Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas: A dialogue(s)

A phone conversation this afternoon between my step-dad John in America and my friend Jean in Mali:

[phone rings.  John answers.]

Christmas Eve:

Jean: Est-ce que Jennifer est la?
John: Who is this?
Jean: C'est Jean.  Vous pouvez la dire que je l'ai appelé?
John: I don't speak whatever language you are speaking.
Jean: I do not speak English.
John/Jean: click.

Christmas morning: (Masaran studies English at the university in Bamako)
[6 am. phone rings.  John answers.  Jennifer sleeps]
Masaran (chipper voice): Is Jennifer there!??
John: [grumpy early morning voice]Who is this?
Masaran: It is Masaran!  Is Jennifer there!??
John: [grumpy, doesn't realize phone credit is expensive in Mali] Anne!  Phone for Jennifer! [passes phone to Anne, returns to bed]
Anne: [walks to my room.  climbs into my twin size bed] phone is for you.
Jennifer: Who is it? 
Anne: Someone from Mali. [passes phone]
Jennifer: [holds phone to ear.  line dead.]

[5 seconds later. phone rings.  Jennifer answers]
Jennifer: [very groggy early morning voice] hello?
Masaran: Merry Christmas Jennifer!!!!!
Jennifer: Merry Christmas Masaran!
Masaran:  Just to greet - goodbye!
Jennifer: Bye!

[later in the morning]
John: [normal grumpy voice] Why would anyone call that early?
Jennifer: John, it's hard to remember the time difference when you're in Mali.  Even I call too early sometimes.
John: Well, for Christmas we should get you and your friends a map with the time zones clearly marked.
Jennifer:  Good idea.  Next year.

Nothing like the holidays to bring the world together!   Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Introducing Jean Morgan Coulibaly dit Papa dit Ce Koroba

On December 4th Esayi called me - excitement palpable even through the phone lines of our choppy connection.  'Annie had the baby!' he said.  I squealed and replied with the requisite blessings for a baby in Mali.  Allah ka den balon.  (May God give the child a long life)  Allah ka na kan dia.  (May God bless the baby's arrival) and so on.  'Can you come to name the baby?' he asked.  I replied immediately with an 'awo!' (yes) as I looked at my calendar.

And so this past Saturday I made my first outside-of-Bamako public transportation trip in nearly 4 months to head back to village and see Annie and her new bundle of joy.  I'd been collecting baby things over the past month in anticipation of Annie's delivery and so I packed up lotions, powders, soap, fabric and baby clothes in my overnight bag and headed to the bus station.  As I bought my ticket and eyed the Gana bus in the parking lot I braced myself for the stifling ride ahead.  Close quarters with screaming children.  Lots of dust and thick, sour air.  But it would all be worth it once I got to see Annie and the baby* - at least that's what I kept telling myself!

Once my bag was safely stowed under the bus and my name called to load, I chose a seat expertly located under an open (and uncovered) vent and opened up a new book - I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley - and settled in for the journey.  A man carrying a cooler, briefcase and prayer mat gestured to the empty seat next to me and asked if it was taken.   All views of my surroundings were temporarily blocked as I looked up to the voice and saw nothing but folds upon folds of pale blue bazin and embroidery.  I nodded my assent and the blue cloud arranged his affairs and crunched into the seat beside me.  After exchanging pleasantries and some Trident gum we turned to our own bus-ride past times - reading sarcastic short stories (me) and calling relatives in Senegal and speaking loudly in Wolof (him).  Mr. Senegalese man talked with his across-the-aisle neighbor about Bandiagarra (his final destination) and what gifts he could get there.  He decided it would be best to buy his 'samas' here in Bamako and so descended at the outside-Bamako check point to presumably purchase apples, bananas and bread.  He returned, arms overflowing, with bags of apples, bottles of water and his headphones secured in his ears as he shouted more Wolof and laughed loudly.  Once nestled into his seat again he turned to me and gave me a bottle of Diago water and two apples - 'On est compagnons de voyage!' he said when I feebly protested his generous gifts.

On Sunday morning I got up early to head out to village.  The ride out was peaceful as I passed familiar faces and trees and the early morning wind blew cool on my face, in my hair.  I pulled into the Coulibaly compound just after 8 am and spent the day sitting next to Annie, cuddling with Christine and cooing over the baby.  When I talked with Esayi on the phone on December 4th I asked him if he wanted to know the baby's name then.  He said no - that it could wait until I came back to village.  Then, a few days later, he called me and asked me to go ahead and tell him since they were filling out the baby's birth certificate.  After spending a lot of time talking with my family and friends about the baby's name, and trying to pick one that Malians can actually pronounce, I decided on Jean Morgan - the names of my step-Dad and Dad respectively.  Annie liked the names and said Jean Morgan's nick-name would be Papa.  Emma kept calling him ce-koroba (old man) which I am particularly fond of and adopted myself.  At the end of the day my heart and belly were filled with baby yawns and macaroni (respectively) and I left Annie with promises to return in February for Jean Morgan's (and Christine's) baptism.

Monday morning came quickly and I hurried around San greeting familiar faces.  Abu, the tailor, Moulie, the shopkeeper (Bacho was out farming rice), old-man Traoré who runs trucks from San to Gao, the gnomi maker near the BNDA.  'I ni faama!' we'd say and quickly catch up with one another.  No, I didn't move to America.  Yes, I live in Bamako.  How is San?  The family?  The kids?  I told them I'm here to see my 'jatigi-muso' (host-mom) who had her baby.  They would give their blessings and tease me about when I'd be having some of my own!  That's a few trips away I'd say.

And then, after less than 48 hours away from Bamako, I boarded a bus to take me back.  From my spacious seat behind the driver I giggled aloud at Crosley's sassy writing.  I napped uncomfortably against the window pane.  I thought about what this trip to visit Annie and Jean Morgan meant to me and to them.    While in village I saw the house I lived in for two years.  Greeted market vendors and goers at the weekly market and saw the projects and people I worked with on them.  And I came to a mini-realization/mini-reminder.  Sustainable development is a pretty couple of words.  Yet I think the most sustainable developments during the past two years I've spent here as a Peace Corps Volunteer are the relationships with which I've been blessed.  From blue-bazin clouded strangers to surrogate mothers like Annie, friendly acquaintances in market and treasured friends hailing from around the world.  While I enjoy high-yielding outputs and success stories as much as the next person - if these relationships are the indicators by which my time here is marked - I'm feeling pretty sustained. 

Please someone, find me something cuter than a baby yawning.  I dare you!

See more pictures of Jean Morgan, Annie and me here!
*Esayi came to Bamako the day I left for a training with the volunteer who replaced me.  I'll get to see them both for dinner this Thursday before I leave for the States for my one-month home leave

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mission: Sikasso

In October PHARE trained over 280 pedagogical advisors from the 70 teaching academies in Mali on the balanced literacy approach and the use of interactive radio programs in primary schools.  This past week representatives from the PHARE program disbursed throughout the country (though only as far north as Mopti due to insecurity) to monitor the pedagogical advisors as they conducted trainings of over 16,000 primary school teachers.  Oumar, one of the PHARE drivers, Sarré, the leader of the PHARE training team and Bouacar Diabaté, a representative from the Ministry of Education and I had the chance to visit 7 teaching academies in the Sikasso region; here's some of what I saw.

Sikasso équipe (l to r) Diabaté, Sarré, Oumar, me
While the pedagogical advisors deliver the balanced literacy training and instructions on the use of interactive radio shows I sit in the back of the classroom and take notes on the presentations.  I will Sarré to catch my eye and motion my head to convey 'please say what I am thinking so I don't have to.'  The critiques and evaluative comments are not complicated but are at times better delivered Malian to a Malian.  I find myself writing and underlining -  engage, interact, make learning fun!  With the radio sessions the advice is usually to let the radio do the teaching and to not talk over the narrator.  The training in Kolondièba, a gem of a town 60 km off the paved road, takes place in an empty primary school classroom.  Sarré, Diabaté and I observe one of the sessions and discuss the budget with the director of the teaching academy and his accountant before crossing the dusty courtyard to sit in on a 1st grade class.   PHARE programs, as of November 29, are broadcast on the national radio ORTM each day at 10:30 and 11:10 am and so we sit in on this classroom to watch PHARE in action.  

In this row of a building there are three classrooms of normal size filled to an abnormal capacity.  4-5 children crowd into benches made for 2.  70-100 children crowd into a room built for 30-40.  Is this what they mean when they say 'education for all'?  The first grade teacher seems to not notice his classroom is overflowing with children and expresses his sincere pleasure that we can be there to observe the 10:30 radio program.  While he continues to set-up the classroom for the upcoming lesson - alphabet board, song-of-the-day, and radio, I look out at the bright little cherub faces and do a quick bench/student calculation.  With 28 desks and at least 4 kids to a bench I find there are over 100 6-7 year olds in this classroom.  The kids return my interested look and, elbows in each others faces and little legs squished into one another as their tiny sandaled feet swing on their too-high desks, I remember what I am doing here.  I am learning a lot with PHARE - namely how important it is to be passionate about what you do.  Working for and with people so dedicated to their jobs is inspiring and I see how critical it is to be a part of an organization where the end-result matters.  The radio lesson begins on time and it is immediately apparent what a true success this program is.  The children - once doomed to spend 3 years learning the alphabet - will now learn it in under a week, two at the most as evidenced by their grasp of the letters after only a couple days of the program being broadcast.  The teacher who before says he felt unprepared and without the resources to teach now has them.

At the end of each observation Sarré and Diabaté make encouraging remarks about the leaps and bounds being made by the USAID/PHARE program thanks to teachers and the bright future of education in Mali.  I, in an effort to be brief and avoid too much gawking at my Bambara, throw out an 'i ni ce, i ni baara-ji' ('thank you,good work') and wave.  We then welcome questions and comments from the participants.  Oftentimes we hear the complaint that USAID/PHARE doesn't provide batteries for the radios or can USAID/PHARE distribute the snazzy wax-printed fabric Sarré is sporting to all teachers?  USAID/PHARE is a $31 million dollar program.  That is a lot of American tax-payer money funneled into one program for one country.  When these questions inevitably come forth, and even sometimes when they do not, Sarré puts on his serious face and his big-bear voice.  He pulls me over to him and I look at an incredibly interesting spot on the back wall of the classroom.  He tugs my shoulder and says 'Americans care so much about the children of Mali - children they've never met I remind you! - to give their tax-money to programs like this.  I think we can do something to find money for batteries!'  I begin to feel like an arbitrary symbol of Americana as a non-tax-paying (or at least not much) citizen in this room of second-hand NY Yankees caps, Lacoste thrift store shirts and Obama paraphenalia.  I hope the people who sent these things paid their taxes.  Sometimes after Sarré finishes his speech there is an awkward round of applause - his voice erring on the side of theatrical- and sometimes I just continue to stare at the back of the wall.  I put a smile on my face that says 'I-don't-attach-strings-to-this-money, I'm-just-here-because-I-like-your-country-and-living-in-Bamako' and say a silent thank you that the speech is over.  After all, I've only ever paid enough taxes in my life to fund one of these training's pause-cafés.

Sarré with students in one of the classrooms we observed

The teaching academies, all constructed from the same blue-print as far as I can tell, have small overnight rooms tucked into the front of their compounds for teaching-related guests to stay.  Each afternoon we check the rooms where we spent the night before to make sure we've collected all our belongings and then we pack them into Oumar's truck.  I settle into my unofficial seat behind Sarré, passenger side, and try to find a comfortable position.  Diabaté gets in next to me and immediately pulls his radio the size of a Penguin classic book out of his boubou while Oumar flips the tape in the deck.  Diabaté draws the radio close to his ear and tunes it to a station playing anything concerning the recent elections in the Ivory Coast.   Usually a heated debate ensues about the better candidate - Diabité is for Allasane Ouattara in the South and Sarré is a staunch Gbagbo supporter*.  Oumar makes a joke that he's going to take the off-roads and laughs at himself.   An unfortunate trip out to one of the multi-age classrooms down a long, bumpy road early on in my time with PHARE resulted in an unplanned rest stop when I got sick inside the car.  Oumar still thinks it is funny.  I laugh with him not because I think my tendency towards car sickness is humorous but because I like the way he recalls details and people and that I am already a part of his memories.

I readjust in my seat as the road bends in an effort to avoid the harsh sun reflecting through the window and onto my skin.  We pass groups of Chinese and Malian men in sun hats standing in the shade of tractors on the road.  Every 200 meters there's a detour as heavy construction continues on this vital commerce trail connecting Mali to the Ivory Coast - and a port to the Atlantic Ocean.  The dust kicked up by 18 wheelers on the detours make the trees, shrubbery and high-grass lining the off-roads appear as though they have been dipped in a sepia setting.  Just beyond, the crisp blueness of the sky draws a sharp contrast with the green mango-tree leaves left untouched by the red-dirt that finds a way into the folds of our clothes, the creases in our skin.  The smell of diesel exhaust sucks into the car as Diabaté rolls down the window and 'Whooosh!' yet another plastic bag gasps out the window.  I turn back my head to see where it lands.  The wind catches it up, up, up and I see the shiny black plastic rain cloud in the otherwise cloud-less, clear, blue sky, catch on the branches of a tree.   

In Sikasso Oumar unloads three chickens from the roof - a gift from one of Sarré's nephews in Yanfolila - and hands them over to the guard's wife to cook for dinner.  I sleepily drag my tote bag √inside and set up my mosquito tent in my 8x8 ft cinder block room.  Students from the Institut de Formation de Maitres (IFM) where we are staying call to one another and their voices waft through my screened window, mixing with other noises from the city.  Motorcycles, metal spoons striking metal pans and the bass from loud speakers all become a chorus - their sounds harmonizing to the the tune of a small, Malian town.  After dinner Oumar cuts into a watermelon bought this afternoon on the side of the road - one of hundreds spilling out from a road-side stand.  He calls me outside to pick a slice and through the screened door I follow his voice and the lingering smell of fresh, cold watermelon in the air.  I sink my teeth into the crisp flesh of the melon, juice running down my chin and onto my t-shirt.   I just hung up the phone  with my mom who says it is close to 20 degrees Fahrenheit in Virginia Beach.  I look up at the moonless sky hanging above me and shiver.

See more pictures from the trip here!

*Gbagbo, the incumbent, declared his victory while the international community cries out for the validation of the real winner, Ouattara. 

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