Malians don’t use toilet paper. Every bathroom, usually just a hole in the ground, is equipped with a plastic kettle full of water. The water, and the left hand, replace toilet paper. The clean right hand replaces forks and spoons. When I first arrived in Mali in the fall of 2006, I had a hard time with the left hand thing. I rationed the toilet paper I’d brought from the U.S., cherishing each square for the sacred barrier it was between my hand and its target. By the time my study abroad semester was over and the supply I’d brought ran out, I’d had enough run-ins with full bladders and no paper on hand to get the hang of the kettle. I ended up spending a year in Mali, working for a semester at an NGO (Nongovernmental Organization) after my study abroad program ended, and by the end of that year I had learned to scoff along with the Malians at the way Tubabus (the Malian word for white people) filled the “toilet” holes with white paper. I loved being the Tubab who left Malians’ toilets free from the paper pollution.
My place of work during this time, “Save the Children,” was just exotic enough to have toilet paper in the office bathrooms—a real luxury. “Save” was the only place I used any English, the only time I felt air conditioning, and the only time I had access to toilet paper for the eight months I worked there. I tried hard, while in Mali, to leave American habits at work and to learn Malian customs and ways while in the country. Malians have a pretty specific stereotype of the generic white person—the rich tourist who pays ten times the price for goods at the artisans’ center and thinks she’s experienced the dark continent through her African dance lessons—and I put a lot of effort into breaking it down and making real friends and real connections. I walked to and from work each day instead of taking a taxi as, Malian friends told me, white people usually did, and I genuinely enjoyed the exercise and the time to clear my head. My 45-minute commute down dusty, uneven roads was always full of greetings and sweat as I trudged through the Malian heat, passing the same people, buying mangos at the same roadside stands, and shaking the same children’s sandy hands each day. I worked hard to lose the title of Tubabu, eating Malian rice and sauce with my right hand and reserving my left hand for its other duties. I tried hard to know the people on my walk to work and to be familiar instead of foreign. My friends in Mali stopped referring to me as a Tubabu and called me instead a “Bamanan Muso,” which means “Malian Woman” in Bambara. I went by the name “Fanta,” a Malian name my home-stay family gave me, and I was proud of how nearly Malian I had become. By June of 2007, I was conversational in Mali’s main language, Bambara; I could tie a pagne (a Malian skirt which must be tied in a specific way so as not to fall down); I could make tea and a few basic meals on the charcoal fires; I could survive the hot days without air conditioning; I could wash my clothes by hand in a bucket; and I knew all of my neighbors by name. I had also long since stopped clogging Mali’s fragile holes with American toilet paper.
My home-stay brother, Bou, used to torture me with a phrase in Bambara. Yiiri kono, miama ji la, a te se ka ye bamba ye. It was one of his favorite proverbs, he explained, but he wouldn’t teach me the meaning until I’d learned to recite it perfectly. I stumbled over the syllables night after night, trying to memorize the sounds of the phrase I didn’t understand. I understood the words tree (yiiri), water (ji), and inside (kono), but could make no sense of the phrase. Finally, when I had learned to recite the proverb perfectly, Bou translated its meaning: “A log, no matter how long it stays in the river, will never be a crocodile.”
Of course, Bou was directing this teaching at my efforts (which he saw as futile) to assimilate as much as possible to Malian life and fully participate in community living. He might as well have told me: Emily, no matter how the Malian sun tans your white skin, you will never be black. I hated this phrase. My brothers would taunt me with it when I did something “wrong” by Malian standards, like forgetting to offer strangers water when they came to the house, or drenching my T-shirts with sweat in the 120-degree afternoons. I laughed along with my brothers, or feigned anger at their mockery of my attempts to assimilate. The phrase got to me, though, and lying awake in the terrible heat I would think about it and wonder if it was true. If I spent two years, five, ten in Mali, would I still never pass? If I spoke Bambara perfectly and could navigate all things Malian, would I forever be an outsider? I hated this thought, and was convinced that if I just tried harder I could get it right.
Then I saw a child beaten in the street. One Friday morning I rounded the corner of my walk to find a woman screaming at a young boy who I assumed was her son. She was yelling too loudly and too fast and I was too shocked to see her in the street like that to understand what she was saying, but I knew it wasn’t good. After a moment of the boy screeching and the mother screaming, the mother lifted a branch of a tree about the width of my arm and a little longer and began beating her son.
A policeman walked by. He paused and asked the woman what was going on. The woman responded (again too shrilly for me to understand). The policeman nodded and continued on his way. I, the white girl, had begun to attract more attention at this point than the mother beating her son, and I could hear people laughing at how the Tubabu couldn’t stomach seeing a little mother-son discipline.
That moment, for me, exploded into a hundred thousand moments, and I could see the many paths laid out in front of me. I could yell at the woman in Bambara. I could run after the policeman. I could call another friend of mine, a policeman, and get him to arrest the mother. I could run back to the men I lived with and demand that they talk to the woman. I could grab the branch from the woman’s hand. I could stand between the boy and his mother. I could yell at the woman in French. I could appeal to the neighbors for help. I could yell at the woman in English. I could stand there and watch and cry. I could go on to work.
I went on to work. The snickering had gotten to me. I felt too many eyes on me and was annoyed that people were watching me and laughing and were not watching the boy being beaten and crying. I was annoyed that my reaction was so strictly foreign. I was annoyed to feel like a Tubabu again. I was mad at everyone on that street, and everyone in that neighborhood, and everyone in the woman’s life who had not taught her that hitting was wrong. I was also late to work. I followed the examples of those around me, seeking once more to blend in, and walked away. My feet moved, one in front of the other, and, gradually, the noises of the screeching boy and the screaming woman faded into faint hollers, light murmurs, and then I was out of hearing range. I got to work a few minutes late, opened up my office, and began my day’s projects.