During A Family Emergency I Was The Stranger in Africa, But Malians Took Me In

I am incredibly thankful that West Africans, by in large, do not treat me as a nuisance. Certainly a few might actually feel that way from time to time, but rarely wear it on their sleeve.

Let’s face it, culturally we are strange, and our faux pas are numerous. Truth is we are unable to fully understand the volume, degree, and depth of our social akwardness in another culture. After years of living in a foreign land we think we are fitting in, but at times we are still culturally odd, even amusing.  

Despite providing West Africans much fodder for amusement, most are very gracious, kind, and helpful. This has been my experience in four west African countries.  When we are treated curtly, it is more likely not from the general community, rather some uppity in a government office, or in some business. They have absolute authority to work things quickly for you, or render your life a bureaucratic time consuming hell. They love the power, and they use it. 

As a tribe, Assholes, are trans-cultural. Meaning they are found breeding to multiply themselves, and thriving in every global culture imaginable on this planet.  They are gifted with languages, as they speak fluent asshole in every language on earth. ~ Andy Rayner please quote me.

My proper English gentleman friend tells this story in one of his books.

“Further on, three ladies carrying large bowls on their heads are walking by the roadside. “Labaalé!” These three know a place where there is a market and where we can most certainly try out some chouk. After a lengthy conversation, of which I understand precisely three words, Evan gets out and opens the back of his car. The ladies put their bowls in the boot and, somewhat uneasily, get into the back seat (as Ken squeezes into the front with Evan and me). I wonder if this is the first time they’ve ever ridden in a car. Quite possibly. We turn off the main road and along another bumpy track, parking almost immediately. Evan asks the ladies whether they need a lift back to where he picked them up. “No, we can walk back from here,” they say. Helping a foreigner is almost a duty of honour in this part of the world, and these three women – in spite of all the day’s hard work – were still happy to put themselves out to help three strangers. Amazing.”
( Rob Baker. Adventures in Music and Culture; Travels of an Ethnomusicologist in West Africa)

This is so typical of my experience. Strangers coming to the rescue.

When we first entered Mali to lanuch the first work for our development agency, my wife’s mother unexpectedly passed away three weeks into our stay. We received the call shortly after Midnight.  My Father-in-law asked my mother to call me, and then I could break the news to Lynn.

I am now sitting up on the mattress on the floor trying to decipher what i am hearing. We did not have any furnature or appliance, barely any power, no plumbing. Our bed consisted of a piece of plastic on a cement floor with a foam mattres on top, and a pink mosquito net tucked in around the sides. We needed the mosquite net since our simple place had no screening either. Our room swamed with mosquitoes at night as a result.

There I was on the cell phone trying to work out if it was Lynn’s mom who passed away, or her ninety year old Grandmother, living in a granny sweet in the same house as Lynn’s parents. It all made no sense because as my mom kept saying Lynn’s mom passed away, i kept saying, “You mean her grandmother?”. It took at least three tries for me to wrap my head around what the situation really was.  Of course, Lynn is listening to all this on the bed beside me.

I hung up, broke the sad news. Now what do we do.  Lynn’s dad instructed my mother to tell us not to try and come home. It would be too difficult to get home on time. He wanted us to stay and finish the work we had come to do because Margaret was a firm supporter of what we were there to do, our biggest cheerleader.

We sat there for a while, our heads spinning. Eventually, I asked my wife what she wanted to do. She expressed that if it were possible, she would return home for the funeral while I stayed to carry out the work for the next 2.5 months.

We were 400 km from the airport in Bamako, and we had no idea if it was even possible to get there on such short notice, let alone secure a flight ticket.

What made it so difficult at this stage of the game was that we did not know anyone in the country. We were newly arrived, the first people in our organization.  We did not know a single expat in Mali, so were not part of that networked community. We had no one, and no phone numbers to call. 

All we had were mostly three week old connections with local Malian people.We lived next to Pierre, whom I met 5 years before when I was in Mali researching for this project. So I knew him about fourteen days more than any other Malian. 

I began by calling Air France, explaining the situation, and that I was on a cell in the middle of the night with limited credit. 45 minutes in my phone dies. I call back on my wife’s cell, telling the lady immediately I have only 10 minutes of talk time left in the middle of the night, i can not get credit, and that i spent forty five minutes already. The idiot who worked on the stuff the first call, closed the file, saying the client hung up. This Air France lady was more helpful. She said go to the city as quickly as you can, when you arrive, go to the air France office, I will do my best to have everything ready before you get there. So we would try to  leave Sikasso early that morning, sleep deprived, with a hope and prayer we actually had a ticket.

I hung up the phone at 1:57 AM with Air France, and this is where our Malian network helped these strangers. 

When we arrived by bus in Sikasso three weeks earlier, Alou, in the Bani Bus office gave me his personal number, after one short encounter, saying.

“Whenever you need a bus ticket, no matter what time of day it is, call me and I will take care of you two.”

I called my “Friend”, whom I met once, for grand total of two minutes, three weeks before.  After explaining the situation, he said to arrive at 5:30 AM that he would assure we have seats on the bus, and he did.

About 4:30 AM I head next door to inform Pierre of the situation, and he comes over to give condolences to my wife before we leave.  Off we go to the chaotic bus station on our Jakarta motorcycle with bags ballanced on our knees.  Alou will guard my bike until later in the morning when Pierre will arrive to usher it to a more secure storage until my return ftom Bamako in a few days.

We are heading to a city where, again, we do not knowing a single person.  Where are we going to stay? I do not know the names of any hotels, and certainly have no contact information for them, nor anyone or anything.  All I have are four phone numbers, One is for Armee, the Malian taxi driver who picked us up at the airport when we first arrived, and for the SIL language center where we stayed on our arrival three weeks earlier.  Problem now being, it was Sunday morning, and the SIL office is closed for the weekend. So booking there is out. So i have no way of booking anything.

As we wait for the bus to load, at six in the morning I resort to calling taximan Armee in Bamako and explain the situation, how I have no idea where to stay, and that we would need a ride to the airport from the bus stop. Asking if he could book me some place, any place, to stay.

Armee said to not worry,  he will take care of everything for arrival. And he did.

We arrived to a room booked. He took us to the Air France office at the airport, where we did indeed have tickets ready for Lynn. We put her on the airplane. I walked her to the security check, waved her off.

I will be honest. I felt like the man. I did it. I got her home. No, “We” got her home. Me, Alou, Armee, and some God intervention for sure. 

For the last twenty two hours all I did was try to honor my wife’s wishes, to get her home on time – if it was possible. Come hell or high water I was going to do my best. I watched her tears through the day as i rushed and rushed to do what I could.

I stayed by her side to the security point. Huged her and watched her go through security. I will admit I was happy. Not happy to see her go, not happy for the loss of a great lady, my mother-in-law; no, over the moon becuse we pulled this off in such a short time, over such long distances, and in French West Africa nonetheless. We have been in Africa long enough to know that there was so much working against this success. I was releived, thankful, jubilent about this part of the situation.

When I could see my wife no more, I turned to walk back out the doors of the airport. As I exited,  I see Armee sitting in his taxi waiting for me. But suddenly the weight of it all fell off my shoulders. I did not realize how heavy it had been for these frantic hours. I had been awake for 41 hours now. I admit, I cried, right there on the cement curb, sad for the loss of my Mother-in-Law, and that sinking realization I just put my wife on an airplane for her mothers funeral, and I did not go. The hardest life transition Lynn had ever faced up to this point, and I left her side. That felt bad inside.

Then the selfish reality materalized, I was now alone in Mali for the next 2.5 months. That was not the plan.

We were not embedded in any expat community then, but that has changed. We have a half dozen we know now… even have their phone numbers.

However, in 2011, all we had were dirt poor Malians we barely knew yet.

I thank Armee every year for what he did for us. But there is more to this story than that. Armee helped us once before….. that is another story. 

It took some divine grace, combined with Pierre (christian), Amree & Alou (both muslim) to pull this off.

 For the next two and a half months they all became my family. I had no one else but them. But they were more than enough, big enough, real enough, open enough, and kind enough to me. 

I was a stranger, and they took me in!

When we had no one else, we at least had them. They stood up for us. 

Thank you!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Gordon Weatherby says:

    Thanks for sharing. Will say a prayer for them.


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