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.
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