Sunday, May 31, 2009

Let's baroke! (let's talk!)

Me and baby Christine in my most recent knitting creation.
Communication and community are the centerpieces of my life here in Mali. Everyday I work to navigate my way through Malian culture and chores using Bambara while striving to be connected to the village in which I live by being apart of ceremonies and getting to know my neighbors by compound hopping and peeking in on gardens. The heat and tight-knit nature of the people here mean that a lot of time is spent outside. Relaxing under a shaded hangar, drinking tea, applying fertilizer to the fields in preparation for farming season, pounding millet for the day's meals, washing clothes - everything is done together and it's this sense of community that I revel in and try to transfer to my own relationships with other American Peace Corps volunteers and my sweet family and friends back home.

After almost a year here, it's just in the past few weeks/month that I'm starting to feel not only a part of the community but that my presence at village events and ceremonies isn't a novelty - it's expected. This past week brought the deaths of two older men in village and funerals here, like in the states, mean a coming together of loved ones of the deceased. The difference here is that every single person in the village is considered a close family friend and therefore comes to the funeral to pay their respects to the grieving family as soon as they find out. The night of the death, all the women bring their mats to the family's compound and set up to have a sleepover of sorts as well as to dance and sing in honor of the dead. Talk about a true celebration of life. Annie and I headed over to the compound this past week around 10 p.m. and set up our mat with Aminata, Annie's sister-in-law and Marte, our neighbor. With their babies nestled us and fast asleep we settled down for the night as other women set up the generator, microphone and lights for an evening of celebration. While the attitude of the women was somber and tear-filled during the day, the night was filled with laughter and women lining up to dance. When I woke up at 5 a.m. Annie was sitting up next to me, knitting away and unable to sleep with the women's singing and loud dancing. Baby Christine's arm was sticking straight out into my face and her little leg kicked in my direction as I rolled over to see the sun rise on our sleepover.

Here you can see the little booties
As farming season gets ready to kick off again and Peace Corps Mali gears up to welcome another group of volunteers (including another UMW grad - Jeremy Jordan!) I'll continue to work hard to be aware of my surroundings and live in the present as I continue to learn about Mali and all the nuances that make up this rich culture.
Also, can hardly contain myself that in only 6 days Marija will be here! Wedding season is upon us (in Mali as in America) and one of the first things Marija and I will do together is go to my village's wedding party, pictures to follow!

eggplants and bubbles, is there a better combination? Thank you Heather for the bubbles and Mrs. Shellnutt for my oh-so-cool organic gray t-shirt
Pictures for the previous blog post - the internet was being slow and wouldn't post them so here they are!

Shea butter- whipping the mix

this is what ground shea nuts look like

Cooking lunch for 40 women isn't easy! here's rice and sauce

Shea nuts on our homemade solar dryer

Monday, May 18, 2009

I've got to admit it's getting better...shea butter that is!

I picked Umu up at the bus station at 3:30 - only a couple hours behind schedule since her bus broke down on the way from Bamako. We found a boy with a push cart to load her bag and rice sack filled with shea nuts and headed over to the taxi area to catch a van to meet Esayi who was waiting on his moto to take Umu back to Zana (I followed on my bike which was safely secured, sort of, onto the roof of the car). Once enough people had reserved all the seats in the van about 8 men threw their weight into the back of the 10 seater van (comfortably filled with 20 people) to kick start the alternator (I'm assuming). Once the engine caught, the driver threw the van into reverse and and we scrambled to get our seats before the car decided it didn't want to run anymore. We sputtered and jerked through a flash rain and wind storm to get to a village on the paved road about 5 miles from Zana where we unloaded our bags and I proceeded to huff and puff on my bike behind Umu and Esayi to get to Zana. A project proposal was approved to buy food for the shea butter formation the money for which I had given Annie before I left for Guinea. Once I arrived, Annie showed me the itemized list with all the purchases she and Esayi made for the formation and how much each item cost. We settled in our formatrice, Umu, who travels around Mali during the hot season doing formations on improved shea butter practices and how to start associations and shared a hot meal before collapsing under our mosquito nets and going to bed. Umu and I got up early Wednesday morning to prepare for the formation. Annie and Baissata, the head of the informal women's association, invited 10 women from each quartier in Zana (there are 4) and 10 extra women to cook the lunch. Esayi and Bachary set up extra desks from the school under the shade of mango trees by the village bank and a chalkboard for talking points. About 6 women pound millet in this area each day and since the mortars in which they pound the grain are so heavy and shade is at a premium, we had a nice rhythm of thump thump thump throughout the formation. By 10:00 a.m. only about 20 women had showed up. Annie was acting nervous and called me over to help pound some millet and shared her concern that no one else was going to show despite her repeated instructions to the women about when and where to show up. She said, Djelika, I'm going to cry! If these women don't want to learn new things, so be it! Annie doesn't normally have a flair for the dramatic so I panicked a little but tried to hide my concern and calm her down by saying that surely the women would show. Sure enough, by 10:15 most of the women had come, though 2 hours later than expected. Umu expressed her dissatisfaction with the women's tardiness and set a ground rule that if they were late again tomorrow each person who came after the start of her formation would have to pay 50 cfa (about 10 cents). However, once Umu got rolling talking about why shea work is important, how proper collection of shea nuts leads to the creation of good shea butter and why it's important to preserve shea trees, the women were all ears. I kept notes during the formation and marked names when women spoke out of turn (another finable offense of 50 cfa). It was pretty funny how the women would hold one another accountable and point out to Umu women who were nodding off or speaking without raising their hand. It's pretty incredible to see women sitting and learning something when they've never had the opportunity for formal education. I hope that their children, especially their daughters, see them learning and say, yeah, me too! I want to learn! I couldn't help but beam at Annie who did an incredible job orchestrating the formation. Ever tried making rice and sauce for over 40 hungry women in pots the size of mini-bathtubs over wood? Me either, but I know it's not easy but no big deal for Annie!
Day one taught us about associations and how Together Everyone Achieves More (doesn't exactly translate in Bambara into such a clean acronym - Nogon Fe An Be Barra Caman Were Ke!) and that pooling our resources (namely, labor) you can get some pretty good butter our of those shea trees. Day two of the formation consisted of taking the ground up shea nuts Umu brought from Bamako and whipping them into a paste similar to the consistency of marshmellow fluff (yum!). It took about 30 minutes to hand whip the 20 kilos of shea nuts and we then put the mixture into a big pot to separate the oil from the residue. This took awhile and Umu used the opportunity to re-emphasize the importance of cleanliness and that all the pots and bowls used were cleaned with soap and water, hands washed similarly and hair wrapped up and sleeves pushed back. Annie had seen this method of shea butter extraction twice: Once with Tamara, the volunteer I replaced, and then again with me this past January at our training in Bamako. The other women usually just boil the shea mixture they get once they grind the shea nuts without whipping it and once they saw the oil that came out of just a few minutes of whipping (per woman) and then boiled they were truly amazed and kept coming up to me saying, i ni baara! (Good work!) An nenya kosebe! (Really cool!). At the end of the formation, Umu spoke to all the women to encourage them to pursue this technique (it's not as radical as I'm maybe making it out to be but education is all about repetition, right?). Then Annie got up and made my heart swell a little. She's such a beautiful woman who works tirelessly to provide for her family but also for her village. She told the women how she'd wanted them to see this technique since she and Tamara had seen it first together in Bamako and now that they finally had, how excited she is to move forward and start an association. She told the women how at the beginning of the formation she wanted to cry but now she was happy again and proud of the work they did.
In the end, Umu collected 1,000 cfa (hey, that's kind of a lot!) in late fees from the women so we were able to buy candy at the end for everyone to enjoy. As rainy season fast approaches (thank goodness, the heat is getting oppressive!) and shea work will begin again, I'm crossing my fingers the women will keep Umu's formation tucked in the back of their minds when collecting shea nuts and processing their butter so they can increase the quality and yields of their work thus providing more and better butter for their family and potentially, an outside market.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A trip to Guinea and Sierra Leone

Seeing the sites of Guinea and Sierra Leone on a recent vacation with fellow volunteers Joe, Ashley and Cassie - River #1 & #2, Banana Island, both capital cities Freetown and Conakry, the Fouta of Guinea opened my eyes to the raw beauty in West Africa and also how from one country to the next life can be so different. It's easy to lump regions together from a distance and even from within Mali I thought things wouldn't be much different in Guinea or Sierra Leone but I was in for a wake-up call! Sporadic running water and electricity in Conakry, the capital of Guinea and a bustling Freetown with big buildings and colonial architecture still intact drew stark contrasts to Bamako where there's almost always electricity/street lights and running water in hotels.
It was worth spending over 30 hours in a tightly packed car with red dirt coating our entire bodies and bags to get to the beach in Freetown, Sierra Leone and then spend 5 days on the beach, turn around and head back to Mali through Guinea, stopping in the Fouta Djallon for hiking and site-seeing.

I'll let the pictures speak for me because words are failing and no matter how hard I try to describe what I saw, it can't come through!

the Fouta Djallon in Guinea

Tokeh Beach near Freetown, Sierra Leone

Banana Island, Sierra Leone

River #1, Sierra Leone

Our taxi from Bamako, Mali to Kankan, Guinea. We were celebrating making it through all the border check points.

See more pictures here :)
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