Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Health center and hunger

Here's my cute-as-the-day-is-long host-sister, Christine, in her Malian baby chair.

This is the health center. To the right is the maternity wing and the left is an operating room and the doctor's office. The vaccinations and weighing take place outside in the middle of the hangar.

In a village about three miles from mine there is a health center and a mayor's office that serves the needs of 27 surrounding villages, each at least 1,000 people in population. On Tuesdays from 8-whenever the work is done, the doctor there vaccinates babies and I come to weigh them after they're vaccinated since there are too many women and not enough time for the doctor to do both. It's a great way for the women in the villages around mine to get a look at me and to know me a little so if we want to do projects together I'm not totally foreign to them. I also relish the chance to hold sweet babies who aren't old enough to recognize I'm a foreigner and so don't start crying just because I'm white (which happens often with children ages 2-7).

By the time the vaccinations start there are at least 30 women waiting and they continue to arrive throughout the day. I keep a tally of the babies I weigh (at the doctor's request) and last week 75 women came between 8:00 - 3:00 to get their baby's first shots and a dose of vitamin A. Women walk for at least an hour, and in the case of my village, an hour and a half, to get this vaccination and as I look around while I wait for the next baby to weigh my heart feels heavy inside knowing they have another long walk home in the heat of the day with a hungry belly after the shots are done. They can't just bring a snack pack along with them to eat - all their food is cooked on a large scale and doesn't travel well so there isn't another option. None of the women complain about the long wait, long walk and eating late. I'm struck by the power of women and mothers because I know that all of these things affect them. I'm hungry and tired and I eat a full meal before coming and have a bike which speeds up my travel time so I know they must be too.

A friend asked if malnourishment is a problem where I live and the short and simple answer is "Yes" though it's not strikingly apparent. While I imagined hunger to be emaciated children with protruding bellies, the results where I am are more subtle. Most of the babies I encounter are fat and smiling but they are all still breast-feeding. Once the breast-feeding stops the effects of hunger become more apparent. Some children's hair gets a yellow-orange shade and I know there are extended bellies hiding underneath their t-shirts when children get their nightly bath in the compound. By the time they're 8 or 9 years old, the hair returns to a normal black and the bellies retract but their diets don't change so the malnourishment remains.

It's hard looking around me and feeling helpless in the face of such a big problem. While it would be easy to just buy food to give away, what would happen when I left? As I struggle with how I can be a vehicle for positive change during my time here the word "sustainable" becomes more and more a part of my internal dialogue. I've reached no neat conclusions to this messy problem but am hoping that further discussions with fellow villagers will produce some answers and together we'll be able to at least shake a stick at hunger and malnourishment.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Name, Age, Location?

This is one of the many Baobabs (and two women) that I pass on the way to my village each week.
The next picture is my host sister Batuma (if you're named after your grandmother or mother you aren't called your name - her real name is Miriam - you're called Batuma) and my host brother Emmanuel.

A few crucial aspects of the Malian culture revolve around last names and the married (or unmarried) state of women. Being a foreigner, these aspects are amplified as the people I live with are eager to learn everything they can about me (and I them). But this information isn't relegated only to the people with whom I live and work - sharing my last name and whether or not I have a husband is a daily occurrence when I'm at market or just walking around town. This has become so normal to me that when I talk with friends outside of Mali via email or skype - I forget that these are not things people share as they meet strangers. I'll try and give a concrete example starting with a little background anecdote.

There are a finite amount of last names in Mali, sort of like everyone being a Jones, Smith or Davis - except they're Malian so it's Diarra, Coulibaly or Dembale. When the French colonized Mali, legend has it the only clan of people who ran to hide rather than fight back were the Coulibalys thus making them the brunt of many jokes because of their lack of bravery. What they have here is something called "joking cousins." It's sort of an on-going inside/outside joke where when you greet someone for the first time (asking all the required questions for every greeting, new or old: Did your night pass peacefully? How is your family? How is your husband? How are your children? How are the people of your village?) you ask, and what is your last name? If you're a Coulibaly meeting a Coulibaly you laugh, and say a ka ni (that's good!) and maybe even shake hands. But if the other person is a Diarra or Dembale (or two-handfuls of other last names) they frown and say oohhh, a ma ni (that's bad! - but with a smile and a laugh) and then say, You're a bean eater! (Implying, yes, you guessed it, that you fart a lot) Or, You eat donkey! (Implying you're a country bumpkin I suppose, I haven't quite figured out why you'd call someone a donkey eater)

As crazy as this may sound, every time I go out to buy something I go through this ritual and since I'm a Coulibaly (and proud of it!) I'm constantly being railed on for eating beans and donkey. It's wonderfully amusing how Malians never tire of this joke and it's an instant way to connect with a stranger. Even if you don't have the same last name as the person you're greeting you can still laugh together and call the other person a bean-eater.

As for whether or not I have a husband, I always say yes to avoid offers of marriage so they can come to Ameriki (America in Bambara). But even when I say that I am taken the men will usually offer a "proposal" just to get a rise out of me and see how I react. I put the fire out pretty quick though when I say that men and women in Ameriki share responsibilities and that men cook, clean and take care of the kids alongside their wives (at least that's what I'm expecting!) and the Malian men balk and say, essentially, keep your extra plane ticket! :) I've also tried to explain the concept of a weak American dollar and a bear stock market but I don't think my Bambara has reached the level of economic discussions just yet.

I've learned a lot about patience in the short time I've been here and I'm sure to learn more. Malians love repetition and since I clearly stick out as a foreigner I constantly have to repeat what I'm doing here and the afore mentioned facts which can get a little tiring but is worth it. When I remind myself why I'm here - to live and be a part of a different culture - I leave with a smile on my face and a laugh on my lips. I'm going to relish these interactions for the next two years because when else will I be called a bean-eater because of my last name or receive endless marriage proposals because I'm a foreigner?

Monday, October 13, 2008

October in Mali means peanuts (we have pumpkins too!)

Another week at site come and gone. It's getting closer to harvest time so people are going out to the fields more and more to check on crops and start collecting. This week my family pulled up peanuts - and I think will for weeks to follow. Everything is done by hand and horse cart and I often sit and wonder how it's done in the states with technology since, although I am from Virginia, I don't recall every having seen a peanut farm and I know I've never been to a peanut processing plant.
The men unloaded the cart of peanuts, roots, leaves and all in our compound and then about 20 women came to help with my family's harvest. Groups of 7-10 women sat around big piles of peanut plants and got started pulling the nuts from the roots. I sit and marvel at the sense of community here. People are always outside because it's too hot to sit indoors and the houses are just for sleeping so there's not any room anyways. It's such a warm feeling of community, though I'm sure when I comment on this to my new neighbors they think, this is how it is, how else would people do it?
I finished my morning chores (washing my dishes and sweeping the hut) and pulled up a stool and got to peanut pulling. At one point, the women made me make good on my promise of guitar playing so I played "Lyin' Eyes" (of course) and my new hit, (or rather, Tom Petty's old one...) "American Girl" which I think is an appropriate song for me to use as a launch for cultural exchange :) One of the women danced during my whole playtime and so I just kept playing and singing because I had a captive (albeit, occupied with peanut pulling) audience. I had to take a nap mid-day (peanut pulling is tiring!) and when I came back the women were still hard at work and the pile just kept getting bigger of work "to do" as the men brought in more cart loads of nuts. But by the time the sun started to set, we had finished and everyone went back to their own compounds to get started cooking dinner and rest; here, because tomorrow is a weekend or holiday doesn't mean work stops. There's always something to be done and it seems like the people (namely, the women) of my village, never rest.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What am I doing here??

So you're probably all thinking (at least I would be) nice pictures Jennifer, but what the heck are you doing over there anyways? And so I'll take this blog entry to try and explain a little.
I spent two months (July-August) studying Bambara in a small village outside Bamako and 3 weeks ago I moved into my own mud house to continue to learn Bambara and get to know the people in my village. Peace Corp's approach to development is a slow one, and rightly so. We don't just plop into a village and start projects but rather take time to get to know the people with whom we'll be working and perfect our local language skills. In January I'll go to a two week training where I'll learn more about environment projects I'll be working on (we also had technical sessions for our various sectors during those two months in Bamako mine being environment) Some possible projects are: working with shea butter and nuts (exporting, selling, finding buyers), a women's garden, building a chicken coop to raise chickens for eggs to sell/eat, and various tree plantings. These are ideas suggested by the community I'm living in and I'll spend these three months and the next two years trying to see if they're feasible (financially and time wise). Since I'm not an agriculture expert (although art history and french are liberal areas of study, they didn't cover much composting or tree planting), I'm relying a lot on the people I live with to teach me what they do and what is and isn't working for them. I'm not going to be able to learn how to farm/garden in a way that I could possibly know more than what they do already - they've been doing this their whole lives! But what I am hoping to do is to connect my fellow villagers with resources to improve what they're already doing. To find a higher paying shea nut buyer. To dig more wells or install pumps for cleaner drinking water. It's really, like I said before, a matter of connecting the people I live with to outside resources. The village I'm in is pretty far off the main road and most people don't travel outside the village. But I am in and out with access to internet and other resources.
As for what I do on a daily basis, it's pretty relaxed. I wake up early (5:45) to my cats jumping on me and asking for breakfast. Then I wash my dishes from the day before and try and help my host family with their chores like pounding millet or sifting the millet once it's been ground. I also play with my 5 month old host sister a good bit while her mom works non-stop. I tell you something, they need to make Mother's Day a national holiday here because the women here are incredible. Non-stop manual labor and they take care of all the children. While I'm sure the men work hard, from what I've seen, the women do everything they do and more (hey, is this like the states?? :) Juuuust joking. I cook all my meals on my gas stove and have a fun time being creative with my somewhat limited resources. If I get tired of pounding millet (physically tired that is) I'll sit and knit. I'm a knitting fool now! Or I'll sit and read or write letters. My host mom and I go out to pick peanuts or chick peas and cut okra. Did you know okra is prickly?? I have to wear gloves because it feels like I'm picking cactus pears! At night I do some yoga, cook dinner and then go outside to sit and talk. My family watches t.v. that's connected to a car battery (charged by a solar panel during the day) and I try and understand what's going on but usually just talk with my host mom Annie as she knits and we sit and shell chick peas to eat.
Here's another anecdote highlighting the small-town nature of where I'm living.
I was in San on Monday and saw some women from my village. We greeted each other and they had seen me dance a little at the women's meeting last week and asked for a repeat performance. Never wanting to disappoint I agreed and gave a little shimmy and shake there in the market lasting maybe 10 seconds. On my way back to my village the next morning I was biking hard and sort of zoning out. The road is two lanes and not many cars at all pass by (mostly just donkey carts, bikes and some motorcycles). Well, I was getting close to where I get off the paved road and bike for about a half hour in the dirt and I wasn't sure where to turn off. I pulled up to another bicyclist (worried I wouldn't see another) and greeted him. After we finished our greetings (still biking) he said, oh, you're from this village, you take this road, before I even asked. Surprised, I asked him how he knew what village I was from (this was about an hour outside of San and he was one of about 5 bicycles I'd seen on the road). He said, oh, I saw you dancing with the other women from your village at market yesterday. Unbelievable! When I got home, I told Annie, my host mom, about it and she shook her head and said, Djelika, you really shouldn't dance at market, people will see you! I said, Annie, I think people notice I'm different anyways... :) But it reminded me so much of my own mom or someone telling me, Jennifer, now don't do this it's not a good idea so I couldn't help but laugh. If you were worried whether or not I'm laughing over here - have no fear, it's happens daily with all my social and language blunders. Not so different from the US!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Meeting with the women

I went to my first women's association meeting this past Saturday with Annie, my host mom, who told me she was heading over to a woman's compound after dinner. I invited myself along which she seemed happy about. Annie didn't say what time the meeting would start, just that she was going to head over after she'd eaten. I wondered how all the other women would time their meals to end in unison with the end of hers but figured it really wasn't worth getting a gray hair over. Time is a curious thing here in Mali, and apparently in all of West Africa. Folks joke that you have to WAIT (West African International Time) and it's proved to be very true. I like these tests of patience because it's teaching me that there really isn't a reason to rush - at least not if it means passing up an opportunity to have a conversation or to take your time with whatever you’re doing which is usually the case.
But back to the women’s meeting. After Annie and I had finished dinner I put on my tailor made Malian outfit and we headed over lighting the way with my high-beam headlamp. My village, and from what I've seen, many of the surrounding villages are sort of like mud labrynthes. The compounds themselves have lots of space for kids to run around and to do all the chores but sometimes the compounds back up to one another and are divided by narrow corridor-like passages that make me feel like I’m navigating a medieval castle. I hope my pictures do more justice to what it’s like here than my words.
When we got to the meeting place we set down the stools we brought and greeted the few other women already there. An older woman I think is the association president picked up an iron pot and started beating it with a stick producing a shrill noise akin to a school-yard bell. I looked at Annie and asked her if she was announcing the beginning of the meeting to the 5 of us already assembled because it seemed like a loud way to start a little meeting. Annie laughed (good naturedly) at me and said that no, she was announcing that the meeting would start soon for the rest of the women in the village. Sure enough, for about 20 minutes women starting trickling in with their own stools, flashlights and kerosene lamps. At the meeting, the women discussed their peanut field and that they’ll go out to harvest the peanuts on Friday. I spent most of the meeting looking at the women around me (about 30 showed up) and wondering how these associations function since my Bambara comprehension isn’t exactly at a level where I can understand a meeting. I’m spending a lot of my time observing here and participating too. Harvest season is upon us here in Mali so folks are heading out to their fields everyday to dig up peanuts, chick peas and beans and cut okra for sauce. Soon they’ll cut down the millet and corn and then the work of thrashing and storage begins. All by hand too! Annie determines whether or not the field is too far for me to go to; her concerns for my hydration and fatigue are high.
I left the meeting smiling at the other women’s compliments of my outfit (I think they find it endearing when I wear Malian clothes and they sort of coo over me which makes me laugh a lot). I hope you have a little more insight into what I’m doing over here and if you were wondering how big my village is, take a small iron pot outside and hit it as hard as you can with a stick to see how far the sound carries. And if someone shows up asking about your peanut fields, you’ll know why.
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