I take a brisk but lengthy walk with 3 determined women about my age making our way to the cotton fields. We arrive, strap rice sacks around our waist to be filled to the brim with cotton. The heat is already blazing and its only 8:30am – looks like I’m in for a tiring day. I look to my left and 6 or 7 women are quickly making their way up and down the rows of cotton and I turn to my right and there is my 9 year old brother Bema. Not only is Bema smiling and greeting me, as he is one of the most courteous 9 year olds I’ve ever met, he is also dominating me in his plucking of bulbs of cotton hidden within their sharp natural containers. Typical. My first day cotton picking I had to leave after just 2 hours because I ran out of my (filtered and bleached) water. I’m fragile. My family likes to remind me of this daily telling me to take a rest from my hard work of book reading or move my chair out of the sun. Well the second time to the fields I thought I was more prepared with 2 full Nalgene’s (64 oz.) of water, but I still found my water supply diminished by lunch break. Of course there was still plenty of work to be done, so who could take me back? (believe me I would get lost somewhere in the corn fields and have a search party sent for me) Well my 4 year old brother Bakary of course! He easily navigated the 10 foot corn stalks, rows upon rows of budding millet, and stripped cotton fields to get me on the trail leading back to our house. Although I only picked 1/5 the amount of my counterparts I still got some village cred for participating! Everyone wanted to see my ‘battle scars’ on my fingers and arms the day after and many people expressed how Malian I was having done that :)
I tell this story to highlight how amazingly incompetent I am in the Malian context of life, especially when compared to the incredible competence of the children. In the States we are so concerned with the safety of our little ones that I think we create some unnecessary dependence and self-consciousness. More than any other thing here, I have learned to see the resilience of children. I still find myself saying “Be careful!” to the kids everyday, but really I know they have tested their limits, will continue to do so, and have lots of brothers, sisters, and cousins to make sure that don’t step too far beyond that line. My 7 year old host sister, Setou, carries my little 8 month old namesake, Fanta, on her back any time mom needs to be doing other things. Setou feeds her (non-breastmilk meals), plays with her, and on top of that is in charge of many of the household chores (sweeping the concession twice a day, washing the dishes and her own clothes, and occasionally plucking and prepping a chicken for lunch). Ask my 7 year old self to try to do any one of those things, besides play with a sweet little babe, and you’d be up a creek without a paddle. Just sayin’. I go for my runs in the morning and often see 6-11 year old boys, sometimes alone, sometimes with 2-3 others, herding sheep, goats, and massive cows with massive horns (can you hear my own fear?!) up through the trails to try to find some green for them to munch on. They just have this confidence about them where the cows, 6 times their size, know not to f*ck with them. Excuse my language, but seriously! Just hear the tone in their voice when they move 20 of them this way or that. I’d move too. Any time tea is made a small boy is summoned and trusted to retrieve fresh hot coals from the cooking fire to start a smaller fire to boil the tea. And nearly every time I make the tea, using this fire, I burn myself on the pot. See…fragile.
Now I realize most of you would ask where the time for the children to be children is, and some days I find myself wondering the same. But most days, I watch them interact, even while working, and they find just as many ways and opportunities to tease and taunt each other (as siblings and cousins should do, right?!), make toys our of sticks and cans, get scrapped up after chasing each other round and round town, and dance to any and every beat they hear or make. If we look back at when our grandparents and great grandparents were kiddos, I bet their amount of time for ‘play’ was pretty similar, because it comes with the life of farming for a living. Perhaps ‘time for being a kid’ in the way we tend to think about it in the States is a luxury of development. Perhaps its cultural. I think only time will tell.
What I can say I know now is that any Malian child past the age of 4 is a greater asset to any community or family here than I am at 26 years of age with a Master’s Degree. Ouch. All is well though because I think this will make me a better mother when I choose to embark upon that chapter of my life. Other people may not approve of my child being tied to my back or to letting them explore their own limits that might seem scary to others, but I know they can do a whole heck of a lot more than I ever realized on their own. There will still be limits to my ‘madness’, i.e. the whole “here 3 year old child, take this knife and cut up those sweet potatoes for me while I go pull some water from the well” or “sure you can play in the still extraordinarily hot ashes and coal from my cooking” won’t go over well with me. I find myself continually highly nervous when these episodes come about and I think for good reason, since just yesterday little 5 year old Douda came over to show me his half burned off toe. The difference, I find, lies in the strength of the community here and their ability to look out for one another. Some days I am walking through village and I run into a small pack of 3 year old girls running around enjoying their home all alone. They aren’t in any real danger, but its something I certainly had to get used to – no mom, no dad, no babysitter watching. Eventually I came to realize someone, maybe not as close by as I would like, but always someone, had an eye on those kids even if none of them were theirs. In Mali, I get to experience just how a whole village really can raise a child, and a highly capable one at that!