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Ugly Americans?

Where does one have to travel these days to find remarkable samples of the American spirit?

April 24, 2006

Where does one have to travel these days to find remarkable samples of the American spirit?

Echoing from minarets at 6 in the morning and 2, 4, 6 and 7:30 in the evening, those prayer calls are not as intrusive as prayers in other Islamic countries.

Of course, you might think five would be enough since that's all the Koran requires. But there are five more at 4:30 in the morning and 12:15, 3:30, 6:30 and 9:00 in the evening.

And whether it's their strict times or an almost lovesick note reminiscent of Arab calls — instead of the irrepressible balladic quality of Malian imams — you wonder if this set of prayers could be for the Salafists, the mostly Saudi Sunni fundamentalists who are evangelizing the Muslim world.

The last notes of the late prayer fade. "Wahhabi," says my guide Ibrahim darkly, as he sips tea in front of another catastrophic performance by the Malian national soccer team on the old TV in the hotel bar.

The Salafists no longer use the term to describe themselves — it may sound too exclusively Arab to some ears. And from the unhappy way Ibrahim mutters it, you suspect it's become a mild curse in this part of the world.

"Where are their mosques?" I ask. This is the fifth day of a three-week vacation and I still don't have my bearings, so I assume I just haven't found the Salafist quarter, yet.

"They buy every Arab house," replies Ibrahim. "They hate minarets, so you can't tell. They hate us, too. We're black."

Ibrahim is Songhai, a race that ruled the heart of Africa from Timbuktu 600 years ago — while running a 25,000 student university here and painstakingly preserving one of the great Islamic collections of Greek, Roman and Arabic manuscripts. He's not bitter about the new Arab neighbors, just perplexed.

But it doesn't sound like the Salafists in Timbuktu are convincing Ibrahim to sign up for jihad, either. Not with segregated calls to prayer and a strong whiff of Arab-African antipathy in the air.

The whole idea that the Salafists are not invincible —that they are no more preordained to sweep up every alienated Muslim boy in their furious struggle than the Soviets were predestined to sweep up the whole non-aligned movement in the march of international communism — makes my head spin.

After all, why would America go to war in Iraq unless we were fairly sure we would lose the alternative battle, the one for hearts and minds in the souks and streets of the Islamic world?

It strikes me in Mali that our inability to win hearts and minds seems to be a fixed point of American belief. My wife, Ann Marie, certainly did not spend three years here with the Peace Corps in the 1980s to win hearts and minds — she just wanted to save the world.

Illness in the family has kept her from joining me on this holiday, but however changed she would find Mali, I suspect she would find people like Paul quite familiar.

Paul makes me wonder whether we're grossly misunderestimating our capacity for moral leadership in the world — even after invading Iraq. Paul is the short guy with a baseball cap, an oversized bag and a shirt that doesn't quite cover his gut at the airport on the way to Timbuktu.

He's reading Corinthians. I am surprised my fellow American still has the bag because I overheard the Malian attendant tell him it was too heavy to carry on board. "Don't worry, the place will fill up just before the flight," he tells me. He sounds like Gump, Forrest Gump, that is.

He starts to tell me about his Evangelical Baptist mission. I can't help imagining him disappearing into an enormous crocodile until all you can see is that bible brandished in a grubby hand.

He tells me about the seven years he's spent so far driving a van with two young Malian assistants — and sometimes his wife. Their mission is to go deep into the bush to provide emergency medical care to villagers who could never afford the $3 clinic fee.

It turns out he trained as a nurse practitioner and emergency surgeon in the U.S. army. When he retired, he asked his church to send him somewhere to help.

My flight to Timbuktu is unforgettable. I might have found the image of the Niger snaking green and purple into the desert unforgettable by itself.

But it is Paul's stories of desperate, kerosene-lit procedures to save babies and surgeries in downpours to save mothers — "by the grace of God, more successful than not" — that stick in the mind.

Some of the contents of his bag spill onto the tarmac after we land in Timbuktu. It's filled with medicine.

The trip back up the Niger from Timbuktu toward the capital is harder. I am on a cargo boat to get a closer look at the river, but it runs out of gas after three days just short of Mopti, Mali's second-biggest city. The captain poles the boat toward shore until it runs aground. Water rises above our straw sleeping mats—no rest tonight.

It's cold on the river in January but we're only 50 meters from the riverbank. I tie my sneakers around my bag, jump out of the boat, and shuffle as quickly as possible through the shoals of the Niger.

Something about flukes that parasitize people after incubating in snails comes to mind and I shuffle faster. It takes just a moment when I reach the beach to dry off my feet with my socks and lace up my sneakers. It's about 10 pm.

I pick my way through a Bozo fishing village whose round thatched huts would be quaint in other circumstances. After a while, I find a raised dirt road. It's dark to the left. There's a hazy glow in the sky to the right. I turn right. Mopti turns out to be only a few hours away on foot.

Even this misadventure is worth it to see Dogon country. It's still not easy to get to the Dogon homeland on the Bandiagara Escarpment between the Niger River and Burkina Faso in the southeast of Mali. Most people visit on a three or five-day walking trek.

The Dogon speak a Voltaic language like the people of Burkina Faso and are part Muslim, part animist, and part Christian. Their villages are remote and intact. There's beer brewed from millet, traditionally taken with a shot of gin. But there's no electricity.

There are no clinics. And the fancy latrines are the ones with plastic covers to keep flies out of the hole. In general, in a place like this, you don't expect to find many Americans. And yet the bad French I hear from the three trekkers who are spreading sleeping bags on the roof of the mud compound I have found sounds distinctly American.

I settle in to a toasty night on a mat by the fire in the middle of the compound. The trekkers obviously have not spent three nights freezing on the Niger.

Their guide clambers down the universal forked baobab tree trunk that serves as a ladder to the roof. From the dirt floor of the compound, he hands up some kind of digital diary to a bony little guy fussing with a flashlight.

A woman announces in what turns out to be a New Orleans accent that she's going to the lavatory to bathe. The guide laughs as the trekker with the flashlight flashes his light on the tree trunk to help her pick her way down from the roof.

A large man rounds out the trio. "Girlfriend," he calls sassily from the roof as if he has been watching reruns of outdated gay sitcoms, "it'll take more than a bath to clean you up." He is not an evangelical.

The trekker with the flashlight, I find out over some of that millet beer, has worked for an engineering firm in Saudi Arabia for 13 years (no, not that engineering firm — another one). The woman has worked as a nurse in Saudi Arabia for 16 years. The big guy has worked there as a nurse practitioner and surgical assistant for 17 years.

None has any intention of returning to the United States. "Certainly not with all this," says the woman, waving vaguely east in the direction of Iraq. Besides, they like taking their two-month holidays together. Usually they take rough trips, like last year to southern Ethiopia. But this year they decided to take it easy and come to Mali.

A friend of the guide who has accompanied me from Mopti has a terrible looking abscess swelling beneath his jaw. "Girlfriend," says the big guy, "where's my Cipro?" We spend half an hour translating from English to French to Dogon that the young man with the abscess has to take a whole week-long course to make sure the antibiotic does not just kill off weak bacteria.

Then we make him repeat the reason why, translating back from Dogon to French to English. The word goes out that medicine men are in town. Soon a greybeard shows up with a horrible looking burn on his belly. The woman produces a poultice. "Haven't you got something classier than that?" asks the big guy.

But he has no intention of covering the burn — the problem is that it's getting infected. He spreads white Nivea cream on it and tells the greybeard to make sure it stays white for a week. Wide-eyed, the old man agrees.

After treating a few more impromptu patients, the woman jokes, "Anyone need a drip?" I am incredulous, but sure enough, they've brought portable drips — just in case.

You'd think medics who work hard all year long in Saudi Arabia would want to get away from patients during their one vacation. But that's just not how these folks look at it.

I am thinking what a shame it is that even two generations after the Ugly American became enough of a stereotype to inspire a novel about how easily Americans come to be hated abroad we can still never win battles for hearts and minds.

Then I notice something I haven't seen during my entire week in Dogon country. The other guide is flashing a light to help the greybeard see his way down the street.

Perhaps we Americans have tricked ourselves into believing in a prophecy that refuses to fulfill itself. We have certainly convinced ourselves that this rough world cares little for our logic, morality and diplomacy — so there's no reason to try to be nice.

When as a result we act out on the world stage — when we are intransigent about war crimes tribunals and the Geneva conventions, give global warming a millennarian, end-times shrug, preempt our own policy against preemptive war — we suppose our logic, morality and diplomacy are collateral damage and will never count for much in this world.

But we may be mistaken about that. The Americans I encountered on the fringes of Mali's great river valley may seem like strange birds to many of us back at home, but they have a powerful lesson to teach about the natural affinity of a country grounded in pragmatism and growth with the developing world.