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Three young girls squirmed their way into our courtyard. They jumped in excitement, pointed at me, and motioned me to follow them. I stood, not really wanting to go, but the oldest ran to me and grabbed my hand. I looked at Moussa. He nodded and laughed at the girls’ urgency.
The girls were light-skinned and slim-figured Fulani, an ethnic group living and herding just south of the Sahara Desert in west Africa. The youngest wore loose-fitting panties with the words “Minnie Moose” on her bottom, the older two – perhaps six and eight in age – wore loose cotton shifts, all six feet were bare.
We didn’t speak a word in common, but we played. I’d stop and pretend to hear something. They’d listen, then see my smile and giggle and pull at me. I’d resist. They’d jump up and down and plead. I’d follow, then stop again, turn and begin walking back. They’d run to stop me and pull me onward. We wound through passages wide enough for a donkey but not a cart, passed between walls of mud that separated family compounds.
From behind the walls, always, I could smell it, women lighting fires for cooking and the aroma of toasting millet rose with the smoke. We shuffled along the sandy ground, telling noisy dogs to be quiet and collecting at least a dozen more children as we walked. We turned a corner and the passageway opened onto a large square and found two camels surrounded by half the quartier, the neighborhood.
My new friends were the remaining children of an ageing mother who had given birth to seven – the death of four sons taking its toll on her emotional and physical health. Because it was the girls, not the boys, who survived, their father had taken a second and younger wife, hoping for sons.
Men with multiple wives are mandated to treat each with equal attention and respect, but this is rarely what happens. More often, and clearly in this case, the older wife was left by herself to worry about the future of her daughters.
In west Africa, to some extent still, marriages are arranged by fathers and approved by grooms and their families. Girls are given in compensation for the sins of a brother. Girls are bartered from one family to another as payment of a father’s debt. Women generally marry with a dowry, objects which she will own and use: pots, pans, textiles, and mats. She will be proprietor of the family grain. She will have children. These things make up a woman’s worth. The rest sits in the hands of her husband and father, and real daily power in the hands of elder co-wives.
In Mali’s capital city of Bamako some years later, I met a Bamana woman in her forties. She dressed in the fashionable urban style of carefully-tailored factory-cloth ensembles with head wraps to match. She didn’t look much different from other privileged women, but she spoke English and had her Master’s degree from a French university. Her husband was a physician. They lived in a private house in a part of the city occupied mostly by expatriates and government officials.
During the two weeks I knew her, she was offered a six-month academic internship in the U.S. To leave Mali and return, she had to have special re-entry papers issued by the Malian government. For Mali to grant her these papers and re-entry from the United States, she needed written consent to leave in the first place from both her husband and her father. Her husband was proud of her and wrote a letter with his blessing.
Her father, though, was a village man with three wives. He thought his eldest daughter had moved to the city and abandoned him long ago and, by so doing, shamed his family name; she had studied English in school rather than learned how to cook millet on her mother’s stove, she married an outsider, and, she had no children – a fact which led her father to inquire of his wife whether this daughter, in fact, was a sorcerer. In response to his daughter’s request to travel, he’d said, “No.”
Her choice: she could decline the internship and remain in Bamako. Differences might be smoothed over with her father, but she’d be resentful and her father would never be happy with her. She would, however, remain safe. Her alternative was to defy her father and leave without means of return. The father would feel further humiliated, disown her, and it would not be out of the question – should she manage to return anyway – that she would pay with her life. I don’t know the outcome of her story. I left Bamako before she decided.
The girls and I made our way through the crowd. In the central square, two camels towered over a crowd of hooting, cheering men and women. Two men looked to be negotiating.
One man shook his head. The other slapped the back of his own head. One flapped his arms and looked incredulous. The other clucked his tongue and said a few words under his breath. The larger camel snorted and sprayed saliva and swayed and stomped.
The men quieted.
The snorting camel raised its head and stretched its sinewy neck back so pieces of straw, fell loose from its chest, then he blew a wad of camel snot the size of my fist which hit the ground with a splat.
The female camel bent her front knees, then her back knees, and dropped belly to the ground. The girls looked up at me and giggled.
The snot-spitter swayed and bucked, lifted his front legs, and mounted the female. The crowd applauded. A woman on the far side of the circle began to sing in a high, nasal voice, a local language and local humor – other women covered their mouths laughing before joining her in song. Children clapped rhythm.
How many people had gathered to watch? I’d guess a couple hundred, all smiling.
The male settled onto the female’s single hump. She turned around to look at him and bat her three-inch long eyelashes.
A camel penis is slender as a human finger but about three feet long and muscular, so it finds ingress. Both animals strained their faces toward one another, and, during the entire five minutes of breathless dromedary ardor, they nuzzled lips.
Even in the sweetest of towns, which Diré – on the Niger River was – life in West Africa is hard. What options would my three young friends have? What choices will they make? Copulating camels provide moments of social levity and needed relief, but then it’s back to raising babies and washing clothes, lighting fire and pounding millet.