Malian Modernity (The Post That Almost Never Was)
I keep thinking about Eduardo Galeano’s “Divorces”:
“Our system is one of detachment: to keep silenced people from asking questions, to keep the judged from judging, to keep solitary people from joining together, and the soul from putting together its pieces.”
Why do I think twice about bringing out my iPhone, iPod, laptop? Is it just because I don’t want to flaunt my wealth, highlight our differences, make Malians feel bad or jealous, or open myself up to theft? Or is there another more insidious reason? Maybe we don’t want them to see what we have, want it for themselves, and start asking why they don’t.
Mali is not in the Stone Age. Even though it is one of the top 10 poorest countries in the world, Mali is very much in the 21st Century. There are paved roads (although not nearly enough), cell phones (even smartphones!), and people know about computers and the internet. They understand that Mali is poor. People do not live in some untouched, pristinely primitive state, ignorant of other possibilities.
So why not show Numan (host mother), CeKoroba (host father), or Famoury/Issa/Batou/Mariam (host siblings) my iPhone? Not sharing these things is not keeping them in comfortable ignorance. Stop imagining that you’re somehow protecting them. People know that they are poor and that others in the world are not. And if given a choice between their “modest” lives and the world of affluence, privilege, and money, what do you think they’d choose? Which would you choose?
I’ve been hiding - hiding my wealth, comforts, pleasures. We’re taught to hide it, to downplay our wealth, and to emphasize that not all Americans are rich. How convenient! If the world’s poor don’t really know all that we have, then they won’t demand it for themselves. Everything can remain as is, and we don’t have to share.
Why is it uncomfortable, scary even, to show Malians how much I have? Does it mean there’s something not right about what I do have and consequently how much they don’t?
And maybe (probably, in my opinion) more money or stuff wouldn’t actually dramatically increase quality of life in Mali. But this still can’t be brought down to cultural relativism. It’s not about preserving, respecting, valuing Malian communal and social culture. It is about Malian people who are not able to buy medicine for their sick 3 year old, kids walking around with red hair and skinny shoulders because they don’t have protein in their diets, and mothers with cracked hands burying their husbands and children.
We have too much, and we have too much because most of the world has too little. Mali is just not a place “over there” in Africa, remote and separate. People are here, in 2012, listening to the new Rihanna album and watching “40 Year Old Virgin” (actually hung out with Malian friends and neighbors who were doing these things.) Mali is in the modern world - hell, Mali is in the world, our world. So as an American, I have to remember: we are not alone.
It will be easy to point at me and say, hey if you believe all this so much, then why don’t you just give up all you have? Why not donate all your possessions, bring all the kids over to America, and renounce your privilege? If you don’t do this, then aren’t you a hypocrite? Unfortunately, I have no easy answer to this. Maybe I am a hypocrite, or maybe there’s a way to make the world more just without losing your entire way of life. At this moment, I’m not sure, but I will stay uncomfortable and keep questioning with the hope that one day, we can find the way.
(Note: I did end up bringing my iPhone out to play people some American music and to play Fruit Ninja with the kids. It was pretty awesome, and the boys were amazing at Fruit Ninja.)