While 2018 has been an eventful year for Mali–mostly for the wrong reasons–it’s also seen my least frequent blogging since I began in 2011. Instead of tracking the political and security situation on the ground as it goes from bad to worse, I’ve been focusing on my second book project (the one about marriage in Bamako, in gestation for far too long). I’ll have more to blog about regarding that book as the manuscript nears completion over the coming year. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a fun video posted to YouTube this week by linguist Coleman Donaldson.
This ten-minute video is the first in a series Coleman is putting together called “Na baro kè” (come chat), consisting of his encounters with everyday people. As Coleman put it to me, the series is “primarily made for learners and speakers of the language, but I’d like to believe the videos will also appeal to anyone by highlighting the voices of people and places that–through an African language–it has been my great honor to learn from for nearly the last ten years.” This is all hosted on his language-learning website An Ka Taa.
In this first episode, Coleman’s interactions are entirely in Bamako and entirely in Bambara (or “Manding” as Coleman calls it–a language category which also includes Jula and Malinke). Like a roving reporter doing “man on the street” interviews for an entertainment show, he affably poses questions about a particular topic to apparently random people and edits their responses together. The resulting video has four full layers of subtitles: two for Manding (in n’ko and IPA scripts), one for English, and one for French, the better to help language learners. The topic of episode one is vital for anybody learning Bambara for the first time: everyday greetings and why they’re important.
People in Mali, and probably throughout the region, base their first impressions of someone to a considerable extent on how well and eagerly that person partakes in verbal greetings. Greeting is a social obligation, as some of Coleman’s interviewees point out. The simple act of exchanging ritual greetings with someone can establish what kind of person he/she is, whether you share some kind of kinship connection (real or fictive), or what kind of mood he/she might be in. It helps knit society together. “Here, for us, greeting is everything. It’s what makes the social side of life a lot stronger,” one man says. It underlies mɔgɔya, the condition of being a person (see a 2013 post I wrote on this and other key cultural dynamics in Mali).
People greet not only because they’re sociable but also out of self-interest. Nobody wants to be branded disrespectful or worthless because they failed to greet someone. A greeting can affirm an existing relationship or bring a new one into being. A young man perched on a motorcycle tells Coleman that he even greets strangers “because, I might not know them at all, but maybe I’ll need them.” One can never be sure which human connection might turn out to be useful.
We in the West may see little reason to greet others very much, even at all, in our daily lives. How much time do we spend oblivious to those around us, glued to our phones, headphones isolating us from spontaneous conversation? When we do initiate an interaction with a stranger, how often do we skip any meaningful exchange of greetings and get straight to business? Even with colleagues and acquaintances we see regularly, how often do we take the trouble to inquire after their health and family?
“Greetings are indeed a crucial element in traditional Malian society,” a Malian man I’ll call Sabou wrote in an email to me after watching Coleman’s video. “So much so that even after la lifetime in the West I can’t get used to the contrast. A colleague comes into the office in the morning and goes straight to his desk without saying a word to me. In Mali this would mean that you’re no longer speaking to each other. But in the West it means ‘nothing to report.'”
Sabou also identified some less cheery aspects of Mali’s greeting rituals. They index social hierarchies, particularly around age; young people have to greet their elders and receive social validation from them. Greetings are also essential to so many interactions there in part because the formal institutions and mechanisms Westerners depend on and take for granted are largely absent in Mali. In societies like the US where individuals are more independent, one can usually count on getting service and assistance without being friendly. One barely needs to rely on one’s neighbors, and with electronic customer service, even the little smile at the checkout counter is becoming a thing of the past. But in Mali, writes Sabou, “when you need help, when you need any assistance at all in Mali, you need social relations.”
The longer I’m away from Mali, the more I miss the easy interactions with strangers, and the more I fear I’m growing disconnected from the people around me. In the West it’s easy to be unsociable. In Mali even a part-time misanthrope like me must find a way to become sociable; I don’t really have a choice in the matter. And I know that’s good for me–it’s one of the things I love best about living in Bamako.
“Whatever the reasons for it, greetings are often all you need to feel better, to feel like a member of society, to feel that you exist for others and that you belong,” Sabou writes. “I’m sure a simple ‘Hello’ would prevent a lot of suicides in the West.”
I think Sabou’s right. Mali may be coming apart at the seams, but we can still learn something from Malians about everyday sociability. Greet your neighbors. Say hello to a stranger. Resist the urge to isolate yourself. It’s a great message to end the year on.
Coleman, I’m eagerly awaiting your next episodes of “Na baro kè” in 2019.