Expat Living, Learnings, Mali
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on knowing a place

Last Friday marked 1.5 years since I’ve lived in Mali. Some people settle in to a new place quickly, but I like to take my time – observing, breathing it in deeply, engaging only delicately at first, slowly building a steady foundation for Living. But by now, I’ve learned a thing or two, and the arc of my life has bent in ways I didn’t know it could, to accommodate being lived out in this place. To wit, a few things I’ve picked up:

Mali Bamako market vegetable okra gumbo chicken

– I’ve learned the neighborhood boutiques by heart, and I know which stocks flour un-infiltrated by insects, which keeps real butter, where the eggs are freshest, and where I can buy on credit if I don’t have CFA handy;

-I’ve got Plans B and C vegetable stands, and I know that if one is out of cucumbers I might get lucky at the other, but if one is out of limes, there’s a high probability nobody has them;

Mali Bamako neighborhood vegetable stand fruit woman saleswoman city

-I know the hours of the 3 fruit stands in the neighborhood, and who I can go to for a late-night apple;

-I know what time to get to the butcher before he runs out of my regular buy and I’ve got a few chicken-sellers in my mental rolodex just in case.

Mali Bamako urban butcher goat beef man meat raw

-I found a personal farmer (!), a kind fellow who tends his small vegetable patch next to a large stream behind the house. I overpaid him for lettuce once upon a time, and now he pays me back in tomatoes, parsley, and whatever else he has on hand. I’m implicated in his fields, and I like it.


-I’m coming upon the right balance of information to give the house guards who run the occasional errand and deal with me in a half-French, half-Bambara, fully-gesticulated bumble of words. Our latest mishap: I was 100% sure I sent for 10 eggs (sheffan den tan) and a particular brand of milk (Mali Lait djema kèlèn), but the guard returned, full of enthusiasm, with 10 eggs, a bottle of white vinegar, and a small bag of mayonnaise. When I write I’m coming upon I mean exactly that: almost arrived, but not quite;


-I can do–finally, actually do–the Grand Marché on my own: I’ve mastered the 6-second, polite disposal of over-eager, would-be shopping guides; I know who to ask for directions (the older, stationary vendors who answer from deep inside their boutiques–they’re the least likely to want to accompany you wherever you’d like to go, for a fee); it means I can negotiate in 60% Bambara to make out with the minimum Toubab (foreigner) tariff on purchases. It means I can stroll calmly, hands in pockets, through the artisanal market, calling out greetings and holding court in the boutiques, taking or leaving what I’d like and graciously exiting if need be. I am capable in one of the most flustering places for foreigners, a place that’s got my heart beating too fast on more than one occasion.


-I know how to serve a floor full of Malian guests, men first, spreading out blankets, pouring water for each person to wash with, laying out trays of zamin, or roasted lamb, or salad. And I can eat my fill–albeit slowly–with my right hand alone.

-I know just which sauce the neighbors will pour over their rice for lunch, based on the odors wafting over the wall separating our compounds.

I know the shortcuts and the backroads in my neighborhood; I’ve ridden in dusty sotramas and hopped on friendly motos in the bush; and finally, I’ve learned when to smile (it turns out, in Mali, that’s most of the time). Perhaps most importantly, I believe I know this place well enough to have reconciled my internal and external selves–the me who is looking out, and the me that others see. I know when I have ground to stand on, when to dispute, how far to push, when to butt out, when to accept that I’ll never know or never be, and how to be gracious.

Mali Bamako neighborhood street road bougainvillea flower home house

There’s lots still to learn about this place, and some things I never will. But it’s a comfort and a rare point of pride to get around with relative ease, as a stranger in a strange land.


  1. Pingback: on becoming: are you a rock or a leaf? | outerNotes

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