Consider how my Malian colleague recently started up a Skype conversation with me:
[7/13/11 1:51:44 PM] Bylla Baba DICKO: Bjr Zou. À mon avis, tu dois te marier sous peu et commencer à avoir des enfants, c’est mieux. [Mornin' Zou. In my opinion, you should get married soon and start having children. It's for the best.]
[7/13/11 1:52:40 PM] Bylla Baba DICKO: tant qu’on peut, il n’est pas très interessant de laisser à plutard. [If you can, it's not as interesting to leave for later.]
[7/13/11 1:54:20 PM] Bylla Baba DICKO: simple opinion qui n’engage que moi [just my 2c.]
[7/13/11 1:54:37 PM] Max Seunik: Mais j’ai seulement 19 ans ! [But, I'm only 19 years old!]
[7/13/11 1:55:25 PM] Bylla Baba DICKO: il y a des garçons au Mali qui ont des enfants à 17, 18 ans [There are boys in Mali who have children at 17 or 18.]
[7/13/11 2:00:18 PM] Max Seunik: mais, cherchant une femme compatible… ça peut prendre beaucoup de temps, non? [But findin' the right lass takes some time, no?]
[7/13/11 2:00:48 PM] Bylla Baba DICKO: oui, le bon choix est vraiment nécessaire [Yes, making the right choice is truly necessary.]
[7/13/11 2:01:40 PM] Bylla Baba DICKO: car dit on ”Qui se marie à la hate se repend à merveilles”, autant faire le bon choix avant de regretter [As they say, 'those who marry in haste repent in Wonderland', make the right choice before regretting it.]
[7/13/11 2:04:09 PM] Bylla Baba DICKO: une femme que tu connais bien et qui porte les critères de ton choix [A woman you know well, and who fits the criteria of your choosing.]
[7/13/11 2:05:51 PM] Bylla Baba DICKO: ça peut ne pas prendre beaucoup de temps, ça depends du dégré d’affection qui vous anime tous les deux [It doesn't have to take a long time, it all depends on how much affection you have for each other.]
Lucky for me, Malians like Dicko are always more than willing to straighten out my looking-for-the-one worldview. Some days I feel as if my life has transformed into a Malian version of ‘the Bachelor’. Women, especially older women, are visibly delighted when they find out I’m single and ready to mingle. They cluck their tongues, furrow their brows and immediately begin to cycle through a list of their eligible granddaughters – “Hmmm, Aïcha is 17… and her father owns that auto-shop, so the dowry should be good… and she’s a pretty girl! How about it?”
Sometimes, I like to sit on our roof around sundown with book in hand listening to the mosques fill the sky with their somewhat ominous sounding calls to prayer. Unfortunately, the tightly packed neighbourhood and ubiquitously level roofs make me very visible and somewhat of a spectacle for kids playing on the tops of adjacent homes. “Too-baaa-booo” they chant in unison, “Too-baaa-booooooo!” (or, more recently, upon the discovery of my nationality, “Caaaa-naaaa-dieeeeeen!”).
But I digress… sitting on the roof also helps facilitate conversations with neighbours. One neighbour in particular (Bintou) loves climbing her roof with the express purpose of regaling me with the details of a new marriage prospect. I didn’t take her seriously when I first met her almost a month ago and when she pledged to get me hitched before the end of my stay. I was wrong. Marriage is serious business in Mali – a near constant topic of conversation.
It probably doesn’t help that most Malians seem to think I am upwards of 25. Upon the grand reveal of my actual age to my colleagues some 4 weeks ago, I was forced to fork over my passport in order to confirm that I wasn’t up to some trickery. But the age befuddlement is largely reciprocal. I find that I vastly underestimate the age of Malians – usually by a good 10-15 years.
While I have found the large majority of Bamakois whom I have met to be thoughtful, progressive and up to date on world affairs – there are some cultural institutions like marriage that remain firmly entrenched in tradition. Forced marriage of underage girls from as young as 10 or 11 is still common in many rural areas of the nation, and the law recognizes polygamy as a valid and legitimate practice. A man must choose upon the marriage of his first spouse whether or not he will be polygamous – but after that, the sky’s the limit. (Well, actually, four wives is the limit).
My host-father Moussa, for example, originally signed a certificate of polygamy upon the marriage of his first-wife Myriam. He has since somberly come to the conclusion that “a man can only really give his love and attention to one woman.”
As a foreigner living in Malian society, daily reminders of the cultural differences are often subtle. For instance, advertisements lining l’Avenue de la CDEAO ask passersby: “Avez-vous acheté l’assurance medicale pour votre famille? vos enfants? Votre femme? (Vos femmes?)”
[Have you bought medical insurance for your family? your kids? your wife? (your wives?)"]
And while time is running out for me to fall madly in love with a malienne, elope and try desperately to find some semblance of a white picket fence amongst sand dunes and mango trees – I remain open to the possibility. I guess the next question is: Mom, will you do the flowers?
All the best from Bamako.