Thursday, March 3, 2011

Photographs made of words

It is hard for me to think of a place I've desired so much to photograph, but felt unable to.  Photographing people and certain buildings in Mali is taboo - and with hundreds of eyes watching the white girl, it leaves little opportunity to sneak in shots.

Bamako is a vibrant city: the people, the mud/concrete homes, the red dirt that sticks to your shoes, feet, legs, and everywhere else on your body. Women dress in colorful gowns with bold prints and head wraps.  Motorbikes zoom in and out of traffic, with most motor boys wearing an airline provided eye mask around their nose and mouth to protect them from the smog, instead of a helmet to protect them if they fall.

Walking around the city on a Monday provides a stark contrast to the quiet weekend. The streets are filled with movement. People (mainly men) congregate at their food, sim card, or tire stands made of plywood. Women sit outside washing clothes in buckets, lining the clean linens on the local football field -turned stadium's fence. One woman multi-tasks by washing her naked baby's feet in one bucket while another continues washing clothes in a second. Most women walk around with baskets on their heads full of items; men with items hanging from their necks. Boys huddle around Foosball tables covered by the shade of a tree or a makeshift roof.

My less than rudimentary French was my crutch. All conversations lasting around 3 seconds - enough time to say a basic greeting of hello and how are you. I was waved over a few times by men who would take my hand and start up a conversation in French. I'd smile, trying to find a perfect moment to ask if they speak English and explain I'm American. They'd take to the news as warmly as they had started the conversation. They'd try hard to communicate in the 5 English words they knew, and then would revert back to French, leaving me clueless as to what they were saying. I could only guess what the conversation was about.

One gentleman called me over from the street to the wall he was leaning against. His smile showed his rotting teeth, two of which were missing from the front of his mouth. He took my hand, asked my name, told me his, then asked where I was sleeping by pressing his hands together and placing them by his ear as he tilted his head. I pointed to myself, repeated the same gesture he had, then added the words 'mon ami' while pointed in the direction of Bremen's house. He understood, although (from what I gathered) he still informed me that if I need a place to sleep, I was welcome at his house and he proceeded to pointed out where it was. I thanked him and continued on my way.

Ten minutes later I was approached by a boy in his mid 20's. He spoke no English, but also asked if I had a place to stay. I again tried explaining I was visiting a friend. He offered me his number, just in case, and led me to his house, since I was in no hurry to get anywhere.  Along the way people would say hello and ask how I'm doing. All very friendly and polite. When we reached Mohammed's house, he led me into the courtyard where 2 women, 3 men and a few children were gathered. They each greeted me warmly, one (who was ripping up meat in a bowl) even offering me her chair. I graciously declined. I shook hands with each person then said goodbye. They thanked me for coming.

Having arrived from a country where people are closed and look inward instead of out, I tried wrapping my head around their hospitality and generosity. Maybe it has to do with the warm climate, leaving people with warm hearts.  Or maybe their poverty has left them with a greater sense of humility and charity. Unfortunately I wasn't around long enough to figure it out - if there is a reason at all.   I'm just grateful to have experienced it.

Bamako residental street

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