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.  

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