Monday, July 28, 2008

Jelika Toure - (that's Jennifer Davis in Mali!)

Thinking about how to explain my homestay visit is not so easy.  It's pretty indescribable but I'll do my best!  My village, Kabe, has about 800 people and is a beautiful farming village with one water pump and a small market that has vendors on Thursdays (sometimes).  It's the rainy season so it's lush and green and not at all what I expected (dust and dirt, dirt, dirt).  The shea trees dot the landscape as far as you can see and I greet two cows, a donkey and various chickens when I open my hut door in the morning.  
  I live with lots of families but am looked after by the Toure family.  When we met our families, they gave us Malian names and mine is Jelika Toure.  My host dad looks to be in his 70s and has two wives.  His son Gibril, and his wife Korotumo, really take care of me.  Gibril is a marimba/xylophone player for a band based out of Kabe and which travels around to Bamako and lots of little surrounding villages for all sorts of celebrations.  He's about 30 and Korotumo is 25 and they have 5 children, Umu (above) is my favorite because she's a doll baby and curls up in my lap at night after we eat and falls asleep.  Two things that I love in the United States, grandparent-age people and babies, are all around me in Kabe.  My host grandmother (one of them) is too precious for words.  I go to greet her in the morning but she won't talk to me until I've used the bathroom so she just pokes her head out of her hut and cocks her head and makes a "hunnh!" noise to indicate she's heard me.  She's about 70 it seems as well and has lost all her teeth, but not her beauty, to age.  Everyone speaks to me in Bambara like it's a first language (not because they are confident in my ability, but rather because they don't understand how I can't) and Grandma is no exception.  I will go and sit with her outside her hut and sing in English to her and she'll clap, clap clap and add her own noises along with my singing which cracks me up to no end.  I'm lucky because it is like living in a fishbowl, but my family does give me breathing room for sure.  
  We spend 6 hours a day doing language training and it's coming along at such a speedy rate!  The Peace Corps is surprising me everyday with how much they prepare us.  The health care is incredible - we have sessions every other day it seems about how to treat various diseases and any medicine I need, they provide quicker than I could get from a pharmacy.  Also, Mali is unique (I believe, this could be heresy) because we learn the local language, not just French.  My host brother speaks French which is very helpful, but I'm hoping not to rely on it too much as my Bambara improves.  
  Everyday is something new and different.  I'm blessed to have already met incredible folks who at the sight of an eye welling with a tear offer their shoulder for a quick cry.  We're all looking out for one another and it feels so wonderful to be in such a supportive, enthusiastic community.  
  As I write this post, I'm listening to two foreign service officers talk about their jobs which sound wild.  They came out here to give us our absentee ballot applications and talk about their careers and it's fascinating.  Not a job for me, but I sure do enjoy the stories.  
  In case anyone was wondering, fate is alive and well.  While I am just outside the capital, we've yet to venture in because of our limited language abilities and we've got loads of other training things to do.  My only interest right now is to get there to meet Malick Sidibe, the Malian photographer I studied for my senior thesis in art history.  All of our language and training sessions are led by Malians or current volunteers and the head Malian man is a cousin of Malick!   This isn't that exceptional to Malians because so many people have the same last name, but he seems to actually be related and has just relayed to me his business card with his personal number!  Gloria, am I excited!  I think I'll write out what I'm going to say to him before I call but I can't believe it's going to actually happen.  
  Training is harder than I thought it would be so far, but I can also tell this is going to be so much more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.  Thank you for the emails and letters - your words are keeping me going!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Toubaniso, Mali

  The Peace Corps leases a 10 acre plot of land from the Malian Department of Agriculture for our training site.  The compound is walled in though once you past the solid green gate you don't really see the wall and instead just notice all the lushness (of the greenery not people) around.  It's the beginning of the rainy season which was confirmed for me last night after using the naygen (sp? but it means toilet in bambara) at 4 a.m.  I drank a liter of water before going to bed because my roommates instilled fear in me as they reminded me that the doctor said we should be drinking 3-4 liters of water per day.  As soon as I crawled back under my mosquito tent the buckets released and I was lulled back to sleep by the sound of fierce rain on our tin roof.  
  All of our teachers are Malians and so far we've been learning about how to take care of ourselves to avoid "Mister D" as the doctor calls it (diarrhea) and safety precautions among other things.  Malians are very friendly people and apparently the only concerns are when you're in the city or urban areas where people are less traditional and take advantage of tourists.   Don't worry about me though - I'll likely be in a fairly rural place with lots of shea trees!  Mali is the largest grower of shea trees in the world but only holds 12% of the international market for shea products because the women add too many impurities to meet the standard.  I had my interview with my Agriculture director who said that I would likely be working with shea butter production and the marketing of the product or fish farming.  
  The Niger river runs alongside our enclosed space so a few of us walked down today to check it out.   This afternoon there were fishermen in gondola like boats fishing and one of them noticed us looking at him so he pushed his way on over.  We exchanged greetings (nodding and smiling when we didn't know what he was saying) and it turned into him asking if we needed a ride to the hotel across the river (obviously looking out of place on a river bank away from the city).  We can't really communicate beyond "Hello, my name is Jennifer, how is your family" so we smiled big and shook our heads before leaving.  On our trek to the river, I of course was searching for a hippo, but alas, was lucky enough to not see one...  My two current goals (aside from Peace Corps things...) while here in Mali are to meet Malick Sidibe and to see a hippo.  
  Today we started our language training for Bambara.  It's a learnable language though we're all still stumbling along through greetings.  All the volunteers here (about 10) who do our training and have been here for a year speak it very quickly and without any trouble so I know it can be done.  
  Tomorrow a cultural festival is happening so lots of vendors and folks will come out here to show us Malian culture in a microcosm.  We leave on tuesday for 12 days for our initial homestays where we will be in groups of 8 (though each with our own family) to really learn Bambara.  
  It's been a week (almost) since leaving Virginia Beach and so far so good.  More later!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Staging in Philly, the journey begins!


   Here's a picture of me and Memaw before I left, I've got good genes! 
  When I thought about this "staging" in Philadelphia, I imagined walking into a hotel with a lot of hippy guys and girls with newly shorn hair.  Instead, all the guys were in khakis and collared shirts (as the Peace Corps requested) and there's only one girl who shaved her head in anticipation of the heat.  
  I didn't know what to expect as far as the ages of people - and there is quite a spectrum.  A few older women (one that looks exactly - I mean it!- like Glenn Close, about three married couples, and lots of college grads!  There are about 78 of us - a lot more than the 30-40 I expected.  Everyone brings a different dynamic to the group as we prepare to embark on different journeys.  Some working in environment & agriculture (me!), small enterprise development, water sanitation, education, and one more I'm leaving out.  Some have experience, some speak French and some don't but everyone is enthusiastic. (Don't worry, we're not all freaking out on each other with my level of excitement and energy - we all express it differently :)
  There are 9 harmonicas, about 5 guitars (none filled with as much as love as mine - thank you to all the girls who got me my guitar) and one flute.  One guy who has never left the US and about 6,630 pounds of luggage to be checked.  We've spent these past two days sharing fears and anxieties about our upcoming adventure - ones we didn't want to share with family and friends that would scare them more :) We have lots of hope too; hopefully more than fears.  (I need a lesson on semi-colon use if anyone wants to comment with advice).  
  They gave us a generous stipend for our time in Philadelphia so we've been eating lots of good food and tying up loose ends (i.e. passport photos, books from cool used like the Book Trader - though none as cool as Riverby).   
  We get up tomorrow at 7:00 to get more shots at the clinic and then head to NY in the afternoon to leave from JFK at 10:30 p.m.  I'm doing great and still excited to be heading out but couldn't do it without all the love I'm receiving from home.  Thanks for your emails and calls, they've meant more than you can know.  
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