying with Mamadou’s family for a few days. He hardly understood French at all and spoke only Bambara to me, but you could tell he was able to follow the French conversation Mamadou and I were having, though he laid back and was almost asleep, not very interested, at first.

Mamadou and I made small talk, exchanging stories back and forth about our day, He expressed his worry, and I explained why I was so late with the village work that day.

Just then, a really large bright object begin to move swiftly across the sky, moving from the west to the east. Immediately I realized it was the international space station with it’s low orbit, for I had seen it many times.  I immediately sat up and pointed to it. Mamadou and the Old man sprang to attention and leaned up to see, with Mamadou asking if it was a satellite, and commenting that they see this bright moving star from time to time. I explained that it was the International Space Station and that there are Canadians, Americans, Japanese, and Russians living on there.  This really sparked the interest of the sleepy old man. He was now leaning closer towards us on one elbow, intently following this conversation best he could, not nearly as uninterested as before.

Mamadou had many questions. I will summarize them by saying I had opportunity to explain the process of sending up space shuttles to exchange people, restock food, deliver water, and add new modules to enlarge the stations research capacity. At this, the old man’s eyes were wide and his mouth was gaping. Remember, he certainly os illiterate, does not own a TV in his powerless village, and even if he did, certainly the  only thing he ever watched on a TV is a soccer game, not a Bambara Discovery Channel.  The elderly man certainly has never seen, let alone read any books or magazines about space travel and adventure. Like so many in Mali, he cannot read or write.

I continued to stare up at the stars. After a long moment of silence there was ample time to let this new knowledge sink in.

Mamadou then asked a very astute question, “Is there air up there?”
“No there is not.”,  I replied.
“Well, how do they get air up there then?”, he inquired.
“They take them air in bottles.” I explained.

At this, the old man huffed a sound of clear disbelief,  laid back in his reclining chair with his hands clasped behind his head,  closed his eyes, shaking his head in total disbelief. He was obviously a bit perturbed that he had been “taken in” so easily by this “toubob” (white man) yarn. It was clear to him that my story was a seriously foolish and fictitious tale. The space story, though intriguing to the old man at first, became too unbelievable when it came to delivering bottles of air. Beer, maybe. But air tanks, nope! How on earth would I begin to explain electrolysis of water (H2O) as the main method to generate oxygen in space? Air tanks are only the backup secondary system.

We grew silent under the mango tree as I too reclined back and rested for a long time. This is normal in the later evenings in Africa. Just “being” is OK with Malians, they are not afraid of long silence. Eventually the old man began to snore, far away from any interest in me, or my silly tales. I too, fell half asleep, but finally shook myself alert and bid Mamadou and the old man a night of peace.

As I meandered sleepily down the short path to my house, I wondered to myself, “How can I build relationships with these precious Malian people, when half of my conversations and stories sound like ridiculous nonsense to them? Mere Toubab Tales….. ”

(Names of people and places altered for security)

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