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If you Need Nobody, Nobody Needs you

This post involves the village of Fana, camel drawing, the German board game Settlers of Catan and many beautiful aspects of Malian culture. It could also be considered a de facto part II of my favorite photos from West Africa.

Fana is 120 km east of Bamako, on the major east/west road to Segou and beyond. It is a hub for cotton production. It is the village of my girlfriend and her family.

To avoid running the risk of overly romanticizing village life, let me mention the following:

Clean water is a problem in Fana. There are taps around town, but most people rely on wells. Metronidazole, an antibiotic and antiprotozoal (I previously took it for amoebic dysentery) is sold in roadside boutiques. The fact that you can easily find this medication outside of a pharmacy is indicative of the water problem.

Healthcare in general is lacking, but it is in the area of prenatal, maternal and newborn care where things are ugly (this is true for all of Mali).

Women carry the greatest burden here. Most of them provide an income stream while also handling the domestic workload.

The rest of the post is going to be a glorification of Fana and Malian culture that you may have found unreasonable if I didn’t preface it by saying people are occasionally poisoned by the water.

My friend Claire, who lived in Mali with a host family while studying here, recently returned to Bamako. In fact, we were able to meet up while she was here. She wrote what I think is a very beautiful and insightful piece on Malian culture here. This is a relevant excerpt. Please read it.

Two (fila). “Denw” (pronounced day-oon) means “children”. It’s the plural of “den” (child) which kind of sounds like “dang” if you take off the ‘g’. “Denw” is used all over the place to describe the “children” of something. “Tegedenw” (from the proverb) literally means “hand children”… fingers. “Kalandenw” means “learn children”… students. “Yiridenw” means “tree children”… fruit! Pretty cool, no? Beyond making the language a bit easier to decode, the frequent integration of “children” is one of the things I find really beautiful about Malian culture.

Three (saba). This goes hand in hand with the idea (here) that every child is the child of everyone. Chez nous, our families are separate. I have my mom and you have yours. Here, any adult can yell at, pick up, hold, feed, or even slap any child (and they do this a lot). On the Sotrama (the Malian minibus), a woman entering with three children will hold one on her own lap, while two complete strangers will pick up the other two children so they don’t get tossed around during the ride. It’s pretty incredible.

It is incredible. It’s also important to note, I think, that Malidenw is what you call the citizens of Mali. A Malian citizen is literally a child of Mali.

In Fana, I stayed with Bintou and her family, which is really several families, which are in turn part of the larger family of Fana, which is part of the family of Mali. Below is a picture of Nana, the youngest child in the family of Bintou’s older brother. But Nana is also Bintou’s child. Nana is the neighbor’s child. Nana is Maliden.

If Nana does something wrong, everyone tells her so. If she does something right, everyone tells her so. If Nana is laughing, it’s because everyone is tickling her:

This is a Bambara proverb: Ni i mako tε mɔgɔ la, mɔgɔ mako t’i la.

It means “if you need nobody, nobody needs you.”

In Mali, you need everyone, and everyone needs you.

I don’t need to explain the power of shared responsibility and an unbroken chain of love.

I was planning on this being much longer, but I’m going to let it be for now.

I will post part II tomorrow or wednesday. Expect camel drawing:

On the left: before my intensive camel drawing workshop. On the right: after

Also expect Settlers of Catan (my line of missionary work involves board games and camel drawing) and more insight into Malian culture.

In this video, you will hear me exchanging greetings with Djeneba (off camera). We are asking each other about the health of our respective siblings, wives, husbands, children, families etc. These greetings aren’t normally heated, but Djeneba had threatened to smack me several times over the course of the day and that may be why we were talking to each other like this. In the next post, there will be some video of the actual game and what transpired, including a spontaneous session of coupé-décalé dancing.

Finally, expect some of my favorite photos ever. Like this one:

Caption contest? Feel free in the comments.

Other Stuff

Please read this post about traveling to eastern DRC from my friend sara’s blog Children on the Roof. The post is called Tell Them to Change that Sentence and it is the best thing I’ve read recently. Sara’s writing is brilliant, funny, insightful…

My music projects have been all over the place recently. Trying to get more organized now with musicians here as well as friends back home. This is an off the wall project I have been working on with two separate recordings of a pop/gospel/highlife song that I took in two different tro-tros in Ghana. I have manipulated, heavily in parts, rearranged sections etc.

Mavis Blown Apart Ghana Minibus by lionsinthetiles

The video below is from the inside of a moto taxi. It had 9 people in it, 12 if you count infants. Infinite division of space, previously demonstrated with sotramas, Mali’s most widely used form of public transportation. The song is by Mah Damba and it’s called “Sounafi,” from an album called Djelimuso.

One of the first things I saw in Fana was a dog on top of a wall. Didn’t make any sense, but that’s how some things are. This post may be similarly confusing, but I hope you can get something from it.

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{ 23 comments… add one }
  • Hadji June 6, 2011, 12:30 pm

    Great post,

    Now you do realize even though Djeneba threatened you several times that she will smack you…she’s just talking smack right? She won’t actually do it, so don’t be nervous about it. lol

    I wrote a post about the social fabric in Africa and most specifically in Mali and Senegal. How people truly live as a community…as in a child is everyone’s child – when an old person gets in the bus and the youngster doesn’t get up…other people in the bus will scold him/her and have him/her get up to let the older person sit down – and many other examples of involvement in each others lives.

    That is probably the biggest divide between life in the West and life in Africa.

    Thanks for this authentic post!

    • phil June 6, 2011, 2:43 pm

      Hey Hadji,
      Thanks for the comment. Haha, yeah Djeneba and I had been joking for the whole day. It was all in fun. I have noticed this on public transport as well, and you’re right it is typically many people that will scold the offender, not just one. As far as this aspect of the social fabric being the biggest divide between the west and Africa, I agree 100%.

      Let me know if you can get me any info re: drip irrigation systems or whatever you think would be best for the co-op I mentioned. I will send you an email with more info if you need it. Trying to make a recommendation to them, but I’m not really qualified and right now they are being quoted 500,000 CFA for a new water system that will fill basins after which they will use watering cans to water the plants. Seems like there has to be a better way…
      k’an ben,

  • Jeremy Branham June 6, 2011, 3:06 pm

    Thanks for this Phil! Again, I am amazed at this look into African life. I love the photos of the kids and the theme that we all need each other to survive. How true it is there in Fana. We forget that here. Thank you for reminding me of these lessons. Love the photos and especially the one of the camel drawing! You are a fabulous teacher! LOL!

    • phil June 7, 2011, 6:57 am

      Thanks for the comment Jeremy. There is a lot more camel drawing to come 🙂

  • Andi of My Beautiful Adventures June 7, 2011, 9:47 am

    This is such a powerful travel narrative. I didn’t want it to end! Gorgeous writing and pics.

    • phil June 7, 2011, 6:06 pm

      Thanks Andi 🙂

  • Katrina June 7, 2011, 10:19 am

    My two favorite bits from this post: “In Mali, you need everyone, and everyone needs you.” and “On the left: before my intensive camel drawing workshop. On the right: after”

    Keep up the great camel-drawing education work, Phil! *hugs*

    • phil June 7, 2011, 6:07 pm

      hehe, those might be my two favorite parts as well 🙂 The camel drawing education will continue indeed. I’m about to take it to the next level.

  • Sally June 7, 2011, 10:38 am

    Okay, there is some awesome stuff in this post, but that before/after shot of the camel drawing is unbelievable. You have a gift, man. I’m so glad you’re sharing it with the world. 🙂

    • phil June 7, 2011, 6:09 pm

      Sally, speaking of which, how is your camel drawing coming along?

  • Pete Heck June 8, 2011, 10:30 am

    Beautiful post Phil. It is pretty cool about “Denw” and the tree children, or fruit! And love the camel drawing. Thank you for the insight into the Malian culture.

    I’m off to read Sara’s post now.

    Looking forward to your follow up post.

    • phil June 8, 2011, 8:37 pm

      Thanks Pete, glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 Definitely check out Sara’s site, I love her writing.

  • Ben Gubits June 8, 2011, 1:00 pm

    AMAZING POST BUDDY! Honestly one of my favorites yet, I love the Mailian sense of family and community, We could use so much of that here (especially in Boston). Ummm pretty intereseted to hear how the trading aspect of Settlers is working in Bambara??

    Caption contest:
    Most precious heirloom in the house just shattered into pieces

    Girl on the left:

    Boy on the right:
    “Oh Well, Where’s the ICE CREAM??”

    • phil June 8, 2011, 8:40 pm


      Thanks for the kind words brother and I think the caption is settled 😉

      The trading happened in French unfortunately, but I’ve been tightening up my bambara and the next game will be without french. Hope you’re well buddy. Coming back to the states in a month or so, we’ll have to figure something out

  • Theodora June 10, 2011, 2:04 am

    Lovely pics and insights here — and I love the way you tread the difficult line that avoids romanticising poverty.

    • phil June 10, 2011, 9:10 am

      Thanks Theodora 🙂 Glad you liked the post.

  • Sharon Miodovsky June 11, 2011, 12:10 pm

    I love that picture of everyone tickling Nana!

    • phil June 13, 2011, 3:38 pm

      me too 🙂 See you in a few weeks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Honza June 13, 2011, 5:04 pm

    caption contest:

    “I don’t need more sheep!!!!!”

    “meh – we got a port, no worries.”

    • phil June 14, 2011, 5:27 am

      Hahaha. Honza, I think this may be the one. Sorry Benjamin.

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