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.