Saturday, July 25, 2009

FIFA finds a fan in me!

Last month, Mali, a serious contender for the March 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, welcomed Benin to their soccer stadium in the capital for a World Cup finalizing match. Soccer borders on religion for many in West Africa and with the World Cup in South Africa less than a year away the soccer mania in Mali is reaching fever pitch.

I met with three other volunteers at a restaurant in the afternoon to take a taxi over to the stadium. We were in varying degrees of support for our team – Antony and Kate in Mali soccer jerseys, me in my Barack Obama dress and Mali cap and Natalie representing for the casual Bohemians of America in jeans and a black tank. The cab driver insisted on driving us straight into the mob of people lined up outside the stadium, dropping us off as close to the entrance as possible. Once we were able to get our doors open against the pressing mob, we fought our way to the back and absorbed into the long, militant line of people trailing out and around the stadium. We weaved in and out of cake sellers and children hawking cool drinks in plastic tubs. People were offering to let us cut in line which I took to be an extremism of Malian generosity but later learned to be a line cutting scheme. For a mere 1,000 CFA (about $2) I could cut almost the entire mob of people behind me. As I lingered for a moment by one of the welcoming schemers, Kate grabbed my arm and pulled me to the back of the line. Seeing the intensity with which the people towards the back took the line, I agreed with Kate and decided it was not worth saving a few minutes only to face the angry mob once inside the stadium. Malians would throw a fit immediately if someone did cut and threaten to turn the wrong-doers into the police waiting in complete raid gear at the front of the line.
Posing with one of the police men - the flash makes him look like a wax model but he was real!

Stories of the Ivory Coast finalizing match game where 22 people died in a stampede and 130 people were left injured made me think twice about going to the Mali-Benin game. I reasoned that I would stay far from stampede-like situations and hold hands crossing the street like my Mom always says ☺. I also banked on the love of Barack Obama by wearing my dress in hopes that any conflicts could be smoothed over by erupting into chants of "Yes we can!" (It works outside of soccer stadiums here!) The line was deceptive in its length and we breezed through in about 20 minutes to the front where the police did in fact throw out line cutters to the back of the line with a threatening wave of their night sticks. While intimidating, it was refereshing to see justice in action. The police, decked out in terminator-like raid gear, called out for those entering the stadium to hold their ticket above their head. They yelled out “billet, billet!” I beamed with pride at my forethought to wear such a peace making outfit thinking they were saying “bien, bien!” at my Barack Obama dress since the dress is usually met with big thumbs up from Malians. Ah, the funny confusions that occur when language and vanity get in the way. Once inside we merged into the excited mass of people vying for the best of the numberless seats. A wave of red, green and yellow clad consumers waving flags, beating drums and buying snacks. The field looked small and our ringside seats felt illegally close for the price of the ticket (1500 CFA, about $3).

Kate and I field-side during warm-ups.

Benin scored the first goal after team Mali practically threw the ball into the net for the Beninois – chalk it up to home turf nerves. We recouped at half-time to even the score before rain clouds that had been threatening all afternoon let loose over the stadium. As the teams retreated to their respective locker rooms for orange slices and Gatorade (or whatever it is professional soccer teams eat at half-time) male fans took off their shirts and everyone shook their hips and hands to the Malian music blaring over the loudspeakers. I’m always cognizant of the fact that I am not from here. I stumble over words in Bambara. I am white. I am an outspoken, brazen, unmarried (gasp!) woman. But there are times like when the rains fall on a filled-to-capacity soccer stadium in Bamako and the music draws the spirit from everyone that I can forget for a minute that I don’t belong and the community that surrounds me makes me feel at home.

Radiant smiles post-game as we pose with other volunteers we found at the game and their Malian friends/co-workers.

The second half brought more rain and 2 more goals for Mali bringing the final score 3-1 Mali Eagles. As we bled out of the stadium with all the other exhausted soccer fans whistles bought only hours before already losing their steam, tired flags waving from tired hands, it was the first time I had to fight to flag down a taxi. As I unloaded from the car in front of Khadi’s house, my voice hoarse from cheering on my team, feet tired and dirty from dancing in the rain, I looked back to my cabbie and bid him good night and we gave our final hurrahs that Mali – our team – had won the night.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Only a drop to drink...

Christine in her "toubab" bath

Annie cocks her head to the side and frowns.
“Is today Friday?” she asks.
“No, Thursday,” I say, looking up from my slowly growing pile of shelled peanuts.
“Then why are the Muslims at the mosque?” she muses aloud, more to herself than to me.

Annie reflects on her question as her knitting needles click, click, click in the mid-day heat. Christine is splashing away in a green, plastic bucket; Annie calls it her “toubab bath.” I am sprawled out on a mat dividing peanuts into “good” and “bad” piles for planting Annie listens to the Imam a moment more, his gravelly voice broadcasted to our entire village over the loudspeaker, and nods.
“They’re praying for rain,” she explains. “Everyone is praying for rain now. The Muslims. The Protestants (Annie and her family), the Catholics, even the Animists,” she adds.

Rain has not come in almost a week. Over 80% of Malians are subsistence farmers and if one thing matters to their livelihood, it is rain. Crops are planted when the rains start (usually in early to mid June in the San region) and the fields are tilled until harvest time rolls around in late September through early December. Annie asks me if droughts happen in America. I immediately respond “yes.” Annie nods and keeps knitting. I continue to crack the dried peanut shells and think what a drought means to me in Virginia Beach. Does the faucet or well for drinking water every dry up? No, I’m never wanting for potable water. A drought means no car washing. It means we can’t water the lawn. It means don’t refill the pool. Annie points out that even if I don’t farm in America, surely others do. I agree but remind her we have machines to water plants when there is no rain. And while my family in America is not a farming one (though they produce a mean tomato plant!) when rains do not come it’s never a question of if we’ll be able to produce enough food to sustain ourselves for the upcoming year.

Christine helping me shell peanuts...or just moving around my piles :)

I have stopped dividing peanuts and feel a little panic rise into my chest. Annie and Esayi say I think too much, “Djelika, I be miiri ka ca!” they say to me. While I am usually thinking about cheese pizza, this time I’m running over a list of solutions to drought, surely I’ve learned something about this somewhere…. Hand watering? Too much acreage and too far from the wells. Drip irrigation? Too costly. Sprinkler systems? Not even close.

Reading development-themed books like The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs or The White Man’s Burden by Willaim Easterly break everything down into numbers, statistics and heart wrenching anecdotes meant to stir the humanitarian spirit within us all. I wondered if living in a village where the $1 a day mantra is a reality would desensitize me to the effects of poverty – a year in and it is just the opposite. I cannot shake the feeling of concern and sometimes, like sitting with Annie talking about drought, the worry comes over me in waves and I have to steady my thoughts to keep from choking up. I am worrying about things over which I have no control. Rain, unemployment, health care, quality of teachers and schools. But how do you care about something without caring about it all?

Annie notices my frown and asks me if I think that by worrying I will add one hour to my life, referring to last week’s sermon. I smile weakly and let my furrowed brow relax as I agree that no, I will not be able to add one hour to my life. A smile breaks on Annie’s face revealing rows of white teeth with generous gaps. She shrugs her shoulders that swim under her oversize blue t-shirt and says there’s nothing we can do; the rains will come when they come. I think about all the things we can do something about – soak pits behind the latrines, moringa tree formations to improve nutrition, shea butter work, and ameliorated seed trials—as I listen to the closing remarks of the Imam at the mosque just across village.

That night, as though the gods of all the religions that co-exist in Zana put their heads together, I wake to the sound of wind rushing through my windows and the glorious sound of rain falling outside (and inside…) my mud hut. One night of rain does not mean the end of a drought, I remind myself, but it is better than no rain at all. I crawl out of my bed and take all my buckets outside to catch the rain falling from my roof. There’s nothing I can do to make the rains come but when they do, I’ll be ready.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Who would have thought?

Fourth of July 2009 at the Bisap Cafe in Mopti with other Peace Corps volunteers from all over Mali. We got matching hand bags from the tailor - can't go shopping in stores so I spend a lot of time getting new fabric and going to the tailor. I'm wearing my Barack Obama dress with fabric the American Embassy designed.

Who would have thought one year from today
I’d be Skyping with loved ones so far away?
Gone for a year, miss friends, pizza and treats.
But so much I’ve learned biking these dirt streets.

Who would have thought one year from today
I’d be conversing in Bambara, making mud stoves from hay?
Bike 15 miles to get all my groceries,
Love stopping at the 7-11 for ice-cold Slurpees (not!)

Who would have thought I’d make dinner by car battery, solar charged light?
Making dinner on a gas stove and sleeping under the stars each night.
I filter and bleach hand pulled well water to drink,
Such a different lifestyle but people are the same is what I think.

Who would have thought I’d devour People magazines and pop culture?
Eating treats from packages like a Sahelian vulture.
New American and Malian friends making me laugh every day,
Who would have thought my time here would slip so quickly away?

Easy to carry cute babies on your back

July 5th, 2008 in Virginia Beach,VA

July 6th, 2008 at Regino's in Virginia Beach

How to make a mud stove (I know you've been wanting to learn!)

The final product
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