The Paradise of Mali

I have only dated one black man. It was while studying abroad in Mali and I was 21. Since the family structure is so tight and crucial to the individual’s economy, one lived at home until they were married and moved into their family's home. So, even if you were 25, like Yacou was, you didn't have your own place. So where do you bring the white exotic American you're dating? We would go to his friend's places, friends with a spare room with a mat on the floor. We'd talked to them for a cursory amount of time and then he's lead me to that spare room and try to have sleep with me. I would decline and he would insist and I know this sounds like rape and I did have to push him off while saying “non” or “aye-ee”, but it was part fun too. I was a virgin, and despite the painful sounding advice of an overly intoxicated cousin, I was not going to just “double bag it” to have sex with someone in Africa. And as a virgin, I felt naively safe here – he wouldn't have sex with me because I would not have sex at all. He was strong, but luckily the right head was able to take over each time.

Right before I met Yacou, the nephew of my home stay, our study abroad group, just 15 students, went on a long bus trip along the Niger River. Our favorite stop was definitely Teriya-Bugu. Teriya-Bugu translates to “friendship house” and has been called the “paradise of Mali”.

They had bikes! I hadn't ridden one in years. Back on my campus they had a take a bike, leave a bike program. They painted found or donated bikes bright orange and anyone could use them at any time. You weren't allowed to lock it when you borrowed it, so if you rode it to class it wouldn't likely be there when you go out. I decided to try one and it was simultaneously the most free and the most deviant I had felt in my entire 18 years.

I had, effectively, stolen a bicycle and was taking it for a joy ride. I wasn't wearing a helmet – for the first time. The wind in my hair, my heart pumping from a mixture of the thrill of doing something wrong and the exertion of pedaling a bike. And here, at this resort town on the Bani River, a tributary of the Niger, I was chasing that high all over again. I rode down the dusty path and was home again, I was on the streets of Williamsburg, Virginia, in a field of dreams; I was 4500 miles from home and completely in charge of my life. This was really living. This is adulthood.

We brushed our teeth with bottled water as we stood in the dim light and starred into the lush varied plant life of the paradise of Mali.

We camped in tents on a concrete patio covered by a thatched roof. Tent is a pretty generous description, I had a “bug hut”. It's like a tent without any of the coverings, a mosquito net you pull out of a bag and it springs into form like laundry hampers and those windshield sun blockers that I can never roll back up.

At night we sat in the dark, flashlights attract mosquito and other flying nasties, and we talked about how beautiful this place was, how green the greens and how brown the earth. We could stay here for the rest of our ten day excursion, who needs to see the largest mud brick Mosque in the world? They had a swimming pool here!

In that darkness, I heard her quick and awkward movement before I saw her. I recognized her crying before her form. I think she went Mike's tent. Mike was the token gay guy in our Real World-esque Malian compound and a frequent confidant of my roommate. I heard her crying, she didn't last there long, and then rush out again toward the actual hotel-like suites with toilets and showers. Mike went and I followed shortly after, unsure what compelled me, but knowing I had to.

At Mike's instruction, I locked the door behind me. Jennifer was breathing and crying too hard to really understand what had happened, but it had involved the bus driver of our trip and a step too far. It was bad. Mike had me stay with her as he ran to get out study abroad leader, because this warranted action beyond our abilities. Mike left, and, perhaps my comfort not being enough or the gravity of what had happened sinking in, Jennifer ran to the bathroom and showered. Perhaps if I were a police officer or slightly more pragmatic, I wouldn't have let her. But she wanted to wash herself, couldn't stand the feeling that part of him was still touching her, and I wanted to give her anything she wanted.

Our leader arrived – a man who's graying hair, thin metal rimmed glasses, and Canadian arrogance I can well remember but whose name I cannot . That night, he was extremely kind, he seemed to have all the answers and steps to be taken. He'd gotten permission from the resort owner for to stay in the room overnight. There was a large bed and a twin, Jennifer and I slept in the large one, Mike in the smaller, and we brushed our teeth in the sink and tried to stop shaking long enough to sleep. Meanwhile the group leader fired the bus driver, had him arrested, extended our stay in the “paradise of Mali”, scheduled a rape kit test in Bamako for Jennifer as well as a post AIDS exposure shot in Paris, the safest, closest, and more reliable place for that procedure. She'd be gone for seven days. He found her a place to stay and a woman to stay with her.

She was gone that morning and a group meeting explained what had happened and how the trip would proceed.

We'd forgo the farthest points of the trip and actually return to Teriya-Bugu on our way back to Bamako. My paradise lost, the place held little joy on the return. The water smelled of blood or really iron and the soap stayed in your hair and the low flow from the faucet made it impossible to rinse out, leaving you sticky. Toilets and showers are in the same room, so bathrooms are large and tiled and lit with fluorescent. I felt very naked and exposed and alone. I had no desire to ride one of those bikes.

We returned to our compound in Bamako and Jennifer joined us there. It was good to have her back. A relief. Not her first morning back, nor the next, but one soon after, I awoke to her crying. Jennifer never slept under her mosquito net – perhaps she found it didn't help or perhaps she couldn't be bothered, but it gave me a clear view into the pain she was trying to hide, so I emerged from beneath mine, knowing there were no words of comfort to offer and I lay behind her and we spooned on her mat on the floor on her sheet because we didn't need blankets. As I held her and as her breathing slowed and became more regular, I still had nothing to say and still no words of comfort came. I'd never even had sex, how could I speak with an confidence or empathy to someone who'd been raped? This was a far cry from the feigned theft of a legitimately borrowed bicycle. This was really living. This is adulthood.