As the words were coming out, I knew I was making a mistake. I knew because I had made the same mistake before, in front of the same friend whose eyes were now widening. “Hεrε sira?” (did you pass the night in peace?).
Under most circumstances, this is an acceptable question, polite even. What’s not so polite is asking this of a woman 40 years your senior. As a relatively young guy, I’m not supposed to ask older folks if they passed the night in peace, because how they passed the night is not my business.
A few days prior to this, I had greeted an old man with “Kow ka ɲi?” (everything good?). While I should have said “good afternoon” or asked of his family, I more or less said “hey man, everything cool?” to a guy that was probably 78-years-old.
I can get away with most of these blunders. As an outsider, I have a pass that grants me a certain amount of immunity. It’s what allows me to show up underdressed at a Bamako wedding, sit in the women’s tent, and generally act like an idiot.
Acting a fool in Accra, circa 2010.
But Time can erode this immunity. I now find myself getting reprimanded by friends who have watched me make mistakes one too many times. When I was last in Cote d’Ivoire, for example, I mistakenly gave a gift directly to the person I wanted to give it to. What? Yeah, it’s confusing. I wanted to give a gift – a new teapot – to Faty’s dad. So, I gave it to him. Faty put her head in her hands as I did so.
Gift giving is a bit unconventional in Cote d’Ivoire, or at least the parts of Cote d’Ivoire that are familiar to me. You give the gift to the person that introduced you to the person you are actually trying to give the gift to. In this case, that would be Faty. I give the gift to Faty, she gives it to her dad, and then later her dad thanks Faty for introducing me to him, and that’s how he thanks me for the gift. It was a funny moment, the first time this happened, when Faty’s dad thanked Faty for my gift in front of me.
Faty decided that I’m no longer allowed to make this mistake. She’s not the only one that has recently forbid me from botching practices that should be routine by now. While I am a white American from a Cleveland, Ohio suburb — and that’s not changing anytime soon — I have been spending most of my time in Mali and Cote d’Ivoire over the past several years.
I do have some new habits from this extended sejour (new living situation?). I am a prolific greeter. I am an expert when it comes time to demande la route. And I invite just about anyone to eat with me quand je suis à table. There are many other practices that I haven’t adopted, some that I probably never will. But even if I did, I would remain an outsider.
It’s a strange thing when you become comfortable in a once unfamiliar environment, but at the same time you know that you’re not really IN it. There’s no integration, but you arrive at something that approximates it in certain ways. People ask me “where do you live? what are you doing?” and I don’t have a straightforward answer to either question. But I’m somehow getting used to having my feet in two places at once, and I’m actually quite enjoying it. I’m always learning something, often by making a fool of myself, and life never gets too predictable.
I’m in the states now, visiting family and friends before I head back to Bamako on the 16th. New posts coming up: continuing the Red Roofs of Yop City saga and launching a fundraiser for a civil advocacy project I’ve been involved with in Bamako.