Jon Anderson is a liberation ecologist intent on empowering the impoverished through expanding their bundle of rights over resources; making markets work better for the poor; and linking to technical solutions and problem-solving. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in school construction in Gabon (1974 – 77) and was a rural animation volunteer in Mali in 1977. He served with USAID, USDA, FAO, the MCC (Resident Country Director for Mali) and with the private sector in the US and Africa. He has taught at both Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. One of his favorite biological processes is fermentation. This process helps him write.
As soon as he awoke and went downstairs, he saw a young, grubby kid at the door. Here, kids replaced telephones – they seemed to be the most frequent means of communication in Bamako. They were sent everywhere with all sorts of messages for all sorts of people – the poor man’s cell phone.
In broken English and Bambara the kid said that Lalla was at the clinic. He gave the kid a quarter. He was fairly sure that the kid was saying that Lalla was at the maternity – he was never really sure he understood Bambara correctly. Lalla, a strong healthy young woman, was apparently having her first baby.
He drove to the maternity on his way to work. He wanted to be as useful as possible. He did this partly because the father of Lalla’s baby appeared to have abandoned them. He was not around, not providing support, obvious by his absence. So instead he, her brother-in-law from worlds away, tried to pay the bills, the prescriptions, to be there in the room. He knew it was not the same – that there were limits to the type of help he could provide and to his knowledge of the cultural context of support.
The dirty clinic had no electricity, no medicines, no materials, just a basic bed. The bottom halves of the cement wall desperately needed a cleaning and a paint job – the hands of how many thousands of people had been rubbed against it? The midwives seemed attentive and well intentioned. Lalla’s pregnancy had already been long and hard – with several trips to the doctor’s. He was not sure that the doctors she saw knew what they were doing.
He felt a general resentment against the father, the clinic, the system that allowed these situations to develop and forced him into positions where he was uncomfortable, impotent. He became angry and started to close off.
Lalla was indeed there and in full labor. She was sweating and breathing hard but she smiled briefly before returning to her pain and exhaustion. He had to return to work, promising to be back as soon as he could.
The meetings were longer than expected. It was several hours before he could return.
Anya, Lalla’s mother, was on the veranda of the maternity, holding the baby. They shared only a few words in common although they often spent hours together. Anya was the center of the family, holding a loose coalition of her children and their children together. She was the center of all major family events.
He could hear Lalla crying inside. He heard the soothing mutters of the midwives.
Tenderly, Anya, with sad and anxious eyes, held out the baby.
“A sara” she said.
He didn’t understand. He couldn’t understand. The universe stopped expanding and his skin cooled.
He carefully took the quiet, peaceful baby girl. She had a full head of lush black curls. Her skin was smooth and brown as a sheanut. Her fingers and toes perfectly formed. Her arms and legs were as plump as ripe mangoes. She was a big baby. Her eyes were closed.
She was beautiful, almost perfect.
“She’s dead.” repeated Anya.
Dave and I spent six hours bumping along through the sand tracks. We were tired, sore, sweaty, and covered in dust.
At dusk we pulled into the village and went straight to Amadou’s house. It was a small one-room mud building with a makeshift veranda. Amadou, one of our field agents, met us dressed in a red sweat suit with a Snoopy logo, flip-flops and, even though it was getting dark, sunglasses. He invited us in.
The room was small and dominated by a recovered cable spool that served as a table. In one corner was a bed – a rectangular wooden frame sitting on four large stones with only a mat and a sheet. Amadou sat there while we took the only two chairs in the house. The chairs were metal frame with plastic weaving.
On the wall above the bed was a calendar from three years before – it showed goods from a hardware shop in a town 3 hours away. Near the bed was a well-worn issue of Jeune Afrique. In a corner was a small charcoal grill, two blackened and dented aluminum pots, a small teapot, two small glass tea cups, and some silverware. There was no electricity for 180 miles.
As it got dark Amadou lit a kerosene storm lamp and placed it on the table. We exchange news and talked about the project.
Finally Dave said “It must be very difficult to live here.”
“Yes” Amadou said, sweeping his hand expansively around the room. “Not everyone has all this.”