Mali Diary, One Week Later

We’ve been here a little over a week. We should have enough inputs to get some meaningful outputs, but the place is so alive and complex, and in some ways its true nature is so hidden, that I can’t be sure of any conclusions I might draw. After this 3-week trip, we may well be able to identify effective ways to do business here, but I can already see that understanding the culture in any organic and accurate way will take much, much longer.
First I’ll say a little something about how hard it can be to be a stranger. Garrett and I both have the handicap of not knowing the language, in addition to being outsiders. In the morning this is a nagging irritation – communicating with cab drivers is a chore, we may have to settle for a breakfast that’s not really what we wanted. By evening, it’s emotionally exhausting. All casual conversation, all day long, has only been with each other (what would I do without Garrett? I don’t even want to go there!). You don’t realize – trust me, you really don’t – how disorienting it is to have a natural, quick reaction – “Look at that bird!”…..”What a cute baby!” – and have to explain and attempt to translate what you’ve just said. So by evening, we’re both unnaturally relieved to see a white face. I was disappointed the first few days when we went to a restaurant that was frequented by ex-pats. Now I see how tempting it can be, on a long assignment, to surround yourself with those a little more like yourself. These are not our values, and this is not why we’re here, and on a personal growth level this factor could well make the experience meaningless, but it will be a very, very hard impulse to resist.
I won’t write yet about business factors. That’s unfair to you readers as well as all the people who’ve shared with us – there are possibilities for alliances but no conclusions. But we’ve been hearing interesting things about the national character that will certainly inform our business methods. Early on, an old (American) Africa hand said, “The Malians don’t trust each other.” This seemed to contradict the surface behaviors – the manners we’ve observed. Mali is a very social place. Everyone greets everyone else on the street. There are smiles and waves all around. Except for the beggars, there’s a remarkable lack of expectation of tips. The streets aren’t tense like they are in so many places, and we’ve seen soldiers and police but absolutely no guns. So the trust comment had to be filed away for future reference.

I guess if I’ve come to any conclusion, it’s that everyone is trying to make sense of the world in their own way. I take in what others say, Garrett does as well, we talk and compare reactions, and we’re each still learners — maybe even pilgrims.

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