Stirring It Up in Mali
May 4, 2003
-Ben Kudler, HIV/AIDS Volunteer
Last August, I enlisted in Peace Corps-Mali not knowing what to expect. Before leaving the country, I researched the history and mission of Peace Corps, the specifics of my job duties as an HIV/AIDS volunteer, and my rights and responsibilities as a PCV. However, unlike many of my colleagues in-country, I purposefully refrained from reading ten years of archived Malian news articles, nor did I delve into the hundreds of “My Peace Corps Experience” novels out there. I wanted to come to Mali on my own terms, and to form my own impressions of life in Mali.
Fresh from the leftist-liberal quads of Vassar, after eight semesters heavily flavored with women’s studies, I arrived sensitive to gender roles and the presence (or lack thereof) of sexuality in a Muslim country. I was worried about meshing my last five years’ experience as a vocal, out, gay man with two years in a place where my identity politics are irrelevant (at least to host-country nationals). I do not doubt that same-sex encounters happen here, but I knew that any semblance of a gay or lesbian identity would be left behind at the airport gate. Nine months later I’ve yet to break into the secret gay subculture of Mali, and yet I never lack for a bit of good old camp (i.e., an old toothless man at a bus stop wearing an old T-shirt, “100% Bitch”), nor for a healthy dose of same-sex intimacy.
Despite the obvious inequality between men and women in Mali, I am constantly charmed to see two men holding hands, hugging, or cuddling on a woven mat, or to find two women cradled together, braiding hair for hours, laughing and caressing. While gender codes are as fixed as in the States, I find them to be a bit queered: Malian men are physically affectionate with each other, can be seen giggling with babies bouncing on their laps, and dancing in pairs; women form bonds that are (dare I say) stronger than the ones they have with their husbands. Adrienne Rich would be thrilled – the lesbian (and gay) continuum is in full array here, in a culture where heterosexual marriage functions mainly to produce field hands, and love knows very flexible gender boundaries.
In my everyday, I like to indulge in these new and somewhat crossed (from western ideals) gender definitions. I find myself playing with gender just because I can: wearing eyeliner like David Bowie or Boy George, flaunting ridiculously garish hot pink frilly African garb, and painting my host brother’s fingernails fuchsia as Bob Marley wails “Stiiiir it up” on the radio. These moments of cross-cultural exchange provide serendipitous opportunities for Malians to question the ways they think about gender, and moreover how they love and treat each other.
During our pre-staging, I was warned that men were not allowed to wear earrings in Mali. After noticing several Malian men wearing earrings (perhaps to emulate American hip-hop/pop icons) during my homestay, I quickly slipped mine back in. The response is generally neutral, sometimes quite positive, and I’m happy to have my earrings back, as they feel like a part of me.
During my first few weeks at site, and today walking down the streets of Bamako (Mali’s capital city), I sometimes hear people exclaim, “Ehhhh?! Man or woman?” When I’ve taken the time to explain that men in America are able to wear earrings, and that it pleases me to do so, Malians are intrigued. I can then transition into other gender issues: in America, women and men can do the same work, men are not allowed to beat women, and in romantic relationships and marriage, both women and men can choose whom they want to be with. Sometimes, I explain, men and women don’t marry at all! Mentioning the option to choose a lover based entirely on love and choice is the closest I’ve come to broaching gay and lesbian issues (although I always mention same-sex intercourse during my HIV work).
Unfortunately, Malian culture doesn’t seem quite ready to talk bluntly about sexuality. After I present all of these cultural differences, I usually get a little laughter and sometimes a small lecture on Malian customs. I’ve found that engaging your average Malian on the street can provide just the right kind of captive audience to get some balls rolling for reflection and possibly change. I am happy to have found my own way of getting people to question their own beliefs and behavior: this is why I came to Mali, and why I do HIV/AIDS work. Fortunately, while I wait for Prince Charming to ride into town in his air-conditioned Land Cruiser bearing flowers and Knorr sauce packets, I feel comfortable exploring and expressing the affection and camaraderie I feel toward other men, play with kids, and do other “girly” stuff without stigmatization.
Additionally, having the sexual aspect removed from male intimacy has given me a unique opportunity to learn about my own desires, needs, and priorities, unclouded by the physical aspect that generally defines gay and lesbians at home. Having so much time on my hands and living in a male sphere, I’ve already had a wealth of time to reflect on my own relationships with men, to try and decipher what I like and dislike about male intimacy, and to ponder the differences between a romantic and friendly relationship.
Through the challenges of my new (celibate) gender-queer Peace Corps experience, and prolonged exposure to Bob Marley, I’m kept well-entertained and feeling productive – little by little, there is much room for change, and I’m proud to be on the ground level, asking questions and stirring things up a bit.
Ben Kudler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.