He was not the first child I had seen beaten in Mali. In my home-stay family, the youngest daughter was beaten nightly when she got her math homework wrong. I spoke with my home-stay sisters and took over her math studies in an effort both to help her learn and to keep her from being beaten. She claimed that my punishment for her, not being able to watch TV with the family in the courtyard in the evenings until her homework was done properly, was worse than being hit. She learned math, though, and moved high up in her class over the months we worked together.
In my whole time in Mali I had never, before that day of the boy’s beating, kept my mouth shut about child abuse. I had always been quick to demand that a Malian friend cross the street to stop a fight between a child and his mother or a boy and his younger brother. Among friends, I could navigate this awkward situation and, though they usually laughed at “Fanta’s” affinity for children, they always did as I begged and stopped the violence. On this day, however, I had felt my white skin, my position as a foreigner, and I hesitated. I heard the way my Bambara would sound to the woman, harsh and with my American accent, and had cringed to think of speaking to her. I had been at a loss for words, a loss for answers, and a loss for solutions. So, à la Malian, I had kept walking and had gone to work.
Back in my office, looking at the red Save the Children emblem, I saw the face of the boy I had not saved over and over again, and the tears came. Overwhelmed by my confusion and shame, I rushed to my computer and wrote a hasty e-mail home to the states, asking my mother, father, and several good friends what I should have done. I tried unsuccessfully to concentrate on my work for the day, but the boy’s face filled my mind whenever I tried to open a new document or look at my to-do list. I went to my boss’s office and broke into tears, telling her what I’d seen. She, a Nigerian woman who had been in Mali for many years now, looked me in the eye and told me that there are some things that are universally, internationally wrong. I, as a citizen of the world, she told me, had a duty to speak up. When I cried harder she smiled kindly and said, sympathetically, “It’s wrong, Emily, undoubtedly. You’re right, you should have spoken up. But it’s also just the way things are here. It’s that way in Nigeria, too. I grew up seeing it everywhere. None of that makes it right, though. We work against it, we’re at Save the Children after all, but that’s how life is for Mali’s children. The woman probably loves her son, but she hits him because it’s what she knows. The woman herself was most certainly beaten when she was a child and is most likely beaten even today when she does something that displeases her husband. It’s just the way things are here.”
My boss sent me home for the day and, instead of walking that same path past that same house again, I took a bus to visit my boyfriend across town. An African himself, he was shocked and dismayed to hear my tearful voice on the phone, asking if I could come over, and he all but laughed with relief to hear that all I was crying about was a little domestic abuse.
“All?” I had asked him, bewildered.
“Yeah,” Imrane replied. “It’s a problem, I know, and I don’t like it either, but it’s also just how things are here. People hit each other. Most of the time it doesn’t do any real harm. What do you want to do about it, Emily? It wasn’t your place to grab the branch from her hand.”
Imrane is from Comoros, not Mali, but the cultures, although thousands of miles apart, are similar. He was hit as a child, though never hard enough to draw blood. He believes hitting is wrong and has promised never to hit his children, but he is not moved to tears by violence in the street.
Imrane and I slept on the roof of his house that night, and as I stared at the stars and traced familiar constellations, I wondered about all that is the same and all that is different between the two worlds I now knew intimately. Here I was, thousands of miles from my home country, identifying constellations I’d known my whole life, speaking a new language that had now become comfortable and discussing issues of abuse with a man who had grown up in a culture so deeply infused with abuse that he saw it as a normal aspect of childhood. My boss, an African woman, had told me I should have done something. My boyfriend, an African man, had looked at me with his sympathetic brown eyes and asked, “Emily, what could you have done?”
To have spoken up would have broken down the carefully constructed cultural façade I had created for myself as an almost-Malian. To have spoken in that moment would have violated the comfortable relationship I had with these people. To have spoken up would have put back up all the barriers I had carefully taken down between my Tubabu self and the Malians with whom I lived.
When I got back to my house after visiting Imrane, I, for the first time, recited the proverb to my brothers: Yiiri kono, miama ji la, a te se ka bamba ye. No matter how long I spend in this country, I will never think like you. There are some absolutes in the world. Violence is one of them. No matter the name I answer to, the language I speak, or the clothing I wear, violence is still wrong. It’s wrong in Mali. It’s wrong in the States. Geography has nothing to do with it.
My brothers laughed at my tears, called me an American, and dismissed my rage. One brother followed me in to the house, got me a glass of water, and asked me not to cry.
“It happens everywhere,” he told me, “to all of us. We come out okay. It’s okay, Fanta. Things are just like that here. I thought you were starting to understand that. I thought you were our little Bamanan Muso.”
“Okay. I understand how you all think about it. I understand you don’t think it’s a big deal.” It was all I could say in that moment. I knew the conversation wouldn’t go anywhere, and I didn’t want to fight with him. I wanted him to leave my room. I know that violence happens in the States, too, but we don’t laugh about it. Most people, at least people I know, don’t hear about it and nod knowingly, remembering when they were beaten, too. I was sure that if I had spoken to a mix of Americans, I would at least have gotten sympathetic looks and shaking heads.
A year later I was back in Mali on a grant project to work with young girls. During a conversation we were facilitating about violence against women, we asked the girls at what point, if any, they would end a relationship because of violence. I phrased the question perfectly in Bambara, and received only blank stares in return. I tried to use myself as an example, “Me, for instance, I couldn’t put up with it at all. If a man ever so much as hits me, I’m done with the relationship. So you,” I asked, “where do you draw the line?”
The girls continued to look at me with baffled expressions. One of our bravest, brightest girls raised her hand. “Fanta,” she asked innocently, “if your husband doesn’t hit you, how will you learn?”
Yiiri kono, miama ji la, a te se ka ye bamba ye. For the moment, there was no traversing this cultural divide. I explained to the girl, Fatoumata, that not all men hit their wives. I explained that, in our culture, people talk things out instead of hitting, at least in healthy relationships. I explained that I was not hit as a child; I will not hit my children; nor will I ever stand being hit by anyone. The girls laughed to learn this, seeming amused by my odd lesson, and looked at each other through disbelieving eyes.
I’ve now spent over 14 months in Mali. I know Bamako and its neighborhoods as well as I know the town where I grew up. I can carry on any conversation I need to in Bambara and can navigate with my right hand through my least favorite meals to find the edible parts without anyone noticing. I have a full Malian wardrobe, including many pagnes that I tie with ease and that never fall off. I am an expert at squatting over the bathroom holes, and I am no longer squeamish about using the kettle. The fact remains, however, yiiri kono, miama ji la, a te se ka ye bamba ye. I am proud that I can use a kettle. I am embarrassed that I walked past that little boy. I do not know, as Imrane asked me, what I could have done in that situation, but I still recognize that mother’s violence as wrong. Perhaps even standing still and crying, a contrast to the laughter and indifference surrounding the little boy, would have been better than getting to work on time. Perhaps I would have made someone think. Perhaps that little boy would have felt solidarity in my tears. Perhaps I would have just looked like a white fool. But it might have felt better, in that instance, to have felt like a white fool than a Malian wannabe who walked away.
My Malian friends tell me to let it go. I tell them I am a completely water-soaked log, but if it means accepting violence, I will never be a crocodile.