for Clemson

12:00am Christmas Eve, my Uncle Clemson Russell Joiner passed away…Uncle Russell was a Vietnam Vet, who returned with an able body, but whose mind never quite returned. The smile that was one of the things he was most famous for was dimmed and he would oscillate between fighting the voices in his head, the demons attacking him and the long silences in between.
When I was a young boy, he was much more vibrant than he would later become in his older age.  I would go on walks with him around the neighborhood, him dressed in jeans or slacks, superclean , starched, with a razor sharp crease and the both legs rolled out about an inch or two. Then there was was the North Philly bop of a walk that probably would have looked like George Jefferson swagger if my uncle was not so slim and cool. I really valued those walks around the neighborhood because it made me cool be association at a time when i did not feel so cool.

My father always talks about my Uncle Russell with a type sorrow in his voice, which, as I have gotten older and learned more about my Dad and my uncle and the choices they both made, I have begun to understand this sorrow quite a bit more. I think my Dad felt sorrow for the way my Uncle’s life turned out. To hear my father tell it, mu Uncle Russell was the best musician in the family. He played trumpet. I wish I had known this as a younger person, I would have asked him to play. It seems that in my fathers family music is like a second religion, everybody something or sang. In talking about my uncle i think my father always felt like he never really got a chance to live a full life. In some regard I agree, because for the past 30 years leading up to my uncle’s death, it seemed like he was more silent, more distant everyday. He mostly would stare out the window onto my aunts lonely street or out into the backyard. He never quite got a chance to live up the electricity in smile and i think my Dad thought about every time Uncle Russell’s name came up.

So what does all this have to do with Bamako? In no small measure my Uncle Russell is probably one of the biggest reasons why I would be be open to living in Africa. Because on many of those long walks he would tell me in very simple 8 year old terms about how great Africa was. He was the first person to show and explain to me how the United States could fit into the Sahara Desert, he told me about the Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana and the Kingdom of Mali. My uncle was also a gifted artist (or at least the 8 year old me remembers him that way), he draw the most amazing sculptures similar to the variety that I have been seeing since being here in Mali. I am not quite sure how my Uncle knew about all these things, but they appeared to be so vivid in his mind to the extent that he filled any scrap of paper he could find with these drawings- he gave me a few of them, I pray that I still have them buried somewhere.

But I do find comfort in having made my way here to Africa, I find comfort in the effort I am making to live as an artist and family man here and I find comfort in knowing that my Uncle Russell is with me here and that in some small way I am making a dream of his come true.

I am sure poems will come of this, but right now I prefer to live the poetry instead.

Small world, crossing water

Every once in a while I get reminders of how small and wonderful the world can be…be warned fellow technophiles and gadgets freaks this post is not about technology as we know it. No this is more about that ancient advanced idea of opening yourself up to new ideas, new experiences and new people. Today was a lesson for me to continue to be open to these types of opportunities. As some of you may or may not know I don’t not swim…elegantly…at all. In fact if you ask my wife she will tell you that I do not swim. However I always say to her and to those she tells I cannot swim, “if you through me in some water I am going to find my way out.” This usually precipitates a nice laugh on all of our parts. Well today a friend I will call Bil, Melanie, once of Mel’s Peace Corps friends and me decided we would take an uncertain boat ride across the Niger River to an island owned by Salif Keita. Now Melanie and I have had quite a few experiences on water: para-sailing in Hawaii, small wooden speedboat trip to Tobago Cays from Carriacou (don’t do this), assorted ferries Lewes to Cape May, Grenada to Carriacou, etc, so I totally trusted our judgement in making this decision. Niger River Boats I must however admit that what I know about boating in this part of West Africa did not instill much confidence in me, but knowing that this men AND women use these boats for their livelihoods meant more to me than my somewhat cushy ideas about boats. Turns out the boat that we were to take was a metal boat (which made me a feel a bit better) and the trip was only 2-3 minutes. Cool ! I am ready…we are off… Below is a shot of us approaching the island ApproachingApproaching2

This is me enjoying the ride…
me chillin
So we get to the island and we are greet by a man whose name I did not catch…I did not take his picture because I was not sure he would like that but is was very nice. He explained to us that that the island was not official open for business but we were “welcome to come and sit and Salif Keita would come to greet us later.” WAIT!?!?! WHAT!?!?!  encore s’il vous plait!!?!?  I Ko Di?!?!?! The he said again (en Francais) “He will come greet you all soon (soon can mean a long time in Africa, but I was willing to wait)!” At this point I did not care what else was going on here on this island that fact that I was going to meet Salif Keita…So we sat under a thatch canopy and chilled
us under canopy

About 20 minutes some friends Bil’s who we had run into at a bar earlier showed up, with them was a very distinguished looking man who I later found out was Afel Bocoum , whose music I just learning about today…get hip..he was the one of the most gracious and humble people I have met since I got here, which is quite a feat because I have met quite a few gracious and humble folks…
Me & Afel Bocoum
After a brief walk around the island to check things (Gazelles, Caymans, and the a beautiful grove of mango trees) out we came back to our canopy to a feast of  mouton, onions and mustard along with some great french bread and an assortment of homemade drinks including my favorite jus de gingembre ( ginger juice). Of course, after the music a gregarious, lively brother from Burkina Faso says to all of us ” how can there be all of these artists and no music!’ Someone then gets up and goes into Salif Keita’s bungalow and gets one of his very nice Gibson acoustics and hands to Afel Bocoum, who then treats us to some of his music and then passes the  guitar to other musicians one of which (Ismail) proceeds to play sing a Tracy Chapman song and a Led Zepplin song in perfect English, another plays a song by Green Day and a song by Oasis  in English and the yet another talent brother named Ibrahim who sand to us in Bamanankan and another language that I could not identify… it was quite a surreal feeling to be in such an intimate setting with such talented people and to hear some many languages being spoken and despite not totally understanding all of it still being able to get a great vibe from it all.

So after we got our fill of good food, good drink , good company and good music we started to get a little anxious that that “soon” time frame for Salif Keita’s arrival would not ever come. Although I was a bit disappointed I totally understood…this was Keita’s escape, a place where he could come and go and be with family and invited guests and he has earned the right to choose to come out and greet us or not. To be honest, I was already satisfied with the glimpse I caught of him as we entered the island. So our little crew (Mel, Leigh, Bil and Me) decide we would cross back over to the Bamako side of the river. As we were beginning to walk back to our boat the same gentleman that greeted us told us that Salif was ready to receive us now, but that there could be no pictures..fine by me… When get to Salif’s bungalow he is engrossed in a phone conversation with his back to us. While waiting for him to finish I strike a conversation with Ismail (the Tracy Chapman singing brother) and he says in slightly giddy voice ” I have never seen him either and I live here!”…to which Mel and I chuckle…then I tell Ismail this my first time to Mali and to West Africa and he smiles and look me directly in the eye and says “welcome home.(I will have to discuss this in more depth later).” I did not have much time to let those words sink before I heard a hearty “What’s Up!?!? What’s Up?” As soon as I turn around Salif Keita’s hand is extended at me and gladly shake it and greet him briefly in Bamanankan and slide out of of the way. When I turn around the entire delegation of is in line behind me waiting to say their hello and greet Keita. On our way back across the river, I felt a very simple and pure sense of joy that I was open to crossing these waters in the first place, to the island today, to the country and to this continent…Yes “welcome home” indeed…

K’an ben seeni — See you soon in Bamanankan

On Garbage

I know many of you who know about this blog may be thinking, “i thought you said this website would be about art, design, poetry and other fun stuff.” I am getting there…I promise.

It’s just that Mali is a really rich and complex place and before I can begin to understand the art I am trying to understand the how, why and the where from which their art is created. Being here (in Mali) and watching how some segments of the art world functions, I notice that we  (some artist in the West) place a lot of value on detachment and restraint in the work. Here, of the artist that I have seen or heard about thus far, their focus always seems to be on creating work that is connected to family, community, nation, etc..these appear to be of the utmost importance.

So it is in that spirit and energy that I share these thoughts…

My journey thus far here in Bamako has been a humbling and inspiring one, the sincerity, authenticity, ingenuity, and generosity of the Malian people has been very comforting  and have made the challenges of this transition much easier to bear.


Garbage…I never think about it much, I don’t think I am unique in this regard. I don’t think the average American thinks about it beyond the curb we put it out on before someone comes, picks it up and takes it out of our sight.
Because our trash, is for the most part, out of our sight (at least for most of us), we tend not to think about. In Bamako, there is nowhere to hide from trash, this is not meant to be an indictment of Bamako, just an observation. I have a whole other post about international aid, infrastructure and development work, perhaps one day that will find its way to the interwebs…
So I could say a lot more, but I won’t….Anyway…I was sitting around scribbling, thinking about all this and this draft came out:


Waste -Waist

I am losing weight, my mouth
is shrinking, my stomach is now
right-sized for my eyes

I have seen where everything goes
to die, things the earth cannot swallow
cannot return to dust

litter is landscape,
the usuable burns

When I take out the garbage
I feel shame, oversized trash bags

say greed, say I own,
say consume/d.

before nightfall, what I thought waste
will be in someone’s home
or stomach.

In the morning I will
stare at my refrigerator
& ponder its rotten swell

So it begins…

or rather it has already begun…

I have been in Bamako now for exactly one month and it still feels new. Obviously, this is connected to new sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures., but I think the most compelling thing that will keep Bamako new for me during the time my wife and I are here is language. While French is the “official” language, I hear some many languages spoken on the street as move through them. Bamanankan, or as it is often translated Bambara, is probably the most widely spoken but there are almost 40 other languages that you may hear as you walk through the marche (market in French), or listening to the taxi drivers talk to one another.

I am currently learning Bamanankan (Melanie and I are in a class together) , I am also brushing up on my French. I have already encountered a few occasions where using even a little Bamanankan goes a long way, so I look forward to getting stronger with it. It is really a beautiful language that appears to be constructed in a very logical manner and has a nice call and response to it that is very comforting as a student of African American idioms to actually witness these things on this side of the Atlantic.

Anyway, there will be much more to come. This is my space to share with you what I am seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and making… For Real! Bamako…