A lesson in sociability

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.


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11 Responses to A lesson in sociability

  1. Villalon,Leonardo Alfonso says:

    Hi Bruce, This is fabulous. Thanks for sharing; this is indeed a lovely note for the end of a difficult year for the whole world. Vive social relations in the Sahel!
    Happy and Merry and Bright!

  2. Aart van der Heide says:

    Thanks Bruce for your writings. I ready it all with great interest. Am currently in Mali. Nu writings in Dutch are not good like yours but I know that many people read it. Thanks for your thoughts. I am a discipel of Poulton. Aart

  3. Thanks, Bruce, for the kind words and for teasing out explicitly some of the social (and life!) insights that are hiding there plainly for so many of us to see. As a linguist, I love to get lost in the beauty of the transcripts as pieces of the poetry and performance that are part of every utterance that we make in any language, but your write-up importantly highlights how quickly these dovetail with much larger questions of social organization and personhood. And most importantly, you touch on a strong feeling that I overcame me while editing: I wish there were more greetings and sociability in my life, not just here in Germany, but in the West in general.

  4. judithlasker says:

    Thank you for this excellent video and commentary. We in the “West” have so much to learn from Maliens.

  5. Klaas Tjoelker says:

    Dear Bruce,

    Thank you for your ungoing efforts to keep us informed about what is happening in Mali!

    Please receive ous season’s greetings,

    To & Klaas Tjoelker

    Op vr 21 dec. 2018 20:59 schreef Bridges from Bamako brucewhitehouse posted: “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 > fo” >

  6. Ali says:

    Hi Bruce,

    I recently saw this video and watched the whole thing. Its very true; all your points and it makes me miss living in Mali as well. Best wishes to you and your family in 2019!


  7. Hi Professor Whitehouse,

    Interesting article and video, as expected.

    I hypothesize (and I hope that I’m wrong) that the isolation and alienation that pervades the Occident is not a function of Western culture but rather of technology and resources. I wager that as the poorer nations of the world get smartphones they are going to be as isolated and glued to them as our people are now.

    If anything, I estimate that the obsession with the black mirrors is going to be more potent in some parts of the world (like South East Asia) than it is in the West.

    Hope you’ve been well.


    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Intriguing idea, Jordan. One would have to factor in more than the number of cell phones per capita (which is already higher in Mali than in the US). I think it’s safe to say that Mali’s low literacy rate is a big inhibitor of smart phone uptake there, and that it prevents many people from using their phones for more than voice calling. But I also suspect that Malians, even literate ones with smart phones and social media accounts, are less prone than Americans (for example) to sacrifice their daily face-to-face encounters with people in favor of their virtual communities. There could be a worthwhile study to be designed on this topic.

      • jrejaud says:

        Hi Professor Whitehouse,

        I agree that absence of literacy certainly restricts what you can do with a smartphone (I didn’t know that Mali has more cell phones per capita than the Americans though, that’s fascinating), however, the more popular activities don’t require much literacy. A lot of the popular parts of the net are essentially picture books (Snapchap, Imgur, ect), videos (Netflix, although I don’t know if Malians have the bandwidth to do that), and mobile games. In conjunction with the innate low literacy requirements of these activities, the economic conditions are ripe for them to explode in popularity around the world:

        1) They don’t need to be localized too much, as they are not text-heavy/ culturally distinct
        2) They are freemium/ ad heavy so you don’t need consumers to shell out to use these services
        3) They are designed to be addicting at a biological level (rather than being a culturally distinct delicacy)
        4) There is a TON of money to make in the Asian market with these kinds of apps, and I’d estimate that the African market is similar enough (large developing population) for companies to pursue a comparable strategy.

        http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/331242/Diablo_Immortal_exists_because_China_really_wants_it_says_Blizzard_dev.php is one of the more high profile cases recently of a major Occidental game publisher developing a new game almost exclusively for the Chinese market (to the chagrin of American gaming nerds, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJy6bJ_RxXg).

        On the topic of Mobile Gaming, they seem to be massively popular in South East Asian. I’ve observed this directly, granted in a qualitative manner, and read about the changes in the commercialization plans of mobile games change to due to potential profits in the SEA, but mostly Chinese markets.

        Thus, while you could argue that Westerners are more individualistic, consumeristically minded, and less concerned about “saving face” than South East Asians (and also Malians), the SEAs seem to value virtual communities, as you put it, at the same level as (if not more) than their American counterparts.

        Thus, if a more collectivist culture like the Chinese can become big consumers of black mirrors to the point where their economic demands change the way that digital products are produced, I think it’s possible that a similar phenomena (although less potent than what is happening in SEA, I argue) could occur with Malians and similar African nations.

        On the whole, I think of one of the defining characteristics of our Globalizing age is going to be the massive proliferation and global normalization of “being glued to your screen” with people connecting to approximately the same virtual communities. These communities/ apps/ games/ ect are economically incentivized to not be culturally distinct and not require sophisticated levels of literacy.

        Otherwise, Merry Belated Christmas 🙂

  8. Carin Wall says:

    Dear Bruce, wonderful about greetings and so important. I may be back in Bamako soon . If you like,I would be happy to post a thought/reflection on your blogg.

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