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The Only Reason You Need to Travel to Mali

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.

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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{ 11 comments… add one }

  • Jessica the hedgehog October 15, 2010, 4:44 pm

    LOL! That’s absolutely brilliant, and most definitely a huge reason to visit Mali in and of itself. 🙂

    (Also: hi! I found your blog through another blog through another blog, etc, etc.)

    • phil October 22, 2010, 9:14 am

      Hey Jessica, thanks for reading. I love your site btw. Hedgehogs without borders. Nice!!!!! B well, Phil

  • Claire B / Bintou Traore October 15, 2010, 5:36 pm

    Phil – you did the best job of explaining cousinage that I’ve ever heard. Kudos. But, unfortunately, you were mistaken in your post. Traores don’t eat beans. Traores are kings. You eat beans. You, Phil, are a bean eater. And that means you fart. Slave.

    ala ka bi here caya!

    • phil October 22, 2010, 9:16 am

      Traores are huge bean eaters and you know it. I still got to hook up with your host family!! Will let you know in the next few days. Just got back to Bamako. B well,. Phil

  • Jennifer Barry October 22, 2010, 8:10 pm

    Hi Phil, Mali seems like such a warm, welcoming place to visit. I look forward to reading your future adventures there.

    On another topic, have you thought of getting a Sport Berkey or something similar to filter your water? You seem to have a lot of digestive problems.

  • phil October 23, 2010, 9:23 am

    Jennifer, it is definitely warm and welcoming! Hehe thanks for the tip. Water is typically not the problem for me. It might have been this last time though. I drank tea that was nowhere near hot and the water was from the Niger. My next stop is Morocco and I think it will be a respite for my GI tract!!! B well, Phil

  • Hadji Beye January 28, 2011, 5:06 pm

    It seemed like you had a good time in Mali…I am half-Bambara and half-Wolof and I am all too familiar with the jokes African ethnic groups have for each other. I like on the video how the lady talks about the Marakah and the Sarakholes (she said they’re dumb..lol) and that’s right in French West Africa many speak their African tongue then mix it with some french.
    The lady brought up the immigration problem that kills many nowadays, those leaving through fragile ships and end up dead in the ocean…but she said Malians don’t do that (b/c they’re so smart…lol) but this is typical in Mali and I miss it so much….the Social fabric is very strong.

    Senegal is like that too, but I think Senegalese people are even more boastful than Malian…Senegalese people always talk about Malians like they’re monkeys…but it’s all in fun.

    Enjoy your trip!


  • Joanne January 19, 2012, 8:17 am


    I discovered your blog/s in searching for Mali as my son is there now doing Francophone studies with his Malian-born college prof (a US college). Thanks so much for your blogs and tweets. Love the equating of sotrama seating and infinity; in doing research about kitchen design, I found that the Spanish have a saying about banquettes–where there’s room for six, there’s room for seven. Sounds like a bit higher number in the sotrama but the same principle. And I’m sure this happens in the sotrama–the guy in the corner farthest from the door has to get out first.

    • phil January 19, 2012, 11:20 am

      Hi Joanne,
      Thanks for your comment. Glad you are enjoying the site. Sounds like you need to get over here and visit your son 🙂 That is a great analogy, and yes, often it’s the guy in the far corner that needs to get out once everyone else is settled!! Thanks for stopping by.

  • Kyle April 1, 2012, 9:13 am

    Hi Phil,
    I’am just learning how to use the computer.I looked through your web site for the first time.It is very interesting.I hope that everything works out ok for you and the people of Mali.Mary and Ihope you have a great Easter we will miss you.Take care of your self and all of your freinds.Mary and I hope to visit some timein Mali,then take you to visit our good friends in Morocco.Our freind Hammed calls us often,usually when there is full moon.We really love afrcia and hope to have time and money to go soon.It is a litte embarassing to be a mayor that is al most computer illiterate,but other wise it is going pritty well.Also water Problems our some what my specialty and maybe some time Ican fix the water problems in Mali.Good luck and be carefull.
    Love Kyle and Mary.

  • Lindsay July 26, 2012, 10:26 pm

    I’ve lived in Mali and Senegal for almost 4 years and the bean and slave jokes are right on. Funny to be reminded of that.

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