I am sitting next to an old man. He wears a Muslim skull cap and a boubou (long robe). Every few minutes, other local elders come to greet him. He is nearly deaf and his voice is barely audible. There is a homemade basket in front of him, a makeshift contraption of bent branches and thatched palm leaves. Some of his visitors pass him coins. Although his movements are slow and fatigued, he digs deep into his basket and retrieves a handful of large nuts. Kola nuts. They are found across W. Africa, reputed to have a hallucinogenic effect, and are typically given as gifts or used in ceremonies. I tried them in Guinea and promptly spit them out. They are very bitter and I didn't see any pink elephants.
The children, hordes of them, come to stop and stare at the "blanc", who is writing, always writing. The old man shoes them away with a few words and a wave of his walking stick. He and I haven't exchanged any words. Just a hospitable nod of recognition and acceptance. We watch the parade of daily African life pass by. Women carry trays of jewelry on their heads, donkey-drawn carts carry sacks of rice, barefoot snot-nosed children pull homemade toy trucks made of scrap tin cans, random goats sniff the dirt in search of scraps, men returning from the mosque stop to negotiate with turbaned shepherds over the price of a sheep. This local theater is performed on a stage that is slowly filling up in preparation for the weekly Monday market day tomorrow, when throngs of traders will arrive from outlying villages in the region to sell their wares. By tomorrow morning at 6am, the vacant dirt lot in front of me will be a bustling scene that has changed little over the centuries, when salt caravans arrived from the Sahara desert north of Timbuktu. The only difference is which version of the Grand Mosque looms above the market and which type of vehicles occupy the parking area lining the periphery. Camels then, rusted buses and motorbikes now.
An even older local Muslim man arrives to greet my friend. He motions for me to offer my seat to the older man and I defer immediately. They exchange greetings, an important ritual across W Africa. An example of a typical daily greeting among two locals:
"How are things?"
"Did you sleep well?"
"Did anything evil befall you during the night?"
"Do you feel strong & vibrant?"
"Are you healthy?"
"How is your family?"
"Is your harvest prosperous?"
"May Allah bestow upon you a great day."
This routine is then repeated by the other man. The rapid fire questions and answers have a rhythm, which is not broken until the affair is sealed with a vigorous handshake or a double cheek kiss. The ritual can often exceed two minutes of dialogue and it's not unusual for someone to travel across town for no other reason than to greet a friend. One's integrity and reputation are often built and strengthened by the frequency and sincerity of these social bonds. Even in densely populated towns, everyone knows everyone's business. People talk. One's standing in society is crucial, particularly to find a spouse or a job. People here are not in their houses, except to sleep and eat. They spend all day and evening, out and about. They greet friends and stop and chat over tea on a dusty street corner. They meet at the mosque and exchange local gossip after prayer. They seek out a relative working in the market or at a boutique.
Unlike the West, they are engaged in society. We tend to close ourselves off from the world, leading reclusive lives cut off from the outside. Endless hours are wasted (oh, I mean spent) in front of the television, computer, or playstation. We only leave the house if we need something from the corner shop, commuting to work, or if we're traveling. All interaction is minimized, limited to the bare necessity of social obligation. We move from box to box. From our house to our car to our job. We rarely leave the box. An exclusive existence. We are competitive, spending obscene amounts of time and effort to get ahead, to gain an advantage. We always think strategically, always posturing. Afterall, we have an agenda that needs tending to. And we don't give two dollops of donkey dung what others think about us.
The sun ascends a bit higher on its arc and an elderly Fulani woman arrives with a basket balanced on her head. The Fulani are a tribe, also known as Peul or Fula found across W. Africa, of nomadic cattle herders whose lives largely revolve around their animals. Fulani women are usually easy to recognize by their huge gold earrings and their mouths, which are stained with black dye around their lips. My old friend bought some cow milk from her, straight from the tap. He reached out to offer me a sip but I politely declined. It's a raw acquired taste that I would need 3 lifetimes to acquire. Udderly disgusting.
The sun has crept higher and swallowed our shade. The two old men look at me, nod, and slowly rise to move across the lane to escape the sun. As he lifts himself from his chair, I notice an ancient silver ring adorning his leathery cracked finger. It's large, ornate antique piece- the real deal. There's nothing old or original in the shops and markets in Mali. As usual on my travels, I'm always looking for antique jewelry and traditional clothing or textiles. Cheap worthless tourist schlock fill the shops and bazaars here. It's necessary to drill deeper to find the goods. I'm constantly asking shopkeepers if their grandfathers have any rings to sell. I have been invited into homes to look at private collections but still haven't found what I'm looking for. I'm not sure what that is precisely but I'll know it when I see it. I'm hoping I'll have better luck closer to the Sahara desert, where Tuareg nomads are likely to have some relics. For now, I'll continue to observe the fingers of old men in the towns I pass through, occasionally offering a price in exchange for an old ring. There have been no successful transactions yet, aside from a traditional Fula hat I bought directly off the head of an old man yesterday.
As for the ring I admired today on my friend, I chose not to make an offer. I didn't want to disturb our unspoken friendship with a brash inappropriate request of western consumerism. My fingers remain naked.