‘Monique, you’ll have to become more of a Madame’, a visiting friend stated, leaving me with an uncomfortable feeling.
Many people, I guess I’m not far off when I say that it would be the majority of the white people living in Mali (or even in Africa), do believe that you need to treat Malians as children. You tell them what to do, boss them around and if they do not well enough you get angry with them.
I do not believe in this way of dealing with people, whether they are Malians or non-Malians. Every person deserves to be respected and treated well. And if they don’t treat you well, you always have the choice whether or not you want to continue working with them.
Mali is one of the former French colonies in West-Africa and the colonial period has left its traces.
It is true that a lot of people here do not take on the responsibility for their own life. And you will not find many people who are capable of looking beyond today’s needs. But who’s to blame for that?
What would I be like if I would never have been stimulated to take steps out of my comfort zone? Would I know that I have to flush a toilet if I’d never even seen one before? Would I be capable to economize if I had never been given pocket money and a money box? Would I be up to taking my own decisions if someone else had always been taking them for me?
I am pretty sure I would not have been the Monique I am now if I hadn’t been taught and guided as I have been. So rather than treating them as dumb children we could take the time to help them with and teach them all those skills and tools we carry around and that were not yet accessible to them!
So, I do not boss around the people I’m working with, I talk about the things that (one day) need to be done and am often surprised to find out that it already has been taken care of. Many times the guys have been laughing when I came up with things.
‘Monique, we do not do that in Mali!’ And just as many times we’ve talked about it, sometimes realizing it’s indeed not something to do in Mali and often finding that it is just as possible in Mali as anywhere else in the world as long as you can explain why it would be a good idea.
I am blessed to work with some really good guys who do want to step out of the vicious circle of Malian life, willing to take on the responsibility of their lives and grabbing the chance to learn and progress. And me, I am learning just as much from them, they being my guides and teachers in the Malian culture.
They do have to get used to being treated in a different way, of course.
‘Monique, most Malians are afraid of white people, since they do not understand the way they behave’, Amadou told me one day.
‘And they are used to white people treating them badly’, he added.
With that thought in mind I look differently at the people and their behavior, giving myself and them some time.
Nana is slowly getting used to me smiling most of the time and Sedou has gotten well aware that it’s better to ask if you’d like to use something than to take it secretly, hoping to return it before I notice it missing. I’m not sure what was tougher on him: me having found out that he had taken Ibrahim’s motor for a ride (without even asking for the keys) or realizing that I had been worried for his well-being, thinking that someone had forced him to hand over his gate keys to steal the motor… His guilty face and watery eyes said enough. He had been put under pressure by an elder and had given in. Too scared to find ‘no’ for an answer when asking me for permission he’d chosen a Malian solution.
It did leave some traces, he will have to regain my confidence and he is given a second chance for that!
So, it’s a bit different here. We work, eat and talk together and learn from each other. We have fun, we work hard when it’s necessary and enjoy quiet time when it’s there. We treat each other with respect and as equals and we all contribute our own unique aspects to the whole. And it works!
I am not a Madame and I never will be.
And hopefully Timbuctu’s desert sand and wind erased my nickname ‘la directrice’ from Ibrahim’s, Amadou’s and Ebi’s minds! I’ll find out in a few days…