New to the Parish: ‘We met during a coup. Nina was conceived during a coup’
A new series in which newcomers to Ireland talk about the joys and challenges of their new lives. ‘In Mali everyone thinks Europe is a paradise,’ says Lefah Ballo (30), from Mali
Lefah Ballo with his partner, Caitríona Rodgerson, and their daughter, Nina, in Churchtown, Dublin. The couple met in Africa in 2012. Photograph: Eric Luke
The music of Jingle Bells will always remind Ibrahim Ballo of the first day he stepped on to Irish soil. It was December 2nd, 2012, and Ballo, known as Lefah, had just flown from Mali to join his partner, Caitríona Rogerson, for the birth of their daughter, Nina.
The 30-year-old, who worked as a tour guide in his hometown of Ségou and had never left Africa before, found himself walking around Dundrum Town Centre with his heavily pregnant girlfriend, searching for warm winter layers.
“I was in awe of the escalators, the movement and the lights,” he says. “I asked, ‘Who is this red man I’m seeing everywhere?, and Caitríona told me the story of Santa Claus, a man who climbs down your chimney and flies away with reindeer.”
The couple met in early 2012 when Rogerson was travelling in west Africa. In March that year a coup broke out in Mali, and soon after she was evacuated to Burkina Faso.
“There was so much drama in those three months living together in Mali. We met during a coup. Nina was conceived during a coup,” she says, adding that she returned to Ireland soon after and began making arrangements for Lefah to follow.
After seven months of applications and appeals he was granted an Irish visa. He arrived three weeks before Nina was born.
“It was the middle of winter and I could see the clouds from my breath,” he says. It was about 30 degrees when he left Mali.
Ballo only had basic English when he arrived. It was difficult to adjust to Irish expressions and idioms, he says.
“I couldn’t understand people because the accent here is so strong. For the first three months we only spoke French together, but after that I realised we better stop, otherwise I wasn’t going to learn English.”
He began English classes in Dundrum, but left when he was offered a job working in a bar.
“I have to work. We have a family and life is not easy; I had no choice,” he says. His lack of qualifications means that finding work in Ireland was not easy. In the future he would like to “bring some of Mali to Ireland” and open his own shop selling Malian goods.
“I want to link Ireland and Mali and create a connection between the two countries. I’d like to bring people from Ireland to Mali and work with my friend’s travel agency.”
The western dad
Having grown up in a culture where women look after children, the new father initially found it strange adapting to the role of a western dad.
“It’s so different being a father here. I only had three weeks to prepare to meet my baby and suddenly I was changing nappies and wiping poo.”
He remembers the day he told his sister over the phone that he was cooking dinner. “Men in Mali never cook. It’s the woman’s job. My sister asked, ‘Are you crazy, what are you doing?’
“I told her I gave Nina baths, brought her to bed, read to her, changed her nappies, and my sister said, ‘Oh my God, Lefah, come back to Mali’.” He finds life in Ireland expensive. He would like to have the time and money to take English classes and improve his language skills.
“In Mali everyone thinks Europe is a paradise, that you just find money on trees. I see now it’s true, there is a lot of money, but you have to work hard to get it.”
Thanks to the acceptance and support of his partner’s family, he has settled into life in Ireland. However, he misses the bustle of Ségou’s streets and is determined his daughter will grow up with an understanding of her Malian heritage.
“We’d sit on street corners, drinking tea and talking about politics,” says Ballo, reminiscing about life back home. “We drank green tea; it’s almost like our beer in Mali.”
Two weeks before he left Mali, his father died following a long illness. He views the death as the natural end of one life leading to the birth of another. “When he died it was almost like permission for me to start this new life in Ireland.”
He speaks to his two-year-old daughter in his native language, Bambara, and plays Malian music in the family’s apartment.
“It’s important for me that Nina feels at home in Mali and knows everything about her family there.”
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