But What is Mali Really Like?

In a word — in a few words —


Love to joke. Tradition of last name “joking cousins”: certain family names get the brunt of the jokes. Learn “I beh soo doon” early on: it means “You eat beans.” Everyone tells each other this after they ask for your last name, “Ee jammu?”  Adama gives me the name Kandiya Keita.  The founder of the first Malian empire was a Keita. I grow into the name over the weeks until I respond to the children on the streets chanting, “Tubabu! Tubabu!” (White person! White person!) with “N’togo Kandiya.”

Very poor. Challenge I face: how do you spread the word in a country where the majority, and the vast majority of the poor, are illiterate? Word of mouth, of course, and the radio, but when nothing is written down, rumors blur into facts until neither exists.

Relentlessly friendly. Relentlessly welcoming. Can’t walk the streets without greeting everyone.  And doesn’t stop at hello: “Hello! How are you?” “I am good.” “And your family?” “Doing well.” “You slept well?” “No problems.” “Great.”  I start in French and a week or two later in learn how to do it Bambara.  Very satisfying.  Creates a musical accompaniment that follows you down the street:

A ni wula!  Mm bah. I kah keh ney? Bashi tey. Somah ro? Toro si tula. Mmm say.

We say in NYC that this is stupid and superficial, but it isn’t. It really changes your life to be surrounded by this warmth.

IMG_7262 bath time


C’est Qui Une Américaine / Une Française ?

Comments on nationality from my friends and co-workers:


Me (in French): “Adama, look what I made last week!” (points to charts and schematics I drew up and posted on the wall)IMG_7185

Adama (in English): “Oh, wow. You are definitely an American.”


Laetitia (one of my roommates): “But the NGO is paying you, right?”

Me: “Nope. I’m an intern.”

Laetitia: “What?? You work on Saturdays, but they’re not paying you???”

Me: “That’s correct.”

Laetitia: “Oh, wow. You are definitely not French.”


(after spontaneously joining a card game being played by some guys sitting on the corner:)

One of my new buddies: “Where are you from? You’re French, yes?”

Me: “No.”

Buddy: “What?”

Me: “Guess.”

Buddy: “…German?”

Me: “American.”

Buddy and his buddies: (laughing) “No. You’re not American. You don’t have….the shape of an American.”

Me: “Why? Cause I’m not fat?”

Buddy and buddies: “Right!” (all laughing)


Laetitia again: “When did you start learning French?”

Me: “Sixteen years ago, at school.”
Laetitia: “Wow! But why did you choose French?”

Me: “I don’t know. I just always wanted to learn it.”

Laetitia: “Really? I can’t understand why an American would want to learn French. We are the most…comment dit-on, impoli?”

Me: “Rude.”

Laetitia: “Yes, we are the most rude people there are.”

Me (laughing): “You are the most self-hating French person I have ever met.”

Laetitia: “But it’s true!”

À La Recherche de Bières Connues

For once in my history of traveling, my arrival goes exactly according to plan. At 1:30 a.m. on Fri., May 23, I disembark into the Malian heat, stumble bleary-eyed through immigration, find my bag within minutes, and find, just outside the airport exit, Tiekoro Kone, the chauffeur Mali Health has sent for me, with my name on a sign marked with the Mali Health logo.

Various people had cautioned me that I would be “overwhelmed by all the people approaching you at the airport,” but only a small handful of men approach me trying to sell me something. They give up after one or two “non merci”s.  I’m sure it’s more bustling and overwhelming when it’s not 1:30 in the morning, but after India, this is child’s play.

I thank Tiekoro for coming to get me so early and show him the directions to the house that I’ve been given.  (I also have the address, but everyone has assured me that addresses without accompanying directions and landmarks are not useful pieces of information.)  He glances at them and nods.  Wordlessly—is he the silent type, or is my French just hideously incomprehensible?—he hands me an envelope with a welcome packet from Mali Health and a small box with my new cellphone, which already has several text messages from Mariam, la Directrice des Programmes (Program Director).  Cellphone!  Written directions to the office!  This is going so smoothly, I’m half waiting for the other foot to drop.

At the house, we are greeted by Moussa, the night guard.  Moussa is a tall man with a huge grin and an easy laugh.  He’s cheery even at 2 am.  “Bienvenue en Mali!”  Behind him is a small fire over which he and a friend have been talking and poking a pot of tea.  The friend greets me as well.  “Merci beaucoup,” I offer, thinking, Right, French, only French.  I knew this already, but somehow the reality of needing to communicate  for three months exclusively in a language in which I am highly conversational but decidedly not fluent has not gripped me until this exact moment.  (This gets worse when I later realize that actually, most Malians have a middling to fair grasp of French themselves and generally communicate with each other in Bambara, of which I know not a single word.)

I  step through the gate into a small courtyard filled with well-groomed rows of plants and—what?—a small blue-tiled swimming pool.  The front porch is set with a long bench, several lounging chairs, and a small table draped in a tablecloth.  I am both awed by and uncomfortable with such luxury, a feeling that worsens in the days to follow.

My room allays my expat guilt a bit: a little closet of a chamber with bare yellow walls and, for furniture, a lone mattress tossed on the floor, wrapped in a sheet. A single yellow curtain hangs over a sliding window. An adequate fan hangs from the ceiling. It’s clean, simple, and sparse—perfect.  I feel heartened.

One problem: I had requested a mosquito net, which I do not immediately see.  This is one luxury on which I am going to insist, because malaria. And typhoid and dengue, etc. etc.

I notice a black plastic bag in the corner and investigate.  Yes: it’s a mosquito net, and a few pieces of rope.  But…I look around the room.  Huh.  How am I going to hang it?

I start by tying the first piece of rope to the top of the net and then attaching it to the window rod.  Okay—that fixes the edge above the top of the bed.  But what about the bottom?

I try to extend the remaining piece of rope all the way to the door handle, but no dice.  I step outside to our spacious living room slash dining room, hoping for inspiration.  Aha!  I gank a kitchen chair and stuff it at the foot of my mattress to make a second post for my net.  Perfect.  It’s temporary, but it’ll do.  I feel proud of having figured out how to do something on my own in a foreign place I do not yet understand.

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This feeling evaporates when I wake up the next day (around 4 pm) and realize the list of things I do not understand is immense.  I don’t even know where to find water I can drink.  I lay in bed for a while, contemplating going back to sleep to avoid the long list of what feels like impossibilities.

Non, non.   Get up, face the day, and get your life together, Rudman. Lèves-toi.  I sit up and call Mariam to assure her I have arrived just fine.  We have a short conversation in French that I do not understand.  Merde.  I am so screwed.

I pace around the house.  I look inside the kitchen.  We have a fridge, and a freezer.  The guilty feeling returns.  It’s replaced by delight when I open the fridge and see two large bottles of mineral water.  I nick a cupful and return to my room.  It’s hot as hell when I’m not sitting right under my fan.

I sit for a few minutes, feeling stuck.  I don’t even know where to start.

Okay, how about I start by writing down a list?  I love writing lists.

I open my journal and write down two headings on separate pages: “Questions about my life currently,” and “Questions about my life this summer.”

I start the first list:

“Where can I go to buy groceries?”


“What’s with the drums (currently)?”

“How do I put more money on my phone?”

“Where is anything?”

Where can I buy beer?”

Fortunately, in the few hours that follow, our day guard Malik and my roommate Candice help me answer most of those questions.  (Though I still don’t know about the drums, but I don’t have to.  The answer is: someone was celebrating something, and of course then there needs to be music.  I can tell this is going to be a recurring theme in Mali.  I like the place already.)

What’s Mali like?

What do my friends say when I tell them I’m going to Mali for the summer?

“By July you won’t have dysentery anymore.” — Kelly

“You know Mali’s, like, a really, really, poor country, right?” — Adam

“Hmm, you’re American?  Why didn’t you go to an African country where they speak English?” — French expat I meet on day one

“Bon voyage. Don’t get dead. Don’t drink the water. Eat lots of weird shit. And bring back something cool!” — Brandon

First stop: Casablanca

I send a Facebook message to my friend and classmate Mehdi on Tuesday afternoon.  I’m vaguely aware that he’s gone back to his home country of Morocco and is potentially in Casablanca, though I’m unsure of his exact schedule.  I jot a quick, “Salut Mehdi — ca va?”, tell him my schedule, and ask if he might be around on Thursday for lunch.

Mehdi replies an hour later that ” hospitality is a duty to Moroccans” and that he will rearrange his schedule and pick me up at the airport.

With less than 36 hours until my arrival, this is way above the call of duty.  I thank him profusely, feeling relieved a friendly face will be greeting me in Morocco.

Mehdi proves to be not only a paragon of Moroccan hospitality, but an excellent tour guide who knows how to show a visitor around Casablanca.  We eat a lazy breakfast on a patio in a garden, then visit the Mosque Hassan II — the third largest mosque in the world.  It’s breathtaking.

Mehdi et mosquee Hassan II

Every surface of the vast interior is lavishly carved with intricate designs. Incredibly, the entire structure was built in just six years. Our tour guide explains that tens of thousands of people worked in shifts 24 hours a day to complete it in such a short time span.

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“Every Moroccan helped build this,” Mehdi says.


“Everyone paid something for it,” he explains.  “You had to give at least 10 dirham (about $1.20), but many gave much more.” I like the way he phrased it initially — I picture every Moroccan owning a piece of this beautiful building.


We meander around the old quarter next.  It caters almost too cleanly to the tourist set seeking an Arabian Nights market incarnate — stacks of copper pots, rolled carpets, and glass hookahs, mixed with the usual 21st century tourist flotsam of dusty postcards and camel plushies sporting “I ❤ MOROCCO” banners.  It’s nice to wander around and window shop all the same.

Mehdi stops us at a street vendor selling freshly pressed orange juice.  We watch the vendor quickly halve and squish a half dozen oranges straight into glass cups.  It’s probably the best 5 dirham you could spend in Morocco: the orange juice is so stunningly fresh and sweet, it’s hard to believe it’s made from the same fruit as cartoned Tropicana.

We close out our day with a lazy lunch along the beach.  We drink beers called “Casablanca” under a large umbrella; I order an amazing seafood tagine, a big chunk of fish baked with so many spices, I can’t identify half of them.  As we eat, we meet a Ecuadoran woman and her Moroccan husband sipping rose and chasing after their two toddling children.  Funnily enough, they used to live in Manhattan.

“I love New York,” the man says.  “But it’s enough.  Now, I go once a year, once every few years, I see my friends, boom.  Goodbye, thank you.”  He gestures at the rolling Atlantic and the blue sky.  “This, I want to stay here now.”

I certainly understand why.


Mali 2014: The Trip Begins

Chelsea to Royal Air Maroc counter agent at JFK: “Hello.”

RAM CA: “Hello. Passport?” *checks passport and visa* “You’re going to Mali?”

Chelsea: “Yup!”

RAM CA: “You’ve been before, right?”

Chelsea: “Nope. It’s my first time in Africa, actually.”

RAM CA: “Really?  Huh.” *shrugs* “It’s…..just like Europe.”


And with that, let the African adventure summer 2014 begin!


Kerala was a little bit of an exception to my general experience with expectations.  As per what I said about Bangalore, I was a little worried about Kerala, just because my expectations could not have been any higher.  Every single Indian and foreigner I’d ever spoken with about Kerala could not stop singing its praises.  “Beautiful!” “So clean!”  “Lovely people!”  “The best places in India!”  Indians told me it’s referred to as “God’s own country.”  (I later learned this is because the Kerala Tourism Department has made sure to slap that tagline on every single official sign in the state.  How’s that for marketing?)

So I was literally being promised the Garden of Eden.  How could the state live up to such high expectations?  I feared disappointment was inevitable.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Image00021 houseboat waterwaysErin and I arrived in Kerala via night bus (my least favorite form of transportation ever.  Kerala is very developed in many ways, but its roads are definitely not.  We “slept” the whole night in 10-minute snatches in between bone-jangling potholes).  Waking up at sunrise that morning was magical.  I wasn’t thinking, “This is it?”  Instead, all I could think was, “I made it.  I made it.”

Because all those people were right.  Kerala is everything everyone promised it would be: green, lush, beautiful, clean, friendly.  Brilliant green rice paddies, swaying palm fronds, heaps of coconuts, beaming Keralans waving from behind stacks of idlis and vadas.  It IS much cleaner than the rest of India, and I found the people more relaxed and friendlier as well.  And since the state actually does have a very different language from the north — Malayalam is as different from Hindi as it is from English — it often feels like being in another country entirely.

Not to say the state’s perfect.  As mentioned, the roads are hideous, and a lack of infrastructure development means that roads and bridges wash out frequently during monsoon.  And various social and economic problems do plague the state.  Still, it’s got the highest literacy rate in India — something like 90-95% — and I believe one of the highest life expectancies.  Place is doing pretty well.*

Erin and I wasted no time in hitting the top must-do in Kerala: booking a houseboat for an adventure through the backwaters.

Image00038 our houseboat

Image00004 me houseboat

Image00001 erin houseboat

Image00003 houseboat beds

The area around central and southern Kerala’s coast is laced with hundreds of kilometers of canals and rivers that are essentially the highways for thousands of villagers who live among these waters.

From the houseboat, we saw these Keralans just living their daily lives: washing clothes, taking ferries, coming back from school, going fishing.

Image00023 houseboat children ferry

Image00011 laundry houseboat view


Image00002 waterways view

Erin and I went for an afternoon swim — the waters are clean and warm — and had an afternoon snack of fried plantains and tea…

Image00026 snack

…then bought some fresh prawns for dinner.

The word “prawn” brings to mind a little pink thing about an inch or two long, yes?

Not in Kerala, apparently:

Our lovely co-captain Abdul Kareem

Our lovely co-captain Abdul Kareem

It really felt like we were about to eat some aliens

It really felt like we were about to eat some aliens

They were delicious.

We also saw some people practicing for August’s Nehru Snake Boat race.  By “some people,” I mean about 80:

Image00034 snake boat longview

Image00035 snake boat closer

Super cool.  They waved to us and our captain threw them some water bottles:



We got really lucky on the weather — it was sunny all day and only rained a bit at night, when we weren’t trying to sight-see anyway.  And in the evening, Erin taught me a very important life skill: how to play poker!


Erin’s Colorado playing cards included this Teddy Roosevelt line, which I thought was pretty fitting for Kerala, too:



*Place also had the first-ever elected Communist government for a while back in the 50s.  Currently, the party in charge isn’t Communist, but they’ve held power on and off for the last few decades, and Communist flags, signs, and demonstrations were everywhere.  Yet the state is still a democracy and private commerce appears to flourish, or at least function at the same level as in the rest of India.  Very interesting place.  I want to read/learn more about it.

Image00018 communist temple