I took a break from work the other day and went out to the guy down the street who makes egg sandwiches for around a dollar a piece. The man, who speaks at least three languages that I know of, sells sandwiches and small items (bullion cubes, razors, sugar, powdered milk, tea, etc.) from a little bookcase and table set up outside of his house. He is one of the thousands of Malians who are unemployed with very few viable economic prospects.
Always excited to hear foreigners attempt the local language, the sandwich man asked me how work was going in Bambara and I said one of the few words I know to say “good!” He quickly corrected me in French to say that when someone asks you about work can’t use the same word for good as you do in other contexts. You use another Bambara word – a word that means that work is going well enough.
I think this is an interesting concept. In a world where children start helping with heavy household chores seemingly when they learn to walk, and take jobs at 5-7 years old, and the majority of people work hard in Mali where life is hard, work can never really be good. In general Mali is very social and those interactions are good. Products, goods, services, people, experiences – they are all good. But work? work is a means to an end, not something to be overly enjoyed just something somewhat meaningful that you can put your hand to and support your family.
I admit it, I am spoiled. I am able to go to work everyday in a foreign country I find exhilarating (and exhausting), and work on tasks that I really care about. This is one of the advantages of the birth lottery in which I was born in a country that provided me a decent education, healthcare, and services that set me up for success. I learned critical thinking and self reflection that helps me to determine how I want to spend my career and the majority of my waking work day hours.
There is something beautiful in this Malian cultural key. To think that work is only ever going to be something you do let’s you focus on the things that really matter – your family, your life, your experiences. I want to learn to be better at that.