Bamako is sufficient unto itself. It is a dazzling and colorful metropolis, a city of baffling contradictions that is so different from the rest of this huge county it might as well be on a different continent.
As I’m waiting for dinner in the courtyard of the Radisson, sipping my Chardonnay from a plastic chalice, the faint call of the muezzin – barely audible over the gurgling pool and the hip music – reminds me of the bizarre contrasts of this city with its network of about sixty quartiers of unfinished but inhabited construction sites, luxury condominiums and shanties, of yellow taxis, Chinese motorbikes, donkey carts and Porsche Cayennes smoothly gliding through red dust and rubble.
How do we reconcile the high wall, topped with barbed wire, this weird enclave catering to foreigners and rich locals, with the people living in the most primitive abodes in the middle of trash, heat and foul water?
Bamako presents a weird mixture of a busy and polluted metropolis and the agglomeration of multiple villages on both banks of the Niger.
And yet, these villages are far far removed from the simple mud house villages without electricity we saw on our way to Siby. They are as removed from the life in Bamako as the pristine white presidential palace up on the hill, above the capital city.
My Easter Sunday was a day of contrast as well this year. We were invited to attend a Protestant Easter Mass held by a German military chaplain in multiple languages in a military facility. The gathering was intimate, maybe twenty people, and the contrast to last Sunday’s Catholic Mass in Bamako’s Episcopal Parish couldn’t have been greater.
Both experiences were beautiful. Colorful African Sunday best and camouflage uniforms. Teutonic organization and cheerful fluidity. Dusty-hot bustle and cool calmness. The spirited sounds of the Episcopal choir and the uplifting harmonies of the “Malian Nightingales”. The comparatively simple but heartfelt solo rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluja” today caused goosebumps and made me smile happily at the same time.
In his sermon, the chaplain told us that he had been asked to help with a bet: Two guys had bet 1.000 CFA which day was more important – Good Friday or Easter Sunday. With his beautiful sense of humor, the chaplain explained the differing views of Protestants and Catholics but went on to point out that the one wouldn’t work without the other. And moreover, we can and should neither live in the extreme suffering and abysmal sadness of Good Friday nor can the blinding flash of divine happiness we might experience on Easter Sunday be extended and maintained for a longer period of time.
As a scholar of the humanities with German roots, what comes to my mind at that point is the fact, that none of the religious beliefs and celebrations we know today, were born into a void. They are an amalgam of the cultural traditions that came before. For the Celts, festivals usually began at sundown of the previous day, because the Divine was said to be particularly accessible during these moments of transition. If you apply this idea to Easter, we’re talking about a long transitional period.
Nowadays we only talk about transitions when we are faced with major changes – end of university, moving somewhere, becoming a parent, losing somebody you love, being sick, … you know what I’m talking about. But if we apply this idea to life in general, don’t we live most of our lives exactly in this transitional state, oscillating between lows and highs, light and dark, success and misfortune, happiness and sadness? The everyday and ephermeral, occasionally highlighted or shadowed by extremes?
I guess, the secret is, to find a balance within this transitional state – and maybe that is also the secret to understanding Mali.