On my way to my friends place in village and I noticed that the place was completely empty, not one person in sight. Very strange considering it’s a Tuesday at 3pm where normal village traffic fills the street, the small shops, and small hangers where the usual topic of discussion is under way while the tea is brewing over some hot coals. But nothing. Doors are all closed with motos and bikes taking the people’s spots where they would usually sit under their hanger, lost amongst their chatter. So finding no one to talk to I head to the end of the road where I find one person, Yacouba, sitting listening to the radio as he tends to the grinding machine which Mado runs during the day. I grab a seat and greet Yacouba who is a jolly guy, tall and slightly more rotund than your usual Malian but a guy with the biggest smile when you greet him and an all around humble guy. I ask Yacu what is going on today and why there’s no one in town. He explains to me that there is a “Quran Jigi” today and that everyone is in the Numu’s area for the ceremony. The Numu ethnic group are blacksmiths, making knives, hoes, and anything else requiring metal, which explains why their work area is adorned with furnaces, anvils, gigantic pliers, and 8lb sledgehammers. A “Quran Jigi” is when students of the Quran school achieve a certain level and then are deemed ready to become leaders in the Islamic community, able to take on students who would study under them. A big deal in Mali as it is predominately Muslim. And this event doesn’t happen every year from what I gathered. From time to time there is a “Quran Jigi” and never on a regular basis. So my curiosity and my status as a visitor in their lives, I trek my bike over to the event to see whats the deal.
Upon arrival, there are about 300 people gathering under the Neem trees, encircling the selected few who are being honored, those few wearing nothing but all white robes sitting on prayer mats. The men have encircled the new graduates while the women are off to the side in no particular order, looking on from their positions. People are in chairs, sitting on benches, on prayer mats, the elders being the closest to the action while the age range gets younger as you move farther away. I am called over to sit with my friend Yaya who is on the outer edge of the circle. I take a place on the bench and look on, figuring out what every mannerism means by the guy in the all yellow robe, with a red checkered scarf donning a white cap who is speaking through a microphone. I try to pick up what he is saying but only receive bits and pieces as the output of the mic sounds like a drive-thru window speaker at Del Taco.
After struggling to understand what is going on and going through my own assumptions on what is happening, I turn to Yaya to gather some more info. My questions are standard, “whats going on, who is that guy, who are the guys in white, when does this happen, where do these people come from, etc” and receive all that I need. That these few students, the youngest being all of 13 from what I gather, are leaving the Quran school and becoming “teachers” of the Quran, that this happens once and a while, that “that” guy is the leader of the celebration, and that some of these people come from as far as Mopti to attend this event. After I know all that I want and can know of the event, I sit and watch, understanding as much as I can and enjoying what is happening before me as only here can this event happen in this way, in Mali, in my village with people who I’ve shared more than a year of my life with. Its pretty cool!
After what seems like blessings to end the ceremony, people are chosen to help distribute gifts to the patrons of the event. As they walk around with large aluminum bowls filled with small biscuits, a millet dough cake that I can’t describe or determine a close relative to one we can find in the States, and tamarinds they hand you what ever they grab, a mélange of goodies for everyone. I eat the millet dough cake immediately, don’t get any small biscuits, and stuff the tamarinds in my pocket for later. As the guys with the bowls walk around giving out the Quran Jigi goodies to everyone, others are giving 100CFA to old men who’ve attended while another guy gathers cola nuts, which are offerings given to the graduates. After everyone gets their take home goods, the food starts to arrive and you can sense an anticipation in the crowd. Everyone eyes the food, hauled in by enormous bowls carried by two people. The chatter is sporadic, people stand to see what’s provided today. The duty of dividing up the food rests with a few people who separate it into smaller bowls to be passed amongst the mass. At this point I am hungry, however knowing how everyone will wash their hands and the tussling of positions around the bowl just to get my hand on a single grain of rice is I deem not worth it. And to my surprise, I am right. As soon as the bowl enters the vicinity where I am in, people rush to dip their hands in the bucket of water in order to get a good spot. The hand washing is absurd, no soap and pretty sure 40% did a mock wash, putting their hand in the bucket but not in the water. Clever. I am invited to eat and I politely decline saying that I am full. I peek at the bucket and its gray, so no thanks. Around the bowl people are squatting, a half squat, and standing just to get a bite to eat. It’s a free for all and I am a spectator, but happy to not be in that mess. I look around and eye people grabbing a big handful and leaving with it, to save for later. Others are more ingenious and bring plastic bags with them to take some back home for their kids. The funniest and most clever technique came from another friend of mine, also named Yaya who is involved in the school and is a man of his late 40’s or early 50’s. He comes out of the fray with a gigantic smile on his face and a huge lump in his shirt. He has taken at least two handfuls of food and put them in his shirt, carrying it like a child who just got a bounty of candy and has no bag to hold them in. Its great to see from Yaya, a little humor in the matter. After the meal everyone disperses and heads home. I walk back to my bike and head home to go play soccer at the school while thinking about the Quran Jigi, what it was like and how great it was to see. Also knowing confidently that I wasn’t going to get sick from not eating the food, always a plus.