Saturday, December 19, 2009

Kissiba diran ma (The Savior is given unto us)

Annie and I spent a few minutes after church last week putting together this Christmas video for you guys.  I asked her if it was OK to post this on the internet (she skyped with my mom and Memaw once when we were at our training site together in Bamako) and she responded with essentially 'of course you have to post this on the net for your family Djelika - it's Christmas!)

We're wearing our outfits made from last year's Christmas fabric (don't worry, they still haven't gone out of style :) and Christine is wearing the Christmas outfit I knitted for her.  Batuma, her daughter, was on film (thanks for that spindly tripod Kate you gave me before I left - Batuma was a pro using it). 

Christmas and the New Year are times to share with the ones you love.  Know that I am thinking of you (yes, each one of you that reads this blog, I am thinking of you!) and missing you and also that I am spending the holiday with new ones I love -Annie , Esayi, and all their family.  We'll eat pasta (a luxury since it is imported), tiny pieces of grisly goat meat and porridge with lots of sugar and then dance all night. 

The song we're singing (this is all Bambara) is about Christ's birth; see below for some vocabulary words you might be able to pick out.

i ni ce - greetings, hello
n togo- my name is
sagaw- goats
kongo kono- in the fields
Kissiba - the Savior
ka di (dir-an ma)- to give to us

Monday, December 14, 2009

A one-billion person piece of pie.

Sometimes sitting in Esayi's compound, the thump, thump, thump of Annie, Aminata and Kadia's pestles pounding millet into flour I could not feel farther from home.  I have heard foreign service officers in Bamako (among others) liken Mali to the feudal 14th century.  Women cooking by fire, donkey carts, mud houses and farming to sustain your family; life here certainly does not smack of the modern era.  But then a djembe-drum ring tone from a phone that flashes lights and plays videos (not mine) snaps me out of my simple-life reverie and back into the 21st century.  A cursory glance around Esayi's compound shows their family's dependence on things I was not expecting to find in a rural, African village: motorcycle parts, a solar panel, a car battery, a 20x20 inch rabbit eared TV.  Malians, while living in homes that may recall the 14th century, are decidedly of the 21st.

More and more I find myself grappling with these jarring juxtapositions.  On the one hand, I am careful to be discrete about my relative wealth: cautious to take money from my wallet or use my ipod on public transport.  But then I wonder what for.  Riding my bike back to village I pass a man on a horse-drawn cart loaded with women and notice a DVD player resting conspicuously on one of the women's laps.  'What is that for?' I ask, knowing full-well but shocked by the player's incongruity with the fraying fabric on which it rests, kind of like seeing an Amish person with an iphone.  'Ka filmu laje' he says - to watch movies.  'How much did you pay for it?' I ask [It's totally acceptable to ask how much things cost here - Malians do it all the time]  The man sizes me up as a potential buyer but when I state I am just curious he shrugs and says 'wa-kelen' - 5,000 CFA, or about $10- what Annie makes in a (good) month selling knitted hat-and-booty sets.  I instantly feel a surge of frustration.  Malnourished children (and adults!), uneducated and with no shoes and this man is buying a DVD player!?!  While I am aware that poor financial decisions are practically endemic to wealthy American consumers, seeing such luxury purchases here in Mali is really disconcerting when you think about what else that money could buy.  I slow down my pedaling and let the cart clip past me to let the bizarre scene just witnessed sink in. 

These past few months my reading list has been dominated by two genres - fiction set in Boston (On Beauty by Zadie Smith, Run by Ann Patchett, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri) and non-fiction discussing development and aid work in Africa and developing countries (The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier).  While the former genre makes me want to buy a (fake) fur-lined parka, enroll in an Ivy league institution and snuggle up in Marija's apartment in Massachusetts, the latter leaves me feeling like I have more to offer my village here in Mali and challenged to be a part of the solution.  The development-themed books also leave me knowing that I have a lot more to learn about international aid and investment in Africa. 

The Bottom Billion is a unique study.  It is devoid of the sappy anecdotes that pepper most development works and it also lacks jargon-filled graphs and charts which can be hard to follow.  Collier lists four traps why the poorest of poor are stuck in poverty: conflict, natural resources, landlocked with bad neighbors and bad governance in a small country, and tge tools that are used to help break the cycle (and ways to improve those tools): aid, military intervention, laws and charters and trade policy for reversing marginalization.  One of the stories in The Bottom Billion that sticks with me most details a 2004 survey taken in Chad tracking aid money intended for health clinics.  The survey found that 1% of the money reached its intended destination.  (The Bottom Billion, p.66)  And the other 99%? Unaccounted for. 

The Blue Sweater begins with a story about a (you guessed it!) blue sweater the author gave away as a girl to a Goodwill in Virginia, only to see it over a decade later on a young boy in Rwanda with her name still printed on the tag.  Poorly written, the work nonetheless offers keen insight into philanthropy, investment and business in the developing world.  Novogratz's stories detailing her work with a micro-finance organization in Rwanda highlight the frustrations of development and also serve as lessons for how development can, and should, change.  As with Collier's book, one of the stories in Novogratz's work that sticks with me most concerns the misuse of a gargantuan sum of money.  Novogratz writes about a consulting job she was hired to conduct for an agricultural project to be financed by the World Bank in Gambia.  Through her research Novogratz suggested the World Bank reduce the intended project amount from $15 million to $1 million.  The Bank decided to go ahead with the loan since so much time and money had already been invested in the project.  (The Blue Sweater, 116-119).  $14 million (in Novogratz's opinion) misappropriated. 

Reading these books I am struck by the disparity between the incredible sums of aid money disbursed each year intended to change the lives of 'the bottom billion' and at the same time, seemingly innocuous purchases made by the poorest of the poor, like a DVD player, that awe me just as much.  My mind buzzes at the amount of white Range Rovers (and the money their projects commandeer) I see on the roads in San and throughout Mali.  Cooperation Luxembourg.  USAID.  World Vision.  Peace Corps.  UNICEF.  Save the Children.  CARE.  Each of them operating incredible budgets to promote peace and development in Mali (not to mention all the other countries in which they are present).  As I bike back to village those white Range Rovers zip past me, the people inside on their way to meetings to discuss how to improve the infrastructure of Mali and the everyday life of Malians.  The cars go by so fast (no speed limits here) that I wonder if they ever see the horse carts right outside their windows.  The carts filled with tomatoes, wicker baskets and yes, even DVD players.  I do not know how a Malian guiding a horse cart can justify purchasing a DVD player.  But then again, I also have a hard time getting riled up about $10 seemingly wasted when literally millions of dollars can go unaccounted for in aid projects.  For a minute my frustration with the DVD player-buying, horse-cart owning man subsides - life here is tough; can I really blame him for wanting to alleviate, in whatever small way, the difficulty, the tedium, of it all?  No, I cannot.  But it is a good thing I have time left in my 14th century village here in Mali to tease out some more answers to my development questions.  Oh yeah, and while you're doing your Christmas shopping if any of the books mentioned above come out on Kindle in Bambara could you let me know?  I think I know a Malian in my village who is interested.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Guinea Fowl Trot and Treat 2009

Esther lives in a Bomu village 97km (60 miles) from San and in honor of the tastiest party of the year we decided to visit her village and workplace (she is a health volunteer and works with malnutrition and vaccination programs at the local health center) before biking the 60 miles into San.  Tuesday morning, after meeting Esther's closest Malian friends and teaching an English lesson (numbers and days of the week) to a crowded classroom of eager 7th graders, we set out early to conquer the paved road into San.  With a water and millet drink break in Cassie's village which is on the way, we made it into San in a little over 6 hours.  While I would (unbiasedly) wager that biking 60 miles is a pretty impressive feat for most, Esther's dedication to Guinea Fowl Trot and Treat 2009 is made all the more outstanding considering she only learned how to ride a bike last year within the confines of our training compound in Bamako; way to go Esther!

mid-way through our ride at Cassie's site - the millet drink is in the silver bowl and was delicious - thanks Banta!

As we pedaled our tired bodies into San it became apparent that the holiday spirit had slipped ahead of us and into the streets of San.  Bustling vendors perched on wobbling stools, pushy on a normal day as they hawk their goods, called out even louder from their roadside spaces shaded by fraying beach umbrellas as we rolled by.  A parade of braying donkeys and horses streamed into San alongside us, straining under the weight of wagons overflowing with eager Malian shoppers, goats and sheep.  Tarps laid stretched out on patches of unoccupied dirt and gravel to display the latest in Malian fashion: stretchy head-wraps for women, leather sandals for men, bonnets and miniature sandals for kids heaped in piles.  While Malians have an incredible affinity for Barack Obama no matter his progress on American health care, they have not adopted the most wonderful American holiday of the year -Thanksgiving- as a holiday but were instead out in force to celebrate the most important holiday of the Muslim year - Eid-el-Kabir or Tabaski.  I learned more about the meaning of Eid-el-Kabir by reading an article noting the parallels of the two holidays and the rare occasion when they fall at the same time of year (Tabaski is celebrated a little over 2 months after the end of Ramadan -  each of which depend on the cycle of the moon).  Eid-el-Kabir is a celebration of the intervention of God when Abraham prepared to sacrifice his own son, Ishmael, but instead killed a ram.  (Shouldn't we all celebrate this holiday??  Doesn't it signify the end of human sacrifice?!?)  It was fun to share in the festive spirt in market alongside Malians as we haggled with the best of them for guinea fowl, potatoes, green beans, sweet potatoes and new shoes for our dress-up outfits even if they were for different parties!

San-kaw (l-r) Caitlin, Bradley, Patience, me, Cassie, Ryan and Esther)

While our Thanksgiving celebration in San was an intimate one, we made up for our lack in numbers with a truly quality feast.  Cassie, in true West Coast style, slaved away in the kitchen as she constructed homemade crusts for all our pies (apple, pumpkin and cheesecake) in addition to rolls from scratch and her signature corn pudding.  I prepared the green beans, sweet potatoes and Oreo pudding while the boys, Ryan and Bradley, made mashed potatoes and carved the meat.  We bought pre-cooked guinea fowls (like a chicken but more feisty and harder to catch) from a meat-seller in San and relished in the processed-ness of Stover's stove-top stuffing sent in great quantity from loved ones back home.  My mom and Memaw also made sure our event would be celebrated in true Karison style by sending hot pepper jelly, black olives, festive plates, napkins and an accordion Turkey centerpiece; thank you Mom and Memaw!  After filling our bodies with traditional Thanksgiving dinner and our conversations with traditional topics (best road trip, quirky family traditions, favorite holiday foods) we invited Malian friends over to share in our abundant desserts and the meaning of Thanksgiving.  With Cassie's friends from a local NGO, mine from a restaurant I like in San and Patience's pastor, we talked in between bites of pie about the upcoming AIDS day concert and soccer game in San, how Americans like sugary things (which led to talks of hypertension and diabetes), the meaning of our Malian names and traditions in America.


please note the accordion turkey at far left and fall-themed plates :)

As the half-moon rose and twinkling stars blinked above our open-air dessert, the paper cloth sent by a returned volunteer ceremoniously caught fire from a melting candle.  While the flames were quickly brought under control with the remains of water glasses I looked around and, in spite of the mini-blaze, smiled at our celebration.  From biking 60 miles to shopping for the Thanksgiving meal in the outdoor market to sharing leftovers the morning after, Guinea Fowl Trot and Treat 2009 brought the comforts of American tradition to Mali as we shared the best American holiday amongst Malians preparing for the most celebrated Muslim holiday.

our tablecloth in flames - don't worry, i waited till it was doused out to take a picture -the fire here is the candles still burning

see more pictures from the bike ride and Thanksgiving feast here

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Faux pas and fox paws

Christine likes to show a little tush when she struts her stuff :)

At a restaurant in San last week a man began speaking to me in between  his bites of greasy chicken and rice.  I peeled my attention away from the Switzerland-Nigeria World Cup finalizing match playing on the television to make out what he was saying.  I operate nearly entirely in Bambara which means even English starts to sound foreign. 

"I'm sorry," I say, wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt, "I ko di?" (What did you say?).  I watch his lips form the words again and realize I did not mishear - he indeed said "I am a Christmas." 

Gaffs often occur with a new language.  Embarrassed by the words that feel like marbles rolling around in your mouth it is easy to hold back and shyly abstain from answering questions if you don't know the right word at first.  Or, you can dive in and risk making a fool of yourself!  After my dinner with this man I began to comb my Malian memories for my own comic blunders.    Malians think toubabs are a little off their rockers before you even say hello which makes their quizzical expressions turned belly laughs that much harder to read when I mess up - they laugh at me no matter what I say!  Nonetheless, some laughs are more warranted than others and so I've put together a little montage of some of my favorite faux pas in Mali - enjoy!

The first two months of Peace Corps training in Mali are spent in a home-stay village near Bamako where trainees spend 6 hours a day 6 days a week in technical and language training.  In the evenings we would retreat to our respective host families to practice Bambara in the relative comfort of a family setting and (hopefully!) with patient hosts.  Needless to say your neurons are in overdrive as you learn the structure and idiosyncrasies of a new language while at the same time trying to wrap your head and body around all the cultural and physical adjustments.  As I set out on one of my first trips to the butigi (boutique) in Kabe, my home-stay village, I repeated what my host-mom, Korotime, had instructed me to buy: 'buru, den kelen, buru, den kelen' (bread, one piece) while navigating the inadvertent cornfield maze between our mud compound and the shop in the center of town.  But by the time I reached my destination all concentration has dissipated as women greeted me and kids chanted my new Malian name - Djelika - and I dodged herds of cows and goats returning from grazing.  Once in the store and after greeting the butigi owner I decided to resort to sign language and mumbling - this often gets you at least kind of what you are looking for.  'Boro, den kelen,' I said loudly, as I gestured to a sack stuffed with baguettes by the front door, hoping my higher volume would make up for my faltering pronunciation.  He looked at me and then proceeded to empty all the bread from the sack I was pointing to and hand me the empty bag.  'Malians!' I thought to myself, 'why don't they understand!?'  I repeated my request: 'Boro, den kelen' a little louder this time as I handed back the empty bag.  A look of understanding washed over the owner's face as he took back his bag and handed me a baguette.  He once again held up his empty bag and another baguette and said 'Boro' while lifting the bag and 'Buru' while lifting the bread.  Not picking up on the subtle nuance I told him that's what I said as I took my change and headed home, glad to be done with my errand.  Only later in class as we reviewed food vocabulary was I able to pick up on the not-so-subtle difference between the two words and laugh at myself for the misunderstanding :)

Yawning at my language mistakes :)

Transportation invites miscommunication wherever you are and no matter the language.  As Cassie and I emerged from the fray of the main market in Bamako this past summer I saw one of the pick-up trucks-turned-taxis, flat bed converted into seats by three rows of benches, pulling away and in the direction we needed to go.  'Cass,' I yelled as I juggled my bags and held my purse, 'that's our ride!'  We picked up speed and I yelled after the truck 'An b'a fe ka jigi!  An b'a fe ka jigi!!' making eye-contact with the prend-tigi (moneytaker).  The teenage boy handling the passenger's fare cocked his head to the side and then gave the cab of the truck an assertive thump indicating to the driver the passengers crammed in back were ready to go.  I cried after them once more but to no avail.  'Malians!' I muttered to Cassie as we absorbed back into the crowd to wait for another taxi.  Catching her breath, Cassie wondered aloud, 'doesn't jigi mean to get out of the taxi? I think 'yele' means to get on.'  I thought about it for a minute and then dissolved into giggles thinking if a Malian was in America chasing after a taxi yelling 'I want to get out of the taxi!  I want to get out of the taxi!' and then cursing unfriendly American taxi drivers for passing him by.  Cassie, at this point used to my giggling fits, shook her head and smiled as she pointed out another taxi heading the way we wanted to go.  We heaved our heavy bags onto the bed of the truck and hopped in choosing to communicate with our body language rather than actual words.

Little lollipop princess

Toubab status garners a lot of attention from both women and men - but especially men.  So it was on the defense that I responded to two guys in the first-class lounge on the river barge Cassie and I recently took from Gao to Mopti.  I overheard them say 'Toubabs' and then watched as they, unabashedly, swiveled in their chairs to get a better look and then turn back to their conversation.  'Malian men!' I huffed to Cassie as I turned my attention to the two seated on stools by the bar.  'I be kuma an fe wa?' I asked.  While I was sitting down had I been standing there definitely would have been a hand on my hip.  One of the men turned back around and laughed.  He explained that what I had just said was an invitation to speak with Cassie and I but that surely what I had meant to say was 'I be kuma an kan wa?' (are you talking about us rather than are you talking with us).  I couldn't help but chuckle along with him at my mistake.

Sitting at the restaurant last week, motos zooming by and 18-wheeler trucks blaring their horns, I reflected on my own language snafoos and was reminded  there is always something to learn - a year and a half in and I still make pretty embarrassing errors!  Turning to fully face my new dining companion I gently asked 'Do you mean to say Christian?' eyeing his 'Jesus has risen' print shirt.  He nodded emphatically, 'Yes, Christmas!' and turned back to his dinner.  At least the holiday isn't far around the corner!

Monday, November 9, 2009

When your arms get tired pulling water from the well...

Buy a Nafasoro pump!  A few weeks back I committed to something I had been thinking on for awhile.  I forked over 37,500 CFA (about $80) to buy a Nafasoro pump produced by the people at Kickstart
and sold throughout Mali at various shops.  The pump I purchased was made in Kenya and operates just like a bicycle pump and, once started, is just about as easy to operate.  With three people at it, one pumping, one watering and one on hand to relieve tiredness, it is a lot faster and can cover more land than watering by hand from well bags.

The longer I am in Mali the more I realize that for anything to succeed here it needs to be in terms of business and profit.  Kickstart seeks to combine fighting poverty with business sense.  They understand that people respond to investment and not hand outs.  That for development to work there needs to be a sense of ownership on the part of the village or person on the receiving end of that development.  I have been curious how the pumps actually work (there are signs for them all over, see below) and so said what the heck, there are worse ways to spend $80.

A sign in San outside one of the shops that sells Nafasoro pumps (there are step ones that operate like a stairmaster = you look real goofy in your garden but have great thighs and a pump one which works just like a bike pump = you look a little goofy in your garden but have great arms). 

I'm pretending I'm in America here and that the hose is attached to a faucet...what you don't see is someone sweating at the well!  There's a handy attachment that makes the water come out like a spray hose which is great because the pressure from pumping means the water comes out hard and would probably uproot the plant if applied directly.

Annette, Nicole and Kim (working for and doing research with Cornell) came to visit my site to see what it is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali actually does... I had a great time sharing with them my home away from home and using my Nafasoro pump for the first time.  Thanks for the pictures and the visit ladies!

Here I am sweating away at the pump and hoping someone will come up real soon and ask if they can try.... : )

Cassie came to visit and helped water the okra and hibiscus plants.  She was a top-notch waterer and her gardening skills are sorely missed since she had to return to site...

My complete verdict is still out on the Nafasoro pump (Nafasoro means, roughly, "to find a lot!" as in, to find a lot of profit and fruits and veggies).  The pump has proven to be frustrating if the tubes aren't tied properly on but with a little patience it gets to working in no time.  It is ideal for a gardening association but not just for one person.  I'm glad folks are getting a chance to see how it works in my village and though the cost is prohibitive for a family unit (while relatively low, still out of reach for a Malian family) perhaps people will want to band together and purchase one as an association. 

Here's a video taken in my garden by the one and only Cassady Walters - thanks Cassie!

See more pictures from Cassie's visit and the shea nut selling session I talked about a few entries back here

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Gao now brown cow!

Ready for travel in San and then at a potty break on the way to Gao

This past week Cassie and I packed our bags and hopped on a bus to visit Gao which is a city far in the north of Mali uniquely situated on both the Niger river and the frontier of the Sahara desert.  Soon after arriving we realize there is not much to see or do in the city aside from visiting what turns out to be a disappointing artisan market and climbing a sand dune and so we decide to make our visit a short one.  Docked outside our hotel is a large passenger boat bound for Mopti and it leaves the afternoon after we arrive.  Cassie and I book two one-way tickets on the luxury(esque) liner and a little more than 24 hours after arriving bid farewell to Gao and say hello to the Niger river.

Cassie and I paid 3,000 CFA to tent on the roof of this hotel but they ended up providing us with mattresses and mosquito nets. 

The Rose Dunes are comparable (from my mid-Atlantic point of view) to Jockey’s Ridge in Nags Head, NC except they are on the Niger river and part of the Sahara desert. 

The bus ride to Gao from San takes 16 hours (if you make good time) with potty breaks in the bushes and limited selections of street-side snacks. The river barge, on the other hand, promises three meals a day, bunk beds for somewhat comfortable sleeping and latrines (if not hygienic at least private).  We opt for third-class tickets at the modest sum of 42,000 CFA per person (about $85) which for a 5 day 4 night cruise on the Niger river gets you what you pay for.  The room (or, since Cassie thinks I am being a little generous, the holding cell) comes equipped with four bunk beds which we share with another girl, Fatumata, the first night and the last night with cousins going to Bamako to sign up for university.  Situated behind the hull of the ship we enjoy not only the lulling melody of lapping waves as we snuggle in our bunk beds but also the bleating of livestock since the front of the ship doubles as a pen for goats, donkeys and cows bound for market in Mopti or Koulikoro. 

The other third-class passengers :)

First and second-class passengers (tickets ranging from 71,000-101,000 CFA) are a mix of policemen and army personnel along with students heading back to Bamako for classes.  The least expensive ticket runs for 9,000 CFA (about $18) and guarantees you a spot in the cargo space. Owners of this ticket are either Malian families traveling on the river because it is expensive or difficult to access their village by land or hippy travelers with Therma-rest mats who find it romantic to sleep under the stars on a riverboat (which it is!).  Another class of ticket owners are entrepreneurial women traveling up and down the river for the market it provides.  At each stop the women, baskets balanced precariously on their heads, carefully maneuver the drawbridge off the boat and set up their wares on the cobblestones, sandy dunes or dirt paths that make up the various ports.  They sell goods brought to Gao by bus while the captain loads and unloads passengers and other goods from non-descript villages and boat stops along the river.  Bananas, limes, plantains and dried tea leaves – the women bring fresh produce and goods to remote villages along the Niger while residents of the remote villages make a reverse exodus onto our boat hawking flat bread, fried cakes and dried pieces of tough desert animal cheese to those of us unwilling (or unable) to get off the barge. 

After breakfast each morning (sugar water with some milk and bread) Cassie and I move to the upper deck and alternate from starboard to port depending on the sun with our plastic mat, sunglasses and reading material in tow.  As third-class ticket holders we take all our meals, which are announced by a bell, in our cabin.  After retreating to our corner of the ship to eat lunch (rice and sauce) we reclaim our places on the top deck and continue to watch the riverscape slowly change from the sandy dunes of the North to tawny dirt with shrubs and, finally, endless marshes dotted with mud homes as we approach the Mopti region.  The dinner bell, promising pasta or potatoes, rings a little after sunset and we collect our things and retire for the day.  As we pass the kitchen on the way to our room we carefully navigate a path between market women (whose meals are not included in their ticket price) and their pots of first-class quality food tended over tiny charcoal-fire stoves.  Seasoned river travelers – these ladies have the trip down to a science.  In between ports they prepare their goods to sell, braid one another’s hair and keep someone stirring the pots so their meals are ready once they re-board.  By day two on Voyage of the Mali most of the women and almost all of the boat staff know our (Malian) names and call out to us teasing that we are not tending our own fires or that we are women traveling without men and would our husbands in America mind if we took a Malian husband on our boat trip? 

When Cassie and I tire of our books or magazine articles we turn to one another and talk about what we are reading or thoughts on our hearts or minds.  If we do not have anything to say we simply sit and watch the river pass us by. The boat chugs along at about 10 km per hour which allows us ample time to enjoy the birds swooping in and out of rice patties and even catch four hippo heads (complete with cute twitching ears!) sticking out of the water near one marsh.  At night our roommates keep us giggling as they urge us to sing songs from America or do our makeup as though we are Malian (not exactly attractive on our skin tone but fun nonetheless).

On our last day heavy rains and cold winds keep most of the passengers and crew bundled in their rooms.  Cassie finishes a book in the upper deck lounge room and I stand in a sheltered corner of the balcony just outside.  I scan the river as I have done nearly 8 hours every day each of the past 5 days and catch a glimpse of something in the distance.  I call to Cassie and she runs out of the cabin and we stand, huddled together under an iron awning with rain pouring down in sheets, and watch together as a hippo sticks its entire head out of the water.  I give Cassie a squeeze as I squeal in delight – we may not have first-class tickets but Mali continues to provide first-class experiences.  

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

It's not easy being green (or is it??)

The women's association (plus me!) in the village next door to mine at the formation in July

Here's a photo series of the process of shea nut work from nut to butter:

(left to right) Shea nuts on a solar dryer, Shea nuts ground up and finally, whipping the paste into butter

Money is cold, impersonal and prompts a fatiguing internal dialogue for many.  How much do I make?  How much do I spend?  How much can I save?  As an environment volunteer in Mali I expected that internal dialogue to quiet down a little bit as I began to live "green" and think largely in terms of gardens, compost piles and increased seed yields and that has proved, in part, to be true.  Throughout my training in Mali (we have spent close to 4 months of our 14 months in-country in technical and language training) we have learned methods to improve the environment through Sahel-specific tree planting, to improve nutrition through moringa tree formations and to improve soil quality and plant yield through urine fertilizer.  And yet, as much as the focus remains on all things environmental, my thoughts keep turning to the green that does not grow on trees - money.  How do Malians make money?  On what do they spend it?  How can they make more to better provide for their families? 

Before coming to Mali I thought I would throw myself into whatever work I was assigned with only the thought of helping people in mind.  However, "helping people" has proved a difficult concept to not only justify my being here but also to quantify for others and myself.  The longer I am in Mali the easier it gets to talk about planting trees in order to improve air quality and the amount of water in wells and that improving shea butter means less toxins in your food and, potentially, more money in your pocket.  Yet even as my Bambara improves words can still get fumbled and at times it seems actions are not quite so loud.  However, there is still one language that needs no translation - money.  Number crunching and cost analysis are games I play with myself to justify my own purchases but it feels a lot better to be able to put that to good use and show that work like starting a tree nursery and selling the saplings does not only help the environment - it can help make you money; that using urine fertilizer not only speeds up the growing time (organically) of your banana tree - it also increases the yield leaving more bananas to sell or consume; that drying your shea nuts with the sun rather than tossing them in water-filled pits yields not only a higher quality of butter - it also yields a higher quantity which means consuming less carcinogens from rotted or smoked fruit and also a little extra butter to sell. 

Within each of our sectors in Peace Corps we have specific goals beyond the cultural and into the technical aspects of our work.  One of the environment sector objectives is to improve the commercialization of non-timber forest products (timber forest products meaning wood which is cut and then collected to sell as fuel.  This is not only costly in terms of the environment, expediting desertification, but also time - women and men exert a lot of effort bundling sticks and then transporting it in precariously stacked horse carts into their market towns which can be up to 20 miles away).  In July I coordinated with a shea nut and butter buyer, Sara, in San to come out to the village 2 kilometers from mine to do a formation on improved shea nut collection techniques as well as how to whip the ground shea nuts into butter.  The day after the formation when I biked in to greet some of the women a handful of them proudly showed me they had already begun to adopt the practices.  That felt huge!  Could this one formation really make a difference in the lives of these women?  Would the properly stored nuts garner a higher price when it came time to sell them in October?  Fast forward to this past week to find out!

Cassie and I biked to Dah (the village) around 9 a.m. to wait for Sara's younger brother, Jean, to come and see if the nuts were up to par.  I was nervous because not only was this meeting the culmination of all our shea formation efforts but Cassie was also there to witness it (success or failure, stay tuned!).   Would enough women show to sell?  Would their nuts be up to this buyer's standard?  Despite being a few hours late by my clock, Jean eventually showed up and so did the women.  I expected a handful of women to come with a few baskets of shea nuts each.  Instead, 12 women came out of the woodwork with 626 kilos of nuts between them!  (1,380 pounds for all of you out there operating on the Imperial system like me :)  Jean, impressed with the quality of nuts, called his sister and confirmed that they could buy all the nuts at 150 CFA/kilo (Annie, my host mom, said "bad" nuts sold for 75-100 CFA/kilo last year - a marked improvement - "good" nuts are definitely worth the extra effort!)  At 150 CFA/kilo the women received 93,300 CFA among them (about $204).  As an association (of which there are about 40 members) the women paid 10,000 CFA to join Sara's shea cooperative allowing them access to a higher price, continued shea formations and also help them to formalize their association with papers from San (called a "recipisse" here). 

Korotime Sogoba's good shea nuts dried in the sun and Jean weighing the shea nuts with Kadia

Two of the three overarching goals of Peace Corps involve sharing culturally and on that front I feel fulfilled.  Malians love hearing about America and I spend about 3/4 of each waking hour learning about Mali.  The third goal, technical exchange, is arguably the most important to the American desire for quantifiable results and on that front I have only recently begun to feel satisfied.  "Helping people," instead of being an abstract humanitarian concept, has become real to me through days like these where I see money changing hands.  When I see women pocketing cash they can spend on their families.  When improved environmental practices prove to be worth that extra effort.  With money coming into the villages where I live and work as a result of improved environmental efforts living "green" has never felt so good! 

Friday, October 9, 2009

Dooni, Dooni (little by little)

Life here continues to uncover lessons to me about people and relationships as well as development and foreign aid in one of the poorest countries in the world.  In spite of all I've been taught about urine fertilizer, moringa trees, composting and gardening it sometimes feels like the greatest lessons I am learning are the ones about myself.  As other volunteers often discuss, I think patience is the largest obstacle I have had to conquer and I thought I was pretty patient before I got here!

Sunsets like these make even tough days feel OK

Malians are relentless jokesters and every time I talk with a man or woman they tease me non-stop with bean jokes, offers of marriage to their [insert male relative] and when I say that I have lived here a year and I have one more to go, they scoff at the short time and say, “Mali ma di wa?”- do you not like Mali?  It can get pretty tiring, especially when you’re having not-so-hot days, to grit your teeth, put on a smile and patiently say no, I don’t eat beans, no, I'm not interested in this random male relative and no, I do like Mali.  I think how I may be the only American this person ever meets or at least has a longer than head nod conversation with and so, even though I have had this same conversation at least 5 times already today, I try and make a good impression and not lose my cool (spread that American love, right?)  The last question about not liking Mali because I’m only here two years really gets under my skin.  I think how when you tell someone in America you’re doing anything for two years they look at you like it’s an eternity.   So when folks here tell me I don’t like Mali because I won’t accept their older brother/widowed father/toddler son as a husband or since apparently I am here for a two-week stint instead of two years I patiently explain that while I love Mali, it is not my home.  That while I love speaking Bambara, meeting Malians and my little mud hut, I will never be 100% at ease here.  I will never be able to walk down a street without some kid yelling out “Toubabu musoni!” (Foreign girl!) I will never be able to stop comparing life here to life as I know it in America.  I will never be able to stop missing, even if it is just a little bit, the comforts and familiarity of my real home. 

Annie's Dad Lamine - one man I don't mind spending a lot of time with!

Life here continues to open wide my green eyes to a new (to me) culture, a new (to me) way of living and a new (to me) language.  And even though the repetition of jokes, marriage proposals and doubting of my commitment to Mali can wear me down and make me want to avoid eye contact rather than have the same conversation one more time all it takes is one person to compliment my Bambara or to tell me I look like a"Bamana muso"(a Malian woman) in my outfit to lift my spirits and say, you know what, I may not ever feel completely at ease here but with a smile and a little patience, it sure comes close.   

Friday, October 2, 2009

Give or gain?

Cassie, Esther and I sit on plastic lawn chairs as light spills out of the radio studio and Malian music pours out of the speakers. I begin to wonder when our radio show will begin and as if the DJ can read my mind, he starts playing a country song and Cassie says that’s our cue. We do-si-do our way inside, settle into our seats and adjust the microphones. On the other side of the glass the DJ rocks his head to the familiar twang, large headphones cocked to the side. He gradually lowers the volume, gives us a thumbs-up and a head nod to let us know we are on air in Mali.

 a griot from Cassie's village sings the praises of their mayor and village

For the end of Ramadan and Malian Independence Day Esther, another San volunteer, and I both made the trek to Cassie’s site to celebrate with her predominately Muslim village (Esther and I are with Christian host families). Cassie is a health volunteer who does a weekly radio show on various health topics and when visitors come to see her she makes a point to introduce them on the radio with their own show. The radio is a past project of business Peace Corps volunteers that came before and even though Cassie is “assigned” to work at the local clinic, she continues to work with the radio and former counterpart, Adama, of the Peace Corps volunteers she replaced. For tonight’s show Cassie and I have prepared a lively Bambara script on the importance of washing your hands with soap. The dialogue is short and peppered with giggles and line-forgetting-pauses but Adama comes in after we are done and quickly recaps our message just in case folks didn’t catch every word. We all greet our respective villages and families and then Adama asks us to sing a song from our villages. Cassie pulls out a piece of paper with the words to a song about the harvest she has learned from a friend in village. Esther has a song written down about bean cakes she learned in her Bomu village (Bomu is one of the 12 ethnicities in Mali, Bambara people are the majority). I have yet to learn a song and so Adama encourages me to sing a song from my “dugu yere yere”, my real village in America, and I choose an excerpt from my favorite lullaby from my mom about the moon and how even when you are far from the ones you love, even over the ocean, the moon still sees them and sends them your love. We wrap up our songs and greetings and Adama scoops in, takes up one of the microphones and with a radio voice announces the end of our show with blessings for a peaceful night. The DJ cues a song from Olivia Newton John’s Physical album and we exit the studio to go home for dinner and tea.

Posing in Cassie's compound (me, Cassie and Esther pictured)

Throughout our long weekend the people of Cassie’s village extended warm hands of welcome from around every mud wall and millet-stalk-covered hangar. Her numerous friends and host families kept a steady stream of heaping bowls of rice, meat, pasta and porridge streaming into the compound she shares with Banta, a widowed older woman who lives on her own and supports herself selling peanut butter cookies in town. As food arrives during the day and at dusk we peek under the covers and cheer for the tastiest dishes like zame, a rice dish made with hot peppers, oil and tasty spices. We wash our hands and then pull our stools around the communal bowl to dig in. Cassie and Esther are pros at eating with their hands. Cassie fully embraces the sticking of your hand in your mouth and Esther has experience from eating Indian food with her family. I, on the other hand, have yet to master the technique and frequently find myself throwing more rice onto my lap than into my mouth. Banta finishes first tonight and rises from her lounge chair, satisfied hands raised up and says “Ca c’est bien ca, Banta Traoure, champion!” and then goes into her hut to get her flashlight and radio as we giggle and continue to scoop rice into our mouths.

 Banta and me after Banta went to the mosque to pray

The next morning brings the first day of breaking the fast of Ramadan. After our breakfast with Banta we don our complets and troop over to the Dao family compound to eat with all the Daos of Cassie’s village. Last names are a big deal in Mali and the Daos are the Kennedy equivalent in Cassie’s village. Greetings and blessings spill from everyone’s mouths along with praises of our radio show and the songs we sang.

The big wigs of the village with their drums and fancy clothes

The last day of Ramadan this year, September 22, was also Malian Independence Day. After the Dao family breakfast we make our way to the paved road, giving and receiving blessings along the way that God will see us through another year together, and join Cassie’s host father, Lamine, along with the chief of the village, before heading over to the ceremony. The men and women are all wearing their nicest and newest clothes. Yards of fabric with embroidery and lace flowing through the streets of the village, djembe drums setting the tempo and motorcycles speeding dangerously close as they dart in between pedestrians. We let ourselves, the toubabs, fall to the back of the village parade and enjoy the view from behind as we try not to impose on the celebration. There is always a precarious balance (as a toubab) to strike here of participating in festivities and celebrations and not being the center of them. The Independence day parade enters the sous-prefet’s compound and we all shake his hand before Maffa, one of the mayor’s counselors, ushers us to our seats beneath a hangar under the shade of a tree. The irony of our presence does not escape us. Maffa’s voice crackles through multiple microphones about the importance of today. He talks about how 49 years ago Malians took control of their government and sent the French back home and then, in practically the same breath, he warmly welcomes “les cheres volontaires du corps de la paix.” We greet the crowd of children and respected elders and quickly deliver our prepared thoughts before taking our seats once again and enjoy watching instead of being watched. The event is well-organized and demonstrates the strong leadership present in Cassie’s village. Surrounding villages perform dances and youth groups sing the Malian national anthem.

 No one on the corner has swagger like Cassie's village: the mayor, sous prefet and Moustaffa

Tired from the heat of the day and full from a delicious rice lunch we leave the ceremony, greet family we missed earlier in the day, and then make it home in time to take our bucket baths as dusk falls heavily around us. The last night in Cassie’s village it is just Cassie and me; Esther returned home to celebrate Independence Day with her village (mine didn’t celebrate). We pretend to eat dinner with Banta but after a few bites retire to Cassie’s hut for girl talk. In the distance there is a radio playing and as we eat lemon drops and dried fruit from Cassie’s care packages, I realize how much I miss conversations like this. Fluid, mother-tongue conversation that covers a breadth and depth of topics unattainable in Bambara. From relationships and parents to development, our work here in Mali and post-Peace Corps life (the big question mark!) we discuss our work at site, our successes, our frustrations, our joys and our sorrows.

Sucking on our lemon drops as we let the silence between our thoughts do the talking I think about a conversation I had with one of the men in my village, Daniya, the week prior. He asked me why I had come to Mali and I explained I wanted to live in another culture, travel and do some good if I could. He shook his head and asked how I could leave America with all its good food, big houses and easy living to come here. He said, “Djelika, you’re giving up so much.” As I sat in Cassie’s hut, the sliver of moon and a votive candle leaving us in amber shadows, the generosity and fun of my visit to Cassie’s village fresh in my thoughts, I can only think of all I am gaining.

More pictures from our visit here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Women's rights in Mali

I am currently in a dry-spell for blog topics (suggestions welcome via comments or email!) and am also much less well-versed in Malian current events and so will take this opportunity to reference the wonderful blog of my dear friend Cassie Walters, another volunteer from the San region, who wrote an incredible entry about the most recent women's rights bill in Mali.  Did I use enough positive adjectives in that sentence?  You really should check her entry out if you're interested in women's rights and womens' role in Malian society.  Until next time!
It almost seems sacrilegious not to put a cute pic of Christine in a post if I have one.  Here she is in her fave pair of hot pants and her sassy little pose. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Let's Dance!

The rains are here and the crops are steadily growing along with the anticipation of harvest in a month or two.  Corn, millet, beans, sorghum and rice fields rippling out from the center of villages as far as people can walk or bike to farm.  August and September are known as the “hungry” season in Mali; the time when family granaries are emptying from last year before the harvest of the present one.  And so, although the farmers must be at their best to weed their fields, they are at their hungriest because there is less millet and, as the laws of supply and demand guide with their invisible hands, millet is also at its most expensive.  It is also the middle of Ramadan, which for Muslim Malians means a month of fasting, but for the Christians in my village it’s just a month where you eat less and don’t have a religious reason. 

Kalifa with a test plot of ameliorated seeds from Bamako.

Nonetheless, Malians, like (dare I make a gross generalization?!?) everyone, everywhere, love any reason to party.  (Please comment if you feel differently, and hey, even if you don’t!)  Late night celebrations are springing up throughout village, the sound of drums pulling the young and young at heart from their straw and plastic mats to play cards, drink tea and of course, dance.  Believe it or not, I often resist the temptation to roll out of bed at 1 a.m. to dance in a miniature dust bowl with teenage boys and young guys preening for the ladies.  “But how, Jennifer?”, I am sure you are asking yourself right now.  Well, it’s nothing personal.  Teenage boys are cool and young guys aren’t so bad either.  But I tell you, 1 a.m. is no time to start a dance party and so, aside from big celebrations, I often politely decline the drums’ invitation to come and dance.

Publish Post

 Christine likes to ham it up for the camera and Annie is knitting in the background.

But one night this past week, Annie, nodding off in her plastic string chair, knitting needles poised at the ready in her tired hands and Christine snuggled up in the crook of her arms, I decide I have the energy for a late night party and so quietly slip away and venture into the darkness that envelopes the village each day at sundown.  I follow my headlamp into the maze of crumbling mud walls, side-stepping cow pies and braying donkeys to find the source of the thumping beats and laughing voices.  This particular party was thrown by the “kamaleh” (young guy) association.  They pool their physical and fiscal resources together each year to farm fields outside those of their families; they divvy up the proceeds but also put them towards parties to rent a car battery for little strip lights and to buy tea and sugar (alcohol is reserved for cute old men who wear leather satchels and are missing most of their teeth – the homebrew association is the one who made my fence this past June). 


As I turn the bend into the party area I not only side-step mud puddles of questionable content but also young couples sneaking away from the party for a tete-a-tete.  The fete was held in a clearing where, during the day, kids can be found making mud castles and women pounding millet into the fine flour that is the base of all their meals.  But tonight the area has been transformed with desks and tables dragged from neighboring huts and mortars and pestles rolled to the side.  By the time I arrive, the kamalehs and bogotigis (young women) are absorbed in their card games set up around the dance floor and barely notice the toubab with muddy feet.  I sit down at one of the desks and start tapping my feet to the wailing voices pulsing out of the stereo still in its Styrofoam protective blocks and perched precariously between two desks pushed together for a makeshift DJ table.  Ipods, vinyls and scratch boards are missing from this dance party and are instead replaced with an old cardboard box filled with tapes.  Also, instead of a DJ with a rock-star lip ring and headphones cocked to the side, there is a guy who reaches over from his card game, dips his hand into the box of tapes and puts one in the tape deck before throwing down a spade to win the game.  I am not a music connoisseur and do not claim to be.  I also know shamefully little about popular Malian musicians like Ali Farka Toure and Isa Barayago,  But the music that plays at these parties is not those musicians (I know that much!) and to be honest, it all sounds pretty much the same.  The voices are shrill and, to my American ears, sound a bit whiny, but the kids here love to boogie and far be it for some wonky music (in my opinion) to prevent feet that want to dance! 


Two little girls who live near me sashay over to where I am sitting next to two tuckered out boys who are slumped over one another and taking a party nap (pre-party naps key to the success of any party but I usually like to take them before coming to the actual party…).  “Wuli, Djelika!”, they command, their cuteness turning into little girl ‘tudes as they implore me to join them on the dance floor.  I’m not really feeling the song (you know, the one that sounds just like the one that played before it and the one that will play after) but surprise of all surprises, the DJ puts in a tape with a reggae beat that I can actually shake my toubab hips to and I follow my neighbors out to dance.  Some of the kamalehs and bogotigis look up from their game and tease me for dancing, “Djelika, you’re going to dance?”, they holler and dissolve into giggles before shaking their heads and turning back to their cards. 


The floor is divided invisibly between young guys showing off their fancy dance skills, pre-teen boys right next to them imitating their older counterparts in style and footwork and then finally the pre-teen girls (and me) giggling at the outer reaches of the dance floor, furthest from the stereo and the spread of the lights.  Dancing in the near shadows, the girls teach me their dance moves and laugh as I imitate them while the peacocks near the stereo show off for the older girls bordering the dance floor, who try (and do a good job of it!) to look uninterested and unimpressed.  The girls are beautiful; their dancing is subtle and more for their own enjoyment rather than to garner the attention of others.  The boys on the other hand are dancing with moves so erratic and choppy I find myself catching my breath as they throw their legs around like they are disconnected from the rest of their body, keeping time to a rhythm I cannot seem to hear. 


Then, just as I make my debut, the girls decide it is time to pull away and take a break.  They funnel out and like at a middle school dance gone wrong, I find myself the only girl on the dance floor just getting into my groove.  I keep dancing as my neighbors, once so eager to get me to dance, are now just as eager to get me out. 


“I be se ka sigi sisan Djelika,” they say.  You can sit down now Djelika.  I laugh and, not wanting to embarrass them any more, retreat with them into the outer circle where we become the spectators.  The girls forget I am there and turn to one another for little girl conversations.  I look around and, as quietly as I slipped in, decide to quietly slip away.  I murmur my goodbyes and retrace my muddy steps back to Annie, still fast asleep next to her kerosene lamp, hands still ready to knit. After giving her and Christine goodnight kisses on the cheek, I crawl into my own bed for my post-party nap before waking up to raindrops splashing outside and another day of muddy field and garden work.  

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