Sunday, September 19, 2010

Worth the wait!

Walking through sugu-kura in the Hippodrome quartier, Sekou, who works for PHARE doing administrative tasks, calls to say he has an apartment for me to check out - can I meet him at my boss's place right now? I hang up the phone and put down the pile of tomatoes I am haggling over, ask God's blessings for the woman's business, and make a beeline to the road to catch a Sotrama.  As wonderful as it is staying with one of my bosses, after a week in Bamako I am ready to move into my own place.    

30 minutes later, Sekou knocks on a large, metal gate and we enter a stone courtyard.  A mango tree grows in the middle of the enclosure and I eye a cute baby on the tile patio toddling after one of the house cats.  Fruit trees and a cute baby - so far, so good.  Sekou and I slip off our shoes and enter the living room where a sizable women sits on a cushy chair, prayer beads slowly rotating through her fingers, and bazin-clad visitors eye me suspiciously from their seats on opposite couches.  I offer my hand to the woman in the chair and dip as I shake hers to show my respect.  She gestures for me to sit on the couch beside her as Sekou explains we are here to see if the apartment upstairs is a good fit for me.  The woman, introduced as Madame Diallo, nods her approval and gestures for me to go to the door.  As I leave I feel the eyes of Madame Diallo's guests on me and, sure enough, I turn to find 5 pairs looking in my direction.  I start to feel less like I am here to approve of the apartment and more like I am here to be approved of by Madame Diallo and her family.  I straighten my pagne and slip back on my shoes to head upstairs. 

Sekou leads me up a broken-tile mosaic stairway that curves around and up to an East facing apartment.  It's as though the family decided their home needed a little something else and plopped a three-room dwelling on their roof.  Metal rods stick out at regular intervals, a way (I assume) of evading real-estate property taxes since owners of 'unfinished' residences (i.e. those with exposed metal rods) are not required to pay taxes on their real-estate.  Sekou gently guides me around the exposed tetanus hazards while I marvel at the panoramic view.  To the North-West there's a large, packed dirt clearing.   Around the perimeter women sell fried dough and paté and in the center young guys chase after lobbed soccer balls.  Those who are less athletic watch from the sidelines in plastic-string chairs while playing cards and pouring tea from charcoal-heated, silver pots.  In the distance a hill slopes down and to the East, framing the scene and leading my eyes back to the apartment.

I hesitate before we enter because there are no visible windows.   A lover of natural light, I remind myself to keep an open mind - good apartments in this neighborhood are hard to come by and I can only be but so picky.  But as Sekou opens the door I see I have nothing to worry about.  Afternoon light pours in through windows on the West wall through gold curtains and spills over onto the fully furnished living room.  It's more than I could have hoped for!  In the next room, I find a bedroom outfitted with a bed-set, a real mattress (I've been sleeping on a foam mattress squished down to about 2 inches) and an armoire with full-length mirrors.  At the end of the bedroom is a bathroom with a toilet, sink and shower.  While bathing under the stars was one of my favorite parts of living 'en brusse', it will be nice not to have to truck outside in the middle of the night to heed mother nature's calls.  An empty room to the far left could serve as the kitchen.

I gush to Sekou that I love it and he heaves an audible sigh of relief and flashes me a big grin.  He's been dashing around the city for the past couple weeks following leads here and there of vacant apartments that fit PHARE's parameters and I can tell he's glad the search is off.  We close the window shutters, lock the front door and head back downstairs to tell Madame Diallo the news. She's finished praying now and her guests have gone.  She tells me she's 'très contente' I'll be living upstairs and as we say our goodbyes I try to contain my giddiness - I finally have a place to live.  Leaving the compound and making my way back to my boss's to let her know the good news I'm reminded - some things really are worth the wait!
 The bedroom before
More pictures (afters!) to come soon - the internet is being slow!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Quest for a mosquito net and sheets

Leaving work on Friday, I collect my bag and leave my air conditioned work area to enter the fray of market where steamy heat clings to my skin.  I walk down a tree-lined avenue, taxis honking at me to ride instead of walk, towards sugu-ba (the big market) to purchase new sheets to fit my new mattress and a mosquito net.  I stop for a snack at a portable vietnamese stand and watch as people narrowly avoid motorcycles and close-cutting taxis weaving in and out of traffic as they navigate their own way to market.  I finish my spring-roll treat and, after following the directions of fellow shoppers and shopkeepers down this street and winding back that one, I finally find what I'm looking for.

   My work space with Almamy Traoré (left and smiling) and Sah Cissé (right and at work!)
The smell of fried dough and open sewers rise up to mix for an unwelcome aroma as I enter the shop.  A discreet storefront, one of the few open ones the day after (or of, depending on when you saw the moon) Ramadan where yards of pastel fabric hang from the ceiling and pool together in a single, large, wrinkled mass on the floor.  I plunk myself and work bag onto a roughly made plank bench and look around the shop which is no larger than a small, walk-in closet.  I quickly see what I came here to buy: a flowing, lace-adorned pink mosquito net and light pink sheets with embroidered flowers.  I ask for the net and 3 meters of the fabric to get sewn into a fitted sheet at a tailor near my home. 

Outside the PHARE office

A man lounges on a chair outside the door and, nodding towards my bag of embroidered sheets and mosquito net scoffs, 'Pink?  It's because you're a feminist.'  I look back at him, puzzled, recalling the feminists I know.  The shopkeeper comes back with my change and, smiling at the funny observation of the lounging man, I start the walk home as the once threatening clouds begin to pour buckets from the sky.  I cringe as I miscalculate puddles and pull my shoulders in under my red umbrella while passing shopkeepers quickly covering their wares with forlorn, plastic sheets.  The only colors visible in a once vibrant market are the shiny troops of families returning from greeting for Ramadan in bazin complets (a fancy type of fabric) and new, holiday sandals as they walk quickly to find shelter from the sleeting rain. 

 A nems stand.  Yuumm.
I forgo the teetering Sotramas, filled with passengers dressed for Ramadan celebrations, and decide to walk, even though it's a long way home, because the rain lets up and the afternoon is mine.  I turn off to walk behind the main road where kitchen gardens line the mud paths and guards in maroon uniforms and matching caps sit in plastic lawn chairs outside villa walls.  The air is decidedly cleaner only one street off the main road - fresh vegetable smells replacing the stifling odor of unfiltered exhaust.  For a minute I'm transported out of Bamako and back to village where bending millet stalks and flowering okra line the paths to village rather than crumbling sidewalks and gaudy home furnishings. 

I follow the rising spires of the large mosque near my home to find my way in the maze of intersecting, muddy roads.  My neighborhood is characterized by large, shady trees and as I near my home I fold up my umbrella and let the rainy season breezes and afternoon sun wrap around me.  Mining offices and small hotels are interspersed with tiny hardware shops, tailors and egg-sandwich stands in the area.  I dodge errant soccer balls kicked by little boys in Spanish soccer jerseys and greet groups of women braiding hair outside metal lean-to beauty boutiques.  I climb the tile-mosaic stairs to my apartment, gauzy net and cotton-candy pink fabric spilling out of my overflowing bags, and collapse on my couch.  I turn on the ceiling fan and close my eyes as the afternoon call to prayer pours through my windows. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My work in Bamako - In honor of International Literacy Day (September 8)

A week ago I moved from a village with a population of 1,000 to Bamako - a city with a population of over 1,000,000.  I moved from a mud hut where branches reinforced my roof and I used an outdoor latrine to a cement house with indoor plumbing, ceiling fans and electricity.  Instead of working with farmers and a women's group, I work with the Programme Harmonisé d'Appui au Renforcement de l'Education (PHARE), the Ministry of Education and USAID employees.  Instead of biking 15 miles to get fresh food, I hop on a Sotrama (the public mini-bus system where you pay 125 CFA/ride - about 12 cents) to pick up fresh vegetable and household supplies from open markets and shops on the way home from work.  

PHARE is a $30 million program funded through USAID that coordinates with the Ministry of Education to improve the quality of teacher training in Mali through direct teacher training, radio broadcasts, smart phones and virtual training centers.  I will not be teaching students but rather assisting in the development of lesson plans, teacher training manuals and communication/public relation materials. 

This past week I took part in a number of meetings.  One of them was with the 17 directors of the teaching academies of Mali where I listened to one of my bosses, Rebecca Rhodes (an RPCV from Guinea),  report on the work PHARE completed during the 2009-10 school year and what the program hopes to accomplish (in coordination with the directors) in 2010-11.  Later in the week I sat in on training-schedule development meetings and made a visit to a village 70 km from Bamako where PHARE is monitoring the success of the one-room schools the ministry is promoting throughout Mali (it was a long and bumpy ride that my stomach couldn't handle!) One-room schools are implemented in villages where the child population is under 40 and one teacher teaches grades 1-6.  It has been applied to schools around the world with great success. 

In Mali, public school begins in early October.  The interactive radio programs PHARE has produced, the primary tool for reinforcing French literacy skills, are 30 minute lesson plans and will begin to broadcast in mid-November.  The interactive radio programs provide teachers with learning tools on how to teach (over 1/2 of teachers receive NO formal training) while simultaneously helping students to learn French which they need if they want to be competitive in either the national or international job market later on and also for their own educational development.

See and hear what interactive radio programs are like in Somalia 

Statistics show that by the end of grade 4 in Mali, only 23% of boys and 10% of girls can read a simple sentence in French.  Mali ranks at the bottom of the United Nation's literacy rankings.  Can you imagine sending your child to school and them not learning the alphabet until the third grade?  That's what happens in Mali.  Can you imagine sending your child to school to share a classroom with 100 other students and one teacher?  That's what happens in Mali.   Can you imagine sacrificing an extra pair of able hands on your farm and paying for your child's education only to have them come home having learned nothing?  That's what happens in Mali.  After witnessing the fervor with which Annie and Esayi pursued their own children's education in village, having received limited education themselves, I feel the pressing need for an improved education system in Mali.  Quality education produces people who are able to inform themselves on civil issues and creates an informed voter base who can then elect quality, non-corrupt leaders which in turn leads to an improved economy and internal infrastructure which then overflows into all aspects of social and economic development. 

I feel blessed to have spent 2 years living in a rural village where Annie, Esayi and my neighbors taught me about life in Mali (and also for the public education I received in Virginia!).  I am looking forward to applying the cultural lessons learned in village to an office setting in Bamako and towards work I truly believe in.  I have engaging and interesting bosses and colleagues, stimulating work and a beautiful National Museum to visit during my lunch breaks.  While my job description has changed and I will play in a lot less dirt than I did in village (with 999,000 more people around), my reasons for being here are the same.  I live in a beautiful country with warm, welcoming people and I have work that challenges and inspires me.  Allah k'a i deme!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Annie's pre-natal consultation in Mali*

When I returned from America in July I saw Annie for the first time in over 1 1/2 months (due to COS conference and my sejour home) and I immediately noticed that her belly - though not the rest of her - had grown significantly.  While it is culturally inappropriate in Mali to reference a woman's pregnancy (for fear of jinxing the pregnancy) I asked Annie about her bump to which she laughed and said there was a baby waiting inside to come out!  She said she needed to go to the health clinic to receive a tetanus booster and her pre-natal consultation and I asked if I could tag along.  Vaccinations are issued each Tuesday (for babies and expectant mothers) at our local health clinic 2 km away so we decided to go the Tuesday before I left. 

Tuesday morning I saw Annie buzzing around the compound with more haste than usual.  The cooking/preparing/pounding of the millet for meals rotates every two days between the three wives in the compound (Esayi's wife Annie and his two younger brothers' wives Aminata and Kadia) and  though Annie would have preferred to go to the clinic on a day when she wasn't cooking- the task the most time sensitive, and consuming, since a whole family of bellies depends on it - the vaccination day fell on both of the following Tuesdays and so we were obliged to choose one of them.  Also, harvest will pick up soon so Annie wanted to get the trip out of the way before she is needed more in the fields. 
Annie walking to the health clinic with her knitting in hand

Walking to the clinic Annie worked on her knitting as I struggled to keep up while wearing a skirt and avoiding mud puddles.  Along the way we picked up women heading in the same direction for their baby's vaccination (4 weeks - 9 months) but most didn't move as quickly as Annie so they would fall behind.  Upon arrival, Annie sat down on the edge of the concrete platform between the mid-wife's consultation room and the vaccinator's area to wait for the mid-wife to usher her inside.  She situated herself directly in front of the door leading to the mid-wife's office to avoid confusion as to who got there first.  Annie, like myself, doesn't put up with line cutters!

The door finally opened after waiting for 1/2 hour and Annie and I went inside .  The mid-wife then spent 10 minutes looking for papers on her unorganized desk and the notebook in which she enters all the names of the women who come to receive her services (she delivers it to the health center in San at the end of each month).  The mid-wife's toddler daughter was running around the room picking up stethoscopes and jumping on the scale and I felt myself sighing and shaking my head as I saw Annie waiting patiently.  Even though Annie is paying for this service she doesn't feel she has a voice to express dissatisfaction when the care provided is inadequate and untimely - and who would she complain to anyways?  After Annie signed her name in the now located notebook the mid-wife directed us to the pharmacist (a room just outside the size of a closet where items like birth control pills, condoms, multi-vitamins and iron supplements are sold).  Annie paid the man 1,750 CFA (about $3.50 USD) to receive three papers (and other supplements) - two papers to track the baby's vaccinations once it is born (one for Annie and one for the health records/donor agencies that subsidize the clinics) and one to track her own shots, weight and height.  Annie also received a malaria prophylaxis, iron supplements, a mosquito net, her pre-natal consultation and a tetanus booster.  When her baby receives all of its vaccinations (after 9 months) she'll receive another mosquito net.  Back in the mid-wife's office Annie was weighed and her height taken (49 kg=108 lb. and 1.5 meters=5 feet).  She said this was a 9 kg increase from her last pregnancy (baby Christine) during which she got very ill. 

The mid-wife's desk - you can tell she had a hard time finding Annie's papers!

Mosquito nets
After finishing up with the mid-wife Annie and I headed over to the vaccinator's room and Annie worried to me that he wouldn't have time for her.  I reassured her that all expectant mothers are taken ahead of the baby vaccinations (over 40 women were waiting for their baby's vaccination) and that all we needed to worry about was if there were enough vaccinations.  There were and Diabité took us in not long after.  While Annie collected her papers and knitting, I purchased bread and onion sauce for 50 CFA (about 10 cents) from an entrepreneurial child marketing her wares to the hungry, breast-feeding mothers waiting (and the snacky toubabu :) On the way home Annie and I munched on our bread and talked about her visit.  She was happy with her weight and how she's been feeling during this pregnancy and began talking about what we were making for lunch - saga saga - and how we needed to get back to get started and also beat the ominous rain clouds ahead.  
Annie and the vaccinator, Diabité, before she received her tetanus booster
The waiting area of the health clinic with women waiting for their baby's vaccinations who walked anywhere from 0-10 km to get here
As I write this from my new place in Bamako I realize this is what I'll miss most about living in village.  The one-on-one moments where I feel such a part of someone's life.  Going to Annie's pre-natal consultation, planting trees with Bakari, moringa with Dramane and visiting gardens of people I know and with whom I have a real connection.  These interactions will be difficult to replicate in big, impersonal Bamako but I'll strive to achieve them nonetheless.  

*While with Annie I took notes & pictures on the process but asked for her permission to write and publish this on my blog.  She agreed wholeheartedly.  

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