Given the tumbleweeds that drift through this blog these days, I’m abandoning all pretence of being relevant and will just write about what is in my head, what I think about, and I might even hit the snooze button soon. This piece is a rambling, rolling fantasy and if it sounds like demented dream, that’s because it partially is.
Mali, Mali. It’s a country dead in the centre of Africa, one of the Sahara Desert nations, without a coastline. For me Mali is the end of the Earth, now that we know that the world is circular and we can’t fall off its extremities; as far as we could go towards the nothingness and away from the mundanity of our streamlined Western societies. Mali is the beginning of black Africa as one heads south away from Europe and the Arab north, although the Malians, diversely black as their ethnic groups are, are almost all Muslims and as I once saw written on an internet forum, the Bambaras of Mali would probably have a tad more in common with the Arabs to the north than with black ethnic groups in, say, Kenya or South Africa.
I became interested when a bunch of their kids (Under 23s) won a series of manic soccer matches against Portugal, Uruguay, Cameroon and Nigeria to get the bronze medal in the World Youth Cup of 1999, kids with names like Seydou Keita, Mahamadou Diarra, and other Malian surnames like Cissoko, Diakite, Touré, Coulibaly and all the rest.
Mali on the surface is the worst of everything: one of the hottest places in the world, where the Sahara Desert from the north invades ever-increasingly, where the plants die and there is never enough food for all, nor enough money to pay for the food that is left nor jobs to get money, where to survive people sell junk to each other “in a circle of increasingly dwindling returns”. The country is at the bottom of Human Development Indices, and I suspect the stats don’t lie in this case. Immigrants from Ghana and Nigeria find themselves there on their way to the miracle life in Spain and get stuck there with their money run out, alone and forced to cut hair for pennies or some similarly meaningless shit. (But I’m reading a book about science by Bill Bryson – atoms, the universe and all that – and it seems that life simply exists to exist, without ambition, simply for the purpose of survival.)
Malians are black, a shade that for unknown reasons finds itself at the bottom of the pecking order and a nationality that is either ignored or looked down on, for its lack of personal resources, for its AIDS, for its inability to succeed. Externally it is weak, but like Bolivia, Paraguay or whatever else, is a world within its world, rich in culture, in difference, not exactly rich in solidarity but as solid as such a poor country can be. The President is given the nickname ‘A.T.T.’ by a people that saw him liberate the country from dictatorship and in 1991 hand it over to what observers say are always free elections. Malian music, dancing and flowery traditional clothing are becoming somewhat better known now, taking over from what Cuba and Latin America once were before their New World exoticism was discovered, overdone and made cliché.
It is a country that is sprinkled with numerous black ethnic groups who traditionally had their callings: the Bambara were the farmers (and are Mali’s current-day majority population), the Fulani were the cattle herders, the Somono were the fishermen. Their languages are mostly related and when they don’t match the country is very loosely linked by the colonialist French language, a language that in War and Peace times was a symbol of refinement for the Russian aristocracy but whose future now relies on being transposed and Africanised into rolling ‘R’s, used to express frustrations of poverty, abjection, closed doors and migration.
What do Malians feel? I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. From birth they get trapped in a country that offers its citizens no purpose besides child-rearing propagation (say what you will about the chase for money but at least it’s a mission). Money is power, it is ability to alter things, and they have none, they drift from jobs to unemployment and if they can, find themselves in Paris or New York City, looked down on for being African and on the world’s bottom rung, working every day of their lives there without a day off. Back in Mali, Malians contract AIDS, they get malaria but it’s just par for the course there and they shrug it off, or else they die from it but that happens too with regularity and to some extent even death is to be moved on from, they get diseases that no longer exist here. They study by writing in workbooks but don’t have anywhere to apply their knowledge and they ask themselves: we have to study our culture as well as Shakespeare and European culture, so we know both, while Europeans know nothing about Mali, wouldn’t that mean that we are better? They dance, they play Beyoncé in their clubs, they get laid, same as us. A Tanzanian girl I knew in Australia told me, “Just go there. You’ll see that it’s not so different to anywhere else.” It’ll be the same as Australia, as Bolivia, as France, as Tanzania, just a bunch of people going about their day-to-day business. They support their extended families and are supported by others: socialism beats capitalism for the moment, whereas a month unemployed in New York and you’re done for, you won’t get a helping hand from anyone.
This is more about my idea of Mali, my imaginary emotions that it inspires, than about the country itself. It is so close to France and Spain and all the rest, so close to humdrum civilisation and yet so isolated, such a new world only a thousand kilometres away. I could tell you about the mosques made of earth standing strong in the middle of the desert, or the ‘bush’ feel that even the sprawling capital city of more than a million people still exudes, or the freakish River Niger that finds a way through the desert, curving inward against all logic, or Timbuktu, or their music that has not been commercialised just yet despite the wishes of the hippie set, or the fact that in Africa people die with regularity and the world couldn’t care less about Africa’s existence but that they are still standing and still find something to laugh about, and despite the fact they have the most reason to be bitter they just get on with it.
And then in my mind I evaluate which is more important, exotic curiosity and subsequent euphoria (but all the same, loneliness) or everlasting companionship, regular sex and a special person to talk to and look at all my life, and it is probably the latter. I couldn’t lose that for a few months bumming around Mali in heat and various states of composure, head up in the uncertainly of the early days, amused joy as I talk French to young women and dance with them (I suspect I would absolutely love African clubs), or the lack of composure as problems mount in the blistering heat amid the danger of living rich surrounded by poverty and I realise that however fun the whole endeavour would be in patches, there isn’t anybody there that I can depend on. Mali is so in tune with life but also so in tune with death, and if I go there I might die, either from a tropical disease or through violence. I don’t want Mali to be my graveyard.
There is so much to say about Mali and a thousand words have flown by without me having said anything, but I long for Mali against all hope and reason. I probably will not get there, and would not know what to do with myself once there. But even if I didn’t have a mission once I got there, a temporary purpose, I would have a moment when I stand there, breathe and say to myself in utter disbelief that right now, I am in Mali, I am at the end of the Earth. And I would know that a dream can be dreamt forever but the moment it hits us that it has come true is utterly indescribable, a feeling of complete disbelief. But if I get married it won’t happen, because what is real is what is real, and real happiness is better than imaginary happiness, but on the off chance that one in a thousand delivers itself then in those moments life becomes extraordinary, the impossible has unbelievably been made true, and that is where magic occurs.