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Bamako program yields unexpected friendship

I think “chaotic” is a good way to describe life with my host family here in Bamako. Both of my parents work demanding full-time jobs and juggle the demands of their three little kids, aged 6, 3, and 11 months.The baby took his first steps two weeks ago and hasn’t looked back – I see the makings of a soccer star in his chubby baby legs. He’s also gained a fresh sense of curiosity along with his newfound mobility, especially where my underwear drawer is concerned. But I digress. I stepped into this mix a month ago, more than a little wary about the prospect of suddenly having three shrill siblings who speak even less French than I do, and a pair of otherwise-occupied parents. The transition might have been pretty lonely had not beautiful Adjaratu come to my rescue.

Adjaratu Koné was one of our live-in maids (wasn’t I surprised to come to Mali and discover that every household I’ve been in has at least two of them). She is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met. She has a broad, expressive face that’s often crinkled in a smile and a compact frame that practically leaks strength. Her arms are wrapped in muscles and her palms are hard and red from nonstop work. It was Adjaratu’s job to wake up before sunrise every day of every week and work all day: cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, and watching the kids. No mean feat without the aid of a stove, sink, dishwasher, or laundry machines. The first couple of days with the family, I could only sit and stare quietly as she bounced smoothly from one corner of the house to another doing 20 things at once with the wriggling baby slung on her back. She’d catch me gaping and shoot me one of her radiant grins as she hurried by. How did she have the energy to grin? The simple act of watching her go was enough to wear me right out.

I don’t remember exactly how our friendship began – I imagine she started it, because I was intimidated at first by our wide language gap. Adjaratu speaks no more French than I do Bambara (that is to say, very little). She was born in a village 160 kilometers outside of Bamako and worked full-time in households like ours from childhood. She’s never been to school to learn French, the language that opens the door to higher-paying employment and eventual independence. For all that, our inability to talk never really got in the way of our friendship. Every evening I’d come home from school and Adjaratu would come sweeping down the stairs and pick me up around the waist and swing me around like a little kid. She’d speak to me in rapid Bambara and I’d reply in French or English, not that it really mattered anyway. Most of these conversations just ended up in laughter anyway. Sometimes I’d try to help her with chores or cooking, but she could put together a meal in the time it takes me to slice a tomato, so mostly I’d just sit quietly beside her and watch.

We learned how to say “You are my friend” in our Bambara course a while back and came straight home and dug out my notes to try it out on her: “Adjaratu! I ye terimuso ye!” She laughed for about 2 minutes straight and then picked me up and swung me around in the air, shouting “Awo, awo, i ye terimuso ye!” That day I think she made it her personal mission to teach me as much Bambara as possible. When we’d pass each other in the house, she’d stop me and point to a body part or some other thing, and give me the name in Bambara. In exchange, I’d give her the word in English. “Nu? Nose. Konsheki? Hair. Sokoro? Sleepy.” One night, in a moment of cultural weakness, I showed her how to do the Macarena. She hummed the tune at me for days afterwards, which was my cue to dance with her. Adjaratu is the only person I’ve ever known who makes the Macarena look okay.

As my Bambara got better in fits and short spurts, we learned small facts about each other: age, family, hometowns, etc. But for all that, there were still so many things I wanted to ask her and tell her that I’ll never know how to say so she can understand me. She’s better at working around that than I am though, if there’s something she really wants to say. Last week, she found me reading in a corner and pulled me to my feet. She took my squishy, pale hand in her tough dark one and pointed a finger into my chest, and then into her own, and then out the window, and said “Ameriki?” I was silent for a long time as we held each other’s eyes. Then I looked away, following her finger out the window, and said only “Yeah, I hope so too.”

The next night I came home and she was gone. In an unconvincingly casual tone, I asked my host mother where she was, and she rolled her eyes and said “She left.” “Like… for the night? To visit her family?” “No, for good. She will not return.” This was delivered in a final sort of way, so I didn’t press the issue. I still have no idea why she left or where she went or what she’ll do now. And I’m quite sure the Mrs. has a good reason for letting her go. The next day when I came home, there was a new young woman in her place, who is very nice but very very quiet. Her name, of course, is Kadjaratu.

For my part, I’m puzzled and not a little sad at Adjaratu’s leaving. I don’t know how we’ll ever see each other again, and that’s hard for me to grasp, because I feel like there’s still so much for us to not-say to each other.

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