Now it was hard not to giggle when we, as PCVs, read 'spies' as a common perception of Americans, but when we asked the reasoning behind the idea, it was a little more humbling. They said that they see us, as PCVs or NGO workers, coming from a place like America where there is wealth, infrastructure and diversity, to live in Mali, sometimes in the poorest of villages, and find it incredibly hard to believe that we don't have an alterior motive. So what could our motive be? Spying on Malians for our government...obviously. It was a good reality check if nothing else. If they can get past this assumption, that is where the idea of Americans being 'courageous' stems from. We pick up, leave our families (unheard of here), friends, and (some of us) good jobs, to work for free in a place entirely unknown to us, with people we have never met before, who speak a minority language...brave.
The last one that completely struck us by surprise was the adjective 'dirty'. It's almost laughable for us coming into Malian society - which I think is most germaphobes' worst nightmare - to hear that we were the dirty ones! Of course we had to ask and the answer was amusing. First, because we go into the latrine (remember this is plainly a hole in the ground) and sometimes we forget to take our salidaga with us so they assume we are not cleaning ourselves after we are done; i.e. dirty. Wait, wait, Alyssa...what's a salidaga?! Okay, well, its a small plastic container shaped like a tea kettle that Malians fill with water to use concurrently with their left hands to 'cleanse' themselves after latrine usage. Yup. They also use the salidaga to wash their hands, face, and feet for prayer time. So the concept of us keeping toilet paper in our nyegen (latrine) is entirely absurd - what would we use that strange white paper for? Certainly not cleanliness...We were also told if we don't take - or pretend to take - 2-3 showers/bucket baths a day the Malians will think we are dirty. This is something I have no issues with in hot and rainy season since I am perpetually a sweaty mess. They don't understand that in cold season, however, a second shower is just a waste of water. I do zero hard labor in the day, so one shower after my run in more than sufficient. Plus, the well water gets quite cold as does the air outside at dusk, and then I'm just left shivering in my outdoor nyegen...not fun. There is also the reality that in many nyegens you don't feel any cleaner after a shower since you are doing so in a place with an open hole filled with human waste. The smell of your own soap doesn't quite cut it. Plus, I guess lots of PCVs are pretty granola, so maybe we really are dirty ;) Only kidding folks!
The last thing to remember about why Malians perceive us the way they do is because most of their initial exposure to us, if they have television sets in their town (which most do somewhere - powered by car batteries) are through cheesy soap operas. So the perspective might be slightly skewed! I think this has something to do with the 'promiscuous' note, although compared to this traditional Muslim society where you aren't even supposed to shake hands with someone of the opposite sex (since it's likely that will make you fall in love with them and that would lead to inappropriate behavior, of course), that's probably exactly what we are.
I thought better of sharing what some of our stereotypes of Malian were, since I would rather hear from you all...what are some perceptions that you had of Malians before I came here, or still have now? Have some changed or been confirmed through following my experience so far?!