I saw a lion in Africa. It was in Mali’s national park. There is a zoo there. They have an small aquarium with indigenous fish, an aviary with parrots and something that looks like a heron, and a few cages occupied by depressed simians of various kinds.
I went to the zoo with my friend Djibril. He is a Sarakole from a village outside of Kayes, who came to Bamako looking for work. He guards the property along with three mangy dogs and shares a living space with them in a little shack. His official title is Guardian but he is more like a super. He seems to do most everything around the tiny compound where the studio I rent is located. So far I have seen him fix the swimming pool pump, trim palm trees, and clean. I call him my attorney because he has defended my quite nobly before greedy cell phone peddlers and taxi cab drivers.
In any case, people’s titles don’t seem to adequately express their actual work here in Bamako. The woman who was introduced to me as “the nanny” is in fact the property manager. She lives in the big house with her daughter. She is very nice, but most of my interactions have been with Djibril. I spend my evenings drinking strong sugary tea with him in front of the compound.
We are joined by a rotating cast of characters. Many of whom are other Sarakole from Djibril’s village. Nearly all of them work as guardians. Djibril and I decided to go to the park during one of these tea fuled evening get-togethers. We talked for a bit about the things I wanted to do over the weekend. I mentioned wanting to watch a Senegalese-style wrestling match. Then we had a great conversation about wrestling in broken French and pantomime to accommodate the decades of rust that has built up around the machinery of my French vocabulary. But, before the wrestling match we had to see a horse race. I am staying less than a block away from the race track. Abu Bokar, a Bambara who arrived racing program in hand, pointed out that Sunday was the last race of the season and my only chance to catch a race.
Our plans were set, but Djibril insisted that we go for a walk in the park first. I agreed and promised to overcome my American sleeping sickness so we could go. I quickly understood that the trip to park was more for my friend than for me. As it is, I am more interested in the actual way people live their day to day lives. The park is very beautiful but very orderly. It is an exceptional place that follows a different kind of logic than everywhere else. But, our trip gave Djibril an excuse to stop and see his family.
I would have much rather had photos of our visits with the folks from the village, but it didn’t seem appropriate. Still, I can’t let it go with out making any remarks. Several Sarakole all from the same village lived shared small compound joined by a tiny courtyard. A few older men sat in front of the entrance to the courtyard in a narrow band of shade about an arms length from about thirty goats. We entered the courtyard. It had a something like a well at its center surrounded by a zig-zag clothes line. I greeted several women busy at their work: cooking, washing, and feeding the kids. I then met Djibril’s mother. She was the picture of hospitality and showed me to a sofa inside one of the small apartments. She and Djibril had a very long conversation, of which I understood nothing. I spent my time rolling a ball to a two year old who kicked it back into my hands with uncanny precision. When they finished I sat outside with the men and the goats taking shallow breaths as my friend caught up with his father.
Djibril told me that our trip gave him the opportunity to get away from the compound and visit his people. “It’s like that. We are all Sarakole. All together.” We had a very nice time at the zoo, but the family visit, that is the kind of experience I wish I could liquefy, bottle and drop into peoples’ eyes like Visine. Life in an African city for migrant laborers. Instead I have several photos of a worn out lion.