Friday, April 21, 2006

Waiting for the mangoes to run dry

A friend of mine from Wellesley, Caitlin, is a Peace Corps volunteer in southern Mali. She was my official excuse for making my way back to this country. Meeting her in Bamako on April 8 was the only fixed appointment I had to keep during this entire trip. Of course, I missed it, and by a spectacular two whole days.

We did finally cross paths in the town of Sikasso, from where we headed out to her village. Caitlin lives much further "en brousse" than I did in Guinea; her village is about 9kms off the paved road, with no transport in or out, no women selling rice or milk or fried pastries on the side of the road, and no shops. If it weren't for the wealth of mangoes ripening on the trees, food would be a real problem. Caitlin assures me that in a couple of months, it will be. She talked about the hungry season last year, when she watched children fighting over the inedible pods growing on a bush outside her house. "They fill your stomach," a local man had told her, "but they make you sick."

The two of us spent three nights in the village, moving slowly, chatting lazily and avoiding the sun. Caitlin's Malian counterpart had just run off with a stash of project money and she was left trying to negotiate the fall-out. This scandal was the subject of every conversation -- that and elephants, a herd of which had just passed through a week earlier. Caitlin had gone to see them with several dogs, and the elephants had charged. Caitlin had nearly been trampled and two of the dogs had to be shot. Everyone wanted pictures.

We slept outside every night, me swathed in a dusty mosquito net, Caitlin taking her chances in the open air. Her house is on the outskirts of the village, but the nocturnal noise is still surprising: crooning radios, barking dogs, the unearthly wailing of the donkey next door. The only pump in the village broke, and everyone was drinking well water. We wandered listlessly around in the dust, pausing under mango trees to chat with old men parked on woven mats, fielding questions about the elephants.

On Sunday we bicycled 10kms to a nearby waterfall, the closest thing in the area to a tourist attraction. A thin spray of water dribbled and spat off a mossy cliff into a pool so deep I couldn't touch the bottom, where dry season mud swirled thick and orange and there were rumors of crocodiles. Vegetation grew thickly on the rocks and the air felt at least 5 degrees cooler. We swam, lay on a cool ledge, napped, and swam some more before trudging back to the bikes through a mango grove carpeted in leaves and crawling with red ants.

"That's the thing about Mali," said Caitlin. "There are so many places that are almost great, but aren't."

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