Monday, February 15, 2010

Muso sebe-ba!

Between quarterly reports, responding to letters from home about what I actually spend my time doing and the constant conversations with other Americans about our effectiveness as volunteers I spend a lot of time evaluating my Peace Corps work in Mali.  I ask questions such as: What work am I producing?  How many more meetings can we have about trees and shea butter?  How will I truly leave a mark on my village?  It is easy to get caught up in questions like this; questions that while necessary for reports sent to Washington sorely miss the mark on evaluating my Peace Corps service from the perspective of the people to whom my time here means most - Malians. 

On Friday morning Sidiki Coulibaly arrived in our compound in a wax-fabric boubou with a white, embroidered skull cap perched on his head in lieu of a helmet.  A black crate strapped to the back of his bicycle containing three saplings (grafted crab apple, mango and shea) let me know this was not just another cute old man passing by to visit his buddies in a neighboring quartier - this was Sidiki, tree expert extraordinaire, here to talk with us about trees!  After persistent conversations about desertification, firewood and rainfall my host dad, Esayi, called Sidiki to come to our village and teach a group of 25 men interested in starting their own tree nurseries the basics of sapling care and tree grafting.

Sidiki talks about grafted crab apple trees

A couple of months ago Esayi and I took a field trip to Sidiki's home, about 15 kilometers away, to ogle his tree orchard, hand-dug well and gas powered pump.  I had heard of his tree work (he sells saplings of all varieties in San) from other environment folks but still did not know much about how Sidiki got started in the tree business.  Once we toured the grounds he explained that he learned about tree nurseries and grafting from a 4-day conference he attended in San.  He said a Peace Corps Volunteer named Mamou Koné had come to his village, gauged his interest in tree work and subsequently invited him to take his past-time to the next level.  The name struck me as familiar but I couldn't put my finger on why.  After a few weeks and trips to the post-office I put the puzzle pieces together to realize the same RPCV (Returned PCV) who sends me packages each week as encouragement was the same woman who planned this tree conference (she sometimes signs her letters with her Malian name, Mamou - I thought it was her cat's name!).  Sidiki did not speak at length of her projects completed or the Peace Corps goals she met (likely because words are not necessary when you have one of the coolest tree orchards in Mali) but instead insisted on Mamou's sincere spirit and caring nature - something I continue to experience in her weekly boxes of treats (this week: granola, Samoa Girl Scout cookies, an organic blueberry chocolate bar and ketchup!)

Sidiki's hand dug well - over 20 meters deep!  He has a pump that connects at the bottom of this stairwell (and the beginning of where water rises) to water his tree orchard

The water gets pumped up the stairwell (in a tube) and into this cistern and then out again through the hoses connected at the base.  Pretty cool!

At the end of Sidiki's talk the twenty-five men who attended the meeting alternately blessed Sidiki and his work and then me for working with Esayi to get Sidiki to pass on some of his tree expertise.  I asked Sidiki to share his story of how he got started in the tree business with the men as a way of reinforcing the 'dooni dooni' (small, small) element of tree work and also to remind myself the impact one toubab can have.  Looking at Sidiki, head tilted back on his green plastic chair and a smile on his lips as he reflected on Mamou Koné, I captured a fleeting feeling of what will truly mark the success or failure of my time in Mali.  While projects and relationships are inevitably intertwined, Sidiki's crinkled eyes and gentle smile were not from thinking about all the hard work Mamou did as a volunteer.  The reverent way he said 'Ah, Mamou, muso-sebe ba don!' (rough translation: That Mamou is one hell of a woman!) was not because of the hours, weeks and possibly months she spent planning the tree conference in San.  For the success of a Peace Corps service in Mali, from a Malian point of view, is measured not in bags of cement or trees planted but in the relationships we build and the lasting impressions a genuine person can have.  I can only hope that one day when toubabs or America are brought up Annie and Esayi, two Malians that matter the most to me, will pull out their prized photo album, turn to my picture slid in between torn plastic-sheet protectors and, with their heads tilted on the backs of their plastic string chairs, say, 'Ah, Djelika, muso-sebe ba don!'

Dramane shows off two grafted crab apples 

Sidiki demonstrates how to graft trees with some neem tree branches

Monday, February 8, 2010

Tidbits from the Sahel

A random update for you my dear readers.  Dear friends - at home and abroad- make my life so sweet.  Here's some of my closest (Ameriki!) girlfriends here in Mali!

At a refined establishment in San with the San-kaw ladies (minus Caitlin) October 2009
Sharpened pencils, bottle of water, passport and registration ticket.  Cassie and I slide into wooden chairs behind wooden desks and, seated like sardines in a room the size of a broom closet, prepare to take the Graduate Record Exam.  Months of studying (well, more than one at least!) Cassie and I dive into the paper-based version of the GREs along with one other Peace Corps volunteer and a Malian who is hoping to attend graduate school in Washington DC.
Crammed in the back of a taxi on a hilly dirt road between Guinea and Sierra Leone, April 2009
After the test Cassie and I release huge sighs of relief and reward our efforts with a chicken sandwich and pizza at the Relax, a restaurant on the main drag in Bamako.  On Sunday we hang poolside at the American Club and pretend we are in Ameriki by ordering hamburgers, showing our knees and napping on lounge chairs.  There may be snow in Virginia but there is nothing but sunshine in Mali!
Even those this wasn't taken so long ago - January 2009 - I feel like Joelle and I look so young!
On Monday I Skype with my high school - Ocean Lakes - about what I am doing in the Peace Corps and what led me here (good questions!).  I don one of my Chiquita-Banana-Lady complets in hopes of impressing by appearance since I am not entirely sure what to say - it seems like it worked!  Once the call is over Cassie and I head out of the volunteer house here in Bamako to try West African Fried Chicken (my mom asked why it was called that and it's because it is fried chicken made in West Africa - quite tasty and I heartily recommend).  We then hop on a bush taxi (20 passenger vans that are gutted and fitted with benches around the interior perimeter) and for 125 CFA (about 25 cents) catch a ride into the grand marché.  In market we haggle for earrings and headscarves, bolts of fabric and piles of tomatoes.  A woman catches Cassie's arm and in the same movement pulls out her cell phone; 'N be se i ka photo ta wa?' she asks - 'May I take your picture?'  She likes the model of Cassie's complet and wants her tailor to have a picture from which to copy.  Cassie's couture is of the finest caliber - how often do you get stopped in the streets of America by someone who wants to photograph you to copy your outfit??  Pretty flattering! 
In a taxi in San after the World AIDS day concert by Nahawa Doumbia and Dousu Bagayogo, November 2009
Today I will meet with a man who works at the National Museum of Bamako about the possibility of doing a third-year in Bamako.  I am excited and hopeful about the prospect.  We came to Bamako for the GREs and have had a great long weekend with food, friends and laughter.  After fantastic Skype conversations with both family and friends alike (you guys don't know how much they sustain me!) I am looking forward to what the rest of February will bring!
Me and Marija in Malick Sidibe's studio in Bamako, June 2009 

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