Over two decades ago I was sent on a consultancy to Mali to support a cross ministry initiative to address girl’s education. It was the second consulting job in my career supporting USAID. Near the end of my month there I visited a rural village of about 3000 people. It was a village that the deputy minister of women and children’s affairs–Marian an amazing woman frankly–had been working in for about five years. She wanted me to visit it, see what they had done and talk to them about starting a school–one of the last goals on their community development plan.
My visit to their village started with a 7 gun salute (I kid you not) on the drive into the village where I was welcomed with traditional dancing–men colored in a rainbow of colors dancing on slits wearing loin cloths and an assortment of masks covered in tooled brass and feathers. The lead dancer wore a heavy burlap cape that was completely covered with black feathers. They led me to a row of chairs facing the villagers where I sat at the far end with some of their village elders, Marian and a few of the village women who managed the community project Marian headed.
The men danced more and then the village rapporteur amused the crowd regaling them with all kinds of sage advice and stories of the work they were undertaking—things they all knew already but spiced with the wit of their rapporteur which made the well-known stories seem new and exciting. After the ceremony where I was overwhelmed with a host of gifts–cigarettes, food, eggs, and betel nuts that are highly prized because of their hallucinogenic properties–those of us sitting at the front of the crowd were asked to perform a ritual in which they passed a cup of some incredibly thick potent tea. The person at the far end of the line of chairs took a sip and then passed the cup to the person sitting his right–each taking a sip and then passing it on to the next person finally arriving at me where I too took my ceremonial sip from the shared cup. After that they took me and Marian on a lengthy tour of their village proudly showcasing their recently built maternity ward and well-baby clinic.
At the close of our village tour they led us to a table groaning under the weight of the bounty of food. Dish after scrumptious dish they fed us until we were groaning from all we had eaten. After the weighty meal Marian and I were taken to the chief’s hut where he was waiting to meet with us. Women generally were banned from entering his inner sanctum where all the decision making of the village takes place. But they broke with tradition and we were asked to enter the most holy of places. Also contrary to local customs he insisted we leave on our shoes–a sign of tremendous respect he bestowed on us.
As our chat together ended he gave me a sheep (what was I going to do with a sheep–I was in a hotel?). I did NOT want that sheep in large part I didn’t want to drive back the three hours to Bamako in a hot car already full to capacity by the team accompanying me on my visit. And now a smelly sheep? My mind raced as I considered how I could politely refuse his gift. I profusely thanked him for his very generous offer but told him that I was so impressed with all he had done in his village that I wanted to honor him and his villagers for all the extraordinary work they had done to improve the well- being of women and children in their village. I asked him to host a celebration soiree. He nodded his head in approval between puffs from his smoking urn—“nodding his graying head he accepted my offer repeating “”This is good. This is good.”
When our meeting with the chief was finished Marian the sun was beginning to lower in the sky but heat still radiated in waves from the parched earth. We trudged back to the clearing where the villagers were waiting. Marian pulled me aside and nonchalantly told me “Diane the villagers are waiting for you to dance for them.” I gasped WHAT? I DON’T DANCE. I HAVE NEVER DANCE. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DANCE.” Waiting for my loud protests to end, she slowly shook her head and firmly replied, “Diane you must. They are all waiting for you.” With that she pushed me forward and the expectant crowd encircling the clearing opened up a door for me waiting silently for the dance to begin.
I looked around me at the men, women and children waiting in high anticipation to see the white lady do her solo act. The lead dancer placed the heavy HOT black cape over my already sweaty shoulders and a garish mask atop my head. I was fully aware of how ludicrous I must have looked. In unison the drums beat, a man strummed on a local string instrument called a Kora made out of a calabash and the women chanted in rhythm to the drums.
Feeling totally out of place and embarrassed to the core I lifted one foot and then the other slowly. I made my way around the clearing and after what seemed like an eternity of me clumsily gyrating in front of them I grabbed the nearest elderly lady and then another into the circle to dance with me. Almost immediately after I asked them to join me in this celebration first the women and then the children swaying in step to the music beating loudly joined the circle to dance alongside us.
Sweat ran down my back and legs as the sun beat down on me making me woozy and parched. I slowly made my way to the sole tree in the village and hopefully a bit of shade. A wrinkled elder was also taking advantage of the shade. I eventually stood at his side. He stared at me but said nothing. Finally after minutes of intense scrutiny he said “You danced.”
I nodded my head in agreement and responded, “Yeah, I danced but not very well.” Again he gazed silently at me and then very slowly nodded his head in agreement, “This is true. But you danced.”
It was like a lightning bolt struck the ground beneath me. In those few words he said everything. “But you danced”. It was an epiphany moment–and something that’s guided me for decades. My simple act of dancing even poorly did more to cross our cultural divide than all the talking I could have done. That remote villages had reached out to me in something that was important in their life and culture and I feebly grabbed what they offered. Not very well mind you but that really didn’t matter.
I have contemplated that simple exchange for a long time and the longer I do this work the more I appreciate it’s the simple things like that we do which makes a huge difference in our ability to work together. Frankly, it’s often less about our technical capacity and skills we bring to the discussion and more about making the simple steps (dancing or otherwise) to meet them on their turf.