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Consumption Dreams

What do people in Mali and Senegal dream about consuming?

Bildet kan inneholde: har, tekstil, hodeplagg, gatemote, klesdesign.

It is clear that, as in other regions of the world, people's consumer dreams vary, depending on who the dreamer is. Gender, age, education, income and whether one is from the city or the countryside are all influential. Perhaps young people dream more frequently about brand-name and fashion goods that are produced in the West and are advertised the world over, while the wants of adults and the elderly are, to a greater degree, focused on the local. The tourists visit the markets with their dreams of taking something African home with them. It is not infrequent for one to experience a situation in which local people stand in one part of the market and investigate whether a Rolex watch is genuine, while in another part tourists stand and wonder about the authenticity of the Dogon mask which they are in the process of buying. The market sellers do their best to satisfy people's dreams, but also to influence them by means of the goods they offer.

Dreams, Local and Global

The contrast between dream and reality

One feature of today's globalization is that the newer means of communication, like TV, film, video, and not least, the Internet increase the ability to spread information about consumer goods and the good life the world over. The Internet has become so popular in Bamako and Dakar that one cannot walk more than a few metres without encountering an internet café. The competition between cafés in Dakar causes prices to be low enough such that young people who will never be able to travel beyond West Africa can now take a trip on the Net.

Sylvie, a 25-year-old student at the university in Dakar allows herself this expense a couple of times a month. Her mother, who lives in a smaller city several hours away by road, sends money for her upkeep. Sylvie herself earns money sporadically by working as an interpreter for foreign tourists. She dreams about becoming an airline stewardess with Air France so that she will be able to travel and see other countries. But she knows that she does not have the right contacts in Dakar and that she probably never will. Sylvie is usually extremely careful in her use of money. Half an hour on the Internet is all she needs to write electronic mail to relatives and friends abroad.

Bildet kan inneholde: smil, rektangel, skrift, reklame, plakat.
Billboard advertising Hollywood chewing gum, Place of Independence, Dakar

There are those who maintain that globalization makes people the world over more and more alike. For example, one cannot find a single place where Coca-Cola is not drunk, or Nescafé. But the fact that ideas and goods spread out across the globe does not mean that these ideas come to have the same meaning and significance everywhere. Things usually acquire their own distinctive local stamp once they have been adopted. One example is the way Nike running shoes seem to be a sought after product all over the world - including Dakar. But in Dakar it is not sufficient just to have Nike shoes. The running shoes should be white and clean at all times, and there is little chance of this in a dusty city like Dakar! Even young boys frequently wash and scrub their own joggers. In the villages of Mali, digital wristwatches are status symbols. Those who take a closer look can discover, however, that these seldom keep time and are used more as jewellery than a watch.

Even though new media certainly affect people's dreams and desires concerning consumption the world over, local styles and customs still dominate in most places. In Mali and Senegal when grown men and women strive to look their best for a party, they choose to dress themselves in an ankle-length boubou (coat or dress) of damask in preference to European fashions. It is certainly not at all unusual to see that even in households with well-equipped kitchens and gas ranges, women choose to prepare food out in the backyard over a simple gas jet or a bonfire. And there is no doubt at all about the choice when it comes to music. Both in Bamako and Dakar even the young people prefer to dance to their own Salif Keita and Youssou Ndour rather than American pop or rock.

The Sisters in Zone A, Dakar

Good friends in Zone A, Dakar

The sisters Ida and Fatou have grown up in the populous Medina quarter of Dakar, not far from the city's large fish market. Despite the fact that Ida is thirty and Fatou, thirty-two, neither of them is married. Their mother scolds that it is high time they married and had children, but they themselves want to wait. The fact that they both have boyfriends is a secret. Finding a serious man is not easy. He ought to treat women with respect and not be someone who chases after the ladies. A man also ought to have sufficient income to offer a woman the money she needs for clothes, jewellry, creams, hair-styling, and certainly a concert with Youssou Ndour or a visit to a restaurant once in a while.

Women in Dakar are preoccupied with having a beautiful appearance, but there are costs if one is to follow fashion. It is evident that when a man has many girlfriends to whom he must give gifts, his money disappears quickly. At the same time, Fatou and Ida agree that if you as a woman do not look after your appearance, you cannot expect a man to remain faithful. According to the sisters, men want to have beautiful women who smell good, with soft glowing skin and clothes that enhance their feminine forms. Ida and Fatou often talk about what men like and do not like. They exchange tips and experiences and consult their horoscopes on a daily basis. And they regularly seek out their chosen marabou (Islamic teacher and healer) who receives payment for giving advice about what they must do to secure themselves a husband.

Ida and Fatou work at a hostel for European tourists and African travellers. The hostel is located in the Zone A quarter of Dakar and is owned by Frenchmen. The sisters look after the day to day management. They both live in the hostel where they share a double bed, night table, wardrobe and one chair in a small bedroom on the first floor. They have neither TV, radio nor casette player. The door to the room is always open, and as a rule, one of the sisters is always lying in the double bed. The bed is the place where all meals are eaten, and it is also a meeting place for friends, family and even the odd curious tourist. Here the sisters admire their own and others' newly purchased clothes and shoes. Here they exchange information about where in the market one can buy a desired object and discuss whether the price they have paid was too high. They help one another on the bed with hair-braiding when it is time for a new hairstyle. The mirror and the makeup bag are never out of reach no matter how many are present in the room. The night table is covered with creams and tubes of every type: Nivea, Oil of Olay, shampoo for Afro hair, oils that give lustre to the skin and creams that make the skin appear pale and translucent.

Ida and Fatou live close together, yet they have very different dreams about the good life. Ida's boyfriend is a Senegalese. She says she is not in love with him, but if he wants to marry her, she will say yes, because he is "good enough". The fact that the boyfriend does not have all that much money is not important. Her dream is to have many children, preferably five, six. To capture her boyfriend's interest, Ida uses fragrant incense and amulets. She dresses in African damask gowns and cotton prints when she goes out, and cheap batik gowns when at home. She prefers Dakar's African style because she feels African dresses are beautiful and suit her slightly plump body.

Fatou has a French boyfriend. He has given her a mobile telephone that she uses constantly. The telephone has its natural place in the bed just as the make-up bag does. Fatou does not dream of having a lot of children. She thinks that one would be enough. She wants very much to marry a Frenchman. Perhaps she also dreams of living in France? Fatou is very much in love but she is uncertain about the boyfriend. Is she part of his future plans? Fatou prefers perfume to incense and wears no protective amulets. She wears African gowns only during the Muslim festival times. She is slim and feels best in European clothes like jeans and a suit jacket, mini skirts, tight outfits and high-heeled shoes. French tourists frequently leave behind their fashion magazines so she is well informed about European styles. Fatou covers herself with cream that makes her skin paler even though her boyfriend asked her to stop. The cream gives her skin exactly the hue she thinks men like, and sees no reason to give it up.

Every month Ida and Fatou give part of their pay to their mother in Medina. She in turn sends food every day to Zone A with a younger niece. Not all their siblings and friends have permanent incomes, and the two of them have to help with small "loans" as often as they can. What is left of their pay goes for clothes, cosmetics, soap and perhaps a concert, together with what they get in "support" from their boyfriends and an elder brother in Italy. Both sisters have joined savings circles. When it is their turn to receive the month's sum, they prefer to use it for "durable goods" like a new piece of jewellry.

Oumarou of Madougou

Oumarou posing proudly with his city goods

Oumarou is a Dogon youth in his early twenties. He lived in Bamako for some years where he worked as an "ironing boy". Actually he would have liked to remain in the capital, but his family called him home to Madougou, and he could not go against their wishes. His law is his father's will. As long as the family requires his labour power in the village, Oumarou must stand by them, and thereby postpone his own dreams of big city life and economic independence.

Oumarou has built a little brick house on the edge of the village where he lives together with his young wife Rita. They are still without children. He works on the family's land with his brother during the day. Rita helps Oumarou's mother with housework. Oumarou and Rita use their own house as a "haven" where they can decide how they want things, but, nonetheless, most of their time is spent together with the family, where they also eat their meals.

The house belonging to Oumarou and Rita has only one room, and the bed is a raised platform of brick covered with a thin mattress. The room shows that Oumarou has lived in the capital and earned money. As he himself puts it, how could he have gotten all these things for himself if he had not worked in the capital? He is evidently proud of his achievements.

Oumarou has decorated the brick walls by hanging up old film posters of Rambo and action films, and pictures torn out of magazines. He proudly explains that he has made the ceiling lamp in the house. The light works when he has batteries, which happens infrequently as he uses what batteries he has in the casette player he bought in Bamako. The obligatory ceremony of taking tea is always accompanied by Malian music, as long as the batteries last. On a Formica-topped table in one corner stand all the things that he acquired in the city: plastic and glass cups and containers, metal pots and pans, decorations, a plastic calculator, and tea-making equipment. A sheet hangs from the wall with some photographs of large houses and hotels on it. Everything is done to give the room an urban appearance.

Oumarou is highly preoccupied by clothes. He has hung them from a line over the bed - everything that he bought in Bamako. He loves to go around in white trousers and white T-shirt, but it is certainly impracticable to keep such attire clean in a dusty village. Therefore he changes clothes in the evening after he has finished his daily work and has washed. Thereafter one might meet him on his bicycle in newly polished Italian leather shoes and a freshly pressed outfit. He frequently goes around in Nike or Adidas brandname caps, sunglasses and a wristwatch (which does not always work). He wears socks with his shoes and looks in every way as though he is coming directly from the big city.

Oumarou is not a lone example. He is representative of the young boys who want to leave to earn money, and who return with ideas about another lifestyle and another form of consumption than that found in the village. He dreams about returning to the city to earn more money. As long as he works for his father he earns nothing, and it is difficult for him to maintain the type of consumption toward which he has now turned. He and his wife eat their meals with the family, and he consumes what he obtained for himself in Bamako - as long as it lasts. But he will soon need new shoes and new clothes. Life in the village consists of hard work, so he hopes that his father will give him permission to leave when the autumn harvest is over and there is less work to do in the village. He is not sure whether Rita will accompany him.

People like Oumarou are highly esteemed by the young who have not been to the capital and have not had the opportunity to build their own houses and buy their own factory-produced clothes and equipment. What they hear of city life is that everything is simpler there, that both electric light and indoor plumbing are installed everywhere. Also one is able to earn money. All those who return from the big city have new clothes, so indeed it must be true that life there is much better than in the village. This reason, and the fact that village life provides little opportunity for the young to earn money, strengthens the desire of the young boys to abandon the village and seek their fortunes in the big city. What nobody talks about are those who do not earn enough while they are working in the city and do not dare return to the village if they cannot "show themselves off" in new attire and come back with presents.

Tourist Dreams

Bildet kan inneholde: tre, vindu, farger og nyanser, juletre, dekorasjon.
Tempting tourist goods at the Gorée island outside of Dakar

Given today's information technology, the world is bound together in a different way, and with a much more rapid tempo than it was previously. One consequence of this is that the exotic is never more distant than the push of a button. Could it be that the foreign becomes a bit less exotic when it can be downloaded by computer into one's home or at the nearest internet café?

A selection of West African markets can now be visited on the Internet. By means of such virtual visits the world can be experienced and known in considerable detail. While some can travel in cyberspace and let the real journey remain a dream, the Internet gives others the possibility of experiencing virtual markets before they themselves undertake a holiday journey.

Markets in West Africa are promoted these days as central tourist attractions, not only on the Internet, but also in travel brochures and travel books. Local guides in cities like Dakar and Bamako try to satisfy the tourists' dreams, and they eagerly describe the market as an exotic, lively and colourful swarm of activity where it is possible to make the purchase of a lifetime.

In the large markets there are specific zones designed for the consumption dreams of tourists. Tourist markets are also located in very convenient places near hotels and beaches. Here one can buy souvenirs like dolls or miniatures of the characteristic small local buses. A selection of handicrafts like wooden masks, jewellery, baskets and textile work is also offered. But tourists are not easy to satisfy, and many of them are definitely not interested in what is produced specially for them. They want to have authentic items and instead ask the guide to lead them to stalls where the environment, atmosphere and sales goods all feel convincingly local and authentic. Ironically enough, the tourist stalls have an appeal to the local population, who are more than willing to dress themselves in simple batik dresses and use cloths and bags that were originally intended for tourists.

Bildet kan inneholde: hukommelse, hylle, selger, hyller, detaljhandel.
Stall with tourist goods

One of the greatest dreams of some of the tourists who are on a hunt for "the authentic" is actually to have close contact with the local population. The market can be a suitable place for this purpose too. The marketplace gives the curious tourist the opportunity to seek out and become somewhat acquainted with one or more of the sellers.

Tourists often have with them items for exchange, purchase and sale. They carry home with them in their luggage a variety of things that they have purchased or exchanged in the places they visited. These can replace some of the possessions that the tourists took with them on their travels, which have either been given away, exchanged, or left behind. When it comes to clothing, behaviour and lifestyle, the external appearance of tourists has an effect on the desires and aspirations of the local population.

The Tourist Market in Mali

Bildet kan inneholde: verden, leketøy, fritid, tre, kunst.
Production of tourist art

Mali, with its traditions in the production of, among other things, textiles and wooden masks, is an Eldorado for those tourists who have a taste for ethnic art. The stalls bulge with masks, bogolan fabrics, glass bead jewellry and ornaments, ceramics and toys made from recycled materials. Ousmane is high up in the tourist market hierarchy of Bamako. His father was a trader in antiquities, and now he and his brothers run the family shop. He has several stalls in the market, and several warehouses full of items that he has bought in the course of doing his rounds of the villages. He also has many young boys at work on the collection, sale and production of "authentic objects". He himself often travels to Europe and the USA where he takes part in trade fairs. He has an extensive network of clients who come back to him year after year to buy items for their galleries and shops around the world. They know that the objects he obtains for them are of high quality.

What looks to a tourist like an old wooden mask, used perhaps in a ritual masked dance in the Dogon region, can be the product of Ousmane's workshop, finished only a few weeks before it is sold. These masks are generally carved from other types of wood than the old ones were, and then the wood is coloured with shoe polish or other materials. Thereafter they are hung over an open fire in the kitchen in order to acquire the proper smell and patina. Now they are ready for sale.

Bildet kan inneholde: selger, tekstil, tinning, offentlig område, marked.
Clothes and textiles for sale at the Bamako Market

As a tourist, one is "sucked" into the stalls with the promise that it is not necessary to buy anything, and everything is there to please the eye. Once one is inside, it is not always easy to get back out again without having actually bought a mask or some jewellry. It is difficult to orient oneself about price levels since the seller always answers questions of price with the counter question, "How much do you want to give?" To questions about whether an object is old, one will probably be reassured that it is. It is up to the buyer to evaluate the quality of the object and its age, and there are no guarantees.

Whether Ousmane fools his customers is a question each person must answer for himself. Perhaps one answer is that he helps the tourists fulfill some of their dreams of taking something home, something that for them is a unique object. Everyone with a degree of knowledge of the tourist market in Mali today knows that there are not very many old masks still for sale. And besides, it is illegal to take antiquities out of the country.

Abdoulaye - a Bamako Guide

Bildet kan inneholde: panne, øye, menneskelig, lykkelig, mote tilbehør.
Abdoulaye in his guide uniform.

Abdoulaye lives by guiding tourists, and thus functions to a considerable degree as a broker between tourists and traders. He is twenty-four years old and has had only two years of schooling, so he is almost unable to read or write. He has taught himself to speak French. When he was fifteen, he left his village on foot and went to the nearest town, about 80 km. away. There he became a "go-for" for older guides, and he gradually worked his way up until he had money enough to move to the capital. Here he lives with an uncle, where he shares a room with five or six other young boys.

Abdoulaye often goes out to find himself clients at Bamako's international airport, where there is always a pitched battle, since there are many guides and few tourists. As the tourists emerge from the arrival hall they are met by a sea of young boys who almost throw themselves at the prospective clients. They ask if the newcomer needs a guide or a taxi. If the tourist accepts, the respective guide runs over to the taxi drivers to negotiate a price for the trip into the city. This can take time and requires a degree of discussion before the guide and the driver agree on the price. This has to cover both the taxi journey and a small commission for the guide. All this happens so quickly that the tourist does not manage to follow what has transpired. By now, the guide already sees the tourist as "his", and intends to earn as much money as possible from her as long as the relationship lasts. The guide asks if the tourist has arranged for a hotel; if not, he usually recommends a hotel according to price class. Then, the following day, she can be guided around the city and through the markets. Abdoulaye knows "everybody" in Bamako's large market and greets friends and acquaintances everywhere. He is called "The American" because he is always in the company of whites. He takes the tourists to the stalls of people he knows, and where later he will receive a commission on goods the tourist has purchased. The tourist does not necessarily know about this. Abdoulaye says that he is concerned that whites should not be overcharged for goods "just because they are white", or in other words, because one lacks knowledge of the level of prices. But he himself utilizes this lack of knowledge and drives hard bargains with the merchants in the stalls over what sort of commission he himself will receive. What the tourist understands as price haggling between the guide and the seller, and which is conducted in Bambara or another language, can equally be negotiations over the guide's share of the earnings. Since it was the guide who brought in the tourist, it is also natural that he gets his piece of the cake.

Abdoulaye keeps in contact with his clients through the Internet. Since he himself cannot read or write, he has to take along someone who can read the letters and answer them for him. There are letters from tourists with whom he has established a good relationship who write to thank him for the successful guiding. They had perhaps promised to send him pictures for a photo album that he shows around in order to get new clients, or they promise to send him traveller's cheques or packages of used clothing, or things that he himself desires. Abdoulaye sees all of these as his friends, and as a possible network of which to avail himself should he on some occasion be able to fulfill his dream of travelling to Europe or the USA.

But for the time being the economic support that he obtains in this manner is sporadic, and it is not helping him to change his life. He must also send money home to the village where his family is dependent upon him for money to buy the grain that Abdoulaye himself is not there to grow. He believes that one day a way out will appear, in the form of an invitation and an air ticket to the West.

Published Jan. 27, 2021 8:49 AM - Last modified Jan. 27, 2021 9:33 AM