I watched President Obama’s first inauguration on an old TV in a small guesthouse in the Malian desert. Every so often one of the Malian viewers would murmur, “Il est president du monde (He is president of the world).” Quiet murmurs of jubilation punctuated the intense focus of my traveling companions and our African hosts. How ever could I have imagined that one day I would celebrate in Africa the inauguration of our first African American president?
This journey was decades in the making. Forty years before, baby on my hip, I watched transfixed as indigo robed men, their turbans wound across their faces against desert wind and sand, swayed on their camels into a dusty African marketplace. This was my first glimpse of the Touareg, the blue people of neighboring Mali, their faces dyed by the indigo of their robes.
I was a young mother in Ouagadougou, in what was then Upper Volta, West Africa. My husband was the Peace Corps doctor. Home was a quiet African neighborhood in a remote capital with a new baby, a cook, a houseboy, chickens and ducks in the yard, lizards on the walls, spiders on the ceilings, and hump-backed cattle wandering the dirt road in front of our gate.
The sight of the caravan pulsing into the market filled me with a yearning for the mystery and romance of the Sahara, its people, and its fabled cities and ancient cultures.
To my regret at the time, we never got to the land of the Touareg. Our timing was always wrong for the few months of the year that the Niger River was navigable for the three-day journey by boat to Timbuktu. The trip was hard with a baby. When I left Ouagadougou after almost two years, I was glad to go home, but left behind much that I missed about Africa and that, unbeknownst to me, had become part of me.
I didn’t return to Africa until 18 years later, when my husband and I consulted on maternal and child health in Nigeria. The night we arrived I remember rolling down the car window and breathing in the midnight air, and there it was, the unmistakable smell of Africa. I couldn’t breathe in deeply enough. I wanted the smell of that night air to permeate my lungs, to enter every pore of my body. I hadn’t realized that I missed Africa so much.
Although we returned to Africa several more times since that consultation, we never got to Mali. Yet somehow, Mali remained on my mind. Finally, in the winter of 2008, we had a chance to travel to Mali with a group from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Now, Africa, though not necessarily Mali, was on many people’s minds that Fall, as Barack Obama campaigned for and won the presidency. Our trip in January would put us in Mali during his inauguration.
What better way to share the celebration than to bring some Obama souvenirs to Mali? The official Obama for President campaign site was happy to sell me fifty assorted campaign buttons and ten baseball hats saying, “Obama, Yes We Can.” I envisioned giving some of these buttons and hats as gifts, and to use others for bargaining. Let me explain about bargaining. When we lived in Ouagadougou, shopping was a daily activity. The market was made up of neighborhoods of small vendors, each with his or her own stall or space, filled with wares. The bargaining began when I chose something I wanted to buy. I might spend fifteen minutes with one of the many banana sellers, choosing my bananas, asking how much, recoiling in mock shock and offering a counter offer, which would be met with a laugh and a shaking of the head and a slightly lower price, then maybe a diversion for me to admire her baby or for her to admire mine, and then, after a few more minutes of micro negotiation, the merchant would say, “Donné l’argent” (give your money) and the deal would be done. She would carefully hand over my bananas for me to place in my basket, and we would say “Good-by, go well,” with a sense of mutual warmth and satisfaction. If this were my first visit to this banana seller, in the future we would always greet each other warmly.
I looked forward to bargaining for souvenirs in Mali, to the pleasure of these connections, and, to be sure, to the added excitement an Obama button would bring to the bargaining table. Sometimes it worked that way.
Exchanges over blouses and beads turned naturally to the upcoming inauguration, with warm congratulations on our new president. At a textile atelier, when we were within a hair’s breadth of an agreement on a handsome fabric, I added an Obama hat and the deal was done, to both of our delight. In appreciation, we gave hats to our drivers and local guides. Each practically fell over with joy. Our ten hats went fast.
That left the buttons. When porters delivered our bags to our hotel rooms, I added an Obama button to the tip, and the recipients would press them to their hearts. When I bought souvenirs, adding a button at the end of the bargaining resulted not only in a mutually satisfying conclusion, but also a conversational coda about our shared admiration and hopes for our new president.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when a darker side emerged. A few days into our trip we stayed at a hotel with a bank of small shops outside the entrance. I spotted a lovely handmade bracelet and asked the price. Soon we were engaged in the usual ritual of bargaining, ending with the button, the conversational coda, and good feelings all around.
Word travels fast. After I left the shop, people started addressing me as “Madame Obama” and “Madame Bouton (Madame Button).” A young man approached me saying that he loved Obama and had to have a button. Then a vendor ran up dangling neon plastic bracelets from his fingers, undoubtedly made in China, imploring me to trade his goods for a button. What was I to do? I didn’t want to insult him, but I certainly didn’t want his plastic bracelets.
This was not what I had envisioned.
It’s not that being a visitor from a rich country to a poor country didn’t already have its complications and contradictions. For every shop I entered, there were many more that I did not, all with proprietors eager for my attention and my needed dollars. One evening I didn’t go out, because it was so difficult to confront all the eager people with things to sell. Even without Obama buttons, travel in Africa brings one face-to-face with the uncomfortable certainty of one’s own privilege and others’ need.
The buttons gave me too much power. They also made me vulnerable. That realization changed my button behavior.
As we moved through this amazing country, the buttons became what they should have been all along: simple gifts to people that were kind or generous, and a link for our mutual celebration. My husband distributed our final buttons in a cooperative where he had been watching three women weave thick, elegant rugs. They were talking in their language, but at one point Eli heard the word Obama. He said, “Obama?” They broke into broad smiles and with arms wide repeated, “Obama.” Eli reached into his pocket and handed them our last three buttons. They rose from their benches and with their arms holding the buttons high, danced around the room.
I finally visited the Touareg in the Northern desert. We rode camels the half-hour to the Touareg encampment, my eye on the boy beside me guiding the camel, who would presumably catch me when I fell off. When we arrived, the women drummed and sang, and the men of the encampment danced with swords, drawing my husband, and then me, into the dance.
We Americans can no longer visit what was Northern Mali, with its fabled cities, ancient libraries, and people so proud of our president. Now, as we enter into a new administration, my thoughts seem to be returning to those vibrant, handsome, people welcoming Obama as “President of the world.” My ardent hope is that someday we will be able to go back.