The Only Reason You Need to Travel to Mali

by phil on October 15, 2010

inside a sotrama

When two Malians meet for the first time, they greet and introduce themselves. Then they insult each other. In this way, Mali has avoided Civil War for centuries. The insults are based on family names and they are mostly hilarious. When a Keita meets a Coulibaly, the conversation might go something like this:

Keita (family name): Good afternoon
Coulibaly: My mother

SIDE NOTE: this is one of the most beautiful aspects of bambara. When someone greets you in Bambara you say N ba if you are a man. N ba literally means my mother. You are more or less saying thanks to my mother, I am here to face time. Women respond N se. N se means my power. The women are saying my power as a female always wins against time. This is awesome.

Cont..
Keita: how is your family?
Coulibaly: everything is going fine
Keita: what is your name?
Coulibaly: something Coulibaly
Keita: Ahh Coulibaly. You eat beans.
Coulibaly: I don’t eat beans. You eat beans. And peanuts.
Keita: I am a descendant of Sundiata Keita, the first emperor of Mali.
Coulibaly: you are a peanut farmer.
Keita: you are my slave

At some point both parties break down in laughter and embrace. This phenomenon is called joking cousins (or laughing cousins) and it is everywhere in Mali. In a sotrama the other day, a man asked me for my name. I told him I had been given the name Boubacar Soumare. I asked for his name. Traore. I unleashed my only line of attack – you eat beans – in Bambara (I be so dun). Calling someone a bean eater is an actual insult and it is widely used. He denied that he was a bean eater and went on to say a number of incomprehensible things in Bambara about Soumare. The woman next to him started insulting me in French, explaining that that the Soumare’s are stupid, they don’t go to school, they are farmers, and they try to migrate to Spain in boats because they are too dumb to do anything else. Once I fully understood what she was saying, I took my gloves off as well. I told the woman she ate donkey meat and peanuts. She denied this with exaggerated finger wagging and maintained her “Soumare’s are stupid” line of insults. We went back and forth until we were both laughing and then we thanked each other. So weird and funny and awesome.

Here is a video clip from that sotrama. My battery dies before my donkey meat line, but you can get a sense for what I’m talking about, or maybe you can’t because there is lot of noise, the quality is poor, and everyone is speaking in French and Bambara. About 10 seconds in the Traore guy asks for my name.


I originally started taking the video to capture the inside of a sotrama. They are the same type of minibuses you see throughout Africa (see earlier post on tro-tros in Ghana), but in Mali, and Guinea and Niger I’m told, the inside has been gutted completely and benches have been put around the perimeter.

I remember when a teacher in high school told me that there was infinite space between two points. He explained that you could continually divide the distance between the two points in half. An easy way to wrap your head around this concept is to ride in a sotrama. There are no marked seats so everyone squeezes together however they can. The corners are obviously miserable and you do what you can to avoid them at all costs. Once there are twenty people glued to each other (if the car flipped over no one would be dislodged), you set off for your destination. Along the way the sotrama will stop and more passengers will board. The mate will point to a spot where the new passenger should sit. There is of course no available space. And yet, the passenger sits down. Infinite division of space. It is possible. It happens in Mali.

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